Cheap as chips or pie in the sky

Cheap as chips or pie in the sky

Last Thursday the Indian government unveiled a prototype of an iPad-like touch-screen tablet device (with the rather unfortunate name Sakshat) and a price tag of only 1600 rupees (£23). The country's human resource development Minister Kapil Sibal said a manufacturer was being sought for the gadget, with students targeted as the main end user. Plans are being mooted to roll out 110 million of the devices to school children by 2011.

As you might imagine, the device is stripped back: it has 2GB of memory, works like a mobile phone, uses the open source Linux OS and can be solar powered. Whether or not this tablet finds a manufacturer and comes into production, remains to be seen. The Indian government last year announced a cut-price laptop prototype which has never seen the light of day, and instead morphed into this tablet.

There are, of course, other projects aimed at crossing the digital divide. Following on from its "$100 laptops" for the developing world in 2005,  Nicholas Negroponte from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab announced plans in May to develop a basic tablet computer for $99 through his non-profit association, One Laptop per Child. Yet even those $100 laptops have run into the hard realities of commerce, with OLPC prices hovering around the $200 mark.

Yet the race is obviously on to be the first to recreate Apple's success budget-style. If either Negroponte or the Indian government is successful, then the game that changed with the iPad could change once more. If these devices come to fruition, and that is a big if, the ramifications for e-books could be immense. That these are designed by schoolchildren—which means textbooks, a large proportion of which in India will be English language. The numbers game for India has been tempting the big UK publishers for some time: 1.1bn people, about 225m of which are English speakers. The literacy rate is overall relatively low (about 65%), but still that means 715m readers. It is an e-book market ripe for the picking.

Still, whether this will be driven by this cheap tablet remains to be seen. The Indian government admitted in its announcement that the parts for it actually cost the equivalent of £30 per unit. How they got to the £23 price tag is curious. But it underlines that there would have to be massive government investment to make the device a reality.