Whenever I hear about the latest and greatest tablet under $100, I get a little bit sad inside. It's sort of like that feeling you get when you see a 3-legged dog - your heart is mildly warmed by its perseverance, but the rest of you would much rather look away and think about something a little less... depressing.
Datawind's $50 (2499INR) Aakash tablet is a 2-legged dog. It's powered by a 366MHz ARM11 CPU - a processor architecture released a decade ago. It has a 7", 800x480 resistive touchscreen display. 256MB of RAM is under the hood, an amount I didn't even know was possible to run Android 2.2 on (yes, that's a bit of sarcasm - I know it's possible). And people are ordering them by the pallet-full in the device's country of manufacture: India. Over 1.4 million have been pre-ordered so far, vastly exceeding Datawind's early sales estimates, and their production capacity (they're going to utilize 3 additional factories to meet demand).
Now, it's important to remember that India is a country where the average gross annual salary hovers around $1500, and where the great majority of the population still live in rural areas. But it's also the 2nd most populous nation on earth, and it ranks 4th in worldwide internet use, meaning hundreds of millions of Indian citizens live in the connected world to at least some degree. It's those people who have discovered the next big craze in personal electronics - the tablet.
But in India, iPad 2's and Transformer Primes aren't exactly something the average working stiff decides to go off and pick up at his local Best Buy one day; they're a luxury commodity almost exclusively the province of the rich and powerful. It's in countries like India where companies such as HTC, Samsung, and Nokia make a killing selling low-end budget smartphones to a cash-strapped but rapidly growing consumer electronics market.
And when it comes to things like cheap smartphones, I can see the good this is doing. The budget smartphone is a window to a larger world, and it allows people to communicate in ways that were simply impractical or, more often, too expensive to justify on a limited income. The smartphone empowers people, and I'm not just saying that in some cheesy, romanticized armchair-philosophy sort of way - I really think it's true.
But when I read about cheap tablets, I don't get the same feeling. Here's why.
Tablets are, by their very nature, a luxury. No one needs a tablet - laptops can do nearly everything a tablet does, and a whole lot more, at a lower price and with significantly more computing power and a larger display. But, you say, this is a $50 tablet, it's different because it's so cheap! And anyway, who cares if it's a luxury, people obviously want them. But let's make an analogy. If someone told you that for $3000 they would sell you a car just like a $35,000 BMW (minus a few bells and whistles, of course), would you be interested? Sure, but you'd have to be pretty gullible to believe that kind of offer. Let's say you were, though, and the next day, there was one of these in your driveway.
And hey, they tell you, it's like a BMW in a lot of ways: it has four seats, air conditioning, power windows, a radio, four shiny rims, and a gasoline engine! Same thing, right? If you've never owned anything more costly than a Honda Super Cub, you might think so. But most people would probably be decidedly underwhelmed, having believed they were getting something a lot nicer than they actually did, because similarities to a much nicer product were implicated.
Let's not mince words: almost every tablet out there owes the current success of the form factor to the iPad. It's the tablet everyone either wants to be, or to beat. Consumer demand for cheap tablets stems from the fact that iPads and other high-end tablets are a pretty big expense for most people (particularly in Southeast Asia) to justify on top of a cutting-edge smartphone and a laptop. The moment you tell someone they can have a luxury experience at a bargain-bin price, you're going to turn some heads, just like Tata did with the Nano.
We all know the Aakash tablet is going to be a piece of crap. For $50, though, it can't help but be a piece of crap. It's like asking someone to build a house for $1000 - don't expect vaulted ceilings. Or hardwood floors. Or doors. But this is what happens when you build a product whose sole attractive feature is its price. A $5 lobster dinner is something I would meet with a good deal of skepticism, but a $50 tablet would make me downright suspicious. How long is it supposed to last? 6 months? A year? Will it run any 3rd-party apps in a way that's remotely usable?
There's nothing wrong with building a cheap tablet, but there is something wrong with building one to a price point that guarantees it will be little more than a glorified desk knick knack. Moral of the story? Accountants do not make good product designers. If you're going to build a cheap tablet, build a good cheap tablet. Yes, that means it will cost more than $50. Probably more than $100. But it also means you'll be selling something that won't end up in a landfill 6 months from now because everyone realizes it for what it is: disposable garbage.
Oh, and the Tata Nano? It has been a near-total commercial failure. It's extremely unsafe, has glaring electrical problems (sometimes causing fires), and been shunned as a "poor man's car" by the press, destroying any hope of the vehicle being marketed as a cheap alternative to more expensive competitors. Price is surely something, but it should never be the only thing. When people see the Aakash for what it is (namely, not anything close to a $500 tablet, or even a $200 one), something tells me Datawind will find itself with more than a few upset customers, and a substantial surplus of tablets.