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Less can be more

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

Suneet Singh Tuli’s company has made the world’s cheapest tablet. Students will get it first but, the entrepreneur tells Rrishi Raote, his goal is broader.

The table is crowded with gadgets: two phones, WiFi router, laptop. The gadgets plainly see use, the laptop most of all. It is hearteningly grubby. As Suneet Singh Tuli puts down one phone with an apology he turns to the laptop to check the stream of emails. He shows them to me. Dozens are visible, from various countries, from people asking how to buy the cheap new tablet computer Tuli’s company has built to Government of India specifications.

It is called the Aakash (or the UbiSlate) and was launched last week by HRD minister Kapil Sibal. The government intends to put this $37 tablet, called the cheapest in the world, into the hands of students nationwide, and use it to combat “digital illiteracy” and deliver education. The first order is for 100,000 units; 10 million may be ordered. Because tablets in the first order will be replaced if broken, not repaired, the government is paying $49.98 for each; students will get a discounted price.

That first order will be met before Tuli’s company DataWind turns to the general market at the end of November. The non-subsidised price for regular buyers will be around Rs 3,000 — still very cheap. Among the emails is one from a state university in Punjab with 25,000 students; mails from elsewhere ask for a discount if 1,000 or 2,000 students buy the Aakash; a doctor from Kerala asks whether he can buy 10 units to donate; and so on.

“It’s igniting people’s imagination,” says Tuli. He is a tall, thin Sikh in a comfortable dark grey suit. His salt-and-pepper beard spreads in a straggle across his chest. His accent is mostly Canadian with surges of Punjabi. He is very articulate. “Our expectation was, originally, maybe half a million units a year,” he says. Analysts, he says, report 250,000 tablets sold this year in India. Having seen the post-launch response, he says, “Ten million is a good number.”

Though the government’s expected order for 10 million for students will be through an open tender, DataWind has the advantage. “It will be difficult for people to compete with us on price,” Tuli says. “We’re going to continue driving prices down. Our job is to stay ahead of the pack. Who benefits? Everybody.”

The low price was achieved chiefly by buying each of Aakash’s 800 parts separately and putting them together at a production line in Hyderabad. (DataWind’s other products for Western markets are built in China.)

Price, however, is not all. The student tablets will have WiFi (wireless broadband Internet). But very few Indians, student or not, have access to broadband — just 10 million families out of about 250 million, Tuli says. So his commercial tablet will have GPRS as well, or Internet that can be accessed through cellphone towers. That is, anywhere in India. GPRS is slow; but one of DataWind’s “50-60” global patents — 18 of which pertain to the Aakash — is for data compression software that delivers Web pages to its handheld computers via company servers very fast. Tuli has me take out my phone and compares its download speed against that of his own, which has the software. The difference is conclusive.

This software backs DataWind’s cheap handhelds in the UK. The company is based in Montreal, but only the UK telecom market, Tuli says, was open enough for DataWind, since 2003, to launch its PocketSurfer and two UbiSurfer netbooks with free lifetime Internet anywhere within reach of a cellphone tower. About 70,000 PocketSurfers and 50,000 UbiSurfers a year are sold, mainly in the UK.

* * *

Before DataWind started with computers, back in the mid-1990s, it did large faxes, scanners and plotters. Today, Tuli says, his 3 ft and 6 ft machines are used, among other clients, by US naval shipyards. Out of a pocket he whisks two DataWind scanners from the opposite end of the scale — the size of a pen and a credit card, respectively. This adds to the gadget clutter on the table.

DataWind’s proprietary software for its portable computers potentially solves the speed and access problems, for the Indian context. For Tuli, after all, the student market is only the beginning. He is looking for a revolution in digital access. Worldwide since 1998-99, he points out, cellphone usage has grown much faster than Internet usage. The difference is cost: computers and Internet are not cheap, for the average Indian — who does have a cellphone. Tuli offers the obligatory NRI story of the rickshaw-wallah (this one is in Amritsar) with a cellphone and a business plan.

A tablet is not a computer, I point out, one only consumes information on it. Not at all, says Tuli, whipping out his own Aakash, which comes paired with a small keyboard for Rs 300. It works all right, has a basic office software suite, and plays a movie well — always, of course, remembering that it costs so little.

Tuli, who like his father trained as a civil engineer, is the public face and business-execution end of the company. Research and design are handled by his older brother Raja, a computer engineer. About 40 per cent of DataWind’s 150 employees are in Montreal, which is where Raja Tuli supervises the 12 research groups that come up with products.

The Tulis moved to Iran from Chandigarh in 1976; the father was in construction. After the Islamic Revolution they moved to Canada. In 1984, aged 16, Tuli “took amrit” as a Sikh, and started wearing a kirpan. It was a small town, and the ceremonial dagger immediately caused trouble. “This student not only looks very different,” Tuli says his neighbours thought, “but he also shows up in school with a knife!” The school banned the kirpan. Tuli’s family told him, it’s only three months to graduation, don’t jeopardise your college scholarships, but Tuli petitioned the school board and eventually went to court. He won an injunction and was allowed to wear his kirpan. His was the first such case in Canada.

He wins approval for this in the online community of Sikhs, for whom the Tulis’ success is a sign of the Guru’s blessings. They also approve of his principle of giving 10 per cent of his income to charity. “Sometimes 10 per cent is difficult,” he admits, but his wife unfailingly, he says, puts it into a separate account. The funds go to causes including battered women in Canada and orphans of the 1980s unrest in Punjab.

It is facts like these, technology aside, that allow one to take Suneet Singh Tuli seriously when he says he wants to change the world for India’s digitally disenfranchised.

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First Published: Sat, October 15 2011. 00:09 IST