The $35 tablet confronts its first critic

The small Montreal-based company Datawind Inc. is still labouring to fill orders for its Aakash tablet, but there are already complaints about the ultra-low cost device.

To start, there was no shortage of naysayers when the idea of a $35 tablet was floated around last year. But Datawind did manage to produce the worlds cheapest tablet, beating other contenders including the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization which recently released its sub-$100 X0-3 tablet at the CES 2012.

Early this week, the head of an online technology publication based in India posted comments on the stories covering Datawind, questioning the reliability of the tablet and the company behind it. Arun Kumar, CEO and founder of Hyderbad-based Powercut Media, wrote that he had “several complaints from different people” but Datawind “service centres won’t reply to any queries, provide false assurances and won’t get back ever, even after repeated attempts to contact them.”

Our 2010 story titled Why the $35 tablet will never exist by Mike Elgan, also got a number of comments this week. Among the comments were one from a reader who signed in as Phani who said: Absolutely true…This will never work….congress govt is playing with the people of India

Slow response to complaints

Kumar also complained about how Datawind’s failure to respond to email support requests.

“The support centres are supposed to be repairing this tablet. They are not offering any kind of support, only false promises,” he said.

“I have just heard of two tablets being faulty so far,” Kumar added.

Sunnet Singh Tuli, CEO of the company, responded to Kumar’s complaints put to him by “Typically, there are always some small problems and complaints about a new product when it is launched. And we would like to know more about it to be able to help our users,” Tuli said.

Tuli took Kumar’s e-mail address and said he would get in touch with him to get more details of the problem and help him out.

Missing tablet volume control found

But the Datawind chief also expressed some scepticism over the information given by Kumar. “His story doesn’t seem to add up in some places. He needs to be more specific.”

For instance, Kumar said “a friend” complained the Aakash did not have a volume control. “He took it to a service centre, where they told him to download software. But the link to do so was not provided to him.”

In his office, Tuli showed us the on-screen volume control for Aakash. He also said it was doubtful that Kumar’s friend brought the device in question to a Datawind service centre.

“What service centre is he talking about? We do not have service centres in India,” he said.

Kumar also claimed there were people who booked and paid for the tablet but did not receive the product or got a “faulty device.”

“We address these, but he has to be more specific. For instance, who are these people complaining, how can they be contacted and what technical problem is actually meant by faulty device?” said Tuli.

Kumar also said that another user complained about an Aakash that failed to boot. This person, Kumar said, asked for a replacement on Jan. 5 and was told by Datawind that he would be given an address to send in his faulty Aakash. Kumar also said he sent an e-mail to Datawind about repair complaints for Aakash but instead of an answer that addressed the issue Kumar received a sales pitch about the launch of Ubislate 7+, a new model of the tablet.

“This is unfortunate. His (Kumar’s) e-mail probably landed on the sales support desk somehow and he was sent a standard answer to queries we get regarding the availability of our products. I will look into this,” said Tuli.

Internet access and distribution issues

Kumar also wondered how users will be able to connect to the Internet in rural areas and how the Aakash will be distributed to the students.

“How will the tablet get to the students? Even if it does, how are they going to provide education in rural areas without connectivity?” he asked.

Tuli explained that as the Indian government sees Internet connectivity as a big part of its education efforts for citizens, especially in the rural areas, the government is undertaking to subsidize the cost of the tablet to make it more affordable to students.

“The distribution and connectivity issues are better addressed by the government,” said Tuli. “But what I know is that students can order the tablet through their schools.”

Nicholas Negroponte, head of the OLPC, also favours the idea of governments subsidizing the prize of laptops and tablets.” I fully support subsidies and argue for 100 per cent subsidy, worldwide, for primary school,” he said in an e-mail to

” The key is to get as many connected laptops and tablets into the hands of kids worldwide. I estimate 1 billion new readers, humans who can read, over the next 5 years,” he said.

Price is important, he said, but not everything.

OLPC designed what it believed to be appropriate and child-centric, then added up the costs, he said. “Taking an adult’s laptop and driving cost out of it is a different (most often used) approach. In contrast, I believe extra cost has to be applied to making children’s laptops or tablets drop-proof, water resistant and usable with a hand-crank,” Negroponte said.

Tuli of DataWind also explained that while India does not have an extensive Internet network similar to those of North America, the majority of Indians can connect to the Web using the GPRS networks. “There are nearly 900 million people using mobile phones with GPRS. GPRS enables them to access the Internet even in rural areas,” he said.

“The government and Datawind are also talking with service providers so that GPRS Web service can be brought down to $2/month,” said Tuli.

Production capacity

One problem that Datawind is labouring to meet though is production. As early as December, Datawind rang up 400,000 in sales for the Aakash – more than the entire tablet sales for 2011 in India, which was around 300,000.

The Indian government has ordered 100,000 units of the Aakash up to March 31. Datawind has delivered only 10,000 so far.

When Datawind offered the commercial version of the tablet on its Web site last year all 30,000 units were sold out in two days.

Today, the company’s Web site says it is sold out on both Aakash and the newer Ubislate 7+ for the months of January to March but the company is accepting pre-orders for both for March.

Can Datawind fill its orders from the Indian government and the public as well?

Datawind is currently manufacturing the tablets in Hyderbad, India, but will soon open two more factories. With all three factories Tuli hopes to bring production up to 75,000 units per day.

“It will probably take us two more quarters to fill our orders,” Tuli said.

Nestor ArellanoNestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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