So many things were interesting to me in this. Boy, if small electronics materialized out of the air instead of out of open pit mines, the idea of abundant disposable tablets would be pretty exciting.
In other words, people will start buying something in large numbers if it solves a big problem for them. But most first-world problems—needing an easier way to record your favorite TV programs or keep track of what’s in your fridge—just aren’t that pressing. In developing countries, on the other hand, technology can transform lives.
One of the reasons these tablets are so cheap in China and India, where they are made, is that production costs have now fallen so far that shipping, distribution and customs duties have become a significant part of their price in the rich world. (Devices comparable to the Aakash 2 or the generic 7″ tablets of China cost $99 and up in the US.)
Enabling that revolution will require many more manufacturers than Datawind. The company is scrambling to meet its current obligations, and Tuli says that in six to nine months Datawind will be making 500,000 tablets per month—half again as many units as Google’s hit Nexus 7 tablet has been shipping every month. China’s unbranded 7-inch tablets are widely available, but bringing them to other countries at a price comparable to the Aakash will require setting up factories and supply chains in every country in which tablets will be sold.
“You will see regional tablets,” says Wadhwa. “There’s no magic here—you can buy components all over world and build locally, and voilà, you have a tablet.” Eventually, in other words, we might think as much about the maker of our tablets as we think about the printers of our books or the manufacturers of our paper. As a medium, tablets and their successors could become the ultimate commodity.
“What their success shows is that the issues they raised—that existing patterns of technological development would lead to social upheaval, and that we needed to guide technological development in directions that did not challenge existing structures of authority—echoed in the corridors of power.”