Canadian makers of ‘world’s lowest cost tablet’ aim for a $20 device, $37.99 is still not cheap enough

Published: March 12, 2014
technology

File: Raja Tuli and Suneet Singh Tuli hold the PocketSurfer developed by their Montreal-based firm, Datawind.

MICHAEL OLIVEIRA
THE CANADIAN PRESS

TORONTO — The Canadian makers of the “world’s lowest cost tablet,” the UbiSlate 7Ci, think $37.99 still isn’t cheap enough.

They figure there’s still room to knock about 50 per cent off its price and make tablet ownership possible for anyone and everyone.

“This idea is to bridge the digital divide, it’s really that simple, the idea is to overcome the affordability barrier,” says Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli during an interview at his Toronto-area office, one of five the company has in Canada, England, Germany and India.

“We think as the Scandinavians do that (Internet access) is a fundamental human right.”

On the second floor of an unassuming strip mall — strategically located within spitting distance of Toronto’s Pearson airport, where Tuli says he’s coming from or going to a few times a week — the Datawind team is working on its strategy to sell cut-rate “good enough” tablets.

The company is best known for its work with the Indian government, which it supplied with low-cost tablets for a program to get technology into the hands of students. Datawind was recently named one of the world’s 50 smartest companies by the MIT Technology Review magazine for launching those tablets, branded under the Aakash name.

While India’s government is considering proposals from Datawind and other vendors to make the next version of the Aakash, the company has turned its attention to North America and the U.K. to sell its tablets directly to consumers under the UbiSlate brand.

The cheapest version of the seven-inch tablet, the UbiSlate 7Ci, has a not-too-sharp screen resolution of 800 by 480 pixels, four gigabytes of memory, half a gigabyte of RAM, runs a current version of Google’s Android operating system and can only get online with WiFi. It sells online for $37.99 plus taxes and shipping. The next model up, the UbiSlate 7C+, costs an additional $42 to gain access to EDGE mobile networks. The most expensive model, the UbiSlate 3G7 at $129.99 plus taxes and shipping, has a better screen and processor and can also access HSDPA 3G mobile networks.

Tuli says the company can sell the tablets so inexpensively because of the scale of its production runs and the fact that it makes its own screens, which helps boost profit margins. A preloaded web browser also displays ads that generate additional revenue for Datawind — although users can choose to download another ad-free browser — and the company monetizes some downloads of apps.

Datawind has also kept its prices down by selling directly to consumers through its website and not seeking retail partners.

“Something that costs $50 to make ends up at $150 easily at retail,” he says.

“In our case, something that costs $32 to make ends up at $38 in the consumers’ hands.”

Tuli says he envisions the price of Datawind’s lower-end tablet slipping below $20 “within the next year or two,” especially if revenues from ads and apps grow.

“We think pricing will continue coming down and we think features will continue going up. We will keep our high end between $100 to $150, we don’t see ourselves going up anything higher than that, but we’ll continue pushing the barriers on the lower end,” he says.

While he insists that Canadian consumers won’t find the tablets lacking, the reviews for Datawind’s tablets in India were far from positive. And anyone who has used an iPad or a higher-end Android tablet will notice a major difference in performance.

But he believes there is a strong market of consumers who are willing to trade performance for a low price.

“What we tried to focus on was realizing that for our customer, price is the most important feature and starting with that element we said, ‘What can we bundle in to provide a performance experience that would be good enough for them?”‘ Tuli says.

“You want something for your kids to take to school…. Kids are going to lose them or break them and you want something that you’re not worried (about).”

12:43ET 12-03-14

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