In just a few days of assuming charge as the Union Minister of Communication and IT, Kapil Sibal got a bonus feather on his new cap—a well publicised kick-off of the much delayed mobile number portability (MNP).
Sibal has exhibited a penchant for taking populist tech topics to center stage, which serves a purpose nevertheless. In his other role as Union Minister for HRD too, he had showcased the prototype of a 35-dollar tablet PC for the education segment, which drew global media attention and prompted no less than a Nicholas Negroponte to write an open letter to him. (We discussed that under this column in July this year.)
With both HRD and ICT ministries now being part of his ministerial portfolio, Sibal has a bigger opportunity at hand, of expediting India’s low-cost PC dream.
In fact, the low-cost PC-for-education proposition can be made even more compelling if the device can come bundled with Internet access, or even better, with 3G-based broadband access.
A low-cost tablet PC can help trigger a computing revolution in India on the lines of the telecommunication revolution made possible by low-cost mobile services and being supplemented by handsets that are affordable by masses. Of late, India-based vendors have also played an important part in bringing out feature phones at lower price points. But most important of all, the role played by policy makers and regulators has been pivotal, as it helped define the market and develop the required market competition in the first place.
But while India has accomplished the mobile telecommunication revolution, she has failed time and again on the PC adoption front. A key deterrent to this has been the lack of an affordable and easy-to-use PC. Moreover, the poor power situation means that the regular PCs cannot be run in a dependable manner in a majority of homes, educational institutions and small businesses.
A 35-dollar tablet PC can be the harbinger of a computing revolution of sorts, even if meant for the education segment only. This is because it will lead to a market situation where a sub-100-dollar tablet would be very much achievable in the open market.
As discussed earlier in this column, 35-dollar bill-of-material points are achievable if a scale of 1 million or above units is reached. Also, such price points can be offered to students only if the import and other duties are waived off, something that only the government can do.
A similar product, when brought out for the consumer market will cost more because it will attract various government duties. Moreover, it may have additional features to suit ICT needs of consumers. And yet, there can be a tablet PC that is affordable for Indian consumers who are lower on the socioeconomic pyramid.
Further, the familiarity of consumers with mobile phones means that they can potentially adopt tablets more intuitively compared to the more regular PCs like the desktops. Widespread adoption of tablets can also act as a 3G and Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) accelerator.
Tablets would also be better suited for accessing e-Governance services, which are already at varying stages of rollouts in different states and by different departments. After all, the aim of e-Governance is best met if citizen services are delivered at their doorsteps, literally.
Sibal has been quick to announce January 20 as the date for a pan-India rollout of MNP. Hopefully, he will also set a timeline for the 35-dollar tablet soon enough.
(As published in Deccan Chronicle, December 2, 2010; header changed.)

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