India launches $35 tablet computer called Aakash

A tablet computer dubbed as the world’s cheapest is being aimed at students in India.

The lightweight touch-screen device, called Aakash, is to be sold to students at a subsidised price of $35 and later in shops for about $60.

"The rich have access to the digital world, the poor and ordinary have been excluded. Aakash will end that digital divide," India’s Telecoms and Education Minister Kapil Sibal said.

The government is buying the first units of the device for $50 each from a British company which is assembling the web-enabled devices in India.

The paperback book-sized Aakash, called ‘Sky’ in Hindi, supports video conferencing, has two USB ports and a three-hour battery life. The device uses resistive LCD displays rather than a full touch screen, connects via wireless broadband, and uses the Google Android operating system.

Datawind, the London-based company that developed the tablet with the Indian Institute of Technology, said testing included running video for two hours in temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius to mimic a northern Indian summer. DataWind CEO Suneet Singh said future versions would include a mobile phone connection, making it more useful in rural areas.

A pilot run of 100,000 units will be given to students for free, with the first 500 handed out at today’s launch to a mixed response. Some of the mainly middle-class technology department students at the event said it needed refinement but was a good option for the poor. "It could be better," said Nikant Vohra, an electrical engineering student. "If you see it from the price only, it's okay, but we have laptops and have used iPads, so we know the difference."

Rajat Agrawal, executive editor of gadget reviewers BGR India, said the 660 mhz processor from US company Conexant Systems was "decent" for the price, but warned the machine seemed slow and the touch screen not very agile. "Because of the price there is a lot of excitement," he said. "People might use it initially but if it is not user friendly they will give up within a week."

Despite being a leader in software and IT services, India trails fellow BRIC nations Brazil, Russia and China in the drive to get the masses connected to the internet and mobile phones, a report by risk analysis firm Maplecroft said this year.

The number of internet users grew 15-fold between 2000 and 2010 in India, according to another recent report. Still, just eight per cent of Indians have access. That compares with nearly 40 per cent in China.

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