Aakash

India plans to sell the Aakash tablet for as little as $60. Source: Bloomberg

It is here. The world's cheapest tablet has been unveiled in India -- ironically on the very day that Steve Jobs, who revolutionised the space, passed away.

Aakash (meaning "sky") has none of the bells and whistles of an iPad. But it will be priced far lower, retailing in India at up to 3,000 rupees ($60), or less than a tenth the price of an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy.

Aakash will not win any awards for design or rank high on the cool quotient, but if it delivers what it promises, it will reiterate the fact that the greatest opportunity in emerging markets is for affordable, functional devices.

At least 40 per cent of India's population lives on less then $1.25 a day. That is probably not the intended target segment for Aakash -- yet. But India's IT ministry, which backed the project, wants to sell the device at lower price points, eventually $10 a pop, to school and university students.

"Our goal was to break the price barrier for computing and internet access. We've created a product that will finally bring affordable computing and internet access to the masses," Kapil Sibal, human resources and IT minister who championed the device, was cited as saying.

So what can Aakash do? There are two models, both of which run on the Android platform, with WiFi connectivity and cloud storage. The tablets have a seven-inch touchscreen, 256 MB of RAM, a 32 GB expandable memory slot and two USB ports.

Aakash was developed by UK firm DataWind -- which is owned by a Canadian entrepreneur of Indian origin. It will be made in India by a company in Hyderabad, with the Indian Institute of Technology (Rajasthan) helping roll out the tablet as part of the National Mission on Education through Information, Communication and Technology. The government plans to distribute 10m units to students over the next few years. There may even be opportunity in Thailand, where the government rashly promised to give away tablets.

Aakash comes shortly after Reliance Communications, India's No. 2 mobile services provider, launched a tablet custom-made by China's ZTE priced at 12,999 rupees. A unit of Bharti Enterprises -- which controls top mobile operator Bharti Airtel -- launched a tablet at 9,999 rupees. China's Huawei is reported to be the manufacturing partner of Bharti.

They all have a tough fight on their hands: while India is the world's second largest and fastest growing mobile market, adding some 18m users every month, internet penetration remains low, with an estimated 8 per cent of the population having access.

Still, increasing numbers of mobile users access the internet on their phones, and the dichotomy in mobile phones will be a feature of the tablet market, analysts have said, with demand for both high-end devices as well as functional ones.

Aakash comes two years after the launch of Tata Motors' Nano, touted as the world's cheapest car. It has failed to live up to the hype, but reinforced the idea of "frugal engineering" in India and forced global carmakers including Suzuki Motor, Ford Motor, GM and Renault/Nissan to go back to the drawing board to design cheaper cars, often with Indian engineers.

Drugmakers in India, long dismissed as makers of copycat drugs, are developing drugs for a range of illnesses, while companies such as General Electric, Siemens and Philips have built cheaper medical devices in India, including hand-held MRI scanners and no-frills incubators.

Even the sky is not the limit.

See also:
Coverage of mobile telecoms in India - FT Tilt
Coverage of generic drugs in India - FT Tilt