The $20 laptop introduced by Tata this week is so symbolic at so many levels of both the opportunity and the problem with 'designing for India', that it's hard to know where to begin when weighing its chances for success. At face value, however, it would seem to have the number one criteria low cost well in hand. Or does it?
An updated version of the much-ballyhooed yet flailing One-Laptop Per Child initiative championed by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab, the $20 laptop, dubbed 'Sakshat' was introduced with some aplomb by Tata, the company which debuted the $2000 Tata Nano automobile in January last year. That the Nano has yet to make the leap from prototype to commercially available models does not bode well for the new laptop, despite the low cost and despite the fact that it targets the country's number one social issue (aside from abject poverty): education.
While India's constitution guarantees education for all up until age 14, for a country of 1.2 billion people there are only 80,000 schools and 189 million enrollments. That's under 1 percent of the population, according to Ramenda S. Baoni, managing director of Bsquare (India). Baoni was a speaker at a special session on "Made for India" at last month's VLSI Conference in New Delhi.
Baoni has put much thought into the subject of what opportunities lie in wait for innovative designers willing to take a chance on India. With a large portion of its mind-bogglingly large population below the poverty line, 23 different languages, many different scripts, poor infrastructure and little broadband access, the challenges run deep.
So, designing a low-cost, usable laptop may be a part of the solution, the lack of infrastructure to make use of that laptop is a major hurdle. Also, as Baoni pointed out, 99 percent of Internet content is in English and even if they could read it, the Internet is really only good for directed research. "Even the brightest student doesn't know what they need to know," said Baoni. The students still need qualified teachers to guide their education and to facilitate the more natural interactive learning process, especially with complex concepts.
Clearly, the new laptop's efficacy depends on either solving many of the above problems or finding workarounds. Baoni suggested one workaround: Broadcast. Using India's EduSat satellite link, Baoni proposed a low-cost set-top box with built-in DVR that can be paused and stopped, unlike traditional educational TV broadcasts, while also enabling flash video and delivering text and also services for the visually impaired. Printouts, if needed, can be done locally.
Baoni's proposal overcomes the broadband infrastructure, language, script and to a certain extent the teacher issues associated with the $20 laptop's more Internet-dependent and localized model. However, both still face the power issue: hardly a day goes by where there are not power outages in any given region, and for rural areas there's the problem of no power at all. How are these laptops and STBs to be powered? Solar is clearly an alternative, but that adds to cost and decreases the systems' penetration. Also, no matter how low the cost may fall, for someone with absolutely no money -- and that's a large part of the population -- it doesn't matter.
That being said, each dollar off the cost of implementation makes any solution more available to a wider swath of the population. So clearly, every bit helps. However, it may still only be a drop in the bucket. And that's the eternal paradox with India: any improvement can have such a profound impact at the personal level for those who can take advantage, and can be a boon to any designer offering a solution that gains traction, but all can seem to be so futile at the macro level where the scale of the problems dwarfs any single solution's potential impact.
Obviously, that's not a reason to give, up. In fact, India could well be the low-cost test market for the world: low cost and practicality are the order of the day. At a time of global recession, that may be the order of the day everywhere. So, as K.C. Krishnadas, editor of TechOnlineIndia quipped: "If it [a consumer design] can make it here, it can make it anywhere." [New Delhi, New Delhi].