An article published in November details the increasing success of a UK/Canadian/Indian startup called Datawind, which has produced a tablet computer with a 7″ screen that will be sold to university students and professors in India at a retail price of $20. The initial shipment will be 100,000 units, but according to the article, “if things go well the government plans to order as many as 5.86 million.” American reviewers who have tried out the device have been enthusiastic.
Does this development represent an international ecosystem destabilizer, a flash in the pan, or something in between? It’s impossible to know for certain yet, but some interesting questions do suggest themselves at this point.
India is an English-speaking country with a population of 1.2 billion, only 5% of whom currently own a computing device. If the introduction of super-cheap tablet computing brings that percentage to 50%, it will come close to doubling the number of English-speaking Internet users in the world. If this happens, it could happen very suddenly. Given that English is the international lingua franca of science scholarship, what kinds of stress might this put on our existing scholarly communication ecology?
India’s cellular networks are overtaxed now, and the vast majority of Indians have only basic cellphones without computing capabilities. How would India’s infrastructure respond to a sudden and dramatic increase in networked data demand?
Although the $20 retail price of the Aakash 2 is artificially low due to government subsidy, its real wholesale price is only $45. Future versions will be cheaper. This means that virtually universal tablet ownership is now a real possibility, and it’s worth asking ourselves what impacts this might have on college campuses worldwide.
For example, a company called Boundless.com currently produces free online textbooks that are designed to compete directly with standard textbooks in “commodity courses” such as Intro to Economics and Biology 101. Drawing on freely and legally available online documents, the “Boundless Alternative” version of a standard text compiles the same basic information into chapters that follow the same outline as the target textbook. The important question for the academic market is not whether such a “textbook” is just as good as the $200 real thing, but whether it is good enough to make large numbers of students comfortable with foregoing purchase of the real thing. How might virtually universal tablet ownership affect students’ decisionmaking in this regard?
This is a development well worth watching — for publishers, campus bookstores, IT managers, and libraries.