By: Raju Mudhar Tech Reporter, Originally Published on The Star
With all the news out of CES this week focused on the biggest and brightest innovations in technology (4K cameras! Bendable screens!), it’s refreshing to see a Canadian-based company touting a product whose only wow factor is an exceptionally low price.
Datawind, based in Mississauga with research and development operations in Montreal, has created three tablets that start at $38 and top out at $120, aimed at an audience they say has been forgotten by the world’s biggest electronics manufacturers.
Initially created as part of a tender brought forth by the Indian government, the company launched its products in North America and the U.K. in late December, with hopes of targeting cost-conscious consumers who up until now have been priced out of the tablet revolution.
Datawind’s CEO Suneet Singh Tuli is currently at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas showing off his company’s wares, but sat down with the Star in late December showcasing the product line. The real attention getter is the Ubislate 7Ci, which sounds too good to be true at a retail price of $37.99. It’s available now, plus a $10 shipping fee, from Ubislate.ca.
When Tuli talks, it’s in very different terms from most technology executives, addressing the digital divide between rich and poor.
“We are trying to create technology for what is the biggest unaddressed market. Today, if you look at this globally, there are 5 billion people that use mobile phones and 2 billion that really use the Internet — that 3-billion-person gap is who we want to go after,” he says.
“We looked at what keeps them off the Internet and it is affordability, it is cost. So we had to figure out how to deal with that.”
First launched in India, the Ubislate (a.k.a. the Aakash) has put Datawind among the top three tablet manufacturers for the past year. After receiving inquiries from around the world, the company decided there was sufficient demand, and expanded its reach.
Tuli makes it very clear that he is not trying to compete with the Apples and Samsungs of the world, although they are also not really competing with him.
“We were looking at a business opportunity to a customer that is being totally unaddressed. Does Apple make products for that customer base? Does Samsung? Nobody makes a $37.99 tablet in the world. Is it impossible? Hang on. We did,” he says.
“It’s not impossible, but the reason nobody (else) makes it is that they have enough customers who are willing to pay two-three-four hundred dollars, line up outside in this weather because a new version is out, and it’s not dual core now, it’s quad core.”
Then he lays down the gauntlet. “If I put two of these devices in front of the average consumer, it’s hard for them to tell the difference in basic performance.”
He picks up the Ubislate 7Ci and says that beyond price, the basic functionality that it needs to deliver is good internet, basic apps and HD video.
He compares the horsepower of the entry-level device, which runs on Android 4.2, to the original iPad.
“This is the same level of processor as the iPad four years ago. The same. It ran a Cortex-A8 processor; so does this. The original iPad has 256MB of RAM, this runs 512MB of RAM. . . . At $37.99, for what this delivers, this should be good enough for most consumers.”
Still, it has not been an easy ride for the company. At first Datawind couldn’t deal with the initial orders and delayed the launch. As well, North American reviewers have not been kind, unfairly comparing the Ubislate to more current iPads or other much more expensive tablets.
“I’m not trying to compete with a $400 device. That will never be the case,” Tuli says. “But what I’m suggesting is this. I’ve got four kids; if I want to equip them with devices for school, there are only so many iPads I can buy, between them losing them, breaking them on an annual basis, whereas at 40 bucks apiece, this is like the calculator of the 1970s, I don’t need to think about it.”
Datawind looks like it might actually be on the forefront of the idea that technology doesn’t always have to be faster and better; for the right price, it just has to be good enough.
Other companies have made some cheaper versions of their existing products in the last year, usually aimed at emerging markets, such as Google’s Moto G phone. As well, while it was still deemed too expensive, Apple’s iPhone 5C launch was an attempt at a cheaper product. Datawind is doing the reverse, launching its brand first in emerging markets before bringing it to other parts of the world.
Tuli is right; the Ubislate series of products can’t really compete with top-end tablets, but after using the products for the past few weeks, if I am keeping price-to-performance ratio in mind, they are impressive. The biggest drawback has been an occasional odd glare on the screen, and at times, the user interface feels inelegant. But it works, and at $38, it is definitely good enough.