India made waves a few years ago with a project to create and distribute a $35 Android tablet. Amid some hiccups, it eventually happened thanks to the Datawind Aakash line of slates. And now, Datawind is bringing a trio of similar devices to the U.S. for as low as $38, in hopes of enabling lower-income families to enjoy both the mobile web and tablet apps.
I scoured the specifications for each of the three U.S. Ubislate models and found what you’d expect for $38: A fairly low-range set of hardware. The $38 UbiSlate, for example, uses an 800 x 480 7-inch touchscreen, 512 MB of RAM, 4 GB of internal storage that can be expanded via microSD and is powered by a 1 GHz Cortex A8 chip; about the same power as devices from three to four years ago. It connects to the web through Wi-Fi, includes a front-facing VGA camera and runs Android 4.0.3.
While it’s not the tablet I would buy, I’m not the target audience. The UbiSlate is meant for first-time tablet owners that may not have the means to plunk down hundreds of dollars for a flagship device. The tablet line isn’t just an entry point to tablets though; it’s a way to introduce folks to the mobile web and apps. And in this world of device makers that are adding more and more tech — sometimes for the sake of adding it — to high-end devices, it’s actually a refreshing business model.
Datawind’s higher-end models of the Aakash tablets actually take this a step further. The $79 UbiSlate 7Ci adds 2G mobile connectivity support via EDGE networks and if customers pay an additional $20, they get a free year of basic web browsing. No, it won’t be a fast experience given that EDGE is 2G and we’re quickly becoming a 4G nation, but again, the slate brings mobile broadband to those without it.
For $129, the UbiSlate 3G7 brings faster 3G network support on HSPA networks and throws in Bluetooth and a GPS radio and 1.2 GHz dual-core Cortex A7 chip as well. This model also bumps up the display resolution to a more usable 1024 x 600 pixels. In fact, this tablet is very similar to the Samsung Galaxy Tab I bought in 2010, just to illustrate the device capabilities. Again, a $20 premium includes a year of basic browsing.
Datawind has actually used this model of “included browsing” for some time. I recall the company’s PocketSurfer 2, a 2007 device that included 20 hours of mobile broadband browsing per month. Back then of course, the term “mobile broadband” meant a painfully slow connection. The company is partnering with Red Pocket Mobile, a MVNO that resells service on AT&T’s network for the Ubislate connectivity.
So will Datawind be as successful here as it was in India where the Aakash tablets are reportedly popular? I think the company faces a strong challenge on two fronts. High-end shoppers will clearly pass these by, which precludes an entire market segment. Even the most expensive Aakash tablet is a tough sell: Why buy this for $129 when that same price gets a much more capable device from Hisense, for example? Some may opt for the Aakash here due to the inclusion of mobile connectivity and even for voice calling, but I don’t think that number will be large.
The more intriguing product — and what I think has the best chance of success — is the lowest-cost UbiSlate. If marketed properly to the target audience, it could put the power of the web and mobile apps in the hands of many who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
This same audience may not have home internet access, however, so even a low-cost Wi-Fi Android tablet will have its work cut out for it. Regardless, it’s nice to see an underserved market get some attention when it comes to tech.