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Why the $35 tablet will never exist

Why does the media fall for the same hoax again and again?

July 23, 2010 03:12 PM ET

Computerworld - "India unveils $35 computer for students," says "India unveils prototype for $35 touch-screen computer," reports BBC News. "India to provide $35 computing device to students," says BusinessWeek.

Wow! That's great! Too bad it will never exist. That this announcement is reported straight and without even a hint of skepticism is incomprehensible to me.

India's human resource ministry announced this week a "breakthrough" solar-powered tablet computer that would cost only $35 in "early 2011." Reports say the tablet was developed at various Indian universities. "We have made the breakthrough and are now ready to capture the market," said Mamta Varma, a spokeswoman for the human resource development ministry.

In the first phase of the rollout, a million tablets would be provided to university students. In later phases, the program would be expanded to primary and secondary students. Millions of students would be using these cheap tablets within a year.

Officials even hinted that in the future the price could drop to $10 per tablet.

The project appears to target a similar demographic and purpose as the One Laptop per Child program, which is still struggling to bring the cost of its nonsolar, non-touch-screen computer down to its goal of $100.

What's really going on

Because the mainstream media is too gullible, shameless and lazy to report this story with even the slightest hint of skepticism, let me spell out what is almost certainly going on here.

Indian politicians have discovered that announcing technological "breakthroughs" that leverage Indian engineering prowess to deliver computers to everybody helps get press and win votes. It's a cheap gimmick that works because of the gullibility of the media.

While the press pays attention to the Big Announcement, hardly any media outlets notice later when nothing ever comes of it. Why? Because a headline with "$35 tablet" in it brings traffic, eyeballs and readers, whereas a headline with "media duped again" brings only shame. So they go for the glory but omit the shame.

For example: In February last year, the Indian government announced a $10 to $20 laptop called the Shaksat. Like the $35 tablet, the Shaksat had 2GB of RAM, but details on other components were impossible to come by.

It was to be rolled out in six months and was to be used by millions of students across India, transforming the Indian educational system and economy. So, where is the Shaksat?

In 1999, a group of Indian scientists and engineers developed a low-cost computer for the poor called the Simputer. It was a Linux-based pen-and-touch tablet with text-to-speech capability. The Simputer was announced with great fanfare by the Indian government. The goal was to sell 50,000, but only 4,000 were ever sold.

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