BUSINESS

Aakash, $47 Tablet PC Made By Canadian Entrepreneurs, Sells 1.4 Million Units In 2 Weeks

01/04/2012 11:51 EST | Updated 01/04/2012 11:53 EST
CP

With a weak processor, limited apps and a first version that doesn't even have the ability to connect to the cellphone network, the Aakash is hardly a competitor to the iPad.

But the $47 tablet computer built for the Indian market by two Canadian-raised entrepreneurs has sold 1.4 million units in two weeks, bringing more than one million people in South Asia into the online world for the first time.

The tablet computer, whose name means "Sky" in Hindi, is in such high demand that Datawind, the company behind it, has had to rapidly announce plans for three new factories, the Economic Times of India reports.

"We never expected such a high response from both corporate and individual buyers," Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli told the Times. "We plan to supply 70,000-75,000 units per day once the factories are in place by April."

Tuli, along with his brother Raja Singh Tuli, first envisioned a cheap tablet at their company's offices in Montreal. They saw something beyond the opportunity for profit in the project: A chance to revolutionize Indian society by bringing connectivity to some of the country's most disadvantaged corners.

"In those villages, there is no other way to get the Internet, and they've never had it before," Raja Singh Tuli said in an interview last year. "You're talking about people who have never had a screen of this size to look at anything other than maybe a television."

Born in India, the brothers came to Canada in 1980 and were both educated at the University of Toronto. Their company, though based in Britain, maintains offices in Toronto and Montreal.

But their tablet computer's runaway success has exposed problems within the company -- namely, a lack of capacity to keep up with demand.

And even with the new factories in place, Datawind will only be able to produce some 75,000 units per day -- short of the 100,000 daily orders currently being made.

The company's website now states that current orders won't be delivered until March.

The tablet computer comes priced at 2,500 rupees -- about $47 at current exchange rates. For students, the price is 1,000 rupees, or about $19, thanks to a government subsidy. The government has itself ordered 100,000 of the tablets for schools.

Even before sales opened in December, the Aakash had clocked 400,000 in sales -- more than the entire annual Indian market for tablet computers, which was registering 250,000 to 300,000 units until last year, the Times reported.

Its success is in stark contrast to the skepticism India's government and Datawind endured when developing the project.

"People laughed, people called us lunatics," Human Resources Development Ministry official N.K. Sinha said in an interview last fall. "They said we are taking the nation for a ride."

On its human-development agenda, Datawind has put its money where its mouth is. The company announced a contest for students to develop apps for the Aakash, the best of which will be packaged with future versions of the product.

"We hope to create an entrepreneurial culture among the student community," Suneet Singh Tuli said. "Students think unconventionally, unlike large corporates or software development firms."

All the same, the company now faces a new competitor: The ClassPad, from Delhi-based Classteacher Learning Systems, was announced this week and boasts a considerably more powerful processor and longer battery life. But at 7,500 to 14,000 rupees ($140 to $280), its cost may be more prohibitive in the Indian market.