May the tablet be with you—really

Posted: 08.27.13

There’s probably a seven-inch in your and/or your kid’s future—
it’s going to change the world

December last year you could buy an Android 4.0, 7-inch IPS screen tablet almost anywhere in China for $90, and for less in Shenzhen. Those tablets typically had an Allwinner SoC in them. If you could be satisfied with a dual-core VIA 8850–based unit, you could pick one up for $65, and with a little negotiation maybe as low as $40 if a single-core A10 SoC was acceptable.

There are a couple of market and political forces driving these developments.

China (the Republic of) was consuming about 20% of the tablet production from Chinese SoC suppliers in 2012. Today that number is approaching 80%. The SoC players are Allwinner, RockChip, NuFront, and VIA, and they are using a combination of IP GPUs from ARM, Imagination Technologies, and Vivante.

The second force is the support of the Chinese government in the form of loans, tax breaks, payroll subsidies, and potential large purchases.

The third force is the educational market in China and India, and possibly Taiwan; probably not Korea and Japan, however (they will buy home-built units). Thailand and Vietnam, as well as the Mideast and South America, are certainly candidates for the Chinese, as are certain countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. North America and Eastern and Western Europe will be a mixed opportunity, but the Baltics and Russia could be wide open for the sub-$50 educational 7-inch tablet built on low-cost (less than $5) SoCs.

Suneet Singh Tuli, the founder and president of Datawind and the man behind the ultra-cheap Indian Aakash 2 tablet, says the West doesn’t understand the mobile business in the developing world.

Low, low prices

By the end of April of this year, Datawind had manufactured 98,000 devices at $41.61 and 2,000 of a future version—the proposed Aakash 3—at $49.98, a price that succeeds in undercutting those of even Tuli’s most aggressive Chinese competitors. He intends to bid for part of the next government tender—5.4 million units, to be delivered over a period of six to nine months.

He’s going to have a tough time because the Chinese SoC builders, and their partner tablet assemblers, are talking about a $30 tablet.

These tablets with 1024 × 600 screens (170 PPI) typically have a 1-GHz processor, Wi-Fi, and at least one camera, often two. Running Android and supporting a five-point touch screen, there’s little they aren’t capable of.

I think these tablets will become ubiquitous within two years. The only factors that can make that forecast fail are inefficiencies caused by delays in government procurement and distribution of the devices. The demand will be (is) there, the price points can be reached, and major companies in the supply chain and most of the government agencies in the world want to see this happen.

We are the world

Did you feel that?

That was the world shifting. Think of a world of 300 million children from the ages of 6 to 22 with an Internet-connected 7-inch video-conferencing tablet. If you thought the NSA knew your dirty little secrets, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Take what the camera phone has done for exposing things like police brutality, theft, and funny things people do in department stores and multiply that by ten. Look what Twitter and camera phones have done for the revolts in the Mideast. That kind of coverage will spread around the world—in just a couple of years, aided by Google’s balloons.

As for Datawind, the kits that Datawind imported had all the parts, including motherboards—and were assembled and programmed in India. That means regardless of where the tablet is assembled, it’s going to be using Chinese SoCs. And those SoCs are going to be built by a half dozen Chinese-owned and -operated companies. Next step, a Chinese RISC processor and GPU design. With volumes in the hundreds of millions and a supportive subsidizing xenophobic government, it’s only a matter of time until all the Western IP suppliers are talking about the good old days when they sold IP to China. Like I said, the world is going to change, and it’s all going to be because of the kids.