courage can't see around corners but goes around them anyway. ~Mignon McLaughlin

The Affordable Tablet That Failed to Deliver


Every Sunday, I exchange a dozen words in broken Hindi with my father-in-law and swear I will finally learn the language fluently. And then every Monday, my pesky demanding day job ruins my plans for South Asian linguistic mastery. Obviously, it’s hard to connect with my in-laws because we don’t share a common language, but it’s even more difficult because we see each other infrequently. That’s where video calls could make a huge difference, if only the technology would work.

For years, I have taken video VOIP services like Skype and Facetime for granted. What was just a bit of fun with Skype in 2004 became a necessity in 2006 and 2007 when I was separated from my husband for long periods of time while we sorted out work and visas from different countries. Skype held my marriage together in the early days when separation could have caused tremendous anxiety. Now, weekly video chats keep my mother from freaking out while my husband and I trapse around the world.

My in-laws are a different story, though. They are retired school teachers in a suburb of Pune. They had never gone on the Internet until we took them to a Cyber cafe in 2007 and, until a year ago, never owned a personal computing device or had broadband at home. It wasn’t something they valued enough to be worth the bother of shopping for a device and paying for broadband, which also happens to be fairly expensive where they live. So, last year, we dipped their toes in the water, got them hooked up at home and bought them one of the many a low-cost ($100) tablets, especially made for the Indian market.

So, on Christmas of last year, my husband fired up his iPhone and started a video call with his family. I was thrilled to finally be able to see their faces, but every 90 seconds, the app cut out. We couldn’t use Skype on their tablet, only a crappy second-rate application called “Fring”. The only IM application that would work was Yahoo! Messenger, which has to have the most complicated user interface on the planet.  Low cost, in this case, also meant low value. The tablet now collects dust in their house and may be occasionally used as a coaster when guests come to visit, for all I know.

Nobody will argue that devices like netbooks and tablets are bad. Internet connectivity is now a human right, according the UN. What’s interesting to watch is the rate of rapid iteration and product innovation coming out of the Indian market. Just this week, a new wave of even lower cost tablets has been announced. Price is what grabs the headlines because lowering the price makes these devices affordable to the masses in a country where the average annual income hovers around the $1,100 mark. But consider for a moment that price is a design constraint, rather than a marketing or sales hook. The designer has to create an innovative user-friendly device that a complete novice or first-time PC buyer could figure out intuitively. That kind of innovation requires an understanding of the user group that you can’t get from sitting in a corporate design office in the US or Europe. It comes from contextual knowledge in the Indian market. That’s what this article suggests as well.

“The revolution will come from the developing world to the US,” says Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur and academic. “These tablets will kill the markets for high-end players—for Microsoft in particular.”

I’ve been tracking developments in mobile for years. In 2010, I ran a series of ethnographic studies based on street research that convinced me that we don’t need to focus on the $100 laptop, we need to make a $10 phone or a $25 tablet that’s easy to use and desirable enough that people will buy one and keep it, not let it gather dust or become a coaster like my in-law’s poor tablet.

It’s my father-in-law’s birthday soon. I think we’ll buy him a proper laptop this time that runs standard applications and maybe even Skype (!). In the meantime, our Sunday chats in broken Hindi will have to remain on the good old-fashioned mobile telephone.


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