Democracy Lab

India's Tablet Revolution

How a $40 device is going to change the lives of billions.

India's ruling Congress Party was stunned by the magnitude of recent public protests. For the first time in recent history, India's normally docile middle class and its youth are speaking up over everything from the country's recent rape tragedy to the Congress Party's corruption. Social media and technology have empowered these segments of society in new ways. The digital world has enabled similar rebellions in China and the Middle East.

This is just the beginning, though. As the cost of devices drops and Internet access becomes universal, we are witnessing a new kind of revolution. 

Information used to be more localized. People were barely aware of the affairs of their own villages let alone in nearby towns or the rest of the country. Governments had the power to feed their citizens whatever propaganda they wanted them to know.

Now, however, people are more connected. Those in the poorest parts of the world are gaining access to an equivalent breadth of knowledge as those in the wealthiest parts. They are beginning to participate in the global economy, to learn from others, and to solve their own problems.

The first global communications revolution began with cell phones. Over a 10-year period the number of cellular subscriptions jumped from a few million to nearly 6 billion (or 87 percent of the world's population, according to The International Telecommunication Union). These made it possible for families to stay in touch when breadwinners travelled to cities and for workers to connect with employers. They allowed populations to discuss what was happening in different parts of the country and to exchange political views. And they allowed the disenchanted to organize demonstrations via text messages. 

The next step in this revolution is cheap tablets. India recently launched the Aakash tablet, which provides all the features of more expensive tablets. It has a processer as powerful as the first iPad, twice as much RAM, and an LCD touch screen. One hundred thousand of these devices have been purchased by the Indian government from a company called Datawind for $40 and are being provided to teachers and school children for a subsidized price of $20. Meanwhile, Datawind has sold 1 million of these commercially at a price of $60. CyberMedia Research says that within two quarters of its introduction, the Aakash tablet has leaped ahead of Apple in terms of market share in India.

To add to the increasing accessibility of technology and its benefit, India has launched an initiative to connect 250,000 villages via optical fiber cable. The fiber-optic lines will provide cheap, affordable Internet. Regardless of whether the government delivers on these plans, India's cell phone carriers already provide affordable data plans. Newer versions of Datawind tablets, or "phablets" as they are colloquially referred to, have cell phone capabilities and come with unlimited web access for Rs.100 (US$1.75) per month.

India's population currently has around 900 million mobile phones, which typically cost $30 or more. When the cost of the "phablets" reaches this price point, they will undoubtedly become the replacement device for cell phones. I expect that India, because of tablets, will have more than 100 million new Internet users in the next three years. This number will grow to more than 500 million within five years, and 1 billion by the end of the decade.

The Indian government has inadvertently started a revolution that will transform India and shake up the world. It has lowered the expected base price of tablet technologies to a range of $35 to $50. Chinese vendors are competing with Datawind to bring production costs below $35. 

Cheap tablets will make it possible for farmers to watch weather reports, for village children to access MIT courseware, and for artisans to sell their goods online. These will also enable the development of Silicon Valley-style apps to transact commerce, play games, and manage bus and train schedules. Don't be surprised to see villagers developing apps that solve their own unique problems. 

Add some sensors that read a person's vital signs to these devices and connect isolated villagers to physicians over Skype, and you can provide desperately needed medical advice. This isn't wishful thinking. I asked Alivecor, which has developed an FDA-approved iPhone case that monitors heart rhythms, to test a credit card-sized version of their device with low-end Aakash tablets. Their founder Dr. Dave Albert told me it worked flawlessly. Albert's goal is to sell a version of this device in India for a cost comparable to the price of the tablet. This will provide the same functions as expensive EKG monitors. There are hundreds of such sensor-based medical devices in development all over the world.

It is only a matter of time before $49 tablets are also commonly available in the West. This will wreak havoc on the global PC, laptop, and smart phone industries. It will decimate profit margins as the number of cheap tablets in use increases exponentially and prices continue to drop. There will be thousands of new uses for these inexpensive tablets. Expect to see them in your cars, houses, restaurants, schools, and even at church. There will be billions of interconnected devices.

There will be 3 billion more people coming online in this decade. Never before has humanity been connected this way. With ubiquitous access to Internet-capable devices, the poor and the rich will have the same access to information. The lower classes will be able to educate themselves, learn about the latest advances in agriculture and farming, find out the real value of the goods they produce, and take advantage of e-commerce. They will be able to tell the world about the bribes they paid and the abuses they suffered at the hands of corrupt government officials. They will be empowered just as the Indian middle class has been.

Most importantly, the rising billions will be able to participate in global discussions and exchanges of ideas. Imagine village-developed apps showing up in our app stores. Imagine young Einsteins emerging from the villages of Kenya, Columbia, and India -- offering solutions to medical and scientific problems posed by Harvard researchers. These geniuses do exist. 

This is all going to be a reality sooner than you think.



Peace Out

What the Taliban flag debacle tells us about America's reluctance to negotiate an end to the Afghan war. 

The formal opening last week of a Taliban office in Qatar has achieved the exact opposite of what it was supposed to -- delaying the start of negotiations with the United States and Afghan government, and sending the peace process into a downward spiral. Standing in front of a white banner emblazoned with the name of the past Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and next to the flag that flew during the Taliban's rule, two spokesmen for the organization held forth on its desire to improve relations with "all the countries of the world," the United Nations, and NGOs, and to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict. The spokesmen also mentioned holding talks with Afghans -- though not the Afghan government -- and said that attacks on other countries would not be allowed from Afghan soil, an indirect reference to severing links with al Qaeda.

Details such as the flag, the name, and a small plaque outside of the office labeled the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," signaled to the world that what the Taliban seek more than peace talks is a share of power in Kabul. The Taliban have presented themselves audaciously, not in the manner of a dwindling or threatened insurgent group, but as a legitimate government in exile. This thoroughly -- and justifiably -- infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who, in an attempt to re-assert control over the peace process, promptly called off negotiations with the United States over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) only hours after commemorating the official handover of security from NATO forces to the Afghan National Army (ANA). The BSA negotiations will almost certainly resume -- in no small part because the agreement ensures continued U.S. financial support for the ANA post-2014 -- but for the time being at least, Karzai is using them to prove a point.

Amazingly, it appears that the details of the Taliban's office launch that so thoroughly enraged Karzai may have been lost on the Americans. Within hours of the Taliban press conference, senior White House officials told reporters that they would be holding talks at the Doha office in a matter of days. President Barack Obama's administration, it seems, never considered that Karzai might perceive this as tacit approval of the Taliban's presentation -- in effect, marginalizing the Afghan government from its own peace process. As a result, Karzai's unexpected reaction sent Washington scrambling to walk back its commitments, with the State Department denying that talks had ever been confirmed. Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed doubt over whether the talks could proceed, and said the office may need to be shut down.

The dog continues to chase his tail. Since Tuesday, the media has struggled to keep reports up to date about the status of the flagpole, which was first lowered and then removed; the whereabouts of the plaque, which was moved from outside to inside; and who is responsible for the mishap in the first place, with American officials claiming the Taliban violated a prior agreement that the Taliban says never existed.

After more than a year of talking about talks, the so-called peace process has devolved into little more than political theater, with flags and plaques providing the requisite doses of tragicomedy. But the real cost of such diversions is counted in battlefield deaths. As the process drags on, it obscures the urgent need for substantive talks aimed at ending a 12-year conflict that has claimed several thousands of innocent Afghan lives, the lives of over 3,000 coalition troops, and billions upon billions of dollars. Above all else, Afghans desperately need security -- something that can only start to be achieved through constructive peace talks between the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban.

Still, the prospects for peace remain dim. In an interview with Al Jazeera on June 19, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shaheen clearly stated that the Taliban will continue to pursue its military campaign, even as it entertains the idea of peace talks. That same day, Taliban rockets killed four NATO soldiers at Bagram Airfield, located just north of Kabul. While the press and commentators have been quick to criticize the Taliban for this contradiction, the United States is, ironically, pursuing the exact same strategy. Earlier this week, Obama reiterated that the United States will "remain fully committed to our military efforts" and that peace talks will be pursued "in parallel with our military approach." Both sides are playing the same double game -- one that makes a mockery of the peace process and leaves Afghans dodging bullets in the crossfire.

This is not the first time that the opportunity for a more peaceful route in Afghanistan has taken a backseat to political optics. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration flatly ruled out the possibility of talks with the Taliban about handing over Osama bin Laden, despite repeated offers from Taliban officials. Instead, it opted for what it thought would be a swift and decisive defeat of the militant organization. Granted, it may have been hard to imagine the United States seriously pursuing talks with the Taliban with the shock of the September 11th attacks only barely in the rearview mirror. But now, 12 years later, it is equally hard to imagine a decisive American victory.

And now, the Taliban appear to have the upper hand entering any peace talks with the United States and Afghan government. The United States is desperate to exit the war as soon as possible, and has apparently realized peace talks are the only viable option. Karzai, meanwhile, is desperate to leave office in 2014 with a legacy that features securing some level of peace for his country. Only the Taliban are able to carry on indefinitely at little political or military cost. The organization's limited resources and manpower have not hampered its ability to inflict massive damage on its enemies in the past, and are unlikely to be a limiting factor going forward. To paraphrase Mao Zedong, guerrilla warfare is the death of a thousand cuts. 

Today, Karzai's frustration at being marginalized at the negotiating table is representative of the general dearth of Afghan voices shaping the future of the country. To date, these voices have been muffled or silenced by more powerful forces concerned with matters of domestic politics, be they legacy, power, or the desire to gracefully exit a botched war with honor intact. And while no party is willing to make concessions in order to pursue meaningful and constructive peace talks, they all claim to be fully committed to the peace process. There are perhaps no winners in this war, but the undeniable losers for over a decade have been, and will continue to be, the Afghan people.