Somewhere in the sky between Amritsar and Toronto, Suneet Singh Tuli has just finished an in-flight vegetarian meal and is preparing to get some sleep. He is in first class, the only way the 6-foot-2 Brampton, Ontario-based businessman can accommodate a gruelling travel schedule that sees him require a fresh passport every 18 months. Before he drifts off, though, he picks up his copy of The Economic Times of India to catch up on the news.
And there, buried in its pink pages, is where he sees it: A tiny news brief announcing the Indian government’s extension of a contract tender to build an ultracheap tablet computer for the masses. Suneet, the 43-year-old CEO of a small Canadian wireless device maker called Datawind, knows immediately what this means. India, a country of 1.2 billion people, has the fastest-growing mobile market on the planet. More than 800 million people in India have mobile phones and more than 10 million are signing up each month. Yet the number of Indians with regular access to the Internet is shockingly low: about 10%. The Indian government is banking on a nationally subsidized mobile tablet to help pull millions of its disconnected citizens online and into the modern economy. For entrepreneurs like Suneet, who focus on low-cost digital products for the disenfranchised, markets like India (and China, Asia, Africa and Latin America) are what’s referred to as the “next billion.” And they are huge.
As soon as his plane touches down in wintry Toronto, Suneet flips open his laptop to Google the Indian state’s desired specifications. They are almost identical to those found in a super-affordable tablet that Datawind is designing at its Montreal office. “It was eerie,” Suneet recalls. “The specs were so close.”
And so Suneet resolves to embark on what would become his Great Game, a grand contest of empire-building proportions: to engineer, construct and deliver the world’s cheapest tablet computer to the Indian government. It will have to be mass-produced, mainly on the subcontinent—its cost subsidized for tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of Indians. If he succeeds, it could vault his tiny company from obscurity into the big leagues of the global wireless industry. If he fails, Datawind will stumble back to the minors. It is Jan. 30, 2011. The Indian government’s deadline for bids is Feb. 14.
That leaves Suneet just two weeks—an impossibly short time frame in which he first has to convince his tight-knit board of directors, who have always done everything by consensus, that this unprecedented opportunity outweighs the risks of wading neck deep into the unpredictable Indian market, where everything seems to be cobbled together by red tape and bureaucracy; then, he will have to gear up to build 100 functioning test units of a tablet computer that, at this stage, exists only in design and scattered components; and, finally, get those tablets and himself to a dusty outpost in the deserts of Rajasthan, where his efforts will likely be blown apart and buried under the quick-shifting sands of India’s chugging, clanging, modern industrial economy.
Two weeks. Not exactly a lot of time.
Datawind’s main office is located in a bland concrete tower block on René-Lévesque Ouest in downtown Montreal. There’s no sign of the company in the building lobby. The only indication of Datawind’s presence is a white sheet of paper taped to an 11th-floor door that reads, “Datawind Net Access Corporation.” Even that had only been posted for the benefit of a visitor. Behind the door, around 50 of the company’s 150 employees—many of them engineers—toil and tinker with motherboards and mobile operating systems.
Datawind was founded in 2000 by Suneet and his brother, Raja, who is two years his senior and holds the title of chief technology officer. The pair have had modest success building and selling wireless devices like the PocketSurfer (a small, clamshell mobile device) and the UbiSurfer (a mini-netbook), mainly in the United Kingdom for use on Vodafone Group’s network. The company has an office in London, and another in Amritsar, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, where it operates a call centre and handles some engineering, testing, accounting and HR duties. Although Suneet and his brother are Canadian citizens—born in India, they arrived when they were 12 and 14, respectively—Datawind is registered in the U.K. Suneet says this is largely because of Canada’s notoriously conservative venture capital market, the U.K.’s funding support for innovation and the fact that Canada’s wireless industry—dominated by just three companies—has had little incentive to supplement its own high-margin smartphones with the kinds of inexpensive Internet devices Datawind designs.