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Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli shows off the Aakash tablet in Mumbai (daryl visscher/redux pictures/Daryl Visscher/Redux Pictures)
Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli shows off the Aakash tablet in Mumbai (daryl visscher/redux pictures/Daryl Visscher/Redux Pictures)

How a Montreal company won the race to build the world's cheapest tablet Add to ...

In the morning, Suneet and the remaining three bidders return to the same room. At the front, a 12-person committee shows off the submitted tenders, time-stamped and sealed with wax, before reading off each company’s bid—including the lowest estimate of what it would cost to make the Indian government’s dream: the cheapest tablet in the world.

When the presentation is finished, Datawind’s price tag—$52—is the lowest. The next cheapest bid is for $64. “I went white,” Suneet says now. “I thought, ‘We’ve missed something.’”

Feeling nauseous, he staggers out into the antechamber, where rival bidders lob wisecracks in his direction. “At that price, we’ll buy some,” one businessman says, laughing. Frantic, Suneet calls Montreal, where it is nearly 3 a.m., knowing he’ll wake up Raja. But his elder brother, who at times forgets how many patents he has to his name (more than 50) but never forgets product specs, reassures him that the final price accounts for every single component in the device. That’s when it sinks in: They’ve nailed this.

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When the media saw the mobile devices for the first time in October, the combination of tablets, international development and India made an enticing tale. The Tuli brothers were treated like rock stars. In Canada, it’s easy to draw comparisons to Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the famous co-CEOs of RIM: Raja, the brilliant, details-oriented engineer, and Suneet, the globe-trotting salesman selling not just a product but a vision of the future. When I met Raja in November, it was clear he sees it too: “RIM was a start-up once,” he told me.

So far, Datawind has manufactured about 10,000 of its ultracheap devices, and has subcontracted more factories in India to gradually churn out a volume of tablets that still seems unbelievable to the founders. The Indian state plans to subsidize the tablets down to between $20 and $35 (U.S.), to be sold to college and university students, and wants to roll the devices out to around 12 million users over the next 12 months. After that, the goal is to place one of these tablets in the hands of each of the country’s 80 to 100 million high school students. The process, despite the hype, is still in a nascent stage, unfolding slowly.

But things got stranger. Shortly after the announcement, Suneet was invited to meet with Thailand’s Minister for Information Communications Technology (who was so interested in purchasing 10 million tablets that he attended their meeting even as flood waters descended on Bangkok). Calls arrived from Turkey (which wants 15 million tablets), Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Egypt. At one point, the Swedish embassy in Canada called: Would Suneet possibly have time to meet the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt? And would it be possible to send out a press release to announce that the meeting was happening? “Why are you asking me?” Suneet asked them, flabbergasted.

Later that month, Suneet is on another Delhi-to-Toronto flight when an Indian woman suddenly goes into labour. A pediatrician is on board and delivers the baby girl in mid-flight. The parents name her Aakash, the Hindi word for “sky.” It is the same name the Indian government decided to give its tablet—a startlingly hopeful device, a computer designed to connect more people to the Internet than ever, that might one day put Datawind in the rarefied air of other Canadian tech pioneers.

“My life is just so surreal,” says Suneet.

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