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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 ...

“We were trying to build the device while we were still designing it,” Raja later explained. To understand just how intense Datawind’s challenge was, consider that, in November, IHS iSuppli, a supply chain analysis firm, tore apart Amazon’s newest tablet, the Kindle Fire—one of the lowest-priced devices in the North American market—and tallied its components to a hard cost of $209.63 (this for a product that retails at $199 U.S.). Datawind was aiming to come in at a quarter of that.

It helps, oddly enough, that Datawind is executing this near-impossible task in Montreal: The city is a mecca for immigrants, and Raja proudly proclaims that his employees, many of them new to the country, had arrived with obscure skill sets that proved immensely valuable to the company. As the days tick by through a haze of sleepless nights, cold pizzas, problems and workarounds, the seven-inch device finally takes shape. The finished tablets are carefully packed in boxes, one by one, and prepared for shipment to Indira Gandhi International Airport on the outskirts of New Delhi.


On a morning only a few days before the Indian government’s Valentine’s Day deadline, Kuljeet Singh, Datawind’s head of operations in India, makes the drive out to Indira Gandhi to pick up the tablets. The company has some experience doing business in India, having used the country as a test market for other products. The Tuli brothers had also long since hired local staff—and still had some family in the country. They knew, for instance, that the customs process in India can be unpredictable at best, and a nightmare at worst. Sometimes, shipments come through in a day or two; other times, they are held up for weeks.

Still, this day is special: Singh is not here as a lowly businessman; he is here by grand design—practically by government decree—to receive goods for a scheme that is designed to benefit the People. At Indira Gandhi, Singh morphs from Datawind’s main man in India to a type of soothsayer, spooning out prophecies to the harried customs officials about the tablets’ enormous potential. “I told them this was a project for the government,” Singh says, “that it would go in every house, even the guy earning 5,000 to 6,000 rupees per month”—about $100—“that they can have this....They got really excited.”

The shipment is received without hassle, and Singh loads the tablets into his Toyota Innova minivan to begin the 10-hour drive west, out of Delhi’s broad, chaotic avenues and into the deserts of Rajasthan, en route to Jodhpur, where the bidding process is set to take place. Singh doesn’t know, at this point, that there is still no board approval to do any of this, that a lone director in Hong Kong has yet to sign off.

Suneet arrives in Jodhpur, an ancient city of forts and palaces, on the afternoon of Feb. 13. He checks into the Hari Mahal, a hotel designed to resemble an ancient castle, and spends the evening on the phone with the company’s director in Hong Kong, who remains convinced Datawind will lose the contract and is wasting precious time. With nothing settled (the director will quit a few weeks later), Suneet goes to bed.

Bidding begins the next morning at a half-built university campus outside the city. The anxiety of the first day is taken over with mundane officialdom: the examination of incorporation documents, validation of financial statements, ensuring everyone’s $100,000 (U.S.) bid bond is in place. It is on the second day that things get interesting. Suneet is sequestered along with 14 other bidders, represented by about 20 or 30 people, in an antechamber with couches and coffee tables. As he awaits his 45-minute slot to pitch a committee of bureaucrats and prestigious Indian Institute of Technology professors, he takes the time—carpe diem—to network. None of the industry giants is in attendance. Though Suneet heard that the Indian government approached Apple, Samsung and most other major tablet makers, he can understand why they might be hesitant to design a device that would surely slice their profit margins to ribbons. Nevertheless, Datawind’s $10 million in annual revenues are dwarfed by several of the other bidders. Geneva-based STMicroelectronics, for instance, hauled in $10 billion last year—roughly 1,000 times what Datawind did. Suneet makes his presentation, and it goes well. He is asked back for the next day.

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