Sunday, August 08, 2010

No Low Cost Indian Solar Powered iPad for Students

Vodafone launched the VF 247 solar powered mobile phone handset in India last month. In response, The Green ICT Review, claimed this was part of a trend to solar powered ICT in India. That may be overstating the case, as like anywhere,people in India will use solar power where it is cost effective and convenient to do so.

Apart from a solar panel on the back of the batter pack, the
VF 247 is an ordinary 2G mobile phone. There have been after-market battery packs with solar panels built in before. They simply clip in place of the standard battery to make a solar powered phone. But these have not proved popular, as the phone must be left face down in the sun for about an hour a day to keep it charged. There would be few locations where there owner would be willing to leave their phone lying in the sun.

The Green ICT Review also reported the Indian government is pressing for mobile phone cell towers to be converted from diesel to solar power. Solar mobile cell towers make sense (Telstra has used solar cells for telecommunications in the Australian outback for decades). However, until recently this as too expensive for most applications. The cost of the cells are going down, the power needed for a cell tower is reducing and the price of diesel is increasing. But the towers will need large banks of batteries for cloudy days, which increases the capital and maintenance costs.

One application for ICT solar power not mentioned in the article is for business computer users. On a visit to India I noted large banks of lead acid batteries in the Internet cafes to provide for power outages (even a convent had battery backup). The people running these cafes are very aware of cost and technically proficient (as are the nuns). An obvious step is to use a solar panel to charge their backup batteries. As soon as it is cost effective to use solar cells, I am sure they will. However, it must be kep in mind that their are higher priorities than power for phones or computers: people would like reliable lighting for night time.

The Green ICT Review also points out that the Indian Minister for Human Resource Development, Kapil Sibal, announced plans for a Indian touchscreen tablet computer for higher education. This is described as an iPad-type device which could be solar powered. This is claimed to cost £23 when avialable in 2011. while there is discussion of co-development of the device, it is more likely that the minister has in mind to work with a company which will select an existing design from a manufacturer in China, as Kogan has done in Australia with its e-book reader.

There are numerous Linux based tablet computers now being released for around $AU200. A price of $AU40 sounds a little low, even allowing for mass production. I would expect a price of $AU100 to be more likely. As discussed in an interview ("Apple iPad to trigger tablet frenzy as Libretto, BlackPad and Android devices hit market", Byron Vale, The Sunday Mail (Qld),8 August 2010), I have doubts as to the value of a tablet device for students. A netbook with a keyboard, for the same cost, would be more useful.

India has experimented with low cost hand held tablet computers before. The Simputer PDA used open source hardware and Linux. The Mobilis, was essentially a Simputer PDA with a bigger screen and rubber keyboard. Neither was successful as a mass market product, but Encore Software Limited, who make the Mobilis offered the SATHI (Situation Awareness and Tactical Handheld Information): essentially a battlefield version of the Simputer.


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