Published: 20/07/2011 at 12:00 AM
The Pheu Thai Party’s promise of One Tablet per Child for primary school students nationwide has touched off a lively debate about cost and practicality.
Forth Corp R&D director Sawat Erbchokchai shows off the components of a tablet (front view at bottom right) that the Thai company believes it can build cheaply.
As well, some academics and social theorists have questioned whether enough relevant content is available for young learners, while warning against the high risk of children using tablets for gaming or inappropriate activity.
However, the education policy of Yingluck Shinawatra, the Pheu Thai Party’s presumed prime ministerial candidate, is fostering hope for both international and local computer vendors eager for tablet orders.
They believe the One Tablet per Child policy could increase domestic tablet sales four- or five-fold to one million units by next year.
Local electronics and computer companies along with technological universities are urging the new government to open the doors of the 4-billion-baht programme to Thai-made tablet personal computers.
Rather than simply importing them, promotion of locally made tablets would stimulate the domestic economy and promote development of the country’s research and development (R&D) base.
Sawat Erbchokchai, the R&D director at Forth Corporation Plc, said his company was ready to produce the first Thai-made educational tablet products.
“Our high-tech manufacturing service enables us to supply our self-designed controller board and base board to interface with an LCD display,” he said.
Forth designed the circuit board used in its IP PBX business and which could be applied to the tablets, said Mr Sawat.
He said only a few months would be needed to adapt the controller board for this purpose.
Forth’s manufacturing facility has enough capacity to meet government requirements, said Mr Sawat.
Up to 90% of company capacity is used for custom orders including the global hard-disk manufacturer Western Digital.
Mr Sawat suggests the new government use e-auction procurement to force international tablet vendors to cut their prices.
An R&D collaboration between local private companies and the government would also help to encourage local R&D in manufacturing, component supplies and software development.
“If Thailand used its own tablets, that would make us the first country in the world to make these devices for its primary school students,” he said. “There might even be an opportunity to export them for educational use abroad.”
Some countries now distribute commercial tablets available in the market to their school and university students.
Panuwat Khantamoleekul, the managing director of Supreme Distribution (Thailand), a local computer maker under the DTK brand, said the company planned to form a consortium with three other local companies that have their own factories.
They are SVOA Plc; Metro Professional Products, a subsidiary of Metro Systems Corporation Plc; and Synnex (Thailand).
Members would share facilities to assemble 800,000 tablets for the government programme, said Mr Panuwat.
He said Supreme Distribution was also in talks with Intel Microelectronics (Thailand) for special discounts on CPUs and advice on tablet assembly and with Microsoft for licence fees for special operating systems.
However, Mr Panuwat urged the government to use existing educational applications running on the Microsoft operating system rather than Google’s free Android system as the former has many more offerings.
He admitted that local companies had been unable to participate in the tablet market previously but said the government’s tablet project would offer an greater economy of scale than before.
Suchatvee Suwansawat, the dean of engineering at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, said Thailand would benefit from having its own tablet manufacturing facilities even if the government did have to spend more on the setup than it would on importing the devices.
Promoting domestic manufacturing would also enhance the capabilities of local entrepreneurs and younger people in design and production, he said.
“The institute could make the tablets at our joint research and innovation centre set up by LG of South Korea,” said Dr Suchatvee.
Kurt Rudahl of King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi said the government might need to subsidise local companies to help them compete with global rivals, which in turn would benefit the local economy.
“Thailand could enjoy the experience of having a local tablet production site the same as China, India, Taiwan and Japan,” he said.
However, Vasant Chatikavanij, a senior executive vice-president of Loxley Plc, said locally made tablets should not come with a “fully functioning computing device” that enables children to become dangerously obsessed with gaming and extreme direct social networking.
He urged the government to consider e-readers instead of general-purpose tablets in order to prevent students from using the devices too freely.
As well, the provision of local content should be a priority for for the children, said Mr Vasant.
In the long run, Mr Vasant said the government should build portals or open operating platforms allowing local communities and teachers to input local data and sharing with others.
“Tablets should serve as an access device connecting to local knowledge content,” he said.
The government could provide incentives for local data input and computer training classes at ICT community centres rather than spending a lot of money to hire organisations or teachers to produce the entire content.