Innovation Feature

A tablet to launch an industry

A new locally produced tablet may pave the way for a computational boom in Saudi Arabia

29 November 2017

Touch-screen tablets offer a useful platform between smartphones and laptop computers, and their use has taken off worldwide. Recent surveys estimate that more than half of all American adults own a tablet and roughly 60% of Europeans access the internet through a tablet.

Engineers and researchers at KACST are now looking to feed the appetite for such devices in Saudi Arabia with KTAB, the first tablet to be designed and manufactured in the kingdom. This device is a starting point from which KACST ultimately envisions building a thriving domestic mobile technology manufacturing sector.

KTAB was conceived in the aftermath of an earlier computational success at KACST, says Abdulaziz Bhybha, one of the project’s managers. Since 2008, KACST researchers have been working to develop ‘system-on-chip’ (SoC) devices. Such systems incorporate all the components necessary for computing into a single, miniaturized chip, rather than requiring separate hardware for graphics, data transmission and processing. KACST decided to build its own tablet by utilizing the knowledge and experience gained from developing SoC devices, explains Bhybha. In principle, this work gives the KTAB team an important head start, as SoC components represent one of the most expensive and technologically complex elements of a high-end mobile electronic device.

Back to basics

But there were many hurdles in the way. The KACST team had limited access to the necessary technology, a lack of relevant expertise, and no prior experience in developing tablets. Accordingly, the group began by looking at what other manufacturers had done, convening a dedicated team to reverse engineer other commercial devices and see what features and approaches might work best for KTAB. From there, the engineering team devised a strategy for the development and construction of every element of the tablet: industrial design, mechanical components, software, and so on. The resulting report offered a valuable technical roadmap for the next several years. External collaborations were also critical in the strategic planning process, and KACST engaged in consultation with research institutions and leading technology companies around the world.

The current conception of KTAB is a lightweight Android-based device with a 10-inch screen, weighing less than 500 grams. The first-generation KTAB will not be built around the SoC technology, but will instead use a standard CPU and associated components; although the more sophisticated SoC architecture will be at the core of future iterations. The KTAB team has been working with high-end hardware components for its CPU-based system to ensure the device can be readily upgraded. At the same time, affordability is a priority, and Bhybha notes that the team is aiming to strike a balance that will allow them to deliver a quality tablet that costs no more than US0.

KTAB will ultimately be made available to the general consumer market, but KACST has initially focused its development efforts on building a device targeted at the educational sector. “There are no statistics about tablet ownership in Saudi Arabia,” says Bhybha, “but we know that tablets are not being used in classrooms and that not every student has a tablet, which creates a big market.”

The first-generation device will be preloaded with educational software and tools that can be used by students, teachers and school administrators. The device will also be manufactured with young users in mind. “It is sized appropriately to be carried in students’ bags as a book; hence the name ‘KTAB’, which means ‘book’ in Arabic,” says Bhybha, “and it is designed to handle shocks that might occur from students dropping it.”

The beginning of a boom 

KACST currently envisions a 2018 release date for the first-generation KTAB, with the wider goal of producing the region’s leading smart device brand by 2020. Although KACST will initially retain ownership of the technology, the organization is also considering other options that could further accelerate the commercialization of KTAB. “KACST is open to transferring the technology and know-how to a new company, or to allowing some of the KTAB team to join a new company,” says Bhybha.

If the launch is a success, manufacturing will be relocated to a facility in Riyadh. This shift to domestic production will be essential if such devices are also to be used by government officials, particularly those involved in military or other security-related functions. Such a move will also lay the foundation for the local manufacture of a host of other internet-connected devices, including mobile phones and smart household appliances.

The KTAB initiative also aligns well with the Vision 2030 plan formulated by the Saudi Council of Economic and Development Affairs. Among other objectives, this framework recognizes that, as the era of oil-based economies begins to draw to a close, the nation must focus on constructing a more forward-looking, knowledge-based economy. To this end, Bhybha is hopeful that a burgeoning consumer technology economy will also help fuel the ongoing growth of the country’s software development community. “Saudi IT companies are especially well-developed in software and applications development, and we can collaborate with them to add to local content production,” says Bhybha.