Guns and Androids: Pakistan air force making iPads

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Inside a high-security air force complex that builds jet fighters and weapons systems, Pakistan's military is working on the latest addition to its sprawling commercial empire: a home-grown version of the iPad.

It's a venture that bundles together Pakistani engineering and Chinese hardware, and shines a light on the military's controversial foothold in the consumer market. Supporters say it will boost the economy as well as a troubled nation's self-esteem.

It all comes together at an air force base in Kamra in northern Pakistan, where avionics engineers, when they're not working on defence projects, assemble the PACPAD 1.

"The original is the iPad, the copy is the PACPAD," said Mohammad Imran, who stocks the product at his small computer and cell phone shop in a mall in Rawalpindi, a city not far from Kamra and the home of the Pakistani army.

The device runs on Android 2.3, an operating system made by Google and given away for free. At around USD 200, it's less than half the price of Apple or Samsung devices and cheaper than other low-end Chinese tablets on the market, with the bonus of a local, one-year guarantee.

The PAC in the name stands for the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, where it is made. The PAC also makes an e-reader and small laptop. Such endeavours are still at the pilot stage and represent just a sliver of the military's business portfolio, which encompasses massive land holdings, flour and sugar mills, hotels, travel agents, even a brand of breakfast cereal.

The military is powerful, its businesses are rarely subject to civilian scrutiny, and it has staged three coups since Pakistan became a state in 1947. Many Pakistanis find its economic activities corrupting and say it should focus on entirely on defence.

"I just can't figure it out," said Jehan Ara, head of Pakistan's Software Houses Association, said of the PACPAD. "Even if they could sell a billion units, I can't see the point. The air force is supposed to be protecting the air space and borders of the country."

Supporters say the foray into information technology is a boost to national pride for a country vastly overshadowed by archrival India in the high-tech field.

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