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FEATURES/Real Issue | Jun 25, 2012 | 26972 views

What Went Wrong With the Aakash Tablet

The disastrous Aakash project has expunged India's dream of developing the world's cheapest computing device. And questions remain unanswered
What Went Wrong With the Aakash Tablet
Image: Reuters
LOST CAUSE Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal displays the low-cost computing device during its unveiling in New Delhi on July 22, 2010

I

magine for a moment you’re a scientist looking at a stubborn problem—in this case, a mass of a few hundred million poor, uneducated people. To lift them out of poverty, friends who study economics tell you the first thing you ought to do is offer them access to affordable education. And that if you can, you’ll achieve three things. Create a better world; create an incredibly compelling business; and perhaps get a stab at immortality.

There are two ways to go about the problem. The first, you reckon you ought to think through the problem. That means look at the world around you, tinker with ideas, figure what works best, and build a cost-effective solution that eventually helps achieve the objectives stated above.

The second is a pig-headed one. Look at how others around the world are attempting to crack the problem; call in the global media; tell them a tablet-like device with a touch screen can be built and sold at $35; another matter altogether you’ve got no clue how to go about it or why; and then try your damndest best for a stab at glory. In any case, as long as the problem is cracked, who gives a damn?

With the benefit of hindsight, it is now obvious the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) chose the pig-headed option. What else explains the fact that almost two years ago, the ministry announced it is in the middle of developing a low-cost computing device for students that would cost just $35? And that when complete, a global tender for five million units of the device would be floated? The blitz that accompanied the announcement had the world in a tizzy.

A little less than a year later, in February 2011, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Jodhpur, which had taken upon itself the onus to decide what specifications this animal would run on, put out a global tender to build the first 10,000 units. In return for these services, the institution received Rs 47 crore from the government. DataWind, a 12-year-old Canadian company with subsidiaries in the UK and India won the contract, produced a prototype built to spec, and Kapil Sibal, the minister in charge of MHRD, unveiled Aakash, the world’s cheapest computing device.

To put it mildly, the prototype was a disaster. Some phones in the market worked faster than this contraption. The battery couldn’t last two hours if a user tried to play video files on it. The touch screen, well, wasn’t “touchy” enough. And things got ugly between IIT Jodhpur and DataWind. Sibal finally stepped in and in early April this year announced that an upgraded version of the device will be made available by May.

As this story goes to press, we’re in the middle of June. Aakash-2 is still being tested by C-DAC in Thiruvananthapuram; IIT Bombay has been appointed the new nodal institution to drive the project and officials there claim 100,000 units will be supplied for pilot tests by October this year.
On its part, DataWind claims the 100,000 units have already been supplied to the institute. Nobody seems to have a clue what the truth is. What we know is this: Similar computing devices with superior capabilities are being brought out of Chinese factories by the thousands; India seems to have lost the plot; and what could have been an incredibly compelling story is now a stillborn.

The race to build the world’s cheapest computing device started when the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project was announced in 2005. Headed by Nicholas Negroponte, best known as the founder of MIT’s Media Labs, it was a non-profit entity and funded by global majors like AMD, Google and Nortel among others. The central theme to this idea was to build a laptop that would cost no more than $100.

But Negroponte was not a pig-headed man. He was clear that while keeping costs low was important, it wasn’t the central objective. Instead, it was to make sure technology and resources could be delivered to schools in the least developed countries. He wasn’t hung up on the $100 number. He knew that costs could go up by $30-40 or even $100. For various reasons though, a laptop at $100 was the number that stuck in the minds of people across the world—including NK Sinha, joint secretary at the MHRD.

While the OLPC project has gone through many ups and downs including funders backing out, NK Sinha proposed the MHRD develop a laptop at $10—one-tenth of the price the OLPC had proposed.

Correction: This article has been updated with a correction. In our earlier statement on 2nd page's last paragraph "They say when the proposal was originally floated, several startups had queued up before Sinha" the word 'They' has been replaced with 'Experts' to remove any confusion on attribution of the source of the statement.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine of 06 July, 2012
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Comments (24)
Chandan Mishra Sep 6, 2012
Why IIT Jodhpur was given the responsibility to put the specifications into it when it was still finding its foot to establish itself. IIT Kanpur, Delhi, Mumbai which are more established and the professors there are more experienced should have been given the role at first. There's definitely something fishy when IIT Jodhpur was given the responsibility.
Response to Chandan Mishra:
Gourab Nov 23, 2012
so u wanna tell dat who r not established there shud not be given chance to improve dem selves.....and u keep in mind dat all da professors who r in new iits r da experienced professors of other old iits......so dont write if u dont know da matter properly......
Sohag Aug 8, 2012
N K Sinha is additional secretary mhrd not joint
Uma Dongre Jul 24, 2012
Find an impractical idea. Find politicians who believe in it. Find dumb taxpayers. Mission accomplished.
Pe_2010 Jul 15, 2012
students need good teachers, not tablets and laptops. that is the flaw in the basic assumption. these efforts should have been spent on figuring out how to hire good teachers and make them stay in govt schools. needless to say, the iits are hardly the best place to ask, since you don't know if a person got in thru actual merit or quota.
Sr Jul 4, 2012
Story shows a well balanced reasoning of how things have unfolded. Creating media hype without proving value and worth often acts against (even in cases where a genuine effort is being made). Aakash does seem to have been a genuine effort by Sibal. The problem has perhaps been in the way its been handled prematurely. We in India seem to get overboard too soon. Does this mean the death of Aakash dream by Sibal? Perhaps not and it should not be regardless of Aakash or no Aakash. There are others who are doing good work and are creating good devices without creating hype. Offering accessible computing and communication devices is the need of the hour in India.
Satyaakam Jun 28, 2012
Medianama filed a RTI to get details here is the report http://www.medianama.com/2012/05/223-aakash-tablet-rti-college-datawind/ , OLPC has its own set of issues , no local community support , high cost of import , claims and news inserts which again has no use except creating the initial paraphernalia , what works for some other countries never would work for a country like India .

-Satya | Satyaakam.net
Bharat Kumar Jun 27, 2012
Even the BEL story isn't very good. Ask the companies who carried out cast census and they will tell you the gore.
Response to Bharat Kumar:
Seema Singh Jun 27, 2012
@Bharat: If you can tell me who these companies are, then I will follow it up. You can either post some names here or mail me at seema.singh@network18online.com
Ron Jun 27, 2012
Biased views right from the begining! what you call a bighead idea is being appreciated by world bank experts too!
The fact that the device is in the stage of testing proves that the govt is going very cautiously about it to ensure that the citizens get the best. OLPC has failed, and failed miserably!
Response to Ron:
Seema Singh Jun 27, 2012
@Ron: The story is not an endorsement of OLPC. Nor is the World Bank's appreciation (which probably only govt officials know) of Aakash an endorsement that all is well with the idea, execution and future of this device. The reason we call it pigheaded (not bigheaded) is that there wasn't any idea worth talking about all these years. Having goofed around for 6 yrs, and then when the prices have naturally crashed, getting hold of a company that can assemble it at the lowest price, isn't a vision. You are missing the larger point of the story- when you embark on a large mission like this - to give every college student a device - you take credible technologists on board and make a transparent case.
Karandeep Singh Jun 26, 2012
very nice tablet
Chandrashekhar Jun 26, 2012
Looking at the Twitter feed on your site, I feel sorry that stories like these are buried under Flipkart frenzy. This is an important issue and rarely do bureaucrats get singled out for big messes they create in their tenure. I'm sure Mr Sinha is entitled for a promotion now. But anyway, it also highlights that newspapers/magazines write what sells and which is why we see coverage of low-hanging fruits in the media. Gone are the days of good investigative stories, at least in mainstream media.
Shudhanshu Jun 26, 2012
This is govt's own project and will take as much time as the govt, last:...........
Saurabh Jun 25, 2012
I cannot get over two comments on Aakash:

One from a Secretary to the Govt of India: We made public invitation to guests. The guests have arrived. But our kitchen is empty and the cook is nowhere to be found. Sorry, guests!..

Other from Satish Jha of OLPC: MHRD has been prgnant a bit too long with "Sakshaat". Its miscarriage was announced in the birth of Aakash. The second pregnancy has lasted well beyond its term. Someone seems to have forgotten to announce the second miscarriage.

N K Sinha should be tried out in an open court and charged with misleading the world for such a long time.

Kapil Sibal is a politician who is used to lying day in and day out and surviving to tell another lie the next day. Clearly not a person we can trust our public policy with.

It would have been nice if the article was conclusive and had also talked about how Aakash denied India's children an opportunity to use OLPC.
Response to Saurabh:
Seema Singh Jun 25, 2012
Saurabh@ Even though the concept of Aakash was inspired, if I can use that term, by OLPC, it was not meant for children; it was for college and university students. At least somewhere down the line it was explicitly announced by MHRD. So I can't say that it denied the Indian children the opportunity to use OLPC.
Response to Seema Singh:
Nisha Jun 27, 2012
My sense is that you should be asking the Education Secretaries. Many believed Aakash was for children as well. I know that Anshu Vaish personally told so many chief secretaries NOT to try OLPC because Aakash was coming. And I may know just the tip of the iceberg. Its worth exploring if you still have interest in it. There is a huge scam behind Aakash and someone needs to dig it up. You are one of the few journalists who tried to get the facts but the total picture is a lot uglier.
Response to Nisha:
Unni Jul 30, 2013
Oh yes there is definitely a scam behind this. One of my friends who was in contact with the Akash tablet team there said that the team had received only a handful of tablets to test. And they remained idle for more than a year (their work was mainly in "testing" educational content like NPTEL video on the device). Also I hear that Datawind had got a surplus stock from some chinese tablet manufacturer at some dead cheap price and this constituted the first batch that was given out to many universities for evaluation. Further more, the reasons behind IIT Jodhpur breaking up with Datawind are not very clear (why did the govt ignore IITJ's criticisms and simply transferred the project to IITB?).
Atul Kulkarni Jun 25, 2012
After a slow, rather opinionated start, the story gathers steam. You make your point, a fair one at that. But I'€™d still argue that is it fair to write it off when IIT-B has taken it under its wings? Do you have reasons to believe that things are still going out of hand?
Response to Atul Kulkarni:
Seema Singh Jun 25, 2012
Atul@ Yes, I have reasons to believe that things haven't improved.

1) Nobody from IIT-B or MHRD provided me any details on the timeline on Aakash-2, which showed that the product has a life of its own. IIT_B profs kept saying, "If it succeeds..."

2) On Funding: When I asked if the Rs 700 subsidy was a one-time subsidy or an annual allocation, IIT-B said it wasn't clear. Apparently, the first annoucement of the subsidy was meant for the 11th Plan which lapsed in March this year. Nobody was (at the time of reporting, which is 3-4 weeks ago) clear about the 12th Plan allocation. What do you make of that?

3) In November 2011, MHRD wrote to 400 vice chancellors, all college principals and directors of various institutes in the country asking how many units of the device would their institutions require and how would they distribute it. MHRD provides no update on this and a few VCs and directors that I spoke to, strictly chose to remain non-committal or refused to comment. I even got a mouthful from a VC when I tried to remind him of this project as he didn't seem to remember any such letter from the MHRD.

4) This very IIT-B showed some participation in 2010 as well. I have seen a few email exchanges from June 2010 that show some academics tried to generate interest among fellow folks about this project but even nothing came of it.
Response to Atul Kulkarni:
Nisha Jun 25, 2012
I am baffled at your comment Atul. India has wasted 12 years pursuing a mirage in its head rather than in its labs. If only India was serious about it, it could have actually created a project, a mission or a plan and given it adequate resources, a benchmark a timeline or whatever any mission requires one to do.. Its not even about innovation. Aakash was just something bought in China and stamped made in India. No matter what they do, they cannot make it cheaper than China and its technology cannot be better than what the rest of the world does. There is no chance in hell they can meet the price point for anything that really meets the needs. Not even by twice as much..
Chinmaya Soman Jun 25, 2012
I think the Aakash tablet is something very diff to adjust with common man, as what the minister is unveiling in the launch show of tablet they haven't cheked for the pros & cons before the launch as it very necessary for the launch.
Secondly what the goverment is trying to make some business out of it as it clearly mention in the statement of govt that this is purely non profit based scenario just to improve the education of the country, as poor among poor can take up the current education but the thing is lacking behind is that the person who is unable to have a 2 time meal a day what he ll purchase the cheap tablet for education, as in this is totally back out by the govt.

I had read an article where the production has started in banglore and also delhi public school has distributed the tablet to the students of the school and after that govt demand the return of the tablet back to producer as it contains flaws with it, this is totally a weak system govt who dont know what to unveil and when to unveil as its save the money and manufacturing cost, same case happened with TATA NANO
Madhankumarps Jun 25, 2012
Currently INDIA need Education and food for Poor people. Not a fancy tablets, TVs, etc. Still peoples in INDIA don't have the basic facilities like water, food, cloth and education.Since all the politicians are rich and full of corruption everywhere,they don't meet poor people those who don't have the basic needs. They have to travel and live along with the people. Then only they solve the problems in INDIA, not by increasing export or by giving cheap tablets and free TV's, laptops.
Joshua Karthik Jun 25, 2012
Funny how I spoke to Suneet Singh Tuli in November 2011, when he was a speaker at TEDx Mumbai, and he seemed so confident that the press and the world and the thinking public had it wrong, and that he had it right. He rattled off numbers on stage that seemed to indicate that Datawind had indications of interest for volumes that were 10x the size of the current tablet market. I distinctly remember his insistence, on and off stage, that what they were doing was possible, was done, and that they were one step away from delivery. Sad.
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