Mumbai: Despite India’s poor track record in sustaining low-cost computing devices such as the Simputer handheld and Aakash tablet, the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government is taking another shot at introducing such a device.
Funded by the National Mission on Education through ICT (NMICT) that is run by the ministry of human resource development (MHRD), the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) has developed a prototype of a 10.1-inch netbook that costs less than $100 or Rs.6,000 including taxes.
The device is aimed primarily at programmers, students and teachers in government-run colleges and institutions. But unlike its earlier experiments with the Aakash tablet that failed to enthuse users, the government plans to get the netbook tested thoroughly to “demonstrate its usefulness” before asking institutions to adopt it.
As a result, IIT-B plans to give 1,000 such devices to students across the country as part of an estimated six-month pilot programme, beginning 1 November.
“This device, similar to Aakash, is part of our plan to have low-cost computing devices, especially for those who have to do input work like writing a programme,” said Kannan M. Moudgalya, professor of chemical engineering at IIT-B and the co-principal investigator on the Aakash project.
“This (the device) is almost like a laptop. We want to see if this can meet the requirements of our students who need a device for programming. It has good battery life. We have seen HD TV playing with Wi-Fi access.”
IIT-B is yet to name the device that is Wi-Fi-enabled, has a full keyboard with touchpad, weighs just 700g and is equipped with a 1GHz dual core processor, 1GB of memory and 8GB Nand Flash—a type of storage technology that does not require power to retain data.
The device has no hard disk or CD drive, but comes with two USB ports, a network port, an HDMI port that can help connect the laptop to a television or projector, an SD card, a front camera, and a 5,000 MAH battery.
IIT-B plans to do the pilot in various settings. Some projects will take place in schools, some in colleges, others in polytechnics, e-governance projects, and maybe in rural and urban settings, and “we will see if we can provide an ecosystem to support it. More importantly, we want to be in a position to access the machine remotely, so that if a person in a far-flung area gets stuck with the device, we can repair it from anywhere”, said Moudgalya.
“We already have about 300 remote centres for our Aakash project, and they are the people who can contribute to this project, too. We expect at least 100 people from around the country to work on this device,” said Moudgalya.
If a user chooses to install Android instead of Linux on the device, he will be able to download any Android app from Google Play or choose to install those from aakashlabs.org that include a DiaSlate—drawing slate for school children, proxiMITY—access to the institute’s lectures, and Converse—an app that allows for video, audio and text conferencing, according to Moudgalya.
Low-cost initiatives, primarily tied to education, have thus far run out of steam because of lack of content and distribution, according to analysts.
For instance, introduced in 2002 by the Simputer Trust—a non-profit organization formed by seven Indian scientists and engineers—the Simputer was touted as a device that would change the low-cost computing ecosystem in the country. The project failed and the device has faded from public memory.
In 2011, former human resources minister Kapil Sibal aggressively promoted the approximately Rs.1,500 Aakash tablet. Supplied by Canada-based Datawind Ltd, the first version faced criticism from students and experts for poor quality and performance. Aakash 2, launched a year later also failed to impress.
There was no Aakash 3. The next upgrade, called UbiSlate 7C+, was sold by Datawind.
Aakash 4, which is yet to see the light of day, is expected to be a much-improved version with inbuilt support for Wi-Fi, bluetooth (also a wireless technology), support for external devices including a storage device, keyboard, mouse, data connectivity (2G and 3G) dongles in India, a scratch and impact-resistant 7-inch LCD (liquid crystal display) screen and extended battery support.
The project, earlier with IIT-Jodhpur, is now being handled by IIT-B.
“DGS&D (Directorate General of Supplies and Disposals) is in the process of finalising its release,” said Moudgalya who also heads the project.
Meanwhile, the world has moved on. About 70% of the tablets sold in India currently retail below Rs.10,000, compared with just 10% when Aakash was commercially made available in October 2011. And full-fledged laptops are available for less than Rs.12,000.
When asked to comment on the specs of the netbook, Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner of research firm Convergence Catalyst, likened the device to “thin clients that are available in Taiwan and China”.
“It does not have too much of memory and is more like a Chromebook and most important, it will lack file management system. It’s good as a cloud-computing device. If the content, etc. is tailored for this device, it will be an optimised device.
“If the government or universities are bearing the cost of the device, then the move makes a lot of sense since this device will do one thing and do it rightly, and it won’t be open to misuse for other purposes. But if cost is pushed on to the user, it would seem to be an inadequate device,” said Kolla.
Globally, too, low-cost computing has not managed to hold on to price targets.
The XO from Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop per Child project, was initially priced at around $100. The laptops, which now sell in 40 countries including India, are priced in excess of $200.