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A file photo of Union human resource development minister Kapil Sibal during the launch of Aakash. Photo: Satish Kaushik/Mint (Satish Kaushik/Mint)
A file photo of Union human resource development minister Kapil Sibal during the launch of Aakash. Photo: Satish Kaushik/Mint
(Satish Kaushik/Mint)

Aakash: Cheapest tablet far from real

If there is any nation that deserves the credit for making the cheapest computer, in more sense than one, that is China

Vivek Wadhwa (Mint, 26 March) and some others have been eulogizing India’s low-cost computing project regardless of its merits.

Aakash is an example of how the government of India is not only far from equipped to make technology choices or policy, it’s refusing to even learn the lessons that stare it in the face.

The government can implement the only way it knows. It has never managed to do any project of mass significance on time with any acceptable quality or within budget and it’s unlikely to do it now in the case of Aakash.

Because there is no project there at all. It is a mirage where the government is neither designing a technology or product nor is it manufacturing the device. It has failed to even write the specs of a product that has become so commonplace that small-time vendors can think of assembling it.

Assembly follows only when there are workable specs and components that help meet the product goals. And in almost seven years of its drive to produce a low-cost computer for education, the government of India failed to create a workable specification for a price that will meet any good product criteria.

Though he has hogged all the limelight, Kapil Sibal did not originate the idea. The low-cost computer was imagined in 2006 and Sibal joined the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) in 2009.

The government did not know how to start on that journey. It imagined that the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or even the next tier engineering institutions could create a low-cost computer in no time. Little did it realize that India had no track record of either technology or product creation. So what the government began doing was something a high school senior in the US would not be proud of submitting as a product. Even they are supposed to imagine something that extends the knowledge frontier, in howsoever small a way.

The premise of the low-cost computer named Sakshat, and we must not forget that to keep things in perspective, was that what Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) can do at a certain cost, India can do at one-tenth of that. And that IIT students could design such products without having to go through a learning curve. No one knew that the product-creation cycle is a serious business and takes a huge amount of investment, learning and time to perfect even for the best of global product creators such as Sony, IBM, H-P, etc.

So, rather than learning from the world how to create a product, India wanted to teach the world that it could wave a magic wand and there will be a product that America could not imagine or design and China could not manufacture. A bit like a high-school student’s claim to go beyond the knowledge of a Nobel laureate who created the discipline that was not yet taught outside of graduate schools.

So, rather than creating technologies or products, the government thought if it told the world it will buy 100,000 computers, the cost will dramatically come down and vendors will line up to produce a laptop to its specification.

Alas, no one came forward for a couple of years. Then it had no choice but to encourage those who had little experience of making any product whatsoever. In the process, a small company from overseas felt that it could procure the components from China and assemble it in India and may be the government will be willing to subsidize it to meet its targets.

There was no question of technology or product creation. The government wanted to have someone simply slap together a processor and a few applications in a plastic shell that could look like a cheap tablet.

That proved difficult for there was little experience for doing even that. In fact, any product creation cycle does take 12-18 months to get to the beta stage the first time around. That is when there is an ecosystem available. India had none of that and there was no one to help move up the learning curve.

Transforming education was a far cry and, while it may have been a by-product, was not even on the agenda other than as a talking point.

Sibal leveraged the credibility of India’s software success story to convince the world that the project was doable and unveiled the prototype of a $35 hand-held, touch-screen computer in July 2010 and the world took notice, though mostly with disbelief.

Comparing it with the iPad was a bit like comparing the Tata Nano in 1999 with the Tesla of 2012 at one-hundredth of the price.

India has been failing at developing cheap computers for a long time. Some may recall the hype around the Simputer all over the world more than a decade ago, without any product in sight. Then there was an effort to make Mobilis that got India blacklisted in Brazil. Sakshat was such a disaster that the ministry had to change the project overnight to Aakash. And Aakash 1 was such a dud that within months the government announced Aakash 2 and a dozen years of work have not managed to provide 100,000 laptops or tablets as yet.

Anyone with any sense of what a tablet for poor students must look like would know that they need something robust that works regardless, is rugged and runs applications intuitively in ways that learning becomes easier and affordable.

An ideal Aakash may do so. But that would require people with great deal of experience to come together to ask the right questions and leverage their experience to address them the right way.

Anyone who saw and tested Aakash, unless driven by a jaundiced view, simply found it wanting as a product. It was not even a good beta because the government wanted to package too much for too little without investing a rupee in research and development. The vendor was right in responding to the specs. But the specs would not work if the spec writers had no idea about how to create, rather than simply buy, a product.

That is not the way technologies are created. Ask any company that does it, even Indian companies that did it, and they will laugh at the suggestion of making products that way. I went to every major electronics manufacturing company in India and they were surprised at the foolishness of anyone who was advising ministry to drive it.

Having tested Aakash 2, I can certify that the gap between that and an iPad is what you will find between an Ambassador Mark 1 and a Honda Accord. But the Ambassador worked for India well after its original manufacturers had moved seven generations forward. When product life cycles become shorter and people have choices, that model is unlikely to work.

Aakash is an embarrassment that India did not have to go through but for want of expertise in developing public policies that may help the poor leapfrog to join the times we live in.

Sibal has made India a laughing stock and virtually every policy pronouncement made by him suggests he may be a great court room warrior but that does not translate into a reasonable public policymaker.

The reason for this failure is the same education system that such patchy approaches are supposed to fix and transform. A rote learning model is unlikely to produce people who can imagine in step with the frontline visionaries and creators of the future. It’s a bit like a school dropout claiming to be able to perform perfect brain surgery after watching a surgeon a couple of times, something I was horrified to hear from my domestic help once.

The fact is there is no Aakash project at all. There is a purchase decision for a product that does not exist and for which, let alone designing a product, the government did not manage to show specification writing expertise either. All that IIT-Bombay professors tried doing was crowdsource specifications. That underlined the gaps in India’s product-creation experience and they appeared like huge, disconnected holes.

Aakash is not a price-setter. It’s simply purchasing a Chinese product, labelling it “made in India" and selling it at a small margin. Clearly, if there is any nation that deserves the credit for making the cheapest computer, in more sense than one, that is China. All that India is trying to do is hog the limelight and mislead the world that it has the capacity to imagine, design and manufacture something that it actually bought from the rejects of the Chinese market.

Aakash did not lower the price of the tablet. It costs more than the price at which it is purchased in China. China lowered that without asking the government of India about it.

India has already leapfrogged the PC generation—just that only 5% of its people have done so while 95% remain in the pre-PC era. Sorry, more than two-thirds of India remains in the pre-Gutenberg era. The task at hand is to transform that. By losing a dozen years in running after the mirage of a cheap computer, India may have done its poor a great disservice just as it has shown that it has not yet learnt to learn from its mistakes either.

Satish Jha is chief mentor, Indian Centre for CSR, and chairman, OLPC India Foundation.

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