Home / Opinion / Online Views /  In praise of Aakash

The Indian media has been trashing the government’s attempts to transform education through technology. True, the government deserves disparagement for bureaucratic red tape and corruption. But the Aakash tablet is something for which the government should be praised. Yes, its implementation was deeply flawed and mired in partisan politics, but the vision was sound. Aakash has already achieved more success than its originator, Kapil Sibal, had promised. It has accelerated a technology revolution that will not only transform education and commerce but will also disrupt the world’s PC industry.

When Sibal unveiled the prototype of a $35 hand-held, touch screen computer in July 2010, it captured the attention of the world. This cost one-tenth as much as the cheapest laptop and offered the functionality of a $500 iPad. Given that Sibal had made a similar announcement two years earlier and had failed to deliver, there was reason for scepticism. Indeed, when I met Sibal at a state department-hosted dinner in Washington, D.C., in October 2011, I said to him cynically: “So minister, will this mythical computer that you have been promising ever become a reality?" He insisted that it would, and gave me his own Aakash tablet.

I showed the device to reviewers at Silicon Valley’s top tech blogs and they were impressed by its potential. They had never seen a tablet that provided such functionality at this price. The device was, however, very basic and barely usable. It proved that a tablet could be built for such a low cost, but it clearly had a long way to go.

That is the way new technologies always are. Version 1 of any product is a proof of concept. It usually takes three iterations to get it right. Almost all of Microsoft Corp.’s products go through such cycles and Apple Inc. nearly went bankrupt and had to reinvent itself before it could ship products for the mass market.

Aakash 2 has a processor as powerful as the first iPad, twice as much RAM, an LCD touch screen which displays full-screen video, browses the Web, displays eBooks, and plays video games. It runs on Google Inc.’s Android operating system, which now runs on three quarters of the smartphones and about one half of the tablets shipped worldwide. Compared with the iPad 3, an Aakash 2 tablet looks primitive, but for people who have never used a computer, it is a marvel.

The Aakash project is embroiled in petty politics—as is the fate of almost every government project in India. Indian Institute of Technology, Rajasthan, which developed the original specs for Aakash, has been demonized and Canadian manufacturer Datawind, which developed the technical breakthroughs that made the Aakash possible, has been subjected to caustic criticism and innuendo.

But Sibal will have the last laugh. After all, the government didn’t invest billions in research and development; it simply put out a tender for the purchase of 100,000 tablets at a price of 2,263 each. That amounts to about $5 million.

Aakash has lowered the expected base price of tablet technologies from the $400-500 that is common in the West to $35-50. This would not have happened on its own. For example, if you look at Apple, its new technology versions deliver only minor upgrades in features—and the price remains constant. Now, Acer Inc. is set to announce a $99 tablet and Chinese vendors are competing with Datawind to bring their production costs below $35. This will wreak havoc on the global PC, laptop and smartphone industries because profit margins will be decimated while the number of cheap tablets in use increases exponentially and prices continue to drop.

According to Cybermedia Research group, India shipped three million tablets in 2012—with 1.09 million units being sold in Q4 alone. Datawind CEO Suneet Tuli told me via email that his company had shipped approximately 500,000 units of a commercial version of Aakash. He said that within three months of the first product launch, Datawind had taken the No. 3 spot in the Indian tablet market. Tuli expects his prices to drop by 30% this year and to include a cellphone and unlimited data access for 100 per month in the next version.

India currently has around 900 million cellphones, which were typically purchased for $30 or more. As the cost of tablets reaches this price, the replacement devices for cellphones will be tablets. I will not be surprised if the number of tablets sold in India exceeds six million in 2013, 20 million in 2014, and 100 million in 2015. It is very likely that India adds more than 500 million new Internet users by 2018 and has one billion connected users by the end of this decade. Consider that the country has only about 15 million broadband connections today. In other words, India is set for an Internet boom that is in the order of a magnitude greater than what the US experienced during the late 1990s.

India will leapfrog the PC generation. Other countries have gone from desktop to laptops and are now moving to tablets. India doesn’t need to do that. It also doesn’t have to invest in cable wires and fibre optics for local Internet access as did the US—it can move directly to cell towers for broadband.

With Internet-connected devices, the poorest of the poor will be able to gain access to the same ocean of knowledge as is available to the elite the world over.

They will be able to educate themselves, learn about the latest advances in agriculture and farming, find out the real value of the goods they produce, and take advantage of e-commerce to purchase and sell their goods. They will be able to exchange ideas with the world. They will be able to tell the world about the bribes they paid and the abuses they suffered at the hands of corrupt government officials—just as the Indian middle class recently did in response to the horrendous cases of rape and government corruption.

India will experience major transformation in this decade as its people become connected and networked.

Vivek Wadhwa is vice-president, research and innovation, Singularity University; fellow at Stanford Law School, and a director, research, Duke University.

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