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Aakash tablet: Differences between its maker and its procurer are not helping

Sunny Sen     February 21, 2012
At Rs 2,500, it is the cheapest tablet in the world. On October 5, 2011, Union Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal held it before the world and declared that it would "end the digital divide".

Sadly, much has changed since that October day. If anything, Aakash, the brainchild of the Ministry of Human Resource Development , is only causing deep divisions. Over the next few years, the government wants to deploy 220 million units of Aakash as part of its National Mission on Education through ICT (information and communications technology). In the first phase, Montreal-headquartered Datawind, bagged an order for 100,000 units of the device.

However, serious differences have emerged between Datawind and the Indian Institute of Technology, Rajasthan (Jodhpur), over the tablet's specifications. IIT Rajasthan was mandated by the HRD ministry to set the criteria for and handle procurement of the tablet.

Datawind claims that it complied with the criteria specified in the July 2010 tender. On October 23, 2011, Ashish Chaudhary, Jitender Saigal and Ved Prakash, scientists with the Regional Electronic Test Laboratory in Delhi, cleared the device officially. (The institute functions under the aegis of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology.) They did so after testing it across 13 parameters, including temperature, functionality and drop tests.

The tablet runs on the Android 2.2 Froyo operating system, which is outdated. It has 256 MB of RAM, a 376 MHz microprocessor and three hours of battery life. In effect, it is a barebones device. Opening the Google homepage, for instance, may take a while. Using multiple windows to browse is out of the question.

In a January 12 letter to the HRD ministry, Pankaj Mohindroo, President of the Indian Cellular Association (ICA), highlighted the device's shortcomings. "The use of less than 1/1.2 GHz processor in computing and tablet devices is unheard of now," it states. "Anything which is being launched in 2012 is primarily on Android 3.0 or 4.0 and necessarily carries a 1/1.2 GHz processor, which is essential to have a good browsing experience."

Mohindroo also came down hard on the 'resistive' touchscreen of the device, saying it was "painfully slow". Defending their product, Aakash's makers say it is a beginner's device meant to provide children with internet access. How interested a child will be in a low-speed device is anybody's guess.

But the fault may not lie with the makers. Clearly someone messed up while drawing up the specifications. "The specs are extremely poor," says Rajeev Karwal, Founder and CEO of Milagrow, which also sells tablets in India.

Thus far, Datawind has already delivered 10,000 units to various institutions. In all, it claims to have received 2.4 million orders (including commercial orders) for Aakash and an upgraded version of the device. Alarmed by the negative feedback from every quarter, including IIT students who user-tested Aakash, IIT Rajasthan went the other extreme. It revised the criteria, demanding that the device be shock-proof, waterproof and meet United States military specifications, including crash tests in vehicles.

Datawind has cried foul, stating that it has adhered to the original requirements. "It will be impossible to make a tablet with those (US military) specifications at that price. IIT knew about the specifications while calling for the tender," says DataWind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli. "Were they sleeping all this while?" BT made several attempts to contact Professor Prem Kumar Kalra to get IIT Rajasthan's response, without success. On February 2, media reports suggested that the HRD ministry was reviewing the institute's role in the project. Tendering for the second phase could be handled by a public sector undertaking (PSU). The process will begin by the end of March.

This time around, the specifications are expected to be more robust. Tuli blames the ICA for some of his problems. He alleges that the industry lobby, whose members include Nokia and Samsung, is against Aakash's 'Made in India' tag.

Mohindroo dismisses Tuli's claims as "utter nonsense". However, his January 12 letter did lobby for "large, integrated global players" such as "Samsung and Nokia" to handle the project.

It recommends that only companies with a turnover of more than Rs 500 crore, net worth of at least Rs 100 crore, and a minimum of 200 service points across the country be made partners in the project. It also noted that "a national project of this size should not be in the hands of a single partner".

Other low-cost tablets, made by companies such as Lava, Reliance, and Olive, have prices ranging between Rs 7,000 and Rs 12,000. But Karwal of Milagrow asserts that given Aakash's specifications, it is "extremely easy to make a tablet at that (Rs 2,500) price".

Even with its limited specifications, some analysts believe Aakash can achieve a great deal, regardless of who develops it. "There are cheap smartphones available, but none meets the need to uplift education or health care like Aakash," says Mahesh Uppal, Director of Com First, a telecom consultancy.

"If it takes off, Aakash will lead to semi-conductor manufacturing in India, which is yet to happen," adds Poornima Shenoy, former President of the Indian Semiconductor Association.

However, while the specifications for Aakash 2 are expected to be more demanding, it will be difficult for a vendor to maintain the Rs 2,500 price. Nevertheless, analysts believe the device can have a huge uptake.

"A project such as Aakash can do a lot for primary education," says Hemant Joshi, Partner at Deloitte Haskins and Sells, a consultancy. "But the prerequisite for Aakash is better WiFi/internet connectivity," something that is sorely lacking in India.

Datawind has already readied a second-generation tablet, Ubislate 7+, for the Aakash 2 tender. Its features are a notch above Aakash and Tuli is confident that it will trump the competition. "We can create a product at a price lower than anybody else." Just how true that is will be known only when the tenders are opened.


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