Dear Mr Sibal,
I am so relieved to read in the media that Aakash 2 will cost the same as the older one. Even though I (and others who tried) could not buy a single Aakash unit for love or money, the price is nevertheless important. Just as it was for the Tata Nano, the R1 lakh car that isn’t selling at any price.
Perhaps ?cheapest? isn?t quite good enough for a technology product to work in the market? But I get ahead of myself here.
I am sorry that your honeymoon with manufacturers Datawind is over. Not unexpectedly, may I add. So, the Aakash 2 will be developed and made by C-DAC and ITI. Even if those venerable organisations do not have the design experience or capacity to make mass-market consumer computing products?but that is another story.
Is it possible, Mr Sibal, that, as with your valiant battle against the evil Facebook and Google, you?re again tackling the wrong problem?
May I suggest that the problem with the Aakash wasn?t the manufacturer at all? The product itself (and perhaps the category, too) was the wrong horse to back. For it is, at multiple levels, an anachronism.
Your noble objective of ?a fully made-in-India? product is itself an anachronism. Nobility doesn?t win a technology product race. Not in India, the US, China, or anywhere else. You cannot build the best or most competitive products and services by artificially limiting the design pool or supply chain to national boundaries. Technology products and services today draw on a global supply chain. Get used to it, sir.
There is strategic value to a made-in-India space programme (even if it draws heavily on globally-available know-how and technology, as it should) or supercomputer (ditto). Not so for a commodity mass-market tech product category.
By the way, the Aakash is as Indian-made as single-malt Scotch. The one I opened featured off-the-shelf parts: Conexant system-on-chip with ARM processor, Hynix memory, standard display and touch overlay, cheap battery. But I digress.
Second, the Aakash is too limited in scope and features for its objective. Kids in government schools will have trouble using it: not least of all due to its two-hour battery life and the fact that our government schools don?t have desktop sockets (heck, most don?t even have desks). Improving battery life to six or eight hours is a non-trivial task that would take longer than the generational life cycle of such a product.
Third, where are the applications? Both Apple and Google created an ecosystem of apps along with their tablets and platform launches. You could have leveraged some of that, but your designers chose to limit the device to a phone platform, Android 2.2 Froyo, and cut off access to Android Marketplace (GetJar as a replacement doesn’t cut the mustard). Yes, one could go browse Khan Academy videos on YouTube, but I somehow don?t see basic school teachers going that far out of the box.
Fourth, it isn?t easy to build to a rock-bottom price simply through sourcing and discount-shopping. That shows up in the product. The Tata Nano required years of serious R&D, innovation, invention, and patents, if they didn?t want to sell a car whose fenders would fall off. The Aakash hasn’t been through that rigour of development and testing. The touch overlay pops out, the battery is barely held into place inside, and I couldn?t put all the screws back in because the threads slipped. Will it survive rough usage by kids at primary school who are not used to handling technology? I think not.
I don?t suggest that the Aakash is a write-off. Judging by the response and interest, there is a market for a sub-$99 tablet even with limited capabilities. Perhaps as a second or third device around the house, or a kid?s learning device at home if you don’t want her banging away on your iPad?given the apps. Or even as a special-purpose data capture device on the field, if battery life and ruggedness can be taken care of.
But it does not fit the bill for a device that will transform primary education in India.
Frankly even I (a die-hard advocate of gadgets for all) cannot suggest a device that will transform primary education, without fundamental changes in teacher training, pay and infrastructure. But if I had to put my bets on technology, I would pitch for smarter classroom technology, and greater access to connected PCs. If forced to pick a product for the child to own, I’d vote for the e-book reader, which, at R5,000 or so, is rugged, has a great battery life and, most of all, has ready content?every book published can be easily ?ported? as a soft copy to an e-book reader.
And then there?s the question of what a government?s business should be. Designing and manufacturing products competing with Apple and Google? No, sir. I know our neighbouring country?s military is making cheap iPad clones, but you will agree that Pakistan is no role model for India. Instead, your government could help fund, guide through policy and provide a market.
The Simputer flopped. If you pour enough money into Aakash, you can make sure that a few million units will sell?and lie around as paperweights, fading into obscurity, until a few years later when another government questions the loss of a few hundred crores to the exchequer.
Therefore, Mr Sibal, I hope you will see sense and lay off the Aakash, whatever version, and get your government back to governing.
A concerned citizen and technophile
The author is chief editor at CyberMedia and can be found on twitter.com/prasanto and pkr.in. Views are personal