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Aakash: Same old story

IBNLive Blog - March 26, 2013

The ambitious Aakash project had always been of interest to me. It was one of those things that I genuinely believed could change the face of Indian technology especially in education. The Union Minister for Human Resource Development then, Dr Kapil Sibal, proudly pronounced that on March 11th 2011 that "this will be a day that history would remember", on the day of the launch of the tablet. Now its almost on the verge of being dropped and the reasons behind them sounds déjà vu

The hype around the world's cheapest tablet was so immense that one would have believed a path breaking event was occurring; if something like that occurred that is. Hype is warranted when there is quality, in this case, it would have been much better had the quality lived up to the hype of the product. When you go to the United Nations with the manufacturer Data Wind, you better have a solid product and according to some unverified reports that does not seem to be so

Right from the start, there seems to be a deficit of transparency in the entire process. It amazes me that the auction for producing this product would produce a winner who has a relatively unknown company based out of India? The other bidders such as Bharat Electronics have gone on to reciprocate the same model successfully for the Rural Development Ministry as mentioned in a recent report. How did a bidder who has in hindsight produced efficient tablets lose out? What were the parameters used for the bidding process? For a project of such stature, why weren't the big IT companies ready to invest, is it because they thought it was impossible?

In true Indian style, the state was beating around the bush when issues popped up with the parent company for these tablets. First, there was finger pointing at the manufacturer for inability to deliver the products. Second, there was the idea to produce Aakash 2, the revised product for the original tablet. Even this one did not make a significant change. During the entire time, there was nothing but denial on the lapses in the tablet. It would have been much more gracious and transparent if people would have owned up on the issues with the tablet as it got worse. It has come to a point where it is almost likely to be suspended after these issues.

Aakash was predicted to be a game changer for Indian education system. I believed in this when I initially reported on it, however, the numerous tantrums thrown by the parties concerned has made it a chaotic joke. The product from being India's jewel is likely to become India's joke.

Unless something drastic happens, this product has become everything that India shouldn't stand for in reality.

Sriram Balasubramanian could be contacted at (http://www.facebook.com/srirambala.fanpage)

Datawind responded on the write-up above with some clarifications.

DataWind's response on some of the issues raised:

In your blog, you admit that large IT companies did not bid on the project, primarily because it was impossible for them. You are right. The IT industry represents excesses that have resulted in Apple's quarterly profit becoming larger than India's annual educational budget. DataWind created technological and business model breakthroughs to allow a price point that was unimaginable. The fact that the price point is path breaking is undeniable.

Unfortunately the blanket statements on the lack of educational content reflect a lack of understanding about the product and the content/application ecosystem around it. Thousands of video based lectures covering tens of thousands of hours have been created on NPTEL, dozens of applications for programming and mathematical simulations have been created and tens of thousands of ebooks have provided - all of this by the government under the NMEICT project. Additionally, there is a significant amount of free content in the public domain that now becomes accessible to students with the Aakash: e.g. the Khan Academy. I hope you'll recognize that simply providing access to the internet is one of the most powerful ways of empowering the masses.

The project was awarded after an internationally advertised tender. Only companies that met the eligibility criteria were allowed to proceed - DataWind qualified. The technical evaluation was conducted by an independent committee of 18 people. All bidders were obligated to provide 100 samples. DataWind provided 100 samples, BEL provided none. BEL showed-up with two prototypes, which didn't work - but they were still shepherded through the technical evaluation. Finally, their financial bid was at $ 64, compared to $ 49.98 by DataWind. This 28 % price differential is huge. Why would you suggest that the project be awarded to a bidder that submitted no samples and who's price was 28% higher?

The processor speed went up 4x to a Cortex A8 - 1Ghz (same category of processor as the original IPAD), RAM doubled from 256MB to 512MB (double that of the original IPAD), flash memory was doubled from 2GB to 4GB, resistive screen changed to capacitive screen, OS increased from Android 2.2 to 4.0 - price dropped from $ 49.98 to $ 41.40.

This article can also be viewed at http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/srirambalasubramanian/2990/64434/aakash-same-old-story.html

 

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