The tech world has been abuzz about reports that India is developing it's own ultra low-cost PC, peaking with its supposed "unveiling" yesterday. But the Sakshat laptop turned out to be nothing at all like the official hype had promised. Nothing at all.
In fact the "laptop" appears to be nothing much more sophisticated than a specialized digital storage hub/net access point for educational media. A deal has apparently been struck between the project's leaders and educational publishers Macmillan, Tata McGraw Hill, Prentice-Hall and Vikas Publishing which will see student-directed materials stored on the device that can then be downloaded and printed out on a standard laptop. And while that's all very praise-worthy, the machine itself is simply a 2GB drive with wireless (and wired, or so it appears in the only image available) networking capabilities.
So much for "India's answer to the OLPC project."
How did this happen? The hype around Sakshat got some very high level support: Quotes like: "At this stage, the price is working out to be $20 but with mass production it is bound to come down," from Secretary for higher education R. P. Agarwal, certainly added weight to the rumors. The hardware was developed as a collaboration between the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, which both lend a suitably "high-tech" flavor to the project. And by touting it as "the world's cheapest laptop," the Indian media stirred up a megaton of fuss. Is it even possible that "laptop" was an inappropriately misleading piece of translation?
Look at the difficulties faced by Nick Negroponte's XO PC in the One Laptop Per Child initiative—technical slips, refinements, and other problems continually pushed the price of the machine upwards, and now version 1 actually costs $199. Shooting past the $100 target by 100% was bad for public relations, and the XO PC has had its share of ridicule. In the light of the XO PC project's history, the supposed Indian goal of a $10 laptop-like machine seemed simply ridiculous. Even Negroponte was skeptical, noting that the cheapest of display screens would at least cost more than the Sakshat's $20.
Then consider the netbook revolution, championed by one of the world's leading CPU makers—Intel—and leapt on by eastern manufacturers to create a raft of new, cheap, ultraportable computers. Between all these manufacturing experts even the cheapest (and still useful) netbook costs much more than ten times the $10 Sakshat price.
The main issue is that before and even at the launch event there were no hard and fast specifications set out. Not about hardware, the software the machine would run, no Wi-Fi specs, nor even any reliable data on its size. And compounding this, the goals of the project have never properly been revealed: If it had come with a mission statement saying, "The Sakshat project will deliver a small-format portable computer, with screen and keyboard, destined for eduction and costing $XX" then everyone would've understood what the outcome may have been.
It's of course admirable that the Indian government and technology companies wanted to develop their own low-cost educational machine. After all, this is a country that has orbital satellite launching capability where simultaneously 85% of the population was living on less than $2.50 per day (in 2005 at least.) And trying to improve the education of so many impoverished children is a wonderful goal.
But hyping the Sakshat has resulted in a lot of confusion, a global interest that will possibly turn to scorn, and it's also done nothing to help the very children the scheme aims to assist. At least the device is not finalized—it apparently needs further development before it gets its first installations in around six months. Maybe between now and then the "laptop" will evolve.