Fast Company

India's $35 Aakash Tablet Comes Apart

Months after India's healthily anticipated $35 tablet was first unveiled, its owners are embroiled in a spat that is raising questions about its future.

A $35 Indian Aakash tablet may turn out to be a pipe dream after all.

In the most recent twist in the development of the unbelievably cheap piece of tech, the Indian government is trying to break a manufacturing stalemate by taking the decision away from the Indian university that created tablet prototypes.

As we wrote in early November, professors at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Jodhpur, along with students at the institute, created the first models of the device, before handing over manufacturing responsibility to U.K. company DataWind. IIT is designing more advanced affordable prototypes, while concurrently testing the first batch of tablets that DataWind has made.

But over the past weeks, DataWind and IIT have disagreed on the final specs of Aakash 1. The difference of opinion, director of IIT Jodhpur Prem Kalra tells Fast Company, involves DataWind skimping on what IIT believed were minimum features. Suneet Singh Tuli, head of DataWind, has rejected the proposed "military grade" specifications but Kalra says they're only insisting on basic necessities for a tablet meant to be used by customers in rural India. DataWind's Tuli says there's no need to build a tablet that can be run over by a truck, while Kalra insists, in his own incindiary way, that his team's priorities are usability and safety. "If you drop it, it should not catch fire," he says. Meanwhile, several reviews of the device, including this recent one from IEEE Spectrum, have dismissed it as clunky and slow.

The recent move by the government could prove to be a butterfingered attempt to break the stalemate. The Economic Times reports that the government's Department of IT could be responsible for picking multiple manufacturers who'll take on production of Aakash 2. In a puzzling second twist, government sources have told the Times of India that two other universities--IITs in Chennai and Mumbai--will join the project as well. However, it is unclear what role they will play.

But there's a chance that the government's decision to hire a third-party tender writer, well-versed in the ways and wiles of commercial contracts, could avoid a future spat of the kind IIT and DataWind are mired in. In that case, this decision could actually streamline manufacturing of the Aakash 2, with the parties involved avoiding roadblocks like this one.

Kalra has been deeply involved with the Aakash project from its early days, and amid this recent fuss, he's keeping a brave face. He says that the decision will allow IIT to be involved, while letting it do what it does best--innovate at the early stage and continue designing. "Our main agenda is to come up with the new devices."

"As far as the first testing phase was concerned, we took that on because it was part of our research agenda," Kalra says. Now someone else has to handle the testing, supply chain, and whole manufacturing loop while IIT continues to research and develop low-cost devices. "That's a good step because we alone cannot do it. But, our research for improving the devices will continue."

In advance of its sales, demand for a souped-up commercial version of the tablet (costing about $50) appears strong. In early January, Suneet Singh Tuli announced that DataWind had seen 1.4 million preorders on its website. The question now seems to be, with all the added performers in this escalating Greek tragedy, what will it take for them to all agree so that Aakash can hit the market?

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and the world. Follow on Twitter, Google+.

Add New Comment

5 Comments

  • Anshuman

    Just like everything else, the Government's intent, rather the lack of it, will ensure that by the time the tablet gets released, it will be as obsolete as to be worthless to even a 5 year old. A recent report over at http://phonearenaindia.com/347... says that even the specs haven't been finalized yet!! 

  • prakrit

    is this paid news?....the students of IIT-Rajasthan have NOT CREATED THE TABLET!!!!!!!!whoever has written this article is greatly misinformed. the device has been developed by datawind. IIT just gave specifications. anyone would understand that the demands put forward by the IIT chief Mr. Kalra to incorporate features like making the tablet waterproof and workable at -20 degrees is insane!.....who uses such devices in the rain? most expensive laptops also do not have such features. .....

  • Per Lind

    As off last week, Thailand is going to build a super tablet for US$ 65, with specifications out of this world, so looks like the Thai government is setting their project up for the same fall! Sad but true. It is usually what happens when you forget the whole purpose of the OTOC project was to help students learn better and to cut growing corruption in the school book industry here!

    Of course we would like to hear more about who is willing to manufacture a US$ 350 spec tablet for $60! There seems to me something rotten in the Kingdom of Thailand.

  • Adhikari

    I wish reporting on Sakshaat that later became Aakash, moving from $10 to $35 to $60 access device on a 7 inch screen while offering a fraction of the $10 promise was a little more insightful, informative and realistic.

    Just because some folks with little experience or track record of technology creation, innovation or product development but a title that should entitle them to a little better have been duping the world by making claims they find unsustainable, journalists do not have to be blindsided.

    The pieces they write must be factual but the picture they paint is from another planet. Your headline looks fine but the story is far from close to that.

    It will be interesting to see how One Laptop per Child that promised to help the Government with Aakash provided they were willing to look at the question sees these developments.

    Satish Jha's piece in The Economic Times on Aakash and Education was a great read. Wish we had some more pieces like that in the media.

    Meanwhile, Thailand's rejection of Aakash in favour of a chinese tablet at about $100, about three times the claimed price should be very instructive.