Raspberry Pi, Aakash: The Tale Of Two $35 Devices

Two portable computers aim to revolutionize education and access to technology across the world. As they begin pre-sales, here's a look at their rocky roads to reality.

The makers of two high-profile new devices, India's Aakash tablet and Raspberry Pi Foundation's Model B both chose the same target price for their low-cost creations, and set out to change education with innovative technology. But while the two devices share some fundamental similarities, each has a future that is looking dazzlingly different.

The $35 Tablet Timeline

// May 2009
Raspberry Pi Foundation officially registered.

// Early 2010
IIT J's Prem Kumar Kalra and team begin building a low-cost prototype in earnest.

// October 5, 2011
Minister Kapil Sibal unveils the Aakash at a press conference. Pilot tests continue. "There are 100 million Indians who use the Internet who but can't afford the cost of the connectivity or device," Suneet Singh Tuli tells Fast Company in October. "As a product for accessing the internet, the hope is that [Aakash] will act as a strong equalizer in delivering a better quality educational experience. It's not a magic pill."

// December 15, 2011
DataWind opens pre-orders for Aakash and picks up 1.4 million pre-orders in two weeks.

// January 5, 2012
Raspberry Pi Model B early models hit eBay, sell for thousands, while commercial models go into production.

// January 17, 2012
Differences of opinion between IIT J and DataWind surface. "These are minimum standards which they cannot accept," Kalra tells Fast Company.

// Late Jan/Early Feb 2012
Kapil Sibal transfers the responsibility of choosing the manufacturer and drawing up a tender of specifications from IIT J to other government bodies. "It will definitely make things more efficient and save time," Kalra tells Fast Company in January. "It will be done by the public sector who has legal teams and resources."

// February 21, 2012
Kapil Sibal announces that they have had problems with DataWind, but that they can still bid to manufacture version 2.0.

// February 29, 2012
Ten thousand units of Raspberry Pi Model B go on sale and sell out in a matter of hours.

// March 2, 2012
Unnamed sources tell the Indian Express say IIT J will no longer be involved with the Aakash project, but responsibility will be moved to another campus.

Aakash is a low-cost tablet, and Raspberry Pi Model B is an ultra-cheap, customizable computer. Both tech innovations have education and economy as their central goals. Both have big potential, too. Aakash could fundamentally change the way Indian students and most of rural India connects with the Internet. The Raspberry Pi, directed at budding computer engineers in (for a start) the U.K., could alter the way the next generation thinks about coding and building in the computer universe. Early demand for both devices has been strong. The Raspberry Pi Model B launched Wednesday, sold out, and crashed suppliers' websites. When a version of the Aakash went on sale, it met with an equally cheerful response (complete with website crashes), hitting 1.4 million preorders in two weeks.

Aakash was first out the door, with version 1.0 launching at a generously publicized high-profile event last year. But while future versions wait in the wings, developments over the past few weeks has brought progress for Aakash 1 to a grinding halt. Manufacturing is stalled as the tablet makers (Canadian/U.K. company DataWind) and designers (IIT Jodhpur) disagreed over the tablet's minimum requirements and price. Also, the government body overseeing the project (India's Ministry for Human Resource Development), who've cultivated a reputation for themselves as serial squashers of budding technologies, reassigned roles and responsibilities and recently decided to find a new manufacturer for the next round of tablets.

While the government dawdles on, competition for a low cost educational tablet for India has caught up. Indian Telecom giant BSNL just announced three low-price tablets, starting at $70. They're not alone—AcrossWorld Education, partnering up with Delhi company Go Tech will start selling the A-Tab, an Android tablet, to schools and colleges in March. 

Meanwhile, the initial government order for the 100,000 Aakash tablets from DataWind remains unfilled (only 10,000 have shipped). But the tablet may see brighter times outside India—Angolan telecom provider Movicel has signed a purchase order for 100,000 3G customized 7-inchers.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation, also a non-profit like IIT J, seems to have avoided the jam Aakash finds itself in (at least so far) by handing off manufacturing to their two suppliers and staying out of their way. They don't have the added bother of government intervention, have kept a clear of super-sized goals, and spent 6 years developing before launching even just the first of their two designs. (One criticism of the Aakash project has been that the launch of the tablet was premature, and the tablet troubles are symptomatic of a device that's not quite ready.) 

Raspberry Pi's target market is also a little different. First in line to buy the Model B will likely be hobbyists and DIY tech enthusiasts, who'll want to rig up the bare-bones device to perhaps play music or maybe stream TV. The Pi foundation hopes it will stretch to include school kids, who will be swayed by the simplicity of the computing platform and its inherent customizability (you even have to bring your own keyboard) and approach computer science and coding as swashbucklers. Proceeds from the sales of the Model B will go back to the foundation, to do more outreach for computer science education, something that's seen promise in early tests with live 12-year olds.

Eben Upton and his team at Project Pi have figured out how to keep their goals in sight while solving the problem of price and scale. Their licensing agreement, the BBC observes, helps them funnel back proceeds from the sale of the device into educational outreach, and their status as a non-profit has encouraged donations and contributions that has gotten the project off the ground. The ability, freedom, or prescience to set things up similarly has so far eluded the Aakash team.

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

[Image: Discover India]

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