The disastrous Aakash project has expunged India's dream of developing the world's cheapest computing device. And questions remain unanswered
Imagine for a moment you're a scientist looking at a stubborn problem - in this case, a mass of a few hundred million poor, uneducated people. To lift them out of poverty, friends who study economics tell you the first thing you ought to do is offer them access to affordable education. And that if you can, you'll achieve three things. Create a better world; create an incredibly compelling business; and perhaps get a stab at immortality.
There are two ways to go about the problem. The first, you reckon you ought to think through the problem. That means look at the world around you, tinker with ideas, figure what works best, and build a cost-effective solution that eventually helps achieve the objectives stated above.
The second is a pig-headed one. Look at how others around the world are attempting to crack the problem; call in the global media; tell them a tablet-like device with a touch screen can be built and sold at USD 35; another matter altogether you’ve got no clue how to go about it or why; and then try your damndest best for a stab at glory. In any case, as long as the problem is cracked, who gives a damn?
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now obvious the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) chose the pig-headed option. What else explains the fact that almost two years ago, the ministry announced it is in the middle of developing a low-cost computing device for students that would cost just USD 35? And that when complete, a global tender for five million units of the device would be floated? The blitz that accompanied the announcement had the world in a tizzy.
A little less than a year later, in February 2011, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Jodhpur, which had taken upon itself the onus to decide what specifications this animal would run on, put out a global tender to build the first 10,000 units. In return for these services, the institution received Rs 47 crore from the government. DataWind, a 12-year-old Canadian company with subsidiaries in the UK and India won the contract, produced a prototype built to spec, and Kapil Sibal, the minister in charge of MHRD, unveiled Aakash, the world’s cheapest computing device.
To put it mildly, the prototype was a disaster. Some phones in the market worked faster than this contraption. The battery couldn’t last two hours if a user tried to play video files on it. The touch screen, well, wasn’t “touchy” enough. And things got ugly between IIT Jodhpur and DataWind. Sibal finally stepped in and in early April this year announced that an upgraded version of the device will be made available by May.
As this story goes to press, we’re in the middle of June. Aakash-2 is still being tested by C-DAC in Thiruvananthapuram; IIT Bombay has been appointed the new nodal institution to drive the project and officials there claim 100,000 units will be supplied for pilot tests by October this year. On its part, DataWind claims the 100,000 units have already been supplied to the institute. Nobody seems to have a clue what the truth is. What we know is this: Similar computing devices with superior capabilities are being brought out of Chinese factories by the thousands; India seems to have lost the plot; and what could have been an incredibly compelling story is now a stillborn.
The race to build the world’s cheapest computing device started when the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project was announced in 2005. Headed by Nicholas Negroponte, best known as the founder of MIT’s Media Labs, it was a non-profit entity and funded by global majors like AMD, Google and Nortel among others. The central theme to this idea was to build a laptop that would cost no more than USD 100.
But Negroponte was not a pig-headed man. He was clear that while keeping costs low was important, it wasn’t the central objective. Instead, it was to make sure technology and resources could be delivered to schools in the least developed countries. He wasn’t hung up on the USD 100 number. He knew that costs could go up by USD 30-40 or even USD 100. For various reasons though, a laptop at USD 100 was the number that stuck in the minds of people across the world - including NK Sinha, joint secretary at the MHRD.
While the OLPC project has gone through many ups and downs including funders backing out, NK Sinha proposed the MHRD develop a laptop at USD 10 - one-tenth of the price the OLPC had proposed.