But low-cost computing yet to come of age.
Nearly two years after it announced its intention to launch a low-cost computing device, the Indian government today demoed Aakash, now the world’s lowest priced computing/internet device at $46 (Rs 2,250). Other cheap tablet PC initiatives by private companies include ‘Magnum’ by LACS, a division of the Bangalore-based Devraj group, priced at $99. Beetel of the Bharti group priced its ‘Magiq’ tablet PC at Rs 9,999 ($200) while Reliance Communications’ Reliance 3G Tab costs Rs 12,999 ($265). Aakash, launched by communications and IT minister Kapil Sibal today, is designed, developed and manufactured by DataWind, in partnership with IIT Rajasthan, under the HRD ministry’s Mission on Education Through Information and Communication Technology (NME-ICT).
The government is buying 100,000 tablets from DataWind at an all-inclusive price of $46 (Rs 2,250) a unit. However, under NME-ICT, the target price for 10 million units is Rs 1,750 ($35) a unit. DataWind eventually plans to bring it down to $10 (around Rs 500) a unit.
The Aakash is a seven-inch Android 2.2 touch screen tablet that has an HD video co-processor for a multimedia experience and core graphics accelerator for faster application support, as also DataWind’s UbiSurfer browser. The device includes Wi-Fi connectivity and support for optional 3G modems. Two full-sized USB ports are integrated into the unit allowing pen-drives, external keyboards, webcams, dongles and other inexpensive peripherals to be attached, according to DataWind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli. DataWind is also offering a leather keyboard case with the package.
The pilot project to test the device on the field will be done by distributing 3,300 devices in each state to post-secondary students. The state coordinators will be identified and field-testing on check-listed parameters will be done. Based on the feedback after 45 days, areas of improvement and innovation will be pondered over and changes brought accordingly.
Although the Aakash tablet will be available only to post-secondary students through NME-ICT, DataWind will offer a commercial version called UbiSlate in late November for Rs 2,999 (inclusive of all duties and taxes). That product will include a cellular modem, allowing it to deliver web access anywhere there is cellular connectivity, and also to function as a mobile phone. Internet access across mobile networks will be priced at Rs 99 for 2 GB.
Sibal said the government was "also doing bulk deals with the National Institute of Speech and Hearing, Kerala". "The ministry is also seeking collaboration with content developers to create world-class content. The move will bridge the gap and bring access to the marginalised and people having limited access to resources," said Sibal. He said the government was in the process of drafting a legislation for that — the Electronic Configuration Bill — to be tabled in Parliament in the coming Winter session.
While low-cost computing initiatives are welcome, analysts say, history reveals they have quickly run out of steam. In May 2005, an Indian technology firm Encore Software announced a Rs 10,000 Linux-based mobile computer. Christened Mobilis, it was powered by an Intel processor, had 128 MB of SDRAM, featured a 7.4-inch LCD screen, roll-up keyboard, touch screen with stylus input, six-hour battery life and a case that opened up as a desktop stand. “This marks India’s leap into the future of PC technology…,” said Kapil Sibal who was then minister for science and technology. Not much has been heard of the Mobilis since.
And does anyone remember the Simputer — the handheld low-cost computing device introduced by Encore (along with PicoPeta)? Over the last eight years, the Simputer has been used by the governments of Karnataka and Chattisgarh and for automobile engine diagnostics (M&M), and tracking of iron-ore movement (Dempo), and (in some cases) by the police to track traffic offenders and issue traffic tickets.
Low-cost computing devices could effectively, and eventually, bridge the “digital divide”. Analysts, however, caution while the move of the government to introduce the $35 computing device is good, what is needed is a strategy to mass market these devices. Besides, the country needs adequate internet (broadband) penetration to make such models a success. The success of a computing model, add analysts, revolves around a friendly operating system (OS), an application-ready device, and a robust distribution model.
Perhaps, the first real answer to the challenge of low-cost computing for kids was the XO (which runs open-source Linux) from Nicholas Negroponte — founder of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. The original target cost was $100 (about Rs 4,600), but this escalated (including shipping costs) due to design upgrades (more memory and a faster microprocessor) and because the production volumes would not enjoy economies of scale. OLPC has sold two million XO units in 40 countries till date.