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 Aakashand picks up 1.4 million pre-orders in two weeks.
// 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 Expresssay 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. companyDataWind) 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’vecultivated a reputation for themselves as serial squashers of budding technologies, reassignedroles 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 justannounced 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 troublesare 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.
Barely a month has passed since the release of India’s “$35” Aakash tablet, but its creators already have its successor—a sleeker, more powerful low-cost tablet—ready to launch.
When the Aakash was launched in October, it was greeted with enthusiasm—what potential it holds for a developing market!—followed almost immediately by skepticism—could it possibly work for that cheap? What’s the catch?
Aakash, or Ubislate 7 as U.K. manufacturer DataWind calls it, has a 7-inch screen, runs Android 2.2. It comes with a USB drive and microSD slots. Suneet Tuli, cofounder and CEO of DataWind, tells Fast Company that DataWind will follow through with their plans to sell the tablet commercially in India, at the price of Rs. 2,999, about $60 ($35 was actually the price the government paid—read on). Eventually, he hopes they’ll sell upgraded versions of the tablet in the U.S. and U.K.
But the original designers of the tablet—students and professors who thought up and prototyped the first early versions of the device—are keeping their sights set squarely on the Indian market, while nurturing more ambitious plans for the next version and making low-cost technology accessible to all Indians.
The first versions of Aakash took shape at the Jodhpur, Rajasthan, campus of the Indian Institute of Technology as part of a government-backed undertaking to bring affordable computers to students in India. Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal, who’s been a supporter of science and tech inspired approaches to education before, has been its vocal federal front.
Prem Kumar Kalra, the professor at IIT Kanpur, began engineering the tablet in 2009 with a target price of $50. He brought his work to Jodhpur when he moved to IIT Rajastan to lead the new campus as its director. The Aakash team at IIT is now managed by Kalra, and professors Anupam Gupta and Sandeep Yadav. Together, they advise a band of about 170 students involved in various parts of the still growing project.
The hardware innards of IIT’s first version of Aakash exist already, Gupta tells Fast Company. The IIT team picked parts that would meet some basic performance specs, while keeping the overall cost low. The team had a pre-manufacture proof-of-concept of the tablet by August 2010, but the university lacked the ability to mass produce it. Since the Aakash project was a government supported venture, and IIT a government university, they could only offer up the design to commercial manufacturers that met government guidelines. The tech companies could buy and use the design as is or modify it, though, as long as their final product had the necessary features and would sell at the below $50 price.
DataWind bought the design and then created their version of the tablet. According to the IIT team, it lacks the built-in speaker and video conferencing facility that the original design had. But it runs a more advanced version of Android (Froyo, or 2.2).
Post-Oct. 5 launch, the first lot of about 500 tablets are still being tested by students. The government of India plans to buy another 100,000 tablets from the company for $35, which they will make available to students at an even lower price or for free.
Meanwhile, the IIT team is moving ahead with more advanced Aakash iterations. Aakash 2 carries “a more capable processor more memory, more onboard storage,” Gupta says. It runs Android’s Gingerbread OS. As with the first Aakash, the team will need to offer the design to the most appropriate manufacturing bidder. “Our designs are ready. It depends on when the manufacturer is able to take up the order and finish the next one,” Gupta says. On Friday, MP Kapil Sibal indicated that the next version may be available as early as February 2012. (Though, Gupta estimates that offering up and finding a bidder for their tender takes a minimum of three months, even before manufacturing begins.)
Though IIT engineers have offloaded a significant amount of their production challenge to manufacturing partners, they continue to stay connected to the project. In the days leading up to the original Aakash launch, students at IIT tested the first few units, identifying and reporting glitches (sometimes with suggested solutions) for DataWind to fix. Sivansh, an electrical engineering major in his fourth year, tells Fast Company they found, for example, that the way DataWind had built the device caused the screen and OS to freeze when a microSD card was inserted into the tablet. After feedback from the IIT students, DataWind changed their design so that this is no longer the case.
Post-pilot launch, one IIT team is working on designing Android apps that will be free to download. Their focus is now on modifying educational apps that will run on the budget device while giving students who use the tablet the kind of access to apps that they’d have on a computer. But they’re also looking further, and are planning apps that are tailored to health care professionals and those in agriculture, lead prof Sandeep Yadav says.
The team leaders are also nurturing innovation on the hardware front. A group of students, Sivansh included, are working on creating a new chip that would be both cheap and powerful. “We think that if we have our own chip, the performance will shoot up and the price will come down drastically,” Gupta says. Their goal is for future versions of the tablet will carry this chip, Gupta says.
Missing from equation for IIT is full ownership of its intellectual property—it gives up some of that by farming out manufacturing, and won’t share in the commercial gains once Aakash/Ubislate hits the market. IIT director Kalra says he hopes to address the issue of ownership with future devices that are built at the university. They’d like to invite incubators and investors to start backing the do-good tech so they could see it straight through to the market.
“The long-term objective is to create an atmosphere where we don’t have any company coming and hiring our students,” Kalra says. “They should all become entrepreneurs. That’s a goal which we want to set up on a long term.” As far as how things are working out with Aakash, he says, it’s just the start of many more things to come. “You can’t be happy or angry in the beginning. You can just see the sun is rising, that’s it.”
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