5th October 2011: India launches low-cost tablet Aakash


Aakash, a low-cost tablet computer produced by British company Datawind, was launched on 5 October 2011 in New Delhi. Initially marketed as a $35 tablet, it was slated to be distributed to Indian students by the union Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry as part of an ongoing effort to make affordable computers easily available to educational institutes and boost the country’s ambitious e-learning programme.

Calling it the computer and Internet of the masses, Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli in an interview in 2011 said, “I want to make lots of profit but I realise that the way to make it is to go after the billion Indians who are cut off [from advances in technology].”

The government in July 2010 had unveiled a prototype of the tablet that was later given out to 500 college students to get their feedback. Also called Ubislate 7+ commercially, Aakash was the first in a series of Android-based devices promoted by the Indian government.

However, the project ran into rough weather and there is a question mark over its future. Among other problems, Datawind was unable to meet the initial order to supply one lakh units.

Aakash had an ARM 11 processor, 256 MB RAM, seven-inch touch screen, Android 2.2 operating system and two USB ports. It was made with a view to support major document, image, audio and video file formats.  

Two commercial versions, UbiSlate 7 tablet PC (priced at Rs. 3,000) and the Ubislate 7+ tablet PC (priced at Rs. 3,500) were released on 11 November 2012. It was stated that the tablets would be available to students for much less.

The original Aakash that was released on 5 October 2011 had an overall size of 190.5 x 118.5 x 15.7 mm and weighed 350 grams. Other features included a 366 MHz processor, graphics accelerator and HD video co-processor, a micro SD slot with a 2 GB micro SD card (expandable to 32 GB), a 3.5 mm audio output and input jack, a 2100 mAh battery and Wi-Fi capability. It also featured a browser, and an internal cellular and Subscriber Identity Module modem. Its power consumption was 2 watts, with an option of solar charging.

Subsequent launches included the Aakash 2 or UbiSlate 7Ci, which featured a 3999 ARM Cortex-A8 processor, 512 MB RAM, 4 GB storage (expandable to 32 GB) and 3,000 mAh battery; and  Aakash 3 or UbiSlate 7C+(EDGE) whose specifications included a 4999 ARM Cortex-A8 processor.

HRD Minister MM Pallam Raju hinted in March 2013 that all hopes should not be pinned on the Aakash series. “Aakash is a tablet which will enable you to access the content. But there are others who have come up,” he said, adding that students would pick up whatever served their purpose better and was affordable. “We will continue to work on the product as long as development of the product is concerned.”

However, the very next day, IT and Telecom minister Kapil Sibal, who as HRD minister had championed the cause of Aakash, said the project was “alive and kicking”. He added, “It will provide the platform for the future and not just for children but for all citizens of India.”  In August 2013 Sibal said the government had finalised specifications of the next version of the low-cost tablet, Aakash 4, and it would be ready by January 2014.

Aakash 4 is expected to have features such as 1 GB DDR3 SDRAM, 4 GB plus integrated flash storage, slot for micro SD card 2.0, support for USB mouse, keyboard, and cards; 3.5 mm jack, a seven-inch LCD screen, Wi-Fi connectivity, Bluetooth and camera.

But news of the expected launch of Aakash 4 was met with scepticism, a marked contrast to the excitement that greeted the promotion of the first Aakash in 2011. The tepid response was not surprising, given that very few of the previous versions of the tablet managed to reach the hands of the intended users — students. Add to this were several technical complaints.

More important perhaps is the fact that—and this is also a lesson in how quickly the technology market changes—in the two years from the first launch of Aakash, tablet prices have fallen dramatically and both buyers and students will take a hard look at other options available in the market.

The makers and promoters of Aakash should take a cue from the Simputer, a low-cost computing device introduced in 2002 by the not-for-profit Simputer Trust that was formed by Indian scientists and techies. The buzz was that it would be a game-changer in low-cost computing. But nobody remembers the Simputer now.

However, even if Aakash 4  or further versions of the tablet are not successful, it can be argued that its introduction and the excitement it generated—with labels like the ‘world’s cheapest computer’ frequently used—made it seem more feasible to bridge India’s digital divide. That, in the end, may be Aakash’s lasting legacy.

Also on this day:

1923 — Kailashpati Mishra, BJP leader and governor of Gujarat, was born.

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