How the Aakash Tablet Works


John Sculley discusses the earliest tablet platform and the iPad of today in this Curiosity video.
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The story starts like this: In April of 2006, Nicholas Negroponte -- of the famed One Laptop Per Child initiative -- brought his idea to New Delhi, inspiring a senior official in the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to say that India could develop a comparable laptop for one-tenth of the price, $10 [source: Miller]. In both cases, the aim is to bring high-speed information and Web access to students in developing countries, level the intellectual playing field, and help the brightest stars in remote areas find the training and support they need to become the next generation's thinkers and problem-solvers.

Almost immediately after that point, the story starts to split.

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Critics say that the Aakash Tablet project -- which is what this MHRD program would eventually become over the next five years -- is part of a push by the Indian government to prove themselves in the hardware market, expanding their success with software in the sphere of public opinion. The spin on the story becomes something comparable to the narrative surrounding North Korea's doomed nuclear aspirations: an attempt to show global influence and technological excellence.

On the other side, supporters of the Aakash Tablet would tell a different story. One with its roots proudly in the Indian concept of "jugaad," or the quality of making workable objects out of existing technology on a budget. Not bootlegging, or making cheap knock-offs, but an innovative way of looking at things and engineering them to a better purpose. For example, a simplified hand-held electrocardiogram device (the GE MAC 400) that sells for less than half of the cheapest alternative, or a $24 water purifier that uses rice husks, at a tenth of the closest competitor's price, to help save the country's 2 million citizens that die each year from contaminated water [source: Woolridge].

There are other successful examples, all based in the idea of first defining success and then working to reach it. It's a quality the Indian government wishes to integrate into its PR.

As for the Aakash, whose second version debuts in August of 2012, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of these two opinions. In this article, we'll talk about both the high and low points of this contraption, and try to see where it's all leading.

The Importance of the Aakash Project

You can generally assume that any consumer product in your home went through some pretty rigorous testing, development, back-to-the-drawing-board moments and everything else we expect of technology design. The scrutiny is even more intense on a product that not only holds promise for the world's overall development, but is so tied into the Indian government's image of itself. At the end of the day, we have to look at the facts.

According to Anupam Gupta of the India Institute of Technology, of the 3 million students at India's 20,000 colleges, probably around 10 percent have their own computers [source: Rabkin]. Ten percent of all college students. Compare that with the "Back to School" sales at American big-box stores and you'll see why this project is so important. Anything that brings Internet capability to a student population like that is worth celebration, because it will change the world. Success on this project means greater success in more marginal areas across the world, which is of course the aim of global initiatives like One Laptop per Child.

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Part of the original proposal for the Aakash included a subsidy program that would bring the tablets to the students for free -- in 2012, with the second version coming online, the government has amended this promise to subsidizing half the cost, with colleges picking up all or some of the remainder [source: OneIndia]. Still a pretty good deal, as long as the product is worth it. In 2010, it wasn't. But early reports in the summer of 2012 suggest this might be one of those times beta testing really does mean later success.

The Troubled History of the Aakash

While the 2011 version of the Aakash tablet, featured here, had some problems, the development program is steaming forward with new versions, which will hopefully have fewer performance issues.
While the 2011 version of the Aakash tablet, featured here, had some problems, the development program is steaming forward with new versions, which will hopefully have fewer performance issues.
Image courtesy Aakash

In September of 2009, after months of industrial research, prototyping and contract negotiations had already gone into the program, the engineering professor -- and director of the Indian Institute of Technology Rajasthan, where the project is based -- Prem Kumar Kalra joined the project. After several rounds of bids, the Canadian company DataWind finally got the contract with IIT by February of 2011: 100,000 Aakash tablets for $4.3 million [source: Rabkin].

Despite some legal hangups (some of which remain hot even in the summer of 2012, with the Aakash mark II set to debut), hundreds of Aakash tablets were delivered to IIT-Rajasthan for testing in 2011. A third of them didn't start at all, and many of the rest failed simple drop-tests, overheated, or showed deficient battery capabilities. Some unconfirmed reports even noted circuit boards held together with duct-tape.

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If these reports are true, one could easily imagine the kind of middle-management, paycheck-justifying series of questionable decisions that would lead to such a disappointment. Of course, many of these reports come from hearsay and back-channel chat, so we'll possibly never know how much of the first wave of disappointment came from corruption and how much is being overblown. One thing on which most players agree is that the two-point commitment to the low price, and all-Indian development and manufacturing, was a major factor from the beginning.

National pride is a convoluted thing, as any citizen of any country could tell you, and innovation often hits some rough bumps before finally succeeding. But because the claims of the program are so exciting, and the behind-the-scenes trouble has been so complex, the Aakash story has been both transparent -- attracting hysterical supporters and hysterical detractors in equal amounts -- and simultaneously hard to fathom.

So many stories, piling up and contradicting each other, seems to have permanently obscured the project's past, even when it was the project's present. But most of all, it means unreasonably high expectations from everybody involved, including the rest of the world watching. Everyone has watched, with great scrutiny, the ongoing ups and downs of the story of the Aakash tablet -- the least expensive tablet ever devised -- and which still has the potential to change the world.

The Facts About Aakash II

The most exciting element of the Aakash's development, throughout, has been its commitment to staying ugly. Without throwing money and time into design elements -- as a regular consumer product must, to compete with Apple's art objects -- the tablet could be made leaner and cheaper, and get into the world more quickly. The various deadlines, in fact, meant part of the project was allowing for its own evolution: Get the design out into the hands of these students, see how they used the product and what applications they could make for the tablet's Android OS, and feed those results back into later versions.

What this meant in practice was a bulkier tablet, with fewer features, built to withstand abuse at the cost of user-friendliness -- a thicker, less reactive touchscreen, fewer internal processors, and the like -- always with an eye toward the fact that any computer is more impressive than no computer at all. Think about your cell phone from five or even 10 years ago, and compare that with your smartphone now. Even top-of-the-line phones from just a few years ago would now be laughable junk. But just like phones five years in the future, with features we can't even contemplate, you don't know what you're missing when you're working with the best thing available to you.

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2012's upgraded Aakash 2 contains a Cortex A8 800 MHz single-core processor, 256MB RAM and 2GB internal memory, and a 3200mAh battery that claims to give 3 to 4 hours of backup. The ports remain steady -- 2 USB inputs, audio in/out -- and the 802.11 WiFi and GPRS connectivity might be upgradeable to 3G with a separate dongle and data plan. The browser and app market are proprietary for now, but we'll see how long that lasts, given the ingenuity of the students who will own this tech.

At 350 grams (0.8 pounds) and 7 inches (17.8 centimeters) with a screen resolution of 800 by 400 pixels, and running on Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), the retail price is $60, subsidized down to $35 for students [source: Shah]. The project developers have extended the tablet's programming capabilities to help with evolving the device, and the country's reports now claim that DataWind should be able to put 10 to12 million devices in the hands of students across India by the end of 2012 [source: Chima].

The Future of the World's Cheapest Tablet

Students in India pose with Aakash tablets.
Students in India pose with Aakash tablets.
Image courtesy Aakash

In the end, only time will tell if Aakash is a success. There have been plenty of claims about this product, both from boosters and detractors, that make its future hard to divine. And of course, since the project began there's been a revolution in blogging and the 24-hour tech news cycle that make every press release or crumb of knowledge -- about any gadget at all -- seem world-ending or world-promising.

But IIT-R and the MHRD both seem to have learned from their mistakes in the past -- the July 2012 unveiling in Mumbai was a much more subdued affair, for starters, than that for the Aakash I -- and have perhaps learned the value of managed expectations since the original 2011 flop. For a development that would mean so much to both the infrastructure and future -- but also the heritage and spirit -- of the country, it only makes sense that all eyes are on the Aakash II.

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In the final analysis, though, whatever happens next is a blessing, because it's all on the road toward getting students and thinkers in remote areas access to the largest deposit of human knowledge ever created -- the Internet. A few bumps on the road -- a road that began, remember, fewer than 5 years before the first models were presented for testing -- is a tiny price to pay for that kind of leap in global human knowledge.

Some might even say that the idea of the Aakash is more important than its success: Just like the OLPC program inspired the Aakash, the idea of a $60 laptop -- whether built by the Indian government or by innovators elsewhere -- is only a few decisions away from being a reality. As transistors shrink and education becomes more widely available, in fact, it's an inevitability.

Author's Note

The $100 Laptop (XO) project has long been a favorite of mine, and I'm glad to see success for new ideas and iterations in this kind of project. At a time when transistor and informational speed is getting faster, and the gap between rich and poor is getting wider, anything that puts more information in the hands of more people is a necessary good. I truly believe that free access to information -- and the ability to improve ourselves without depending on authority figures or poverty gatekeepers -- is the key to a harmonious future. Projects like this are among the best and most important ways we're bringing that future to pass.

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Sources

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