The Troubled History of the 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.
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.