by March 2, 2012 0 comments

I was relieved to read Kapil Sibal’s statements in the media that Aakash 2 will cost the same as the older one. Even though I (like others) could not buy a single Aakash unit for love or money, the price is important. Just as it was for the Tata Nano, the Rs 1 lakh car that isn’t selling at any price.

Perhaps “cheapest” isn’t quite good enough for a technology product to work in the market? But I get ahead of myself here.

Oh, and it’s the end of the Aakash road for manufacturers Datawind. No surprises there. The Aakash 2 will be developed and made by C-DAC and ITI, organizations which have no design experience or capacity in the mass-market consumer-computing products space-but that’s another story.

The real story is that Mr Sibal is (as with his battle against Facebook and Google) again tackling the wrong problem. Aakash’s problem wasn’t the manufacturer. The product (and perhaps the category) was the wrong horse to back. It is, at multiple levels, an anachronism.

Sibal’s noble objective of “a made-in-India” product is an anachronism. Nobility doesn’t win a technology product race. Not in India, USA, China, or anywhere else. You cannot build the best products by artificially limiting the design pool or supply chain to national boundaries. Today’s tech products and services draw on a global supply chain.

By the way, the Aakash is as Indian-made as single-malt Scotch. The one I opened featured off-the-shelf parts: Connexant system-on-chip with Arm processor, Hynix memory, standard display and touch overlay, cheap battery. But I digress.

The Aakash is too limited in scope and features for its objective. School kids will have trouble with it: not least of all due to its two-hour battery life and the fact that schools don’t have desktop sockets. (Heck, many don’t even have desks.) Improving battery life to six hours is a non-trivial task that would take longer than the generational life cycle of such a product.

Third, where are the applications? The Aakash, with Android 2.2 Froyo, doesn’t give you access to Android Marketplace, but instead gives you the severely limited GetJar. Yes, one could browse Khan Academy videos on YouTube, but I somehow don’t see basic school teachers going that far out of the box.

Fourth, it isn’t easy to build to a rock-bottom price simply through discount-shopping. That shows up in the product. The touch overlay pops out, the battery is barely held into place inside, and I couldn’t put all the screws back in because the threads slipped. Will it survive rough use by primary schoolkids not used to handling tech? I think not.

Yes, there is still a market for a sub-$99 tablet even with limited capabilities. Perhaps as a secondary device around the house, or a kid’s plaything at home if you don’t want her banging away on your iPad-given the apps.

But it does not fit the bill for a device that will transform primary education in India. I don’t see a tablet doing that without changes in teacher training and pay, and infrastructure.

If Sibal pours enough taxpayer money into the Aakash, he can make sure that a few million units will sell-and lie around as paperweights, fading into obscurity, until a few years later when another government questions the loss of a few hundred crores to the exchequer.

So here’s hoping Sibal will see sense and lay off the Aakash, and get his government back to governing.

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