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Devangshu Datta: Blue skies thinking on the digital divide

The purpose of giving lower-income students access to the digital world is obscured over the provenance of low-cost tablets

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The underlying purpose of the project has been obscured by controversy. After long delays and technical hiccups, we are now seeing jingoism rear its ugly head in a “Made in China” versus “Made in India” row. Media reports allege the first lot of 10,000 units of tablets were fabricated entirely from Chinese parts. The supplier, Datawind, says the units were assembled in China, while claiming the touchscreens are made at Datawind’s Montreal facility.

Aakash started in September 2010, when the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) asked Indian Institute of Technology Rajasthan (IITR) to set the specifications and tender for 100,000 low-cost access-cum-computing devices, to be distributed to students at subsidised prices. The intention was to help bridge the digital divide by giving lower income students access to the digital environment.

Datawind, a UK-Canadian company run by Suneet Singh Tuli, won the contract. Manufacturing of the tablet started in February 2011. The blame game started when the first batch of Aakash was tested and rejected by in August 2011.

By October 2011, when Aakash officially launched, IITR had rejected three batches on various technical grounds. Rollout was expected by December 2011. Datawind also reportedly received a large number of online orders for the commercial, non-subsidised version, branded UbiSlate.

However, Aakash received bad user-reviews. It was slow, it over-heated, it had low battery life, the touchscreen was unresponsive, and so on. By November 2011, the government took note of the poor feedback and decided on an upgrade.

New specs were set. The launch schedule for Aakash-2 was March 2012. The price points would remain the same. The tensions between Datawind and IITR became public when new test criteria were formalised. Datawind said these were too stringent to be met by a low-cost device. In February 2012, the project was transferred to Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

Aakash-2 eventually launched in mid-November 2012 after another upgrade of specs in August 2012. The government will buy at $42 (~2,260) per unit and sell to students at ~1,130 ($21), offering a 50 per cent subsidy. The commercial version, UbiSlate 7Ci sells for $78 and Datawind claims to have received over four million orders.

Datawind has to deliver 100,000 units to IIT by December 31, 2012. The company says it subcontracted assembly to China due to tight schedules. It has also subcontracted with manufacturers in Hyderabad, Mysore, Noida and Bangalore for a claimed 3,000 units a day.

Later, scale-up will come into play. The hopes to subsidise a cumulative 220 million devices. This is more than thrice the entire global sales of tablets (67 million) in 2011. Tenders may be issued to multiple manufacturers, once procurement crosses the million-unit mark.

Amid the cloud of rumours, charges, counter-charges, delays and flag-waving, remember one salient detail: Aakash is supposed to help bridge the digital divide that handicaps millions of low-income Indian students.

This isn’t only about social equity, important as that is. It is necessity. If a large proportion of India’s educated workforce is uncomfortable in digital environments, competitiveness is affected. Further delays will mean more millions stranded on the wrong side of the divide.

It is ludicrous to quibble over “made in ...” labels, while millions of students suffer. Yes, it would be nice to produce Aakash indigenously, but it will take years to develop hardware competencies to handle such volumes. China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, and before them, Japan, took many years to develop their respective hardware competencies, despite committed policy support in each nation.

A thriving hardware industry isn’t only about intellectual property, or technical ability. It is about labour laws, land acquisition, financing, and so on. Given India’s known bottlenecks in those areas, it makes sense to procure components, wherever available, at the right price-volume.

Just by conceptualising Aakash, the HRD ministry has done something useful, even if it has bumbled the execution. It highlighted the existence of a potential fortune at the bottom of the digital pyramid. In hindsight, the ministry could have shortened the process if it had just offered a cash subsidy to students, who bought tablets with the desired specifications. Chances are a dozen tablet-makers would have started a price war to grab a share of this market.

Several tablets are commercially available at the $75-85 price point where Datawind sells UbiSlate. There will be more tablets developed in this range. Prices will also fall, if the related handset industry is any guide. Indian handset makers compete fiercely competitors in the the low/mid handset market and they’ve moved up the ladder from assembly to assembly-cum-manufacture in the past five years.

Several Indian handset-makers have entered the low-end tablet market. They have also started tying up with content developers to offer packaged educational content. This is where the HRD ministry must use its muscle to good effect.

A cheap tablet is useful. But there must be a supporting ecosystem of educational apps and online content, if Aakash-2 is to become a real force-multiplier. The ministry has to find ways to harness India’s vaunted software competencies to fill this need. It also has the onerous task of educating educators, and retraining them to adapt their pedagogic methods to digital environments.

Eventually, whatever the outcomes, Aakash will make a great case study for anybody who wants insight into the way policy initiatives work, or stumble. Right now, all one can do is hope that there are no further glitches between the pilot project and the scale-up.

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