The Human Resource Development Ministry’s project, a low-cost tablet computer meant for students, has been plagued with problems since it was first announced. In early 2009, what was supposed to be a “ten-dollar laptop” was unveiled, produced jointly by the Vellore Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Science, and IIT Chennai, with some private-sector effort in the mix. This followed the ministry's hubristic decision to decline collaboration with the longstanding project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called “One Laptop Per Child”, which had produced a rugged, durable, low-cost laptop — but one which a Ministry statement called “pedagogically suspect”. The laptop unveiled in February 2009 — designed to quite unrealistic standards, given the claimed target price of $10 — soon morphed into a prototype tablet, which HRD Minister Kapil Sibal held aloft while addressing a couple of press conferences in the summer of 2010. From being a “$10-dollar laptop” it had become a “$35-dollar tablet”; a launch date of January 15, 2011, was promised. That date came and went; meanwhile, HCL Technologies, which was supposed to be building the laptop, was off the project.
It was almost a surprise, therefore, when “Aakash”, costing upwards of Rs 2,500 and made by the Canada-based Datawind Technologies, went on sale online in December 2011. In two weeks, 1.4 million tablets were booked. Datawind claims it will be able to sell 5 million tablets a year, once three new assembly plants are built. But there were concerns about quality, and the number of features the tablet made available to its users. In response, the Ministry announced last week that “we are enhancing the specifications on the basis of feedback we have received from the first version of Aakash. So we want to make sure that the upgraded product caters to the need of customers.” This was accompanied by news that would not gladden Datawind’s owners: “In order to cater to the huge demand, we need several manufacturers to manufacture Aakash.” It has also been reported that the letter of credit extended to the company might not be extended beyond this month. Another iteration of the tablet — Aakash-II — has been promised, one without the problems observed in the previous incarnation.
This wayward history reflects the broader problems associated with it. The eventual product falls between two stools. It is not cheap enough to become used universally; but neither does it have enough features for those who expect a device capable of navigating all parts of the world’s increasingly complex web of information effortlessly. The state’s interface with the private sector has failed to produce the device expected; it is turning to public-sector research to fix the problems, which is unlikely to inspire a great deal of confidence all round. The argument originally made by MIT, for greatly increasing the development and use of cheap computers by school-going children, continues to be powerful. But it looks increasingly doubtful that this project is up to the task.