India’s Cheap Aakash Devices Fail to Reach Education Market

Kapil Sibal, the Indian minister of human resource development and minister of communications and information technology, was excited last October when he announced the Aakash, a WiFi enabled touchscreen device roughly the size of a paperback with 4GB of storage and the capability of handling video conferencing. It was essentially India’s version of an iPad, with one important difference: the price of $35.

The announcement was important because of what it represented — the potential to revolutionize education in the developing world. In Western schools we are becoming used to increasing integration of modern technology, but the cost means that such tools are still out of reach for many students in the developing world. The Aakash represented a near future tech boost that would see this inequity erased.

However, the Aakash, and with it the dream of a technological enhancement for global education, appears to have died in development. April Rabkin, writing for Fast Company, reports on the demise and tries to investigate the reasons behind it.

Rabkin goes to the Indian Institute of Technology-Rajasthan where the project was being handled by its new director, engineering professor Prem Kumar Kalra:

The longer I spend at IIT Rajasthan, the clearer it becomes that absolutely nobody wants to talk about the Aakash. Kalra, who had agreed to an interview, is suddenly busy. Few students or professors admit to any personal knowledge of the project; one afternoon, after asking too many questions, I’m told to leave the premises.

It appears that the tender for production of the Aakash was won by a company called DataWind. DataWind’s track record was worse than non-existent; they had a single gadget which completely flopped, but their bid was unbeatably low and price was the entire point of the project. DataWind said that they would produce 100,000 devices for $4.3 million; or $43 per device, and so followed Sibal’s press conference. Hindsight showed his announcement to be a little hasty as problems with DataWind’s device were evident from the first moment that they started to arrive at IIT later that month.

According to one source close to the university, a third of the devices didn’t start at all. Most of those that did either failed the basic drop test, overheated quickly, or saw their screens freeze until the battery ran out. A peek inside the box revealed circuitry and imported components held together by electrical tape. “It wasn’t up to the mark. It was slow and would get stuck at times,” says Ashutosh Mittal, one of the students on the testing team. “We tested many devices and most were faulty.”

Kalra has recently been replaced as head of the Aakash project by Professor Deepak B. Phatak of IIT Mumbai, at the request of Minister Sibal. It is unclear whether the project can be saved however as Rabkin found that no one, least of all Sibal, was prepared to talk about it.

As for DataWind and IIT-Rajasthan, they are currently in dispute with DataWind claiming it is still owed $100,000 and the school claiming that DataWind owes them half a million.