Few take up such challenges. But challenges become possibilities only when someone takes them up,” says Professor Prem Kumar Kalra, director, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Jodhpur, Rajasthan, while referring to Aakash, the world’s cheapest touch-screen, internet-enabled tablet computer. At Rs1,400 apiece for students and Rs3,000 for the rest, Aakash put the land of the world’s cheapest car on the world map again when it was launched in New Delhi on October 5.
Kalra’s (55) contribution to the tablet’s development from even before it was an idea to its current status is unrivalled. Consider this: if it wasn’t for his son, a BTech student at IIT Rajasthan, whose thesis became the foundation for the entire project, perhaps Aakash wouldn’t have made headlines across the globe today.
The chief aim of Aakash is to ‘revolutionise education’ by providing an affordable computing device to as many students as possible, especially in the economically backward sections, across the globe. The challenge, therefore, is to provide a product that is on par with other expensive tablets flooding the market, some of which cost about 20 times more than Aakash.
Kalra, who was with IIT Kanpur’s department of electrical engineering before becoming the director of the top notch public university in Rajasthan when it came into existence in 2008, believes that the “challenge” was met despite “criticism and doubts” that hovered around the project since the day it was conceived on paper. Some habitual whiners believe that Aakash’s specs — 256 MB RAM (processing power), an older version of the Android platform and limited applications — may come in the way of making things easier for students. Others feel that the entire exercise is just an ego trip, and apart from the price, there’s nothing worth boasting about.
But there doesn’t seem to be any truth to such claims. At the launch ceremony, sharing the stage with human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, when an excited and proud Kalra proclaimed that, “Behind this event, there is so much life hidden that I can never tell”, he wasn’t either exaggerating or misleading the nation.
Since July 2010, when critics wrote off the government’s ambitious plan of developing a low-cost computing device, to the present day, the journey of Aakash has been, according to Kalra, “a testing time for the entire team to make it a reality, which could change the dynamics of the electronics and computing segments.” The road to Aakash’s success was paved with obstructions of varied natures. In the beginning, if the challenge was to reduce the production cost, today, it is to ensure that the final product is free from all glitches, technical or otherwise.
Karla’s 170-member team of professors and students at IIT Jodhpur is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the final product is not just the cheapest but also cost-efficient.
After being tested by professors and a select group of students, Aakash has now been given to 500 ‘coordinators’ across India. “They will test the product and report back in 45 days. The drawbacks of the device, if any, will then be resolved,” said Kalra. But sending it from IIT Jodhpur to the assembly line of Datawind, the British company manufacturing Aakash, is not the only aim of Kalra and his team.
Professor Vivek Vijayvargiya, one of the core team members who did research for Aakash, reveals that the team is busy designing an indigenous motherboard (which provides the electrical connections by which the other components of the system communicate). Once it’s ready in the next 12-15 months, “we won’t have to buy any hardware from any other country,” he says.
A review of the tablet by a user
‘The jacks should be better placed’
Bhavya Soni, a 21-year-old MBA student of the Central University of Rajasthan, is overjoyed about testing Aakash twice in less than three weeks’ time. In the first week of September, around the time when the tablet was unveiled to the world, he was among the 50-odd students invited to IIT Jodhpur for two days to get the touch’n’feel of the world’s cheapest tablet. “We were given complete freedom to use Aakash. We could slam it on the floor, put it on ice or flames or download any software of our liking,” he says.
In its first avatar, the tablet didn’t appeal much to Soni, who says he used it “as a layman, who doesn’t know much about the tablet technology”. An inferior touch feature and “slow software” (sic) featured high on his complaint list. But they, among other ‘faults’, were “fixed” when the ‘testers’ gave their feedback. Today, Soni is also among the 500 coordinators from different parts of India who are conducting another round of testing on Aakash for 45 days.
“We have been asked to use it as we own it.” This time around, Soni is quite impressed with the ‘modified’ product; he even goes on to the extent of calling it a “phenomenon”. “India’s strength lies in the field of software, but with Aakash, we have proved that we are far ahead of the world even in the hardware sector,” he adds.
Soni feels that the position of the various jacks — for USB connectivity and charging — on the left side of the tablet is a bit odd, and he plans to put that in his feedback to Kalra and his team. Overall, he is more than happy with the performance of Aakash, which he regards as a great product at a great price.