IndiaTechOnline special By Anand Parthasarathy
February 21, 2012: Four months after the high-profile announcement of an "Indian" Tablet PC at an unbelievably low price of around $ 50 ( Rs 2500), the government's arrangements with the manufacturer -- UK -headquartered, Indian-owned Datawind -- has fallen apart:
On Monday, Indian Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal, admitted to some problems with Datawind. He that he had 'got into the act' -- while the Information Technology Ministry ( which Sibal also heads) had on its part, got two entities controlled by it -- the Pune-based Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and the Bangalore-based public enterprise, Indian Telephone Industries ( ITI) -- 'to the act' to produce a "truly indigenous and Indian product".
We might be allowed a little confusion here: we thought Aakash announced in October last year was a truly indigenous product -- in fact Datawind announced that the product was conceptualised by the Indian government but was being manufactured at two plants in India.
It appears Datawind hoped to manufacture 100,000 units of Aakash -- but it received orders piecemeal and had delivered some 10,000 to Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur, the nodal design agency. After the first lot was delivered, there were some user complaints of unreliability, after which the government is reported to have upgraded the quality assurance specs till they almost resembled those that were in vogue for military-grade computers.
Aye, there's the rub! You cannot have your cake and eat it too: If any agency of the Indian government expected a commercial manufacturer to deliver a product at bargain basement prices, you cannot simultaneously expect the product to be of "milspec" -- certified for rugged environments. This is neither realistic nor fair -- and while we do not have all the facts, it will have surprised no one that Datawind was unable to deliver the impossible.
So much for the short, short, story of Aakash Mk1. What about the new version that government now proposes to manufacture with its captive expertise -- C-DAC and ITI? One of the reports on Tuesday speak of two other public enterprises -- ECIL and BEL -- as the eventual plants to roll out Akash Mk II.
C-DAC is an R&D institution whose core expertise lies in supercomputers and high performance computing platforms like the Param series which it has delivered with distinction. It never professed to any special skills in designing ( or in this case, redesigning ) portable PC platforms. ITI is the government's nodal factory for telecom equipment, in its heyday the biggest makers of landline hand sets, a market that has vanished now. ECIL and BEL are the top two electronics manufactories in the public domain -- but the last time one of them (BEL) tried its hand at making a portable computer - the late, lamented Simputer -- the cost and time over runs virtually killed the product.
The clever people at IIT Jodhpur will doubtless put their heads together and come up with an improved specification addressing the shortcomings of Aakash-1 and a new bill of materials which they will pass on for the anointed manufacturing agency. But by declaring that the new version would be made at the same price point as the first one, government only exposes its disconnect from all manufacturing market realities. Even something which will end up costing twice the asking price of Aakash -1, seems like an unrealistic target, especially if the specs are being beefed up, performance and reliability-wise.
Let's face it Aakash always sounded too good to be true. We withheld judgment because it came from a manufacturer who had a proven reputation for turning out Internet access devices of mass consumer interest, at aggressive prices. With an order for a million or more, such a maker might -- just might -- have delivered a reasonable device catering to the basic connectivity needs of the target user -- no frills, no "milspecs". Once the same government withheld the bulk order and paid for driblets of 10,000 a go, there was no way anyone could deliver the required quality.
By the same logic, it looks unlikely that any public sector plant in India with its larger overheads can deliver on the renewed promise of an improved Aakash. Sometimes the sky ( Aakash) is the limit and it is better to recognize when we have reached it -- and get real.
Links to media coverage:
Datawind out of Aakash project
C-DAC, Indian Telephone Industries to work on improved version of the tablet "There have been some problems with Datawind, I must confess. Therefore, I have got into the act. IT ministry has got C-DAC and ITI into the act and I am going to ensure that this product is fully indigenous and truly an Indian product," he said.
A spokesperson of Datawind said the company “does not have any communication from the HRD ministry about this development.”
Upgraded Aakash should be available at same price: Sibal HRD minister Kapil Sibal said that Aakash, the world's cheapest tablet, will be fully indigenous and its improved version is likely to be launched by the government at the same price.
On whether the new tablet will be available within the same price range as that of the earlier product, he said, "Yes that's what we hope. It is to be upgraded."
Sibal ejects DataWind, to go solo Govt plans to retain the original price while assembling the tablet on its own; new version to be totally indigenous.... to meet the immediate need for the tablet, which will be taken care of by Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) and Electronics Corp. of India Ltd.
Union minister for human resource development (HRD) Kapil Sibal said that it’s severing ties with Canada-based DataWind Ltd, which was first mandated to provide 100,000 units of the device. Even though DataWind’s initial mandate was to provide 100,000 tablets, it has only provided 10,000 to IIT-Jodhpur. Even after the company rejected the additional specifications sought by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Jodhpur, Rajasthan, which was in charge of procuring and testing the device, the government did not give up on the project. The additional specifications were similar to those for rugged HP (Hewlett-Packard Co.) computers used by the US military.On the other hand, it claims to have sold many more in the open market. According to its official website, the upgraded Aakash, or the UbiSlate 7+, has bookings till end-March. http://www.livemint.com/2012/02/21001622/Sibal-ejects-DataWind-to-go-s.html?h=B