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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Advantages of Aakash

So, we now have the world's cheapest tablet. Congratulations to all who made it happen.

I am curious about one thing. What is innovative in Aakash. I am yet to see a paper, or a reference to a patent, or any design document which describes the innovation part of Aakash. If any of my readers know something in this regard, please let me know.

The alternate theory of Aakash is the following.

Most hardware vendors (like most manufacturers in most industries) think of products for the richest 1 billion of the world. The margins are decent with this sector of population, and if you are sure that your product will sell a few million pieces, you go for it. This market segment would prefer good quality, good specs, multiple things in one box, and so on. Of course, once the vendors are convinced that the 2nd or 3rd or 4th billion also will buy their product if the price is right, they will bring the lower versions of the product, which is happening in the phone market today, where the growth market is 4th or even 5th billion, who can hardly afford anything fancy. But it has not happened in other markets. The lower-end laptops, PCs, and now tabs are at best being targeted at the 2nd billion today.

How do you get a tab whose price point is accessible to the 3rd billion or even 4th billion. You either do an innovation, which others haven't thought of. (And, by innovation, I include the possibility of a technical innovation as well as a financial innovation - may be some company will subsidize the device in exchange of some advertisement rights.) Or you convince a vendor that there is sufficient market for the product at the 3rd or 4th billion level. And one way to convince a vendor is to tell him that I am prepared to give a written order of 1 lakh pieces, and will further purchase a million devices from the market. And then you sit with him to figure out what is bare minimum configuration, which is useful for the purpose it is intended for. And if the bill of material cost is more than the price point you have announced publicly, then quietly wait for 3 months, 6 months, a year, or 2 years, for the prices to come down, and if they stubbornly refuse to come down to the level that you desire, throw in some subsidy as well.

But whatever may be the mechanism of getting this price point, I am quite sure that this will have a strong positive impact on higher education in India. And because of this reason, I must congratulate MHRD for thinking of such a device and taking the project to its logical conclusion.

Why am I sure that this will have a positive impact. Well, institutions in India are generally averse to bringing in technology in the teaching learning process. We don't know who is going to maintain those things. We don't want to be seen as elitist by insisting that students own some devices. And a lot of faculty isn't good at technology adoption anyway. All solvable problems, but who has the motivation. But institutions in India are also very aware of what MHRD wants, and would like to please the minister and his secretaries. It is obvious that if MHRD is putting in a huge amount of money and wants this to be a visible project, it is going to ask Directors to write reports on how Aakash is being used, how it is making a difference, etc. And a few Directors will want to make sure that they have something to tell MHRD. They will ensure that we pluck at the least the low hanging fruits. Can we do at least some sort of video recording of the lectures, and make them available on our servers for students to go through them later on. Can we ask each course instructor to prepare a playlist of youtube videos relevant to that course, which students can see on Aakash in their free time. Once a few institutes show that technology adoption is not a serious problem, and it really helps in the teaching learning process, I am sure others will join in, and we would have improved the quality of higher education in this country.

And, I am sure, if indeed we have a few million devices with students, private sector will bring in innovation so that the students can make use of these devices more effectively.

A similar experiment is underway in Tamilnadu where the state government is giving away laptops to all students. An excellent  blog article by K Satyanarayan on implication and details of the TN government scheme is a must read for those interested in this topic.

Update on 9th October, 2011:

In today's newspaper (Sunday Times, Kanpur edition), there is an interview Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind, the manufacturers of Aakash. He talks about three "innovations" or reasons that have kept the price of Aakash low. The first one is that they shift the burden of processing from the client device to backend servers in the cloud, that reduces the cost of processor. (I read this as an admission that the device is not meant for any computation, but is just a web browser and a video player, and hence we have used a real low end processor and small amount of memory.) Second, he claims that they are a lot more vertically integrated than the average manufacturer who buys 50 parts and puts together the device. Datawind componentize it - they buy 800 parts. (It is not clear how much this can save.) And last point is interesting. Aakash connects to their app store, and they are expecting some users to buy some apps from them. This is likely to result in some profit for them, and help them keep the cost of Aakash low.


mcenley said...

I'm not sure what exactly innovation is in Aakash but I can't help but point out to a recent article in the news about a tablet called iSlate, developed by researchers at University of Rice and Nanyang Technology Institute(NTU). Singapore. It's different than Aakash. Read here :

L said...

"Can we ask each course instructor to prepare a playlist of youtube videos relevant to that course, which students can see on Aakash in their free time"
In most Universities, there is a minimum attendance rule. As it is, we have trouble getting some students to attend classes and learn something....if they feel all the lectures are available on You tube, even the tiny motivation they now have will vanish and we will have colleges with just a handful in class. In my opinion, that's a good way to weed out the disinterested, but the university has to agree to give hall ticket to students with 2% attendance.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

I think there are a few innovations - more in process (which helped achieve the price point) than in design. One design innovation I am aware of is the dedicated video processor. You can find an interview with the manufacturer here.

The main effect this tablet will have is that it will make business people etc think of students in the lowest income bracket too. So far private involvement in education has always been in the highest bracket, especially through coaching classes.

Another advantage is possibly the access to the internet - students can now watch lectures from all over the world. Many third rate teachers will now have to upgrade themselves to avoid being embarrassed. More generally, taking away the dependence on one teacher and liberating the student to gain knowledge from a much larger source definitely going to help.

mcenley said...

Here's the actual innovation in I-Slate

The device will enter full-scale production next year, and will be the first device to apply a low-power technology called probabilistic CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) to achieve a longer battery life.

Mrityunjay said...

The one thing I didn't like about Aakash is that it would not be able to connect to the Android market. This implies, no free apps as well. What good is android then ??