From Sakshat to Aakash - The Complete Story

3/1/2013 9:36:12 AM

The vision behind the Aakash tablet is to bridge the digital divide in the country and help the students from rural and socio-economically weaker sections of the society to have access to modern technology and education.

Though the Aakash appears far away from mainstream tablets, but it is nevertheless important. For a country that has long grappled with a poor education system and no hope for rebuilding of the necessary infra-structure, the Aakash could play a key role in turning things around.

We need to empower our significantly large youth populace most of them in the rural areas of the country with quality and modern education. The tablet could very well play a key role in accomplishing it.

Though the Aakash appears far away from mainstream tablets, but it is nevertheless important.

From Sakshat to Aakash

It all started back in 2011 when Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Kapil Sibal, announced an ambitious indigenous low-cost device that would be comparable to the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative. While the OLPC initiative was aimed at rural and underprivileged students, the Indian government’s device was initially intended for urban college students.

Still, not many people know that it wasn’t the first time a ‘Made in India’ computer was coined. In early 2000, a prototype Simputer was produced in small numbers. Bangalore-based CPSU and Bharat Electronics Ltd even manufactured around 5,000 Simputers during 2002-07. In 2009, a number of states announced plans to order OLPCs. But then the project never took off.

In July 2010, Kapil Sibal unveiled a pro-totype tablet, dubbed as the Sakshat. The price of the device showcased was projected at $35, which would eventually drop to $20 and ultimately to $10. After the device was exhibited, OLPC Chairman Nicholas Negroponte offered full access to OLPC technology to the Indian team for free.

While it seemed the country was set to deliver the world another masterpiece of innovation, the Sakshat project suffered its first blow when the company hired to build the Sakshat, HCL Infosystems, failed to prove that they had at least Rs. 60 crore in bank guaranteed funds, as mandated by the government. As a result, the government dropped HCL from the project and re-advertised the tender.

The Sakshat tender was then bagged by DataWind, a UK-based manufacturing and marketing company that produces wireless web access products, originally founded in Montreal.

Finally on October 5, 2011, Kapil Sibal unveiled the ultralow cost tablet, called the Aakash. The device, earlier nicknamed as Sakshat, looked quite different from the prototype flaunted by the minister previous year. Again expectations ran high amid massive buzz in the country and even across the shores. DataWind went on to register pre-orders for the 1.4 million units of the UbiSlate 7 (commercial version of the Aakash) within just two weeks after releasing the device online.

Still, not many people know that it wasn’t the first time a ‘Made in India’ computer was coined

Still, not many people know that it wasn’t the first time a ‘Made in India’ computer was coined

But how many tablets were shipped?  One of the first controversies that came to the light was the fall out between the government, DataWind and IIT-Rajasthan. The government was apparently unhappy with DataWind for trying to the sell the commercial version of the device before the government releasing the official Aakash tablet. DataWind also drew flak over the ‘poor performance’ of the device, as reported by IIT-Rajasthan. DataWind in its defence said IIT’s test criteria didn’t make sense, as it included conditions such as water resistance, where the tablet is kept in a rain chamber supplying rain at a rate of no less than 4 inches per hour. The government asked IIT to withdraw its ‘military-level’ test criteria and stressed focussing on ‘consumer friendly’ features. Later, IIT-Rajasthan was pulled out of the project.

Aakash 2.0 replaces the Aakash

On November 11, 2012, President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled the Aakash 2 at an event in New Delhi. DataWind designed, developed and manufactured the Aakash 2.0 whereas the device’s platform was developed by IIT Bombay that includes 3D-modelling, C++ programming, remote and collaborative training applications, robotic control and live assessment tools. IIT Bombay partnered with the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), to assist with the hardware testing and logistics.

The Aakash 2.0 specifications include a 7-inch multi-touch 4-point capacitive  display with 800 x 480 pixel resolution, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS, 512 MB of RAM, Cortex A8 1 GHz processor, 4GB built-in storage, microSD card slot that supports storage up to 32 GB, micro USB, Wi-Fi b/g/n and a 3,000 mAh battery.

On November 11, 2012, President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled the Aakash 2 at an event in New Delhi.

On November 11, 2012, President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled the Aakash 2 at an event in New Delhi.

The Aakash 2.0 was showcased at the United Nations on November 28, 2012. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon showered praise on India’s efforts to bring modern technology to everyone’s door steps. He said, “We know technology is not an end in itself. The key is to empower people to make the most of their own potential. Information and communications technologies are engines of economic growth and development and can help transform people’s lives. They are great enablers helping people communicate across distances, facilitating trade and commerce and providing better access to health care and education.”

Aakash 2: A Made in China device?

Days before it was unveiled at the UN, the Aakash 2 ran into another controversy with media reports claiming the device was a Made in China device. Reports said DataWind had procured the tablets off-the-shelf from manufacturers in China for $42 (Rs. 2,263 then), exactly the price at which they sold these to the Indian government. DataWind, however, denied the allegations. DataWind also put an explanation on its website detailing where the Aakash 2 tablets are made and assembled.

DataWind’s CEO Suneet Singh Tuli, however, believes ‘Made in India’ tag is important. When we contacted Mr. Tuli and he said, “We believe that Made in India is important and specific Indian level value-adds to should be the criteria for future tenders. This would create defined criteria for the ‘Made in India’ tag, so that there is no controversy.” (Full interview:

Tuli is also hopeful India can develop a ‘Made in India’ tablet on a large scale. “a focused effort should be made to develop indigenous manufacturing but with the maturity to  understand that components will come from around the world,” he added.

Why Aakash can make a difference? The world’s biggest democracy has shown great promise in the past, but it’s been held back by education and infrastructure problems. The success of Aakash could completely change this, in fact it could lay foundation for a modern and improved education infra-structure in India which we’ve all been dreaming and striving for so long.

That being said, we have to be honest to ourselves. The entire education system cannot rely on tablet hardware for the overhaul it is striving and to deliver the quality knowledge to the students. The success of the Aakash tablet is just part of a goal, not the ultimate goal.

But that is easier said than done. The government has to create an environment where the tablet and the related benefits are optimally harnessed. It may seem difficult at this stage, but it’s definitely not impossible. Moreover, the government has to work on the economics and ensure the subsidy (whopping 50 percent on each unit) does not hurt it in long-term.

Unlike other ongoing state run projects, the government should try to make it commercially successful, which would set an example for other schemes. A lot of hard work has to be done on awareness. People should know about it. We don’t expect the government to run Pulse Polio, free cycle, Mid-Day meal or Aadhar like campaign across the country, but there has to be some work and exposure at the ground level.

We feel the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s described vision precisely defines why ultra-low-cost tablet or Aakash-like technology is important for India and its large young population. It says on its site: “... [The] young population should be considered as an invaluable asset which if equipped with knowledge and skills, can contribute effectively to the development of the national as well as the global economy. The vision is to realize India’s human resource potential to its fullest in the education sector, with equity and inclusion.”

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