Suneet Singh Tuli of Datawind talks about the recently unveiled tablet Aakash. Running Android, the tablet will be made available to students for just a little over Rs. 1,000.
On October 5, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal unveiled the 7-inch tablet computer Aakash, designed, developed and built by Datawind, in partnership with Rajasthan IIT under the Ministry's National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NME-ICT).
Dubbed the world's lowest cost computing/internet device with a pre-subsidy price of Rs.2,250 per unit, the “made in India” device features a Conexant processor running Android 2.2 and a resistive touch screen of 800 x 480 pixel display resolution. It offers Wi-Fi, 256 MB RAM, 2GB flash memory, microphone and SD card slot. Unsurprisingly, it instantly made headlines around the world for its price and mission. In the future, the target price of the device with greater volumes is Rs.1,750. At 50 per cent subsidy, the tablet currently costs between Rs.1,100 and Rs. 1,200 to institution.
Driving the Aakash project is Suneet Singh Tuli, Chief Executive Officer of Datawind, with a professed “can do” spirit. He explained his roadmap for use of the tablets in higher education institutions as a learning and skill building tool in an interaction over telephone and e-mail. The educational component is based on the backbone of about 1,000 institutions equipped with high-bandwidth wireless networks now. More are expected to follow. A growing volume of educational material is expected to strengthen the NME-ICT platform.
What is the roll out plan for the Aakash tablet?
We will provide 100,000 tablets under the National Mission on Education through Information and Communications Technologies. I understand that the first 100,000 will be given to all the state education ministries (3,000 per state) to do field trials. Then one crore units will be made available at a 50 per cent subsidy to all post-secondary (college/university) students across the country. Based on the success of that project, the Minister has suggested that he would like to extend it to all students from classes 9 to 12 next year.
We are ramping up production for the commercial release of the tablet also. Hopefully, we will have further orders from the government. There is demand for the device from a number of international markets. It is a great export opportunity for India. We are trying to have a production capacity of about 300,000 to 400,000 units per month. We are establishing multiple manufacturing facilities to meet the exploding demand both in India and overseas markets.
What kind of performance testing was done on the Aakash to see that it meets the requirement of the NME-ICT programme?
The biggest role of the programme was in testing. Over the last eight months, we have been testing the prototype on a weekly basis. As we went into the production stage, the analysis was done by IIT Rajasthan and two key people. Usually, they do testing on a small number of units, but we took 1,500 units and put 150 students on it, subjecting the tablet to all kinds of different tests and they did a marvellous job.
Why did you not opt for a market release of the product and then move into subsidised sale to students?
We have two sets of products. The first set is for open markets, and the second for the subsidised programme. But because of delivery timelines, we set the commercial launch time frame to end-November and had to do the subsidised version first.
Could you tell us something about the processor that will run the subsidised Aakash Tablet?
It is a Conexant processor. It may sound low powered at 366 Mhz, but we have 18 patents for the Ubisurfer browser in the device, which accelerates the rendering of web pages 10x to 30x. It provides a high quality user experience.
DataWind has received the 18 US and several international patents on a special parallel-processing web delivery platform. It gives the power of a monster-server in the palm of your hand by creating a live parallel session on the server to help enhance the user experience. With our other products, the media has done live tests and confirmed the speed benefits.
What kind of tablets will you be making for commercial (non-subsidised) sale, with higher screen and processor specifications?
We will have tablets both at the higher and lower end, in the Rs.3,000 to Rs. 5,000 range. One of them will be a 10-inch screen tablet, in the higher price point. In late November, Datawind will launch UbiSlate, the commercial version of the Aakash, with a maximum retail price of Rs.2,999. It will have a GPRS module.
What are the factors that helped drive down pricing of the Aakash tablet?
If you look at the forecast for tablet computer sale in India, it is of the order of 250,000 units. It is okay, but not great. Also, considering the many players, the market share could be about 10 per cent for those in the business. Then, the government said it needed 10 million units. This is a programme to raise the standard of education to improve higher education, build skills and so on. A result of this is the driving down of prices. The price of the Akash is unimaginable. The whole world said this cannot be done. But when we announced it, the whole world's jaw dropped. It can be done, by Indians, in India. But it will benefit not just India.
DataWind, at its cost intends to provide GPRS modules and SIMs in both the commercial and government devices, in addition to unlimited internet at Rs.99/month. Over 800 million Indians (as mobile phone users) have access to GPRS networks. DataWind's technology provides a very fast and useable experience on 2G.
Will you be manufacturing the Aakash tablet abroad and shipping to India to meet demand?
We currently don't have plans to make it abroad and import into India. We are confident that in India we'll be able to produce enough to meet local demand and for export markets.
What applications marketplace will it have access to?
Aakash will come pre-installed with the Get-Jar app store, instead of Google Market. The advantage of Get-Jar is that its business model forces the developers to provide all apps for free, and only generate income for either advertising or upgrades. We also expect that students will start developing applications for it.