Aakash: A $35 Android tablet towards universal access to computing

India’s Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal displays the supercheap Aakash Tablet computer

Much has been written about India’s unveiling of the $35 tablet Aakash. There is debate about Aakash’s potential to change the educational paradigm, about its quality and specifications being up to commercial standards, about its "Made in India" tag and about its claim as the world’s cheapest tablet.
To continue this debate in a slightly different direction, I am Mustafa Naseem and I argue that Aakash has the potential to change the current scenario of limited access to computing for the majority of the world’s population outside of these discussions.
The need for context appropriate computing technologies:
When Martin Cooper placed the world’s first call from a portable cellular phone in 1973, he likely never imagined cell phones to become universally pervasive in less than 40 years. Why did the cell phone become so popular in the developing world? Take a look at Nokia 1100, the world’s best selling phone handset: it was low cost, easy to use, had a long battery life and only required a SIM card to connect its owner to the rest of the world.
To its credit, it also had a number of other features including a dust-proof rubber keypad, a flashlight accessible by a single touch and a near child-proof robust design. If we consider the primary four features listed above, the Nokia 1100 sets the standard for technology for the developing world −cost, connectivity, usability and a decent battery.
Aakash as appropriate technology:
The Aakash more or less meets these criteria. With its $60 retail price tag ($50 for the Government of India), it has come remarkably close to the $30 price point that led to widespread adoption of cell phones like the Nokia 1100. It use of a touch screen and the Android Operating System make it relatively easy to use after the initial learning curve that we all go through with new technologies.
The Akaash is equipped with a 2100 mAh battery, 2 watts of power consumption and has a solar charging option for users who are simply off the grid. The tablets are equipped with a GPRS module that supplements WiFi compatibility, which will help users connect through the maze of cellular networks. Apart from these features, the Aakash comes with 2 USB ports, a 3.5 mm audio input/output jack, and support for all popular text, audio and video formats.
Aakash has its shortfalls: a resistive touch screen, no access to the Android Market for apps, and a poor battery life to name a few. But at the given price point, I believe it is a decent piece of appropriate technology.
Market forces need to meet this demand:
In his speech at the 2011 Social Good Summit, Nicholas Negroponte said that he’d stop making low cost laptops if marketforces filled this gap. In the case of cell phones, manufacturers and providers supported the wide-scale adoption of cheap but useful phones to fill this gap.
Aakash gets us one step closer to the truly affordable and useful laptop than “specialty” educational machines (like the Simputer and XO) or full-powered Netbooks whose price hovers around $199 in most retail stores. India’s gigantic companies like Reliance are following this trend, and are manufacturing tablets like the Reliance 3G tablet in the $250-300 range. However, with Aakash’s release, things are bound to change – it’s a potentially powerful pricing function.
Government is seeding the change
By encouraging Data Wind to manufacture the Aakash for the educational market, the Government of India has encouraged competition at the lower end of the market, thereby unknowingly regulating the market for low cost computing devices. In an interview with NDTV, the CEO of Data Wind talked about an Aakash 2.0, which could have a capacitive touch screen, a 3G modem, a faster processor and an increased battery life at a similar price point.
We will now have to see if big giants like Reliance respond and how the quest continues for the truly commercially competitive, low cost computing device.

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