Though Aakash-type initiatives created a hype, they have run out of steam due to quality, infrastructure issues
Even before Aakash was unveiled in 2011, there were attempts to produce a cheap, disruptive device that would break down the divide between the digital haves and the have-nots and transform education, among other areas of public and private life in the country.
Before the Mobilis, there was the Simputer, which stood for a simple, inexpensive and multilingual people’s computer. The hand-held low-cost computing device was introduced in 2002 by the Simputer Trust, a non-profit organization formed by seven Indian scientists and engineers. It was touted as a device that would change the low-cost computing ecosystem in the country.
Manufactured by domestic firm Encore Software Ltd, only 4,000 units of a targeted 50,000 were sold and they were primarily used by the governments of Karnataka and Chhattisgarh to automate the process of land records and for online education. Encore was also the manufacturer of the Mobilis.
By 2011, both the Simputer and the Mobilis had faded from public memory, when Sibal unveiled Aakash with a pronouncement similar to the one he made six years ago. This time round, the government was putting its considerable might behind the $34 device.
Thanks to the runaway success of Apple’s iPad, tablets have gained currency and credibility—that was the backdrop to the introduction of Aakash. But tablets haven’t become as widely adopted in India as the high level of interest in them might imply. About 250,000 tablets were sold in the country last year, of which 70% were accounted for by iPads, Samsung devices and Research in Motion Ltd’s BlackBerry PlayBook, according to IDC Centre for Consultancy and Research.
A large number of cheaper tablets made in Taiwan or elsewhere and running Google Inc.’s Android system can be found in Delhi’s Palika Bazaar or online, but buyers don’t seem to be too enthused by them. Even an avowedly price-conscious market like India is particular about what is considered acceptable quality, especially in relation to the benchmark set by the iPad.
Aakash surely created the buzz, but the market for tablets in the country is still not there. Tablets are a very nascent market in India. Yes, there is much hype and hoopla. But many vendors have realized that they have to offer value, and budget tablets can’t offer that value even for schools and colleges.
IDC estimates tablet sales will double in 2012 to 500,000 units, but that’s still a small number compared with the figures for mobile phones.
But the Aakash type of low-cost initiatives, tied as they are to education, have thus far run out of steam for lack of adequate supporting infrastructure, which includes content, unlimited data plans and applications, besides a robust distribution network, according to analysts, manufacturers and industry experts. In addition to this, the user experience with the first iteration of Aakash was disappointing, given its resistive touch screen, and the aforementioned lack of apps, content and a good data plan.