Aakash — The Low Cost Tablet

In an academic institute in the faraway corner of Western India live the minds who are striving for a social change. Very few know it. Fewer recognize their efforts.

“Aakash — the low cost tablet”, dubbed as the world’s cheapest tablet computer, was conceived by MHRD’s NMEICT team and planned at this place. You have not heard or read of the contribution and sacrifices its students and employees have made. No wonder! Despite all the hype the vendors, the businessmen, the people in the power have tried to create for their businesses to prosper, the institute has chosen to remain silent on its contribution towards realizing Aakash. Let us take a little journey down the memory lane to hear this little story.

The MHRD had a vision to enable all students of India with the enormous amount of Information available on the WWW and the high-quality education content created by several IITs with IIT Madras (Chennai) as the coordination agency through Information Technology. The cheapest computers available in the market at that time costed around Rs. 20,000/- (US$450). This country boasts of a student population of about 200 million. Simple arithmetic tells that the students to take advantage of the Information superhighway would spend around US$90 billion. Pragmatically speaking, this country cannot afford such an amount only on the access/computing devices! (Theoretically, it may do so. I mean the country where the scams cost at the magnitude of US$ 50 billion, anything is possible.) For us who have a large majority to which food and good education is a dream, an extremely cheap device had the potential to write an entirely new script.

The script had already started taking shape. Sometime in 2009, a student of VIT thought of a social change. He realized a low cost computing device with his B. Tech. project guides. He sought the advice of an IIT Kanpur professor (at that time) for engineering at the PCB level. The cost of the product he came up with at that time was estimated at approximately US$50. It was argued that if a computing platform better than that initial prototype was to produced in large numbers, the costs could be brought down to around US$35 (sub-40 US$). When such estimates were shared with the public by the honourable minister of HRD, everybody ridiculed the idea! Yes, everybody, except two. One of those two was a senior IAS officer and the other the same IIT Kanpur professor.

The events thereafter turned out such that the professor became the director of that unknown (newly founded) academic institute in Western India. In August 2010, he handed over the task to two misfits. The team of these three along with that IAS officer set out to realize the dream. The team studied several technologies, platforms, processors, software stacks in order to match the price figure maintaining the satisfactory usability. They worked relentlessly to try several permutations and combinations. The rest of the academic staff, administrative staff and the students of the institute joined them in their efforts. All the efforts put in engineering brought the good news. The team ensured that such a thing was possible, and worked reference designs, as proof of concept. Thanks to corporations like Google (for Android) and organizations like FSF, OSDL and Linux Foundation (for GNU/Linux), there were no software costs.

Once the price point and satisfactory performance were arrived at, there was a dilemma on how to go about it. A government funded academic organization cannot take up the task of bringing out a product in huge numbers. It was agreed that a tendering process would be put in place. The first tender to this effect came out in November 2010. But there was still a problem: even though the proof of concept was there, the institute could not force the bidders of the tender to use the components used in the proof of concept. So the tender turned out be an ‘Invitation to Innovate’, and the participants were allowed to come up with their own designs. The participation in the first tendering process was surprising to the misfits! Some of the largest corporations of the world and India participated, but it was won by a small start up of Bangalore.

All was not sweet now onward. The winning bidder could not meet the strict rules of purchase set by Government of India. If that were not the case, we’d have seen ‘Aakash’ in January 2011 instead of October 2011. After the cancellation of the tendering process, everything had to be started afresh. A new tender was brought out and once again, the response to it was amazing. A firm started in UK by an NRI won it this time. A California based chip manufacturer was to supply the platform to meet the specs.

The role of that unknown institute was not over. It turned out that the inhabitants of this institute would spend many more nights sleepless. The originators of the idea were assigned another task. They were to verify the platform (both hardware and software), correct if there were any shortcomings. There were shortcomings! That team worked relentlessly, day and night, to ensure that the platform was satisfactory on functional requirements, to write any software, if it was not available, to meet the functionality, and to coordinate with hundreds of students of the academic institutes nationwide. They were (are) to collect feedback and incorporate modifications to the design based on the feedback. Something that is to be produced at the scale of hundreds of millions, even the smallest glitch has far-reaching consequences. That team is involved in those tasks right now.

At the time of this writing, the same team consisting of 170 students (inhabitants), several hundred students spread across the entire nation, a few faculty members, residents or from other academic organization and 20 odd technical staff have engineered the version that can be produced at large scale and may get wide acceptance all across the country and the world. The feedback is still pouring in, some encouraging, some critical. The team welcomes critical feedback more than the appreciating one, so that the next versions are far better and glitch-free.

They have not stopped there! They are constantly evolving the device with futuristic technologies, all researched in house, ranging from the design of the very first commercial grade ‘India Processor’ for consumer electronics and computing and ‘India SoC’ to reducing costs of display technologies like touch walls and surfaces to 3D projection displays and projected virtual input devices that can be controlled just by hand gestures. They are also working to reduce the cost of this very device further to go down to US$20 with the capacities that of a US$300 tablets and solar charging within two years, however outlandish that may sound. Their claim is that given three years, the ideas like ‘printable electronics’ on fabrics and glass panels would be realizable extremely efficiently and reliably and computing at the consumer end would be cheap and efficiently recyclable. One of the students in the team exclaims enthusiastically that the day when governments will realize ICT to be a necessity as food, water and electricity and not a luxury is not far.

In all of its endeavours, the small institute avoids publicity at all costs. Some of the media coverage has talked of the institute, despite its best efforts to curb publicity. It believes that any kind of publicity will be a distraction to its efforts.

How does the industry respond to all this? Highly encouraging and appreciative! The team members are highly appreciative of the enormous support they have got from all walks of life. They think that it would not have been possible without the ARMs, the Intels, the Googles, the FreeScales, the ST Microelectronics, the TIs, the Microsofts, the Conexants of this world. If there is any bit of success of the efforts made so far, it must be attributed to every single, large or small, contribution made by the industry and the government. Failures?! Well, the team thinks that it might fail, but it has this strange “who cares?” attitude. It’ll keep on with its efforts to, as M. S. Dhoni would say, “change the game!