The strange tale of India's $35 Aakash tablet

News of India's $35 Aakash tablet has been making headlines around the world, but was never available for sales. Undeterred, the government this week announced an updated version to be launched in May.

When the Government of India last year unveiled a $35 Aakash tablet targeted at university students, the news was widely reported around the world mainly due to its rock-bottom price. British Indian firm DataWind won the contract to produce 100,000 units, and was expected to be involved in a second phase to produce an additional one million units. The actual cost of manufacturing the device was pegged at rupee 2,500 (~US$50), though the plan was for the government to subsidize it so that students and teachers will be able to buy it for US$35.

In terms of specifications, the Aakash comes equipped with a 366MHz ARM11 processor, 256MB of RAM, Wi-Fi and runs on Android 2.2 (Froyo). A lackluster 2,100mAH battery and a resistive screen were to be used to keep costs down. At that time, there were reports that 1.4 million preorders for the tablet were made online just a couple of weeks after it was released for sale.

Cheap and unobtainable

Things are not as they appear to be, however. Reports in February indicated that only 10,000 units have been shipped since October last year, and a new report this week on The Times of India noted that only 366 units actually reached students. This comes amidst complaints of the original Aakash tablet, such as its slow processor, short battery life of just two to three hours, and a resistive touch screen that was hard to use.

According to the report, these 366 units were actually handed out as part of the 650 units that the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Rajasthan accepted from the first - and only batch of Aakash delivered. The rest were apparently rejected over conflicting statements related to unacceptable defect rates and non-settlement of payment. In the meantime, reports of a new "Aakash 2" with improvements surfaced, leading to the inevitable conclusion of the original Aakash being canned before it became available.

Aakash 2 to be "launched" in May

Moving on, India Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal on Tuesday told reporters at the World IT forum 2012 held in New Delhi that an updated version of the Aakash tablet will be launched in May.  This new tablet will have a better 3,200mAH battery, a 700MHz processor and a capacitive touch display to address earlier issues that were observed. As reported by The Hindu, Sibal said: "After freezing the technology, we will start manufacturing it. We are calling people from across the world to manufacture it and some people have shown interest."

In the meantime, DataWind and Quad Electronics, the contract manufacturer for the Aakash, has been publicly trading charges of non-payment by DataWind, even as Quad Electronics has been accused of breaching DataWind's intellectual property by manufacturing tablets using its designs. Given the state of events, it appears unlikely that Quad Electronics will be tasked with manufacturing the new tablet, though the Aakash 2 was also designed by DataWind.

Does specifications to price work?

While the late Steve Jobs was famously adamant about sticking to a baseline price of $499 for the original iPad tablet, the Aakash saga illustrates the potential pitfall of building to a specified price at the expense of usability. Indeed, I attended a meeting with a large manufacturer in Singapore last September, who showed me the BOM (Bill of Materials) of the cheapest Android tablet they have designed - it tallied up to US$99, nowhere near the US$50 of the original Aakash.

I think columnist Prasanto K Roy summed up the failure of the Aakash best. In an opinion piece published in November 2011, he expressed his criticism of the original Aakash tablet by lambasting it for the lack of apps and content, absent ecosystem such as power at every school desk (Given its dismal battery life), and even the small 7-inch format for its unsuitability for "serious student use."

For now, DataWind says it can deliver the souped up Aakash 2 at rupees 2,276 ($43) due to component prices having fallen since. I'll take with a grain of salt its other claim of delivering an Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update however.