Aakash and Beyond

Kapil Sibal’s pet project and projected as the UPA’s technological reach-out to college students, the Aakash tablet was much anticipated when it was first launched in 2011. It was initially conceptualised as the first “Made in India tablet-computer,” and an answer to the One Laptop Per Child initiative, but unlike the latter, it is aimed at college students in the cities.But what got everyone talking about it was its USP – costing a jaw dropping $35 in a market dominated by tablets priced at well above $400. It was also to be a showcase of India’s capability in terms of technological know-how, with IIT Bombay and IIT Madras actively involved in the development.

Developed by Datawind and sold as Ubislate 7 in the market, the first version received a lukewarm reception from critics, with most of them being unhappy with the tablet’s performance. A resistive display (the type that requires pointed pressure to get working), coupled with an ARM processor running at 366 MHz, the tablet did not make a big dent in the Android market. Aakash 2 on the other hand, marketed as Ubislate7Ci, surprised everyone with a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor and a capacitive display, and provided an icing on the cake with the then-latest version of Android OS – the 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

Although Aakash2 was better received by the tech world, there were still some who were critical in their reviews. Possibly arising out of a different expectation than what it was supposed to meet, these reviews seemed slightly too hard-hitting. So we decided to get our hands on one and see for ourselves what the Aakash 2 tablet has to offer.

At first glance, the tablet looks like any other 7-inch Android tablet – if not for the Ubislate name printed along the top of the frontside, it could actually be mistaken for a Nexus 7.

The back, though, is unmistakable, with three logos printed on it: (developed by) Datawind, Aakash and (powered by) Ubisurfer. It feels sturdy and firm, providing an excellent build quality at its price.

The screen, at an 800 x 480 display resolution, is not top-notch, but it does the job fairly well. Reading PDF files and e-books indoors is a charm, although the screen gets unpleasant in the sun, which is not too great a concern. There have been complaints galore about games not looking too good on this screen, but it is important to remember it was built for educational, and not entertainment, purposes.

What surprises us most is how infrequently the device lags or hangs. Performance issues are expected at such a low price point, but the tablet belies expectations. It works smoothly under moderate application, browsing and reading requirements, and gets sluggish only when running processor-intensive applications. The software is an optimised version of Android 4.0, and works very well for the tablet.

Almost all other key specs are on a par with other tablets being sold at more than double Ubislate 7Ci’s Rs.4000 price-tag. The camera disappoints, but again, that doesn’t matter for Aakash. There is a USB slot and a micro SD slot as well. The speakers hold up their own when used for personal listening.

In the end, the bottom-line is this – Aakash is well worth the money even at its marketprice. If you are a student and have the opportunity to snatch it up at the subsidised price of Rs.1500, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t. The tablet is undoubtedly a success in what it was designed to be – an ultra-affordable educational tablet.

On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala takes time off to talk to us about the low-cost Aakash 3 tablet project he is at the helm of. Prof. Jhunjhunwala, of the Electrical Engineering department at IIT-M, is well known for his extraordinary work both as a professor and an entrepreneur. He leads the Telecommunications and Networks Group (TeNeT) at IIT-M, which has been working for years to bridge the gap between rural and urban India and has incubated several products that seek to propel the development of rural areas. The Aakash project aims to revolutionize the role of technology in education in India.

 

Can you tell us more about the project?

The new version of the Aakash tablet is specified as a 7-inch, extremely low-cost device priced at about Rs.2500. We intend to, in the initial stages, make it available to every college student in the country so that handling technology does not remain only a dream. We shall provide a lot of accompanying features, but the major goal of the project is to emphasise its ability to improve educational standards.

It is not a stand-alone device in the sense that it requires broadband Wi-Fi. So, we are also working on accessibility and network coverage in locations like schools, colleges and hostels. It is also essential to provide multiple public access points like say, a playground, so that on any day, a student has internet access within his or her reach.

But we realize that providing these in itself will not remarkably impact education. We need to gradually make the process of driving education home appealing – instilling a sense of comfort to the user, what you would term user-friendliness.

It is a fact that a lot of these resources (academic content) are already available but our aim is to develop content that is different in that it makes the user comfortable. We would like to introduce the concept of an interactive e-book. That is, instead of users conforming to the rigid structure of the material, we intend to provide plenty of choice so that they choose their mode of learning. For example, instead of having lectures that last an hour or so, we would like to plug in shorter-duration video lectures (15 minutes or so) pertaining to a section right next to it.

Accompanying it would be animation videos or applications and related facts or even a powerpoint presentation to help in quick review. These visual and audio aids would majorly impact understanding and are more inviting than a rigid one-dimensional approach. Tools for evaluation are also included in the form of quizzes. We are trying to incorporate descriptive questions too, wherein submitted answers go through peer review. Additional accessories like a dictionary and a language-translator are also being considered. I would say, the bottom line is that we are looking to provide pedagogy to students who do not have access to it.

Coming to the monetary part of it, the costs are shared. Content cost is largely one-time and can even be overlooked when seen from the perspective of one student. Connectivity cost is also shared by the community and is not a major factor. What matters most is the device cost and we are working to reduce this as much as possible.

 

On a personal note, what does it mean to you to be helming this project?

When I joined IIT Madras, there were about 25,000 engineering admits in the whole of our country, per year. A large portion of them, in fact, most of them, fell in the middle-class or upper-middle class category and also were largely from urban areas. Those in the lower-economic strata or in rural areas were deprived of these opportunities. But now, the scenario is quite different with huge numbers of engineering (or even college) graduates every year. So, I think we have almost achieved our goal pertaining to quantity. Then, equity is another area in which we have taken huge strides forward. You will agree that it is not uncommon to see one’s maid sending her ward to an engineering institute. The fact that more and more people are getting opportunities is certainly laudable. But we also have to recognize that an area where we have failed majorly is quality. You see, the graphs of quantity and equity peaked so quickly that there wasn’t enough time to revolutionize teaching and equip teachers better.

IPT (instructional and performance technology) has been conceptualized to serve as an aid in cases of incompetent or inadequate faculty. In many cases, it also helps the teachers improve. I believe in 5–10 years we should be able to match the levels of quantity, and also equity in quality; and that is what I want.

 

What kind of services does our institute provide for the project?

Conceptualization is by far the most important of our services. Coming up with the design, that is, defining the architecture and functionality, and then determining the specifications, is our major area of work. For example, energy efficiency in the tablet is a key feature we are working towards. Apart from that, of course, we are working on content generation and there is a lot of effort in this direction.

 

What has been your biggest challenge during the course of the project?

Since we are trying to create a unique device, too many people are interested in it and there is too much talk about it. The intention to build and launch such a product has been interpreted as a guarantee to be able to deliver it. As a result, there is too much denunciation even when there are minor flaws. I feel the efforts being put in are clouded by the hype created and handling this kind of unnecessary curiosity has been a major challenge. Also, one must acknowledge that having all the elements, and putting them together as a whole, are different things and the latter is a lot more difficult in implementation.

 

That was on a rather general note. What else do you think was a technical challenge pertaining to this device?

Well, I think it would be the task of balancing performance with cost. It is relatively much easier to develop a device if we are willing for a trade-off on one of the two, but placing both of them at the same level of priority makes the problem non-trivial.