The cheapest mobile handset doesn't compromise on the basics: calls, SMS, battery life. Nor does the Tata Nano. The Aakash does
-Prasanto K Roy
-Prasanto K Roy
When India's "$35 tablet" finally launched in October, it surprised skeptics. I was among them: I hadn't thought it would ship.
Even at $60, it's the cheapest tablet in the world. I saw an early unit, but it was factory-finished and boxed...suggesting that they will ship production units. That's no guarantee of volume and real cost, but it was impressive.
The tablet, light and nicely hand-held, is built to a price. The 7" LCD is overlaid with a resistive touchscreen, so everything from the standby-unlock Android swipe to menus and apps usage was iffy. The battery lasted just over two hours on a charge.
Inside, the (factory-made, multilayer SMT) board is neat. The Conexant system-on-chip, 366 MHz Arm processor built in, is flanked by two Hynix memory modules (256 MB DDR2 SDRAM and 2 GB NAND flash). Local flavor includes the government-committee-mandated twin USB ports (overkill), adding to a micro-SD card slot. (The screws wouldn't go back into the plastic afterward: the threads slipped.)
Anyway, it works. "Built to a price" .. is no surprise.
So why do I remain a skeptic?
First, because the ecosystem isn't there: apps, content, training and support, power at every school desk (given the 2-3 hour battery).
Two, neither the small 7" handheld format nor the low battery backup lend themselves to serious student use.
Three, the iPad has set the benchmark of usability and battery life...and nothing else, at any price, seems to sell. The gap will grow.
Four, a tech product has to sustain on merit, not just through government commitment--which blocks rapid evolution and improvement.
Five, bulk educational purchases should also be on merit, based on the question: is this the best use of a million dollars?
A few days after the launch, BBC News asked me for a short review. I was critical. Three points emerged from the global reaction to my review. One, that if it did what I said, it was impressive at $60--"so where can we buy one?". Two, they said I should encourage indigenous efforts, and kill the stereotype that emerging-economy products were inferior. Three, that I should not compare "your country's Tata Nano to a Mercedes". (I cite only the criticism; I got appreciation as well.)
I liked the Nano analogy. Here's the difference. A Tata Nano doesn't compromise on the basics: the ability to take you from A to B safely and reliably, consuming the least fuel. Hygiene 101 for a small car.
A cheap $25 Nokia mobile handset does not compromise on the basics: the ability to make a call, send messages, and run a day or two on a charge.
The Akash does compromise on the basics expected of a tablet: easy and fluid use; battery life; apps support, ruggedness.
It will probably improve with version two. As with the Tata Nano, it will be difficult to hold the price (say, if the touchscreen tech is upgraded). Yet, a $99 price point for a usable product is better than a forced $35 mandate.
Its future, however, really depends on the content-apps ecosystem, and how well the Aakash can align to the school curriculum (or vice versa).
Which is why it would have made more sense to source an e-reader like the Kindle, or the (sort of Indian) Wink: the content is all there, in the form of PDFs of every single coursebook out there: and the battery life is great.