Aakash, Government of India’s ambitious project to provide low cost tablets to the students of our country, has been embroiled in controversy right from the word go. Aakash was a reality that was living India’s $35 laptop dream. Everyone sang praises until the first batch of tablets reached the students. The original Aakash had a lot of things to worry about – a slew of outdated specs, a gigantic number of pre-orders (over 3 million, which they haven't yet managed to deliver), faulty shipped devices and more. While the dust hasn't settled on these issues, Datawind starting falling out with its partners, its assembler Quad Electronics and also IIT Rajasthan, who was responsible for testing the tablet. While speculations of scrapping the Aakash project were rife, Datawind took media by surprise by winning the bid for Aakash 2, which means it had to again supply 1,00,000 tablets to the government under a new tender, with slightly updated specs. However, Datawind’s relationship with IIT Rajasthan was still strained and under scanner until one day the news broke out that the project will now be handled by IIT Bombay.

Aakash 2 was launched last month with better specs, especially the issues of touchscreen and low processing speed have been taken care of. Meanwhile, IIT Bombay has been focussing on developing nifty educational apps and content for Aakash 2. About 14,000 units of the Aakash 2 are now being tested as an educational platform across 250 engineering colleges in India. Tech2 spoke to the project head at IIT Bombay, Prof Deepak Phatak, who shares with us his experience right from taking over the Aakash project from a sister institution to building a digitally evolved Indian educational system. We also have inputs from Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO, Datawind, who tells us what’s happening with the original Aakash and the plans for Aakash 2. So, are things going to be different this time? That’s the question on everyones mind!

IIT Bombay steps-in
The battle between Datawind and IIT-Rajasthan just refused to die early this year. There were umpteen reports about the two bickering and may have even given the ministry some sleepless nights. Earlier, Mr. Tuli had said how the institute over-emphasised on concerns regarding Aakash’s quality and functionality, allegedly to favour other firms, and outrightly blamed IIT Rajasthan for Aakash’s failure. Finally, IIT Bombay took over the Aakash 2 project.

Prof Deepak Phatak tells us that IIT Bombay was approached when the project was still with IIT Rajasthan, but the institute refused it then as they didn’t want to sabotage the efforts of their sister institute. Only after IIT Rajasthan wrote to the ministry expressing their desire to back-out of the project that IIT Bombay stepped in. “It’s a two year project that involves procuring 1 lakh tablets to be deployed in engineering colleges in a bid to enhance the quality of education. It also entailed developing of appropriate educational apps and content to facilitate the learning process. While procuring the tablets was just a part of it, our main focus was on ensuring it’s efficiency in delivering educational content and aid the efforts of teachers and students. Along with developing educational apps and content and deploying them in college, it also includes testing the tablets completely for software and hardware,” says Prof Deepak Phatak.

Aakash 1 & 2 – What’s the difference?
Speaking about the point of difference, Prof Deepak Phatak says, “When we got the project, we had the mandate to complete the procurement of the tablets from Datawind. There were two ways we could go about it, one was to float another tender, but it would easily taken about a year, as it would also involve testing and approving the initial sample. We didn’t have a year, so we decided to go by IIT Rajasthan’s procurement process and then we would do a single tender enquiry, we did our own enquiry to Datawind. Also, we had a mandate from the ministry that the price at which we procure should not exceed more than Rs. 2,274.”

Prof Deepak Pathak, IIT Bombay

Prof Deepak Phatak, IIT Bombay

Aakash 2 offers better specs, something which comes as much relief and is crucial for the success of the project. And IIT Bombay played a huge role in making it possible. Speaking about the changes made to the configuration, he says, “Almost a year had passed since the previous order was procured by IIT Rajasthan in April 2011. So, we enhanced the spec sheet, and the main highlights were a speedier processor so that it functions smoothly and a capacitive touchscreen for a better touch response among other changes. We placed the order and accordingly we were supposed to get 100 samples of the tablet to test rigorously. We have CDAC as our partner and a part of project funds goes to them and they are suppose to do extensive hardware test. At Trivandrum they have a laboratory where they do the sample tests. So, they did that, while we continued to develop apps. In June we certified five samples, but we found that the Android 2.2 was not stable due to low memory and the screen would hang. It was usable but wasn’t comfortable. So we requested Datawind for better version of the OS for a more stable performance.”

Datawind requested for Android 4.2, which means the tablet would require a better chip (1GHz) and more memory up to 512MB. Needless to say, these changes had to be brought in at the same price that was quoted in the tender. What followed was a series of negotiations between IIT Bombay and Datawind. The latter admitted facing some issues with device driver and that they were working with a Chinese chip maker to develop a version of the tablet that would run on Android 4.2. Prof  Phatak explains, “At this point we requested Datawind to supply us the tablet version that were working on which ran Android 4.2 version. After persisting, we got the samples, which we immediately liked as they were better and stable. We had several hours of discussion with Mr. Tuli to convince him to provide us with the tablet at the same cost, to which he finally agreed.”       

In August this year, they received two samples of the newer version of the tablet to which they ported all their apps. Then in September, when they got hundred samples, they sent twenty-five units to Thiruvananthapuram for rigorous testing and the results confirmed that this indeed was a stable version compared to the previous one. Once the samples were given an all clear, order was placed with Datawind to deliver the tablets by October 31. But there was a delay as Prof. Phatak explains, “The original mandate was to complete the delivery by October 31st, but we were informed that they will take longer. The components come from China and are assembled here. The capacitive touch panels are made by Datawind and it’s the only component that comes from Montreal. Datawind plans to set-up two or three companies here to do most of the work, but that would take time.”

Aakash achieving its purpose
As aforesaid, so far we haven't heard any criticism about Aakash 2 and the Datawind Ubislate 7Ci (commercial version of Aakash 2) is also a decent tablet for the price tag it carries. Aakash is primarily meant to be an educational tablet for students, and while there is a lot of controversy surrounding it, the main goal at times seemed to be sidelined. But with IIT Bombay’s association, this seems to be taken care of. IIT Bombay has one advantage over other institutes – its teachers training program, which has helped it build relations with over 180 colleges across the nation. It already had about 150-180 remote centres and wanted to ramp it up further. IIT Bombay had decided that they will choose about 200 to 300 colleges and get feedback from them on the apps and educational content being developed on the tablet. They asked all these colleges to partner with it for the Aakash project and today they have 250 remote centres for testing the educational content and brainstorming newer educational ideas for the Aakash 2. They also plan to involve the final year engineering students to develop apps and content for a wider audience and in any Indian language.

Aakash 2 features better OS and good touchscreen

Aakash 2 features better OS and touchscreen

Prof Phatak says, “We had requested Datawind to send us atleast 20,000 units, so we could start work and the students as well as the teachers get ample time to famaliarise themselves with the tablet. We had announced workshop in November for teachers of around 250 colleges and all those interested in working on the Aakash project to develop apps and other content. About 12,000 teachers attended the two-day workshop and impressed by the progress made, the ministry decided to launch the tablet on November 11, which also happened to be the Education Day. However, we haven't received 20,000 tablets, we have received only 14,000 units so far. Even then, we have deployed around 40 tablets each in about 250 colleges. The teachers have been given an assignment to think of specific apps that they would want their students to work on and they have to submit the same by January 9. On the other hand, we will also be conducting Android development workshops for engineering colleges.” He further adds that he plans to sanction each of these college Rs. 1 lakh from the project fund so that they can set up their own local server and Wi-Fi access points to further enhance digital learning. Around January-February next year, he plans to announce that students from any engineering college can send in an app proposal which will then be evaluated and included as an app for the Aakash platform. The students need not be only from the 250 remote centres, as these centres can then be used as hub for students studying in institutions close to it.

As per the mandate, IIT Bombay had to test and create apps and educational content for students. According to  Prof Phatak, these apps may have been created in three months, but it has years of hard work put in. He had to reach out to his colleagues specialising in specific genres to make Aakash a beneficial platform for teacher and student training. IIT Bombay’s effort has been to integrate useful educational content in a better usable format and make it easily accessible using Aakash. One such tool created is ProxyMITY, which allows creating interactive lessons by importing lecture video and presentation slides. The institution has created basic programming environment for Aakash, permitting programming in C, C++, Python and Scilab. Aakash has also been implemented in embedded systems, wherein a fully functional robot was controlled via Aakash. In coming years, this will allow much greater and flexible control over remote devices. But what we really liked is the Clicker application, which may just change the entire lookout of  teaching. A clicker device is used for collecting instant feedback from a group (remember the famous Kaun Banega Crorepati public poll?), and this can be of utmost benefit at a classroom wherein the interaction between teacher and students is crucial. So, a teacher can conduct quizzes and quickly evaluate the results. Reports can be generated in the form of pie charts for statistical analysis.

Prof Phatak points out that the Aakash is a computing device and can well serve your programming needs too. The native Android environment is not meant to support the use of compilers for different programming languages. However, a team at IIT Bombay has succeeded in building a tailored Linux environment on top of the Android OS provided by Aakash. The programming interface will permit students to write and execute programs in C and C++, directly on the Aakash tablet. The popular Python programming system has also been ported. They have also ported the open source equivalent of Matlab, dubbed Scilab.

Suneet Singh Tuli opines that Aakash project has certainly benefited from the association with IIT Bombay owing to it’s focus on developing educational content. Datawind, on their part, have also launched some initiatives to create app ecosystem. He says, “IIT- B’s focus on content, applications and curriculum integration provides the product’s deployment a more structured approach than the previous effort. IIT-B has an open source lab where they’ve been developing a variety of applications for engineering students to utilise the Aakash2. These include 3-D modeling applications, C++ programming tools, distance learning and live assessment tools. Additionally, DataWind has launched student competitions for the development of socially responsible apps.”

Mr. Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO, Datawind

Mr Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO, Datawind

Will Aakash 2 deliver on its promise?
The original Aakash has been a disaster in reaching its users. The device was a failure because the specs were low enough to make it completely non-functional. However, Mr Tuli had repeatedly maintained that they have simply built it according to the specs mentioned in the tender. So, did people expect too much out of Aakash? Talking about expectations, Prof Phatak states that there has never been such a platform in India before for the educational sector. He says, “I don’t think they are expecting too much. I think they are expecting something useful. In any developed country, students will expect to be connected on Internet, any school will expect the teacher to use these technologies for education. In our country, this was not possible so far; now it is likely to be made possible and that’s why you see expectations. It appears to be too much because frankly, currently there is no other gadget that appears to permit people to use the educational apps in digital world. Whatever they are expecting is legitimate, as majority of students don't even have laptops or computers. We have 300 million Indians who are younger than 19 years, which is much more than population of some countries. That's the challenge we have. I think they are expecting much less.”

The one aspect wherein no other tablet can beat the Aakash is the pricing. It is the mere pricing of the device that allured over 3 million Indians to order the tablet in just a couple of months. Could things be similar with Aakash 2? We asked Prof Phatak if the price is justified and this is what he has to say, ”I think India has succeeded in pulling that price through, how much price is justified depends upon where it is being put to use. For instance, if you are engineering students, you are roughly paying a fee of 50 to 60k and then purchasing books worth somewhere around 2-3k per semester. For that matter, school or even high school books aren't affordable by all. If I have a tablet, which NCERT permits to download all books and I put them in an SD card and can use them whenever I want; moreover, I can watch other educational content and lectures via Wi-Fi, then it adds significant value to the device. Now, it isn't just the price that you pay, but the additional features that make it a complete device for students. In fact, I would suggest that in the next iterations of Aakash, we should have three Aakash models catering to different age-groups of students.”

Aakash 2 hasn't faced any criticism, but Datawind’s troubles just don't seem to end. The most recent one being the ‘Made in China’ claim by the HT report. Mr. Tuli had rubbished the report stating,”The initial devices were assembled and programmed at our facilities in New Delhi and Amritsar.  We finished this batch of 10,000 units and delivered them to IIT and will be starting another batch of 20,000 units for them in two weeks,” said Tuli, adding that the media were welcome to visit when they were making this batch. “We also have four partner manufacturers across India that will work on the deliveries to the government but we just couldn't get them started to assemble our new Aakash 2 units in time but they will start to ship early in December.”

Ask Prof Phatak about the Made in China controversy and he retorts, “Frankly, as a teacher who is interested in using tablets as a mechanism to enhancing educational quality, how does it matter if the tablets are made in China or Timbuktu or Antarctica? As a professional technologist and as a proud Indian, I would want maximum production here. But where we lost the game is when we failed to set up a fabrication for ICs. One was set up in Chandigarh and there was a fire. There are many who have been coaxing the government to invest in building fab so that we can build our own components. Now, that is happening but will take time.”

While things seem to be looking up and on the right path so far for Aakash 2, the question as to what happens with those who have booked Aakash 1 seems to be on everyone's mind. Mr. Tuli provides some answers, “Aakash 2 deliveries are ongoing to IIT-B. We are providing the tablet at a price of Rs. 2,263 to IIT-B and the government shall provide it at a subsidised price of Rs. 1130 to the students. We are offering an option to the customers who have booked the first version of the UbiSlate tablet to upgrade to the new product. Depending on the version they choose, the price may be the same, or there’ll be a slight increment (but still a discount from the MRP). Having said that, however, we are manufacturing and shipping around 2,500 to 3,000 tablets almost on a daily basis and we are targeting that by the end of the year, we will be in a position to supply  around 10,000 (units) on a daily basis. We are expanding our capacities to meet the huge demand.”

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