If you haven’t heard by now, the Indian government wants to follow up the Aakash tablet project with an initiative for a sub-$100 (less than Rs 6,000) smartphone, an Aakash phone, if you will. While the Aakash project was no disaster, it would be safe to say that it was less than successful, with several controversies about its production and delivery and the constant back-and-forth on specifications, giving it more ‘bad’ publicity. Moreover, there’s word of an Aakash 4 coming next year. So clearly, the government is invested in bringing connectivity through mobile devices.
Smartphones are more suited to the task of internet penetration than tablets
The cheap smartphone plan has reportedly already been discussed by the joint working committee on national broadband in a meeting last month. And the aim of producing low-cost smartphones is to increase Internet penetration in the country. The smartphones, the original report said, would be locally made, which would no doubt be beneficial to the Indian industry. But there remains scepticism and rightly so (after the Aakash experience) about whether the government can indeed pull this off. In any case, it brings the men in power to an interesting fork in the road, where they have to decide which project to give more impetus to.
If the government does not get sentimental about it, then the choice is clear. The smartphone project is definitely the one to back. Aakash is a cheap tool for students and educators. But that’s not going to get you Internet penetration. Smartphones will drive this penetration better, and they offer less of a learning curve to new users.
For one, tablets are geared towards media consumption thanks to the larger display and of course, the plethora of content – movies, TV and eBooks – available for this purpose. Sure this also means you can be more productive, but we have our doubts about anyone other than grade school students using Aakash for serious work. Apps are the focus for smartphones, while multimedia content is for tablets. Which is why there’s talk of the government pre-loading e-governance, tele-medicine and e-agriculture apps on the cheap smartphone. Phones are also more portable and have longer battery life, making them more convenient to use in less developed parts.
The Aakash 2 tablet
Smartphones also have a have higher user engagement than tablets i.e. you are more likely to use them on the go than a tablet, especially when commuting in crowded public transport. Smartphones also deliver faster means of communication than tablets, as users have options to text, call or IM people.
Even in terms of hardware, smartphone development has come a long way since Aakash tablets first arrived on the scene and today a Jelly Bean running smartphone can be had for less than Rs 4,000, so the government can easily reduce its target of $100, but that would not allow much flexibility on specifications.
If the government is serious about increasing broadband penetration, then smartphones are the best option to drive this change. Funding both the tablet and smartphone initiatives could prove too costly, so it may be time for the Aakash tablet to retire. Sure, Aakash has been around for a couple of years, but it wouldn’t be a big bet to attach the brand name to a smartphone.