News has just broken of the Indian HRD ministry demonstrating a purported computing-cum-access device that costs only US$ 35 (approx Rs 1,640) and will eventually cost just $10. It’s easy to recall a similar claim being made last year (a neat recap of that “laptop” debacle can be found here), but this time there are actual photographs of the device that promise a usable and functional device. While the HRD has published a press release detailing the unnamed device’s origins and purpose, at least one blogger has put up photos taken at the device’s unveiling, on this site.
The photos show Union Minister Kapil Sibal personally showing off the device. No reports are yet available about how the device performs or feels in use, but putting our natural skepticism aside, the achievement sounds quite remarkable. The device is described as being able to help execute the national education policy: access, quality, and equality. It’s not hard to imagine that thousands upon thousands of schools and colleges in rural areas across the country would be able to benefit from such a device. According to the ministry, its National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) has already furthered the cause of education by making over 500 web- and video-based courses available via YouTube as well as its own portal with another 1100 courses on the way.
Elaborating on how the device came into being, the ministry claimed it received only a
lukewarm response from the private sector, and then approached professors from IISC,
Bangalore, and a number of the IITs around the country. MSc and BSc students were then roped in to produce the main components, most notably the motherboard. Students from VIT were also involved at various stages of the product’s development, with the final motherboard design being fabricated at IIT Kanpur. (Full press release here )
The ministry’s official statement goes on to say that development efforts are still on, and various refinements and enhancements are being tested. They hope that multiple variants of the device will be created to cater to varying budgets and needs at the school and university levels. Beyond this, very little information is available. From the photographs available online, it seems that the device will have at least a 7-inch screen and the software will use touch input rather than a physical keyboard or pointing device.
The lack of a visible input device could indicate that the screen is a more expensive touch-capable unit. It’s unknown if this device is connected in any way with the one shown off last year, but assuming that the design goals were arrived at through similar processes, it can be assumed that the new device will feature Wi-Fi access, have a small amount of local storage, and use a cloud-based infrastructure to retrieve books and course plans on demand. Video capabilities would allow it to tap into the ministry’s existing courseware bank, though two-way video would require a webcam and drive the cost up. The software will almost certainly be a custom Linux-based environment, and the CPU would have to be a low-power model, most likely ARM-based. Support for standard HTML-driven Web browsing (with plugin support) would be ideal, to allow common cloud apps including office suites and file lockers to be used, but there is no word on how Internet access would be metered and paid for. Finally, given rural power supply conditions, it can be assumed that the device will have a reasonably long-lasting battery. Still, all of this is mere speculation. With such an unbelievable price, there’s no telling what might have been included and what might have been left out—the ministry after all is studiously avoiding the term “computer”, preferring instead to call it a “computing-cum-access-device”. Still, the device was demonstrated to be working and useable, which is a commendable achievement even if the price never hits $10.