How the Aakash Tablet Bounced Back
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Internet-connected tablets, as I’ve explained before, have the potential to positively impact billions. Cell phones improved commerce and changed society by allowing, among other things, the poorest villagers in the developing world to connect with one another. The Internet will catalyze the next leap forward by providing those in the developing world access to the same ocean of knowledge as those in wealthier societies. This will transform education and revolutionize commerce.
When India announced its $35 Aakash tablet roughly two years ago, it made front-page news. From the specs, it was clearly a rudimentary device for those unable, perhaps, to afford an iPad or top-of-the-line smartphone. And like every first version of a new technology, the tablet had problems. The Indian media quickly and mercilessly trashed it, with top publications writing the tablet’s obituary.
In October 2011, I met India’s education minister Kapil Sibal at a State Department-hosted event in Washington, D.C. I asked if the Aakash would ever become a reality. He insisted it would and gave me his own tablet. He also shared his vision for the Aakash – one in which the tablet would revolutionize education.
I was impressed but worried. Aakash was clearly a breakthrough — an Internet-enabled device at an incredibly low price point. But it was not good enough for the target market of first-time technology users. It also wasn’t robust enough. I wrote to Sibal suggesting that he “declare victory” and discontinue this model, then allow the manufacturer of the Aakash, Datawind, whose CEO I was introduced to by Pentium chip inventor Vinod Dham, to provide a better product for the same price. I suggested he call this “Aakash 2.” I had also convinced Datawind CEO Suneet Tulli that this made economic sense.
So, after the drubbing by the media and a political backlash, Sibal followed my advice.
But I was all but certain that, after reading Indian newspapers and extensive criticism from Indians on Twitter that, no matter how good this device was, Indian politics would triumph and the device would die a fast death. Based on my previous experience, I was convinced that no Indian reviewer would have the courage to say anything nice, and the negative publicity would build on itself.
In light of this, I asked Tulli to ship me a handful of Aakash 2 units—hot off the manufacturing line—to New York, where I was speaking at an education conference. I showed it to attendees whose responses were overwhelmingly positive. I also gave the tablet to tech journalists I knew, all of whom worked for publications to which I have previously contributed pieces. They too were blown away by the tablet. TechCrunch’s Greg Ferenstein lauded the device’s capabilities, writing that “success could mean a fully literate world, connected to all the knowledge necessary to pull the poorest people out of despair.” VentureBeat’s Christopher Peri wrote that “despite the drawbacks, for just $60, I want this device!” Forbes’ Alice Truong concluded the device was “world changing indeed.”
The best part is that these devices aren’t just for the bottom of the pyramid. They will cause tablet prices to drop worldwide as competitors jump into the fray. I have no doubt that, by the end of next year, we will see $50 tablets in the United States. These will transform education and commerce here as they stand to do abroad.
In the wake of these positive reviews, the Hindustan Times’s Yashwant Raj wrote that I “might have indeed saved the device from a premature demise,” but that “for now, the real challenge lies ahead.” I couldn’t agree more.