Tuesday, January 3, 2012

14 lakh Aakash tablets booked since launch

India's homemade $50 tablet has already reached a milestone just 2 weeks after going on sale online. Manufacturers Datawind tell us that over 14 lakh units of the device have been booked online since December 15th.

The Aakash made national and international headlines when it launched on October 5th 2011. It is entirely assembled in India and, though pricier than the $35 tag originally announced, still the world's cheapest tablet.

The tablet itself is sold out but you can pre-book the Ubislate 7, a slightly upgraded version of the Aakash for Rs. 2999. The Ubislate 7 is sold out for the month of January and Febuary 2012 but you can preorder for March onwards.

The newer version will come with a slot for insertion of a SIM card, for accessing the Internet via GPRS or 2G connectivity. The current version of the tablet can access the Internet via Wi-Fi only.

To match the huge demand, Datawind has decided to set up three new factories in Cochin, Noida and Hyderabad.
It was variously described as impossible and a publicity stunt before launch, but today the world's cheapest tablet was launched by Minister of Human Resource Development, Kapil Sibal. At $50 - albeit, $15 above the proposed price of $35 - the Aakash not only proves that dreams can indeed come true, it also brings to mind the Tata Nano, the wold's cheapest car at Rs 1 lakh.

So is the Aakash the Tata Nano of the mobile world? Kapil Sibal does not make any grandiose statements in the vein of Ratan Tata's now iconic "A promise is a promise", but he did manage to pull off the Made in India tag at a price point that boggles the mind. The price tag breaks down to a manufacturing cost of approximately $38, and a retail cost of a shade under $50 after taxes.

Just like the Tata Nano, the Aakash has been designed to serve the Indian masses. Specifically, it has been designed to facilitate education. It turns out our educational ecosystem has been in place since 2003 called the NPTEL, the National of Programme Technology Enabled Learning. A myriad video lectures, animations, simulations, tests are available on the NPTEL website, alongside the GetJar apps store which is loaded with free apps and is actually older than the Android market.

Apart from this range of firepower, educational institutions will get the tablet at a subsidized price, which will be 50% of the manufacturing cost. So, for students, the tablet could cost as little as Rs 1,500.

All things considered, the Aakash is not that dissimilar to Amazon's newly launched Kindle Fire tablet. Both run Android and both have a specific content ecosystem in place. While the Kindle Fire is almost exclusively designed for multimedia consumption, the Aakash is focuses on consumption of educational content.

The Aakash also adds an apps store, which may not be as large as the Android market itself but will get the job done for most, and by most we even mean iPad users.

Writing the Aakash off as a piece of plastic that costs $50 would be presumptuous. Basic though it be, this is a tablet that fully functions as one. We can safely say we've seen worse and at double the price - for instance, the LACS Magnum Pepper, which was touted as a $99 tablet, and the Mercury M-tab.

Naysayers will carp about low horsepower with its 366MHz processor, but we found the Aakash can play HD video thanks to its dedicated HD processor, which is something new we have encountered.

It has 2 full USB ports, and a decent 7-inch resistive display - what else can one expect of something that costs $50, and to sweeten the deal Kapil Sibal says a capacitive display will be implemented once a million units are ordered. Suneet Singh Tuli, the CEO of manufacturers Datawind, says GPRS and Sim-card slots will be added in the next shipment of tablets for free.

The size zero price tag did not allow for a camera, GPS or 3G. We're guessing few among those who are actually shelling out $50 of their money will complain.

Bottomline - many critics pan low cost tablets and recommend paying big bucks for high-end tablets instead. But, after spending exclusive, hands on time with the Aakash, we are confident that it will capture the imagination of the Indian mass market. It does exactly the job it was meant to do.

Make no mistake; we are not saying this is a high quality product but that it is a high quality product for its price. It's unique selling points, the Made In India tag and the unbelievably low price, is exactly that - unique? If that weren't enough, it will be available to educational institutes at an even lower price of Rs 1,500.

While there are logistical questions regarding the integration of content and distribution of the device to educational institutes, we have to doff our caps to the HRD ministry for pulling off the impossible and we sincerely hope they come through on the promise of subsidies and content.

We started this article with a question. Is this then the computing equivalent of the Nano? In our opinion, no. The Nano came - and faded away. We predict the Aakash is here to stay.

And we'd like to end with a question - is the Tata Nano the Aakash of the auto industry? The jury's out on that one.