How a $35 Indian Tablet Aims to Supply Tech for All

At $35 the Aakash tablet computer is virtually disposable, even in India. Does it have the power to transform the country?

India is a perfect example of a divided nation. Take for instance the country’s education system. Every year, it produces students who go on to Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and other top universities. IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) are spread out across India, attracting the best brains in the country. But on the other hand, the literacy rate is still languishing at 74%, which is 12% below the world average. Subsequent governments have done their bit to increase the rate significantly since the end of the British rule. But even now, most students are not completing their basic education. Drop-out rates remain high. Computer penetration remains amongst the lowest in the world.

The Aakash tablet computer that is priced at a mere $35 aims to change this. It has been conceived to bring about parity through digital empowerment. Aakash has been branded as the “cheapest computer in the world”, which it truly is. It costs way less than the $100 laptop that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed for the non-profit One Laptop One Child program.

It could emerge as serious competition for iPad as well. At $500, the iPad does seem significantly over-priced. Aakash at $35 is virtually disposable, even in India, where large sections of the population don’t have access to most basic requirements, even now.

The Aakash tablet was conceived by the National Mission on Education and developed by DataWind. The tablet PC allows web browsing and video conferencing, comes with a three-hour battery life, and has two USB ports. It runs on Linux. There is no internal storage. But data can be stored on a memory card. Aakash can also run on solar power, which is important to its success as there is an acute power crisis in large parts of the country.

Aakash – Ending the Digital Divide

The National Mission on Education says that Aakash aims to end the digital divide. The device is meant for students in small towns and villages across India. It could very well bring affordable computing and internet access to the masses. That’s the hope at least. But it’s just one side of the story. It could have far-reaching implications on education in the country, on society at large, and even where India goes in the next couple of decades.

The government started off slowly by giving away just a few thousand Aakash tablets. But the goals are lofty. There are plans for distributing as many as 10 million of the devices to students over the next few years, particularly to those belonging to marginalized communities. Universities will be fully connected to the internet, whilst the internet penetration problem through the country is being gradually addressed. Plus, DataWind will offer broadband for a monthly cost of US$1.78.

Students will then be able to connect to the internet, using their tablets and access study materials and content from the universities’ digital libraries. Most of this is planned to be free. Its success could mean close to a 100% literate India connected to all the knowledge necessary to pull the poorest people out of despair. That’s going to be a huge achievement.

Education for All Can Have a Huge Impact, Even Without Guidance

The potential education implication of an internet-capable tablet is significant. Sure enough, most students in rural India will still lack access to private tutors, unlike their city compatriots. But computer-based education research shows that students with little human instructions can perform about the same as their privately tutored peers. Sugata Mitra, a professor at Newcastle, distributed unsupervised standalone internet computers throughout several slums in India. Neighborhood children were able to improve their math, reading and science knowledge significantly in just a few months.

Yes, it’s a fact that MIT’s One Laptop Per Child program wasn’t very successful among young school children in Peru. But India could be a different story.

The Social Impact of Aakash Tablet PC

Aakash might very well impact Indian society in other ways too. A deeply divided society, the caste system is still there, particularly in the rural and semi-urban areas. And interestingly, people from the lower castes, the marginalized sections of Indian society, are almost always the poorest people. A major reason for this is the lack of education facilities available to them. Aakash hopes the move to make the universities connected and offering free knowledge might finally bring about some parity. It could provide the masses with new opportunities. In doing this, it might impact the country’s social fabric positively as well.

With so many of its citizens online, the government is also going to be compelled to provide a lot more information and services over the internet. In fact, there is already a push for eGovernance at this time. This will surely also reduce corruption, which is a major worry in the country.

Economic Impact of Aakash

The unemployment rate in India is close to 4% at this time. That’s a lot of people, given India’s huge population. One common complaint has been that vast sections of the population are just not employable because of a lack of academic knowledge and non-formal education. Digital empowerment through Aakash could solve this puzzle. Aakash could usher in better educated masses, and this will surely increase the number of employable people.

Businesses can gain from the availability of human resources. But this doesn’t necessarily mean an advantage. If the economy isn’t strong enough, then business cannot absorb more people, and so, we might actually see the unemployment rate going up in the short-term, at least. But in the mid-term to long-term it’s bound to be good, because, many of these people will end up starting their own business. These businesses will in turn hire people, and contribute to the economy, thus spurring growth.

There could be another impact. Better educated masses will surely lead to salary increases. This means many of India’s businesses that thrive on low production costs, thereby enjoying price advantages, might be at a disadvantage. They could lose out to competition from overseas markets. In fact, there could even be a day when India itself outsources to countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh and even perhaps China, where the state often controls the salary.

All in all, I’m extremely positive about Aakash, I just hope it delivers all that it promises.


Niladri Bose is a Post Graduate in Mass Communication and former journalist. Niladri writes on economic issue, and also on social, political and Internet trends.