When the world’s cheapest tablet gets a new version, especially one attached to a government tender expected to be in the millions, there’s always excitement. “Aakash 4 to have 4G and voice calling” went the news headlines Thursday.
As sometimes happens with tech announcements, much of the media got it wrong. The successor to the Aakash 2 (Version 3 is being skipped, for reasons unclear) will have no phone-call capability. Worse, it will have no built-in support for cellular data.
Not 4G, not 3G, not even 2G. That’s going by the proposed specs created by IIT Madras and released by the information technology department, DeitY. Instead, the specs require the product to support external USB dongles for both phone calls, and data (2G, 3G or 4G).
Why is this such a bad idea? Why doesn’t any tablet or smartphone adopt this route? For three good reasons.
--One, a dongle for a small, portable tablet is a bad idea. It makes the user spend more for basic functionality. And users lose dongles, and damage the connectors. More cost.
--Two, it’s cheap to include the same feature in the base product. Cellular data is now quite standard in tablets as well as e-book readers.
--Three, this requirement actually increases the cost for the base tablet, without adding value. The specs demand two USB sockets: A micro-USB (standard with phones and tablets today), and a full-size powered USB 2.0 socket.
That full-size USB socket is a leftover from the last century. It does not belong to a tablet, especially a small, low-cost tablet. It also means additional power drain, especially with third-party dongles plugged in.
With this one spec, the Aakash program is taking a step back. Yes, Aakash 4 improves on some specs, such as memory, doubled to 1 GB RAM and 4 GB internal flash, with support for micro-SD cards.
But it doesn’t go to the next logical step and specify a dual-core processor (such as a Cortex A9-based chip) which now costs what a single-core (Cortex A8-based) chip did when the earlier Aakash was specified.
One is not even considering the fact that USB dongles for phone-calls aren’t easy to find. In fact, one didn’t think they exist. So this IANS columnist asked IIT Madras’ Ashok Jhunjunwala, the man behind these specs. He said that such dongles do exist and that they do work.
The guidelines say that vendors are welcome to exceed the proposed specs. But tenders are decided significantly on price. With the price-fattening addition of the second USB port, a vendor would hesitate to add other features that would add to price if the others aren’t going to.
Datawind CEO Suneet Tuli says he welcomes the release of the Aakash 4 draft specs, as the next big step in this project. But he’s “surprised that an embedded cellular modem is not included in the draft specs,” and hopes that it will be reconsidered.
“Anytime, anywhere internet connectivity is essential for such a device. Bluetooth cannot serve that purpose, and an external cellular dongle increases costs, and undermines the low-cost price target."
The Aakash project to develop an ultra-low-cost tablet is now into its second phase, past the prototypes.
The early Aakash in 2010 had felt like a product designed by a government committee, and got scathing reviews. The program moved out of IIT Rajasthan to IIT Bombay, where Professor Deepak Phatak oversaw the specs for Aakash 2, which turned out to be a dramatic improvement.
Datawind, which designed and made the product, finally supplied the required 100,000 units, after some delays. For the next version, the spec development moved to IIT Madras and Professor Jhunjhunwala.
This phase is crucial, as it comes ahead of the next tender-the really big, live one, expected to be for over 5 million units, to be supplied by at least five vendors (reportedly, at a price that may go up to Rs.3,000 ($50), from the previous version’s Rs.2,263 ($38), to factor in the rupee’s decline). Hence the criticality of getting the specs right-and avoiding missteps.
Some hope lies in the fact that these specs for Aakash 4 are still ‘proposed’, not frozen. They have been published, and feedback sought by July 12. Here’s hoping that feedback will be acted upon, to create an Aakash 4 that's a clear step forward.
(Prasanto K. Roy is a technology analyst and writer)