Aakash Debacle: Why we're not Surprised

Seema Singh
Published: 17, Jan 2012

Until Dec 31,2013, I was a Senior Editor at Forbes India and I usually wrote about science and technology on this blog. I believe while we may have settled into consuming the nicely packaged final products of science - technology being a hand maiden of science - we are distancing ourselves from all the effort that goes into it. This blog was an attempt to bring occasional peek into those efforts and ideas. I've been a journalist for 17 years and have written for The Asian Age, The Times of India, Mint, Red Herring, IEEE-Spectrum, Cell, New Scientist and others. I'm now available at seema@seemasingh.in You will find my future articles on www.seemasingh.in

Is Aakash tablet finally getting shelved? Will DataWind bag more orders? Has the tablet failed pilot tests? The Guardian wrote it could herald an Internet revolution. Even at half price, few opt for world’s cheapest tablet, screamed another headline in The Indian Express.

The opinions have swung from one extreme to the other. If you care about education and technology, you can’t help but feel bewildered. To make matters murky, several unnamed government officials are being quoted in the media, who, again, swing from one radical view to another.

To me, it’s déjà vu. Having seen a raft of start-ups, many with brand new products and technologies, struggle with government tenders, I think not only do we lack long-term vision but can’t even manage a two-to-three year technology roadmap for national programmes.

In case of Aakash, if the pilots were not complete, why did the minister launch it prematurely, and with so much fanfare? How can the procuring agency change specifications (to match US military standards) at its whim or in the middle of an order and then go to town announcing it to media without discussing it with the manufacturers?

If the ministry of HRD has put six years of work behind it, and if IIT-Jodhpur has been a key partner, this is not the way you blotch the image of your own product. Much of the success of technology products today depends on perception and image and this controversy will give a serious blow to Aakash or DataWind.

In the past too, the government has goofed up on procurement, in the process snuffing out budding technologies and derailing many entrepreneurs. Simputer and Mobilis, developed by PicoPeta and Encore Software respectively, are two famous examples where if the procurement had been tight and the government keen to encourage local technology development, we’d have had some useful, low-cost computing devices long ago. (More on these in this story that I wrote sometime ago.) Another example that comes to mind is ReaMetrix and its struggle to sell improved, novel re-agents to India’s anti-HIV programme.

Even in the defense sector, the story is not much different. At the 2011 Aero Show, I met some start-ups which have not been able to crack the thick bureaucratic wall that surrounds the government procurement. A Coimbatore company that makes sophisticated antenna, is able to sell its products to Israeli and European defense manufacturers, but can’t penetrate HAL’s bureaucracy.

Why don’t the government agencies in India get this simple fact that procurement is crucial to new technology development? Israel and the US are two worthy examples where the defense (or any other govt) agency works closely with technology developers to buy, and hence help bring products to the market.

“I agree. L1 tendering is the bane of startups But given any other possibility, we will have politicians starting tech startups and cornering the funds, just like they started engineering colleges,” says Swami Manohar, founder and managing director of LimberLink Technologies and co-founder and CEO of PicoPeta Simputers Pvt Ltd, which was acquired by Geodesic in 2006.



  • Victor

    For all the doomsayers,who are trying to write off Aakash,the world's low cost tablet ,this piece of news should come as a surprise.According to an Indian Express report Aakash tablet could find it's way in the schools of Philadelphia as a Philadelphia-based firm Wilco Electronics, is looking to procure the Aakash tablet for use by school children. Now this should surprise the nay sayers ,who were casting aspersions on Aakash just on account of it being low priced.The fact is that most of the criticism of the product has been done without even testing or seeing the product.Some of it were purely based on the media reports which too at times were lacking in clarity. Those who are slightly aware with the developments pertaining to Aakash knows that most of the confusion regarding the product was created by the IIT Jodhpur team which were told by Government to technically evaluate the product. The very move of giving the techno-feasible study to a non existent IIT by the Government surprised many. And considering the half baked techno-feasibility study of Aakash submitted by IIT Jodhpur-which at best can be termed as absurd- only strengthened the arguments against sending the project to IIT Jodhpur. And now with Government moving the project to IIT Bombay,it is an admission of a mistake on Government's part. Most of the confusion in the case of Aakash arose form the fact that it is world's cheapest and hence very few bothered to analyse the quality of the product which is second to none. However the news that Aakash tablet may see launch in Philadelphia should is proof enough that the product is not just based on hype but has a lot to offer.Had it not been the case ,the product would have never knocked on the doors of USA. For those who didn't felt a sense of pride at the time when Aakash was declared as the World's cheapest,it's there second chance to rejoice with pride as the product is not only the cheapest but has got acceptance in USA ,where it is competing with the world's best and still emerged victorious.

    on Apr 2, 2012
  • Kul Bhushan

    I have been following the Aakash stories for a long time now. A lot of things have gone wrong. A proper synchronization between planning and execution could have done wonders. We have entered 2012 and still waiting for the world's cheapest tablet. I strongly believe there's no U-turn neither for the government nor DataWind. There have been many Simputers-kind-of-projects in past, but Aakash is no joke. 1.4 million bookings and still counting. It's premature to dub the event as debacle. It's just people are realising (though a bit late) the power of tech.

    on Jan 19, 2012
  • Manu Sharma

    An excellent article (about govt's failure at product procurement) with a sensationalist headline ('Aakash debacle'). The term 'debacle' is defined as "A sudden and ignominious failure; a fiasco." The Aakash tablet is neither. It's govt.s procurement process that might turn out to be one.

    on Jan 19, 2012
  • Something to withhold

    Good article, covers most of the points which indicates overall failure of the Aakash(starting with headline). Simple sarcastic comment, why would it be a successful product in domestic or international market when all you hear from media(social, internet or television) is debacle, failure or all synonyms of failure word. I Agree HRD minister should do this properly, but even for iPhone it took 2-3 versions to make it perfect to please audience. Andriod is still catching up, so how it becomes easy for Aakash to please domestic and international audience in the first version/release. I think we are jumping to conclusion too early. BTW, this is my opinion. you may have your own...

    on Jan 17, 2012
    • Seema Singh

      By the way, use of 'debacle' here is just a recap of what has been appearing in the press lately and let me admit that I have not written a word about this product other than this blog. I am so over this whole concept of "cheap", computing devices for India. I agree, it's too early to pronounce any judgement which is why I am asking what business do govt officials have to dole out half-baked comments about this product's tender/application being scrapped? Media folks are equally culpable of latching on to one unsubstantiated report and running riot with it. If anything, I am asking for more mature handling of such products, and that includes giving them time as well.

      on Jan 17, 2012
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