October 26, 2011

By: Ben Butterworth

The Washington Post recently reported India’s efforts to deliver modern technology to the masses – at an extremely cheap price – has finally been realized with the release of the Aakash tablet.

The Aakash – which translates to “sky” in Hindi – has a 7-inch touch screen, can play HD videos smoothly and can access Wi-Fi. While its technological abilities are rather standard these days – the price is anything but. The Aakash is currently being sold at $45 U.S. dollars (2250 Indian rupees) to the general public of India. Thanks to government subsidies, the price drops to $35 (1750 rupees) for students and teachers.

The Aakash, which was released by Datawind Ltd., is the result of five years of design efforts aimed at producing a tablet cheap enough to be marketed to the rural poor of India. While Datawind did not meet the original (lofty) goal of selling the tablet for $10, the release of the Aakash is still an impressive feat considering the price tag.

Aakash: A Hardware Answer To Closing The Digital Divide

Despite a booming tech industry and decades of rapid economic growth, many of India’s 1.2 billion people simply have not had the opportunity to get their hands on a device as powerful as the Aakash. At the launch of the product, India’s Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal reached out to impoverished Indians saying, “This is not just for us. This is for all of you who are disempowered. This is for all those who live on the fringes of society.” Sibal and others are hoping the Aakash will have far reaching impacts – from allowing rural farmers to improve crop yields to helping grade school students qualify for university.

While the release of the Aakash is a step in the right direction, there is still much work to be done in India. At the current rate of production – 100,000 units of the tablet a month – it will take a long time for India to achieve its goal of getting 220 million Indian children online. The product will also not be of much use to those in areas with no access to electricity – a substantial portion of the Indian population. While Datawind was hoping to produce a solar-powered version of the Aakash counteract this problem, the price increases associated with making the tablet solar-powered were simply too much. Both Sibal and Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli are hoping that competition from other companies will help to drive the production price of similar products down further in the future.

Increase Access – Not Profits

The Aakash is a step in the right direction towards closing the digital divide and bringing universal Internet access to the masses. Perhaps America should focus on access rather than profits. And perhaps making tablets and smartphones even cheaper is a good way to drive the Gov 2.0 movement. Do you think San Francisco should subsidize digital divide devices to residents who can’t afford access to the Internet?

Currently, only 80% of households in San Francisco have access to the Internet. If you feel that number should be higher in one of the most tech-savvy cities in the world please sign our Petition to Guarantee Universal Internet Access for All San Franciscans.

The release of Aakash is also a great example of the power of social philanthropy – private efforts focused on improving the quality of life for the public. If India can bring Internet access to the masses with a combination of a little ingenuity and philanthropy, then what can we accomplish with the same approach here in San Francisco? How can social philanthropy improve our city, and how can City Hall encourage such work?