Around this time last year, the country was abuzz with talks of ‘Aakash’, the world’s cheapest tablet and an educational initiative by the Indian government. Reams were written about how it has made every Indian proud and how it would change the educational sphere in developing nations, especially India.
Aakash was an ambitious project by the Indian government and a huge leap at achieving our long standing dream of a $35 laptop. Arguably, the highlight of the tablet was the price point, which was as low as Rs 2,500 (around Rs. 3,000 for the upgraded version). Aakash 2 takes this competitive pricing a step further as government plans to make it available to students at a subsidised price of Rs 1,130. However, the commercial version, i.e. the Ubislate 7Ci, is still priced at Rs 4,499.
To be honest, we’re a price-driven society and it’s highly doubtful that many would have even given serious thought to what Datawind had to offer within the device. This was quite evident when the device received 3 lakh orders within a couple of days, which rose to 20 lakhs plus in January and over 30 lakhs by August (that excluding the 1 lakh units ordered by the Indian government).
Ubislate 7Ci, commercial version of the Aakash, to be shipped within 48 hours..really?
While everything seemed hunky-dory until then, reality hit home when the first batch of the Aakash tablets (supposedly 30,000 tablets) reached students and revealed poor build quality and performance. Complaints started pouring in about its annoying touchscreen, poor battery, cheap build quality and laggy performance. But then again, what could you expect for that price? Honestly though, considering the hype generated around it, I did expect something better.
Suddenly, the scene started changing for Datawind, which received flak not only for crafting a shoddy device but also for lagging customer service, delayed shipments, or rather no shipments at all, and so on. While the pile up of complaints was increasing by the day, Datawind suffered a fallout with its partners—IIT Rajasthan, which was testing the products, and Quad Electronics, the firm responsible for assembling the tablets. It didn’t take time for the ‘drama’ to go public and in no time, we witnessed a public mud slinging match. While Datawind was still making headlines for all the wrong reasons, from its LC getting cancelled to government scrapping the Aakash project entirely, we had to literally lift our jaws off the floor when Datawind won the bid yet again for Aakash 2.
Consumer complaints were piling up even as Datawind began working on Aakash 2. Take a look at GrahakSeva, Consumer Court or other Aakash forums from the consumers' perspective and you will get a perfect glimpse of the situation. Some of these consumers have been waiting for the device for almost 8 to 9 months. I’ve even got one on one feedback from consumers who had to wade through tons of red tape just to get a faulty or defective piece after months of writhing in misinformation and false promises. They’re waiting for refunds now.
The reason for the delay is often claimed to be the “heavy demand". If Datawind is finding it difficult to deliver the products due to heavy demand, how are they going to deliver the commercial version of the Aakash 2? And that too within 48 hours of payment, as claimed on their website.
Is this deja vu? It seems like we’ve heard this song before. On another note, it will be very wrong on Datawind's part to deliver its Aakash 2/Ubislate 7Ci now while a massive backlog of the older (and sadly, soon to be outdated) version of the Aakash/Ubislate is yet to be cleared. Datawind should clear the backlog before taking the plunge. I might sound like I'm promoting pessimism, but I strongly feel that Aakash users who haven’t received the device may eventually decide to just give up on the wait—and also their hard earned cash.
It was all picture perfect during the launch
I often wonder how many tablets have been really shipped. The initial batch had just 30,000 units while the remaining 70,000 were upgraded before shipping to the government. However, apart from this, Datawind had received orders for more than 30 lakh Aakash/Ubislate tablets on its own website. When asked about the shipped figures, Datawind told us back in August that “tens of thousands of tablets are shipped until now.”
That means out of 30 lakh plus pre-orders, it managed to ship only 'tens of thousands of tablets' in nine months. And going by this speedy performance, reaching the 30 lakh count is going to take a long long time. To sum it up, I’m curious to see just how a company that wasn’t able to deliver on its initial offering will make good with their new product.
And let’s not forget the very recent controversy where a report suggested that Datawind founders and NRI brothers Suneet and Raja Singh Tuli ‘may have procured these devices off-the-shelf from manufacturers in China' for $42 (Rs 2,263 at the time)—exactly the same price at which Datawind sold the tablets to the Indian government. Mr. Tuli rubbished the allegations and the government even showcased the tablet at the UN.
Aakash 2 is becoming more of a political affair, with units being gifted to the Gujarat CM and the government toying with the idea of sending out Aakash 2 units to all state chief ministers. This is not a good idea.
At the end of the day, a company that was incapable of pulling off its first job satisfactorily, seems a bad choice to me for a second job. I’m all for second chances, but in this case, I beg to differ.