Suneet Singh Tuli says he's a relaxed man since February. He is not jittery about the launch of the second and improved version of the low-cost tablet Aakash, whose first version was a disaster as almost 90% of the tablets were rejected during testing. In a chat with Kirtika Suneja, the chief executive of the London-based DataWind, the company behind Aakash, says that despite the glitches, he has no qualms about working with the government again. Excerpts:
How have the last 12 months been for you with old partners leaving and new companies joining you to develop the Aakash?
The going has been great after February and sales went through the roof after that. However, the four months of November to February were tough, but we persevered and the government had a strong vision that no roadblock could hinder. Only IIT Jodhpur and Quad Systems left us and IIT Bombay and C-DAC were roped in by the ministry of human resource development. They conspired a competitive product using our know-how but that was behind us by February. Working with IIT Bombay is good, they are professional people who are focused on developing content and applications that will be useful for students. We have developed a next generation device with them.
What are the features of this device and how is it different from its predecessor? At what price will it be available?
We have increased the processing power from 330 Mhz to 1 Ghz, RAM from 256 MB to 512 MB, a front VGA camera and upgraded the operating system to Android 4.4 besides a multi-touch capacitive screen instead of a resistive one. This will cost R2,263. This is the price at which we will supply to the government and the later will offer at a subsidised price of R1,131 to students. However, there will be two commercial versions of Aakash 2 at R3,500 (WiFi without sim) and R4,500 (with Sim).
How was the original contract changed post the fallout with IIT Jodhpur? Did they lay out a strict testing criteria for the tablet?
The first contract had a good amount of legal language and one page of specifications, but there was no testing criteria. However, the new one is 30-40 pages long with strict testing standards related to environment conditions, humidity and drop testing. IIT Bombay has an open source lab and C-DAC is doing the testing. The original tender asked for a resistive screen with a stylus, a high-definition video player and e-book.
What happened to the rejected Aakash tablets?
Of the 7,000 units made, IIT Jodhpur distributed only 500 and the rest we returned to Quad.
How did the development costs escalate during the time between the two versions? Has it hit your margins?
We took the existing contract and worked on its completion. The price did not increase much because we offered more specs. However, because of currency volatility, the contract got transferred from US dollar terms to rupee – it would have increased the burden on the government by 20%. Margins have reduced over time and are lesser for Aakash 2 than that for Aakash. Margins are tight and they are less than 10%.
How many units will you supply and what time frame has the MHRD set?
The mandate is to deliver 100,000 units by December. The 100,000 unit mandate is a pilot, which includes training of teachers in 240 engineering colleges. The ministry wants to cater to 22 crore students and we can't supply all that demand.
Have you lost out in the last one year with your peers who have developed capacities to bring out similar products?
We have not lost out because the issue is not of profitability. We wanted to reduce our hardware margins, break the price barrier and make money from applications, content and network services, which we can sell commercially. However, I feel that big companies will not be keen to enter this market as they would have done it before -- this market is huge.
What new applications have you developed for the product?
We funded a research at IIT Kanpur to develop an app for fuitwallas, who maintain khatas to maintain accounts on the Aakash. Besides, we are also working with the UIDAI to develop an app for Aadhaar.
Have states also approached you to buy the Aakash?
States want much higher specs and have a different thinking. MHRD wanted to break the price barrier while for states, it is an election promise. UP and Punjab are looking at tenders.
Are you still keen to work with the government after so many glitches?
Yes, we are. We saw a day and night difference in their thinking and mentality after February. There are rollovers, but we are excited to work with them.