On 5 October 2011, the Indian Ministry for Human Resource Development announced the launch of a new low cost educational tablet: the Aakash. Developed by the London-based company DataWind with the Indian Institute of Technology Rajasthan, the Aakash has been described by some as potentially heralding a new 'Internet revolution' within India education, doing for educational computing what the mobile phone has done for personal communications over the past decade. The launch of this product has been accompanied by a great deal of press attention, some laudatory, some less so. Following on a visit by Indian HRD Minister Sibal in October, DataWind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli stopped by the World Bank yesterday to talk about the Aakash, and more broadly, about sustainable business models to drive the broad adoption of computing and Internet devices in the developing world.
Some critics have noted that this is not the first time such a device has been promised for India, recalling the general hoopla that greeted earlier devices like the Simputer and the $100 laptop (OLPC) project. What is different this time around, they ask, and why is the government subsidizing the purchase price of this particular gadget?
Many of the 140 or so people who gathered to hear Tuli speak about this high profile initiative, as well as the 280 or so who joined via webcast, were no doubt intrigued by the device itself. What does it look like? What can, and can't, it do -- and what does it really cost? If you are looking for answers to these sorts of questions, I recommend you have a look at the archived video from Tuli's engaging presentation, as well as his well-considered answers to the avalanche of questions he received during the open Q&A period. You may also be interested in a YouTube video of the Aakash being reviewed on an Indian tech program. (If you check quickly enough, you just might be able to follow the yesterday's commentary on Twitter using the #OpenDTA hashtag before it disappears into the ether.)
I know that many World Bank staff were interested in exploring answers to larger questions as well, as part of our process of trying to 'separate the hope from the hype' as we seek to better understand how might, can and should international development agencies support initiatives of this type. What might the mass availability of sophisticated, inexpensive computing mean for the delivery of public accountability and services in different sectors? What role (if any) should government play in promoting -- and possibly subsidizing, as is the case with the Aakash -- innovative products and approaches in this area?
It is not within my competence -- nor indeed is it my place -- to try to propose answers to these sorts of big questions here. That said, I was asked by the event organizers to provide some quick comments after Tuli's speech, as a bridge to the Q&A period, and I thought I'd share them here, in case they might be of any interest.
1. Demand is high
I was not at all surprised to hear of the great number of inquiries that DataWind has received about its product since it was announced, nor to see the very large projections that the firm is making related to perceived demand for the product in the near term. As a way to keep tabs on and better understand this area, we tracked developments and press items about 50+ low cost computing devices for education for a number of years at infoDev (here are the original and updated device lists). Much of what is being reported in the press now about the Aakash recalls pronouncements, denouncements and excitement about other ICT initiatives that have explicitly targeted users in developing countries over the past decade (here's an old news archive of such articles that we used to maintain at infoDev before the sheer volume became too much to track). People have long been waiting for a computing device to break through at scale for use by the masses in developing countries, and the demand for *something* is almost palpable.
2. Phones work
The one ICT device that has undeniably broken through so far is the mobile phone (a frequent topic of discussion on this blog), although in the case of the phone, it wasn't one single product that broke through, but rather a whole class or type of product. Compared to the mobile phone, this hasn't (really) happened yet for the PC, the laptop, or numerous other purpose-built ICT devices aimed at users in developing countries, especially in the education sector. Why not?
For reasons of price, low end phones predominate in most developing country markets, but, while they don't approach the functionality of smart phones, what they do do, they for the most part do quite well, and help solve some very real and immediate needs. Calling, answering, speaking, texting: All of these functions work quite well, and are easy to understand and use, even among many folks with low levels of literacy. In addition to high quality of usability, phones benefit from lots of content. Most of this is what we would today call 'user-generated content' -- by speaking and texting, users themselves supply timely and relevant content to other users of these devices. Despite the undeniable promise, we are still waiting for a low cost 'killer app' for education in developing countries like what we have seen demonstrated in mobile phone markets.
3. Tablets are coming
After the mobile phone, might the tablet be the 'next generation' device many people have been waiting for? (The line between what constitutes a 'phone' and what constitutes a 'tablet' is quite blurry in many cases, of course, and the line will most likely continue to get blurrier still.) Tablets have been around for many years, but until the emergence of the iPad, they remained a niche device in many ways. Starting from virtually nothing two years ago, there are reportedly over 200 iPad pilots occuring in this academic year in U.S. schools alone, and one gets the sense that this is a drop in the bucket compared to what the next years may hold. And it is not just high end devices like the iPad aimed at wealthy countries that appear to be making in-roads -- here at the World Bank, I regularly get pitched on projects seeking to take advantage of the increasing availability of low cost Android tablets from companies out of China that I have never heard of in low income countries. Many other countries, from Russia to Thailand, are embarking on large scale educational tablet programs as well.
4. There are some misplaced assumptions about costs ... and quality
One mistake that many government planners seem to make when considering purchases of 'low cost' devices is that initial costs of end user devices are typically only a fraction of the total costs of most initiatives that seek to utilize such devices.
One mistake I have noticed in many 'low-cost computing for the developing world' initiatives that we track is that, when they are indeed low cost (and costs often do seem to rise after initial announcements that are quite rosy), low cost often equates to low quality. Technical specs aside (one would of course expect the specs for cheaper devices to be inferior to those of higher priced equivalents), low cost has all-too-often meant a low quality user experience. For many devices that we have seen demo'ed, and piloted, in the past few years, there seems to be an implicit assumption that 'poor people' will put up with substandard user experience simply because they are poor and/or don't know any better and/or have no other options. I am no marketing expert, but I suspect this may be an assumption worth reconsidering.
Those are four general comments about many past 'low cost ICT device' initiatives. What about the Aakash? While I don't wish to comment on one specific device (again, it's not my place to do so), I note that Tuli spoke about many developments and approaches that I found quite encouraging. Here are four themes that I heard from Tuli's talk that stood out for me:
(1) It's not about the device, its about a larger 'sustainable ecosystem'
Tuli talked about the need for a 'sustainable ecosystem', that a low-cost device is just one piece of a larger puzzle, and that catalyzing other actors and partners (and competitors) is key to sustainable growth over time. He sees having incentives for business to participate in this ecosystem is an important way to ensure sustainability. Indeed, over time, the track record for technology initiatives that operate only as charitable efforts is not great, especially those with ambitions of going 'to scale'. That said, building and sustaining an education ecosystem that can take full advantage of the use of new technologies is another matter.
(2) We need to iterate quickly, on mobile -- not PC -- time
Tuli stressed the importance of learning from mistakes (a popular topic here on the EduTech blog, of course!) -- and being able to iterate quickly and improve constantly, regularly bringing out new devices to respond to and address user needs as they become more apparent, taking advantage of various technical improvements and cost savings that happen in the interim. Users have long grown accustomed to manufacturers bringing out new versions of their phones every six to eight months, while new models of computers have traditionally appeared every 16-24 months.
(3) Local production and assembly are important
Just because something happens in the education sector doesn't mean that it happens solely for educational reasons. For better or for worse, it is not uncommon for governments to support educational technology projects because they see that they will help with the development of a key local industry, In addition to the educational objectives, which should be preeminent, large scale ICT/education projects can help meet other developmental objectives as well.
(4) While innovating on the price of the device is important, innovating on the price of connectivty may be just as important
Back in the 1990s, tech industry pioneer John Gage famously proclaimed that 'the network is the computer'. As devices become more and more inter-connected, this is becoming more and more true. That said, as more and more content, services and tools move 'into the cloud', Internet connectivity in most developing country contexts, and especially for the education sector, remains very expensive. Beyond the headline-grabbing price of the Aakash device (which is government-subsidized and which is a topic of much heated debated on other blogs, so I won't go into it here), DataWind's focus on driving down the cost of connectivity through compressing data on their servers before sending it on to users is to me the most intriguing or innovative aspect of its proposed business plan. Much recent press attention has been paid to services that speed up download times in markets like the United States (the onLive videogaming service and the Silk browser on the Amazon Kindle Fire are two notable examples), but this theme has received less attention in developing country markets, where both absolute and relative costs for Internet conenctivity are often much higher than they in wealthier, industrialized countries. In an increasingly connected world, low cost devices are not really low cost if they require the use of expensive bandwidth to be function as intended.
As with earlier World Bank events focusing on high profile 'low cost' computing device initiatives, I found yesterday's discussion around the Aakash to be fascinating, and it will be interesting to see how the project evolves over time. For me, there are still very real questions about the role of government in such initiatives. To what extent should governments be active catalysts for action and change in these areas? Is this something for which they are well suited, or should it be left to the market? To what extent should we worry that government actions in support of specific devices (often in pursuit of loftier goals, like 'increased access') can distort markets that have proven themselves to be very innovative and dynamic over the past decade?
All over the world, I too often see government-sponsored and subsidized school computer labs sitting idle and unused. At the same time, I see teachers walking the halls of those schools using mobile phones that were not subsidized at all. (I note parenthetically that, while I know of scores of places where school computerization efforts have been heavily subsidized by government, I know of only one country in the world that has chosen to subsidize mobile phones at scale for its citizens). This is not to say that subsidies here are inappropriate, just that, where they occur, they should be undertaken with great care, keeping in mind both the related opportunity costs and potential unintended consequences. New, exciting devices are announced nearly every week (I read about this one on stage as I was waiting for the Aakash event to begin), and, where government is involved in technology decisions, there is always a danger of driving by looking in the rear view mirror.
... and of course none of this gets to the core challenge for initiatives like the Aakash: Figuring out how these sorts of devices can be successfully used to meet core educational objectives, whatever their cost.