A story I wrote for the August 2013 edition of WIRED UK.
The town of Kallah in the district of Tarn Taran is 45 minutes from Amritsar through the flat, verdant countryside of the Punjab. Turn off the main road, pass a few farms and homesteads and, set among ploughed fields, there is a pair of two-storey breeze-block buildings that make up the Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj (APKF) public school. The institution, which was constructed three years ago, has 25 teachers and caters for children from kindergarten to year nine. Funding comes from local benefactors: according to head teacher Ravinder Kaur, the parents of most of the school’s 600 pupils are uneducated day labourers.
On a misty January morning, two rows of 12 pupils sit in pairs in a classroom on the ground floor. These children — most of whom are 15 and wear either green jumpers and grey trousers, or the school’s winter uniform of a blue tracksuit — sit patiently at wooden desks. According to Sikh custom, the girls wear headscarves and the boys turbans or a topknot.
The room contains the familiar elements of a classroom: a blackboard, posters of great inventors and a chart rewarding pupil performance with stars. But, placed between each pair of students, is something unusual in a resource-deprived, rural school in the developing world: a seven-inch capacitive touch-tablet computer.
Very few of the pupils have access to computers at home, yet the devices that the children share — known as the Aakash, from the Hindi for “sky” — are loaded with educational software, including the national curriculum. “We’re studying physics,” explains Prabhjeet Kaur, 15, running her finger down the screen of her device, “the chapter on gravity”. With a single tap, she brings to life a module on linear motion.
Part of the day’s activity is to welcome Suneet Tuli, a tall, elegant Canadian entrepreneur dressed in a dark-grey suit. His company, Datawind, manufactures the tablet devices that the children are using. During the visit, Tuli, who has four children of his own, chats with school staff, recites choruses from traditional Punjabi songs with a group of younger children, and films the event on his Samsung smartphone.
Tuli, 45, often simultaneously clutches two mobile devices. He carries several in a pocket in his carry-on luggage: “This is for Canada, this is for the US, this is for the UK, this is for India…” he explains later in the day, pulling phones from his bag while being ferried back to the city. Multiple mobiles are a necessary part of his armoury — he spends much of his time travelling the world encouraging governments, state-level entities and NGOs to embark on pilot programmes for the Aakash. The list of countries that are investigating the effectiveness of learning with the device includes Uruguay, Argentina, Nicaragura, Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. In November 2012, Tuli presented the device to UN secretary general Ban-ki Moon in New York. The year before he spoke at the World Bank in Washington DC. Tuli spends two weeks a month away from his family, who live in Toronto; consequently, he is a master of negotiating cancelled flights and chaotic airports, largely conducting himself with serenity, although it’s clear that there’s steel beneath his composure.
Tuli’s vigour has been an asset to a project that has been mired in controversy almost since its inception. What he witnessed in the classroom in Kallah was just a tiny part of what the Indian government and its partners hope to achieve with the Aakash: to raise one billion people from poverty by means of a low-cost tablet device. The existence of the Aakash runs counter to many of the principles that have guided the world’s most successful technology companies and, indeed, the most basic tenet of capitalism — that of supply and demand meeting the needs of the market.
Impoverished people tend not to invest heavily in consumer goods; the per-capita income of the average Indian in 2011 was £819. For that reason, the Aakash is an anomaly: a piece of technology that is funded not by angel investors, venture capitalists or corporate backers, but by the public purse. In 2009, the Indian government announced a five-year plan that it hoped would accelerate its citizens’ education. Its intention was to build a framework that, eventually, will place hundreds of millions of tablet devices in the hands of some of the world’s poorest people.
The need is immense — in 2010 the World Bank estimated that 68.7 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people lived on less than US$2 (£1.30) per day. By the end of April 2013, Datawind had manufactured 98,000 devices at $41.61 (£26.80) and 2,000 of a future version — the proposed Aakash 3 — at $49.98 (£32.60), a price that succeeds in undercutting those of even Tuli’s most aggressive Chinese competitors. He intends to bid for part of the next government tender — 5.4 million, to be delivered over a period of six to nine months.
“I call it the forgotten billion,” Tuli says of the challenge. “Once you get past the upper and middle classes, you’ve got a billion people who are not part of the media, they’re not part of the political class, they are literally out of the system.”
Whether Datawind — or any of the other suppliers competing for the tender — can produce and deliver the number of devices required quickly enough and at sufficient quality to provide the breakthrough envisioned by Tuli, the Indian government, its educators and universities could determine the technological future and, potentially, the prosperity of one person in seven on Earth.
There have been other attempts to use technology to combat poverty in India. All were unsuccessful. In July 2001 Swami Manohar and engineers at the Indian Institute of Sciences unveiled the Simputer, so called because it was a simple computer. Featuring a black-and-white screen, it sold for around £140, ran on three AAA batteries, and contained Encore, text-to-speech software that translated English into a number of Indian languages, then relayed it audibly. Best-case estimates are that the device sold in the tens — rather than hundreds — of thousands. Manufacture of the device ceased in 2005.
In July of the following year, the Indian government — citing cost — announced that it would not be ordering any of the $150 (£100) devices from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme, led byNicholas Negroponte, chairman emeritus of the MIT Media Lab and the one of the first investors in Wired. At the time, OLPC was relying on economies of scale in order to make the project viable — losing a market such as India was a blow.
The first 100,000 devices have been distributed among India’s 20,000 colleges and universities (there are test projects underway at 240 universities). After this they will be introduced to schools — APKF in Kallah is part of a modest pilot project. Quite when this will be is to be determined.
According to Negroponte, “The promoters of Aakash never understood the difference between ‘low cost’ and ‘cheap’. The English language has the wonderful added and pejorative meanings in the word ‘cheap’. Nice difference. In the long run, you want to pour raw materials into a factory with no people and produce tablets for $20 (£13). In the short term, using cheap components, cheap design and cheap labour is not necessarily the right way to go.”
Tuli outlines the educational challenge for India as he rides back to his office in Amritsar, while his colleague Ibadat Singh, vice president of Indian operations, does his best to avoid the large puddles that remain from the previous day’s persistent rainfall. It’s wedding season in the Punjab; roadside hotels are wrapped in coloured garlands and wedding bands in baroque costumes ride to gigs on the back of Enfield motor-cycles. Tuli looks out of the window at children making their way home from school.
“Child labour is rampant here,” he says, his frame squeezed into the back seat. “People value education no matter what social class they’re in, but circumstances mean that they often have to send their ten-year-old child out to work.”
According to a 2008 study by Bhavtosh Vajpayee [.PDF], the former head of technology research at investment group CLSA, there are 219 million children in education in grades one through to 12 in India. But, if every Indian child attended school, there would be 361 million — almost two-thirds more. The most recent research reveals that 68 percent of students drop out before completing high school.
The person charged with altering these numbers is Kapil Sibal, the minister for communications and information technology. One afternoon in January, Sibal sits on the leather sofa in his modest office. The room forms a small part of one of the white, colonial villas visible behind the walls of the tree-lined boulevards of the government district in New Delhi.
“The platforms that are available are far too expensive, because the purchasing capacity of the ordinary household is not at the level where they can buy a $250 (£160) tablet,” says Sibal, 64, who has white hair worn in a side parting and wears a sport jacket. He describes the initial vision: “We asked, is it possible to get a product like the Aakash, which would be $35 (£23)? The private sector said this was not possible technologically.”
A tender was won by Datawind — a small Canadian company (at the time, Tuli says, the company was achieving $5 million [£3.26 million] in annualised revenue) backed by British investors. Run by Tuli and his brother Raja, it satisfied the criteria set out by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in Jaipur (there are 16 of the elite IIT universities across India), the organisation then acting as the government’s technology partner.
Sibal’s vision now extends well beyond students. “We’re going to make it a platform for all public services in India; namely applications for passports, payment of your bills, data regarding ownership of housing, ownership of land,” he says. “Whatever public service is to be provided will be provided through the Aakash.”
The minister outlines three major challenges. First, connectivity needs to be ensured so that there is the necessary bandwidth. Secondly, developers must be encouraged to establish a larger software ecosystem. The other is institutional: India’s federal system means that state governments need to be on board in order for the device to be widely implemented and public records digitised. And there is an additional challenge: reliable electricity. In July 2012, the collapse of three power grids in the north and east of the country left 600 million people without electricity for two days. Negroponte sees another significant, obstacle: “The federal government of India is more or less dysfunctional.”
Sibal acknowledges that the problems that the project has encountered — primarily, a dispute regarding the quality of the first version of the device, delays in the delivery of the second version, undelivered pre-orders and shipped devices that proved faulty — have been addressed. “Aakash 1 was not a good product,” he says, acknowledging that the relationship between IIT Jaipur and Datawind had been problematic: IIT Jaipur alleged that the Aakash 1 failed to comply with specifications outlined in the tender document; Datawind insists that these details were in addition to what had been agreed.
IIT Jaipur was contacted for this story but didn’t offer comment. Sibal is diplomatic: “There were some personality issues, so the team didn’t work very well,” he says. IIT Jaipur was removed from the project and its job transferred to IIT Bombay. The deadline for supply of the Aakash 2 was shifted back to March 31, 2013. (The device is also available directly to consumers as the UbiSlate 7Ci for £40.)
Aakash 3, due later this year, has an addition crucial for rural users: it will provide high-speed internet access via GPRS, meaning that it doesn’t need to be on a Wi-Fi network. Datawind will offer an unlimited data plan for £1.20 per month, and is recommending the government offers unlimited data plans to the versions it distributes. “The next version of the Aakash will have a SIM card,” Sibal says, forecasting that 100 million will be produced “in the next five to seven years”.
Early one evening in the first week of January, Suneet Tuli is eating a thali in a restaurant in Bayswater, London. The meal comes as a relief to him: he has spent the Christmas holiday in Puerto Rico and had been craving some Indian food. Over dinner he acknowledges the immensity of the task that the government is undertaking and the shortcomings of the project thus far, but maintains that the ambitious targets are attainable.
“I’ve been in meetings with strategists within the current government who are trying to figure out if it’s plausible to do all 220 million students in five or six years,” he says. “That’s 220 million in a country that only [consumes] 12 million computers and laptops and servers a year — these are outrageously large numbers. But, look at it from another perspective: they [consume] 200 million mobile phones per year. So five years for 220 million tablets is not outrageous, it’s less than 40 million per year.”
Jetlagged after a flight from Canada, Tuli makes the case that, since the average mobile phone in India sells for around $30 (£20), a tablet priced at $40 (£26) is also “not outrageous”.
Tuli, 45, grew up in Chandigarh, which serves as the capital of two states: Punjab and Haryana. His family moved to Canada in 1979 when Suneet was 11 and his brother Raja — who, Tuli points out, is the technical brain behind Datawind — was 13. Tuli still recalls his father, Lakhbir, buying Raja his first computer. “My brother started university back in 1984 and my father bought him a Mac — for $5,000 [almost £8,000 in today’s money],” he says.
“Now, today it just seems silly, right? Who would go out and buy a $5,000 computer?”
Tuli played competitive chess as a teenager. One of his games was published in Canadian chess magazine En Passant — he notes it was a match he lost, albeit to someone who eventually became a grand master. Standing in the lobby of an Amritsar hotel one night, he recalls his style of play as being bold: his tactic was to go on the offensive immediately. “I would take control of the centre of the board in order to put my opponent under pressure,” he says, toying with a chess set. Typically, a competitive game takes three hours. Tuli’s generally lasted about an hour.
After graduating from the University of Toronto in civil engineering (his brother had studied computer engineering at the University of Alberta), he pitched into his family’s technology business. At the time they were attempting to market a large-format fax machine for sending engineering blueprints. Tuli realised that he needed a gimmick. He called the Guinness Book of Records, which eventually cited the machine as the largest fax in the world. Sales picked up. Over the next few years, the company realised that mobile was the future and manufactured a number of devices, including a portable web browser, the PocketSurfer, which sold around 150,000 units over four years in the UK.
Soon after leaving college, Tuli read Clayton M Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma and found that it offered parallels to his family business: “He showed that it’s the disruptive technology that the 800lb gorilla ignores,” he says. “If, today, Microsoft decided it wanted to bring about the next billion internet users by making [low-cost tablets] affordably, they would own this industry end-to-end. Small companies like us exist and succeed because the 800lb gorilla ignores this.”
The roots of the Aakash go back to February 2, 2009, when the then human resource development minister, Shri Arjun Singh, announced an initiative: the National Mission on Education Through ICT (NMEICT). The mission came with a budget of $1bn ([£660 million] government expenditure on education in India in 2013 will be slightly less than $12bn [£7.8bn] out of a total budget of $3 trillion [£2 trillion]): 60 percent of this was to be spent on ensuring bandwidth at universities and colleges — a task that has largely been accomplished. The rest was allocated for content and the development of a low-cost computing device that could be distributed widely throughout India.
Datawind won the tender because no major industry player was interested — the risk of the project is high and the margins are low. Tuli’s belief in the Aakash as a device that can be transformative in India is clear, but Datawind is a commercial enterprise — it must find ways of squeezing revenue from consumers with very little disposable income. To do this, the company works with extremely low margins on the hardware, generating revenue via partnerships and advertising through the device’s content and apps. There are 32 apps on the device and a proprietary educational app store, as well as access to the Android iteration. Users can download any of the company’s apps for Rs49 [60p] each, with Datawind taking 30 to 50 percent of each transaction. Other apps include an English-learning app, engineering courses from IIT, a quiz offering teachers live remote assessment of students, and online lectures from IIT professors. The apps are not limited to learning: health ones such as Eyenetra offer eye tests, and a range of biometric apps will port with Aadhar, India’s unique-identification programme.
“My customer base is the lowest of the low-end customer — it’s very price sensitive,” Tuli says. “So if I can shift the burden from the hardware to other [revenue] streams, then I open up a bigger market.”
According to Tuli, revenue projections for the company for 2013 are “on the low end, maybe $40m to $50m (£32m) revenue; on the high end, maybe $100m (£66m) revenue”.
The other reason that Datawind can produce the device so cheaply is the diminishing cost of processing power: “Most of the components have crashed in price,” Tuli says. “Moore’s law is helping, but there are certain components that have very heavy margins still, primarily because of supply and demand, and those are the LCD and the touch screens. And we make those.”
The touchscreens are manufactured in Datawind’s factory in Montreal and, more recently, in its modern three-storey office in Amritsar. Located on the corner of a side street, the building has a steep staircase between the three floors. The ground is used for storage, the first is a call centre, the second is for assembly.
“Even when making them in Canada, we’re able to still get a respectable profit margin,” Tuli says. “It’s not that we can make it more cheaply than the Chinese can — the point is we can squeeze the margin out.”
Government officials, academics and tech entrepreneurs note that the Aakash is likely to drive down the price of tablet computers around the world: the devices will quickly progress from being luxury items to everyday ones.
“The benchmark for tablets is $24 (£16) now,” says Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur and academic. “A billion people are going to come online within three years or so and three billion within the next five to seven years. This is world-changing stuff.”
In March 2012, IIT Bombay took on the technological lead for the project from IIT Jaipur. The university’s first task was to determine whether the Aakash project was even viable — after all, there were many commentators, technologists and those in politics who contended that the government was simply throwing good money after bad. The doubters remain (there is particular criticism from certain sections of the press that not all of the components are made in India) but IIT Bombay declared the Aakash viable. It set about creating applications for the device by co-opting its students and faculty members.
On a warm Wednesday morning in January, students wearing hoodies and backpacks mill around and chat under shaded walkways on the campus in the northern reaches of Mumbai, on the shore of Lake Powai. Up three flights of stairs at the department of chemical engineering is the office of Kannan Moudgalya who, with his colleague Deepak Phatak, is responsible for the software in the Aakash.
Even during the coolest month of the year, Moudgalya has both an overhead fan and an air-conditioning unit running; any pieces of paper that aren’t pinned down are scattered by the draughts coming from all sides. Trim and courteous, Moudgalya explains that part of the content-development cost of the National Mission on Education through ICT was an initiative called “Teach a 1000 Teachers” [sic], a training programme which, in June 2012, was scaled up to include another 10,000 teachers, overseen by IIT Bombay. The idea was that engineering courses, such as electronics, thermodynamics and computer dynamics, could be taught to students throughout the country: each would be watching a lecture broadcast live from IIT Bombay to 168 remote-learning centres throughout the country. Students could interact with lecturers by means of two-way video.
After the launch of the Aakash 2, in November 2012, IIT Bombay used this infrastructure to initiate a two-day course on the Aakash. Forty devices were shipped to each training centre — 15,000 thousand people showed up to learn more. One of the apps created at one of the remote centres will be used to port the entire country’s schoolbooks on to the device.
Over sweet chai and biscuits, Moudgalya explains why the Aakash relies on open-source software. He has banned his students from using proprietary versions on his courses. “It’s like making them read a book which they can’t take outside the educational institution,” he explains. “Our small- and medium-size enterprises cannot afford this software. If we don’t teach open-source software, the employees we produce will not be competitive.”
IIT Bombay has also embedded software on the Aakash that could have an impact on how the country develops as a technology hub: tutorials on C and C++ will teach users to write code. Aakash will also offer a platform from which an ecosystem — an Indian app economy — might develop. IIT Bombay’s key contribution to the Aakash will be the creation of a virtuous circle: building an educational ecosystem is the best way to take full advantage of new technology.
Asked whether this is a superior way to learn, Moudgalya explains, “Not necessarily superior — we would be happy if it is comparable.” He then returns to a familiar theme: “The issue is this: how do we reach out to a large number of people?”
Ibadat Singh, Datawind’s VP of Indian operations, has just left the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the holiest place of Sikhism. It’s the birthday of the Guru Gobind Singh, and the sound of prayers wafts over the walls as Ibadat enthuses about what he sees as the Aakash 3’s killer app: the fact that anyone in India will be able to access the internet through GPRS. He gestures at a rickshaw driver. “It means that even the rickshaw wallah, who might only have a phone now, will be able to go online.”
Bringing a billion people online would be a significant technological feat — but also a challenging one. Back in Kallah, the schoolchildren are watching an animated version of Aesop’s parable of the crow that puts stones in a jug of water to get a drink. The moral of the story is that where there’s a will, there’s a way — and Tuli seems to be proving this. In June, Datawind announced that sales of the Aakash 2 and UbiSlate, shipping some 10,000 tablets a day, for a total of 905,000 between January and March, had made it the number-one tablet supplier in India, with a 15.3 percent market share. Like the crow, the Aakash project’s ingenuity and persistence may solve seemingly intractable problems.