Aakash 4 to be ready in February: Dr. Jhunjhunwala

Good supply in the pipeline for the indigenous low-cost tablet.

R. Chandrasekaran

CHENNAI: In a developing economy, going into the digital world from the conventional mode is a tough task especially with a slender budget earmarked for it. However, after a few years of concerted effort, India has found a new device in Aakash tablet PC to guide the future of India.

Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala
Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala

After witnessing tremendous success in the previous two versions despite some controversies, an upgraded version of Aakash tablet PC, which is a dream come true especially for rural students, is likely to be ready next month, in February.

However, the delivery could be possible only after the finalization of global tender, which will probably start next month. Significantly, there will be more vendors than just one vendor for the previous versions. There are already reports that at least five million Aakash tablet PC will be made available to the students.

Aakash tablet PC turned the world towards India for the amazing design and technicalities at a low cost. This is set to boost the confidence of the students’ fraternity in the subcontinent and change the way of learning.

The upgraded version is being looked after by four eminent personalities. In an effort to get more details about the upcoming Aakash 4, The American Bazaar met Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology’s Department of Electrical Engineering, Chennai, and head of the Telecommunications and Computer Networks group (TeNet).

Jhunjhunwala has been feted internationally, and won many awards, including Padma Shri in the year 2002. He has been awarded Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 1998, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Research Award for the year 1997, Millennium Medal at Indian Science Congress in the year 2000 and H. K. Firodia for “Excellence in Science & Technology” for the year 2002, Shri Om Prakash Bhasin Foundation Award for Science & Technology for the year 2004, was awarded Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Lecture Award by INSA for the year 2006 and IBM Innovation and Leadership Forum Award by IBM for the year 2006. He is a Fellow of INAE, IAS, INSA and NAS.

Jhunjhunwala is a Director in the Board of SBI. He is also a Board member of several companies in India, including TTML, BEL, Polaris, 3i Infotech, Sasken, Tejas, NRDC, and IDRBT. He is a member of Prime Minister’s Setup Scientific Advisory Committee.

Excerpts from the exclusive interview:

Q: Could you tell us about Aakash 4?

A: Right now, there are four people who started writing on Aakash. Dr. Deepak B Pathak, IIT Mumbai’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Dr. Rayat Moona of Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Mr. N.K. Sinha of Ministry of Human Resources Department and myself.

We call it Aakash 4. Four of us are attending to it and we are working together and meet every 3-4 days to take stock of the developments. The meeting revolves around specifications, basic frame work, and application framework; driving what it should contain and what it should not contain; technical specifications, design and hand it over for writing data for complete testing. We are not involved in writing data.

Q: Is there any time frame set for the launch of Aakash 4?

A: Very soon. It is in advanced stage. The design and other details will be ready by February. The tender should be out in February and the process of finalization will happen thereafter.

Q: There have been reports of short supply in the earlier versions. How this will be addressed in the upgraded version of Aakash 4 launch?

A: Short supply! Today, there is only one vendor supplying Aakash. For the upcoming version, there will be at least five vendors supplying it. There are already 8 to 10 companies who have submitted their design. Therefore, we are confident that there will not be any issue on supply side. The delivery will take some time because of the process involved.

Q: Do you develop the product and give it to vendors to make it?

A: We are not developers of the product. We basically design the product, including technical specifications, evaluations and testing them.

Q: What are the features? Will it be on par with the likes of say iPad?

A: It is not proper to compare Aakash with iPad. While iPad is an Rs.40K plus product, Aakash is just about Rs.2K+ device. However, it will have most of the features. It may not be as fast as iPad. Our objective and the idea of the product are to provide our students a good digital device so that they benefit from good teaching. We want every student in colleges and schools to take advantage of the product. We also want to build an educational eco system around that.

Q: How is this device going to be helpful to students?

A: There are lots of things we are planning to do. For instance, we are creating e-books; there are lessons, questions and answers. While the text, figures, and diagrams are going to be similar, what is important here is that there will be video button and there will be teacher teaching the lessons. Instead of going through the books, there will be somebody to teach them in e-books. Then, there will be animations. These are called interactive e-books. Then, there will be quizzes on every section. The e-books will allow self learning much easier.

We are also going to use this device for live broadcast of teaching. Today, good teachers are not available everywhere and we want to use the best teachers teaching to all through live broadcast. Students can ask questions through tablet across the country. Then, there can be tutorials and group of students engaging in studies together. Examinations can be conducted through the tablet. Now, examinations are already conducted through the web and such as JEE. There are multiple choices, objective and subjective. I don’t need to correct. While answers can be found from the computer itself for the objective type of questions, for the subjective questions, published answers will be given randomly to peers forming a group of 4 or 5 students.

Q: So, the objective of Aakash is purely education and meant for students.

A: Yes, We know India and we want our children to take advantage of the tablet. There are 4,000 engineering colleges, whether it is public or private or government. First, we want the engineering college students to be equipped with the tablet PC and then we will move on to others before targeting senior higher secondary school students.

Q: Does this mean that Blackboard or Whiteboard will be replaced with digital?

A: No. it will be there. This is an additional facility. Apart from local teachers, other best teachers can be brought live for the benefit of students. In effect, part of the teaching will come broadcast.

Q: When you say live broadcast of teachers, does this mean across the country or globally?

A: We are planning to use best teachers for live broadcast from across the country only now.

Q: Is there any plan to launch Aakash in other countries?

A: Aakash is basically launched for domestic purposes only.

Q: Then, what is the significance attached to the U.N. recognition?

A: I don’t know and I don’t consider it.

Looking at the way the Aakash tablet PC generated interest, there is no doubt that the new age tablet PC will fulfill the humble aspirants’ needs of a digital device that can be easily affordable and compete with the rest of the world. The Aakash tablet PC will also change the teaching pattern in India if not completely, but at least to an additional extent, supplement regular teaching.

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