Tech2 speaks with Suneet Singh Tuli, maker of Aakash

In the last couple of days, the once promising Aakash project suddenly seemed to have gone pale, with its future appearing bleak and dwindling. The first batch of devices have reached users and the response hasn’t been great, to say the least. The device is surrounded by consumer complaints, to the extent that the rumors surfacing claim that Datawind may not get the LC extended and the entire low cost tablet project could be shelved, altogether by the government. Yesterday, we tried getting in touch with Datawind and spoke to a representative. However, today, we’ve managed to get a telephonic interview with the man himself, Mr. Suneet Singh Tuli, the founder and CEO of Datawind Ltd., who is responsible for the overall vision, strategy and execution of the world's most affordable tablet.
Challenges faced while building a tablet at such a low price
As we began with the possible challenges they would have to face while building a tablet at such a low price, Mr. Tuli was quick enough to point out how important it is to balance out the features and the price point at which the device is being offered as one of the key challenges. With Aakash, the price has been the main factor as the company had to maintain a price level that nobody was able to chase. He also pointed out that making a product in India is yet another challenge due to various bureaucratic reasons.
Without much ado, we got to the point. Here are excerpts from the interview:
1. There have been several consumer complaints about the Aakash tablet, especially regarding its performance? Could you shed some light on it?
We haven’t heard too many complaints. It’s just a small percentage of people who have received the device, so the number of users is low. This kind of initial complaints are faced by all devices. For instance, upon their release, the iPad or the Amazon Kindle had their own set of complaints. The initial devices reached colleges, and probably the expectations of the college students were different from those of average users. So, it is necessary to set the right expectations. The key areas of the usage of the Aakash tablet is web surfing, multimedia HD quality and ability to run select Android apps. In all these aspects, if you were expecting an iPad, then you will be disappointed. The device is for those who cannot afford an iPad.
2. Due to such consumer complaints, it has been rumored that government won’t extend Datawind’s LC? Moreover, due to poor performance by the Aakash, government is also rumored to shelve the Aakash project. What do you think?
The LC will be extended. The official statement of the Ministry states that the LC will be extended. There are issues and we are trying to resolve them. We will be shipping 1,00,000 units to the government, according to the tender. When the next tender opens up, everyone will have equal opportunity to bid for it.
About the shelving the Aakash project, we haven’t heard that. The Ministry intends to give a long term commitment to the Aakash project.
3. There has been delay in the shipments of Aakash and UbiSlate. When will the shipments exactly begin? Was Datawind ready to handle such an overwhelming response and what steps are being taken now, especially in the customer support segment?
The devices were expected to ship in November, but the reason for delay was due to the decision to upgrade the device with better processing power and battery. The shipments will begin by the end of January to the first week of February. The demand is many, many, many times than what we had expected. Therefore the inability to deliver may disappoint many.
No, we weren’t ready to handle such a response. It’s much more than what we had expected. Now, we are in talks with two companies and plan to outsource the customer support service, which should begin in a few weeks. In addition to the customer support that we offer. Lately the e-mail support had also begun.
4. So, 30,000 units (older version) have been shipped already and 70,000 (improved Aakash) will begin shipping soon. What about the those users who've received a faulty device, will it be replaced by the newer version of Aakash, especially considering that they have a similar price?

No, in such a case the user will receive the same version that he ordered and not the upgraded version of the Aakash.

5. Weren’t 14 lakh units sold? We see expected deliveries for about a lakh. What about the rest?

We had to ship 1 lakh units to the government. The other orders are what we received online from customers. Now, the number has increased to 20 lakh pre-orders, which do not include the devices that are being shipped to the government. So, these devices are pre-booked by users online and will begin shipping.
6. As per reports, Datawind is said to team up with Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries to offer the cheapest 4G tablet at Rs. 3,500? When will the production begin? When can we expect the device to hit store shelves?
There were a few preliminary discussions, but nothing is yet finalized. It’s too early to comment anything about this.
7. What else can we expect from Datawind this year?

To begin with, there is the UbiSlate 7+ and there will more upgraded versions of the device this year. We are in preliminary talks with many companies.

Published Date: Jan 14, 2012 07:43 pm | Updated Date: Jan 14, 2012 07:43 pm