As questions loom over whether the second generation Aakash can save the educational tablet project, it faces new competition from the UK in the form of the Raspberry Pi.
The credit card sized educational computer flew off the virtual shelves when it was introduced this week as pre-launch buzz hit fever pitch. The websites of two British resellers offering the computer, RS Components and Premier Farnell, struggled to keep up with the pace of orders that came in at 700 a second, and the Raspberry Pi project site crashed under the load of overwhelming interest. Premier Farnell CEO Harriet Green said that demand was outstripping current supply by 20 times.
Now, comparing the Aakash to the Raspberry Pi is like comparing apples and, well, another fruit.
They might both cost $35, with an entry level Raspberry Pi costing $10 less than that, but the Aakash is a tablet with its own screen and battery whereas the Raspberry Pi is a bare-bones computer that requires you to provide your own keyboard, mouse, power, compact flash memory, display and power to use it.
However, the mission of the two projects is largely the same, to engage students in computer science and digital learning.
The non-profit educational group behind the Raspberry Pi project was worried that computer education in Britain was focused on doing simple tasks such as word processing rather than learning computer science.
That criticism was echoed by Google chairman Eric Schmidt last year said of Britich education, “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made.”
It was a shortcoming that British educators have been all too aware of. The Raspberry Pi project has been in the works for six years and has often been likened to the BBC Micro project of the early 1980s, an early computer literacy project that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Many, if not most, British tech entrepreneurs under 50 praise the project as helping inspire their future careers.
That's the goal of of Eben Upton, one of the people behind Raspberrry Pi. Upton told the BBC:
“We just want to get kids programming. The goal here is to increase the number of children to apply to university to do computer science, and to increase the range of things they know how to do when they arrive.”
How does it peform?
Of course, the big question is whether the small, inexpensive computer can perform. The Aakash has suffered due to criticisms of the slow performance, short battery life and a frustrating touch screen.
Both the Aakash and Raspberry Pi run on ARM-based processors, the British processor that runs the vast majority of the world's mobile phones, smartphones and tablets. The first generation Aakash is said to run an ARM 11-based processor from Conexant running at a pretty sluggish 366Mhz. The Raspberry Pi uses an ARM 11-based processor from Broadcom running at 700Mhz plus a separate graphics processing unit. When Upton isn't working on the Raspberry Pi project, he is a system-on-chip processor architect and associate technical director for semiconductor for Broadcom.
That in mind, Upton says that the processor in the Raspberry Pi has about twice the graphics performance of the iPhone 4S and even bests Nvidia's Tegra 2. The Raspberry Pi can connect to a television or a computer monitor via the commonly used composite RCA and HDMI video interfaces.
The Raspberry Pi computer will run a number of Linux-based operating systems including Red Hat's Fedora as well as Debian, the basis for the popular Ubuntu distribution, and Arch.
Right now, mostly students have been using early versions of the computer, but those lucky enough to get in early on the rush should start seeing their computers soon with others getting theirs by late April. We'll soon know if the small computer delivers on its promises or proves to be another low-priced, under-powered dud like the original Aakash.