Thursday, October 06, 2011

Aakash - The Sky's the Limit

Android tablet prices went down even further with the announcement of the Indian-made tablet "Aakash" (Sanskrit for "sky", pronounced "aakaash"). The price to students (admittedly with a government subsidy) is projected to be $35. Even without the subsidy, the retail price should still be a groundbreaking $60. The aim is to bridge the "digital divide" and allow less affluent sections of society to participate in the digital economy.

I like free markets, but given the tendency for cartels to form in most market segments (negating the freedom that true liquidity would deliver) and the distortions of patent law that entrench the power of large corporations, I also think governments need to step in from time to time to ensure equity. Untrammelled capitalism isn't going to bridge the digital divide. There has to be a deus ex machina that kicks in at critical junctures.

Stepping back a bit to take a historical view, the primary difference between the 19th and 20th centuries was not in scientific knowledge or even technological invention (because many 20th century inventions were known even in the 19th), but in the mass production and mass consumption of such technology. In analogous fashion, I can see the potential for India to become a technology "enabler" for the world's poorer half (or two-thirds), democratising technology usage across a geographical span rather than a historical one.

I remember the dire warnings a decade ago about an AIDS epidemic that was poised to devastate Africa, and the utterly shameful behaviour of the big Western pharma companies in refusing to lower the prices of AIDS medication to save millions of lives. They tried to use patent law to block any attempt by other parties to provide cheaper medication. If the intellectual wherewithal had been entirely lacking in the Third World, they may well have got away with it. But Indian pharma companies were able to produce AIDS medication, and more importantly, produce it at a much lower price point that African countries could afford, and the Third World as a whole managed to vote their way around the IP laws that the US (and other Western countries) have forced all others to sign. A humanitarian disaster was averted that would have dwarfed the Holocaust, and India had a large (though also largely unsung) role to play in averting it.

More recently, Tata Motors established a radically lower price point for cars ($3000). The Nano is a revolutionary breakthrough, and it isn't a toy either. If a car can survive on Indian roads, it will positively thrive anywhere else ;-). The Nano is going through a few teething problems right now, but I have a sense that in a decade or two, it will be one of the world's iconic car brands, perhaps the most ubiquitous. The Nano could change the image of car ownership as an indication of wealth.

And now, with Aakash, India is once again bringing technology within the reach of ordinary people, at Third World prices. The term "reasonably priced" means something very different in Western countries. Even middle class people in Third World countries cannot afford these "reasonably priced" products. In Marxist terminology, as long as the "means of production" were concentrated in Western hands, there wasn't much the rest of the world could do about it. They either paid those prices (exorbitant by their standards) or simply did without. Now they have a choice. Incongruous as it may seem, India is swooping in in shining armour to save the day.

I do have some reservations, though. Indian ingenuity has never been in doubt. What's in doubt is India's institutional ability to follow through, to execute, to deliver. India has always been a muddle-through country rather than a reliably-achieve country. Even the Nano is a case in point. The political shenanigans that preceded its launch very nearly canned the project. If I was someone big in the Indian government, I would not look at this as just a private sector enterprise that is none of the government's business. I would see it as a national enterprise where India has a chance to put its stamp on the world and change it for the better, and I would provide Tata Motors with all the support needed to manufacture and sell the Nano in volume, worldwide.
[I'm not going to argue about whether an invention that serves to consume more fossil fuels is going to change the world for the better. The environmentalists don't seem to have an easy answer to the developmental issue of stagnation-versus-pollution either.]

Again on the topic of the Indian character, I remember my student days at IIT Madras when a new Siemens mainframe computer was delivered to the institute. This was in the mid-eighties. The box was too big to go up the stairs of the computer centre. Many students and professors watched as the workmen, mostly uneducated, rigged up a makeshift pulley and with the help of ropes, winched the box up the side of the building, and others leaned over the parapet wall on the first floor and hauled it in. Mission accomplished with a minimum of technology (and no insurance!)

Watching this, one of my professors who had done his PhD in the US and worked there for a while, remarked wisely, "We Indians are great at improvisation. The danger is that we will be satisfied with our ability to improvise, and fail to develop real systems."

I see no evidence that India has improved significantly on the systems front. Flashes of Indian brilliance, like the Nano and the Aakash, will remain just flashes in the pan unless the country learns to be more disciplined about delivery. Virtually every developed country emphasises delivery discipline. Only when India masters that can the world look forward to a steady stream of dirt-cheap high technology that will change billions, not just millions, of lives.

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