Just three months after its triumphant launch, India's $49 tablet computer is mired in an ugly public relations war.
Datawind, a small Canadian tech company, has tantalized India with the prospect of a widely available low-cost tablet to help many in the country's outer reaches connect to the Internet.
But just as Datawind rolls out its first shipments under a government contract, it is battling reports that the device has disappointed users in initial tests and that the company violated terms of its deal.
Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli said accusations against the company are driven by envy, sour grapes and corruption in the Indian media. His firm has followed its contracts to the letter, the device does everything it was meant to, and a deluge of orders for the ultra-cheap tablet speaks for itself, he said.
The Ministry of Human Resource Development, which commissioned the product, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Globe and Mail. A week ago, HRD Minister Kabil Sibal reportedly told the Indian media that there were "differences" with Datawind, but "we believe in resolving issues rather than highlighting them."
When Mr. Sibal launched the tablet, called Aakash, with much fanfare in October, he said the ministry had ordered 100,000 units through the Indian Institute of Technology – Rajasthan (IIT-R), and that the tablet would be a critical part of its effort to roll out Internet access for long-distance learning across a country that has only limited connectivity. Datawind won the tender to produce the tablet a year ago, promising to deliver the seven-inch tablet for a unit cost below $50.
Datawind has supplied an initial 10,000 units to the ministry which are being tested by students across the country. In recent weeks, reports in the Indian media, quoting anonymous sources, have alleged the tablet has proved fragile and performed poorly in those tests – with screen problems, a tendency to overheat and a painfully slow processor.
Other stories have slammed Datawind for selling the units to the public before delivering the other 90,000 tablets, while a bitter we-said, they-said war of words has erupted over new testing protocols.
Mr. Tuli rejects all those assertions. "Anyone who is complaining that there is a quality problem is comparing it to the wrong level – it's too slow, compared to what? Show me a [$49]device where it's too slow. Yes it's too slow compared to the iPad – wrong customer, wrong market," he said in an interview as he rushed between meetings in the capital earlier this week.
The deal with the ministry now seems frozen in a dispute over testing standards. Mr. Tuli said that Aakash meets all the requirements in the original tender, but that in late December the IIT(R) suddenly produced a testing protocol with the same military ruggedness requirements as a Hewlett-Packard laptop that sells for $2,000. He said there is "no basis in law" for the procurer to change the terms of the deal nearly a year after it was signed and said Datawind will not be supplying further units until the ministry resolves the issue.
Professor Prem Kalra, director of the IIT(R), said "These are not new requirements – the specs have not changed at all, we are not changing the test protocol, we are looking at country requirements … he was told from day one that these [100,000]devices will be distributed across the country and across the country they should be functional … the temperature varies 10 below to 50 above – if somebody calls this testing military range, I can't help it, that's how our country is – we would not want part of our country to be excluded because it does not function at this temperature."
Prof. Kalra also expressed irritation that Datawind is selling the product commercially. "He was supposed to get it to us and then go … it has to first finish needs of IIT(R) then go to market."
Mr. Tuli countered that the contract in no way prohibits Datawind from commercializing the product and that they decided to put some units on sale to the public before filling the whole ministry order because of intense public curiosity about the product and because the buyer hasn't paid its bills.
"While we had every intention of having delivered the full 100,000 many months back, we were inhibited from performing," he said. "Due to the non-payment and ridiculous test protocols, we decided to start supplying other customers while these issues were being resolved."
When it is, the company will supply 70,000 units of an upgraded model of the product – with twice the current three-hour battery life, three times the processing speed and Wi-Fi capability – and 20,000 of the originals to the ministry, and start delivering the new model to customers by April or May, Mr. Tuli said. In addition, he said, the ministry will soon post a tender for new round of devices, and the company "will win that, too," he vowed.
Mr. Tuli described being asked for a bribe by a major media outlet to squash a critical story; he refused, he said, and the story ran prominently, alleging that early users hate the tablet.
But while the critical stories keep coming, he said, the orders are coming even faster: He said 2.4 million people have already "booked" an Aakash on the company's website. (That is, they have signed up to purchase one when available, but have paid nothing.) He said there were more than 167,000 bookings on the peak day and the company's website crashed under what its web team believed at first must be a hacking attack.
Technology analysts say the product has generated intense interest, but that may not translate to the sales Mr. Tuli envisions.
"This is for the very, very bottom-of-the-pyramid consumer and that's going to be mainly government," said Vishal Tripathi of the research firm Gartner India.