Friday, October 28, 2011

Our Thoughts on the Akaash Tablet

The Internet has been abuzz with the news of India's $35 tablet christened Akaash. Nikhil over at Medianama had asked us for our comments and we reproduce our full length comments below. 



We are are a non-governmental,not-for-profit charitable organization that publishes high quality low cost children's books with a mission to see “A book in every child’s hand”. With a view to furthering this mission, we use multiple mediums, formats, licenses and methods to publish and distribute books on varying subject of interest and relevance to children.

However, as we understand it, the first iteration is primarily targeted at the higher education segment which is not our market. All the same, assuming such a device will, in time, be available to primary schools as well, our comments are below.

How do you think the low cost $46 tablet Aakaash, released by the Indian government will impact your business? 

In India, the book publishing industry and especially in the markets we serve has two big challenges. The first is the high cost of distribution that a device along with a data connection (wireless, in this case) is open to disruption and this, in our opinion, is a good thing. The second, is that rising and volatile print and paper costs no longer exert as much pressure.

That said, we believe the impact on our business, as it were, will be minimal. Paper still offers tremendous benefits in the markets we serve and we do not see that changing in the short to medium term. The low cost and high value of the books we publish mean that it is possible for every child to actually own or hold and read a book of their own. However, we welcome all technology that makes it possible to reach more children at lower cost and in fact, this underpins our open content model.

What are the opportunities that you could consider for your business on such a tablet?

As above, we think we have an opportunity to skirt existing logistical challenges and this is rather exciting. We are also hopeful that the Government's entry in to this space will also validate open source and open content models such as the one we are building.

What kind of content/services delivery model would you prefer - via the web browser or applications?

I think there are use cases for both. Basic content delivery via the the web using web standards and open formats are important because they can be accessed via multiple devices and methods. Applications are interesting because they allow for a greater degree of value addition. However, it does lead to a walled-garden which is less than ideal.

In general, there is a further point we'd like to make:

There has been no mention of Unicode in any of the public communications and we think the MHRD and this device can play a very important role in the industry and public adoption of Unicode.

India's linguistic diversity is mirrored in the works so published and one particularly onerous problem is an abject lack of diverse “print ready” Indic OpenType fonts that are Unicode compliant and this problem is further exacerbated by the lack of adoption of Unicode in publishing work-flows. Such lack of standards compliant fonts are a serious drawback to technological attempts at publishing existing works in new mediums as it adds to the cost and time of conversion. The Government can play a catalytic role in this space for the stated purpose of using technology as a way to scale content dissemination and interactivity for education. Given the proposed wide scale launch of this device and the Government's involvement, a logical opportunity that arises is content for such devices when they are eventually rolled out and there is some hope that this large opportunity will spur the development of Unicode compliant Indic fonts and publishing work-flows.

Our recommendation is that the MHRD should mandate the use of open type Unicode fonts for multiple reasons including the fact that using Unicode fonts are the only way to achieve cross-platform interoperability and is a global standard, given India's push towards copyright reform for the print impaired, it is imperative that Unicode fonts be used in the creation of Indic content because it is otherwise a huge barrier to conversion to print-friendly formats and lastly, Unicode, being an open global standard guarantees content accessibility in the future and ensures no proprietary font and vendor lock in.

However given the lack of high quality and varied typefaces that are both screen and print optimised Open Type Indic Unicode fonts and the importance of linguistic diversity to India's cultural heritage, it is imperative that greater attention is paid to the development of such fonts under licenses that allow for free re-use and to fix issues in the fonts that might arise. Further, the Government should fund the open development of at least 5 such fonts for each the 21 Constitutionally recognised languages and make these available not just for free, but under free license to re-use and improve as well.

The following does not represent Pratham Books' official position but is Gautam's personal opinion:

The PIB press release has an interesting portion on Content Creation.

I do not agree with the requirement that “All IP (Intellectual Property) created under projects funded by this Mission will vest with MHRD”. Since there is content that is funded by the MHRD, such content should rightfully be in the public domain as it is publicly funded.

Further, it is unlikely that all content that is or will be loaded on to the device can have copyright assigned to the Government and perhaps an open licensing model would work better – for content to be considered for the device, it necessarily must be under an open license, for example: The Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike license.

I do not fully agree with the requirement that “All content should be created using open-source software.” While this is indeed important, without the MHRD and the other wings of Government making a concerted effort to spur and support the development of open source tools for content creation, this might lead to a shortage of content. HoIver, I fully support the position that all content must be delivered and loaded in open, standards compliant and royalty-free standards and either licensed appropriately.

I fully agree with this statement that “All content created under this Mission is for open access by all and cannot be charged for in any way” and would urge the use of a public domain license for content funded by the MHRD and an open license for content that is loaded on the device. I would also urge the MHRD to create an online portal where all of the content is available online under the same conditions to ease access and discoverability.

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