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Cheap phones, big dreams

Cheap phones, big dreams
When Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call ages ago, little did he know that his invention would have an impact on the life of <g data-gr-id="93">Nandoo</g>. <g data-gr-id="94">Nandoo</g> is the owner of a roadside stall which sells fresh coconut water. <g data-gr-id="91">However</g> he is <g data-gr-id="89">more proud</g> to be the owner of an <g data-gr-id="95">Undroeed</g> phone (in his own words) or an Android phone as the world knows it. <g data-gr-id="96">Nandoo</g> brought this phone for Rs 2,000 from a <g data-gr-id="87">second hand</g> mobile seller in Noida. He is quite enthused by the phones touch features. When business is slow he spends his time watching honey <g data-gr-id="97">singh</g> songs and playing racing games on his smartphone. <g data-gr-id="98">Nandoo’s</g> only gripe is that the phone looks quite worn out. He is saving money to buy a <g data-gr-id="99">chamchamata</g> <g data-gr-id="100">hua</g> <g data-gr-id="101">naya</g> <g data-gr-id="102">issmartfone</g>. <g data-gr-id="103">Nandoo’s</g> dream may soon be a reality.

The next Android One phone from Google may be priced as low as $50 in the coming years, cutting its current price tag by half. This may be part of Google’s plans to restart its Android One project in India. In an interview recently, Rajan Anandan, Google’s managing director in India and Southeast Asia stated that the company remains “very committed” to Android One. Since its launch in India last September, the Android One has struggled to entice the market and, in the end, failed to meet the company’s expectations. Google had manufactured phones under Android One standard and had priced it at about $100 (around the Rs 6,000 mark) during its launch last year. <g data-gr-id="83">Anandan</g> stated that he wanted phones based on Android operating system to target the “sweet spot” in the <g data-gr-id="84">cost conscious</g> Indian smartphone market by introducing a device priced between $31 (Rs 2000) to $50 (Rs 3000 odd). There is a reason for this enthusiasm amongst smartphone makers for the Indian market. 

Smartphone sales in India increased by 166.8 per cent making it the world’s fastest growing smartphone market in the last quarter of 2013, according to a study by leading research firm Gartner. It also revealed that worldwide, smartphones sales now account for 53.6 per cent of overall mobile phone sales in 2013, exceeding annual sales of feature phones for the first time. According to a digital media company head, the increase in mobile Internet connectivity and introduction of cheaper smartphones along with a drop in internet surfing charges has led to huge increase in video consumption. The number of video viewers on mobile and tablet devices increased considerably over 2014 and interestingly, addition of screens has only increased a user’s viewing time. Importantly for us, the entertainment category has the maximum reach in the online video segment and sports is one of the fastest growing content categories.

A claim that the cheap mobile phone is the most disruptive device to hit humanity since shoes can now well be  termed as a legitimate claim. Several devices invented in the last century could claim legitimate competition with the cell phone for their revolutionary the automobile, railways, aeroplanes, television, computers and the Internet.

The Internet has indeed been a democratising force for a loud minority but the cell phone has been a source of real empowerment for India’s millions. It is able to overcome the obvious hurdles of poverty and illiteracy, which limit the outreach of, say, the automobile or the Internet. Over the last decade, it has become highly affordable and its usage is not constrained by a lack of education, still a reality for a third of Indians. Its reach, therefore, is unparalleled. By the end of 2012, there were 900 million cell phone connections in India, more than double the number of bank accounts. Even if some people have more than one connection, it is reasonable to assume that almost every adult in India owns one.

Its not as if a smartphone in the sub-2000 rupee segment has not been attempted yet. Mozilla tried and failed gloriously. Mozilla has revamped its Firefox OS mobile software project after concluding that ultra-affordable $25 handsets aren’t enough to take on the biggest powers of the smartphone world. The nonprofit organisation rose to prominence with the success of its Firefox Web browser a decade ago, but it’s having trouble achieving the same success with its Firefox operating system for smartphones. According to a  email from new Chief Executive Chris Beard, Mozilla has changed its strategy to a new “Ignite” initiative that emphasises phones with compelling features, not just with lower price tags. It’s also considering letting its operating system run apps written for its top rival, Google’s Android.

India has more mobile phones than it does <g data-gr-id="82">toilets</g>. Let that fact sink in. Now you have an idea of how far the telecom revolution has come in India. India had four million mobile phone connections in 2001; by 2013 there were said to be 990 million. In a country of 1.2 billion <g data-gr-id="81">people</g> this would make access to cell-phones far higher than access to sanitation. So how is the growth of this vast market transforming the world’s tenth-largest economy? Cellphones are estimated to have generated four million jobs, and the strength of this section is the attention to this sector, particularly retail. Could phone sales and repair, as well as use, as the first step for many into India’s hi-tech boom? Here as in other areas, mobiles are a facet of wider trends. The shift in manufacturing from a predominantly male, unionised workforce to a new class of young, educated, female workers is not unique to phones. 

While, for consumers, mobiles involve a closer relationship with brands and suppliers than other utilities or technologies, in retail, many other outlets embody globalising India.

The argument is that users shape the social impact of technologies, within hard-wired constraints. 
 The more interesting point that technology also shapes the way users function is, in this case, quite persuasive.  Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron in their book titled the Great Indian Phone book argue that mobile phones deliver increased autonomy and a ‘networked individualism’  that alters social structures. In the coming <g data-gr-id="67">future</g> a smartphone could be as ubiquitous as the Nokia 1100 once was. That’s a prospect newly <g data-gr-id="65">tech savvy</g> folks like <g data-gr-id="64">Nandoo</g> will be happy with.
Nikhil Thiyyar

Nikhil Thiyyar

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