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India Online - in the palm of your hand.

What's your strategy for India? Would you rethink it if you thought that in less than 3 years 250 million could be online, with an email account, networking on Orkut and responding to localized ads? This is not completely far fetched. Even if the number is only half that, it's quite possible if we look at the mobile as the computer in the palm of your hand.

When I first went to India 18 months ago it was still unusual to see an auto-rickshaw driver with a cellphone. This trip every driver / cabbie that drove me around had a phone. The houseboat captain had a phone etc. Today even in the smaller villages you can recharge your prepaid mobile. I've experienced Indian "broadband" (256kbps if you are lucky) in the home and noted that it is hard to buy routers and Wi-Fi accessories from the local electronics store. Concurrently,VoIP lines are going into homes; most of the infrastructure seems to be creaking from the pace of growth; customer service is often lousy and billing may be a mess. Phones will always come before PC's.

I know the big players in mobile (eg Vodaphone and Nokia) already understand why India is "THE" market they must win in. Many other tech players understand this. Eg Orkut and Google, probably HP etc. I also believe many companies don't or many not be managing it well. Eg Yahoo, Dell, Motorola and many more.

I keep returning to India because I believe successful global companies and startups must all have an India strategy and you won't understand it from 12000 miles away. The impact of mobile growth is only one of the reasons and the focus of this post. The "numbers" simply dwarf other markets (other than China). As these new users come on line they will tip product development, reshape the web and teach us new ways to interact. Real innovations in mobile are likely to come out of India.

The rough numbers:

Internet: Approx: 40 million online of which 25 million are active (weekly). Of that 10 to 12 million are on Orkut and most probably have a Gmail account. Note in India there is only 40 million landlines. Internet access is dialup or a choice of DSL and Cable. Speeds remain slow. A Reliance wireless network connection remains a viable or only option for some.

Mobile. The number ranges from about 180m to 240m. The article below uses 185m of which 39.46m are rural. Thus approx 20% of the user base in India is now rural. Penetration in major cities is approaching 50% while rural penetration ranges from 3% to just over 20%. Of the next 250 million users that go mobile at least 100m will be rural!

Growth: Mobile dwarfs Internet / PC market. In two to three years India will have doubled the current number of users. I have a suspicion that many Internet users are "Users at work"; Orkutting as soon as they arrive at the office. They may not have a connection at home. Internet in the home is likely to remain disappointing.

Other leading indicators that are important!

Airtel recently announced and has been promoting Prepaid for Life. This means you buy a prepaid SIM 495rp and the number never expires (requires 200rp spend every 180 days). It's clever as it provides phones for those that can't even afford to make calls.

Vodaphone which bought Hutch back in Feb 2007 has recently changed the name and is has announced new links to Orkut. Concurrently Google is offering an Adsense like program for Mobile. See this article for Google details. Nokia is also active in this space (see enpocket).

Observations:

What we really do today with computers can be done on mobile. email, directories, networking, search, maps etc. Enable all these mobile phones with email accounts / Orkut accounts and you are looking at 100+ million users in no time flat. Given the price differential for mobile advertising rates and it is easy to see how Google can potentially arrange a revenue split with carriers. It's not too far fetched to see limited mobile data connections being "free" as a result.

Broadband to the home in India will remain disappointing. It will lag behind mobile growth. Already programs like Reliance NetConnet (USB to PC or PCCard) are popular 3G programs and the coverage is reaching deep into rural areas. The speed can be variable and is often not much better than a dialup connection. I am fairly sure GPRS can not scale to the data requirements of hundreds of millions going online. Thus only the infrastructure and its installation is likely to stall or frustrate the growth of online mobile web users.

It needs to be free: They aren't going to pay for it as they don't understand the value. They want email but it must be free etc. They will happily view an ad while an email is downloaded. Ads can be ajaxed down earlier and retained in the background.

Big Education Job: Only a combined effort by Mobile operators, perhaps Google and businesses can make this happen. It's not impossible. Just a few years ago almost no one had a cellphone in India. Most people in India still don't really have an address (street address). Given the speed of adoption of the mobile - they will want these!

Whether you are a marketer, run commerce, trade, provide services etc. it is time to prepare your strategy for India. The numbers are just too huge. The companies that learn how to reach these new communicators and create the channels for conversation will create powerful platforms for growth. The battle will move to the handset and will never be for the desktop in India.

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