Manish Market and the New Mobile Ghetto Blasters

May 6, 2008

in Mobility

I’ve recently purchased a “China Phone” at Manish Market in Mumbai. I wanted to just have one as an example. Manish Market is the center of the “China Phone” trade. The building is ugly on the outside and dirty on the inside. It’s packed with two or three people crowding every kiosk. It’s noisy, busy and you are constantly bumping and squeezing around people.

There are shops many of which are wholesalers and then outside many men in front of glass cases filled with phones. After the 20th store (or is that booth) you start to recognize the phones, models and price points. For the most part the phones are very “foreign” here. They aren’t “name” brands. Where one sees name brands they are either “second hand trade-ins” or “fakes”.

Talk about “China Phones” particularly in villages and in poorer “slums” led me to this market. The key differentiator that has brought me here is the sound and that is “SOUND” as in loud speakers rather than the quality of the “call sound” which is almost irrelevant. I’m on the lookout for phones with more than 4 speakers. The first one I’m shown has a second backplate that acts like a subwoofer and can contain a second battery. It makes the phone almost an inch thick. This “extra sound” device is removable. The phone felt a little clunky with it.

At the next place I am shown a handset with eight speakers built into the back cover. Despite the noise it thumps out the hindi music. I figure you could run a small party on it. The resellers are telling me that they have them with up to 12 speakers. Sound is what is selling these phones; plus I think some “service” deals for kitting them out with music. The key price point appears to be about 4000 rupees just over $100. I’m already looking at the trading up options. I’m being shown similar phones (roughly iphone size) with inbuilt TV’s. The sales guys are a little skeptical about the TV. They cannot demo it inside the building; I’m less than certain that it really works. I quickly decide I don’t need one with a TV. They talk about the operating system like it is a “Nokia” clone. It has some similarlities and then obvious differences. All of the phones I’m shown have touch screens. For the most part they work better with the included in the case “pointing pen” although certain apps (music) really only need the finger.

I focus in on one model, with touch screen, four speakers, good volume. Each stop seems to get a cheaper price. I start asking about repairs. I’m told there is a full floor above with repair outfits that can fix or tweak anything. So now I have two posts coming; 1)the phone I purchased, and 2)learnings from the repair market.

Having almost made my decision the retailers invites us inside his store. We are offered Chai. Then we get the longer story. I get an upgrade to a 2gb memory card for an extra 400 rupees. (Most buyers would skip this / and or demand that it be filled with music for free). More phones come out. He now understands that we are researchers learning about the mobile phone market. He asks about our phones and is clearly thinking if they will buy one maybe they will buy more. Out comes a Nokia N95 and N73. The N73 looks original, the N95 8GB is poorly labeled otherwise it would be hard to tell that these are fakes. Booting the N95 I find it only has 1gb of memory. I have no idea about the camera. The slide is very tight. I’m told it comes from Thailand. The N73 was really perfect and right down to the battery. Both were available for “China Phone” prices. Thus the N95 fake was approx 5000 rupees for a phone that normally retails for 25000. The N73 was available for under 4000 (all rupees 38 to dollar). However, I’d think Nokia fakes in this market are a hard sell.

The owner then proudly pulled out his iPhone when I asked how much they cost. He was very proud of it. It was in a gorgeous leather case. It’s currently one of the real “status” symbols in India. What was interesting to me was his description. Eg it was “unlocked”. “Did he have other programs installed?” No! what’s that. Unfortunately I didn’t have mine there to show him. He really had no idea how to unlock it or use ziphone etc. This is probably typical behavior in India. He may not have a PC, it may not have iTunes on it etc. Instead “upstairs in the repair center” someone will have the knowledge and “unlock” them I actually doubt he ever synchs it with a PC and if he does it’s via someone else. One of the benefits of his approach. The unlocking etc.. is someone else’s problem. For the person that can afford an iPhone having “technical support” is really “low cost” and the songs etc.. will be virtually free.

The second hand market is robust. At the top end customers are trading in their phones after 12 months. By contrast the subsidies that we have on phones in the US and the expensive cost and difficulty in repairing phones here mean people hold them longer (2+ years with contracts) and have no way to dispose via a second hand market. All the second hand phones look like new. They all have new cases (fakes or originals) and new keyboards etc. A full refurbishment can take just a few minutes. While there I replaced the battery cover on my Nokia N95 (with which all my Indian pictures were taken!) as the hooks on one side were all broken. It cost me 300 rupees (7 dollars). I’m sure I couldn’t get this part anywhere quickly in the US other than maybe on eBay and that would come from Asia.

On Service. I have a wonderful picture below “tongue in cheek” of the value of a “China Phone” guarantee. I think these retailers would all give it more than one day. I also think they would go much further than any western retailer with after sales service. First they are selling it personally to me, they are part of a family business and their reputations are at stake. These are not Circuit City retailers. The salesman reinforces this to me with his business card and number. Call me with any set up problems etc. I’m fairly sure that had I been a more typical Indian buyer he would have put the music and videos on my memory card, and gone beyond the calling me to make sure it worked etc.

As I leave this market I come away with a new appreciation for the complexities that exist here. The “all in one” phone that Nokia has been a key provider of with Radio, limited music, and a camera is now being challenged. Nokia has the brand and you can buy one just like a second hand car yet the fashion has shifted. “China Phones” with their very loud speakers are the new Ghetto Blasters. Easier to share the sound and make a statement. It may not fit in our culture and yet in India it makes perfect sense. It’s likely to be the only phone you will hear over the traffic. It won’t challenge the top end and has quite a way to go to impact high end buyers who want brands, guarantees and resale value.

Yet what’s happening here is new and it is likely to affect more than phones, it going to affect anything that plays music and is in a small portable size.

At the top end it means I want much better sound and a lot more noise out of my iPhone and top end Nokia’s. The N81 is sweet but you cannot fill a small room effectively with it. The trend also suggests the possibility for new trends. Eg streaming one channel onto a second phone so you can have even more volume and better “stereo”.

When we take a look at the “repair market” we will see there are other opportunities for product innovation.

While my trip to India was based on other project work I jumped at the chance with Dina to create some “learning journey” space in villages and in the city. I believe it is times and visits like these that are invaluable for creating context and understanding. Some may argue that you can come at market research merely like a facilitator; however I’d argue that such a lightweight approach will end up with superficial results.

The deeper impact for me is how mobile is now framing the future of music, and media in India. Let me contrast this as the closing thought. Here in the US PC’s have been framing our multimedia experiences and if not PC’s it has been DVD’s and VCRs etc on the TV. We continue to hope that it will move to the mobile. That’s not true and will never be true in the emerging world. The whole idea of a “multimedia” PC will be foreign to a first time PC buyer. With no or limited “internet” still to speak of the mobile is more likely to fuel their expectations of what they might get out of a PC. To stick with my music comparison. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Laptop PC that had 8 built in speakers. When you trade up from palm of the hand you expect something more. More volume, more screen size, touch elements!, memory sticks that are portable etc.

While the “mobile market is really really interesting, the really challenge may be with the PC makers who need to understand the meaning of mobile to understand where and what will frame their offerings for the future.

More pictures here.

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