While recently in India, Dina and I explored the iPhone factor. We saw it in the wild (eg. people using them) and talked to 18 to 24 year old leading-edge mobile users in Mumbai. We were both left a little shocked! While focus groups aren’t statistical research and Mumbai is hardly an Apple stronghold; the iTunes store is not even available in India. The comments and the future of the mobile in India and in fact, across the world, is beginning to look profoundly different.

From Phone to Computer in my Pocket.

First a little about the 18 to 24 year olds we were talking to. Evenly split m/f most were in college or just finishing up. Not one could imagine life without a cellphone. On average they were spending about 1000 rupees per month ($25) on a prepaid plan. Postpaid plans were not popular. This group was uneasy if their balance got below 200 and would then top it up. All had Nokia or Sony-Ericsson phones. All phones were recent models. The oldest would have been 18 months max. Typically they all want to trade it in once per year. Cost of the phones. They put their budgets at 12000 to 18000 rupees… so $250 to $400 so all were targeting high-end phones. Daddy and mummy were paying and they would get it as a birthday or special holiday gift.

They said they called as often as texted (the cost of a one min call vs a text is similar) and I’d think efficient with calls. None of these would have had voice mail. Prepaid plans don’t provide it and in India the “missed call” is an important signal. They also make international calls to friends overseas. Often connecting via cellphones and then moving to MSN or Skype for video conferencing. Note they often don’t have sole access to a computer, it may be shared and often in a fairly pubic place. The personal stuff and communications are on their mobiles.

Mobile phones are a high interest topic and item of status amongst these kids. (Similarly here! My daughter came home and said one of her best friends got an iPhone for her 16th birthday; now she wants one – at her cost re the plan!) They are very aware of brands, and features. Moving between makes (eg Nokia to Sony Ericsson) can be a hassle for moving contacts etc. They all want better cameras, they don’t see why they shouldn’t be incorporated. They also wanted memory cards in standard formats that would work across devices; all the sizes are a hassle. Without exception they wanted faster battery life.

When asked about their ideal mobiles they became animated and started talking the iPhone. Interestingly they identified it as having WiFi but didn’t make this connection with Nokia N-Series phones. In fact they were quite damming when it came to Nokia which is far and away the market leader. Example they saw the N95 and other slider phones as problematic. The stick is still a great format. The N95 was seen as very over-priced.

When it came to the iPhone they were quick to list its failings as well. Commenting on music sharing limitation and the lack of a decent camera and no flash.

For this group; the iPhone and Apple were clearly the aspirational brand. In fact they talked at length about budgets and basically how they would negotiate with their parents to set up the purchase of the iPhone as their next mobile. A lot had to do with iPods and music and consolidated lifestyle. All-in-one is popular in India. It’s never really applied to a small computing device before. However mobiles have radios, mp3 players and cameras in them as standard almost. This all in one with video etc… makes this even more attractive.

When it came to describing brands and their attributes; Nokia was the clear winner for everyone, providing versatility, resale, general performance etc. ( think Toyota in America or like Shahrukh Khan one of Bollywood’s leading men). It’s a little past its prime with this group, not sexy and yet their next phone may still be a Nokia. By contrast the Sony Ericsson brand came across with these users as more sexy. They have a very edgy music campaign with a big Bollywood star (Hrithik Roshan) which appears to have been successful in the last year. The “Shake” in songs is both a neat design solution and working.

This group roundly dismissed the “China Phone” as beneath them. Although they were quick to point out all the features and recognize that loud sound was cool. Yet with no brand, poor resale and no advertising these phones will remain niche and companies like Sony Ericsson will adopt “Shake” features in their own phones and branding. This group won’t be trading down.

Touch is the new aspiration. HTC was mentioned along with Apple as the phones to look at and desire. HTC was first with Touch type phones we were told. They also talked about these devices as being the new laptop, the new way to be always able to connect.

When designing their mobile phones (if you were the designer) they talked of “modding”. They wanted modular hardware and ways to trade up or enhance or keep the phone up to date or perhaps personalize and extend its life. They see modding the iPhone with new hardware upgrades as well as software. In fact they would go even further and like to see it shipped as a bare bones chassis, select the case, the camera, the memory etc. It’s perhaps not surprising they see it this way. They have their PC’s assembled or cobbled together. They have service and repair guys that can put these things together and cellphone parts are visible everywhere. There’s a good chance this market will emerge anyways. They also wanted things faster, easier, and simpler. This has a lot to do with entertainment updates.

So what did I learn?

The iPhone potential is bigger than I would have expected. The opportunity for carriers to convert users to postpaid from prepaid accounts will be huge and fought for. Vodaphone probably has themselves a sweet deal and position with the iPhone in India. They go premium end and lock high end users into data etc. (Even if 3G isn’t even close!). India could well be a larger iPhone market than the US in months rather than years.

There’s a new world to be addressed in parts, modding and retailing the iPhone in India. It’s going to harder than Apple might think. It would be a good time to open some more visible stores quick in the major cities. They better be HUGE! Plenty of malls being built.

Nokia may be in trouble, it faces a huge challenge at both the bottom end with products that are doing more… particularly as entertainment devices, and at the top end by having nothing that comes close to competing with the iPhone. They are about to get squeezed. They still have more banners, more phones, more retail outlets etc than anyone else. Still their outlets aren’t going to be sexy enough when Apple stores launch. Sony has built some awesome Lifestyle stores in India, I’d say they are having an impact. Mobiles alone aren’t enough and the perception in India is you are getting a “usable” lot more with the iPhone.

Net Net. Leading users simply “lust” after the iPhone; even in India.

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