Mine is Bigger than Yours and Stuck to a Windscreen. Smartphones in Cars in India

October 4, 2013

in Location & Context, Mobility, Pocket Strategies

Not so long ago, our Mumbai team was doing a lot of car watching at gas stations and noticing what was inside cars. We were studying design of auto interiors. Before I tell my car story, I must take you back a few years as the story and the insight is related.

In 2008  I was on a small ferry  boat and a group of kids started playing music. It was very loud and I could see it was coming from a mobile phone. I was intrigued and asked them about it. And wrote about it.  “China Phone” Beats Nokia N95 in Boombox Test, which became a number of blog posts referencing the China phone and the huge number of speakers they included. Including “From the “Mouths of Kids“, “Manish Market and the Mobile Ghetto Blasters” and “Prince A950 – My China Phone – Think Different“.  You can read them, yet, for this story, what mattered is an understanding of sound (dual sim too).

Not quality as we know it, rather loudness. Follow any festival, watch a marriage procession with drums beating and then go and talk to the NoiseWatch people. Its a high volume level society. With the honking in the streets, a simple meek ring tone would never cut it. And so, even years ago, the kids disparaged my best in class N95 at that time. It was something Nokia had clearly missed despite being the market leader. (Note for reference Nokia has been a client, although not on this subject and the observations shared here are my own then and now. As they say watching change, trying to interpret change never stops.)

IMG_5898In the intervening years I’ve had many rides in many different cars. Indian drivers more often than not had a simple Nokia. Cheaper cars didn’t even have a radio. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver pull out a map. The usual way to get somewhere is drive to a landmark and then start asking rickshawallas, cabbies, shopkeepers and passersby. In that same time period I’ve been the one in the car that keeps checking on how Google Maps is doing.  They really work now!  I’ve also heard from time to time, younger people starting to talk about maps.

Now they don’t talk about maps in that old fashioned way – no the first real maps they got their hands on were on mobile devices and it helped them find a restaurant or pub. In our western worldview many would expect that maps must have been working for years in a place like India. That’s just not true. Either there wasn’t the data, or the data connection to make them useful (outside main cities, on Edge things can still be painfully slow).

Then there are updates. On my last visit a friend was complaining about the Android update that had removed / integrated Google Navigate into Google Maps. Now she couldn’t figure how to follow the worm. I suspect the change was made from a western map reading perspective and it no longer worked the same for her. (See her Galaxy Note also mounted in portrait mode).

That was just part of what I term one of those learning moments. My hypothesis “Smartphones” usage in India and how they are used includes different roles/methods and even screen interpretation and usage that cannot be understood without context. I’m attaching a picture of what triggered my thoughts.

This picture shows an almost new Samsung Galaxy Note suction cupped to the windshield. The latest model  – a one year old car, did have a CD/radio installed. I’d describe the car as a very nice box. In the same car there was also a USB charger and cord dangling down. In this case the phone was positioned portrait mode for use as as a GPS navigation aid. The big screen really helped. The driver didn’t follow the map, the driver followed the arrow and line. Turns out the driver often uses the phone for music too. The mounts are becoming more popular and cost was cheap (I heard a few hundred rupees) and while walking the streets I bought a USB charger for 200 rupees ($3.50) which didn’t work in this case.

This is when it really hit me that smartphone behavior around cars in India is very different from the integration that the upscale western auto market is following. Yes upscale new cars in India will get bluetooth and more. Yet I know, in my own car and motorcycle in the US, I too mount my phone on a Ram Mount (suction cup holder to window / handlebars). I then plug it in or in other cases just use bluetooth. I don’t expect it to replace my stereo. I play it through my stereo. I use it for navigation all the time although a bigger screen would be so much better.  I watch a map rather than a line etc.

At that moment I came away with a suspicion that the Indian motorbike and car will enjoy their smartphone makeovers. Sound on speaker is again important particularly when the only speakers in the car are in the phone. Then they will also be used to manage tasks that we might not think about here. Example the owner wants to know where their driver is parked? (The owner pays for the phone). Or the rickshaw driver that can turn his phone into a better business? Uber like? For truck drivers, the smartphone could be a total journey makeover device. Yes, a revolution is going to come when smartphones go into all these vehicles, and that will drive smartphones lower down the market as location and maps (worms?) will give them real economic meaning.

Which all comes back to sound and screen size. Big screen sizes are here to stay. The car really puts the mobile at arms length – vs the traditional half-arms length distance. So the screen simply needs to be bigger. While like the sound, “mine is louder than yours” and “mine is bigger than yours” are real value statements in a country like India. Small is not generally better, and Chinaphones proved that, often shipping with two batteries and large not necessarily good quality screens. Add in the other obvious factors. She puts the phone in her handbag how important do you think pocket-ablity is? He’s on a rickshaw all day. What sort of charger should you sell him?  Should it even come with the phone?

Go down this track and you quickly realize that innovation in mobile is somewhat stagnant at this point. The $100 smartphone is near and yet still sold with a charger. What sort of battery should it have? Should the battery be a separate purchase (Tesla almost does that). Does it really need to ship with earphones? How tight (as innards with no wasted space)  or light does it have to be?

The pocket is a beautiful lens to look at your mobile strategy. However, in the context above, where it is a working tool, it’s seldom in the pocket and its helping people actively engage with the world around them.

I suspect Samsung’s big screen strategy was a little by accident and partially by design. As an Asian brand they will get the the ‘mine is bigger than yours’ advantage. I’m not sure that until now anyone has really provided the use cases for what happens when the “mobile computer” is out and available all the time. That’s not relevant to macbook carrying, ipad holding, iPhone pocketed, users with too much tech. No, that smartphone story is about moments in-between. And business, till now, has been managed by email and calls.

The new discourse and story must change. Low cost smartphones are purchased because the economics drive people to own one. The opportunities are around business, maps, logistics and payments.


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