My friend Gaurav Sharma (name changed for privacy) asked this question. He is the CEO of a leading Indian web solutions company, so his question has got to have a good mix of bewilderment, frustration, anxiety and most worryingly, facts behind it…
This is an interesting question, and when I began exploring it, it unravelled into a many folds of Indian society, and economics which I think we all see, but maybe overlook. I come from a unique (remember everyone is unique? 🙂 ) background of Anthropologist father, Zoologist mother, Bachelors in Engineering and MsBA in Technology Management. So I tend to have diff perspectives (which more often than not, confuse me more than anyone else) on issues close to my heart. This one sure is: after all, it is things like these that make India look technologically inferior, and not up with the rest of the world etc etc.
So back to the question. I will try and put out my reasons for the question in separate posts: to save you from information (read opinion) overload, but I hope it makes an interesting read.
Lets begin with an example.
Any person who grew up in South Delhi would know of Lodhi Sports. This is a shop we respected as one of the few ‘up market’ sports showrooms in Delhi. In the early 90’s it was rare to see exercise equipment in many shuttered shops. This one was all glass and had a wide range of exercise equipment. 20 years later, Lodhi Sports has expanded to many shops around Delhi, in big shopping malls etc. Now look at their current site: http://www.lodhisports.in . It doesn’t even open currently.
Now, its target market very much overlaps the active internet users category in Delhi, so I think it does make sense to at least have a functioning site! That leaves us with two options, either the provider is off the track of the consumer doesn’t want it. As in most cases, I think its the chicken and egg problem.
Reason 1: Coming of age of Indian consumer.. A little more distance to go…
Generally this is what I think other people call as maturing of a market, and I agree. Indian consumers have only recently begun taking a computer for granted in their living rooms, and fewer of them, between 3-8 crores have begun accessing the net actively. The definition of active here is using the internet at least once a month. It is pointless to say that if a person is only ‘accessing’ the net once in a month, he/she is definitely not comfortable looking at it as a utility. It seems more like a picnic; once a month, to try out something ‘new’. Hence, it seems, that an average Indian internet user is still not getting on to the net to use it for transactions, and information gathering for purchases. That, will take time. Maybe something similar to plastic money and time taken for its traction in India.
But then I think internet and cell phones came up almost at the same time in India. And there is no points guessing who won the race. So whats the deal there? The utility of cell phones, and initial investment for cell phones is much clearer to people. And hence, the reception to cell phones is like a raging forest fire. And people indeed are benefiting from it! Whether Internet provides the same amount of value to Indian people is something I cannot comment on. I think it does, given the kind of stuff people in other parts of the world have done from it, but then one can disagree very well on this.
So then why nature chose cell phones over Internet? I think first because every thing about cell phone was very well modularized and tangibly managed. prepaid cards made it easy, compact, hassle free, and decoupled from any kind of red tape, for people to start making calls cheap. Internet revenues on the other hand still depend on credit card swiping. The infrastructure needed for cell phone companies to work on was revolutionized into the ‘Indian model’ now so widely studied across the globe. Internet however, could not come up with its own India strategy. Maybe all the smart brains were still busy making money from the cell phone market. Then the content delivered on cell phones was inherently local, unless of course you call an international ‘talk to me’ lines. Here too, Internet lagged much farther behind, because of its ‘broadcasting’ model vs. the peer to peer nature of phone calls.
Reason 2: Lack of macro-environment support and luck?
2 technologies, equally promising, but ultimately having very different paths…
Ultimately, while cell phones transformed themselves into the Indian context very well by providing cheap calls to lower costs, lightening speed information on prices for farmers, cheap way of keeping in touch for long distance relationship lovers, for moms to check up on their ‘in school and not bunking’ kids, and free sms etc etc, Internet couldn’t really strike the same chord in the daily lives of Indians. It could not go much beyond educated, and computer literate people to the non english speaking housewives, moms, lalajis, and Gangu Bai for the betterment of their daily lives.
Does it mean Internet is irrelevant to India? Absolutely not; it just needs to wear colors of India over it, and ultimately go beyond rediff and naukri. The sites like Saleraja.com, mouthshut.com are getting into different spheres of our lives, beyond the traditional demographic which was being served…