Living in India has given me a new perspective on a lot of things. Professionally, I’m constantly learning a lot just by seeing how differently people use their phones, and how different the market and ecosystem around mobile is here.
Intex? Karbonn? Spice Mobile? Oppo?
The biggest eye opener has been seeing the number of India-focused brands here in the smartphone market.
In the US, there are global brands like Apple, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and LG and then a spread of other smaller brands. Here’s IDC’s list of the top smartphone vendors in India last year:
The market is also full of up & comers like Spice Mobile, and Karbonn, & other Chinese manufacturers like Oppo among many others I probably haven’t heard of.
Windows Phone is still a factor here, and I do still see Blackberrys from time-to-time, though they don’t rank in any public market reports I can see.
And feature phones – J2ME, basic phones… still big in India, too.
I’m Developing Android First
Most of the smartphones sold in India run Android. Android has a 90+% market share in India. Nothing else really is worth talking about, when you’re talking about smartphones.
So, while I personally am a dedicated iOS user, professionally in India, our teams think Android first. This is not the case for our US development teams, where both platforms have roughly equal priority and resources.
In the U.S., Fred Wilson’s 2010 call for Android first was bad advice then (and probably still is now), but the realities of emerging markets like India means doing exactly that. It’s literally the only game in town that matters.
Price is King, But Technology Matters
India is a price sensitive market. Obvious, right? But what I’ve found living here and talking to coworkers is that it isn’t just price that matters, but affordable value. From Ben Thompson’s excellent blog, Stratechery, talking about Xiaomi’s (and others’) rapidly growing customer base in India & China:
These customers are not conservative, or even pragmatists: they are enthusiasts and visionaries who simply don’t have very much money. The proper way to reach them, then, is not to sell them trickle-down technology: they will see right through that, and dismiss it out of hand. Rather, the solution to is develop new business models – indeed, in the case of Xiaomi, a new company – that is built from the ground-up to serve their specific needs.
This, too, is a powerful opportunity: there are far, far more potential customers in developing countries than there are in developed ones, but just because they don’t have much money does not mean they are technological laggards. Indeed, many of these customers are even more advanced when it comes to being mobile first because of the lack of a PC legacy, and they will embrace a brand that lets them live on the cutting edge.
Specs and feature bullets are still huge here, and not just because so many people in India work in the technology sector.
Android is Different Here
That central point, that people want tech but simply can’t afford the flagship devices, means that manufacturers need to find creative ways to manage cost while still offering an overall solid device. This creates subtle differences in user experience that go beyond the speed or feel of the device.
For example, Rs. 10,000 (~$160) is a common marketing cutoff for “inexpensive” smartphones (all phones are sold unlocked and contract free here).1
So, I decided to pick up a Micromax Canvas A1, which cost me about Rs. 4800 (~$75) fully unlocked, got a SIM for it, and have been using it as my ‘free time’ phone when I don’t need work email or iMessage.
It’s not a bad device – performance is fine – and because it’s an Android One device, it runs the latest version of Android. It does have some limitations that impact how we need to develop apps.
First, it’s a 3G phone – no LTE or HSPA+ etc. Even though LTE is coming online here in the cities, the state of the networks, plagued by inconsistent coverage, make this a less significant limitation. App developers already need to think about bandwidth as a precious resource. I’m used to seeing my iPhone on 2G/Edge networks regularly, and I’m not alone judging from our user reports.
The bigger surprise was the limited internal storage. I always found Android fans’ focus on SD card slots odd, but now that I’m running a phone with just 2 Gigs of internal flash memory, I suddenly understand. I went to download an app yesterday and got an error that I was out of space. And all I had on the phone were about 10 reasonably sized apps (the biggest was Facebook, at 150 MB(!). Android does let you move apps and some data to the SD card, so moving apps (when you can2) is the only way to continue installing new apps without deleting other apps.
There are even more subtle issues, some of which are detailed in this blog post at NextBigWhat. It’s a good summary of some of the challenges if you want to target the broadest swath of Indian mobile users.
Of course, you do get what you pay for. While things like Twitter and Facebook run fine, the screen isn’t as nice as the flagship phones. My main gripe, though? The horribly inferior camera.
Photo taken on my Canvas A1:
Photo taken on my iPhone 6:
No contest, IMHO.
I’m still learning a lot about India, and writing software for Indians (and the world outside the U.S. more broadly – Cricket, rugby, & F1 are global sports). We’re getting close to a few new releases at work, so I’m sure I’ll have more to learn and share soon. And there’s still other things – missed call marketing, the SMS market in India 3, and so much more.