Over the past few years, there has been too much chatter about connecting the next billion. Some of those companies have vanished into thin air, while the others are finding themselves quite lost as more and more people get connected to the internet.
Anyway, a lot of people across the world have tried to figure out the best way to connect those who aren’t online already. The hurdles were mainly to do with the cost of the device, the cost of connectivity and also the language barrier—with the internet being predominantly English.
Over the past year or so, India has progressed significantly on all three counts. In fact, when it comes to bringing down the cost of connectivity, we seem to be way ahead of every other country, with price wars making customers the king in every sense. And thanks to Google, as well as the efforts of companies like Indus OS and Reverie, there have been significant inroads into regional language technologies. However, the cost of owning a device that will let a user get the best of the cheap and fast indigenous internet still seems a bit far away.
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The first efforts towards this goal came when Google launched Android One a couple of years ago. Despite best intentions, the $100 phone was anything but a success. The threshold was still too high. Over the next few months, it became clear that this mark was the entry point for the smartphone segment in India, but primarily for those who already owned a phone and could afford a new one. A price point of around Rs 6,000 was just not good enough to get new people on board.
Micromax, which was one of Google’s partners for Android One, seems to have come out of the experiment with some solid learnings. A few weeks ago, the company launched its version of an affordable smartphone for the masses, the Bharat 2. This Rs 3,990 smartphone has a four-inch screen, 4G connectivity, a relatively pure Android 6.0 Marshmallow, day-long battery life, and is powered by Spreadtrum’s SC9832 processor. The phone, though launched without much fanfare, has been a kind of runaway success. The Indian manufacturer is clearly playing to its strengths, pushing the phone primarily on offline channels and tapping in on the opportunity arising from the craze for Reliance Jio’s 4G services.
If this phone becomes a big success, this could be the way for Indian manufacturers to claw back into the market after having been beaten down by heavy-spending Chinese competition over the past few quarters. In addition, if anyone is able to hit the sweet spot when it comes to the perfect price and specifications combination in the sub-$50 price band, then the kind of volumes they can rake up will be humongous. For some of the Indian players who have been shifting focus back to feature phones because they are not able to do much in the smartphone space in the present scenario, this might be the way to future success.
Meanwhile, there has been some buzz around a 4G feature phone in recent times. The concept itself does not make much sense to me. If all you need is a feature phone, then why do you need it in 4G? Well, the reason some are talking about such a device is not the need to get more people to start using 4G services, but the fact that Reliance Jio is a 4G-only service and even a feature phone will need to be 4G-enabled to be able to run on their network.
This seems to be creating a new use case, and it won’t be long before the ecosystem in China churns out more feature phones that can run on 4G VoLTE (Voice over Long-Term Evolution) networks and bring down the barrier for entry into the Jio network. But if such a phone is going to be priced in the region of Rs 2,000, then we have more the reason to get a good affordable smartphone in the market as soon as possible. Yes, it is time someone made a really good smartphone that everyone can afford.