Thoughts on mobile data access in India.

It’s expensive:
I use the Airtel GPRS service very heavily. Because in Pune, it’s unlimited (in terms of volume and time) as long as I pay Rs. 150 per month. I use it for checking email, catching up on blogs, and using it as a Bluetooth modem for my Thinkpad so I can dial into my corporate network. It’s cheap, I’m connected, and I’m happy.

However, I’ve learnt that almost all other GPRS plans (even Airtel in other locations) charge based on volume, typically a paisa per kilobyte. That works out to Rs. 10 per MB. And I think that’s prohibitively expensive, something like twice the average broadband tariffs. Besides, the speeds aren’t anywhere like broadband, in fact far closer to the dialup speeds circa 1998. In addition, the mobile phone doesn’t offer you the user interface that a PC can, so what would compel a user to sign up for a scheme like this?

This is the same problem that’s hampering the widespread adoption of broadband in India. I had referred to this once before , and I have personally seen plenty of families I know, who haven’t signed up for broadband because it’s “expensive”, or won’t fit into their exact usage pattern. The same is set to happen with the mobile date market in India.

We need to remember that the mobile phone is to India what the PC is to the United States – the most widely used medium for data access. There is a tremendous market for mobile data services. We need to stop thinking according to the scarcity mentality – that is, to try to extract the maximum revenue from a small market, and begin to take bold steps to expand the market. There is huge opportunity in the latter.

Best phone for the Indian Market?
Smartphones such as the Nokia 6600 are cheap today, and will be real cheap in the near future. I am of the firm opinion that it’s going to be this model that can be a game-changer as regards hardware. Once this piece reaches Rs. 5000, once there is a critial mass of people using it, mobile data usage will explode. This phone can do most things that a rich data experience needs – for connectivity, we need Bluetooth, USB – this phone has it. RealPlayer for videos, an MP3 player, FM radio (although I think this isn’t stereo output), decent amount of storage, document viewers, Java – the works. It even has a camera, but this is  exceptionally poor and isn’t any real use. But a little amount of tweaking can make this a dream phone. It could be the iPod of the masses, the Simputer of the masses, and the PC of the masses too.

Mobile Applications:
What kind of applications would people use? For one, we need a kickass web browser for the mobile phone platform. I’d expected the Open Source Community to put together a mobile Firefox for at least the Blackberry or an O2 or a Treo (since that would probably be easier – more computing power, more disk space, more memory) than a Nokia, but then Opera beat everyone to it with the Opera Mini. That simple application has the potential of being a total game-changer. It runs on any phone that can run Java apps – any phone! Also a similar Java-based, small footprint Instant Messaging application – something like Migg33. Another thing would be a service like iTunes. We have a Jurassic version of that with Airtel’s Easy Music service. But that requires you to walk into an Airtel outlet. What we need is true download-via-GPRS, just like iTunes. With more and more phones having lots of storage, a file management application that lets you use your phone as a portable drive would be real cool. Again, it needs to be Java-based so that the interface would be the same no matter what phone it was installed on.

So it’s clear that we have the building blocks in place. But for the market to really take off, it needs a big gamble from a player who’s willing to change the rules of the game by making sustained investments for some amount of time. That is what Reliance did in the early 2000s, and today it can afford a 40 paise per minute tarriff within the Reliance network. Right now I would think only Reliance and Bharti are in a position to make that kind of investment.

The IIM Kozhikode GD/PI – Most Unusual!

Now that the suspense is over, I can take the wraps off my eight-month-long quest for the IIMs, and announce that I have indeed made it to IIM Kozhikode! Yes, dear reader, the geek is now off to B-school. The “How” and “Why” will follow in two posts soon enough.

For now, here’s an edited version of the GD/PI description I wrote a friend the day after the interview on February 23rd, at Dadar’s Catering College.

The moment I reached the venue, there were a number of other people there, so I simply launched into the group and made friends with most of them – couple were from IMS Pune – so we got along damn well, before too much time we were cracking dumb jokes, doing “de taali” and stuff even before the registration started. Yes. Good start.

Registration: We were divided into three groups of about 9 each, our degree certi and admit card were checked, and led into the GD halls. BTW, here’s where I learnt that you need a work-ex certificate or your first and last salary slips, of which I had neither, so I had to hop around to Dadar the next day once more with them.

GD: There were two guys in my Panel (Panel 2) – one who looked tough, mean, wore an IIMK T-shirt, whom I’ll call “Bhai”, and the other was the typical “straight-out-of-Kerala” smooth-talking Mallu, whom I’ll call “Smooth”. B and S organised us according to our TR numbers in a semicircle. The topic was given to us on a slip of paper, we had a minute to think, and 10 mins to talk. The topic was a pseudo-extract from a newspaper titled the New Indian Express, calling upon the UPA Government to ban strikes in the wake of the AAI strike. Bore topic! Now the good thing was that because we had become such good friends just a few minutes ago, it was difficult to have an acrimonious GD – and I think by now most people have realized that a fishmarket is not in anyone’s interest. So it was pretty well conducted, I started, led the discussion – the only negative point was that once, when someone went on a tangent, I told him so, and led the topic back on track – that could be seen as either positive or negative. On the whole from my POV, the GD went off damn well.

Interview – I was 4th in my panel. The same two guys, Bhai and Smooth, conducted the PI. Typical interview for all three panels lasted for between 12 and 15 minutes. Most freshers were being quizzed on academics, and work ex guys on technical questions related to their jobs. Not encouraging. I had not read up on any subject at all, and didn’t know much about my project to carry myself through an interview. Every interview started with “So, XXX, introduce yourself”. To which the only reply I had prepared was “Sir, I’m born and brought up in Mumbai. So are my parents. I studied also in Mumbai. I hope now to study in Kerala. <Hopeful grin>”.

When I went in, Smooth took over and asked me “So, Rahul, do you blog?” Wow! That was the absolute *best* start that I could have ever expected. What followed was a wonderful discussion of IBM’s blogging policy, the blogosphere inside IBM, how we can use blogs as a PR weapon against MS, Sun, Novell – and I took them through Robert Scoble of MS, Nat Friedman of Novell, Bryan Cantrill of Sun, then the Gaurav Sabnis-Rashmi Bansal-IIPM controversy, my own Businessworld article concerns, linking blogging v/s strikes as a way of registering protest, and finally Smooth asked “So after this interview, if I wrote nasty things about you and this interview on my blog, could you sue me?” So I said sure, of course, I could sue you for libel… but I would much rather use my blog to counter you and say nasty things about you too! So all three of us had a hearty laugh at that! In fact, everyone before me was saying that Bhai was rude, curt,  but with me both were very jovial and casual – it was more of a “mil baithenge teen yaar – Bhai, Smooth aur Rahul”. Really.

Then Bhai took me through IBM’s ISL and Global Services difference, asked me if I was good at Maths – to which I said an emphatic No. Then we went through a discussion of continuous functions, defined functions, maxima, minima – which I handled well. Then a discussion of distance between 2 points in an n-dimensional space. Rather than give formulae and stuff (which I was shaky at), I explained the concept rather well, and they nodded in approval multiple times. There was just a little hitch where I mistook a continuous function for a defined function (or the other way round). So Smooth asked me if they selected me, would I accept being put through a Mathematics Preparatory Course? So I said “After all this mess, I can hardly say no!” Again laughter all round, and Bhai said “No no, don’t worry!”.

Finally they looked at my certis, and said “Ok, Rahul! Do you have any questions for us?” So I asked them how IIMK was attempting to distinguish itself from the rest of the IIMs – because, I said, “We tend to stay in the shadow of the big 3” (Note the “we”!). So he talked about K’s attempts to build a brand, and said that age was the one factor why we were still counted as *inferior*. I mentioned that my call letter had “IIMK – The Second Generation IIM” written on it. Bhai roared with laughter and actually said this: “Bullshit! Those are the stupid policies of the Government of India! Not us! They put that on the envelope! Who can tell those people what makes sense and what does not! We have better things to say!” So there ended the interview – on a very casual, friendly note!! :-)

The folks outside asked me if anything was wrong – because the interview had lasted for about 35 minutes, as opposed to 12-15 minutes on an average.

Hmm – in retrospect – nothing was wrong, for the result on 12th April confirmed what I’d been expecting all along – I’m off to IIMK!!