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Personal, Portable, Popular: Ensuring Empowerment and Enrichment

October 17, 2010

“Geography is dead”, a popular refrain of the late 1990s, was a pithy way of encapsulating the wonders wrought by the communications revolution. Satellites, optical fibre and wireless technologies, combined with a virtuous circle between lower costs and bigger markets, enabled the spread of communication to all corners of the globe. This literally culminated in the mobile phone, which ensured that communication was accessible and affordable; any time from anywhere. “Distance destroyed” may well have been the tag-line of these new developments.

In India, developments in this field were telescoped into a short time period: in a matter of a few years, we moved from the “trunk call” (an operator assisted long distance call, with an interminable waiting time and, often, literally unspeakable quality) to instantaneous anywhere-to-anywhere calls, made even from cars and trains. The now-forgotten lexicon of urgent calls and lightning calls — unknown to today’s generation — has been replaced by ring-tones and conference calls, SMS and chats. In just 15 years, the mobile phone has moved from being unseen to ubiquitous: the most widely owned durable in the country, with over 600 million connections.

It is difficult to fathom what has driven this near-frenzy that has, especially in the last decade or less, made the mobile phone so all-pervasive. The technological advancements are well documented, and ever-lower costs for hand-sets, as also for usage, have been widely commented upon. There is, however, little research on cultural and sociological factors, beyond the glib — nevertheless truthful — statement that Indians love to talk. In contrast, when television went through great growth — in the 1990s, through cable and satellite TV — a lot of social research studies were done. While academicians should be doing more research on the mobile phone phenomenon, industry has done little to trigger this or to itself undertake studies on the underlying dynamics.

A great number of innovations have been made by industry in technology, applications and business models. One example is the outsourcing model, where most major elements, bar the marketing, have been contracted out. It is ironical — especially at a time when the US is turning protectionist and trying to stem the flow of off-shoring — that a billion-dollar contract for outsourcing has been given by an Indian telecom service provider to a US company! It is through such innovative measures that India has today amongst the lowest mobile telephony rates in the world. Another business model element, inspired by the “sachet” principle, is extremely low unit-cost re-charge for prepaid connections: a boon to the less affluent daily-income person.

Some innovations meet unique needs: for example, the mobile doubling as a torch-light — so useful in power-starved India. While the camera feature is widely used, the radio in the mobile is far more popular amongst many. Elsewhere, the two-SIM phone is a means of having an additional private number without having to carry a second phone; here, it is the ideal answer to the perpetual Indian quest for value-for-money: it enables one to have a fixed number for all in-coming calls, and switch the outgoing one (through the second SIM) to the scheme or provider that offers the best deal at any given time. Both the torch-light and the two-SIM phones are, in many ways, the result of co-creation between the user and the manufacturer. On the other hand, some applications are purely user driven: for example, that unique Indian invention of “missed call” to send a no-cost message; or the creative use of numbers and symbols to generate an image for transmission via sms.

Now, new applications are evolving, and technological change is re-creating the handheld device. Position location is being integrated; soon sensors for monitoring health-related parameters may be added; and fingerprinting in conjunction with the UID/Aadhar will help establish identity. These and other developments will open the gates for a flood of new and exciting applications. Already, the mobile phone is being used to store money (through the prepaid SIM); now, with regulatory constraints eliminated through recent changes, it can be used for transactions too. This major step will drive financial inclusion, with simple banking services being made available to millions. Also, the impact of this on the government’s employment guarantee schemes can be substantial, since it could reduce payment delays, bring greater transparency, improve monitoring, and reduce corruption.

All this presents a phenomenal opportunity. While the mobile revolution has so far benefited mainly the big telecom service providers and the (primarily foreign) equipment manufacturers and handset makers, there is now a chance for many others — including start-up entrepreneurs and SMEs — to both drive and derive benefits from the emerging possibilities. Technologists who can reinvent the hand-held and integrate additional features, software professionals who can develop new applications, business experts who can evolve new financial models, strategists who can create altogether new uses: all can help to generate new wealth for themselves and for the users. Already, the hand-held is being used to collect market research or other information and transmit it instantaneously, along with auto-generated location information, to a central point for near-instantaneous analysis of such data from multiple locations. It is also being used to disseminate crop-care and price information and to provide answers to specific individual agriculture-related queries, based – where necessary — on inputs from the farmer, which includes photographs of the crop or land. It provides easy and widespread access to information, a key factor in empowerment. The hand-held has immense potential in socially-relevant areas such as health, education, training, employment and public distribution systems, besides rich new commercial possibilities.

What is needed is more investment in R&D and in social research, as also the removal of regulatory barriers. What the mobile hand-held device can be used for is limited only by one’s imagination. The mental construct of the “mobile phone” needs to change to “communication/computing, integrated, multi-purpose, portable” device, a “cimp” : a device that holds the promise of unleashing a revolution as transformational as that wrought by the steam-engine.

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