A careful examination of the smartphone and tablet market will reveal that 'feature-phones' are not simply a label for products, but also a sharp indicator of why Indian consumers purchase certain smartphones and tablets.

Decoding the buying habits of the Indian digital consumer can be a daunting and, more often than not, exceedingly frustrating task.

There are few similarities to be found when considering its counterpart, the Western digital consumer, whose every moment is oversaturated with tweets, texts, status updates and whose constantly buzzing pocket-computer is still anachronistically referred to as a ‘phone’.

If the image of the average Western smartphone user is that of a person effortlessly shimmying with a glowing rectangle on the move, the average Indian smartphone user’s device is more often found on a table at home, or resigned to the user’s pockets.

In Western countries, when people go out to eat in groups, conversation routinely plunges into a discussion of when it is appropriate to pull out a phone. An average Indian dinner party, on the other hand, doesn’t start until all guests pull out their phones and start comparing price-tags.

Perhaps the best description of the Indian consumer is the rigid dichotomy that one sees between the average Indian buying something and the average Indian using his or her recently bought object.

Personal display of affection

There is an episode from the classic sitcom Seinfeld that illustrates this definition by dichotomy. Jerry Seinfeld, the protagonist of the show, buys his father an expensive personal digital assistant (PDA) device— referred to as a ‘Wizard organiser’ on the show. His father, however, uses the state-of-the-art organiser as nothing more than a glorified calculator, using it, much to Jerry’s horror, as an instrument to calculate restaurant tips.

Though Morty Seinfeld coveted the digital organiser for the ‘status’ it gave him at his retirement home, it did not take away from the fact that he simply had no use for other functions that the device offered; not because they were not interesting, but merely because they offered no functionality for Morty.

Do we not see a little bit of Morty in the majority of Indian smartphone and tablet users? To build on the age-old ‘Apple users surf the Web and generally engage with their tablet/phone more than Android users’ debate—Indians are guilty of using high-end tablets and smartphones as little more than feature phones.

For instance, I have three tablets at home—an iPad, a Nexus 7 and an Amazon Kindle Fire—that my family (including my mother and sister) uses. What do we use it for?

• To take a lot of photos, but only when we take the tablets outside.

• Very light e-book reading.

• A moderate amount of web browsing

• A few free games (think Fruit Ninja)

• Quite a bit of YouTube consumption (especially my sister, with her Suite Life of Zack And Cody episode streaming).

To date, we have bought zero applications from the App Store/Google Play Store, bought very few e-books, done almost zero work (whether it is banking work/Google Docs etc.), hardly do heavy browsing and have bought zero content (movies/music) from iTunes.

I’d wager that most Indian consumers are, excluding the power user-end of the pool that mimics the Western digital user, more or less same. Feature-phone-ism runs in our blood.

Invert the mirror

What are the implications of this? Well, there are quite a few—it actually puts a new perspective on what we mean when we talk about the ‘Indian smartphone/tablet market’.

First and foremost, it shows that the Indian smartphone and tablet market isn’t really a ‘smartphone and tablet market’—it’s a feature-phone/tablet market that is dressed up. How are the higher-end smartphones, whose sales are roughly 15 million or so, being sold then? I’d say it’s a good mix between the power users, who actually use most of the functions of a higher-end smartphone/tablet, and people who view the iPhones and Galaxy S4s as a Veblen good, or a way of showing off and acquiring social status.

Filling in the vaccum

Secondly, it explains the existence of companies like Micromax, which, in their own way, are slowly becoming household names. Micromax can trace its origins to that of an Indian firm peddling cheap Chinese goods—and it still isn’t very different. What the company has succeeded in doing is embody the spirit of a ‘feature-phone’ while delivering its products in a glitzy smartphone wrapping paper.

Take a look at Micromax’s commercials: here, here and here; the company almost goes out of its way not to really say anything about itself. Marketing 101 tells us that advertisements should keep the message simple, yet it takes one a little while to figure out the company’s perplexing tagline –‘nothing like anything’.

The advertisement’s purpose however is served—it gives the company’s products a ‘good enough’ aura.

What do I mean by ‘good enough’? To some extent the price of Micromax’s devices is a component, but it is also about tapping into the ‘oh I don’t really need something fancy, something good enough will do’ mindset.

This is also why, for example, the Nexus 7 tablet saw poor sales in India even though it was a solid device at a very affordable price point. It fell through the cracks of being a tablet that was not a ‘status symbol’ and at the same time was a ‘complicated’ device in that there were too many unnecessary functions. The Micromax Funbook/ Samsung’s Galaxy tab is therefore the anti-thesis of the Nexus 7; one is a toy while the other is clearly positioned as a post-PC device.

Thirdly, this should dampen the doomsayers who say that Apple needs to focus its efforts on India straight away. A great majority of Indian consumers simply have no use for the iPad the way Steve Jobs envisioned—that is—as a device that could supplant and supplement the PC. For now, we still remain part of the feature-phone era.