Flagship mobile phones that boast the most advanced technologies and cost almost as much as a good laptop can seldom be used to their full potential in India

There are the smartphones and then there are the super smartphones of various companies that cost upwards of Rs. 30,000. These are the phones celebrated by top brands as their flagship mobiles, the eye candy that gets featured more in advertisements and also by way of product placements in the hands of heroes in popular cinema and television series. (James Bond uses a Sony Xperia T in Skyfall, while Dexter is an iPhone faithful.)

But the question that needs to be asked is whether these super smartphones — the Samsung Galaxy S3s, the HTC One Xs, the Sony Xperia Ts or the priciest iPhone 5s — make much sense in the Indian scenario. It is unlikely that users here will be able to tap its full potential in a way those in more advanced markets do.

Speed limits

The challenges in the Indian conditions are manifold. The basic challenge here is the data connectivity. Though all mobile service providers would like us to believe otherwise, the 3G coverage even in the metros is at best dodgy. The promised high speeds are seldom delivered and it is not uncommon for users to keep moving from 3G to EDGE zones as they move along the city. The super smartphones, in comparison to their poor cousins, the entry and mid-level smartphones and the Java-enabled feature phones, are data guzzlers. According to a top telecom executive, while most average phones might consume between 200 and 300 MB on a monthly basis — for tasks such as emailing, social network sharing, etc., — the flagship phones tend to encourage users to consume between 700 MB and 1 GB every month.

Even if the data connectivity speeds are consistent, the problem is that the most popular services for the super smartphones are in a nascent stage in India. The Apple, for instance, crowd-sources traffic data from all its iPhone users in a region to set up traffic clusters on a map. This comes in handy to send out possible traffic jams on its Map. It is one of the unique features of the super smartphone and is highlighted in the company's recent international commercial featuring director Martin Scorsese. It is likely to take a really long while for such features to reach India.

Though Google Maps have taken the lead in integrating public transit information from Indian transport agencies, the experience is far from what one would hope to receive in the West where the transport agencies themselves are more efficient and can be held to account against the timings specified.

Mobile transactions too are at a nascent stage. Premium applications on the smartphone category that is making waves in the U.S. and in the Western markets — such as Google Wallet on the Android platform, the Passbook on the iOS platform of Apple or upcoming Window 8 phone’s Wallet hub — might take a substantially longer time for widespread adoption here.

Average performance

The biggest purpose that smartphones serve for users in India seems to be social networking. “For people working in IT sectors, social networking is blocked at office, which means around 12 to 13 hours of no access,” says S. Dinakar, IT analyst with a top company in Chennai. “For us, having powerful smartphones to connect to social media is very essential. Facebook is pretty average in performance even in super smartphones these days. So one can’t think about buying budget phones.”

Another popular use seems to be ‘Internet tethering’ that allows users to share their 3G networks available with their mobile phones with other devices. The process, like most other high performance activities, is a massive drain on the mobile phone’s battery. But for those who simply cannot stay away from their online lives, this is a boon and a provocation to buy high-end devices that promise efficient battery lives (read “charge once a day” at best).

The ‘turn-by-turn’ navigation offered by Google Maps and Nokia Drive make the Android and the Windows platforms (Lumia phones) a bit more attractive to the Indian scenario. Apple’s new map on the iOS 6 is probably the weakest link of the phone here in India. But again, the POI (point of interest) locations of the maps in India are far fewer compared to other countries where the applications are used even more widely.

What is undeniable is that super smartphones are probably a bigger status symbol than anything else. In most cases, users who have the premium phones still use it the way others use much cheaper phones. This is probably why most people who have a super smartphone also have a secondary one. The rich and the poor cousins co-exist.