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The world at our fingertips

India has one of the largest and fastest growing mobile user bases in the world.  

Writing for McKinsey in December 2013, tech entrepreneur Vinod Khosla recalled having said at a telecommunications seminar in Delhi in 2000, “If I were in India, I wouldn’t worry about adding ten million more copper lines. I would go straight to voice over Internet and mobile.” He added, “I didn’t have it exactly right; I missed how big mobile could become and how quickly.”

Between the time of Mr. Khosla’s article and now, India is estimated to have added over 80 million mobile subscribers and mobile Internet users. That’s roughly the same number as the total number of mobile subscriptions in the U.K.

In recent years, mobile phones have twice helped India largely bypass existing technology platforms that would have, on their own, taken decades of effort and billions of dollars of money to touch large sections of the population. The first time, it was fixed telephony. The second time, it was fixed Internet. Mobiles have helped India leapfrog them both.

Source:, Dec 2014. The figure represents the number of individuals who own and use at least one mobile phone at least once a month India to have more than 200 million smartphone users in 2016, beating US in the process: eMarketer

“For the average Indian, mobile is the only point of entry to the Internet,” said a Brookings article in March this year. This won’t be surprising when you learn that just five per cent of users in India own personal computers (the comparative number in the U.S. is more than 90 per cent). What about mobile phones, then? This year, according to an estimate by eMarketer, for the first time more than half of India’s population will be using mobile phones.

Compiled from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India releases and annual reports

Today, India has one of the largest and fastest growing mobile user bases in the world. The same is true for the country’s mobile Internet user base. The numbers will be so huge that in two years India will have the largest Facebook user base on mobile.

While estimating that India will have more than 500 million Internet users by 2018, a report by the Boston Consulting Group and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, titled ‘India@Digital.Bharat,’ pointed to how the rate of addition of new Internet users has jumped. The first 100 million, it said, took 20 years; the next 100 million will take three years; and the 100 million after that could take within a year.

The report said, “The last 100 million users will be drastically different from the first 100 million on multiple dimensions: they will be older, more rural, more female, more mobile-led, and more vernacular.”

An app for everything

With mobiles seemingly ubiquitous, Indians seem to be increasingly crafting their lives and work around apps. From tracking pollution in the Ganga (Bhuvan app) to alerting a Kerala snake catcher (King Cobra), there seems to be an app for everything. This is especially true of urban lives. Pick a need, and there are loads of choices: music (Wynk), commerce (Paytm), education (Coursera), groceries (BigBasket), cab (Uber), self-drive cars (Zoomcar), retail (Flipkart), price discovery (OLX), friends (WhatsApp), social networking (Facebook), professional networking (LinkedIn), security (VithU), and so on.

Based on a survey conducted by GlobalWebIndex among 2,534 Indian Internet users aged 16-64. The survey was conducted in two waves - one in the last quarter of 2014 and the other in the first quarter of this year. Its attempt is to track apps, mostly in the social networking and messaging categories, with a global presence. However, those important for the local market are starting to find a place - Hike is already in the list. In the next report, Flipkart, Snapdeal, Quikr and Ola Cabs will be added.

Rural India has its own dynamics. With one TV in the family — invariably tuned to general entertainment channels — “Whatsapp and Facebook are the ways to consume news,” said Shweta Bajpai, co-author of the India@Digital.Bharat report. Similarly, entertainment “to an urban user is pushed.” For a rural user, “it is a question of access.” So, mobile phones become important in that sense. Rural mobile Internet users total about a third of their urban counterparts.

“The mobile has become an important tool to help people keep track of issues like immunisation,” said Pritha Venkatachalam, Principal at Dalberg Global Development Advisors. “Also, in rural healthcare, where there is a shortage of doctors, trained healthcare workers can access healthcare information and get detailed information on their phones. Telemedicine is also beginning to catch up. A number of tech providers, hospitals are now investing in this area.”

“Consumers derive enormous value from mobile,” said another report from Boston Consulting Group earlier this year. It was pointing to a global trend of consumers placing a value on mobile technologies (ranging between $700 and $6,000 per user) over and above the cost of devices and services. That’s true especially of emerging markets such as China and India, the report said, pointing out that in those countries “the consumer-reported value of mobile exceeds 40 per cent of average income.”

It wouldn’t have come to this had the many hurdles around mobile usage remained. They haven’t. If money was an issue, mobiles have only got cheaper. There are smart phones in India that are available for below Rs. 2,000, more than half of what a ‘dumb’ phone would have cost a decade back. The subscriptions have gotten cheaper, though a recent Ericsson ConsumerLab report noted that affordability still posed a major barrier to mobile Internet adoption.

Mobiles have certainly got better and more powerful — recently, a forum even discussed if iPhone 6 is more powerful than the Cray supercomputers of the 1980s. Security is still an issue, with perceptions divided on how safe it is to share credit card details online. But it hasn’t been a show stopper — roundabouts exist, including those such as cash on delivery, something that’s quite popular in India.

Transactions over mobile

All this means that it can’t be business as usual for service providers. Many realise they have to tailor their offerings — whatever it is — to serve a mobile-savvy population. India’s largest e-commerce firm Flipkart has indicated it will shut its site and only have an app from next year. Its subsidiary Myntra has already done so, indicating in the process that almost all its traffic comes via mobiles. Globally, Google recently tweaked its algorithm to reflect the mobile-friendliness of web sites.

Approximate figures taken from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers' Mary Meeker 2015 Internet Trends report

“Over two-thirds to three-fourths, depending on which day, of our transaction happens over mobile,” said Anand Chandrasekaran, Chief Product Officer of Snapdeal, which, unlike its rival Flipkart, isn’t immediately thinking of going with an app-only strategy. “There is clearly a mobile-first approach to user adoption. I think it certainly helps when there are 110 million smart phone users today, many of whom may not even have a desktop. And 100 million plus new users coming on board, again many of whom may have mobile only as their only computing platform.”

The retail domain that’s populated by Flipkart and Snapdeal can be described as fledgling as far as the online share is concerned. Just over 1 per cent of retail sales in the country is online. Given this, Mr. Chandrasekaran said, “One trend that helps hugely is that there is going to be 100 million smart phone users with data in the next 12 months. You have a readymade pace of consumers coming online for the first time.”

With a smartphone in hand, a customer can browse, shop, buy, return, complain, refer, write a review — in no time and at any time. And so, businesses and service providers need to re-create the whole user experience, realising well that it is a personal device.

The Boston Consulting Group report mentioned how small and medium enterprises in emerging markets such as Brazil, China, and India have taken to mobile technologies faster than their counterparts in the developed world.

It should, however, be noted that India is still a majorly feature-phone driven market. In 2014, 180 million feature phones were shipped, more than twice the number of smart phones. Feature phones are useful in their own way — especially as they support money-transfer mechanisms such as Vodafone’s M-Pesa.

Forecasters see smart phones winning and data usage exploding. The big challenge in the coming years is bandwidth. “Broadband speeds are one of the lowest in the country. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate what we have achieved in a short time,” said Hemant Joshi, Partner, Deloitte Haskins & Sells.

(With inputs from Peerzada Abrar)

There are 36 apps and 22 websites listed in the National Health Portal’s page on m-health, or healthcare backed by mobile devices. In the list is Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health, which in India runs CycleTel, an initiative to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies. It says “nearly 36 million women aged 20-34” in India want to avoid a pregnancy but don’t have an effective, affordable and accessible method. It reaches women through SMSes. The list also includes Lybrate, an app that promises a one-click access to emergency support system and doctor appointments.


Duolingo is an app that allows people to learn a new language without the hassles of a conventional formal structure, and in a game-like environment. “People can learn languages on the go where they’d otherwise have idle time, such as waiting at a doctor’s office, in line, or commuting, since our lessons are bite-sized and can be completed in minutes at a time,” a Duolingo spokesperson said. There are about 1.2 million people using Duolingo in India. About 400,000 of them are learning English from Hindi. Data science and Python programming lead Indians’ preferences on Coursera, which has about 900,000 learners in India, a fourth of whom access it on mobiles. “People learn these courses while they are commuting and travelling. From watching video classes to downloading these videos and even making payments, everything can be done on the mobile,” said its India market manager Kabir Chadha.


Money is increasingly finding mobiles a comfortable medium. The number of transactions through the Immediate Payment Service, a platform that enables interbank fund transfer through mobile phones, has grown 13 times in 20 months. Data from National Payments Corporation of India shows that the value of mobile banking transactions has grown four times to over Rs 188 billion in the nine months between August 2014 and April 2015, even as volumes have increased by roughly 60 per cent. There are, however, other ways to transact using a mobile: Ezetap, a device that can be plugged into any phone and convert it into a card-reader. This way, virtually anyone with a phone can accept cards – from merchants to pizza delivery boys, from cab drivers to hairdressers. It provides it technology to customers such as the State Bank of India, HDFC, Ola Cabs and online grocery store


Kan Khajura Tesan is Hindustan Unilever’s initiative that initially sought to take entertainment to ‘media dark’ areas of the country. It has since been expanded to the whole of India. All one needs to do is give a missed call (a feature phone is good enough) to Kan Khajura Tesan’s number, following which there is a call back with entertainment, free of cost. Research firm IPSOS found that a third of its subscribers did not own a TV set.



Tharavads are Kerala’s ancestral homes, a sort of meeting point for all members of a family. The physical tharavads are vanishing now but many have moved to WhatsApp. “If you look at it, there’s a link of tharavad which cannot be cut. Initially they took to Facebook pages. Once WhatsApp came, all these tharavads started having separate groups,” said Abdul Vahid of Nayan Veedu tharavad. Last November, the messaging app had 70 million users in India, at that time more than 10 per cent of its total user-base. Alumni networks abound here.


CGnet Swara seeks to connect 10 crore adivasis living in the Central Gondwana region (extending from Gujarat to West Bengal) to government officials through mobile phones and social networking sites. People call an Interactive Voice Response number to register complaints, which are then put on social networking sites for the general users there to pick up the thread and connect with government officials. “People in remote areas still have mobile phones despite not having electricity and connectivity. They travel long distances to charge their phones,” Subhranshu Choudhary, a co-founder of the initiative, said. Only about 5 per cent of the issues are getting resolved at the moment, he said, but things are already getting better.


India’s top e-commerce company Flipkart recently launched a Seller Hub app that allows sellers to manage business from anywhere. “It cuts down the time to log in to the desktop, look for the order mails and then process the order,” said Venkat Ramesh of G.G. Associates, Tiruppur, who sells men’s shorts through the portal. “With the app, I get a notification every time we get an order, which I can immediately process on the phone.” A Flipkart official said at least a fourth of its seller base is already using the app.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 4:53:11 PM |

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