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TECH TALK: The Mobile Phone Platform: The Three Screens

February 15th, 2005 · No Comments

For the most part, our life revolves around three screens. There is the TV screen, which provides us our entertainment. There is the computer screen, which provides us the interactivity for running applications, and accessing information and services. Then, there is the third screen that of the mobile phone. The phone offers the smallest of the screens, but is the most personal of them all. One could add the movie screen in theatres as the fourth one, but for the most part`, it can be thought of as an extension of the TV. [My thanks to Shrikant Patil for providing this three-screen insight.]

In India, the most widely available screen remains the TV. There are about a hundred million TV sets across India, and much of this growth has happened in the past 15 years. TV is something we watch at a distance. Programming on the TV is decided by the channels and distributed by cable operators. (There are alternatives: terrestrial broadcast which Doordarshan has, and now, the option for users to set up their own satellite dishes.) The number of channels has exploded soon, we will have the option of half-a-dozen business channels (as compared to just one in the US). Most people who watch cable TV pay about Rs 250-300 ($5-6) for about 100 channels available on their TV screen. As of now, TV in India remains one-way, broadcast-only.

The second screen in India (in order of appearance) has about 14-15 million users. Computers have been limited in their growth for a variety of reasons: affordability and desirability have been two primary factors. For most households in India, the computer does not make it into the top 10 must-purchase items. While large enterprises have a computer for every employee, the vast majority of employees across small- and medium-sized businesses in India still do not have access to one. Educational institutions in India share computers (if they are present) among so many students that for most of them it becomes like a television set! Computer are growing at the rate of over 4 million a year now as the reduction in duties and increasing competition has made them much more affordable. But the second screen remains more of a top of the pyramid luxury.

Contrast this with the third screen to enter our lives. In 2004, we bought over 20 million mobile phones and growth in 2005 is likely to be even higher in unit sales. At present, one in twenty Indians has a mobile phone. It will take less than two years for the current base to double. While the predominant use of mobile phones remains for voice communications (about 90%), SMS has caught the fancy of the youthful Indian population. So as phones become sleeker, cheaper and more feature-rich, other value-added services (ringtones, wallpapers, themes and games) are also increasing their share of the pie, albeit from a very small base. Look around at most of the ads and hoardings from cellphone handset makers and operators the focus is on what else you can do with the phone. And the game has just begun.

While I do not think any of the three screens will go away, what is increasingly clear is that in emerging markets, most users will experience the mobile phones screen at least a year before they experience the computer screen. This has some very interesting implications for the future.

Tomorrow: The One Device to Rule Them All


TECH TALK The Mobile Phone Platform+T

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