There are 170 million mobile users in India, but only just over 1% of them use their mobiles for Internet access. Of course, not all mobiles have the ability to access the Net, but from a technology standpoint, I would estimate that at least 30% of the phones in India on GSM and CDMA would be able to access the Internet. And yet, few of us do. We seem quite happy just using the mobile for phone calls and SMSes. Some of us use the operator portals to get ringtones, wallpapers and games. But thats about it. Why not more?
There are a number of reasons. First, while CDMA phones have a convenient button dabao (press the button) to access a portal, the GSM phones need some extra configuration to get connected over GPRS. Second, mobile operators want to keep the users who do get connected within their walled gardens. So, they become the gatekeepers for the services. So much so, it is almost impossible for any independent service provider to create a portal that can be accessed by all users who have active data connections. Third, short-sighted pricing plans for data ensure that the ones who do want open access will have to pay a high price for it.
In addition, no one in India is really promoting the mobile Internet. Mobile operators are busy focused on new customer acquisition after all, every new $3 ARPU (average revenue per user per month) customer adds anywhere between $500-1,000 to their market cap! The handset makers like Nokia focus mostly on features that are native on the handset like a great music experience. The mobile value-added service players have still not gone out and determinedly create independent off-deck brands which attract users presumably, because they know few can access them as of now. The PC Internet companies are, well, focused on the PC Internet.
Put it all together and we have a mobile Internet that has neither users nor services. Can this logjam be broken? If so, how? Can the mobile become like a magic lamp fulfilling all our wishes? What are these wishes? When the Nokia N95 ad asks if is this is what computers have become, why dont we feel like going out and buying one? Is there really an opportunity for mobile data services beyond the downloadable ringtones, wallpapers and games?
For the mobile Internet to happen, mobile operators need to believe that Data, not Voice, will change the direction of the ARPU trajectory assuming of course that ARPU matters. In India, currently, everyone is happy focusing only on the minutes of usage. A time will come in the not too distant future when voice will go to zero-margin and then to zero. It is for that world that mobile operators need to learn from the PC Internet that creating an open platform can foster innovation in a way no closed environment can.
Tomorrow: Network Computing Devices