TECH TALK: A Mass Market (Part 1)

(This column is part of an ongoing series on “India’s Next Decade”.)

For long, India has bypassed the computer revolution (or vice versa). We got onto one of the rear bogies of the computing train through the software services route. We are now chasing the IT-enabled service train. There is an opportunity for India to be the engine of the next computing revolution in the next decade. It means envisioning this new future. The portents are there. The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are becoming available. It is for us to assemble them together to great a glorious future. This is one future in which we can not only be the producers but also an important portion of the consumers. Whats needed is to combine a view of where technology is heading (the New WWW, which we discussed earlier in the series), entrepreneurial thinking and a vision of the mass market that is possible.

A quarter century ago, Bill Gates imagined a mass market for computers and software and built Microsoft into one of the most powerful companies in the world. It is time for a similar revolution to make computing a utility in the lives of enterprises in the emerging markets of the world. This is the opportunity for India and Indian entrepreneurs: how to envision and help create this new computing mass market.

In doing so, we can dramatically alter the shape of Indias next decade. The technology digital divide needs to be bridged. It is time we entrepreneurs in countries like India became leaders in technology products, rather than pure service centres for the rest of the world. Let us dream of and works towards becoming the anchor store in the world mall, not a discount outlet. Let us lead, not just follow.

The three building blocks of a technology infrastructure are computers, software and communications. Computers continue to become predictable more powerful, keeping up a trend of the past two decades and powered by Moores Law. Software becomes bigger (bloated) to keep up the need for the faster and better computers. Communications is being driven to wireless expensive spectrum auctioned in many countries for 3G networks. The problem, as we discussed last week, is that much of technology has its pricing in terms of dollars, which makes it unaffordable for most companies and individuals in the emerging markets of the world.

Now, let us think differently. The computer is undoubtedly the most important innovation in the past quarter century. And yet, most enterprises in emerging markets like India have penetration levels of less than 10%. Of course, one can argue that the ones who need a computer already have it, and the others simply dont need it. But that is not necessarily true.

Look back at the cellphone experience. A few years ago, most of us managed quite well without it, as the handset cost in excess of Rs 10,000 and phone calls were Rs 8-10 per minute. Today, handset prices have fallen by 60-70% and phone calls are at Rs 1.50 per minute. As an alternative to post-paid, pre-paid SIM cards are available for Rs 300-500 per month. The number of users have skyrocketed. Most of us who were managing perfectly fine without a cellphone now find ourselves unable to do without one. The new computing infrastructure needs to get to the price points of a cellphone: an initial cost of Rs 5,000 or so, and a monthly cost of Rs 250-300.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.