Mobile Internet and India

In India, the Future of the Internet Will Be Built around the Mobile Phone” reads the title of one of today’s articles at Knowledge@Wharton. It is an interview with my colleague, Rajesh Jain, CEO of NetCore. Rajesh believes that the mobile phone will be the primary device for interacting with the web for a vast number of users in India. It is easy to follow his logic.

Many more people have constant access to cell phones than constant access to PCs. They are the “mobile first” segment of the population. Yours truly, in contrast, is a “PC first” person: I had never even heard of a cell phone when I first hung around the web in the dim recesses of time. For me, the internet and PCs are inextricably linked. But for the hundreds of millions of Indians who have yet to discover the web, the mobile phone will be the first device they will use.

The internet as seen through a PC is a different beast as felt using a mobile phone for obvious reasons. PCs and mobiles differ most significantly in the ease of input/output: PCs beat mobiles hands down in that respect. But mobiles are, well, more mobile: you cannot stuff a PC with its huge screen into your breast pocket. (And best of all, mobiles cost a lot less.) Web pages which are meant to be rendered on a big screen cannot be seen very well through a two-inch window. Inputting textual information using 10 keys is hard compared to using a full size keyboard. Searching for information using a search engine such as Google is easy on a PC; not so with a cell phone where scrolling through the results is difficult. All these add up and you have to think differently about how the internet will be produced and consumed for the mobile first generation.

I confess that I belong to the “mobile last” generation. I did not even own a mobile phone until I got to India three years ago. In California, I was near a landline all the time, and had an always-on internet connection at home and at work. The sequence of acquisition of connectivity for me was: land line, internet at work, internet at home, cell phone. I think I am stuck at the internet at home stage. I will never be able to consider the cell phone for anything other than a device that I use to make voice calls (and occassionally use SMS–short messages).

It is part of human nature, I think, that when we associate functions with devices, we are driven by inertia and conditioning. I do have a cell phone with a camera. But I never use it. For years I have used cameras for capturing images, and for the last few years only digital cameras. The cell phone is not a camera to me. For others who have never owned a camera before, the cell phone with a camera is the only device they own which is a camera as well and they naturally use that function.

Because so many hundreds of millions will have their first taste of the internet through their mobiles, the mobile internet is going to be the biggest game in town in a few years. It will be interesting to watch how it all develops.

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