The call came early morning. The Apple PR team wanted to meet me. Thinking it was a typical ‘we are about to launch a new product’ meeting, I agreed to catch up the next day. It was anything but typical. Apple CEO Tim Cook was coming for his first-ever visit to India (wow), he would be here for four days (very unusual), I was to spend three days with him travelling all over the country (double wow), I would be the only one doing so (stunned silence) and I would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement (standard practice).
That set in motion a chain of events that saw me travel to multiple cities, attend multiple events and have multiple conversations with the man who heads the most valuable company in the world.
Over those three days, I was asked numerous questions about my experience with Tim Cook – some personal, some professional, most to do with ‘will iPhone be cheaper in India?’ and rounded up with all the love and hate Apple garners in this country. To answer all those questions and queries, this is my story.
What did he actually do?
Tim (I was asked to call him that and not Mr Cook) experienced India as Indians do. He ticked all the boxes: cricket (saw an IPL match), Bollywood (a tour of Mehboob studios and dinner at Shah Rukh Khan’s house), religion (went to Siddhivinayak temple early one morning), tourism (visited Golconda Fort) and socialised (except that he met people a little out of every Indian’s league like our PM Narendra Modi, the Ambanis and Mittals).
But those were just the headline makers. His main purpose was to truly understand and learn what makes us Indians tick. The even bigger purpose was the obvious one. To raise awareness of Apple’s brand in the world’s most exciting smartphone market. A very tough question in a country that has as many as 150 brands of mobile phones.
What was he ‘really’ like?
It’s unfortunate that my answer to this is going to be a cliche. He’s warm and humble to a fault – almost unaware that he wields enormous power as the head of the world’s most valuable company. This man can take on governments and heads of states (and has), but is very grounded and real. When I asked him whether this almost-impossible -to-believe-humility was an act, he was amused. He attributed it to his parents and how he had been brought up to “always be aware of your own blessings and to give back to society”. And that he put in a special effort to not think of himself as the man that runs a company that has more money, sales and clout than most countries put together.
My other quick observations: he doesn’t like fanfare, doesn’t sleep much (he was always the first one in the lobby to get a quick start to the day), likes to make quiet entrances that take people by surprise, enjoys taking selfies but is quite shy (that was very obvious at a girls college in Hyderabad where he was treated as a rock star), a very good listener and has a great eye for clothes. He also likes going off-script and winging it extempore, which leaves his tirelessly working PR team stunned several times a day.
What did this trip do for India?
It cemented our position as the country that could become king of the smartphone market worldwide, and that every brand will have to come here and do something special if they want to survive. We got two centres for app development and maps, a boost for startups but didn’t get a billion dollar investment into any of them (unlike Didi of China that took that away from us). Still, some of the expected big announcements never came.
What bombs did he drop?
Well, let’s start with the really big one. Will the iPhone be made in India since that’s mostly what the PM wants too? Here’s my gut feeling based on several conversations with Tim. It will, just not right away. They need to get some more ducks in line. Will we have Apple branded retail stores in India? Absolutely, that’s a given. What about the refurbished iPhones being sold here? It’s a controversial space, but once again, my overall feeling on this is that it’ll happen as this is critical for Apple.
This is the only way for them to crack an Android-dominated market that has almost no loyalty to brands and light pockets. Will they tie up with a service provider so that an iPhone can be bought subsidised on contract? Despite Tim meeting the Ambanis and Mittals, I’m going to go with a no. India has other problems like tax and contract legality and it’ll need some other jugaad to make it happen. Will we have a few startups get some mega Apple dollars as an investment? Yes, as that’s always a feel good.
Will this change Apple’s fortunes in India
It’s a good start. We’ll see better pricing for Apple products, we’ll see new launches almost immediately, Apple-style retail and service and we may eventually see a ‘made in India’ iPhone 8. As Cook said: “We are in India for the next thousand years”. These three days were a good start.
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
From HT Brunch, May 29, 2016
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