Tim Cook started his India tour with an obeisance to Lord Ganesha, the favourite deity of those in trouble, at Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak temple.
Cook did not put all his faith in religion alone, he also leaned on India’s other obsessions. The same day, he met the crew of Azhar, a movie loosely based on — talking of obsessions — the life of former cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin.
During the rest of his three-day visit, Cooked ticked all the boxes: from ‘running into’ Anant Ambani, whose father Mukesh is rolling out a massive telecom service, to organised meetings with corporate chieftains, and launching the new Modi app at the Prime Minister’s residence in New Delhi.
Yet, he may not have gone back with a spring in his step and a song on his lips. The government did not waive the 30% local sourcing norm for Apple in setting up its retail outlets, nor did it allow the company to sell refurbished phones in the country.
Of course, Cook’s visit was a grand affair, with extensive coverage in the media. But India has changed since 1997, when Microsoft founder Bill Gates first came here. The prime minister flew down to Mumbai to share the stage with him. A foreign journalist was mistaken for Gates and mobbed for autographs.
Those were heady days. Those were the days when India needed the world more than the word needed it. India is now the apple of every marketer’s eye. Everyone wants a piece of its burgeoning middle class and 180 million smartphone users.
In the world of internet, India is the silver lining, according to Mary Meeker’s latest report. Global internet growth, at 9%, would have gone in the other direction without India’s 40% surge. India now has more internet users than the US. China is still way ahead, but, as the accompanying graphic tells you, that’s a story with few high points for western corporations.
What’s more, India’s internet usage, though growing, has still much room to grow. Internet penetration here is just 20%. “There is a lot of headroom,” said Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst of Greyhound Research. Increasing demand for the internet will fuel smartphones’ growth, and Cook knows that. “We are in India for the next thousand years,” he said during his visit.
He may have illustrious company. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was here just before Cook and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella just after. In the last one year, Uber’s Travis Kalanick, Goo gle’s Sundar Pichai, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son have also come visiting. But India no longer gets swayed like it did in 1997. Nirmala Sitharaman, commerce minister, sounded firm when she said: “We are not in favour of any company selling used phones in the country, however certified they may be.”
At least, Cook has no reason to envy Zuckerberg. Facebook’s Free Basics, which offers free internet usage for a bunch of apps and websites, was banned soon after Zuckerberg’s visit, on the ground that it violated the principle of net neutrality. Facebook makes money through advertisements targeted at users — more users means more revenue. Soon after Free Basics met its fate, Facebook’s India head, Kirthiga Reddy, who had been the company’s first employee in India, was transferred out.
In comparison to Cook and Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella made a low-key trip down here. He did not seem to have come with a set of things to accomplish, and one of his big flourishes was opening a speech with a Ghalib couplet. When Nadella met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he expressed his desire to participate in the Startup India and Digital India campaigns.
There has been no reciprocal response from the government so far, but these things may take time. Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos had come two years ago. He is still waiting for permission to do inventory-led e-commerce.