Now Xiaomi turns to Bollywood as phone companies bet on content

  • Suveen Sinha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 11, 2016 10:49 IST
Hugo Barra is looking to reprise the successful China model in India (Hindustan Times)

“Can you get me some Bollywood movies?” Hugo Barra asked Neeraj Roy.

“Yeah, sure,” said Roy.

The conversation went on to culminate in Xiaomi leading an investment round of $25 million in Hungama Digital, announced seven days ago. Thereby hangs a tale.

Barra is vice-president, global for Xiaomi, which started six years ago as a maker of Android-based mobile operating systems. It started making smartphones so its operating system could spread far and wide. Barra was the head of product management at Google’s Android mobile unit till 2013, when he decided to move to Beijing, with Xiaomi. He is now the face and voice of the Chinese company.

Roy is the founder and CEO of Hungama, a pioneer and leader in digital entertainment in India. He met Barra at a conference in Hong Kong. It was like they never stopped talking after that. The reasons were compelling.

Xiaomi is often called the Apple of China, an epithet Barra wants to shed because it is not always used with unwavering respect. In fact he does not even see Xiaomi (pronounced shower-me) as a maker of mobile phones, he sees it as a maker of devices that work as gateways to internet-based content and services. Over the last year, it has launched many internet services that ride on its software platform. It is one of the top three app stores in China, one of the biggest game-download destinations, and big in content such as video.

“We are looking at the same business model in India,” Barra told HT. “We have been here 20 months, it’s time to roll out this internet-based strategy.”

This is a strategy that nearly every mobile phone company — be it a service provider or handset maker — wants to embrace. For good reason.

There are 400 million internet users in India, of which three-fourths access it through their mobile phones. At 220 million, there are more smartphones in India than in the United States. The fourth generation of mobile telephony is taking off in the country. In China, content consumption went up five times as the country moved from 3G to 4G. People consumed a lot more on the faster service, which makes it much more convenient to watch video and other visual content. Telecom companies, however, believe that content came and drove 4G, not the other way around. And therefore, every one of them — from Bharti Airtel to Reliance Jio to Micromax — is lining up content or services, or both.

And when it comes to content, there is no source like Bollywood. No other industry comes close to it in spinoff effect. Most of the non-news media (some news media as well) lives off Bollywood: television programmes, whole television channels, reality shows, dance reality shows, singing reality shows, gossip shows, radio programmes, music companies, magazines, newspapers, newspaper supplements, websites, mobile phones apps, weddings, and tunes of devotional songs. Why, they even rely on Bollywood to name television serials.

Yet, Indian cinema goes beyond Bollywood. “Indian cinema is seen in 127 countries, and dubbed in 35 languages. Four southern languages account for 34% of theatrical box office. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra, you see reverence of a different order for artistes,” Roy told Barra.

That was music (there we go again) to Barra’s ears. For Xiaomi is nothing if not a community builder, and all communities, can use an adhesive like cinema. China has 160 million people on the Xiaomi platform, of which 30 million are daily active users. Most of them use a Xiaomi phone, though some others have also come on board. Then there are 10-million users of its televisions and set-top boxes.

Hungama has a community of its own, across platforms and telecom companies. It claims to have served 65.5-million consumers in March, of which 17 million did some sort of a transaction. “A lot of this is moving towards video. As I saw the Xiaomi community, I said you guys are sitting on a vibrant community. They are truly somebody with whom we can grow,” says Roy.

He and Barra would be hoping for a happy ending, Bollywood-style. Or, maybe never-ending happiness.

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