If one were to look for one of the most disruptive, exciting and dynamic product categories in India today, it would be that of mobile phones. The ongoing high decibel launch of Nokia Lumia, the Microsoft Windows operating system phone, opens yet another chapter in a market that has been throwing up catchwords and upheavals equally with rapid-fire frequency.
Nokia's leadership has got rocked seriously. Blackberry - the enterprise phone supremo - is scrambling to steady its foothold. Apple iPhone launched an upgrade to its iPhone 4 in 4S, disappointing expectations of an iPhone 5 launch. Samsung has followed launch after new launch in new-technology handsets. Indian brands created quick presence for themselves by combining technology with low pricing, breaking the convention of basic models at lower prices for entry level consumers. The biggest mobile phone brands are no longer turning up their noses at low-priced alternatives. Consumer awareness of operating systems - Android, Symbian, Bada, BlackBerry OS, Apple iOS, Windows - is going up. And how many consumers in India were even aware of the word "apps" (applications) two years ago?
'Smartphone' is becoming the latest catchword with consumers in India. "This year we will see an explosion of smart devices much like what Europe witnessed in 2007," said Kanika Atri, India marketing head for Nokia Siemens Network, a global network solutions provider for the telecom industry.
The smartphone market in India, estimated at 85 lakh devices in 2011, is expected to double this year. In 2010, India was a mere 25 lakh smart devices market. Samsung, Nokia and BlackBerry all maintain that they are growing faster than the Indian market growth rate of 67% for smartphones. This phenomenal growth rate is partly fuelled by the focus of companies such as Samsung to get feature phone users to upgrade to smartphones and partly due to the blurring line between feature and smart devices.
"The line between feature phones and smartphones will blur and we will see a smartphone lite category evolving," said Viral Oza, director -marketing, Nokia India.
"We established our market leadership in the smartphone segment last year and are looking at consolidating it this year by expanding the smartphone portfolio and creating new segments within the segment. We will be looking at increasing the access points - the retail network - for smartphones," Ranjit Yadav, country head, Samsung Mobile (India), said. Samsung will launch 45 new handsets in 2012, of which 13-14 will be smartphones priced at Rs 6,600-32,890.
The much anticipated Nokia Lumia was launched in December and user reviews have so far been very positive. While 2011 was the year of the Android-powered smart phones in India, 2012 promises to be disruptive with Lumia's Windows-powered phones. Microsoft's Windows phone software, Mango, has also been adopted by Samsung, which already offers Android- and its own OS Bada-powered phones.
Nokia will launch 25 new handsets, including at least 10 smart devices, said a source. At least half a dozen new Symbian-based Belle range of smartphones will launch in India by August, said Vipul Mehrotra, Nokia's India director for smart devices. Also, the 4G-ready Nokia Lumia 900, launched in the US recently, will debut in India soon, the source added.
Blackberry-maker Research in Motion's (RIM) India managing director, Sunil Dutt, said that a new device relevant to India and priced under Rs 15,000 will hit the shelves shortly. Add to this another 70 phones altogether from BlackBerry, Motorola, Sony Ericson, LG, Vertu, Micromax, Karbonn and other players and there will be, on an average, at least eight new smartphones in the market every month.
In all this action, the expensive, ubercool Apple iPhones - whose 4S with Siri on board was smuggling into the gray markets of India soon after its US launch - have found very select consumer numbers in India. Market watchers also predict that with the new technology that the different brands are launching in India almost simultaneously with their launches in the Western markets, the India-tardy Apple could well remain very select or become peripheral with consumers.
Globally, the mobile handset industry has evolved from being a battle of devices to a war of ecosystems. The other buzzword would be experience. The top three players say that before buying a handset, consumers now ask, "What can the phone do for me?" and not "What can I do with the phone?"
"It's not just about handsets and operating systems anymore. It's the ecosystem of device manufacturer, applications, solutions and functions that will drive mobility adoption," asserted RIM India's Dutt.
"I don't care what device I use as long as I can do more than what the phone already does. I work on the go and I want my phone to do the same. It must not just make my life easier, but improve it," said Arjun Chatterjee, CEO of digital solutions company RunTime Solutions. "But they better make sure the battery life is good."
He added that the switchover to a Windows phone may not be a big issue. "All computers in my office run on Windows. I don't have to learn a new OS from a scratch. Also, I'd expect the Windows phone to seamlessly sync with the computers at my office and the MS Outlook e-mails."
Said Oza: "Nokia Lumia 800 and Nokia 710 are designed for work. Our Windows phones include Microsoft's leading productivity offerings like access to business e-mail, calendar and contacts on your Nokia with Windows phone via Microsoft Outlook mobile, Office Mobile and Microsoft Business apps. These phones also enable you to collaborate with your colleagues with Lync, SharePoint and OneNote apps."
Mehrotra added that the future belongs to those who have a strong ecosystem backed by a strong set-up in terms of retailers, distributors and service centres.
Samsung's Yadav said, "We continue to enrich the consumer experience by developing India relevant apps for our devices, which is being undertaken by our R&D centres."
BlackBerry, 70% of whose customers are in the 'enterprise' space, will come under direct pressure from such initiatives, muse industry watchers. Dutt, however, counter-argued: "Our users are happy with our ecosystem and solutions and our research has shown that they do not want to migrate."
The most interesting smartphone segment will be the sub-Rs 10,000 segment where popular players such as Micromax, Karbonn and Maxx also put the biggies under pressure.
"The mobile market is gradually moving towards a scenario which offers affordable, value-for-money products loaded with features and applications," said Shashin Devsare, executive director, Karbonn Mobiles. "The entry-level smartphone will bring with it features and applications that will change the mobile ecosphere and thus create a demand-driven market module in India."
While 3G adoption is still not up to expectations, the soft launch of 4G is slated for the second half of this year. Yet a check of smartphones at the retailshelves in India reveals an absence of 4G-ready smartphones. On a query on this, both Nokia and Samsung said their devices will be here when the Indian market is ready to move on to the next level of telecommunications.
"It will be some time before the ecosystem is mature enough for mass use in this respect," said Atri.