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Smartphones are the new detergents

gadgets Updated: Oct 27, 2013 23:29 IST
N Madhavan

About three decades ago, a little-known brand called Nirma challenged the mighty Surf, owned by Hindustan Lever (since renamed Hindustan Unilever) and created history. Surf steadily lost market share in India’s detergent market, and local brands including Ghari and Nirma made the roaring multinational tiger look like a purring cat.

I was reminded of that when I saw advertisements for Micromax Canvas Turbo mobile phones, featuring Hollywood’s Australian-born star Hugh Jackman as its stunning, handsome model.

The message was unmistakable. Here was a Gurgaon company showing some sleek engineering, product features and design and announcing — or trying to announce to the world — that it was not just any cut-price competitor.

Also there was Noida-based Lava International showcasing its Iris handsets with a catchy slogan: “We put the art in the smart.”

Only time can tell if these products will match up to their ads, but one thing is clear. In the smartphone and tablet industry led by Apple’s pioneering style and Samsung’s challenging demeanour, the field is more crowded than we care to admit.

The reason is simple. With the Android operating system designed to proliferate the handset and the tablet as a generic than as a brand, the industry is “commoditised” to a point where if you take out the newest patented features, an inspired manufacturer can go far in giving the average consumer good value for money.

After all, most of the manufacture takes place in China or Taiwan in the hands of seasoned contract manufacturers who can stick any brand on the products!

The scene is strikingly similar to the washing-powder industry, in which the “blue detergent” is what most people are buying, and most of the differentiation lies in minor tweaks, add-ons, marketing, packaging and advertising.

Your handphone/tablet is now the 21st Century detergent powder. The game is shifting to what the device can do for your life and lifestyle. For the bulk of India’s 700 million-odd mobile phone subscribers, the journey from the plain feature phone to smartphones is not about ultra-cool gizmos but simpler things like getting on to the Net and doing the basics of email, social networking and using apps for videos, education, news, music and ticket-booking.

What we can expect in this game next is a series of new winners that focus on the lifestyles of the simple consumer. Losers may be big brands with too much of attitude and pride in their past.