Three random bits of news last week signalled to me the next wave of possibility in the digital revolution — free phones. Sounds weird? I don’t think so. However, I think this would require some complex thinking — and a more practical likelihood is dirt-cheap phones with lots of caveats and conditions.
Bharti Airtel and Google announced last week that they launched a ‘Free Zone’ in India under which Airtel's mobile users will be able to access popular Google services on their mobile phones at zero data cost. That is very attractive for low-end users, or those who are on the ‘entry-level’ Internet experience.
Clearly, Google will try to increase its subscriber base by wooing first-timers and keep them on its customer base, so that it can make money on search ads that pop up when the customers use Gmail or Google search or one of their apps. Also last week, Google was said to be making a gaming console based on its Android operating system. So, in essence, Google can to consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox, what it has already done with smartphones — make them proliferate at cheap rates with possibilities for a zillion apps.
Internet being based on open standards, everybody is sort of trying to do what the other is doing to outsmart each other. Also last week, Nokia was in the news that its cheap phone, Asha 210, which has a dedicated Facebook button, was available for pre-booking at R4,499 on Flipkat.com. Now, that is not a bargain when you get real smartphones cheaper from Indian brands, but clearly, the giants of the hardware, content and service business are courting each other for smart partnerships.
In such a scenario, what stops, say, an Idea or a Reliance or an MTS from coming up with a data plan that tells low-end users that they will get a phone free if they promise to spend, say, R100 a month for three years?
With content companies trying to grab eyeballs, it is not a question of how but when. In a market that has only a little over 100 million smartphone customers but more than 800 million mobile customers, such things have to happen.