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The Internet at the bottom of the pyramid

india Updated: Jul 31, 2011 22:31 IST
N Madhavan
N Madhavan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

It is clear that smartphones are exploding, bringing to your handtop the power of the internet, but then, smartphones are still a small part of the mobile universe, in which India now has more than 800 million connections.

The big question: how far are the poorer lot of the digital world from the World Wide Web? It turns out the answer is: not very far.

If cybercafés brought to those who did not have home PCs the power of the Net, a new class of handphones, called "smart feature phones" are marrying low-end hardware and software in a way under which the cheaper feature phones - which do not allow third-party applications -can be enabled for selected features of the Net, such as news, content or applications such as social media sites Facebook and Twitter. And that is what is powering what I call the "Internet at the bottom of the pyramid" (This is also aided by SMS-based communities linked to the Web).

Facebook is making this happen through the integration of technology from Snaptu, a company it acquired. Media giant Yahoo is working with telecom service operators on the one hand and chip designers on the other, to make this work.

I recently met Vishal Mahehwari, Asia-Pacific head for mobile and business development, and Grant Kuo, managing director of Taiwan-based chip design firm MediaTek's Indian unit, and got a good inkling of how this works.

Yahoo plans to offer its services, such as its Yahoo Messenger, news, finance, weather, mail and Flickr embedded in MediaTek chips.

This is not really a browser interface that helps you take on the big big world of the Net, but what I call "Internet in a sachet" - to borrow an expression consumer goods companies used to proliferate the shampoo. "We are able to provide optimised Yahoo experience on very low-end devices," said Maheshwari. "It is going to give us reach."

The bottomline: we are heading for a future in which a Rs 1,000 handphone can access and interact with limited Internet features.

Last week, MediaTek announced an investment of $20 million in Spice Digital, a mobile value added service (VAS) company of the Modi group. MediaTek powers the chipsets for many feature phones in the market - companies like MicroMax, Lemon, Karbonn, Olive, Videocon, Intex etc.

By marrying content services with low-end handsets, design firms like MediaTek are doing to the Internet what microfinance is doing to banking.