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The Bare Essentials

Some time in this decade, the mobile phone became a necessity. Now past the 300 million mark in India, it’s replacing the PC, writes Prasanto K Roy.

tech reviews Updated: Nov 15, 2008 20:12 IST

Four years ago in Manali, a beggar came up to me. He started off on his sad story. No roti for days, no warm clothes… And then, oops. His mobile phone rang.

He fumbled to silence it. I said, c’mon, take the call.

Turned out he was near-homeless (he shared a room in a slum), if not quite dying of hunger. People would call him for odd jobs. He needed money to top up his phone.

I gave him a tenner. The learning was worth it, that the mobile was the last nail in Maslow’s coffin. Telecom had crept into the most basic level of his hierarchy of needs, next to air, food and water...

The Reliance ad now says it well: Air. Food. Water. Network.

Millions of Indians have made their first phone call from a mobile, not a landline: many of them have never used a landline.

In 12 years, the mobile went from zero to 300 million in India, now the world’s biggest market after China. (Yet there are just 30 million PCs after 20 years, and 40 million landline phones after 100 years of the telephone.)

About a tenth of these 300 million, and over a fifth of the 8 million-plus phones now selling monthly, are ‘smart’.

SMART AND FLEXI
There’s no definition of a smartphone, though it will have e-mail, a calendar, and Internet access. But a less visible feature makes it so very exciting.

Like a PC, the smartphone can download and run software. It has the power, capability and memory of a PC. Unlike a PC, it’s always connected. Hey, it is a phone.

You probably use a smartphone. Perhaps the iconic iPhone, at Rs 30k. Or maybe a Rs 4k Nokia 3110 Classic, which includes GPRS, email and a memory card (and camera, bluetooth, MP3, radio). You get software for both.

I use something in between. I’m writing this column on my Nokia E51 (Rs 11k), using a downloaded BlackBerry mail editor. I subscribe to BlackBerry service from Airtel at Rs 1,000 a month, but you do get cheaper data connections. (For a data account, an ‘unlimited’ tariff plan is a good idea –Airtel charges Rs 499 a month, or Rs 249 from ‘business users’. Others have similar plans.).

Here are some nice little programs I’ve installed on my E51. You can get them from their websites through your mobile browser, once you have a data subscription.

Google Search is the first link on my phone’s “idle screen”, and I use it often. I no longer have to load the browser, so I now can quick-search – and I do, all the time! From your phone’s browser, go to m.google.com/search. Then click Install now.

Gmail Checking mail through your phone’s web browser is tedious. The Gmail program for the mobile is snappy, looks good, and keeps you signed on so you don’t have to login each time you get to Gmail. See m.google.com/mail.

Google Maps shows you a map of your city, down to road level. Even if you don’t have GPS in your phone, Maps will show your rough location, based on the nearby mobile towers. See m.google.com/maps.

At m.google.com, you’ll see the software that works for your phone. The programs I’ve mentioned here work with Nokia, Samsung, LG and other ‘Symbian S60’ smartphones, BlackBerry handsets, and phones that run Windows Mobile.

Fring: This neat instant-message tool logs in to your MSN Messenger, Google Talk, Yahoo, Skype, Twitter and other chat accounts, and keeps you always on with those services. (GPRS messaging is cheaper than sending SMSs back and forth.) See fring.com.

Opera Mini: A little web browser that beats the one built into my phone. It’s made for the mobile phone. Go to operamini.com.

I also use BookMyShow for movie tickets, Oxigen, ngpay and mChek payment applications, VoipClient for cheap phone calls over the Net using Wi-Fi, MobileRediff for news, JetWallet for flight bookings. (Search for these on any web browser.)
I don’t have much fun stuff loaded. But there are hundreds of games. And other neat tools. On my wife’s BlackBerry, a little program changes the colour of that little white ‘pearl’ trackball to a fiery red, green, or yellow (go ahead, search for ColorPearl)!

India now has more Internet-enabled smartphones, than Net-connected PCs.

And that means a growing flock of mobi-boomers… children of the mobility age – those who’ve made their first Internet connection not on a PC, but through a mobile phone.

Prasanto K Roy (pkr@cybermedia.co.in) is chief editor at CyberMedia, which publishes 15 specialty titles such as Dataquest and Living Digital