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To free or not to free the internet at the cost of a uniform experience
Sanshey Biswas  21st Mar 2015

CEO of Datawind, Suneet Tuli.

The past couple of weeks have been quite exciting for Indians. First, the Internet.org release, then Google's plans to bring Project Loon to India; the Indian cricket team qualified for the World Cup semis and DataWind launched their economical devices that come bundled with a year of free internet browsing starting at Rs 1,999.

With the first step of making the internet affordable taken care of by Facebook's and DataWind's partnerships with Rcom, the next barrier that remains to be broken is of making people aware of the availability and potential of having access to the internet. DataWind has made a wise decision to retail the devices available over Naaptol's distribution channels, including TV and print, in order to reach the target customer who won't necessarily be surfing e-commerce sites or reading about their devices on blogs and websites.

Both the companies that are carrying out their crusades in India to provide internet to everyone (which the UN apparently considers to be a human right) don't really paint the most promising picture. On the one hand, you have Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, taking a dig at Facebook's methodology of curating websites available for free as a violation of Net Neutrality's fundamentals. On the other, DataWind's ghost of the past, the Aakash tab, was promised to students as a functional tablet at subsidised prices under the Kapil Sibal regime but fell flat compared to initial expectations.

By default, the internet is something that can't be free, simply because at the end of every LAN wire is a company that has to keep the lights on in their offices to provide internet in the first place. Only after taking care of the expenses of their operation can they go out on the crusade of connecting people to the internet at no extra costs. DataWind has larger goals in mind. As an initiative towards the Make in India campaign, their CEO, Suneet Tuli, plans to move 90% of their production to India in 90 days, that will, in turn, develop jobs and opportunities in the country.

Even though I tried really hard, I failed to spot a single top brass employee from DataWind using the devices they had just launched at a five-star hotel in New Delhi. It would be safe to say that these devices primarily aim to make internet access available at a very affordable package and introduce the consumer to the possibilities online. The problem that will continue to persist is a rise in the Android platform's fragmentation because of smart-device manufacturers' inability to deliver updates. As a result, an individual's experience of the internet will still depend on their ability to buy the latest phone and pay for data charges even if it's just basic services like browsing.

Rather than making multiple phones that the consumers may or may not benefit from, or enjoy surfing, companies should look at the success that Xiaomi (especially in the budget segment) has managed by making devices that find the perfect balance between price and functionality. Along with a good hardware, phone vendors need to keep the ball rolling with regular firmware updates rather than simply making new devices every time the Android OS receives an update.

Whether freebies work or not will definitely be an interesting revelation, revealing whether consumers are more excited about quality or quantity. But we've been given enough phones that compromise in one aspect or another. If a company wants to make a Rs 2,00o phone that serves as an introduction to the Internet, the OS they choose should perform well under the low-grade specifications squeezed into the device. Only if DataWind had gone with the Firefox OS instead of Android, we would be expecting a brighter outcome than we do

right now.

 
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