New Delhi: Mobile phones can do more than just transmit voice. Combine the versatile platform with clever applications and meaningful tools and you have an instrument capable of substantial mass impact.
The inaugural mBillionth South Asia Awards 2010 provided a platform for mobile content and application developers to showcase their best products and services. And on the basis of the winners, finalists and nominees, mobile innovation in the region is ripe for breakthrough ideas.
New trends: Digital Empowerment Foundation founder Osama Manzar at the mBillionth South Asia Awards. Amit Agrawal / Mint
Mobile density in South Asian countries has reached critical mass levels with Sri Lanka leading the pack. Sri Lanka covers 81.35% of its population with 16.27 million mobiles. Pakistan follows with 97.58 million mobiles covering 59.6% of the country; India has 584.32 million mobiles; Maldives, 46% coverage with 0.14 million mobiles; Afghanistan and Bangladesh are almost there with 35% (12.9 million mobiles) and 52.43 million (34%). Nepal lags behind with only 23.22% population coverage reaching only 5.77 million people.
“We will have ‘m’ in every format. The decade (up to 2010) was the year of ‘e’, but the coming decade is of the ‘m’,” said N. Ravi Shanker, joint secretary, department of information technology (DIT) and chief executive officer (CEO), National Internet Exchange of India.
Industry experts and veterans who attended the awards ceremony on Friday said mobile apps as an allied sector to mobile phones has great potential and its growth lies in many factors. According to Sukanta Dey, head, corporate business development, Tata Teleservices Ltd, accessibility and affordability of the smart devices, cheap tariffs and integrated micro billing have fuelled the growth of the mobile industry. “The entire ecosystem of handsets, service providers, competitive tariffs and innovative content is responsible for the development of this sector.”
“Entertainment and utility based apps are the way to go, I believe. Moreover, utility is the way to sustain a business model, because of the utility factor people will pay,” explained Kunal Bajaj, partner, director India, Analysys Mason.
Rural value-added services (VAS) is another revenue provider for app developers. But experts and jury members said that rural mobile consumption differed from urban trends in three ways.
Firstly, entertainment will not sell as much as it does in towns. Secondly, people need authorized information. Lastly, and most importantly, the apps must help in quality of life and livelihoods.
“The challenge lies in creating the value addition by providing livelihood to the user,” added Umesh Sachdev, CEO, Uniphore Software Systems Pvt. Ltd.
The only disappointment has been from the education and learning branch, said Osama Manzar, curator of the mBillionth Awards, founder of Digital Empowerment Foundation and also a jury member, who feels there is a tremendous scope in providing m-learning solutions.
Content discussion and success is always marred by the never-ending debate of premium versus free content. Though there are many takers for free content, how far can this allow a developer to sustain his app? “Free is already available. Innovative and exclusive content will sustain the business model and to make it profitable; one can explore option of advertising,” argued Bajaj.
Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and managing?director, One97 Communications (P) Ltd, provides a completely different viewpoint and favours paid content not for revenue earning but for sustenance. “If a poor person is getting something out of a service, then he is ready to pay. A charge is required not to make revenues but to sustain the value-driving process,” he added.
Given the potential for VAS, many large VAS companies are searching for talent and a few small start-ups have seen the light of the day because of this association. According to industry veterans, VAS companies are nurturing new talent and entrepreneurs, which is very encouraging. Also, another trend that’s catching on fast is that the giants are making a war chest for acquiring and investing in smaller firms.
Given the impetus from consumers and investors, most of the discussions and panel sessions at the mBillionth awards this year pointed out one missing element: supportive policy. The industry is growing at a healthy pace and according to Arvind Rao, CEO and co-founder of OnMobile, the mobile content industry’s revenue is pegged at Rs15, 000 crore currently.
The problems are local, solutions also stem from them. What the sector needs are policies for indigenous needs, which accelerate the process. The introduction of 3G, broadband and Wi-Max will provide the necessary push for such endeavours. “The government is ensuring that a proper ecosystem is build for it to thrive. I think proper utilization of this sector is only possible with the right policy formulation,” said Ashis Sanyal, senior director, DIT.
The main challenge at the moment as seen by R. Chandrashekhar, secretary, DIT, is the absence of unifying standards for technology. The cost of providing services is still not affordable for many. “How do we bring down the cost to affordable levels?” he asked. It gets severe when complexities such as building a new-age system on old infrastructure arise. “Policy needs to provide the unifying framework without constraining the innovations.”
Incentive for research and development is another demand from the industry. As Manzar says, the government should pick up these services and use them on a larger scale for delivering their own services. This can take the industry a long way in progressing from being an allied branch to a full-fledged industry. “What we need are tax and support benefits. The telecom industry is a revenue-sharing sector, but mobile app developers are an industry requiring support,” said Sharma.