India as a testbed

The subcontinent is fast becoming a development and testing ground for new digital products


Sundar Pichai visited Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce last week. Manvender Vashist/PTI
Sundar Pichai visited Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce last week. Manvender Vashist/PTI

Remember how you would give your chauffeur a missed call on the mobile phone that was code for “Bring the car up from the garage—I am ready to go out”? Millions in India use the “missed call” trick. It goes something like this: One ring on a missed call means Pre-determined Message No.1 and two rings mean Pre-determined Message No.2. In fact, my chauffeur would use it himself to let his friends know if he was going to be late returning home—one ring on a missed call meant he was going to be late.

Sanjay Swamy, one of those brilliant, unavoidable names in the world of start-up India and a postgraduate from the US’ University of Washington, used this very Indian jugaad to co-found a company with Valerie Wagoner, an American expat and a graduate from Stanford University, called ZipDial. The company has over 60 million users. Brands ranging from IBM to Disney and KFC have been using it to gain feedback on products and run interesting marketing campaigns, without the consumer having to pay a dime. Early this year, ZipDial was acquired by Twitter for a reported $30 million (around Rs.198 crore). The product has been ruggedized in India and can be deployed anywhere in the world.

The story holds the secret to the question, “Why is India the development and testing hot spot for so many cutting-edge digital initiatives?”

Earlier this month, on a visit to India, Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai hinted at the answer. Google, said Pichai, would use India as a testing ground for its products (can you already hear the indignant and somewhat hilarious rumble in the background, “Are we guinea pigs?”). This is quite a dramatic change from what has been happening over the last 30 years of technological development. Until recently, the primary interest technology companies had in India was in employing Indian engineers in their development centres in the US. Products reached India ages after they were available in the West. Now, quite suddenly, they want to develop and test their products right here, in a dusty, messy, emerging economy, before a global release. The reasons for this change are varied, each interesting and worth bearing in mind—because they tell us where the future of business lies.

The key reason for using India as a development and testing ground for new digital products is rather elementary. With 3.3 million software and app developers, India has the fastest-growing developer population. Google plans to add another two million developers for Android over the next four years partnering with the National Skill Development Council. This gargantuan army of developers will create products that feed the digital cravings of a population of 500 million Indians who are expected to be online by 2018—up from about 300 million today.

Of the 500 million Indians expected to be online, says the “Vserve Smartphone User Persona Report (SUPR) 2015”, over 234 million will be smartphone users (at the moment, India has about 600 million mobile users, of which only 160 million are smartphone users). This is largely because cheap smart handsets are expected to flood the market. Consumer companies will see this as an unprecedented opportunity to reach out to this massive market. And Google is, at its core, a consumer company that wants to own the consumer (as opposed to primarily wanting to own intellectual property).

The growing developer and user base is creating a crucible-of-convenience that allows big technology companies to develop and test their products at scale, with a very diverse consumer demographic that cannot be easily replicated in any other country. If it works in India, chances are it will work everywhere else. Plus, the cost of development and testing is perhaps the lowest you can find anywhere—in fact, no one will have to hire expensive Indian technology talent in the US when they can hire equally capable talent right here, from the backyards of Naya Jalana and Jhumri Telaiya.

User-generated maps and an offline version of YouTube (great if you have limited Internet access) are two examples of products developed and tested in India before they found their way to the rest of the world. Twitter will use ZipDial as a global offering. Scores of other companies understand why starting off with business at scale is the way to go, and how it is more eminently possible than otherwise believed. For the Indian consumer, good times are about to roll.

Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins and has extensive media experience spanning music, print, radio, Internet and mobile.

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