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Opinion | The great distraction as a productivity tool

As sales of smartphones buck wider recessionary trends, it is clear that these are essential items now. We need a way to turn them into devices that help Indians achieve more

Even in a country of widespread deprivation, it is no longer odd to think of the smartphone as an “essential item". This notion began as a joke, transformed into a social observation, and is now conventional wisdom. There exists data to back the assertion, most recently from the International Data Corp.’s Asia-Pacific Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, the findings of which have revealed smartphone sales as a bright spot amid the overall gloom in Indian markets for consumer products. In the second quarter of calendar year 2019, the domestic market for these devices scaled a figure of 36.9 million units, up 9.9% over the same quarter in 2018. In the quarter from January to March this year, 32.1 million units were sold. That this product category should show such buoyancy, while vehicles, other durables and regular-use items suffer either sharp declines or sagging growth, is remarkable for what it says about this wonderful gadget that nobody lets out of sight, whether at home or outside. When the times get tough, the tough rough it out. But what consumers won’t stop buying, evidently, are smartphones.

Smartphone dependence spans income and occupation groups across the country. From professionals and pushcart vendors to students and daily-wagers, connectivity is a lifeline. Even the least privileged of users spend much time online now. Unlike in the West, demand for these gadgets here has moved along two escalators of upgradation: One, of feature-phone users moving to the “smart" version, all the better to access audio-visual content and other razzle-dazzle; and two, existing users of touch-screen devices replacing old models with new, a reflection of the need to keep pace with every new innovation in this field. Few would be surprised to hear that expenditure on smartphones is largely unaffected by recessionary trends visible elsewhere. In this, India stands out among large emerging markets. China, in contrast, has seen its market shrink over the past two years, as its economy slowed down.

India’s smartphone exuberance, however, masks a potential that could go unfulfilled if usage patterns drift along. While phone penetration deepens and the internet reaches even remote corners of the country, thanks partly to Centre-run programmes to get as much of the country online as possible, a new kind of “digital divide" has been uncovered by researchers. Phone usage findings display a wide variation. Most Indian users make only minimal use of these devices. Vast numbers are unaware of how they can aid work. Even within the same socioeconomic cluster, gaps have been found between men and women, as also the young and old. Smartphones today can be loaded with apps that can help people perform highly sophisticated tasks. Not everything these gadgets can do is relevant to everyone, but there are dozens of elementary tools that can aid individual productivity in any kind of occupation, no matter how highly or lowly paid it is. Mobile connectivity, in itself, is only the tip of the “ICE-berg" created by information, communications and entertainment. A concerted effort by the government to train India’s multitudes in maximizing the utility of smartphones could achieve effects that ought to show up in the country’s economic performance over the years. Everyone doing more with less—time, for example—is a worthy objective.

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