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India: The smartphone landscape

One of the key pieces of research I wanted to accomplish in India, is a real understanding of the volumes and usage of smartphones. Despite exhaustive trawling of the internet, I haven’t found any decent numbers on market share in India alone to prepare for this. The most credible numbers I can find were total smarphone sales of 6.72 million units in 2010 – 2011. Cybermedia are predicting 37% growth to sales of over 10 million by next year. Other numbers I have seen claim that Nokia still owns half the current smartphone market, with BlackBerry on around 30%, and a smorgasbord of Android devices picking up the rest. iPhone is at best negligible in the Indian market due to a legacy of apple blocking paid for content to iTunes accounts registered here. This has now changed, and Aircel are heavily marketing the iPhone 4, and I have certainly seen a few about.

Frankly, the numbers themselves were less than I was expecting. But that only tells a part of the story. Nokia’s good relationship with the operators means that they can service delivery of internet settings via SMS to their customers. As there are virtually no operator ROMs here, all smartphone customers need to figure out how to connect to the internet, get to an app store, set up an account etc. I asked a couple of phone retailers if they could tell me how to connect to the internet if I bought a phone from them, they just shrugged and said I should call my service provider.

BlackBerry users get a different experience. BlackBerry always has it’s own access point for the internet, so providing the user has asked their operator for a data connection, it will just work. As it is everywhere, they own the corporate email space here, but also have achieved substantial traction in the youth market with BBM as popular as ever. I spoke to a few BlackBerry users. I spoke to friend in his late 50s who’s kids had insisted on him getting a brand new 9900 Bold. He was incredulous as he told me that now every time his kids message him on BBM they know whether or not he has read the message. He has never considered applications and has yet to actually fire up the browser. Younger BB owners I spoke to, were also dismissive of apps, they thought they were expensive and probably wouldn’t work in India. One of them had used google search to find phone numbers occasionally, and that was that.

As a fully paid up mobile geek, I can spot a handset model from 20 paces. I observed far more Android devices than Nokia S^3 in the wild, leading me to conclude that the overwhelming majority of Nokia’s smartphone sales are E71/72s, of which I saw plenty. HTC Desire & Desire HD, Samsung Galaxy series, and several MotoRola devices were all seen regularly in use. I particularly enjoyed watching an Indian business man feverishly playing Angry Birds on his HTC for the entirety of a 2 hour flight from Delhi to Hyderabad. I chatted at length with an IT professional in his early 30’s about his Moto Defy. He enjoyed the apps for the Economist, ESPN and some games, but said that most people he knew with smartphones hadn’t really got in to using them for much other than calls and texts.

It was becoming clear to me all the warnings I had received about smartphones just being a status symbol amongst those that can afford them were ringing true. India has not had three years of “there’s an app for that” TV advertising to drive the aspiration for this side of the ecosystem. Android users have to jump through high hoops just to get their device online. How many of them are bothering to do this, and then how many are creating a google account to get access to services? For a number of reasons, I really wanted to find out, so I went on a mission to get the ear of someone from google India who would know. I had a good chat with their Android team in a different context so it would be highly insensitive for me to divulge this information here. However, they know that they’ve got their work cut out for them, and assured me they have a plan, which they really weren’t going to tell me about.

So come on google, this market is yours to own. Get your MVNO offer signed sealed and delivering in the 22 regional network circles of India. Localise and subsidise a new $100 Motorola handset for the masses with the excellent Hindi search. Sign a famous Bollywood temptress and a cricket star to talk about apps in TV slots demonstrating the fun to be had. If you want a little help with product marketing or bending the operators and regulator to your will, I am really not difficult to get hold of.


  1. Great post. Shows that the data that matters to gauge addressable market size is the active smartphone user base ie those that actually use a smartphone they own for apps, Internet etc. rather than just as a glorified dumb phone.

    Data on smartphone shipments or ownership is a complete red herring if people are not using smartphones as smartphones.

  2. Dominic, how large would say the smartphone market has become since the post. Also, do you believe the mobile app industry has gained traction in India as yet?


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