Mobiles, mobiles everywhere..

I had been away from India for only three years. Agreed, this is probably longer than the annual pilgrimage most NRIs make. But three years is not that long. You don’t expect drastic changes in three years. Heck, you don’t even expect significant changes in the storyline of most TV soaps. What happened during the last three years in a TV soap opera can usually be summed up in three lines.

But outside the soap operas, I was prepared for many changes. The landscape will not look the same, I told myself. Many new buildings would have come up, new flyovers, new shopping malls. At an anecdotal level, I had heard a lot about call centers, disposable income and the changes they have wrought.

Still, there were many big surprises. One of them was cellphone usage. I found that everybody in India now has a cellphone – paan shop owners, cab drivers, autorickshaw drivers, day-wage laborers, everyone. Senior citizens are getting up to speed on text messages or SMS, and some eight year olds already have their first cellphone.

Perhaps it is not so surprising. India is apparently now the second largest market in the world in mobile subscribers (after China). India has more than 250 million subscribers, growing at the rate of 8 to 9 million subscribers a month. Eight million new subscribers a month. Imagine. That’s roughly twice the population of Singapore being added each month.

The other thing I noticed was that everyone’s cellphones seem to have been made by Nokia. No, I am not being paid by Nokia to say this. Although, if you are reading this, dear Nokia representative, I’d like a free phone too 😉

This should not have been such a surprise, for India is Nokia’s second largest market. But forget BlackBerrys and iPhones, does no one like Motorola, or LG, or Sony Ericsson? Especially Sony Ericsson, given that Ericsson was one of the first mobile phones in India? Remember that terrific “One Black Coffee” ad?

Twelve years ago, when I first saw that Ericsson ad, cellphones were so expensive. I could never have imagined that one day, construction workers in India would have a smaller, sleeker phone with more features than the “small” phone in that ad.

I walked into a Nokia store and checked out the models there. You have models starting from the basic, no-frills versions (priced at around Rs 2000 or $50) to high end ones like one sleek beauty I saw which was around Rs 13,000 or $300. But even the basic models are quite sleek, not like the chunky, ugly free phones you get in the US.

No wonder everyone had cellphones, if they are so affordable (more on that later). Perhaps that’s why so many tiny stores have sprung up, all selling cellphones and cellphone plans. You will find them in every narrow, winding lane, sometimes several adjacent to each other, yet they are all crowded, all the time.

Then there is the whole issue of choice, of being able to switch from one provider to another whenever I want to. No contracts like we have in the US. That’s how one would think the free market should function..

But more thoughts on all that, and all my cellphone escapades, in my next post..


11 thoughts on “Mobiles, mobiles everywhere..

  1. Hello there. I was sent a link to your blog by a friend a while ago. I have been reading a long for a while now. Just wanted to say HI. Thanks for putting in all the hard work.

    Jennifer Lancey

  2. when I went back home, I got my GSM phone unlocked and bought an airtel SIM near the airport.

    Was trying to make calles to my friends announcin my arrival when the driver fished out his super sleek N

  3. when I went back home, I got my GSM phone unlocked and bought an airtel SIM near the airport.

    Was trying to make calls to my friends announcing my arrival on the way back home when my dad’s driver fished out his super sleek Nokia phone!

    I was forced to cut the call and hide my amreekan phone…

    ps: sorry for the prev comment

  4. Very True. Lot of schools/colleges are bringing in ‘rules’ banning cell phones in the campus. Still students do these ‘under-the-bench-sms’ing. Ppl just can’t live without it – Mobile phones has climbed upto become ‘Necessities’!

  5. I must be in a very tiny minority: I am content to make do with a phone in my apartment (not cheap these days).

  6. One of the unsavoury aspects of the burgeoning cell phone usage has been of course, the proliferation of unsolicited calls with people trying to sell you everything from personal loans to insurance to club memberships!

    I guess in the US, there are stricter regulations concerning such blatant invasion of one’s piracy!


  7. Nokia dominates the market here..the main reason being their intuitive interface makes it easy to use…

    I remember that I paid about Rs.18k for my first mobile phone in 1996 (a bulky Erricson that could also be used for self defense)… people used to stand and watch me as I used the phone… these days its a commodity…

    On the calling front.. there is a DNC list now in place here..

  8. Cellphones are one the most personal gadget that’ll ever be made….of the 6.3 billion population, nearly 3 billion of us carry it…and next billion will have in coming couple of yrs.

    Among the few unnoticed and muffled culture-change it has wrought is the fact that:
    It has brought focus of Silicon Valley engineers to the street-up innovation and its power…Yes I’m talking about mobile repairing shopmen (actually they are true Reverse-Engineers) next to the nukkad panwallah in your city. Keen researchers now follow and track these usage history, but more importantly, bring out the cultures and idiosyncrasies tugged with it…

  9. Jennifer: Thanks. Hope you stop by more often.

    maxdavinci: I know that feeling. I hid away my phone too!

    Arun Sundar: I know, mobile phones are like wristwatches – something seems missing in our hands without one..

    Space Bar: That is a very interesting report! Thanks! I can see myself spending hours reading this. But why does it not have your name on it? To look at it, you would think all 226 pages (and all the photographs and all the references) were the work of one man 😦

    Candadai Tirumalai: Oh yes, and I belong to the generation that has both landlines and cellphones. But many young people these days don’t have landlines at all, and if they do it’s a Vonage phone.

    J. Alfred Prufrock: I was surprised too. I didn’t realize I had such a good memory.

    Rada: The “Do Not Call” registry does screen out a lot of calls. But interestingly, this does not cover calls from any company that you have an existing relationship with – so your cable company can call you with random offers. It also does not cover “surveys”, which seems to be a bigger loophole. Finally, I also get calls from telemarketers in India, trying to sell me calling plans for India. They cheerfully tell me the DNC registry doesn’t apply to them. I wonder how they have my number??

    Vijay: Yes, I don’t remember seeing a single non-Nokia phone on my trip. The DNC registry, for all its loopholes and shortcomings, is still quite a Godsend, as you will find.

    A: Oh yes, mobile repairing shopmen – you will only see that in India. If anything happens to my mobile phone in the US, I will either have to junk it, or hand it to my provider, who will send it half way across the country to the service center, and I will probably get my phone back in a month’s time.

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