As he made the big Reliance Jio announcement on Thursday, Reliance Industries Limited chairman Mukesh Ambani made a couple of interesting observations. He spoke about how “data is the oxygen of the digital era” and how Jio will usher in an age of “digital abundance”. Both of these are significant.
Let’s look at your own user behaviour to start with. Don’t you spend much more time on data hogging functions with your phone than you make voice calls? When was the last time you chose an ISD over a Skype or WhatsApp call? Our dependence on voice calls is coming down drastically and will fall off a cliff if you are able to make app-based calls to restaurants and other services you rely on heavily. This user behaviour is out there for everyone to see in markets like China. Users there have perfected the art of making calls on apps like WeChat even without it being a proper conversation.
So when Ambani made the announcement that voice calls will be free for ever on Jio, he would have strong numbers to indicate that this was anyway a dying trend. Also, Jio is confident of pushing whatever calls do happen as data packets over their high-speed networks and still offer a good user experience.
Now let’s come to user experience as this is what will drive new users towards smartphones and data services. With the 300 million plus smartphone users we already have, India is past those who can be serviced by a text-heavy Internet. The next billion clearly want video as they are not that comfortable with text. As Google’s Gulzar Azad pointed out to me recently, it is wrong to assume high-end users need video first, it is the other way round. Those at the bottom pretty much have no other option, while the well-educated, high-income user on top of this pyramid can still sustain himself with a text-heavy Internet. So our data requirements will only boom as the new users come in by the millions. So “data abundance” will be a big help, almost a necessity.
However, I doubt the Reliance Jio offerings at the moment are aimed at getting those users on board. Of course, those tariffs might trigger millions of number porting requests, but the entry barrier for the new user still remains. If he could really afford a Rs 2,999 device he would have moved over long ago, because smartphones below Rs 2,000 have been available for quite some time. Also, the entry-level Jio data plans does not give this user a lot of bandwidth to enjoy the video that he wants unless he is willing to wake up late at night for it. Also the Rs 2,999 devices are not really what will give these users a great video experience. He might well spend the same money and get an old 5-inch device with a better screen.
This is where I hope Jio will be the real game changer. Here is a company that has the might and the money to offer a Rs 1,000 device with good enough specification to get millions of left out Indians to join the Digital India bandwagon. You can’t leave that to a Ringing Bells, it has to be done by a Reliance, or even an Airtel. That is what will make the dream of a Digital India successful and it makes great business sense in the long run.