Indian ride sharing service Ola, which is the main rival to Uber in that market, is in the process of a large fundraising round, with backing from Tencent, SoftBank, and a variety of others. Ola arguably needed additional funding to be able to compete on more level terms with Uber, while Tencent and SoftBank have invested previously in India and the international ride sharing space respectively, their interests merging in Ola. The biggest risk for Uber in India is another failure and ultimate concession of the market to a stronger local competitor along the lines of what’s happened in China and Russia over the past eighteen months, so it’s clearly not about to give up there. But the two have been battling for supremacy for some time now without an obvious winner, in what’s one of the fastest-growing and potentially one of the largest ride sharing markets in the world.
Amazon Launches Echo Devices and Alexa in India (Oct 4, 2017)
On the same day as Google added to its Google Home hardware lineup and added new software features, Amazon announced a new market for its own devices and software: India. Throughout Google’s event today, it talked about the “seven Google Home markets”, whereas Amazon now has four: the US, the UK, Germany, and now India. India’s an interesting choice because Echo and Alexa aren’t even available in Canada or Australia yet even though those are likely far bigger markets and much easier to adapt to than India from an English language perspective. This is therefore just the latest sign that Amazon is taking a dramatically more aggressive approach to India over recent weeks and months and prioritizing it above other more obvious markets for some of its products. The addressable market in India is likely relatively small, limited to relatively wealthy English speakers (the Echo devices are going to cost quite a bit more than in the US, as do other western gadgets), but it will obviously help tie customers there into the Prime ecosystem, something Amazon is very keen on in general and recently in India in particular.
Google Officially Launches Tez Mobile Payments App in India (Sep 18, 2017)
I debated whether to make this its own item today given that I covered the leak of most of the details last week, but I feel like it’s worth it to cover a couple of details that I didn’t cover the first time around, when I largely focused on the broader issue of localization in markets like India. One of the most important aspects is integration with UPI, which is the Indian government’s mobile payments technology and is unique to the country. Almost any mobile payments service in India that didn’t feature integration with it would likely be dead in the water, while UPI itself has significantly boosted interest and uptake around mobile wallets in the country (and banking in general). Secondly, Google is using Tez to test some new ideas around payments including one based on sound called Audio QR, which borrows a little from the QR-based payments that are common in China but requires less specialized software and hardware. I wouldn’t be surprised if that technology in particular made its way into Google’s existing mature-market payment services too eventually.
Google is reportedly getting ready to release a new mobile payment service explicitly for the Indian market, with localizations intended to integrate with payment mechanisms unique to that country. The name is Tez, which means fast in Hindi, and it’s just the latest example of big tech companies making significant local adaptations to their products, services, and business models to fit into India, along with Amazon’s forthcoming first party smartphones (which I’m assured are launching soon), Apple’s local manufacturing, and Facebook’s work with local wireless operators and others. Other than its local manufacturing and fairly standard language support, though, Apple has largely resisted localization in India, unlike China, where it’s made far larger concessions to local customs and platforms. Others are arguably willing to bend their usual rules more to be successful there than Apple is, despite Tim Cook’s frequent remarks about how important the market is. That may need to change if Apple is really to break through, though there continue to be big additional barriers to Apple building a big business there (notably income levels).
NDTV’s Manish Singh has an interview with the head of consumer electronics sales for Amazon in India which provides several interesting insights on trends around smartphone sales there. It seems Amazon’s sales of smartphones in India have risen dramatically in India over the past year, up 100% overall but up by far higher percentages in the smaller cities around the country. Perhaps more importantly, Amazon is finding that a smartphone is often the first purchase a customer makes through the site, but in many cases turns the customer into an Amazon convert, with many other purchases following that first positive experience. In a sense, this is the equivalent of Facebook or Google pursuing strategies to expand internet access: the efforts are designed to create new potential customers who are more likely to be loyal to Amazon, though this would be even more effective if Amazon launched its own devices, something NDTV has previously reported it was working on. The piece here also talks about Amazon’s strategy of offering the broadest possible range of devices and brands while also securing the odd exclusive including phones from OnePlus and a particular model of the iPhone. That’s an interesting strategy in a market where a majority of smartphone sales are still made in offline retail, but online is an increasingly important channel. Overall, some good insights into both Amazon’s India strategy and the Indian smartphone market. Also worth noting: this separate story from NDTV on the new Nokia 6 (from HMD Global) hitting 1 million “registrations” (effectively a soft pre-order) on Amazon’s website in India, which is running some special promotions and bundles around the phone.
I don’t usually cover the Indian market in depth here, but Jio feels like one of those stories that more people outside of India need to know about. It’s part of one of the big Indian conglomerates, Reliance Industries, and launched public LTE-only mobile services in September last year, signing up 125 million customers since then, an unprecedented rate of growth for any mobile operator anywhere. Until now, that service was available only on smartphones, either compatible devices customers brought with them or those sold by Jio. But today, Jio announced its own VoLTE-capable feature phone, which it will offer for free (albeit with a 1500 rupee – $23 – refundable security deposit) starting next month, with an unlimited voice, text and data plan for 153 rupees ($2) per month. What Jio has done in India over the past year or so is one of those things that just doesn’t seem like it should be possible – massive customer growth from zero, while offering fairly leading edge technology in devices and its network. The big enabler is that Jio is part of that massive conglomerate, which makes lots of money from the petroleum industry and therefore doesn’t need Jio to be profitable, at least not yet. In addition, although Jio touts its broad coverage (and promises to cover 99% of the population shortly), my understanding is that the coverage can be unreliable and some users are deploying it as a second-SIM solution rather than their only option. A lack of network density is likely the big problem, offering nominal coverage across a wide area but offering spotty coverage within that area in practice. But it’s been disruptive nonetheless, providing access to 4G and smartphones for those who previously hadn’t taken the plunge, and the new feature phone is going to extend 4G and some basic data services to a far larger number.
Amazon Reportedly Working on Cheap Smartphones for India (Jun 5, 2017)
I haven’t really seen this picked up anywhere yet, as it’s coming from a lower-profile news site, but it’s a fascinating bit of reporting. It suggests that Amazon is working on low-cost smartphones for India and potentially other markets, which would run the standard version of Android rather than Fire OS. That’s a huge shift from the Fire Phone strategy, but a sensible one given how poorly that phone performed and how hard breaking into the smartphone market is for brand new operating systems. But the target would also be very different, with a focus on low-end phones in emerging markets. Given how hard Amazon is pushing to take a major share of the Indian e-commerce market right now, building its ecosystem in other ways makes a ton of sense. The one part of this that seems a little odd is that Alexa allegedly isn’t on these phones. That’s likely partly because it’s not available in India at all at the moment, but this whole strategy only really makes sense if these phones put Amazon services front and center. Otherwise, Amazon is entering a crowded and fiercely competitive market increasingly dominated by Chinese companies, so it’s not worth it unless it’s going to meaningfully benefit the Amazon ecosystem and help grow its base of loyal customers in India and elsewhere.
★ Apple Makes First iPhones in India (May 17, 2017)
Flipkart raises $1.4Bn from Tencent, eBay & Microsoft at $11.6Bn valuation, acquires eBay India – Economic Times (Apr 10, 2017)
There were recent rumors that Japan’s SoftBank might want to combine its investment in Snapdeal with an acquisition of Flipkart, but this funding news suggests that’s going to come later if it comes at all. The trio of companies investing here is intriguing. Tencent is perhaps the least surprising, as a company that invests heavily overseas including the US in minority stakes. eBay is apparently using this investment as a vehicle to buy into a bigger e-commerce business in India, as it’s transferring its own Indian operations to Flipkart as part of the process. Microsoft is the most interesting of all – though Flipkart recently switched to Azure for cloud services, Microsoft has no significant direct stake in an e-commerce anywhere else, so this is something of a departure for them, though of course major competitor Amazon already combines cloud and retail. Flipkart had in the past seemed to be the leader in the Indian e-commerce market, but has fallen from that role in the last couple of years as two overseas companies – Amazon and Alibaba – have made inroads there. This is a down round over the company’s previous valuation, but it and its new investors will be hoping the infusion of cash helps it get back into contention.
via Economic Times
The first part of this article gives too much credence to Xiaomi’s CEO’s projections about its future growth, taking them as given even though Xiaomi has struggled to meet its targets for smartphone shipments and growth for the last several years. But the rest of the article is interesting for what it says about where Xiaomi’s focus will be geographically going forward. Importantly, whereas one of the biggest questions about Xiaomi in recent years has been when it would come to the US, it seems to be moving in the opposite direction, doubling down on emerging markets like India rather than pushing into more mature markets. That will limit both its overall addressable market and the average selling price of its phones, given the disposable incomes in those markets and its product focus there, so Xiaomi’s future certainly won’t look very much like the one it projected a number of years ago, as a premium Android-based alternative to the iPhone.
I almost didn’t bother commenting on this news story, because it’s essentially identical to all the stories that were doing the rounds at several earlier times (see this previous comment, for example, from a month and a half ago). I honestly don’t know why the Journal published this story today, because it adds nothing to the earlier stories – same unnamed government sources, same details about Wistron being the manufacturer, and the same absence of on the record comment from anyone involved, least of all Apple. It’s entirely possible (even likely) that Apple is indeed planning to manufacture phones in India, but the fact that it hasn’t announced those plans yet suggests either that the plans aren’t fully baked yet or there’s some sticking point, which makes me curious what that is.
The Indian government shot down Apple’s previous attempt to sell refurbished phones in India, but it sounds like it’s giving it another try. That’s good, because these refurb phones are about the only way Apple is going to dramatically reduce the price of iPhones in India and break out of the niche premium market there and into the lower tiers of the market, where far more phones are sold. Between taxes and import fees, iPhones are actually typically more expensive in India than elsewhere in the world, even though what Apple really needs there is to sell cheaper phones, so re-selling used phones is the way to go. There’s still been no official confirmation from Apple of its plans to build iPhones in India, but if that really is on the table, it’s possible that Apple is using that investment as a carrot to persuade the government to allow it to pursue its other goals in India, including selling refurbished phones and opening its own retail stores. It’ll be fascinating to see if it succeeds in getting what it wants – the original reason for rejecting Apple’s earlier request was somewhat ridiculous, but the reasoning doesn’t matter as long as the government says no.
I haven’t seen any big US news outlets report this yet, and there’s been no official word from Apple, but several Indian publications are reporting that Apple has told officials in Karnataka that it intends to begin manufacturing iPhones through its partner Wistron in Bengaluru (Bangalore), in the province. Local manufacturing would help overcome some of Apple’s challenges in India, though certainly not all. They would help reduce prices by avoiding the import tax, and would allow Apple to permanently overcome the government’s ban on local retail for companies whose products aren’t made largely in India. That still leaves low incomes, tendencies towards thriftiness and favoring local brands, and other challenges for Apple in India, but it would be meaningful progress.
via Hindustan Times
Counterpoint Research has good data on the global smartphone market, and especially in emerging markets like India, so the numbers here are broadly reliable. India is a fascinating market – Apple and others have often compared it to China, but though the size is similar the demographics and wealth are very different, even if you compare India today to China a few years back. I’m not yet convinced that India is going to look like China does today anytime soon from a smartphone perspective, and that makes life very tough for a brand like Apple, which was tenth in the overall market share rankings. It did capture 62% of the premium market in Q4, but the premium segment is only a tiny fraction of the overall Indian market, which continues to be dominated by cheaper handsets, increasingly coming from Chinese vendors. You might be interested in this piece I wrote a few months ago about Apple’s prospects in India.
The Indian smartphone market has been characterized by unusually high loyalty to local brands, but that seems to be changing now as Chinese companies start to overcome the resistance to foreign vendors. For now, most of the action is still in the mid tier and below, but this helps erode the idea that one of the reasons Apple hasn’t done well in India is resistance to non-Indian suppliers. Chinese vendors, of course, have already done very well in other emerging markets, but it appears we can now add India to that list too.
This is an interesting new angle from Amazon as it tries to compete with homegrown competitor Flipkart in India. It’s a good example of Amazon’s flexibility in responding to local conditions in markets outside the US – unlike some other big tech companies, it’s not rigid about a particular business model, and instead experiments as necessary to find the right products and strategies to make each market work. It’s still an uphill battle, however, in many of these markets, notably China, while it does seem to be making progress in India.
Apple plans to make iPhones in Bengaluru from April – ETtech (Dec 30, 2016)
One of the barriers to Apple opening a retail presence in India has been that its products are not made there, and although there has been talk about a temporary lifting of that ban, Apple likely still needs to make iPhones in India in order to solve this problem over the long term. I haven’t seen others confirming these reports yet, so let’s take this with a pinch of salt for now, but it certainly seems plausible.
Apple seeks tax benefits, label law waivers to build iPhones in India & boost local sales – AppleInsider (Dec 29, 2016)
India is a market Tim Cook talks about a lot, as if it had the potential of China over the long term, and yet Apple’s presence there is minuscule for a host of reasons, not least much lower disposable incomes and regulatory barriers to a retail presence. However, Apple continues to chip away at these challenges bit by bit in an attempt to grow its business in India. I suspect we’ll still see slow progress there over the short to medium term.