Friday, March 2, 2007

SMS is the Platform

A good friend of mine, Rishi Bhargava, recently returned from a trip to India. He shares my interest in technology, innovation, and the emerging Indian market. We had a long chat after he returned and he had some very interesting observations, which I'm going to summarize here:
  • SMS is the Platform. We already know about the importance of mobile devices to technology adoption in India, but my friend made an even more pointed observation: your product or service has to be accessible via SMS to have any chance of gaining a large user base. Even when people buy data-enabled smartphones, they often have no interest in mastering a new interface when SMS is familiar and easy-to-use. For example, jewelers are paying for SMS-based alerts for price changes in precious metals. These same people are not familiar with the internet and are unlikely to be early adopters of an internet-based marketplace for precious metals.
  • Lack of Trust Hinders Adoption. The medium for social networking is the clearest indication of the generation gap. In India, for people in their 30's or older, social networks are largely physical. Business is done in this way and social relations are conducted in this way. It's a perfectly rational response to the lack of effective remediation and redress. If you got cheated out of some money, how would you get it back? The police are often inept and/or corrupt and the court system is notoriously slow moving. The only rational thing to do is to minimize your risk by dealing only with people in your social network. Today's teenagers are comfortable moving their social networks online, but this generally tends to reflect their physical networks. The same issue of trust, just in a different medium.
  • Internet Connectivity is Cumbersome. Beyond a small number of tech-savvy users in large cities, the internet has largely not touched people's lives in a meaningful manner. Even when people sign up for email accounts, they don't check them on a regular basis (and certainly not at the frequency that has become the norm in the US). Setting up and managing a broadband connection can still be cumbersome. Customer service at providers like BSNL and VSNL are universally acknowledged to be terrible. Even providers such as Airtel are getting poor reviews in this department. This has resulted in a cottage industry of "computer service" technicians who often do nothing more than apply the latest Windows patch. Still, they are needed to provide peace of mind to the non tech-savvy. Pricing plans are still archaic in terms of pricing by bandwidth usage (as if people actually know their expected bandwidth usage!) This entire process has to become a lot more streamlined before we can expect wider adoption.