What India's New Smartphone Users Actually Do On Their Devices

Digital Asia Hub - November 2015

This piece is part of a collection of essays compiled for the launch of the Digital Asia Hub in Hong Kong. It is based on research carried out in August 2015.    

Thakur Charanasi is a 31-year-old man from the city of Gandhinagar, the largely administrative capital of the western Indian state of Gujarat. He runs his own cutlery business and says he earns around $460 a month, a fairly decent amount of money in this part of the world. He reads Gujarati-language newspapers and is mostly interested in local news. He owns a second-hand Samsung smartphone but does not have an Internet connection, preferring to use his device as a music player as well as a phone.  

Tanuj Kapadia is nine years younger than Mr. Charanasi and earns a lot less money, around $150 a month, in his job as an electrician. His smartphone is made by an Indian company, Spice, which sells entry-level handsets that nonetheless include touchscreens and run earlier versions of the Android operating system. He does have an Internet connection, which he uses to stream music, send messages to his friends, and even follow the news. He also reads newspapers and is interested in a broad range of topics.  

These two gentlemen were among a small sample of 130 people interviewed at length by students from the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, in an effort to better understand how India’s millions of new smartphone owners actually use their devices, particularly in the context of news and information.  

Alongside the boom in smartphone sales, India has seen a huge rise in the number of people who regularly use the Internet. The increasing affordability of these devices means that it is possible for people without wired broadband access to connect to the Internet for the first time on a massive scale. But although not all smartphone users are also Internet users, as Mr. Charanasi shows, the majority––77% of respondents to this survey––do seem to have paid for mobile data plans. Driven increasingly by mobile, India now has the third-largest number of Internet users in the world, behind the U.S. and China. This is all in spite of the fact that nearly a billion people in India are still not fully connected. On a recent trip to the U.S., Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought help from Silicon Valley giants to realize the government's ambition, through its Digital India project, to connect the country.  

Meanwhile, Indians are increasingly interested in news and information. Unlike almost any other major country, newspaper sales are rising, with about 300 million people, around a quarter of the total population, now reading a print paper. Between 2005 and 2009 the total number of newspaper titles rose by 23% and now stands at more than 74000, according to the World Association of Newspapers. There are now more than 400 news and current affairs TV stations in India. But this huge audience has not migrated to digital platforms. Print and TV news are strong and growing. Their dominance will be difficult to break in a country that is years from becoming fully digitally connected, especially with so many languages to serve and such low literacy rates in many areas. According to the most recent data from the government’s Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, 315 million rural Indians remain illiterate.  

Ketla is a project led by Dan Archer from the University of Missouri and myself, a Research Affiliate at Harvard. Ketla is a digital news platform for new Internet users who do not know English, who might not be literate, and currently only have access to low-end devices with erratic connectivity. iPhones in India are mostly unaffordable for the next billion Internet users: these are Chinese or Indian or Korean handsets, all running versions of Android. To combat these problems, Ketla utilizes a comic-book format that is visually engaging, low on text, and undemanding on bandwidth to impart useful information. For example, a healthcare provider might use Ketla to tell people about a free service it is providing and why it is important. The project has been funded by the Miami-based Knight Foundation and will initially use Gujarati, the state’s official language.  

In August 2015, a group of students from IIT Gandhinagar helped construct surveys to interview local smartphone users about their basic digital habits. They asked everything from how and where users download apps to what sources of information are most trusted (on and offline). They were under instructions not to interview relatively wealthy, educated English-speakers, who are far more likely to have a home Internet connection and associated high quality device. Instead, the students targeted people who might have only recently purchased an internet-connected device.  

First, it is important to understand that this survey is not a thorough, long-term ethnographic study. The time span, just two weeks, was too short and the sample size too small to produce anything other than an approximate snapshot. But a series of approximate snapshots is sufficient. Some real-life data was needed to test the assumptions that the Ketla team had already made. The way that people use the Internet, especially if they have discovered it only recently, will change and develop over time and this kind of snapshot research can help keep track of that process.  

Second, the vast majority of interviewees were male. India is largely a patriarchal society in which opportunities for women are relatively limited. Male literacy stands at more than 80%, for example, while the figure is around 65% for women, and women are less likely to own a smartphone, particularly in the lower-income bracket.  

More than three quarters of the smartphone owners interviewed by the students also had a mobile Internet connection. The rest use their devices for music, video, photos, as well as calling and messaging, and share content locally via Bluetooth. With or without Internet, a device with a large touch screen is clearly more desirable than the previously omnipresent basic Nokia.  

Of those who do have a data plan, 93% use the Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp, a high number that could be attributed to the fact that WhatsApp is often bundled with the mobile devices at the point of sale and does not need to be separately downloaded. WhatsApp’s huge popularity also strongly suggests that it could be the primary distribution platform for news content.  

Facebook’s original platform is also doing very well; more than two thirds of the interviewees who have data plans utilize the platform. Though much more complex and therefore more expensive than the more basic WhatsApp, users prefer the richer experience and the ability to build personal networks. Facebook’s social dominance, even in growing markets like this where it is popular but not universal, is impossible for digital news companies to ignore. Facebook is also heavily involved in the government’s Digital India programme: the centre piece of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley was his hug with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook HQ. Twitter, on the other hand, was used by only 3% of mobile Internet users in this survey.  

Unsurprisingly, the most popular non-social media apps are video, camera, music, and games. But they are not really thought of as “apps.” They are seen as superior functions that work better on newer, more technically capable phones.  

It is interesting to observe the terminology used in describing new phones. The vocabulary speaks to how the Internet is conceptualized. For example, smartphones are called “touch screen phones.” There is also no hard distinction between on and offline, perhaps because the available devices and the lack of platforms designed for this audience means users are unable to fully utilize all the benefits of the Internet. WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook are important entry points but they do not encapsulate the complete digital experience.  

Although most people use Google’s Play Store to download new apps, a very significant minority (25% of respondents) are unable to do so, instead relying on friends, family and retailers to augment their devices with newer, better functions. App discovery is one of a digital startup’s greatest challenges. After a platform has been designed, built and launched, enticing people to download and use the app is a monumental step. In India, while digital literacy improves and people acclimate to their devices, an entrepreneur can offer incentives to retailers to pre-load their apps. In the future, Ketla and other similar projects may not need to go directly to users.  

But all of this may be moot. While the students were out doing their research, large protests were taking place in Gandhinagar and its larger neighbouring city, Ahmedabad, ostensibly over the legal status of a particular community. As is often the case in India, there was violence and several people died. One of the state government’s responses was to shut off mobile internet for three days, because protest organizers used services like WhatsApp to mobilize large crowds at a scale and speed that is far more difficult to achieve with basic SMS. While the Digital India brand becomes more internationally recognized, with the government encouraging foreign and local investment, and entrepreneurship in this space such as projects like Ketla, local authorities are not above removing these services when they feel it is necessary. The Prime Minister regularly equates Internet access with amenities like electricity and running water but in practice, the extent to which people like Thakur and Tanuj will benefit from Digital India remains to be seen.