Computing on the mobile: Indias ticket to growth

Date:   Saturday , June 28, 2008

I want to be an astro-physicist” — those words reverberate with focus, aspiration and ambition. Fantastic attributes for a graduating senior from a high-school in any part of the world let alone the United States or India except these were not the words of a high-schooler. These were the words of a 11-year old school girl that I had encountered during a business trip in December 2003 from what was considered to be a public school in a relatively poor neighbourhood in Bangalore! This example epitomizes why I am optimistic about the growth prospects for India.

In many ways the focus, aspiration and ambition represented by that 11-year old girl is representative of India herself. Much has been written about the brain power that the sub-continent has produced and continues to produce on an annual basis from her academic institutions. Equally, much has also been written about India being the world’s largest democracy. Typically – besides the usual articles on outsourcing – these are two topics that are consistently talked about as uniquely Indian attributes and strengths. And – they are. However, what is often overlooked is that the seeds for these educational institutions and for the institutions of democracy were planted at Independence and were fertilized with the vision of India’s founding fathers. A lot of the progress that we have seen to date actually harkens back to the years after independence when Pandit Nehru rode on nationalistic sentiment to lay out a roadmap for the country’s future. The emphasis he laid on technical education and his efforts in setting up the IITs and IIMs planted the seeds in India for a host of phenomenal educational institutions. The significance of the foundations being laid around Independence is that although these institutions (democratic and educational) have been influenced by successive generations of leaders they have withstood the test of time and they still remain true to the vision of the founding fathers of India. This is another reason to be bullish on India’s growth prospects.

India has punctured the barrier of the Hindu rate of growth over the last few years’ with high single digit percentages; however, I believe the period of sustained growth is still in the future. The rise in the country’s consumption power and a correspondingly insatiable demand for consumer goods, products and services are just starting to kick in.

In 2006, the Asia-Pacific region accounted for approximately 25 percent of global personal computer (PC) sales, with India and China being the primary markets by size. However, by 2010/2011, I believe Asia-Pacific’s global share of the worldwide PC market will grow to be close to 40 - 50 percent. India being the dominant force behind the rise. As the country moves down the path to double digit growth, her insatiable hunger for PCs will only get bigger. Computers, the great ‘empowering device’, will become available to almost every Indian in the urban arena. This is a far cry from the days of my youth; I left India for overseas studies in the early eighties, a time when a computer in higher educational institutions even in up-market Bombay (as it was then called) was unheard of! These changes will be significant – not only for India but for the world market. Consider the following: in 1995, there were no Chinese PC players in the global top 10 companies - that list was dominated by the U.S. PC companies; in 2006 – there were 2 companies from Greater China (Lenovo and Acer) on that same list. I see no reason why there should not be at-least one or two Indian companies on that list in a few years!

Despite the rise in PC sales within India, I have often heard people opine that India’s PC penetration remains dismally low, that it is unlikely to witness a PC revolution like the West did, and that its ability to leapfrog to greater progress could be curtailed. I disagree. The legacy free nature of India’s technology infrastructure leaves the country free to leap-frog to the latest and greatest technology as and when it arrives. This is precisely what has been happening in China for the last decade and I see this same trend playing out in India as well.

The opportunity to leap frog to the latest technologies is present not just in computers and computing technology but also in communications technology. Just as the Internet and its growth around the globe helped spawn billion dollar industries in its wake, the next wave of global growth is going to be unleashed via the mobile internet or wireless internet. This next wave of growth will completely change the face of computing and communications forever. Technologies like WIMAX make this next wave possible. And – once again – the lack of a heavy communications technology legacy leaves India free to embrace this disruptive force and be a world leader in ushering in the next wave of growth.

The combined effect of the incidence of data services on the mobile phone and the near absence of technological legacy, with rising PC penetration will work wonders for the Indian economy; the double digit growth that many already believe could be fast-tracked and extended into the near future.

The founding fathers clearly had courage and vision and put the country’s money and assets to back that vision. Succeeding generations of leaders have honed that vision and lived up to it exceedingly well. Today, India needs to invest ahead of the growth curve in telecommunications infrastructure with technologies like WIMAX and in basic infrastructure (like roads) to not only enable future growth but to keep up with the current growth. For a country which has the potential to overtake the U.S. economy in the next 40 years or so, flights getting delayed for over 24 hours due to fog is unpardonable. This happened to me while I was vacationing with my family in India this past December; we were stranded in the Delhi winter for an entire day – inconvenient but not a big loss since we were on vacation. But - that one day in economic parlance constitutes a huge financial loss, and for an aspiring global superpower—an avoidable loss of face. What is needed now more than ever in India is stamina and guts—to leap ahead—to invest in the future today.

“I want to be an astro-physicist”—I think of that 11-year old school girl quite often. She epitomizes for me the future that represents India.