A debate is raging online at the moment over the future of the internet and whether ‘the Web is dead’.
An (American) illustration of this is:
“You wake up and check your email on your bedside iPad — that’s one app. During breakfast you browse Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times — three more apps. On the way to the office, you listen to a podcast on your smartphone. Another app. At work, you scroll through RSS feeds in a reader and have Skype and IM conversations. More apps. At the end of the day, you come home, make dinner while listening to Pandora, play some games on Xbox Live, and watch a movie on Netflix’s streaming service. You’ve spent the day on the Internet — but not on the Web.” Wired.com
The gist of the debate is that the % of total internet data traffic that is for websites is steadily falling. At the same time, the rise of smart phones, tablet computers, E Book readers, digital media etc, means that more and more people are using ‘apps’ that access the internet, without you having to actually look at a website.
For example, ITunes is a software on your PC. You use it to search online stores and download music and podcasts. You need an internet connection, but not a web browser. All the twitter client software are another example. So are Skype, chat software, multi player online gaming and peer to peer file transfers.
So is almost anything that runs on my phone. Accessing Facebook through the phone’s web browser is awkward. Using the Facebook app is much easier.
The reason for such a passionate debate is that this move represents a fundamental shift from open to closed. The web is ‘open’. Anyone can start a website, and write what they want on it. they can link to other people and they can be searched for in Google. Anyone can go online and find this website, and link to it.
Platforms like Facebook or ITunes are ‘closed’. They both have terms of service. You need to fill forms and agree to their conditions before you can interact with them. Apple has the final right of approval over anything that goes on ITunes, and they reject lots of stuff all the time.
Morgan Stanley is estimating that within 5 years, more people will access the internet from mobile devices than from computers. The lack of a regular mouse, keyboard, and nice big screen all make web browsing a bit painful, so it’s likely that most of this internet access will be through applications.
In western countries, I can attribute much of this debate to rich geeks who live from iPod to ipad to Kindle to iphone. In India, however, I have a different take on this.
Most Indians, at present, do not use the internet at all. Of those that do, the richest have their own computers/smartphones, and the rest use internet cafes.
Now, look at the history of phones in India. Many Indians, especially in rural areas, have simply skipped landline phones and taken up mobile phones instead. Cheap but functional mobile phones, with cheap call packages, and now cheap data packages.
The nature of the phone is starting to change. Local phone makers like Karbonn, or Micromax are selling budget smart phones at a fraction of the cost of the high end gadgets we currently think of as smartphones (iphones etc). Typically these phones have a few built in apps, email, web, music, camera etc and a larger, colour screen. Gradually, these sort of features will become cheaper, and more common, until they become standard.
For internet access, these smart phones offer many advantages over a regular computer and internet connection, especially in rural areas. Vastly cheaper, relatively unaffected by power cuts, or home cabling problems, portable, multifunctional (music, camera, phone, sms).
Are cheap smart phones the future of mass internet access in India?
Currently somewhere between 50 and 80 million Indians have Internet access, with about half of these people using the internet from home or work. The rest are in cyber cafes or ‘other’ access points.
Compare this to mobile phones. Currently India has just over 500 million phones in use, and this number is growing monthly. India is tipped to be the largest mobile marketing in the world by 2013 with 1.159 billion subscribers.
Of the current users however, If even 1/4 of these users switched to a smart phone (here I am talking about a phone with data access, and a large enough screen to make for a reasonable online experience), then India could double its online population. Considering that mobile connections are growing so much faster than home internet connections, maybe this is a realistic outlook.
Perhaps businesses should be looking and planning more aggressively in this direction. Most corporate websites are pretty useless even on a high-end smartphone. Corporate Facebook pages work much better, thanks to the Facebook app. Not many companies have yet created mobile versions of their websites, and for those that have, the information available is generally pretty limited.
Many companies could create simple apps that could be easily incorporated onto low-end phones but could allow easy service delivery, such as bill payment, mobile banking, ticket booking (trains, planes, taxis), live timetables, news, exam results, film and TV reviews, or branded games.
There is huge potential for entertainment companies to deliver content through native apps that are built into these cheap phones, and special data packages can be created to allow free downloads, that are subsidised through advertising or branded content.