Monday, September 5, 2011

Could we have an India-specific mobile platform?




Chinese search giant Baidu recently announced  the launch of an Android-based mobile platform called Yi, which means 'easy' in English. Currently, the platform comprises a set of tools available to developers to create mobile apps for Baidu products and services. But there seem to be strong indications that Baidu is taking steps towards developing an operating system with a user interface, which will eventually find its way onto phones. Chinese e-commerce portal Alibaba has already launched its own Linux-based Aliyun OS.

With 200 million registered users, Baidu is one of the largest sites in the world - to be precise, the sixth largest. And as China's Google, with 80% market share, it certainly has enough user base to develop its own mobile operating system.

Update : Dell has just confirmed that it will partner with Baidu to produce tablets and handsets.

There's more. Now the South Korean government has plans to join hands with local companies like Samsung and LG to develop an open source mobile operating system that will rival Google and Apple. Apparently, the acquisition of Motorola Mobility by Google and its emergence as a potential competitor in the hardware space has made the prospect of an alternate platform to Android, more attractive to Samsung.

These two pieces of news signal a potentially new trend in mobile OS development. Asian countries are the fastest growing mobile markets in the world, and the majority of users would not have comfort with English as a language. There is a huge opportunity to tailor an operating system, and user interface to the needs of the local population, especially if the operating system can link to local language content, as Baidu will be doing.

In India, one can add to this the challenge of adapting an operating system to lower income groups, and users with lower levels of literacy, who rely primarily on icon/ visual based navigation.

Idea for an Indian entrepreneur -

1) Get venture capital to develop a basic operating system for the masses. Vernacular language and visual based. It's not that difficult or costly. Baidu is creating a 'fork' of Android - using the open source and free code to build its own operating system, stripped of Google's apps, marketplace etc. In short, completely independent of Google.

2) Tie it closely up with local language content providers (including vernacular news channels, internet radio stations, Bollywood studios and TV production houses)

3) Sell it to local handset manufacturers - Micromax, Wyncomm etc. Given the interest of companies like Samsung and LG in the Indian market, maybe even they would go with it.

4) Figure out a viable business model (no, I am not going to do that in a blog post!) Possibly though, it could be advertising funded. The HLLs of the world can afford to buy expensive TV advertising, but a lot of companies that target small town and rural India cannot compete with them on ad budgets. They would gladly buy cheaper ad space on mobiles, especially as mobiles can reach media-dark consumers in India.

Horace Dideu notes that mobile platforms have proliferated in the last 2 years - currently the count stands at 15. We should see many more coming as smartphone penetration climbs upwards.