India’s push to become Digital India has got another shot in the arm from Reliance JioPhone offering. The almost-free 4G feature phone might bring data to the hands of millions of Indian, but is this the best way for our country to step onto the data superhighway?
Just the other day, I got a call from a friend who had decided to buy a new JioPhone for his mother, who strangely is already a smartphone users, though using a second-hand device. But my friend changed his mind once he got to know that this new phone will not have access to WhatsApp, which is still a smartphone-only app. And his mother being an active WhatsApp user, especially on the family groups, he did not want to deprive her of that joy.
Yes, at that price the JioPhone will sure have some features missing. And that includes support for WhatsApp, the most popular messaging service in the world with 1.3 billion active users, over 200 million of them just in India. But then it will not have support for most apps we are used to from mail to Instagram.
At the Annual General Meeting (AGM) on July 21 in Mumbai, Reliance Industries Limited chairman Mukesh Ambani said the JioPhone would support apps including Jio Cinema, Jio Music, JioTV, Jio Money, Jio news, and more. Evidently, this Jio phone uses KaiOS, which is based on the defunct Firefox OS, and is hence an unknown commodity for most users. Will it support app stores? Will it offer access to all apps? Will it let third-party app developers create apps for the new user? The questions are endless.
This lack of clarity is also giving way to a new debate on net neutrality with the phone and its ecosystem being looked at as another attempt to create a walled garden with only Jio app. According to reports, both Deutsche Bank and Kotak Bank have hinted that the Reliance Jio phone could be violating net neutrality principles with this 4G VoLTE feature phone if the choice of apps are limited to what the company has to offer. In the end, if the phone does not give access to the apps which even first time data users hope to have on their phones, then it might be doing itself a disservice by reducing the temptation to own this phone.
Along with what could be a lack of access to the apps the masses want to use, the lack of dual SIM capability might irk a few other customers. Of course, most of them could end up porting their numbers to the Jio network to use the JioPhone, but you have to understand that a lot of Indians are used to having two SIMs even in every affordable phones. Since JioPhone does not give that option, these users might have to look at the JioPhone has a second devices, and that might not be economically viable to them.
There is no doubt that the JioPhone, given its price and features, is a bid to empower the forgotten feature phone user to enter the next level. But then this phone too comes with its own list of compromises. It is still not the phone I would proudly want to call ‘India ka smartphone’. Reliance Jio has clarity on the demography, the target audience for the 4G feature phone, but fails to understand that those people are ready to stretch their budgets for a far superior smartphone.
Somehow I feel that Mukesh Ambani is taking the same route as Tata Motors did with its Nano car. It was an ambitious project, however, the low-cost car did not take off very well among the country’s middle-class. The same logic fits, in case of the JioPhone: someone who had previously owned a feature phone would aspire to own a smartphone, a real smartphone.