The Government of India has decided that no mobile can be sold in the country without an in-built panic button and global positioning system (GPS) from January 1, 2017, and January 1, 2018, respectively.
The move aims to help improve security of women and increase accountability of the security forces as well. “Technology is solely meant to make human life better and what better than using it for the security of women?” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, after signing the order.
Essentially, feature phones (basically phones which don’t have a full fledged operation system like Android or iOS) will have to ensure the facility of the panic button by pressing numeric key — 5 or numeric key 9 — to enable an emergency call. On smartphones, the order says that a customer should be able to make an emergency call by pressing either a special panic button for a long time, or use the existing power button to do the same by pressing it thrice in quick succession.
So what does the order really mean for mobile manufacturers and for women’s safety? Insisting that all phones have GPS in-built is not a bad move by itself as it can help agencies locate someone in times of a crisis, quickly.
Feature phones still dominate the market in India. It was only in 2015 that smartphone shipments in India crossed 100 million devices as whole. While the government might want to make GPS mandatory in all feature phones, not all users can afford to or might upgrade to newer devices when order comes into effect, making implementation a bit dodgy.
Very few feature phones are available that come with in-built GPS. The new rule means that a lot of the current feature phones in the market won’t be considered legal from January 1, 2018. If you go to Flipkart right now, most feature phones in the range of Rs 700-1,500 don’t show in-built GPS.
In India, growth in the smartphone segment is expected to remain steady for the next couple of years — the feature phone is a dying species. The government’s move might just end up boosting smartphone growth.
A truly cheap smartphone, one that costs Rs 1,500 or less and offers decent performance, is not something that we have seen from most of the top manufacturers. Interestingly, even the so-called ‘smartphones’ in this price range don’t offer GPS. To buy a smartphone with GPS still means paying close to Rs 3,000, which is unaffordable for many — mayhem ensued when a company (Ringing Bells) claimed to offer a smartphone at Rs 251 with features like 1GB RAM, a quad-core processor, etc., at that rock bottom price. Such was the demand that the company was overwhelmed before it had even started out.
On the smartphone side, the government wants either a dedicated panic button or the power button to have this as an add-on feature. It is unlikely that most smartphone manufacturers will add a new button for just one country. Imagine an iPhone with a panic button just for India.
To ensure that the power button dials the emergency helpline will need incorporation at the software end, and once again not every manufacturer might be willing to add a new function to its power button. Currently, top-end smartphones do offer the option of dialing an emergency number on locked screen but in case of the iPhone in India, dialing 100 does not appear to work.
Of course, India has a number of emergency helpline numbers – (100), fire brigade (101), ambulance (102) and Emergency Disaster Management (108) – and there is a proposal to roll out one number 112 as the equivalent of 911.
Then there’s a question mark over whether a panic button would really make women feel safer when travelling outside the home. There are quite a few apps for this purpose already and even absurd ideas like shock bras intended to keep women safe. Many rely on GPS to help women send a distress signal to their friends, family. Even the Uber app allows customers to send an SOS in the middle of the ride.
While several middle class and upper-middle class women can afford to buy the more sophisticated safety gadgets, or download such apps, a majority of women in India, especially in tier-2 or tier 3 towns or rural areas, can’t afford the same.
So while the government might force mobile manufacturers to take customer safety seriously, a panic button by itself will hardly be a panacea. A unified helpline, one that actually results in quick action and response from the authorities concerned will also be required. Otherwise one can keep pressing that panic button all day long.