How the iPad can save Rural India

Let me start of with a quick question – What is the similarity between an American trying to find his car in the parking lot and a farmer in remote rural India starting his pump to water his fields? The answer is humble mobile phone. The American uses an application on his Android phone to get directions and locate his car in the ocean of cars in the parking lot. The humble Indian farmer uses an SMS to start his motor- pump. Power cuts are very common in rural India. The only time a farmer gets uninterrupted power supply is at night which is when he irrigates his fields which are quite a distance away from where he lives. This simple application has saved the farmer innumerable, dangerous trips in the middle of the night.

India has been very lucky in some ways – we’ve skipped technological revolutions. We skipped terrestrial TV and jumped straight to satellite TV; we missed the landline phone bus and jumped straight into mobile telephony and the same thing could happen with the next generation internet. The one big handicap that the internet faced in India is literacy – which is why there are only 40 million people online. Compare that with mobile telephony – there are over 450 million connections. So any device that can circumvent the literacy factor promises to be a game changer – which is why I think the iPad is a game-changer.

Why? Because iPad heralds a new way of how we interact with a computer. The touch interface is Steve Job’s gift to millions of Indians who can’t read or write. This simple interface will revolutionize the way consumers who have never been exposed to a computer to become a part of the digital revolution. The Graphic friendly touch interface is a boon in with where the dialect changes every 5 kilometers – there are over 1652 spoken languages in India. Youtube has a very interesting video of a 2 year old playing with the iPad for the first time. She does it easily and intuitively and without any training.

Let me hasten to add that it might not necessarily be the iPad that will do it. Think of the iPad as the first Ericcson brick, sorry phone that we used 15 years ago. Already we have the desi version of the iPad called Adam that promises much more. Manufacturers are rushing to develop their version of the same which will eventually drive down the costs. Think of how much your first mobile phone cost, the functionality it offered with the one you currently use.  The mobile phone example can also be used to exemplify the cost of delivering mobile telephony. Rates of mobile telephony in India are the lowest compared to anywhere in the world. With always on connectivity possible through 3G and WiMax, it is going becomes easier to push richer, heavier content to consumers.

The second more feature of this device that makes it interesting is its reliance on Applications or Apps as they are popularly called. The platform will get developers from all over to make apps for different uses. We all know what apps did to Facebook and the iPhone. The same mad gold rush will happen with this platform with developers and corporates creating wide variety of apps – serving different needs. Applications on Weather forecast, better gricultural practices, training farmers on latest techniques, prices of agricultural fertilizers, pesticides etc, current prices of grains etc and also e-commerce apps. This is just not restricted to the farmer – the device could be used by the entire family. Kids could learn to read and write, the women could use to watch soaps, video chat with distant relatives, the list is endless.

Indians are early adaptors provided there is a value proposition. 70 year olds are getting online and booking tickets on IRCTC simple because of the convenience it offers. So any device that demolishes entry barriers will be welcomed with open arms. This might not happen next year or in the next 2-3 years but the change is coming and will happen over the next decade. Listen to the stillness my friend – it’s the calm before the storm.

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