Reliance JioPhone: Blurring the lines between feature phones and smartphones
Most of us completed the transition from feature phones to smartphones years ago and now take things such as high-speed 4G connectivity, apps like Facebook and WhatsApp, and digital wallets for granted, courtesy smartphones. We are now looking at the integration of biometrics, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality as the next evolution of these mobile devices. But amid all this, we are forgetting one important thing - the prevalent digital divide.
Although India is one of the biggest smartphone markets in the world, a large population is still deprived of mobile data connectivity. According to research agency CounterPoint analyst Parv Sharma, the feature phone shipment in India in the calendar year 2016 was at 149 million units. The agency in one of its recent studies has also pointed out that migration from feature phones to smartphones has slowed down. Overall, the Indian mobile handset market remained flat whereas the smartphone market saw a modest growth of 4% year-on-year in the second quarter of 2017.
One of the reasons behind slow migration from feature phones to smartphones has been the lack of availability of good-quality entry-level 4G VoLTE smartphones. Yes, we have 4G smartphones for as low as ₹3,000, but the experience is far from being on par with a decent budget smartphone. If you ask me, I'd not recommend buying any entry-level smartphone from the current lot in the market. That being said, I don't really think prices of these entry-level smartphones are coming down to the level of feature phones anytime soon.
This is where phones like the JioPhone come into the picture. Reliance JioPhone is actually a 'smart' phone that has been packaged in a feature phone form factor. Reliance claims the JioPhone features 4G VoLTE support along with free voice calls for life, voice-based browser/digital assistant, preloaded Jio apps like JioCinema, and NFC support for digital payments. Moreover, Reliance Jio is offering unlimited data packs with the JioPhone. Then there's an "effectively zero" price, which means basically you deposit ₹1,500 with Reliance for three years.
Devices like the JioPhone could very well be the elusive intermediary between feature phones and smartphones. Perhaps, it's also time we redefine the smartphones. After all, we cannot limit our understanding of a 'smart' phone to the ones that run on Android or iOS operating system. We should now look at the phones based on their capabilities, 'smart' tasks they're capable of performing.
"Jio feature phone will arrest the decline of feature phone segment and eventually accelerate upgrades within the feature phone segment. This will impact the sales of sub $50 ( ₹3,000 approximately) smartphone segment which is now contributing to almost 3% of smartphone shipments in the first half of 2017," CounterPoint's Parv Sharma told Hindustan Times .
The JioPhone, in this case, could be an exemplary reference device. After all, it packs in online entertainment services, digital payment support, fast internet connectivity and more. It'll help bring more people on-board with the mobile internet. I believe it can provide the much-needed impetus to the Digital India mission than anything else.
Of course, these phones will miss out on things as basic as QWERTY keypad, but does it really matter to everyone, especially those getting a phone that is bundled with free internet and voice calls? Rather, a voice-based browser could be more appealing to non-English users. A universal assistant could do away with the necessity of having multiple applications. A lot of things are being reimagined with more people coming online. We cannot expect this segment of the society to wait for years till the time they can actually afford what we consider as a smartphone.
The impact of the JioPhone is going to be felt quite immediately. According to a report by tech website TheMobileIndian, Reliance Jio is going to ship a whopping 50 million units of the JioPhone. The website further reports that the company is planning to sell these handsets in the first three months after they go on sale on August 24.
"Feature phone segment still holding strong in India and now with the announcement of LTE-based smart feature phone 'JioPhone' by Reliance Jio, we estimate that conversion from feature phones to smartphones is likely to slow down in short to mid-term," says CounterPoint in its study.
Obviously, Reliance Jio cannot alone bring about the change in the industry. According to reports, we're going to see more of these 4G VoLTE phones from other brands. So far, Lava and Intex have launched the 4G Connect M1 and Turbo+ 4G respectively. Rival Idea Cellular is reportedly planning to launch 4G feature phone for around ₹2,500. Qualcomm is also looking at the segment with its Snapdragon 205 chipsets, aimed at 4G feature phones. It is also one of the partners of Reliance Jio.
Spreadtrum, which is a chipset partner of Reliance Jio, has disclosed it is in talks with four-five players for launching 4G feature phones. "We are in talks with four-five players for launching phones (on Spreadtrum chipset). We expect they will be launching in the fourth quarter," Spreadtrum Communications Country Head Neeraj Sharma recently told PTI.
"In urban centres, 2G is highly spectrum inefficient. This phenomenon (launch of 4G feature phones) will be good in urban area but ₹,500 is very expensive for bottom of the pyramid. The package (in the case of Jio) is very attractive so some of them may like to experiment with it," Indian Cellular Association National President Pankaj Mohindroo is quoted as saying.
This new segment will most likely adversely impact the entry-level smartphone segment in India. "Jio feature phone will arrest the decline of feature phone segment and eventually accelerate upgrades within the feature phone segment. This will impact the sales of sub $50 (₹3,000 approximately) smartphone segment which is now contributing to almost 3% of smartphone shipments in the first half of 2017," CounterPoint's Parv Sharma told Hindustan Times.
That being said, I strongly believe in the execution. While the companies are pouncing upon an untapped segment of the market, customers won't benefit until a few parameters are met. At the moment, one of the biggest hurdles Reliance Jio and others face is the issue of quality of service. A sudden influx of large number of users will lead to more load on the network infrastructure. Considering that these phones are targeted at the lowest tiers, service providers will have to ensure their infrastructure is capable enough in remote areas of the country.
Not long ago, we saw the fall out between Reliance Jio and other established telecom players over the issue of interconnection. For a very long period of time, Jio users had grappled with the issue of call drops. Jio should ensure the new users aren't left disappointed while making the move to the JioPhone. But, looking at the larger picture, I am quite optimistic that the finally we are looking at something much more substantial that could fix the digital divide in the country.