Almost 1,500 years ago,
Indian mathematicians, including Aryabhata, Brahmagupta,
and Pingala, transformed mathematics by conceiving the rules of the binary numeral
system. While those rules today lie at the heart of the code powering the Internet, India
has relatively few Internet users: just 7 percent of its population is connected to the Web,
compared with 32 percent in China and 77 percent in the United States.
Yet India has an opportunity to lead the world once again by becoming the frst truly
mobile digital society. All the elements are in place: the cost of network access and
handsets is going down, wireless networks are going up, and Indian consumers already
display an insatiable appetite for digital services. In addition, bypassing the personal
computer—moving straight to widespread mobile access—simply makes sense. It would
sidestep a host of hurdles associated with delivering affordable Internet services to
a population that is geographically dispersed and relatively poor, in a country where
infrastructure development can be problematic.
Can India actually transform itself from an Internet laggard into a world leader? The
trail the country would blaze could serve as a model for other developing markets. But
much depends on whether India can rediscover its revolutionary spirit and garner
unprecedented cooperation and commitment from both the private and public sectors.
The Indian digital consumer
India’s base of 81 million Internet users is the world’s fourth largest.
Yet this fgure is a
function of sheer population, not deep adoption: just 20 percent of India’s urban citizens
are connected to the Internet, compared with 60 percent in China. And while China has
233 million mobile-Internet users, or 18 percent of its total population, India has just 17
million, or less than 1 percent.
Even though typical Indian consumers have no Internet access, they have a remarkable
appetite for digital content. In fact, they consume an average of 4.5 hours of it daily across
oF±ine channels such as television, DVDs, and CDs. And while they use mobile phones
predominantly for voice services, a whole segment of business has grown around retailers
essentially operating as physical iTunes stores, charging fees to load music and other
content onto mobile devices. The net result is that while India is a relatively poor country,
more than 70 percent of its urban consumers already spend about $1 a month on content