C&B Notes

The Next Billion

How consumers connect to and interact with technology continues to evolve quickly, with voice and video rising in popularity to account for a different type of user. In the developing world, where most of these users are found, service providers are responding to a new set of constraints — slow internet speeds and minimal hard drive storage on devices. On the hardware side, Android-based phones are thriving while Apple devices are lagging, a gap that may widen further given the lower incomes of this next billion users. India is a useful case study, and a large and lucrative market for the eventual winners.

The internet’s global expansion is entering a new phase, and it looks decidedly unlike the last one. Instead of typing searches and emails, a wave of newcomers — “the next billion,” the tech industry calls them — is avoiding text, using voice activation and communicating with images.  They are a swath of the world’s less-educated, online for the first time thanks to low-end smartphones, cheap data plans and intuitive apps that let them navigate despite poor literacy.  Incumbent tech companies are finding they must rethink their products for these newcomers and face local competitors that have been quicker to figure them out.  “We are seeing a new kind of internet user,” said Caesar Sengupta, who heads a group at Alphabet Inc.’s Google trying to adapt to the new wave.  “The new users are very different from the first billion.”

A look at Megh Singh’s smartphone suggests how the next billion might determine a new set of winners and losers in tech.  Mr. Singh, 36, balances suitcases on his head in New Delhi, earning less than $8 a day as a porter in one of India’s biggest railway stations.  He isn’t comfortable reading or using a keyboard.  That doesn’t stop him from checking train schedules, messaging family and downloading movies.  “We don’t know anything about emails or even how to send one,” said Mr. Singh, who went online only in the past year.  “But we are enjoying the internet to the fullest.”  Mr. Singh squatted under the station stairwell, whispering into his phone using speech recognition on the station’s free Wi-Fi.  It is a simple affair, a Sony Corp. model with 4GB of storage, versus the 32GB that is typically considered minimal in the developed world.  On his screen are some of the world’s most popular apps — Google’s search, Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp — but also many that are unfamiliar in the developed world, including UC Browser, MX Player and SHAREit…

Those three apps, not among the top 100 downloads in the U.S., were in India’s top 10 over the 30 months through June, according to App Annie, which tracks apps; many of America’s most popular apps aren’t in India’s top 100. Mr. Singh’s phone uses Google’s Android operating system, which nearly monopolizes India’s smartphone market in phones from companies such as South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. and India’s Micromax Informatics Ltd.  Apple Inc., in contrast, has a 3% smartphone market share in India, estimates market research firm Kantar Worldpanel, in part because its least expensive iPhone costs over $300; in India, more than 90% of smartphones cost less than that.

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