India's Mobile Phone Hitmaker - Busin…
Av ailable on the iPad
TECHNOLOGY August 12, 2010, 5:00PM EST
India's Mobile Phone Hitmaker
Micromax is grabbing market share from Nokia by giving Indian consumers what they want: inexpensive, quality phones with long battery life
By Mehul Srivastava
On a hot summer afternoon in 2007, executives at a small Indian pay phone company called Micromax noticed a curious sight. In a village in the eastern part of the country, they watched people line up next to a man with a car battery strapped to the back of his bicycle and hand him a few rupees to plug their cell phones in for a half hour's worth of charge. The villagers' homes didn't have electricity.
Less than a year later Micromax sold its first cell phone, the X1i. It came with an oversized battery, a small screen, and tweaked electronics that made the phone run for as long as five days, and on standby for as many as 30 days.
"It was really the most obvious thing to do," says Vikas Jain, who co-founded the company in 1991 with three friends. "Here was something that provided customers a feature nobody else had bothered to give them—battery life."
Micromax, based in Gurgaon, a city near New Delhi, has introduced 37 phones in just over a year and a half, designing them in India and manufacturing with partners in China. The company has kept its phones affordable—they start at $40—and tailored to local tastes. Few Micromax handsets bother with Wi-Fi, 3G, or GPS capabilities, for example. That keeps costs down in a country where there isn't much Internet access and very little 3G coverage.
One phone doubles as a Nintendo Wii-like controller, allowing users to play games on a television game console.
Another, marketed heavily with Bollywood-themed TV commercials, has costume jewelry embedded in it and swivels open to reveal a full keyboard. Micromax is selling about 1 million handsets each month, or about 4 percent of the
$6.3 billion Indian market; Indian phone makers as a group have grabbed 14 percent of the market, according to research by Indian trade magazine Voice&Data. That gain has come largely at the expense of global giant Nokia
(NOK), whose share in India fell from 64 percent in 2008 to 52 percent by the end of last year. Jain says he plans to sell 30 million phones a year by the end of 2011—including 6 million in Africa and Latin America.
Micromax's approach has attracted interest from Boston-based TA Associates, a $16 billion private equity fund that invested $45 million in the company in January for an undisclosed stake. "We did spend a lot of time with the broader universe of Indian phone makers," says Naveen Wadhera, a TA Associates Advisory director based in
Mumbai who worked on the deal. "But what we specifically wanted was someone with a real focus on product and a real effort at innovating. The others have a bit of a me-too sort of strategy."
Nokia's India Vice-President and Managing Director D. Shivakumar is dismissive of the Indian phone-making competition. It doesn't take much, he says, to hop a flight to Shenzhen, China, and put your own sticker on a phone.
"You know, Nokia's one of those companies that nobody pays attention to when it does well," he says in a conference room at Nokia's Gurgaon offices. "It's like when Roger Federer wins at Wimbledon, nobody talks about it.
But lose once..."
One floor away, Nokia is hosting a group of Indian tech bloggers who were writing about the Finnish handset maker's latest touchscreen model with Carl Zeiss lenses. Elsewhere in the country anthropologists working for Nokia track the results of an experiment where the company gave every person in four neighboring villages a free phone with access to local weather, crop, and other information. Each Nokia phone spends nearly 18 months in development, businessweek.com/…/b419203652335… 1/2
India's Mobile Phone Hitmaker - Busin…
says Shivakumar, with models