Mobile VAS is dead, long live Mobile Innovation

Mohammad Chowdhury
Updated: Jun 5, 2013 08:45:26 AM UTC

I have been saying on occasion for the two years I have been living here that India can't innovate.  My theory that India's telecom industry can process-replicate but not service-innovate has made me as unpopular as when I’d predicted India would lose 4-0 in the cricket Tests in England last summer.

Obsessed by minutes of use, price tinkering, packaging and bundling, Indian telecoms has hardly come up with a proper new service innovation for ages.  It isn’t the same at the back-end.  Due to network engineering innovation, Indian telcos run the city of Mumbai on 1/7 the spectrum of London, and due to innovative customer analytics, they slice and dice the 900m+ user base like a master chef chopping onions.  But when it comes to services, the nearest we get to innovation is a handful of agricultural services which enable farmers to gather up-to-date market prices: a once interesting example which has now become a developing country telecom cliché.

In fact many of the value-added services, or VAS, of yore are now in terminal decline. The days of "ABC services" are over as more people interested in Astrology, Bolloywood and Cricket go and get their information or entertainment directly from the mobile internet, and fewer rely on VAS platforms and mobile operator portals.  So whatever modest service innovation there was in Indian telecom, is also in decline.

Going by the strength of this year’s mBillionth awards entries, I may soon be proved wrong about India not being able to innovate.  Locked away for two days in a far-flung stately home in UP (West), I recently scived off work (ssh!) to fulfil my “jury service” commitment for the mBillionth awards (  16 of South Asia’s finest industry thinkers, researchers, journalists, and innovators (plus me), spent days, nights and countless cups of masala tea debating the merits of 155 nominations for the now famous innovation awards.

The nominations are spread across 12 “m” categories which include mGovernance, mHealth, mEducation and mTravel and Tourism.  We argued for hours into the night scoring the entries, sweating it out in the grand but dusty hall of a stout family fort built over a hundred years’ ago, with an a/c which could never cool quickly enough to neutralise the heat from the sultry sunshine streaming in from outside.  The Maharajah's living room featured no less than 19 tiger heads, an awful spectacle, given that only some 40 Royal Bengal Tigers survive in the Sundarbans today.  I digress.

There were many businesses that opened my eyes, including:

  • A mobile-enabled taxi booking service that allows the user to see on a Google map on their handset where the cab is as it approaches;
  • A mobile application that allows property agents to see an aggregated view of bottom-of-pyramid housing stock availability in city slums;
  • A mobile news portal that aggregates the best of Bengali daily content across West Bengal and Bangladesh;
  • A personal financial planner enabled on your mobile available in Telugu;
  • A mobile-enabled supply chain integration package for tea growers in South India
  • A simple app which enables parents to monitor whether their child reached school safely on the school bus.

Many nominations addressed hyper-localised user needs in state languages, illustrating the growing maturity of mobile data services in India, and suggesting that the advent of localised mobile data services may finally be on its way.

But how many of the winners of the mBillionth awards are going to survive?  Will mobile internet innovation really take off in India?  Some say that mobile startups are becoming "atomic" to the point of ridiculousness. For instance, an app that tells you that you are five minutes late for a meeting recently picked up $6 million in venture funding -

It is difficult to say for all, but certainly some of the mBillionth entries will be successful businesses which scale more and go international.  And there are others which are not out to conquer the world or make their founders rich quick, but rather to make important (even if localised) points, such as the mGovernance entries which provide voice platforms for people to complain to politicians for lack of water or corruption in the transport department.  The jury had a lot of time for these entries, the ones that are using mobile to bind communities together and make our society stronger.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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