Connect with us


Fueling the Affordable Smartphone Revolution in India



Smartphones have emerged as the exemplar of mankind’s quest for shrinking technologies. They embody the realization of a simple premise – that computing devices would do more and cost less. This realization has been responsible for modern society’s profound transformations in communication, governance, and knowledge distribution.

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 is often credited with ushering in an era of smartphones. Ever since, the world’s best tech R&D has focused on increasing the capabilities of these devices. And as a result, less than a decade later, we have sub-hundred dollar smartphones. The low-cost smartphone has found an enthusiastic and insatiable market in developing countries, especially Asia. India is no exception to the Asian narrative – Micromax, Spice, and Lava (low cost smartphone manufacturers) are household names in the Indian smartphone market, which accounted for 65% of internet traffic in 2014.

The Indian Prime Minister, carrying the twin aspirations of catalyzing the growth of indigenous manufacturing and bridging the digital divide, launched the “Digital India” and “Make in India” campaigns last year. During his US visit, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook extended their support to the campaigns’ vision. The campaigns outline the government’s elaborate initiatives to bridge the digital divide and build indigenous manufacturing capacity. While all these developments bode well for the indigenous smartphone, there remain some serious concerns affecting the growth of the industry – for instance, patent infringement litigations and the absence of clear legal and regulatory solutions.

From the state of the industry and its implications, it can be concluded that: first, growing access to smartphones has been influenced by their phenomenal affordability; second, smartphones are an excellent example of technology for development and a facilitator of access to knowledge; and third, domestic smartphone production has occurred in an imprecise legal and regulatory environment.

This article attempts to build an appreciation for the role that smartphones are playing in development, specifically, by fostering Access to Knowledge. Conversations around development by public-interest groups and emerging industries often espouse Access to Knowledge to address concerns in international development, communications, technology, education, and intellectual property policy. Whereas the principle can be regarded as in-theworks, two theories inform us about the role of mobile phones in fostering Access to Knowledge. Lea Sheaver’s theory classifies mobile as an Access-toKnowledge good. Lea enumerates the five key components of a robust Access to Knowledge framework, viz., education for information literacy, access to the global knowledge commons, access to knowledge goods, an enabling legal framework, and effective innovation systems. According to her, affordability of the good is the ultimate indicator of its efficacy as an access to knowledge good. Furthermore, inventions in microchip technology, electronics manufacturing, and software need to be supported by enabling legal and policy frameworks coupled with effective innovation systems.

Yochai Benkler’s framework classifies mobile-devices as both informationembedded goods and information-embedded tools. He says, “Information-embedded goods are those goods which are ‘better, more plentiful or cheaper because of some technological advance embedded in them or associated with their production,’ such as medicines, movies, and improved crop seed. Information-embedded tools, in turn, are those technologies necessary for research, innovation, and communication of knowledge”. A smartphone qualifies as both because it can be used to obtain knowledge, and it depends on discoveries in microchip technology, electronics manufacturing, and software to function.

To date, there has been no formal, theoretical or evidentiary investigation on the emergence of smartphones as an Access-to-Knowledge good. In the following sections, I will attempt to explain the smartphone’s dependence on an enabling legal framework and effective innovation systems (Lea’s components). It must be borne in mind that globally, discussions affecting access to knowledge have aimed at creating balanced and inclusive systems related to intellectual property. Therefore, the article will focus on: first, the relationship between constituent mobile technologies and intellectual property as a function of production/deployment of smartphones in India; and second, the relationship between innovation and access.

Creating an Enabling Legal Framework to Foster Access to Knowledge

The adage “the only lesson you can learn from history is that it repeats itself” is worth bearing in our narrative. The emergence of the smartphones industry in Asia has commonalities with the flourishing Asian piracy trade – which remains an essential access solution for low-income societies constantly barraged by expensive western media goods. The prohibitive cost of acquiring brand-name devices (e.g. Apple, HTC, Samsung, Sony) drove local production to imitate and innovate cheaper substitutes. This occurred within the lenient and flexible intellectual property regimes prevalent in Asian countries, which continue to be constantly criticized for their failure to enact stricter intellectual property law. The hubs of smartphone production – China, Taiwan, and India – have flexible intellectual property protection law and lax enforcement measures.

Concerns of intellectual property center around patent and copyright legislation, which have yet to be fully developed to address intellectual property in high-tech industries (since trademark issues remain unchanged, they will not be discussed in the article.) As a result, constituent smartphone technologies have been shaped and governed by a blend of formal and informal rules and legal and illegal practices. This is why they are often referred to as “gray market” technologies. A smartphone in terms of constituent intellectual property can be broadly divided into hardware and software technologies. This piece will first deal with hardware, followed by software technologies.

Hardware Technologies and Their Relationship with IP Law

Presently, most Indian manufacturers import hardware from China and Taiwan, and assemble the phones in India. A few key Indian domestic players are Maxx Mobile, Intex, Spice, and Lava, whose dominance have not gone unnoticed by foreign manufacturers. A couple of these domestic manufacturers are now embroiled in patent litigation threats or infringement suits. And as litigation piles up in Indian courts, the judiciary is slowly waking up to mobile patent litigation, but is yet to rule comprehensively. To make matters worse, the jurisdiction of the Indian antitrust regulator remains unclear, and to a certain extent overlaps with the judiciary, adding to the ambiguity. For instance, when an appellate court ruled in favor of the Swedish tech-giant Ericsson, it ordered Micromax to pay a flat 1.25 – 2% of its devices’ selling price to Ericsson. The ruling was devoid of a more rational and reasoned approach developed by courts of other jurisdictions in similar matters, which prescribed that the infringers pay damages based on the price of the patented components only, and not the retail price of the phones. This decision risks causing a significant increase in the price of phones and potentially threatens local innovation.

The Indian government’s Make in India and Digital India campaigns aim to fulfill the vision of a digitally empowered India, and the 2015 Indian Union budget also targets boosting the electronics manufacturing industry. Despite these broad initiatives, there needs to be a more focused policy in place to ensure domestic companies do not get weighed down by patent related concerns. The root cause of litigation is the vesting of a majority of critical mobile patents (Standard Essential Patents, or SEPs) by a handful tech-giants. For instance, Qualcomm owns 5700 patents around CDMA technology ( In another instance, the DVD format constitutes 311 SEPs for DVD players and 272 SEPs for DVD recorders. Such a dense concentration of patents around SEPs creates a patent thicket and thereby compels Smartphone manufacturers to acquire multiple licenses, and to pay high transaction costs and huge royalties to the owner. To reduce conflict and protect domestic players from being arm-twisted into paying high royalties, the government can potentially identify critical technologies and initiate the formation of a patent pool of such technologies. The concept of a patent pool mandates that the patent holders issue licenses on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory basis to interested parties. However, a nuanced and cautious approach to setting up such pools is necessary.

There are interesting lessons in China’s steps to encourage local innovation of Smartphone hardware as well, specifically in the form of standardized technologies. The Chinese government has actively supported the development of indigenous standards to shield domestic manufacturers from royalty exposure. In fact, the China Blue High-definition Disc (CBHD) standard was built as an alternative to the Blu-ray disc and was duly adopted by the Chinese government, which reportedly caused the royalty rates for the Blu-ray format to dip. Much later, Warner Bros, Paramount, and other motion picture producers adopted the CBHD standard as well for distribution in China.

Software Technologies and Their Relationship with IP Law

Unlike hardware technology, where India is struggling to build manufacturing capacity, the success of the Indian software industry has already been realized. The software-as-a-service (SaAS) industry is led by Infosys, TCS, and Wipro in software exports. The prevailing trend in the industry since the 1980s was to assign ownership of their products to offshore clients. However, in the past decade, there has been a conscious shift by the Indian software development workforce to build products for Smartphone platforms. This is in response to the shift in local populations to accessing content and services online. Reports indicate that India has the second largest population of mobile applications developers (approx. 3 million) in the world, second only to the US. The Indian government has recognized the potential of mobile application-based ventures and created funds to encourage app development in India.

Intellectual property protection around software is fairly ambiguous. A piece of code is potentially capable of gaining both patent and copyright protection. In the area of mobile application development, preliminary research findings indicate that coding occurs with an agnostic attitude towards intellectual property laws. One of the reasons is ambiguity on a multitude of issues around the protection of software because Indian legislation on patent and copyright is frustratingly insufficient. There is a growing discontentment about long-term patent protection over software code, which could be detrimental to innovation – particularly, to the start-up segment of software industry. In more technologically advanced economies, software patenting has emerged as a scourge – last year, the US Supreme Court in Alice Corporation Pty Ltd v. CLS Bank International Et Al narrowed the eligibility of software inventions to gain patent protection. The activist discourse has shifted in favor of eliminating software patenting because of the incremental and obsolescent nature of a software invention. However, in a recent disappointing move, the Indian patent office widened the scope of patent-eligible subject matter for software-related inventions – a move that was decried by free software activists and industry alike. This widening of scope can only benefit tech-giants in building bigger patent portfolios, which is unnecessary and unhealthy for innovation by small and mid-tier entities.

Effective Innovation Systems

Innovation ensures fresh creation of knowledge. A society cannot premise itself on the mere importation of knowledge; it must also strive to use the knowledge to meet its own local needs and environment. Innovation depends on a variety of factors – there is no singular path or factor to build an innovative and enterprising society. The patent system is often incorrectly credited with “promoting” innovation. The discourse around innovation was extremely patent-centric until studies disproved the assumptive correlation between high patenting activity and innovation. Continuing in the same vein, Lea states, “From the A2K perspective, however, relying on patents – which represent the right to exclude others from access to the innovation – is particularly problematic. Patents likely represent the segment of innovation of least value for expanding access to knowledge: improvements in the knowledge stock whose application is limited by exclusive property rights”.

In this framework, it is also important to shed light on the growing movement of openness. Openness as a movement has been captured by various fields – Big data, software, education, media, etc. Free and Open Source Software has emerged as a key agent in information technology policy-making in India, with the Indian government adopting an open standards policy and an open software policy for its own purposes.

In the context of smartphone technologies, preliminary findings also support the shift towards openness. Industry participants have observed that openness will lead to greater benefits in private production of hardware technologies. Similarly, mobile applications developers have also voiced support of open source software.


The discussion above identified a limited set of legal and regulatory concerns affecting the state of production/deployment of smartphones in India. These issues and findings are backed by preliminary research, and purport to sustain the emergence of the smartphone as an enabler of access to knowledge. The proposed solutions direct industry and the government alike to take immediate steps to fix problems impeding pervasive access to this knowledge good.

The experience of the smartphone industry with an imprecise legal and regulatory environment, akin to piracy, has thus far been a success story of affordability, quality substitution, and innovation. However, this narrative is now threatened by messy litigation, jurisdictional uncertainties between the anti-trust regulator and judicial system, SEP licensing issues, rise of software patents. Despite these issues, the industry continues to grow. The future of access to knowledge is therefore bright, provided that stakeholders make efforts to meet the needs of this emerging industry and the public, including development and consumer interests.


About the Author

This article was written by Anubha Sinha of The Centre for Internet & Society. Anubha is a Programme Officer at CIS. As part of the Pervasive Technologies Project, she works on issues involving intellectual property law and openness. see more.

Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings



Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

Continue Reading


Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

Continue Reading