For centuries, India has pulled in millions of travellers and traders simply by being India. The world’s most intrepid traders came to India in search of the natural resources in ancient times and through the middle of the previous millennium. And of course as a journey into the exotic for scores of hippies travelling overland in Asia. India is exotic no longer — except in badly-researched Bollywood movies — though the allure still remains. 

The spice traders and barely-washed hippies have merely been replaced by ultra-polished tech giants, walking the talk and finally seeing the India opportunity. 

Over the last few years, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Uber, Alibaba and others have all identified India as the market to attack next. Facebook is an everpresent force in the Indian market with WhatsApp as its chief weapon, and Bytedance has got everyone to take notice thanks to the wild success of TikTok. It’s safe to say all the major tech companies want to make the most of the mega opportunity in India. This surge in interest in India from the tech giants is unprecedented — perhaps the biggest such confluence since the traders on ships visited the courts of the maharajas to curry favour and strike trade deals.

Goodbye, China. Hello, India!

And to cap off the interest from tech majors, the visit of Donald Trump this week underlined the big role that India will play in the decade ahead in global trade. The spotlight falls on India at a time when the coronavirus epidemic and multiple globally-debated human rights issues have raised questions about the viability of China’s business environment in the long run. 

Yes, China is low-hanging fruit for Trump’s administration and a serial target for the US government, but cosying up to India is a sign that perhaps the US is signing off on India as the alternative to China. Before, during and after Trump’s visit, tech giants have queued up to announce their mega plans for India. 

Amazon started the procession as the world’s richest man got the world’s coldest welcome in India in January. Jeff Bezos may have thought announcing mega investments for India would earn him some credit in the Indian market, but instead, it turned out to be a focal point of attacks on the company’s loss-making streak. 

Coinciding with the POTUS’ tour to India, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and outspoken critic of some of the recent government policies also made an appearance in both Delhi and Mumbai. Surprisingly, Nadella got a much more welcome reception than Bezos did — perhaps the fact that Microsoft is partnering with Reliance Jio, one of the pillars of Digital India, made it easier to swallow Nadella’s remarks. 

Microsoft is backing startups in a huge way with funding, mentorship, accelerators, incubators and is also making cloud deployment easier for SMBs. The company’s tie-up with Jio might just be the biggest coup in the Indian cloud market.

The Procession Of Giants

Beyond from the most recent drop-ins, Apple CEO Tim Cook is also set to come down to India in the middle of 2020 as Apple gets serious about selling more in India. The company has planned ecommerce and retail plays that could finally see the brand become more commonplace than it already is in hip “third wave” coffee shops around metros. 

Uber calls India its engineering hub and is building its next-gen fintech play out of the company’s new Hyderabad office. Despite exiting food delivery, Uber is more than optimistic about earning big success in India in its core proposition — mobility. 

Google Cloud and AWS have new rivals to worry about as Alibaba is betting big money on startups and is serious about Alibaba Cloud in India. Dr Feifei Li, VP of Alibaba Group and a key member of the cloud group, told Inc42 that India business growth in the last two years has been over 100% and it is targeting for 150% growth next year. The company has already set up two database centres in Mumbai and is building a strong developer network. 

Let’s not forget WhatsApp and Facebook — both stuck in multiple regulatory tussles but with enough firepower to take on the biggest companies once these hurdles are cleared. WhatsApp has been pushing to get WhatsApp Payments off the ground in India so that it can finally monetise the market where it has nearly 500 Mn users. If WhatsApp is successful, it could create the world’s largest payments platform in a matter of months. 

So what’s with all the rush? For one, India’s internet users are said to account for 12% of the world’s internet user base. By 2023, nearly a billion people will be online in India and with no firewall to speak of, it’s set to be the biggest open internet market in the world if the government lets it. 

Interestingly, Narendra Modi-government’s protectionist India-first policy regime has also been a recurring agenda point for tech CEOs frequenting India. Foremost on the discussion points are the data localisation mandate and the intermediary rules that are set to make things more challenging for all foreign internet companies. 

India is also preparing national policies around ecommerce and education, which will shape and direct two massive sectors in the Indian market. It curtailed the wings of ecommerce heavyweight by prohibiting ecommerce marketplaces from selling products directly or through subsidiaries, among other regulations. 

Following these policy changes, tech giants have sent envoys to get the government to change its mind. Microsoft’s Nadella was preceded by Bezos and WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart who made their way to India, trying to coax the government into forming friendlier policies. In October 2019, US secretary Wilbur Ross had said that India needs to think of ecommerce regulations that bring in balance and proportionality. 

Speaking about India’s regulatory environment, Nadella this week said that although it is important for technology to be regulated as it becomes increasingly critical, over-regulation could increase costs to businesses, especially entrepreneurs. So in many ways, India’s tech economy future is in its own hands and a lot depends on the government plays its cards. Can the world’s biggest tech giants have their say in how things will shape up in India or will tech CEOs be stuck in a prolonged engagement with lawmakers?

The Big News

Hotstar took a stand and banned the Last Week Tonight With John Oliver episode that was critical of India PM Narendra Modi’s past records during violent clashes. Entertainment giant Disney is looking to launch Disney+ as part of Hotstar on March 29, and Disney has typically steered clear of any possible confrontations with governments and authorities on content. 

Donald Trump went gaga over Indian startups and showered praises on OYO founder Ritesh Agarwal, who is gung-ho about the company making it big in America. With his real estate background, it’s no wonder Trump is well familiar with the OYO brand.

Facebook is making exceptions for India and wants to keep backing Indian startups on the lines of its investments in Meesho and Unacademy. Facebook India’s MD Ajit Mohan said the company has changed the investment strategy to acquire minority stakes, just for the Indian market.

The Big Numbers

The number of Apple stores around the world. India will get its first one in 2021.

The number of people who reportedly lost their lives in communal riots in Delhi (as of February 28) which came against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s India visit.
 History repeats itself.

$57.2 Bn
The GDP contribution by Indian IT companies in the US in 2017, according to IHS Markit. This is higher than the GDP of six US state.

The Big Story

Teachers have always held a prominent spot in the Indian education system, revered by both kings and paupers alike. For most parts, this teacher-student equation has sustained the test of time, despite the progress of online learning. With edtech platforms such as BYJU’s, Toppr, and Vedantu becoming the default ‘classrooms’ for students today, are teachers feeling the pressure of technology replacing their jobs? 

Naturally, one wonders whether teachers would indeed be redundant in the future. An even bigger question is whether tech infusion actually helps students or is it just a means to cheat in your homework? We pondered over these questions and more inTeachers And Technology: Friends Or Foes?
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