The storm of opinions over Free Basics shows no sign of dying out – rather, it has intensified this week, with Marc Andreesen’s tweet criticising India’s  ‘anti-colonial’ bias attracting a lot of negative flak in Silicon Valley, the Twitterati and PR industry. I view the public controversy around Free Basics, as a good thing from the Indian perspective. The debate has sensitised the general public to the concepts of Digital Equality, Net Neutrality and Digital Inclusion, and we have seen some thought provoking, interesting perspectives being presented by people from different walks of life.

However, the entire controversy has got me thinking on a very fundamental issue – how can apps actually contribute to the larger social good, by delivering a service that is relevant to the masses, and yet make good business sense? Because the truth of the matter, is that most of us are here to make money and not take political stances. We would like to do good along the way as well, but we must be careful to not disguise commercial intent under altruism – putting ourselves in the same spot that Facebook seems to be in today.

Here are some of my thoughts on what constitutes business sense driven, yet true digital equality:

  • If you want to include people, talk to them in their language!

Virtually everyone who is not online today (Approximately 80% of the population) are vernacular language speakers. Everyone who is online today, definitely understands some English. If you want to include more people, more rapidly in Digital India, then you need to build vernacular language apps. Some people argue and tell me that the number of English users is growing. Yes it is, but the mobile internet can grow faster, if it grows in native language. Look at China, a country where the majority are non-English speakers and the app ecosystem has been built around local language. Start thinking, and building in vernacular language to promote digital equality and create a mass audience for your app.

You may tell me that multiple apps are already available in local languages, but I would like to point out that the problem is not developing a vernacular app, the problem starts AFTER you develop it. Not all apps and websites render local language fonts clearly – because they are dependent on the capability of the handset and OS to support the local language. The problem is especially endemic with older phones that have not gotten updates.

  • To bridge the digital divide, think of how your app will work offline

It may seem a contradiction in terms, but offline apps will be one of the biggest factors in bridging the digital divide. Let me explain why. The emerging breed of users are ‘paisa vasool’ people who will not believe in keeping data on 24X7. And they would be smart enough to figure if your app drains up their valuable data plans. To ensure app retention (which is a more important metric than app download) – you need to think of how your app can serve people even when it is offline. This thinking needs to go beyond just caching data. One of my favorite examples is ShareIt – which is currently the second most popular app on the Indian app store. ShareIt facilitates exchange of files and apps without a data connection. It’s native function is offline.

  • Think of how apps can become better platforms to generate income and wealth.

The new wave of apps are aggregators of products, services, or people delivering services. Think of the different categories – cab booking, home improvement/repair services, hyperlocal, food delivery, e-commerce, online loan aggregators – the list goes on.

One of the key factors in Uber’s meteoric rise to become the world’s biggest car rental company, is the fact that the business model empowered anyone with a car to become a driver, at their convenience. It triggered the creation of an entirely new supply-side equation which benefited both the supplier and the end user. Further away, in China, the TaoBao model has empowered even rural producers to reach out their products to domestic and international markets, and has created millionaires in some cases. Alibaba reports that there are 211 Taobao Villages in China (rural communities where at least 10% of the population makes its living by selling products online).

(Source : Quartz Magazine)

  • Provide a non-discriminatory user experience

Whether it’s a smartphone or feature phone, an entry level Android phone vs a premium iPhone, every consumer deserves to have the best possible app experience – and this is a principle that also makes sound business sense. In a utopian sense, it sounds fine, but how will you translate this philosophy, to ensuring that the app runs smoothly on every phone? Our technology has the answer J

At Anant, we always started with the ambition to equip developers to build apps for masses (and this was before the mobile internet revolution had gathered the steam that it has today). Our mantra has simply been ‘With Anant, build your app once and we will ensure that it is compatible with every handset, operating system and Indian language’.

In my next blog post, I will attempt to share, how you can meet your business objectives AND promote digital equality, by partnering with Anant to build your app.