2011 a year of tech, tweets, tablets and telecom

New Delhi : The year Steve Jobs died was a busy one for global tech — the rise of the iPad, the spread of pay-as-you-go cloud services and the turmoil in the smartphone market with iPhone and Android knocking out RIM BlackBerry and Nokia.

The year — which saw India’s first social-network-driven revolution, and an ill-conceived government effort to kill “objectionable” content on Facebook and other social media — was also a packed one for India’s information and communications technology space. Most of the action happened in telecom, with 3G and other milestones. IT crossed a landmark, too. Here are five top tech trends of 2011:

The rise of 3G telecom and crash of margins

It was Indian telecom’s biggest year: 3G, mobile number portability and 175 million new mobile phone subscribers in 10 months, taking the total such base to 881 million. But are the operators raking it in? Far from it, thanks to India’s low per-user revenue: 93 percent of users are prepaid, low-spenders. Together with terribly-high energy costs for the diesel backup for a half-million towers, it’s a struggle for margins. Along came 3G in 2011 (remember the $15 billion that operators blew last year on spectrum auction?). Poor user experience and a lack of content failed to draw users, killing all operator hopes of recovering that money. Then came mobile number portability: 25 million users applied to switch operators while retaining their number, with 2.5 million requests pouring in each month. The churn is taking its toll: Operators are responding with tariff cuts and deals.

Android mobile platform and the smartphone explosion

Apple fanatics might tell you that the Google-backed Android is no patch on iOS, but they are irrelevant in India, where the overpriced iPhone is non-existent. Android, the world’s best-selling smartphone platform, with 200 million in use worldwide as of November, with 700,000 new ones activated daily, has seen high growth in India, too. Canadian Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, despite tottering on the edge of a precipice globally, is still strong in India, both for business users and among a growing, young consumer audience. Nokia still rules India, but in the smartphone space, it’s getting edged out by Android vendors like Samsung, and BlackBerry. Overall, smartphones doubled in sales in India this year.

Akash, the world’s cheapest tablet

India’s $35 tablet was finally launched in October at $60, shocking those who believed it to be Indian vaporware. Even so, it’s a long way from success, despite government backing with advance bookings for schools. Yes, it’s the world’s cheapest tablet, and runs on Android. It has wi-fi, two USB and an SD card slot, and other features the iPad doesn’t at 10 times the price. But it has inadequate content, poor battery life, limited software and apps (its Froyo 2.2 phone operating system supports the GetJar store and not Android Marketplace), cheap construction, and a 7-inch screen not best suited for classroom use. Bottom line: No threat to other tablets, and questionable impact on the classroom.

Aadhar, the Unique Identity, takes off, and stumbles

Piloted a year ago Aadhar — the Congress-backed unique identity, citizen-database project — took off and gathered steam. Then it faced its first real challenge in December when a parliamentary standing committee returned the National Identity Act (NIA) bill, which sought to transform the body into a statutory authority. If allowed to go on as planned, the unique identity scheme will become one of the biggest e-governance projects ever, spanning every citizen, generating the world’s biggest database. Someday it will avoid mindless duplication of citizen data-collection across multiple government agencies. The project is important, not just as an experiment in attracting private-sector talent to solve national problems, but also to better manage over $50 billion in welfare spending.

Size matters, with Indian IT industry crossing $100-billion mark

Riding the best growth in three years — 24 percent in US dollar in 2009-10 — Indian IT industry had a good year, crossing the $100 billion in revenues mark in 2011 for the first time ever. Two-thirds of that is services exports. While exports grew over 22 percent in the previous financial year in dollar terms, the domestic IT market grew 28 percent. The $100-billion mark is a nice revenue milestone to cross for a 30-year-young industry, but here’s the rub: At least three US-based IT companies, HP, Apple and IBM, are each well over that revenue size.

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