In India, Everything Can Be Delivered (Except Clean Air)
How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Vindu Goel, a technology reporter for The Times who moved last year from San Francisco to Mumbai, India, discussed the tech he’s using.
What’s your favorite tech tool for staying on top of your beat? What do you like about it, and what could be better?
The most vital tool for me here is WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook. Although I barely used the app when I worked in San Francisco, every smartphone user in India seems to be on it — more than 200 million people, according to the company.
It’s the most reliable way to reach someone. Traditional SMS text messages cost money and are basically all spam or security verifications.
So WhatsApp is the main way people communicate — words, links, photos, videos, holiday greetings. Since WhatsApp is linked to your phone, Indians give out their mobile numbers the way Americans give out email addresses.
I do wish it were easier to search WhatsApp messages — something I do all the time in Gmail — and it would be helpful to be able to use a single account from multiple phones, as you can do with other services.
Cellphone service in India is still spotty, so I carry one iPhone and one Android, with SIM cards for India’s three biggest carriers and power banks to recharge them both. If I have to go somewhere in heavy traffic, I often turn one phone into a Wi-Fi hot spot and work on my laptop from the back seat while the driver worries about the road.
How do people use tech differently in India compared with the United States? What are the most popular homegrown apps there?
Tech in India is mostly mobile — computers are quite rare. And smartphones are almost all Android, with Apple a bit player.
Smartphone use has exploded in the past year. A price war started by a new phone carrier, Reliance Jio, in 2016 has given India one of the lowest prices for data in the world. My primary phone plan costs less than $10 a month for unlimited India calls and more data than I ever manage to use.
Cheap data has led to a surge in streaming video. YouTube is popular. But Indians also watch local services like Hotstar, a service owned by 21st Century Fox in the United States. It bundles live cricket, Indian television and American cable shows like “Game of Thrones.”
Jio offers local TV and many movies through its own apps. Amazon Prime and Netflix operate here, too.
Food delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato are also big, although I don’t think anyone is making any money at it. Delivery is very much a part of Indian culture — you can get virtually anything delivered, from a single cup of hot coffee to furniture that they assemble in your house.
Mobile payments are another hot area. Local apps like Paytm are battling it out with Google’s Tez, Amazon Pay and a payments feature that’s coming in WhatsApp.
What are the biggest consequences of people in India getting onto the internet for the first time via their smartphones?
I don’t think we really know yet.
Most new users know little or no English. So app makers and internet companies like Google are racing to adapt their products to handle different languages. Android phones, for example, offer a choice of keyboards in 33 different Indian languages besides English. Google also says that more than one-quarter of searches in India are done by voice command instead of typing.
The combination of smartphones and cheap data has the potential to transform how poorer Indians find a job, socialize, do basic banking, get health care, even pursue an education.
One big hurdle, though, is that even a basic Android smartphone starts at about $50, which is still out of reach for a lot of people.
What is Mumbai’s high-tech scene like?
Mumbai, like New York, is still primarily a hub for finance and trade.
In tech, telecom is big — Reliance Jio and Vodafone’s Indian operations are based here. Two huge outsourcing companies, Tata Consultancy Services and Tech Mahindra, also have their headquarters here.
Bollywood, India’s film industry, is centered in Mumbai, too. So services like Hotstar, Amazon Prime and Eros Now are here to be close to the studios. There are a few start-ups founded by people who simply like the city, such as Cleartrip, a travel booking site, and Hopscotch, an online retailer of children’s clothing.
With so many major banks here, there is also an emerging scene of so-called fintech companies that are trying to apply technology to disrupt traditional financial services.
Tech firms have been pushing for merchants to support digital payments in India. Do you think e-wallets will ever replace cash?
Traditional e-wallets, where you store money until you need to spend it, will probably disappear. The government ordered e-wallet companies to get more identification information from customers by Feb. 28. Most customers did not cooperate, which limits their ability to refill their wallets.
Still, it’s inevitable that noncash payments will play a bigger role in India’s economy over time. Debit cards are already popular, and the government is heavily promoting a technology called UPI, which instantly transfers money from one bank account to another.
I doubt cash will ever disappear, though. Even in the United States, about one-third of all transactions are still cash.
Beyond your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life?
Like China, India has a big problem with air pollution in its major cities. Unlike China, the government is doing very little to address the problem.
In New Delhi, the nation’s capital, the wintertime air is so bad that its chief minister called it a “gas chamber.” In Mumbai, which is on the coast and gets nice ocean breezes, the air tends to be better. But by World Health Organization standards, the level of tiny particles in the air is still unhealthy, especially in the mornings. And sometimes it’s downright toxic.
So we run Swiss-made IQAir purifiers for at least part of every day.
Our 2-year-old is obsessed with FaceTime on our iPhones. She loves to call her grandparents in New York and carry the phone around the apartment, giving them a prime view of our ceiling as she chatters away.