Rare is the technology that touches our life as much as the advent of
cellular has. Ever since its introduction, the mobile phone has grown to become
one of the most popular forms of personal communication tools in India.
Though initially restricted to urban elites, falling prices and newer
services have ensured that the mobile is well on its way to becoming part of the
common man’s life, including auto rickshaw drivers–the community which is
swiftly becoming ‘fully mobile’.
However, one wonders whether the cell phone means the same to him as that to
a young professional or is his relationship with the mobile different? Is he
satisfied with the version available to him or does he want more?
According to the Bangalore based research firm, Center for Knowledge
Societies (CKS), that tried to answer these questions, mobile phones have helped
auto rickshaw drivers develop stronger bond with customers.
While earlier auto drivers used take specific routes to cover large part of
the city, cell phones have made it easy for regular customers to call them up,
thereby helping them to cut down on unnecessary roaming across the city in
search of business. Assurance of calls from specific customers has helped them
chart out the route in such a way that that they can be in areas closer to them.
The study also reveals that in most of the cases, though the driver buys the
phone to keep in touch with his family, it later becomes a tool of income
generation by facilitating repeat business.
"They even like the idea of a bill that shows itself every time they use
the phone, especially when they lend their phones to customers," explained
a CKS operation member Zeenat Hasan.
CKS has also made a four-minute documentary based on its interaction with 200
auto drivers in Bangalore. The film is aimed at helping technology designers in
developing targeted technology products. According to Hasan, the initiative is
an attempt by the organization to understand the dynamics between societies and
technology and thereby help in designing better technology.
"We believe that design is inseparable from other disciplines and as
much a part of the research process as it is of a product," she said.
The research on auto drivers was triggered by the information that auto
drivers in Trivandrum were increasing their accessibility by painting their
phone numbers on their vehicles.
"We recorded three important findings — change in the daily route, the
phone becoming an income source from just an expense and an eventual shift in
service providers from Reliance to Airtel," she said. That Reliance has
single handedly been responsible for making the common man mobile can be judged
by the fact that 70 percent of the respondents said they started off as Reliance
While the survey reveals that 15 percent of these customers started off as
Airtel prepaid subscribers, around 10 percent people who start on Reliance
change to Airtel. "The 80 percent Reliance subscribers, therefore, belong
to the category of people who have been using mobiles for less than a month. The
shift in service providers happens usually in one or two months," Hasan
informed adding that 20 percent of the respondents have said that mobile phone
helped them in getting repeat business.
"A number of products and services can be developed keeping in mind
their needs and desires. For example, we found that these drivers call up their
friends to pass on messages to their family. That provides the idea of a double
pack–one for him and one for his house," Hasan reiterated. The team also
suggests more multilingual services and better local language interfaces for
these drivers along with simpler and cheaper phones.
"These suggestions can be replicated for different non-elite
communities. Careful planning and production of useful technology would
certainly increase its adoption," she said adding that CKS is planning a
similar research among shared autos in Agra.
They are also working on a project to understand how GIS mapping could be
useful to a man on the streets.
While some might feel that mobiles are the great levelers of our time,
research like this shows that it might not be the case. No doubt mobile phones
have become more accessible now, but the telecom industry is still far away from
coming out with service packs to meet specific needs of people from different
strata. Though many companies are beginning to look at the non-elite segment,
the understanding that one model cannot fit all segments is still largely
In fact, none of the service providers have yet been able to fully exploit
the potential of the technology to create products and services for the common
man. Whether research such as this can help in realizing the common man’s
dream is a question that would be judged in times to come.
Sathya Mithra Ashok
(CyberMedia News Service)