A smartphone selling in India for $4 caused worldwide stir, but reality checked in asking: What’s the catch?

The reality too is we live in a special era of faster evolving technology bringing wonders, and the Third Industrial Revolution.

A digital world is dawning and the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona that ended on February 25 saw its morning light.

The $4 Freedom 251 smartphone from a little-known Indian company in New Delhi, Ringing Bells, applied for citizenship in this new digital revolution marching, the tolling of times changing like never before.

From February 18, 70 million buyers registered for the $4 phone and within hours, the phone apparently bagged 70% of the Indian market.

Marty Cooper with the world’s first cell phone

Has a wonder phone arrived? Would cell phone inventor Marty Cooper be calling for more details from his Del Mar residence in California?

On April 3, 1973, Motorola engineer Cooper made the world’s first mobile telephone call to Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs. Ringing Bells, 43 years later, sells a smartphone that costs as much as a movie ticket.

Frowning phone-tech experts across India doubted, if not dismissed, Ringing Bells President Ashok Chadha’s explanation that his ‘Freedom 251 Smartphone’ was courtesy masterly cost-cutting strategy.

For $4, Ringing Bells promises a smartphone with an Android 5.1 operating system, 4 inch touch-screen, 450mAh battery, 1GB RAM,  8 GB storage, 3.2-mega-pixel camera, Wi-Fi connectivity, Bluetooth, proximity sensor, installed apps…

Not surprisingly, despite millions of bookings, the $4 phone remains a mystery.

Reports on February 23 said Ringing Bells would be importing the first batch of 1.5 million phones. An imported smartphone selling for $4 makes one think that the port of origin may not be China, but Door No. 101, St. Nicholas Drive, North Pole AK 99705 – the postal address of a particularly generous white-bearded gentleman traveling snowy winters on a sleigh.

In a more cynical world without Santa Claus, a $4 phone hints at a hidden agenda more than credible economics.

The world’s first ever marketed cell phone cost nearly $4,000 in 1983. Two years before Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future let loose the frantic time-travels of Marty McFly, Cooper’s mobile phone invention appeared as Motorola DynaTAC 8000X –the first consumer cell phone.

They called it the ‘Zack Morris phone’, and since it nearly weighed a kilogram (two pounds), they also called it a ‘brick’.

Four decades later, the $4 phone is being called a phony. The most realistically minimal price for a 3G phone – that is, made without extra-terrestrial technology – would be Rs 2,300 / Rs3,500 / Rs 4500 ($65), said telecom techs.

In June, deliveries of ‘Freedom 251’ would reveal whether it is a real deal or a dud. Meanwhile, the mystery surrounding the phone deepened after Ringing Bells claimed a profit of Rs 31 (45 cents) from each $4 dollar phone sold.

An amazed Pankaj Mohindroo, president of the Indian Cellular Association (ICA), had one word to explain it all: “Impossible”. He said a $4 smartphone selling in millions needs a subsidy of $30.5 billion.

Whether a $30.5 billion subsidy or a Rs31 profit per buy, the $4 phone becomes another potential paragraph in a unique chapter of human history, of unprecedented inter-connectivity with hand-held power: of people, life-saving health apps, sharing information, news, services, ideas, mails, images, work, entertainment, e-money, e-markets across countries – and, if space commerce keeps its schedules of destiny, connecting beings across the Milky Way galaxy, and worlds across time.

No more a case of the world carrying a mobile phone in its pocket, it is more the mobile phone carrying the world in its pixels.

Digital wonders in the great way

 About 6,765 km from the $4 phone seller Ringing Bells in New Delhi, a Spanish carnival of technology was seeing similar ‘unbelievable’ happenings at the spectacular Fira Gran Via exhibition facility, 10 km from Barcelona airport.  ‘Gran Via’, meaning ‘Great Way’, was showing the digital road of the future at the annual World Mobile Congress, from February 22 to 25, 2016.

Visitors at Gran Via goggled as the Chinese smartphone company Oppo demonstrated its new SuperVOOC technology to fully recharge devices in 15 minutes – the quickest ever.

Serendipity of timing delivered the world’s cheapest smartphone and fastest battery re-charger from India and China the same week.

“Over 90% of cell phone growth the next five years will be from the developing world markets”, said premier industry organization GSMA at the World Mobile Congress.

The GSMA study on February 22 said 4G connections have crossed a billion by the end of 2015, with 7.3 billion mobile phone connections and 4.7 billion unique subscribers – 63% of the world’s population, and expected to cross 70% by 2020.

“Our new report reveals that mobile broadband is now a truly global phenomenon, extending high-speed connectivity and services to citizens in all corners of the world,” said Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA. “Mobile is now the most ubiquitous platform for people and businesses to connect and innovate in today’s digital economy.”

The mobile phone industry already contributes $3.4 trillion to the world economy.

The mobile digital economy is accelerating ability to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the GSMA report said: education, healthcare and financial services, agriculture and electricity management solutions, empowering socio-economic development.

Such “accelerating” digital technology is changing our world at a pace never before experienced in history, changes that seem straight out of wild sci-fi and imagination’s far frontiers.

Pizzas by email

 The Pizza by the Bay in Mumbai serves a rendezvous of memories from within its glass-front facing the Arabian Sea. In changing tides of life, special friends meet here – some never to meet again in this lifetime or the next – to savor the legacy of Raffaele Esposito, the baker from Naples who served his new creation to Queen Margherita of Italy in 1889. She loved the margherita, and the pizza became for many a mundane synonym across supra-mundane destinies.

So when I met digital design expert Joris van Tubergen at the India Design Forum’s conference, during the ‘Make in India Week’ in Mumbai, the first question I asked him about the fate of the Third Industrial Revolution was:  “Can we send pizzas by email?”

“Why not,” Tubergen grinned. Digitally design the pizza in a CAD file, email it anywhere, the receiver sets the ingredients in a 3D Printer, and the nozzle ‘prints’ it layer by layer.

I told him to better call the ‘3D Printer’ a 3D Maker, to avoid confusion with a paper printer: at ‘print’ command, out rolls the printed sheet. The 3D printer ‘makes’ the object inside it, more like a microwave oven; and the printer ‘ink’ is liquefied form of any substance that makes the object: from plastic, metal to pizza dough.

Tubergen seems like a professor straight out of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Wizardry. His 3D Printers had made cups, chocolates, a colorful tricycle for his daughter at home in Amsterdam. He made 3D wonders at the 3DEA store in New York, in the streets of Milan and Madrid.

“It is not magic – you can make anything you want, if you can digitally design it”, Tubergen told the packed India Design Forum conference. “And if the 3D Printer cannot make what you want, you can make a machine to make it!”

Tubergen and his tribe are convinced digital formatting is the next industrial revolution.

“Products documented in technical [3D] drawings can be sent digitally over the world quickly, easily and cheaply,” he says. ”Only raw materials will be transported and not the manufactured goods, saving much storage space, time, energy and money. You cut a large piece of the production chain. This change has major social and economic consequences.”

The factory of the future will manufacture at home with the 3D Printer. Or at the shop around the corner that not only sells products but makes them.

While e-commerce is cutting out the middleman, digital formatting and 3D Making may cut out the manufacturer with great consequences.

No need for worry. Nature does the balancing work. Just as the computer evolution dissolved initial fears of computers taking away jobs, and instead now supports hundreds of millions of jobs in every walk of life, the digital world will create a new economy like we have never seen before.

In 2015, the mobile phone industry already supported 32 million jobs. GSMA forecasts an increase to 36 million in 2020. The digital evolution too will provide hundreds of millions of people livelihoods inconceivable ten years ago.

‘What a wonderful world’

 Changes are flooding our life. At the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, Irisbond co-founder Eduardo Jauregui exhibited their company’s eye-writing app that allows sending emails written through eyesight.

Users control a mouse on a virtual keyboard of a smartphone or tablet, stare for a second at a letter or a key for it to get ‘pushed’, and write. The eye-tracking app works with standard smartphone cameras, and is designed as a life-changer for disabled users. But it’s welcome for anyone with both hands busy, while cooking in the kitchen or working in a lab.

Visitors gaped too at Natural Machines founder Lynette Kucsma’s 3D printer ‘Foodini’ making digitally designed ravioli, crackers with healthier, natural ingredients than in manufactured foodstuffs with artificial preservatives.

The ‘Foodini’ from the Barcelona-based Natural Machines can potentially connect with digital devices worldwide. So we can someday – for a reasonable copyright fee – 3D print/make the day’s favorite recipe from the renowned Eleven Madison Park, NY, or Catalonian goodies at the celebrated Spanish restaurant Celler de Can Roca in Girona, without worrying of table reservations and $450 for a meal for two.

In 10 to 15 years, Natural Machines CEO Lynette Kucsma told CBS news, 3D food printers will be as common in kitchens as microwave ovens.

In 10 to 15 years, a Mercedez Benz could be 3D printed at homes, as I realized during the Make in India Week that ended February 18.

Mehul Sewak was near the German pavilion and demonstrating a 3D printer from DesignTech, a Pune-based firm with the tagline: ‘Technology for Designing the Future’.

“Some college students in Pune actually made a Ferrari,” Sewak said. “They 3D printed it part by part and assembled the car!”

I asked him to repeat it, and yes, he said they 3D printed a Ferrari….

The world’s cheapest (and hopefully honest) smartphone and fastest recharger are part of such days of digital wonders, such as a Ferrari 250 GTO from a college kids’ 3D printer, emails written with eyes, emailing a margherita.

The world never ceases to amaze. Whatever life’s passing troubles, triumphs, tough days and times of happy laughter, “I think to myself what a wonderful world”, as Louis Armstrong declared wide-eyed and gloriously beaming through his golden Selmer trumpet in 1967.

Our personal, “wonderful world” is how we make it, with hard work made good – without delay. “Aller Anfang ist schwer”, they say in Germany, ‘the starting is difficult’, a popular proverb from the land legendary for precision work.

“If you want to make something good, start right away”, said master digital designer Joris Tubergen, “So at the end of the day, you have something to start making better.”

Basics of a beneficial life remain relevant, whether across the Industrial Revolution, Digital Dawn or morning light of the Mind Age.

Raja Murthy writes for Asia Times since 2003, the Statesman since 1990, and was long-term contributor to Times of India, Economic Times, Elle etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *