Reliance Jio, the world’s fastest-growing mobile phone service with over 100 million customers, is betting on custom-built Facebook and YouTube apps, a voice assistant and a video calling feature – all packaged in its Rs 1,500 JioPhone to further boost data use on its network.
Customised Facebook and YouTube apps, the company hopes, will be a big leg-up for data use on the Jio network. Social media giant Facebook already has a version of its app called Facebook Lite, aimed at users on second generation networks that offer low data speeds. But, it works only on devices that run on Android.
Facebook will make changes for the JioPhone, which runs on KaiOS, a version of the Firefox OS. These changes include making the app lighter yet retaining most of its multimedia capabilities like showing a high-resolution image or playing a video. These aren’t available in the Lite version currently.
JioPhones will be shipped with the Facebook app installed, a source close to the company said, adding “the update had a few bugs, which is being worked upon.”
Facebook estimates 30% of its next billion new users will be from India by 2020. After the fourth quarter of 2016, its chief financial officer David Wehner said its India base grew the fastest. This coincided with the Jio launch and surge in data consumers in India.
The social media company did not reply to a request for comment. It will potentially gain access to more users riding on the Jio platform as the mobile phone franchise grows.
In April, YouTube launched the beta version of YouTube Go, which allowed users to download videos instead of streaming it. The app was designed to be “offline first” allowing users to download videos when connected to Wifi, which could be watched later.
But the uptake of YouTube Go has been slow because YouTube works best when users can stream the content. It works on the Jio browser “but, soon, we will have an app that works on the JioPhone… It will make it easier use,” said a second source, also with knowledge of Jio’s plans. YouTube also did not comment for this story.
About 70% of Reliance Jio’s overall data consumption is accounted by videos. About 70% of that consumption is on YouTube — in effect, YouTube accounts for nearly half of Jio’s total bandwidth.
Jio is the biggest bet that Mukesh Ambani, chairman of India’s largest company Reliance Industries, is making as he steers his business from petrochemicals-to-energy complex into the digital economy. The project has already soaked up investments of some Rs 200,000 crore raising questions how it will ever make money.
Jio’s voice assistant, named Hello Jio, can be used to make calls, open apps, play a movie, and search for music by listening to voice commands — similar to what Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa can do. Hello Jio had been unveiled at the Reliance Jio annual general meeting July 27.
JioPhone, a low-priced phone with smartphone-like features that starts shipping next month, will be shipped with Hello Jio. “Till now Jio was testing the waters… with the JioPhone, the actual disruption will start,” said the first source.
“All JioPhones will come with Hello Jio… In the next upgrade of the voice assistant, it will be able to type a message for you,” the second source said.
Other than Google Voice, Hello Jio will be the only voice assistant to understand Hindi with future versions covering more Indic languages. Google Voice can parse 16 Indic languages, including Hindi.
More and more Indians are moving to voice as a means to access apps and services on their phones. This is especially true in villages where literacy is a barrier in mainstreaming of technology.
“The assistant uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand voice… It starts adapting to your voice, starts understanding the way you pronounce numbers, alphabets and words,” said the second source.
“Voice is the key to targeting the next 500 million digital consumers in India. The Chinese captured smartphone market share by launching in more than 20 regional languages,” said Richard Delanty, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based Into23, a voice and language specialist firm. “Indians hate typing, typing in your local language is [difficult], so a voice-activated phone in regional languages with plentiful local language content is a game-changer.”
The voice assistant is at the heart of its hinterland penetration strategy. Of some 500 million phone users in rural India, only 157 million use the internet, estimates consultancy and audit firm KPMG. “Most of them are natural voice users. It’s not that they can’t spend Rs 100 a month, but where were the devices, services and apps to cater to that segment,” said a third source.
Another element of the strategy to lock in customers is Jio’s deliberate decision to keep the JioPhone a single SIM card device. Most customers currently use Jio service on a second SIM to connect to the internet. That was evident as Jio’s number of users grew, subscriber numbers of incumbent operators either stayed stagnant or grew marginally.
Six million people have already paid and booked the JioPhone, shipping of which will start in October.
Also on the cards is a bigger push into video. Already JioTV and JioCinema are among India’s top video streaming apps. “Video is the single largest disruption in data consumption both in urban and rural India. Network qualities are poor in rural and that’s where the opportunity is,” said a partner of a New York consultancy, which counts Jio as a client and is bound by a confidentiality agreement.
In market surveys, Jio realised that many of families wanted to watch television together in small towns and villages but were limited by what was offered by broadcasters or had to plug in movies through a USB device. With the JioPhone, the company will supply a cable to connect the phone to a TV, even old cathode ray tube televisions of yesteryears. “If the TV has HD display, the content played from the JioPhone will have HD content,” said the second source.
With an aim to attract millions of migrant workers flocking to large Indian cities, Jio will have what it calls JioVideoCall feature on its phone. To be sure, customers can use services such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Skype to make video calls today but the cost of data usage has been a hurdle for uptake of the service.
The collaboration with Facebook and YouTube follows a similar arrangement with WhatsApp. FactorDaily reported in August that Whatsapp was working on a special version of the app for the JioPhone.
“Many people didn’t use the data because they didn’t have the access, but Jio is looking at getting the devices as low cost and also bringing the services along,” said Kunal Bajaj, an angel investor and independent telecom consultant. “Part of the challenge is that if you load a smartphone app into a feature phone, the device will crash, so special versions help.”
JioPhones will start selling next month – to coincide with the Dussehra festival followed by Diwali in November – Tier III towns and villages, a third source said. “In November and December, there will be a ramp-up in manufacturing… The numbers will be visible in February to March,” said the second source.