The Indian smartphone market was recently revealed to be the third largest in the world, after US and China. However, there is a great chasm between the top-tier manufacturers like Samsung, Sony and HTC, and those brands banking on low-cost production models to churn out smartphones on a weekly basis. These gaps are most evident when looking at the whole picture and not just the devices. As is plain now, launching a new smartphone with top-of-the-line specs is no longer out of reach for small-time manufacturers.

However, there are aspects besides hardware that have to become areas of key focus for Indian companies. We are talking about things like good customer service, reliability, and hardware and software innovations. These can make or break your brand and are often neglected in the initial stages. If the likes of Micromax, Karbonn, Lava and Xolo hope to compete with international brands in the long run, these are the things they must focus on right now.

Note to all

After-sales service and reliability
The biggest complaint when it comes to Indian smartphones is that the companies don't have decent after-sales service. Finding a service centre for brands like Lava, Maxx, iBall or even Micromax, the leading Indian smartphone maker, can be quite a task. The Gurgaon-based company has listed all its service centres in one place on its website. Other manufacturers too have a similar locator form on their website. While this is handy, it’s only the first step. A more “visible” chain of dedicated smartphone service centres is essential to compete with the likes of Samsung, HTC and Sony.

Companies like iBall and Intex, which have been in the PC peripherals and components business prior to launching smartphones, prefer to send all their smartphone users to their existing service centres, which are naturally inundated with service requests for all kinds. Then there are other companies with low sales volumes. It is not feasible for these to set up an extensive service network. So the reliability of their products is also questioned.

Service and reliability are two sides of the same coin and one follows the other. The biggest fallout from the lack of after-sales service is that Indian brands are viewed as unreliable and having poor quality products. This perception problem cannot be taken lightly or rather won’t go away if ignored. And it is one obstacle that Indian companies must overcome if they are to seriously make a bid in the global smartphone market or even end up as a top player in India.

OTA and software updates
With every new Android version, there is a barrage of new phones in the Indian market running that version. That’s not a curious coincidence, but, in fact, a malaise that has set into the Indian smartphone industry. Since setting up an OTA infrastructure to push out updates to all their phones involves considerable spending, some manufacturers tend to use the newer OS version to simply launch “new” models, thereby neglecting the older products. This works out well for them in two ways. First, this removes the need to set up OTA and push out updates. Secondly, they can “refresh” their old smartphones with a “2” or a “Plus” and ship it with the newer software. Of course, the hardware in this case would only be a minor improvement over the predecessor.

OTA updates are missing

OTA updates are missing

Some manufacturers are trying to make amends. The latest software update for the Micromax Canvas HD brings support for future OTA updates, which would eliminate the need for users to carry their handsets to a service centre and get the latest update. This roundabout way is the most common manner in which software updates are delivered for Indian-branded smartphones. At the moment, it's unclear whether other low-end Micromax smartphones will also enjoy similar OTA support in the future.

Hardware differentiation
Recently, Videocon launched a new smartphone, the A55HD. What are its specs, you ask? Just look at the specs for the Micromax Canvas HD, or the Lava Iris 504Q or the Xolo Q1000, or any number of Indian “flagships”. Have you detected a pattern yet? All new Indian smartphones follow the cookie-cutter formula with minor changes in insignificant aspects like front-facing camera. Otherwise, the phones are nearly identical in terms of display (5-inch, 720p), processor (MediaTek MT6589 or the Snapdragon S4 Play), primary camera (8 megapixel) and, of course, all of these are dual-SIM devices.

What’s more, they all look nearly identical too with a generic rounded-edged body, a camera centred on the back and a flimsy back-panel. There’s no work done towards establishing a design identity. Let’s not forget the snazzy flip-cover that all of these companies throw in with their phones, copied from Samsung’s original cover for the Galaxy Note.

Videocon has launched the latest addition to its smartphone category, the A55HD

Videocon A55HD, the latest from the cookie-cutter set

Also ripped off from the world’s leading smartphone maker is the arrangement of the three Android navigation buttons. Samsung always has the back button on the right and the menu key on the left of the home button. Google says these should be the other way around as it is on Nexus phones and new Motorola and Sony phones. But, we should just ape Samsung, say our Indian manufacturers.

A smartphone with a smaller display, perhaps in the 4.3-inch or 4.5-inch territory, and with 720p resolution is not attractive enough from a marketing point of view. This is the season of phablets, after all. But that's just scratching the surface. Does it not make sense to have a Recent Apps button instead of a Gingerbread-heritage Menu button (also, a Samsung trait)? Any hardware differentiation would help move away from the current price-based competition that has resulted in homogeneity of specs.

Software innovation
Samsung has TouchWiz; LG its Optimus UI; HTC has long been faithful to Sense. But Xolo, iBall, Lava, Karbonn, Maxx, Videocon, Spice, Micromax and Swipe all have the same UI – the same stock Android homescreen and app drawer combo, with a slightly modified notifications drawer for quick toggles. Now that Google has added quick toggles in the notification drawer for stock Android, Indian smartphone makers don’t even have to do that much. Where is the innovation, especially considering India’s standing in the software services industry? While Lava has chosen to endow its Iris 504Q with gesture navigation, there’s little else we have seen to believe that things could change.

No attempt at software innovation like big-name OEMs

No attempt at software innovation like big-name OEMs

OK, we know many Android users prefer stock Android for reasons of quicker updates, lag-free user experience and its simplicity. But it’s not like we are getting updates on time (see above), so why not go the whole hog and customise Android or use something like MIUI, a popular aftermarket ROM that’s used in leading Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi’s phones. There are a whole lot of options to choose from, if companies are willing to look.

Final thoughts
The only way Indian manufacturers can hope to compete in the big league is by investing time and money in these areas and taking them as seriously as specs and pricing. For all the criticism Samsung gets for its gimmicky software and plastic builds, the company has covered all bases when it comes to smartphones. It offers the latest hardware and software innovation for a reasonable price and also provides great after-sales service through a wide network of outlets. Moreover, the reliability of a Samsung device has improved drastically over the years. And all this in four years of producing Android smartphones.

Building a brand that consumers can trust and be loyal to is about more than just having a huge number of followers on social networking sites. Indian smartphone brands have earned a name by providing high-end specs on a budget and through their marketing blitz. This is just not good enough in the long run or if they have any intentions of creating a successful brand.

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