By now you might have seen the Micromax Canvas 4 teasers. And it looks like the Gurgaon-based company is stepping up to the next level in terms of design and positioning of its phones.

Till now, we had expected good specs in a Micromax phone and a low price, but all that could change now that Micromax Canvas 4 is set to launch for around Rs 25,000. Micromax is playing the smart game by moving up the rungs one device at a time. No doubt the fast pace of mobile hardware development and the low production cost of mass manufacturing has helped Micromax launch products with more regularity and thus helped it climb the positioning ladder faster.

But Micromax isn’t the only runner in the race to the top for Indian manufacturers. The likes of Lava, Xolo and Karbonn are top contenders too, not to mention others like Maxx, iBall and Intex, who are also in the running but are trailing the pacesetters. Each of these has big ambitions, given the size of the smartphone pie and the growth potential of the market. Intex wants to sell 2 million phones this year and Lava is aiming for 1.5 million handsets sold by the Diwali season. This indicates that Micromax is going to start feeling the heat as other manufacturers play the same game. It also means it’s going to take more than just releasing a high-spec’d phone at a low price to win, because seemingly, more than two can play at that game.

The forthcoming Micromax Canvas 4

The forthcoming Micromax Canvas 4

All Indian companies have to face at least one common complaint. The lack of quality after-sales service is a big sore point for Indian consumers who have chosen domestic manufacturers for smartphones and tablets. Even with Micromax, which is the leading Indian smartphone maker, the one major complaint from consumers is the lack of a good service centre network. It just takes a cursory look at the comments on a news story of a Micromax launch or announcement to understand the bad sentiment among consumers. The company has listed all the service centres on its website, but that still pales in comparison to the network that Samsung, Nokia or Sony boast. Micromax is still a rookie when compared to those stalwarts, but its devices have still generated a whole lot of buzz and the Canvas range of smartphones have sold in excess of a million units. While we are seeing a small step-up in terms of its products, we have not seen the same maturity in the after-sales service. Micromax’s competitors are no better, and finding an authorised service centre for Karbonn or Lava phone can be quite difficult, too.

Secondly, a major obstacle for seasoned smartphone users who would like to switch over to a Micromax or Karbonn phone is the lack of OTA updates. Micromax recently issued an Android 4.2 update for its Canvas HD smartphone, which, among other things, brought support for future updates to come OTA. This is a hurdle cleared by Micromax, as earlier users had to take their phone to the service centre to be given the update. So it’s not like Micromax isn’t trying at all to fix some of these issues. We can’t say the same about Lava or Karbonn, though, where OTA updates are an enigma. Android updates may not be top priority for first-time users, who still make a chunk of sales for Indian companies; those already accustomed to smartphones will expect them nonetheless.

Lava's new Iris 504Q has an attractive price of Rs 13,499

Lava's new Iris 504Q has an attractive price of Rs 13,499

Setting up an after-sales service network and OTA infrastructure is a tough ask for most low-cost players and only those who have had sales successes can afford to establish them.

There are other teething issues as well. For example, even two months after Micromax launched the Canvas HD, there were delays with the availability of the phone. This is a typical problem, where phones are promoted and advertised on TV, but there's no sign of them in the market. Customers are getting more and more aware of what goes into a smartphone, so much so that debates about the SoCs and displays are commonplace. In this environment, OEMs have to strive for even the slightest edge. This can be anything from the software experience (like the Lava Iris 504Q’s gesture navigation feature) to extras like the JBL Tempo headset packed with the Micromax Canvas Music. This is where the smaller companies and those who have just hopped on the smartphone bandwagon after the boom (Intex and iBall being prominent examples) will feel the heat.

The Indian smartphone market is, in many ways, like China’s, where a plethora of players slug it out in a specs v/s price battle. Indian manufacturers’ challenge is to rise above and beyond that melee. To a certain degree, Micromax, iBall, Intex and Karbonn are doing it by being in the limelight and creating visibility for their products through sustained advertisement campaigns (albeit with some bad ads). The smartphone race is as much about creating a brand as it is about the device itself.

As is usually the case with any market, there's only room at the top for two or three major players, and we expect this to happen with Indian manufacturers as well. At the moment, Micromax, Karbonn and Lava look poised to be there at the top or thereabouts, unless an underdog takes them by surprise. The rest of the players, the ones that make the tail currently, are in danger of losing their spot in the race.

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