With nearly 1.2 billion people, India represents a vast and multi-faceted challenge for Intel, as well as one of the company’s most important growth markets. Praveen Vishakantaiah, an Intel veteran of 17 years, oversees the company’s activities in India. He leads more than 2,600 employees, with most working in software and hardware design and sales and marketing. The sprawling 40-acre campus in Bangalore alone is Intel’s largest non-manufacturing site outside the United States.
Vishakantaiah joined the Intel India team in 2003 as it was in the middle of a 3-year period when the company grew from 150 employees to more than 2,000. He took on his current role in 2007 and has helped build an R&D powerhouse in the country. Vishakantaiah grew up in India, then moved to Austin to gain his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Texas. After receiving his doctorate he joined Intel and has been with the company ever since. His hobbies include gardening and cooking, which he claims helps him to relieve stress – except when preparing a meal for others.
We caught up with Vishakantaiah on a recent trip to the United States. What follows are his thoughts on tech trends in India, Intel’s efforts to meet specific needs in India and the company’s WiMAX activities.
IFP: What are some of the trends you’re seeing in the marketplace in India?
Vishakantaiah: From an India perspective the interesting trend is, of course, people look to technology as a way to change their lives, change their livelihood, change and have an impact on how they can live – elevate their standard of living. Whenever they see technology helping to move them in that manner, they move quickly to adopt it. That’s the big focus that most companies that are trying to drive technology adoption in India are trying to pay attention to.
The most commonly told story is the mobile phone story. If you look at cell phones, India is very comparable [with other countries]. Now contrast that with PCs where it’s very low – it’s just about a 5 percent penetration of India’s population. How’s the PC going to change the life of an average consumer in India? That’s a trend we need to figure out how to tap into.
IFP: What is it about technology that’s specific to India that makes people look to technology to improve their lives?
Vishakantaiah: I don’t think it’s very different than other emerging markets, but compared to mature markets it’s fairly straightforward. The average consumer in a mature market like the U.S. and in Europe will look to technology to also address entertainment and convenience and that doesn’t necessarily apply in the emerging markets. That’s because in emerging markets people are first and foremost thinking about how to improve their lives. So their requirements from a technology perspective are to help them do better in life first.
IFP: What is driving PC growth in India?
Vishakantaiah: The thing that is driving PC growth is netbooks, nettops — and the mobile form factor definitely helps. It’s very interesting, particularly if you look at entry-level desktops, they still rely on continuous power. And, as most people realize, continuous power in India is not a given, so clearly something like a laptop is very interesting to people because it gives them battery backup and they can use it even when they don’t have power. The new [mobile] form factors that Intel is helping to enable in the PC space are definitely causing people to be more interested in PC products.
IFP: What about tablets?
Vishakantaiah: There are three elements affecting tablet adoption in India. Ease of use is a plus. Using a tablet is less intimidating than using a PC in many cases. The touch interface and simple icons make tablets more accessible. Also working in favor of tablets is the role of content consumption. If I just want to consume information the tablet does everything I need it to do. As we’ve seen with phones in India, that is often good enough. However, the third element is cost and cost is a key factor. If tablets remain in the $600-$800 range it will limit adoption. If the cost doesn’t come down it becomes more of a luxury item.
IFP: In the past, we heard a lot from Intel about WiMAX, particularly in India. What’s happening with WiMAX and LTE in India?
Vishakantaiah: So, just to set the Intel context, WiMAX has been the technology that’s been more ready from a 4G connectivity perspective. Given that Intel was saying [WiMAX] was something that really needed to happen in many countries, the same thing was true in India. The technology has been more mature than any other 4G data connectivity technology and we’re driving that. Now that we potentially have LTE coming onto the horizon our stance is: wireless technology of choice. Whichever one is able to be rolled out fast enough, we’ll support it. So we’re taking an approach where we’re agnostic in terms of technology. However, it made sense in the past few years to focus on WiMAX because that was the only technology that was available.
IFP: What is the Universal Handheld Device Project you’ve been working on?
Vishakantaiah: There’s a big thrust on rural banking and what’s called “financial inclusion” [by the government] in India. If you look at the breadth of India, a large portion of the population, almost two-thirds, doesn’t have access to banking services. So there’s an initiative by the government to promote financial inclusion. This makes sense because as the economy is improving and developing in India we want to make sure we’re not leaving people behind. The idea is to take banking to the doorstep of every villager and every farmer. So Intel has developed a device that runs the same applications that people would see when they walk into a bank in India. We developed the Universal Handheld Device, an Atom-based embedded device. It’s similar to what you’d see when you return a rental car and the attendant helps you transact your rental return. The device has a printer, it’s got biometric capability, it’s got a smartcard reader, it’s got a GPRS – it’s pretty much got everything integrated into it. And, customers can pick and choose the functions they want to include. This is now being piloted by the government to help implement financial inclusion.
IFP: What is Intel’s role in developing the Universal Handheld Device?
Vishakantaiah: All the development has been done by Intel. We’ve developed what’s called a reference design and have struck a partnership with a Taiwanese ODM. We’ve licensed the design to them and so for every one that’s sold we receive a royalty. It’s a new business model for us. In the past we would provide the reference designs to customers but in this case we license an ODM to build the device.
IFP: What are some of the biggest challenges Intel faces in India?
Vishakantaiah: One is how do we tap into the significant market potential that India represents with almost 1.2 billion people? How do we turn technology adoption interest into market opportunities for Intel? We have to think of new types of products and new methods of product development to serve the market. We also want to help Intel with its growth initiatives in new areas, so being at the forefront of that effort is important as well.