Why isn’t India on Steve Jobs’ radar?

Steve Jobs, 55, first visited India as a teenaged ‘hippie’ seeking enlightenment. He was here with a friend, Dan Kottke, whose ticket he bought. Both traversed parts of the country “barefoot and threadbare,” as one biographer put it. Jobs reportedly found India of the 1970s “intense and disturbing,” and later concluded: “We weren’t going to find a place where we could go for a month to be enlightened. It was one of the first times that I started to realize that maybe Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Kairolie Baba put together.”

Much water has flown down the Ganges since Jobs’ visit, but it appears that he can’t be bothered to turn back to look at a country that the rest of the world now views through an entirely different prism — as a nation on the rise and as a technology powerhouse, not to mention as a huge market. Contrary to Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who was early to spot and exploit engineering talent, Jobs’ Apple Computers is one of the biggest technology companies that doesn’t seek it. The closest Apple came to tapping Indian expertise was in licensing technology developed by a US company’s development centre in Hyderabad and incorporating it in an early version of iPod. A few years ago, Apple considered hiring several thousand engineers for a development centre in Bangalore but eventually abandoned the plan. It briefly ran a call centre in Bangalore before Jobs pulled the plug because of complaints from users, probably warming the hearts of Obama and others opposed to outsourcing.

For many Apple fans in the country, the disappointment is more acute. Most of the company’s products arrive in the country late, are sold at exorbitant prices and backed by poor service — most major repairs happen only at its Singapore service centre. So much so, even the affluent Indians prefer to buy their iPods and iPhones abroad or in the grey market. Apple does not release sales data by countries, but India surely must rank low. For example, even though it has sold over 30 million units of iPhone/iPod Touch worldwide, only a few thousand iPhones have been sold in India. The number pales even more when compared with overall Indian cellphone sales of over 100 million units last year.

This, clearly, has to do with Apple’s strategy. It simply doesn’t seem to believe in the country. While users in the US can buy an iPhone for as little as Rs 9,000 (US$200), Apple sells them here for over Rs 32,000 (US$700+). This, of course, stems from contracts with telecom providers that subsidise handset prices, but what is to stop Apple from exploring, and offering, similar options in India?

As the iPad was launched last weekend to widespread curiosity, and some acclaim, Apple broadly outlined launch plans in the UK and other advanced countries but it is not clear when it will be sold in India. Will somebody tell Steve Jobs India is no longer the land of Neem Kairolie Baba but that of desi Edisons and Ambanis?