India: No country for technophiles

Yesterday was not a good day for technology in India. Google’s Street View cars, with fitted cameras, were halted in the technology hub of Bangalore, and Apple got hauled before India’s Competition Commission for selling its iPhone 4 through only two cellphone service providers.

Bangalore’s is the worse of the two for more than one reason. First, it has an exposure to technology that is the envy of most of the rest of the country. Second, it has a police force that was among the earliest to use BlackBerry phones to track traffic offenses. Finally, its action on Google came nearly four weeks after the search giant’s cars and trikes – tall tricycle with a pole-mounted camera – began shooting in the city.

Clearly, somebody just discovered what Google would do with the images or a babu from Delhi has slammed the brakes on Google on a fairly flimsy reason – it had not received security clearance. The top cop in Bangalore told reporters Google would be allowed to resume filming only if it got security clearances from the Home Ministry and Ministry of Defense.

Bangalore’s police appear to have given a “no objection” certificate to Google, though now they claim it only allowed Google’s fitted cars to drive on the city’s streets, and not to actually shoot photos. This is characteristic shoddy police work. Surely they didn’t imagine Google’s engineers wanted to just drive around the city.

Google’s Street View has raised a lot of privacy concerns elsewhere in the world but it must be the first time a country raised an objection because of apparent security concerns. By definition, Street View only films public spaces that are open to any citizen. It is difficult to fathom how this can affect security. To the contrary, it might even help enhance security. If Bangalore’s police force was really smart, it would have partnered with Google’s Street View to tackle the city’s notorious traffic jams, and even fight crime. In recent months, Bangalore has been hit by a spate of street robberies, mainly of its technology workers who return late in the evening.

In Apple’s case, it appears to be a nut who has complained to India’s newly established Competition Commission. It would be reasonable to expect the commission to dismiss the complaint. But let’s wait and watch. Still, it must be said that India’s cellphone market is one of the most competitive ones anywhere in the world, both for service providers and handset makers.

The key question, I think, to determine if the Apple deal is anti-competition is this: Can a company bundle the handset and the service?

Old-time India residents might remember how cooking gas vendors would provide a new service only if you bought a gas stove. Now, what Airtel and Aircel, the two companies selling the iPhone 4, is not exactly the same.

Both Airtel and Aircel are selling an unlocked version of iPhone without any upfront subsidy, unlike the practice in the U.S. The unlocked feature means a consumer can buy the phone from anybody and sign up for service with any other GSM provider, subject to the condition that the carrier offers a micro-SIM card. (BSNL, for example, provides such a card). Technically, there is no bundling. End of case.

Apple has only now begun to take the Indian market seriously. It surprised everybody by launching the iPad 2 within months of its U.S. release. Comparatively, even the iPhone 4 has been late, coming nearly a year after it hit U.S. stores. This is no time to stop Apple and deprive genuine technophiles who can afford to buy the iconic devices.