For a country that was never truly a priority for Apple Inc, India’s reaction to Steve Jobs’s death has been rather visceral. Some have asked: is not that outpouring of grief on the internet and elsewhere paradoxical? The answer: it’s a mixture of aspiration and admiration for a man who is seen to have helped define lifestyles. Even if they don’t own one, a plurality believe their lives have become superiorly different because of the products Jobs served up.
There is a universality about Brand Steve, one that has entered Indian shores, even if the company’s presence here is far from ubiquitous. Amongst the sea of faceless brand names, Jobs was always there, turtleneck and all, defining the rules and constantly breaking them. Brilliant marketing, sure. But bear in mind, our own made-in-India technology heroes—Narayanamurthy or Azim Premji—haven’t brought an iPod or an iPad into people’s lives. “In India, technology is a transformational force. It’s a modern religion and Steve Jobs was the presiding deity,” says trend watcher Santosh Desai.
People who worked with or for Jobs have had varied experiences—some pleasant, some not so. Deepanshu Sharma, former marketing head of Apple in India, remembers how he was at the receiving end of an e-mail chain that had originated from Jobs, questioning the appearance of some insignificant news item in an Indian daily without formal clearance from him. Sharma was left amazed at Jobs’s monitoring of a development in an irrelevant geography for Apple. “At that time, I did not understand why they were so dogmatic about it. Later, it became clear that it was the way Apple worked. People are not allowed to say anything. Everything in Apple was meticulously controlled by Jobs himself—products, marketing and publicity.”
Even those who considered themselves his friends have been at the receiving end of Jobs’s unpredictable ways. Prasad Kaipa, a Silicon Valley “coach” for senior executives, says Jobs had an arrogance that could intimidate. “Jobs would not go out of his way to connect with you...if he could see you as a person who can help him navigate toward the larger purpose, then he had a lot of interest in you. But if you didn’t fit into that frame of reference, he was at best polite, mostly indifferent,” he says. Kaipa joined Apple in 1987, when Jobs had been ousted from the company. When Kaipa was quitting Apple, Jobs sent nine text messages asking Kaipa to join him. When Kaipa declined, Jobs wouldn’t even acknowledge him. Says Kaipa: “He literally looked through me and behaved like I was dead.”
Okay, so he may not have been a great guy. But his creations shone and set trends that competitors emulated. The iPod brought about a revolution in MP3 and music players, the iPhone ushered in touch interface on mobile phones and the iPad fostered a whole new world of tablet computing. That’s why you get reactions like “beautiful to the point of being magical” from Indian users. Arunava, a young exec in Delhi, feels “empowered” by Apple products. He says: “They always introduce new technologies and features that give a sense of satisfaction no other product can match.” The fact that Apple’s products are expensive and outside the reach of most Indians only increases their desirability.
So why then was India systematically kept out of Apple’s loop? India has become a significantly different place from what Jobs had seen as a teenager way back in 1973, when he came here in search of enlightenment. While he had gone back embittered by his experiences then, it is difficult to imagine Jobs being unaware of the following he enjoys in New India. Says Prasanto K. Roy, group editor, Cybermedia: “When Jobs went consumer in 2000-01 (with the iPod), he was looking at mass markets and went to the West and Japan. India was nowhere.”
In 2006, Apple launched operations in India and had plans to set up a large technical support centre in Bangalore with 3,000 employees. But within months, it ceased operations abruptly. Although the official line was that the company had re-evaluted its plans, India appeared much less cost-effective to do business in than Apple had figured. It entered into a marketing tie-up with HCL Corp to maintain a sales presence in India.
Sadly for Indians, till date, Apple’s official presence here is limited and their products are usually released in India months after their global launch. They are priced at a premium too. The iPhone doesn’t figure among the top three brands and iPods—Apple’s best selling product in India—face stiff competition from cheaper alternatives from competitors like Sony, Samsung and smaller companies. In reality, Apple’s brand equity in India far exceeds the actual numbers. Apple’s new leadership will truly carry on Steve Jobs’s powerful legacy if it battles it out in one of the world’s most exciting markets.
By Arindam Mukherjee with Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington