Wednesday, December 08, 2004

eComm - iNDIA's coming of age!!

The growing IT and IT enabled services sector in India have made the Indians be aware of the vast possibilities of it. eCommerce in india has started getting its long deserved due. Almost all major banks have become eEnabled. The eStores - grocery to lifestyle - are extremely becoming convenient and popular among the busy Indians to buy their daily grocery, cds, clothes or even bid for an electronic equipment by the comfort of sitting at their office or home. Indian Railways - which has the biggest network in the world and the most used means of transport in India - had launched their online ticket reservation facility a year before and it has grown out to be one of the most used eComm web sites in India. Following by the success of railways, all the major airlines introduced eTicketing facilities. Today Indians also have the facility to pay their utility bills through the eBilling facility offered by different service providers. Seems like eComm is in India and is here to stay and grow.

Payment Blues!!

The arrival of ICICI bank dating back to year 2000, with its futuristic vision, has a major role behind the electronic face of India. We all know that it was Citibank and Standard Chartered Bank who had introduced us to ATMs, credit cards and debit cards, but it was ICICI who made those extremely popular among the common man. The fast growth of ICICI branches and ATMs in almost all the corners of the country made people make use of them. They also introduced their internet banking facility - infinity - where one can check his bank balance, or credit card balance, or even transfer money to another account. Till then eComm had the greatest concern of how to make a buyer pay the merchant over the internet. Payment over the internet using a credit card did not seem to be feasible because there were only a few credit card holders in the country. The idea of a net banking facility triggered the idea of payment over the internet even without a credit card. ICICI literally educated its customers to make use of the new facility and also became a platform for ecomm by introducing online phone bill payment services. ICICI also popularised debit cards and credit cards which became immensely successful among the common man and the idea of plastic money and electronic payment were slowly getting into everybody's psyche. They were ready for more...

Carrier concerns!!

All other banks started following the ICICI business model. They began to understand that internet is the future and they all started to work towards becoming eReady. One of the major concerns then was the scarcity of a reliable data carrier. eEnabling seemed impossible to go beyond a point without a proper bandwidth provider. Till then India had only experienced the slow and frequently disconnecting 'dial up' connections and it was extremely difficult and unsafe to do commercial and financial transactions over it. That was the major let down of the hour for the people who wanted to make the move. The connections tied them down. That's when the private telecom providers armed with their affordable broadband solutions forayed into the market to compete with the conservative BSNL and VSNL.

I was studying in chennai at that time when the new revolution was happening in front of me. The first one out was Dishnet DSL. For the first time browsers could use hotmail (which was considered as the slowest web site then), send multiple emails, chat, read news everything simultaneously in no time and was further extended to stable, fast and safe financial transactions, bank account information, stock market trading and many other. We had a Dishnet browsing centre in the same building where I had my multimedia lessons. It was a dream come true for me to check emails and reply for them in an hour's time for a mere Rs. 30/-, which was of course a relief for my constrained 'pocket money' budget.

Dishnet also came up with affordable home and office connections. When I got into my first work place and a question of setting up of a good internet infrastructure came up, we all voted for Dishnet. It extremely helped us and the way we worked as offshore web developers. Slowly there were more players like Sify, TATA Indicom VSNL, the revamped BSNL, and the latest in the race; Reliance Infocomm. Currently my personal favourite is Reliance, with their lightning fast connections. Dishnet DSL was later taken over by TATA Indicom VSNL.

The big go!!

The major internet shopping web sites joined the revolution by the year 2001. The major players being Fabmart (now known as Fabmall), Sifymall, Rediff shopping and Indiatimes shopping. The next big one was Baazee.com which cashed in on the most interesting and practical solution which the Internet offered - online auctioning. When the shopping sites offered everything which a normal shopping mall could offer, Baazee.com offered anything which could be auctioned. Well everything seemed to me perfect, but really it was not. Many of these sites ignored the customer satisfaction and service area totally which made them tread through difficult times during the global IT recession period. Most of the stores shut shop, many portals got wound down and the future of eComm in India seemed to be a puzzle on everybody's mind.

Rebirth!!

The ones who survived learnt their lesson. They repositioned themselves and started giving better services and waited for their turn. By the end of year 2003 the situation seemed to be looking up. The introduction of internet payment gateways by most of the banks, availability of great bandwidth, more and more services and marketing techniques by the merchants once again opened the ecomm prospects. Online stock trading was one of the in things which i found evolving in these days. People who were interested in trading shares found it very useful to use internet and the online trading tools. Then came the mother of all, indian railways online reservation web site. It teamed up with Citibank and ICICI for payment gateways and became extremely useful and convenient in booking tickets. After that was the airlines who started eTicketing facility, or the facility of bidding for a ticket on a less crowded route. The service saved, the travelers a lot of time and money, as they were cheaper, also the airlines a lot of expense in way of admin work and stationary. A bunch of successful matrimonial web sites also sprung up during this period viz. Bharat Matrimony and Shaadi.com. Baazee.com is now taken over by the international online auctioneer giant ebay.

eEnabling has now facilitated the entry of a new concept of 'cheap flights', a business model followed by many european airlines. Any Air Deccan passenger who books tickets on the airliner's web site, gets his/her ticket as cheap as Rs500/-. Internet made the Indians fly cheap!! Way to go...

We need more!!

There are lots more to be tapped. eBilling facilities can be extended to all other utilities like electricity (Reliance Energy has already introduced online payment of electricity bills), water, cooking gas etc. Utility departments can save a lot of expenses, and consumers can save a lot of time and efforts of queuing up in the payment counters. Online functionalities can be also extended towards real time online hotel reservation, restaurant table reservation, ticket bookings for taxis and movies, and more.

Access!

India is not fully wired even now. There are places where internet hasn't made its entry yet. Broadband services and its usage has not become popular in many sub urban areas. When this is attained more and more opportunities will open up. It all depends on the government, telecom players, education system and the mind set of the people to understand about the vast opportunities and facilities internet offers, and to make use of them. India will have a total face lift, the day when each and every indian is connected through internet.

A word for the people who make web pages for India

If you develop web sites which has an average Indian as its target user, there are some things which has to be kept in mind. Like we discussed earlier broadband or high speed internet is still not popular all over the country. An average Indian still uses slow internet connections and its difficult for him to browse through pages loaded with high graphics. Stick to minimum images, animations and flashy javascript drop down menus. Keep the important information in the web site in text and fine tune your code to make the pages light in weight to load fast. Many times, have I waited for the submit button image to load, after filling a web form; which was extremely irritating. Avoid using images as form elements like button. Keep the balance between beautifying and laying out the information in a web page. If possible follow W3C web content accessibility guidelines to make the web accessible for everyone.

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." -- Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web
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