New Delhi, Nov 29 : If you are among those who pre-booked the world’s cheapest smartphone at Rs 251 (less than $4) and are yet to hear from its Noida-based makers, you are not alone. The promise of delivering “nearly 200,000 Freedom 251 handsets” has fallen flat and most people who booked the handset are yet to see one. After announcing that it has delivered 5,000 Freedom 251 smartphones in July, Ringing Bells Pvt Ltd said it would deliver 65,000 more to those who had booked the device in cash on delivery (COD) mode. After that, no new numbers have been shared and it appears the initial hype has fizzled out.
The company has since forayed into making TVs and other smartphones, burying the Freedom 251 dream. Is this the biggest tech disappointment of 2016, despite Freedom 251 making national and global headlines throughout the year? “I think we could have called it the biggest disappointment only if there had been great expectations attached to it. Every educated person, or those having fair understanding of technology, doubted it. Some may have booked one just out of curiosity but that never meant they took it seriously,” Faisal Kawoosa, Principal Analyst (Telecoms) at CyberMedia Research (CMR), a market research firm, told IANS.
The company in mid-February this year had planned to deliver 2.5 million handsets before June 30. Ringing Bells received mammoth — over 70 million — registrations before its payment gateway crashed. “I wouldn’t call it biggest tech disappointment. But yes, it could be looked at as one of the biggest cheats in the digital age,” Kawoosa added. When reached, a Ringing Bells spokesperson told IANS that the company is working on improving its reach through distributor networks but did not say a word about Freedom 251’s disappearance.
“Last six months have been phenomenal as we have reached 200 cities with a distributor network of 230. In this period, we have been able to widen our product base, including high-end mobiles and televisions. This year, we have sold 150,000 products and expect to get a 25 per cent increase in the coming months,” the spokesperson said, declining to be named and without mentioning Freedom 251. In an earlier interview with IANS, Ringing Bells CEO Mohit Goel said if the government was willing to dole out Rs 50,000 crore (about $7.5 billion), he can ensure that 750 million of our population would become part of digital India by owning a smartphone at Rs 251.
“The government can make the phone — under our Freedom brand — from some other vendor. I have no objection to it. To make such phone for every Indian citizen, the government needs to allocate funds from its Digital India initiative,” Goel had said. According to Parv Sharma, Research Associate at New Delhi-based Counterpoint Research, Freedom 251 raised false hopes in the people about owning a cheap smartphone.
“A massive shift in India is happening from feature phones to smartphones but that shift brings with itself a level of expectation — expectation of consuming content, of watching videos and listening to music for a longer time and, hence, there is a need for better hardware features,” Sharma told IANS. To accommodate these features, the industry has reached a certain price point which is currently $50-$60, but packing something similar in a $4 device is not possible as of now.
“Thus, Freedom 251 failed to meet the demands of the consumers and had to cancel the pre-orders and refund the money to consumers,” Sharma pointed out. The world’s cheapest phone made a splash across the globe, with almost every big media house writing about the “miracle device”. “But rather than improving our country’s image, the long delay has tarnished our image globally. It is also a setback for the government which is pushing the ‘Digital India’ and ‘Make in India’ initiatives,” noted Vishal Tripathi, Research Director at global market consultancy firm Gartner, adding that the government must ensure the veracity of such tall claims. But according to Kawoosa, if the government starts imposing stricter controls over propositions like Freedom 251, that could mean disrupting the enabling start-up ecosystem and environment.
“In the end, the government support has to be positive to promote innovations and it will be very challenging to decide beforehand whether the innovation would be a success or failure. So one has to give a fair chance to all,” Kawoosa told IANS. “But yes, some basic-level evaluation needs to be put in place to check the business viability of such propositions, especially when it has the potential to affect everyone’s lives,” Kawoosa explained. “The government should be highly concerned about the companies which do not give realistic promises and must not support such companies. We have various laws in our country to protect consumers from Ponzi companies,” Sharma added. Doubts were initially raised over Ringing Bells’ handset after some experts said no smartphone could be manufactured for less than Rs 2,000.