Microsoft joins forces with Hutch in India

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Microsoft on Wednesday announced an expanded partnership with Hutch, one of India’s largest mobile phone operators, to offer easier ways to access e-mail, chat and searches on cell phones as the software giant seeks to grab a foothold in the world’s fastest-growing wireless phone market.

Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft, said at a briefing in New Delhi: “Near-term mobile search [in India] will drive more search than on personal computers. We can advance the market further by stimulating mobile search.”

Software companies are keen to tap India’s mobile phone market, which has grown rapidly in the past three years, while PC penetration remains relatively low.

“The first computing experience that many people have will be through mobile phones rather than PCs,” added Ravi Venkatesan, chairman of Microsoft India.

Industry experts portray mobile phones as key to growth of the internet and wireless, particularly in developing countries, as technologies converge.

In India, mobile phones are far cheaper than computers, can be used regardless of literacy and language, and do not rely on the country’s unpredictable power supply.

Falling prices for handsets and phone calls spurred by stiff competition have helped increase India’s mobile subscribers to 130m as of September. Phone subscribers are expected to reach 500m by 2010.

Hutch, part of a joint venture between Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong and Essar of India, launched internet mobile connectivity four years ago and many other operators offer similar services. But the company claims its new service would provide a “one-stop” search function powered by Microsoft running on top of Hutch infrastructure. This would allow users to avoid going manually to a search engine, as they typically do now, and make it easier to search.

Hutch plans to launch the new service next year but did not disclose details of how it would be priced. “Several percentage points of Hutch’s 21m subscriber base use current mobile internet services,” said Asim Ghosh, managing director of Hutchison Essar.

Microsoft is a distant third in the share of US searches and is trying to catch up to leaders Google and Yahoo. “I know we don’t have leading market share,” said Mr Ballmer. “But 50 per cent of searches don’t result in a user getting an answer that is acceptable.”

The company last year committed $1.7bn to invest in India over the next several years.

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