Uber is piloting four new app features in India, including m.uber.com, a website version of Uber, request to book rides for a guest within and across cities, offline search for those with limited connectivity and a call to ride feature, for users to book rides without using the app.

eCommerceTrendz Thought Corner

“As a part of our efforts to enable global access to Uber, we’re focusing on two key areas for riders – building solutions for those who don’t have access to the Uber app and enabling our existing rider app to work better in emerging markets. Customer obsession is a key theme for us – we want to make sure we understand the rider, their needs, the barriers, and then build from there,” said Daniel Graf, vice president and head of product at Uber.

The web based version of Uber has already launched in India, the feature is targeting riders who do not have high-end smartphones that can support mobile apps, due to limited storage issues.

The call to ride feature will allow end users to book a ride through a nationwide phone number and enter a numeric code displayed on signage in a popular zone in the city, helping the Uber to identify the location.

For passengers using the Uber app in an area with limited connectivity, Uber is enabling an offline search by caching the top or most popular points of interest in the city so that riders can enter their destinations in the app without waiting for any connection.

The fourth feature, request for a guest, enables users to book a ride for a friend or family member within the same city or in a different city in India, without the need of a smartphone.

India a Hot Testbed

Of late, India is becoming one of the favourite testbeds for internet giants, to create and test new products before rollout in other markets.

This year, WhatsApp too used India as the testing ground for the global launch of a product — WhatsApp for Business.

‘WhatsApp for Business,’ meant for commercial messaging is largely targeted at India, where WhatsApp has 200 million users.

The company will allow small business, large brands, and enterprises to stay connected with consumers, without spamming them.

“India is a very important country to us, and are proud to have 200 million people who use WhatsApp to connect with their friends, family and communities,” Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, said.

A slew of new MNCs are looking at India while old ones are scaling up their presence. Many like Google, LinkedIn, Uber, GroupOn, Facebook, Rubrik have built or are building their R&D campuses in India, in most cases their largest outside of the US.

Vijay Govindarajan, professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, says there are three phases of evolution for Global Innovation Centres (GICs)., and General Electric (GE) is a good example of that. The first step is to do plain-vanilla business process outsourcing on labour-cost arbitrage. In the second phase, they leverage talent to innovate for their global products. GE has graduated to the “third phase, which is about reverse innovation, creating products in India relevant for other markets”.

For instance, retailing firm Target, started its GIC started in 2005 driven largely by cost arbitrage. Steadily, the importance and the complexity of the India GIC has risen.

“2011 was our inflection point when the Target.com platform, developed in India, went live. From a transactional centre used to taking orders, our role became more strategic,” says Anand Venkateswaran, vice-president, Target.

Amid Amazon’s threat and that of digital disruption, the India GIC is becoming critical. To accelerate innovation, three years back it launched its only accelerator program that has nurtured 30 Indian startups, bringing new tools and innovation to its fold.

Oher retailers have followed suit. “We design, prototype and build technology-fueled products that bridge the gap between what’s next and what’s best. We are not just ready for the future of shopping. We’re creating it,” says Hari Vasudev, vice-president (technology), Walmart Labs. Set up in 2011, the lab has 1,100 employees today.

Three other important factors are catalysing India’s GIC wave. For many MNCs like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Uber, the lure of India’s domestic market is rising. From telecom to energy, India is also leapfrogging technologies in many sectors. Problems in India (think 4G and 5G) today have global relevance, making India an even more compelling location for GICs.

Also, India’s poor bandwidth, low technology penetration, price sensitivity and a young tech-savvy population make it a great testbed to create and test new products before rollout in other markets. LinkedIn, which set up its technology centre in 2011 in Bengaluru, has launched three critical made-in-India products, including LinkedIn Lite in 60-odd countries.

“The technology centre here powers our innovation, technology and research that make the LinkedIn experience richer for members globally,” says Akshay Kothari, country manager and head of product, LinkedIn India.

Perhaps, the developments will create a new and more promising future for India’s tech industry.