Why It's Nearly Impossible to Make GPS Work for India
Bangalore, INDIA — Usually, one of the surest bets for a technology innovator here is to handpick a winner in the U.S., then just bring it over. When Rahul RS and his partners left Infosys, one of the nation's largest IT companies, to start their own venture, location-based services were becoming all the rage stateside. A flurry of GPS-enabled apps sprung up allowing users to pinpoint themselves and others. They ranged from the leisurely social networkers (i.e. Foursquare) to the serious security services, now bound for profitable IPOs.
Virtually nothing like those existed here.
"We were trying to adapt something that worked in the West to India," Rahul says, describing his efforts with Onze Technologies. But transplanting mapping software to Indian cities is not a simple feat. "It doesn't quite work out," he says.
For one, the landscape is entirely different. Very few urban pockets are laid out in a grid. They're filled with winding, narrow roads prone to sudden turns and stops. Addresses are often out of order or sight. Streets pop up, change names and add new commercial inhabitants all the time.
Another obstacle is cultural. "People are not used to maps," Rahul explains. Giving directions in India is an idiomatic art, well-rehearsed and rarely done following formal strictures. He goes on: "I can guarantee you nobody will say, 'head south.'" Rather than cardinal directions, people will navigate the lost using a series of routes and familiar landmarks.
For a newcomer, the directions ("straight, straight, left") can be fruitless. And, I soon discovered, they can be just as ineffective for people who share a mother tongue.
So Rahul and his team set out to create a location tool that works for India. Latlong spits out automated directions that "guide people like a normal friend would," as Rahul puts it. A mile or so away, I punched in the name of their office into a text message and another quickly shot back. It gave me the distance in kilometers and the rate if I hailed an autorickshaw. Then it gave detailed directions: a right at an office store, past a hospital, and two more rights, one at a cell-phone shop then at a bank. They were helpful, although some landmarks in the ever-changing city could be there one week and gone the next.
Latlong's directions mimic the colloquial. They advised me to turn left at a "deadend," a term that, in Bangalore, doesn't mean what you think. In southern cities, a roundabout is a 'circle,’ but in New Delhi and Mumbai, it is a 'chowk.' Ola Cabs, a Bangalore taxi service, recently partnered with another startup to offer a similar innovation. If you place a 'missed call,' a costless hang up, they’ll text back the distance and location of your cab.
Right now the services aren’t in Hindi or other local languages, largely due to the technological hurdles of adapting phones for these scripts.
When they first launched, Onze's service was wildly popular, raking in a million requests a month from Bangalore alone. But they ran into a problem that plagues private services in urban India. Each letter in a text costs a fraction of a cent. With millions of requests, those can add up. Last year, they scrapped the consumer service and started selling their platform to retailers who offer it free-of-charge to searching customers.
Disoriented users can still use Latlong for directions to some places but they must pay, which few Indians are willing to do. And the service sends a shortened link to colloquial directions. That can be a godsend, as Google Maps has yet to work for residential or unlisted locations in India. Even listed ones are often mapped incorrectly. The current state of GPS in India is, as one tech entrepreneur writes, "a classic example of copy-pasting a first world solution in an emerging economy."
Relying on links, however, means this location-service has a much, much shorter reach. Of all the phones in urban India, only around nine percent are smartphones. As the costs of phones plummet and 3G networks expand, optimists see that number swelling in the next year. Until then though, many meandering the winding Indian roads will keep getting lost.