China, India and Pragmatic Technology Design

If you were dozing off in front of the fire this holiday season, you may have missed news that Tata, India's largest industrial conglomerate, is close to closing deals to purchase Land Rover and Jaguar from Ford Motor Company. With interests ranging from tea bags to IT services, Tata's pursuit of the two companies is emblematic of its intentions not just to provide products and services to South Asia, but to the world.

Talk about luxury cars obscured reports that Tata plans to roll out an ultra-basic mass market vehicle at the opposite end of the price range (today officially dubbed the "Nano" - ed.). Like its cousin the OLPC,  the closely held vehicle concept is expected to have a price tag 1/6th of the average of its category--around $2,500 according to those in the know. And like the OLPC and the Asus Eee its currently hot ultralight laptop competitor, the ultracheap Tata car gets to that price range by ditching luxuries deemed unnecessary for the market it aims for, such as multiple windshield wipers, tachometers or sexy electronic transmissions.

The design, as described so far, throws out as much metal, technology and creature comforts as it can to create a vehicle that meets the needs of consumers in the developing world who need just a basic mode of transportation with four walls (three in the case of this car's apparent teardrop design), wheels and an engine. As an old boss of mine used to say, the goal is "fitness for purpose".  Aspiration to Tata's target markets is not aspiration as defined in the middle-class world of the West. Not everyone needs a stylish but affordable sedan, and in Tata's view, not everyone needs a smooth-shifting transmission or indication of the exact number of revs the engine is turning.

This different point of view, understanding the real, pragmatic needs and risk tolerances of consumers in developing markets is an important edge in mindset that is propelling the ascent of technology not just sold or serviced in but designed in developing countries. And some, including Changeist, believe that this deep understanding of local needs may drive companies like Tata, China's Huawei and other rising stars of technology in the East past today's Western technology giants. While Western companies unconsciously (or strategically) try to sell the Western middle class idea of comfort, access or convenience to "the other 5 billion," local designers and product makers are filling shelves and car lots with goods that better target the current desires of those billions: just to send a message, get two people from one city to the next, or create a refrigerator that will last a couple of years until the owner can afford something better.