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Inside the Growing Tech Battle for India’s Consumers—Data Sheet

sunday market in old delhisunday market in old delhi
People purchasing goods from Sunday market in Old Delhi. Tech companies are battling to offer digital payment platforms in India. Nasir Kachroo—NurPhoto via Getty Images

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A few weeks ago, in this space, I noted that GGV Capital's Hans Tung, one of the smartest China tech investors I know, was hunting for unicorns in India. Today, I find myself in New Delhi and catching up on a smart piece in this weekend's Financial Times in which Nandan Nilekani—one of the smartest India tech investors I know—says he, too, sees huge opportunities here in the world's second-most populous nation.

As many Data Sheet readers will know, Nandan is a pioneer of India's 1980s tech revolution. He co-founded software giant Infosys, which he led for five years as CEO. Later Nandan joined the Indian government to launch its ambitious effort to create the world's largest biometric identity program. Now, as the FT notes, he heads a government drive to bolster the nation's online payments.

Nandan has been a generous mentor to Western business writers over the years. He helped me get my bearings when I first started visiting India for Fortune in the early 2000s and he famously supplied the title for Tom Friedman's best-seller, The World is Flat.

So when Nandan speaks, I'm all ears. And what he tells the FT is that India has become "ground zero" in a global battle for dominance in digital payments.

Investors from the United States, Japan, and China are pumping billions into the sector. The early leader is Paytm, backed by SoftBank and Alibaba Group. But PhonePe, a four-year old venture acquired by Walmart, is catching up fast. Google, Amazon, and Facebook's WhatsApp, are also jockeying for position alongside a gaggle of other start-ups, including Freecharge, Mobikwik, Citrus, and BharatPe.

India's booming tech sector is a fascinating battleground. Investors from the United States and China go at it head-to-head, even as they find themselves increasingly shut out of each other's home markets. In the first quarter of 2019, India eclipsed China as the top market in Asia for venture capital-backed fintech funding, according to market research group CB Insights.

But there are a lot of frenemies and the alliances can be bewildering. For example, Alibaba's arch-rival Tencent Holdings has invested over $2 billion in Indian startups so far, including Flipkart (which Walmart paid $16 billion to gain control of last year). And Ola, a ride-sharing platform backed by SoftBank, faces as its main competitor in India Uber, another SoftBank investment. Walmart recently announced Flipkart will roll out free video service to compete with Amazon's Indian unit. 

The committee on online payments Nandan leads recently estimated that about 100 million Indian consumers now use digital payments at least once a month. The panel predicted that number will triple by 2021.

McKinsey, in a recent report, found that India has 560 million internet subscribers, second only to China, and that Indian Internet subscribers spend more time on social media—an average of 17 hours a week—than social media users in China or the United States. The consultancy, after surveying 17 major emerging and developed economies across 30 different dimensions of Internet use, concluded that India, with its 1.2 billion people, is digitizing faster than any other market in the world save Indonesia.

Sounds like a pretty fertile unicorn habitat to me.

Clay Chandler

On Twitter: @ claychandler

Email: clay.chandler@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

I have a really bad feeling about this. At Walt Disney, there were earnings to digest in its first full quarter since taking on assets from Fox. The results disappointed due to low theme park attendance (Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was a bit of a bust). But the big headline was the disclosure of the price for Disney’s new Internet video bundle. The company will charge $13 per month for the combined Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu (with ads) services. Disney shares, which had risen 30% so far this year, were off 4% in premarket trading on Wednesday. Longtime cable analyst Michael Nathanson felt the urge to cite Avril Lavigne to explain the report: “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”

 

 

Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her. Speaking of payments, Mastercard is making the biggest acquisition in its history, agreeing to pay $3.2 billion for the real-time payments business of Denmark’s Nets Group. The business facilitates transfers between bank accounts and “we want to be a one-stop shop for all payments,” Mastercard chief product officer Michael Miebach tells the FT.

It’s not wise to upset a Wookiee. Elsewhere on Wall Street, Tinder owner Match Group reported quarterly revenue rose 18% to $498 million, as 9.1 million subscribers used its apps, also up 18%. Match shares gained 17% on Wednesday. But as Eric Jhonsa, technology columnist for The Street, pointed out on Twitter, the more interesting revelation is that Match’s stock price has gained more than 150% since the panicked sell-off last fall when Facebook started a dating service.

Never tell me the odds. For years, Yelp has led the charge against Google, claiming that the search giant was improperly discriminating against it or scraping data or doing other nefarious things. Now it turns out Yelp is screwing around. The company has replaced the phone numbers of some restaurants listed in its app when users order take out, so that the calls go via Grubhub and Yelp collects a referral fee of 15% to 20% per order, according to an investigation by Vice. The fees charged back to restaurants are sometimes inaccurate, Vice found.

Don’t everybody thank me at once. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and former Twitter COO Adam Bain have created an investment and advisory firm called 01 Advisors, Axios reports. The pair have raised $135 million from investors as they seek total backing of $200 million.

You like me because I’m a scoundrel. Two men in Pakistan paid AT&T employees over $1 million in bribes to install malware on the telecom giant’s systems in order to be able to “unlock” cellphones. The conspirators then used their unauthorized access to sell phone unlocking service to AT&T consumers. Muhammad Fahd was extradited from Hong Kong to face the charges, the Justice Department said on Tuesday. His co-conspirator, Ghulam Jiwani, is believed to be deceased. In completely unrelated AT&T news, the carrier turned on its business-customer-only 5G network in parts of New York City, marking its 21st 5G region.

She’s fast enough for you, old man. Thousands of travelers were stranded on Wednesday morning when two computer systems at British Airways went down. Software running online check-ins and a separate system running flight departures were said to have crashed.

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Google’s hardware has a come a long way since the first-ever Android phone, made by HTC, came out in 2008. Nowadays, the devices are cooler and less brick-shaped. Head of hardware design Ivy Ross oversees a team of about 150 at the company’s Design Lab in Mountain View, Calif. Mark Wilson got the full tour for a story at Fast Company. It’s a purposely cool space filled with inspirations, Wilson reports:

In other instances, the lab is set up so designers can window-shop. The second story walkway around the atrium feels something like a high-end mall. On one side, I see a glass wall to the color lab. On the other side, a glass wall to the material lab. The color lab features an ever-changing array of objects, collected by Google hardware designers on their travels. It’s a hodgepodge of items that seems less about color than what I might call a vibe. I see a paper radish, a green stack of stones, and an ivory jewelry box—all evoking a certain handmade minimalism. The display is the best reminder of a simple fact of Google’s hardware design team. Just 25% to 40% of the group has ever designed electronics before. The rest designed everything from clothing to bicycles in a previous life.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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BEFORE YOU GO

I’m not sure how I feel about the rapid proliferation of fake meat, but there’s no denying its growing popularity. The latest to join the bandwagon is fast food sandwich chain Subway, which will start selling a meatless version of its iconic meatball sub using Beyond Meat’s meat substitute next month. Munch on, sub sandwich devotees.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.