Newsroom diaries 2016: Freedom 251, the story that made us question technology
We're glad today there's no mention of Freedom 251 and that India has finally moved beyond.
Editor's note: This article is part of a series of newsroom diaries by various members of the Firstpost team. These diaries will provide you with the journalist's recollections of a particular bit of news coverage in 2016 in which she/he was deeply involved.
I've been covering technology for some years now. But on the evening of 16 February this year, news came in of a sub-Rs 500 smartphone to be launched in India. Personally, I considered it to be a con job. It seemed as tricky as a chain-marketing sham to make money from innocent customers. I was rather excited about the upcoming Mobile World Congress, which typically sets the pace for the kind of devices we are to expect through the rest of the year. When someone suggested that this could be a story worth following, I brushed it aside.
The next morning I was proven wrong. And how. On the morning of 17 February, newspapers in the northern parts of India ran full front page ads of the Freedom 251, by Ringing Bells. Colleagues who would otherwise not care as much about what we covered in technology were following up by the minute. I was getting phone calls and messages about this latest sensation. That's exactly what Freedom 251 was – a sensation.
I had colleagues in office who were interested in buying a dozen handsets. A dozen? I thought to myself. But that's exactly the kind of hysteria I was witnessing. While the initial joy of discovering a product as cheap as the Freedom 251 was behind us, we knew we had to go deeper. We'd have to break the myth it was. I ridiculed the product. Fundamentally, I was convicted of my idea that India needs devices, but what the Freedom 251 offers somehow doesn't make it for me. I was criticised on social media for my stand – going against the wave of having an Indian product. I was accused of being critical and pessimistic when the need was to support Indian products. I guess that's typical of social media conversations these days. Especially in India.
We analysed the product, the specification sheet that the company had put out. Our finding was that it was simply not possible to manufacture a device at that price point. People didn't want to accept that this simply wasn't possible. It's like saying everyone has the possibility of winning a lottery. Mass hysteria begins. Then no one wants to know that the lottery is a hoax. During the days of the initial surge in interest, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook all seemed pale in comparison.
We worked towards getting access to the device. Media in Delhi were invited to a launch event. As I always think, Delhi is important. So yes, media in Delhi tried the device out. And did mention on social media how the device gives mixed reactions. There were a few who said 'what more do you expect in Rs 251?' while others said, 'feels like a scam.' And sitting in Mumbai, I was getting mixed reactions from my friends in Delhi who had tried the device. But even they were given access to a 'prototype' with the logo of another manufacturer. Fine so far. But even that manufacturer distanced themselves from the company – Ringing Bells. I'm glad today there's no mention of Freedom 251 and that India has finally moved beyond. Moreover, our initial stand of doubting the feasibility stands vindicated.
But what I have with me now are a couple of thousands of emails. All sent with personal details. I've been on a deletion spree, but every time I embark on that task, something more important comes along, and I procrastinate the deletion. It's funny how someone could send me emails with an order of two dozen Freedom 251 handset. I'm not remotely connected to them. I'm glad though that no one sent me money, else they'd be demanding refunds! I'm probably going to spend a few hours around New Years cleaning up my inbox.
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