COVID-19 disrupted technology, how we work, global supply chains: Here’s what to look forward to in 2021

If there was one company that saw a significant uptake post-lockdowns, it was video conferencing service, Zoom.

24 March 2020.

This date will be etched in the memory of every Indian. With just four hours of notice, the entire nation was put under strict lockdown. While it was meant to last 21 days, the lockdown went on for at least four months, after which things started to open up. Work, as we knew it before April 2020, would undergo a massive transformation as well.

While many offices across India had already asked its employees to start working from home before 24 March, it was only after this date that it became evident that work from home would be a long-term reality. With Big Tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter already letting its employees to work remotely till summer 2021, the writing was on the wall. The rising number of Covid19 infections and the unfortunate fatalities weren’t helping either. With personal leisure and travel, movement of goods and services, banned for the short term, it was technology that came to everyone’s rescue.

Image: Pixabay

While many offices across India had already asked its employees to start working from home before 24 March, it was only after this date that it became evident that work from home would be a long-term reality. Image: Pixabay

Collaborative services won 2020: Zoom-call became a verb

If there was one company that saw a significant uptake post-lockdowns, it was video conferencing service, Zoom. Despite having the backing of Microsoft, Skype failed to capitalise on its first-mover advantage in this space, leaving the field open for “Zoom-call” to become a verb for video conferencing. You know an app has gone truly mainstream when your relatives start getting comfortable with it and use it for family conversations.


Despite having the backing of Microsoft, Skype failed to capitalise on its first-mover advantage in this space, leaving the field open for “Zoom-call” to become a verb for video conferencing.

Zoom became the de-facto app for many of us working from home, to keep in touch with our teams and even for locked-in leisure time. Yes, there were security nightmares the app had to face thanks to the sudden, massive growth of its service. Zoom-bombing became a term that acquired cultural weight. Zoom adapted quickly and saw its revenues grow by a whopping 335 percent in Q2 2020.

Microsoft doubled down on its collaboration app Teams, giving Slack a run for its money. Google went ahead and integrated its video conferencing tool Meet inside Gmail, in addition to offering it as a separate app. Closer home in India, we saw the release of JioMeet whose user interface looked like a close cousin of Zoom.

Remote working, generally not favoured in India, was something that a majority of offices had to deal with and adapt to overnight. Collaborative apps and services which aided working from home were the clear winners in 2020. This won’t change much as we enter 2021.

Emergency brakes applied to product launches in the first half of 2020

In India, there used to be at least one smartphone or other tech product launch a week. With major technology events such as the Mobile World Congress, Google I/O cancelled and supply chains disrupted, product launch cycles were thrown out of whack. Post-lockdown, it would be months before any smartphone would make it to the market. Barring big names such as Samsung, OnePlus and Apple, most of the Chinese smartphone makers didn’t have any smartphone launches scheduled during the months of the lockdown. That deficit is now seeing a swingback thanks to easing of restrictions and festive season sales.

According to Navkendar Singh, a technology industry analyst at IDC India, mobile sales resumed with force in July 2020, when markets started opening up.

“The pent-up demand started coming in from the end of June to mid-August. Manufacturing started ramping up as labour started coming in,” says Singh. The demand was so high that India saw a record shipment of 21 million units in October.

A lot of buying did take place because of new needs such as online learning or remote working. In terms of smartphone trends, there wasn’t much of a change in behaviour of buyers when it came to cost.

“The new buyers who were in the market for purposes such as e-learning were either buying second-hand smartphones or those in the Rs 6000 to Rs 9000 range. Replacement buyers were not able to buy anything. Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 did not see much growth. Sub Rs 20,000 was the major segment,” said Singh.

Boycott China didn’t make a dent

Image: PTI

In June, in the middle of the pandemic, there were border clashes between India and China, which led to a #BoycottChina sentiment among many Indians. Image: PTI

With COVID cases on a significant rise in China even before March, the global supply chain was completely off-track since the start of the year. While purchasing my laptop in early February, I had to cancel a lot of the models I had in mind, as their supply from China was disrupted. Almost all laptops available in India (or anywhere in the world, for that matter) are made in China. “I haven’t got any new shipments since January. I am solely relying on the inventory I had stored in my warehouse,” the shop owner had told me back then.

In June, in the middle of the pandemic, there were border clashes between India and China,  which led to a #BoycottChina sentiment among many Indians. Across the country, there were calls to ban China-made products and some politicians even called for Chinese food to be banned.

Of course, that was all put on the backburner when the first Amazon and Flipkart sales resumed, with Chinese brands taking away a lions share and boosting sales figures.

“While many people ask for non-China brands, they most likely end up buying a Chinese brand. You don't have a choice when over 80 percent of the smartphone market is China-based. When it’s a matter of your pocket, that’s where everything breaks down,” said Singh.

Bans did happen though -- on the software front. The Indian government has so far banned 267 Chinese apps including marquee names such as TikTok, WeChat, AliExpress and the national obsession of many teens -- PUBG Mobile.

Unsurprisingly, Indian entrepreneurs smelled an opportunity there. There were many TikTok clones that came up such as Chingari, Mitron, among others. PUBG’s departure led to Indian gaming companies suddenly realising that they could capitalise on this gap. FAU-G was promptly announced, with its trailer using an image that was borrowed from stock photos available on the internet. They even hired the government’s unofficial brand ambassador, Akshay Kumar, as their spokesperson, who parroted ‘Atmanirbhar’ (self-reliance) in a tweet promoting the game.

Needless to say, Indian companies who tried to ape Chinese apps forgot to ape one key aspect -- a strong product offering.

How Atmanirbhar is Bharat?

In one of his addresses to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ stressing on the need for self-reliance. While it’s true that a lot of smartphone markers now assemble the majority of their products in India, the high-end components are still imported from China.

According to Singh, chipset manufacturing is not going to happen anytime soon in India, as it requires massive upfront investment. However, he has definitely seen some changes on the ground post the “Atmanirbhar Bharat” call. Also, it’s going to be difficult to be completely independent from the global supply chain for next year.

“Five or six display units have come here. Most brands have started making PCBs here. Brands like OnePlus make all their phones in India. Barring a few super-premium smartphones, most are being made here. Govt is also pushing for PLI schemes for laptops, wearables is another category that is being made in india,” says Singh, adding that unless the focus is on making India an export-oriented market, we won’t see much benefit.

India needs to redefine Broadband

As most work was happening from home this year due to COVID-19, one area that was left exposed was unreliable fixed broadband. Mobile internet is great to an extent, but not if your work involves dealing with large quantities of data.

According to Shiv Putcha, founder and principal analyst - Mandala Insights, India needs to redefine broadband; we still use 512 kbps as a benchmark for fixed-line broadband connectivity.

“Prior to the lockdown, only one or two people in the house would need internet at peak connectivity. But now, with everyone in the house using the internet all the time, we have slow network speed. This can only be fixed by boosting capacity. There has to be a cycle of broadband investment,” believes Putcha, stating that in 2021, the focus should be on improving India’s broadband status.

TRAI reports that only 3 percent of the population is on fixed-line broadband. Prior to the lockdowns, most work-related broadband needs were being fulfilled by the employer. With work from home now becoming a reality, that could change in the coming years.

Broadband connectivity in rural areas saw a boost this year as many professionals moved to their hometowns and continued working from home there. “We are doubling down on our partnership with local cable operators in such towns. We are live in 14 such cities through this partnership model,” Gopal Vittal, MD and CEO of Bharti Airtel had said in a report in Mint.

Looking forward to 2021

Apart from collaboration apps and services, here are a few areas that are ripe for disruption in 2021.

Air purification: Air Purifiers have already become mainstream in India since the last couple of years. Thanks to the worsening air quality in winters, we see a lot of product launches towards the end of the year, with more players jumping on to this bandwagon. 2021 could make this into a year-round product category. According to a

According to Putcha, the air purifier industry and other IoT-related products should think about improving their use cases by using mobile connectivity. “How can we make these products really smarter? There has been a lot of talk about it, but it has never been end-to-end. For such products, there has to be 24x7 monitoring, analytics and project maintenance. The tech is there, it just needs to be used correctly,” said Putcha.

Med-assist innovations: With the vaccine already out in some countries and India expected to get it by 2021, med-tech is a sector that is worth watching out for. This year showed us how it is critical to have our own infrastructure for making medical equipment such as ventilators.

“Very few Indian companies have been manufacturing medical devices. But to become Atmanirbhar Bharat, we need to accelerate the entire process by inviting more and more young students and professionals to contribute,” said Shantanu Pathak, co-Founder, CareNx Innovations, in a webinar focused on COVID-19 impact on the MedTech industry.

The COVID-19 vaccine requires an end-to-end cold supply chain, maintaining temperatures in low single digits to well below freezing point. India cannot rely exclusively on importing such equipment, and it will have to be locally-made. A report by IMARC expects the cold chain market in India to see significant growth in 2021.

5G outlook: India’s 5G plans are certainly going to be postponed thanks to higher spectrum prices and the Supreme Court ruling on adjusted gross revenue (AGR), according to Putcha.

“Consumer 5G use will be limited to niche areas such as cloud gaming or fiber to the home, but wide-area 5G coverage won’t be a reality for the next five years at least. It’s very expensive and requires a lot of fiber layout,” said Putcha.

The other bone of contention is the low quantum of spectrum being available for auction. “India is not willing to do mmWave band, due to objections by the Department of Space. Only around 175 MHz is available for auction. That’s too little spectrum for a huge asking price. We have to work out a way around that,” said Putcha.

Irrespective of the status of 5G connectivity, we will continue seeing more 5G-enabled handsets enter the market. “5G will be more democratised. From a supply and cost component point of view, we should see Rs 20k and below 5G handsets starting to come in. Brands will keep playing the mid-premium game to focus on marketing messaging,” says Singh.

Get ready to pay for data: India has the distinction of being the country with the lowest cost per GB of mobile data. Customers have been spoilt with choice when it comes to mobile data plans, but that won’t be the case in 2021.

“The Jio model has run its course and telcos will cut back on a lot of freebies. The big focus for 2021 will be to improve operating margins for most telcos,” said Putcha.

Cybersecurity trends: With the vaccines expected to come to various countries in 2021, cybersecurity firm Avast expects a rise in ransomware attacks on healthcare institutions with attacks specifically targeting pharma companies to harvest sensitive information for industrial espionage. Companies having employees working from home will be at a risk of falling for targeted attacks via VPN infrastructure and remote desktop applications.

“Individuals should be wary of scams, specifically around the topic of vaccinations. If people see vaccination offerings circulating on the internet, they need to keep in mind that the sale is likely too good to be true, as vaccinations should be distributed through official sources only. People should trust their local doctors and medical institutions for COVID-19 information and vaccinations,” said Jakob Kroustek, Threat Labs Team Lead at Avast.

Increased digitisation to continue: Work from home was a good wake up call for most industries that would otherwise frown upon remote working. According to a report by McKinsey & Company on the Future of Work, the world has leapfrogged digital adoption by 3-5 years in the last 9 months. It goes on to state that 80 percent of the near-term spending will be driven by COVID-19 resilient offerings.

“The strategic gameboard has changed tremendously in the last 9 months and agile companies have made the most of this by reimagining the way they look at growth (microverticals, customer segments, geographies etc.) and re-wiring their operating models for the new normal.” said Noshir Kaka, senior partner and global leader, Analytics, McKinsey & Company.

Another area that got a massive boost was the digital payments ecosystem, with the National Payments Corporation of India COO Pravina Rai saying that the pandemic increased the momentum of digitisation in India.

“There has been a surge in digital payment volumes across online grocery stores, small retail outlets, online pharmacies, vegetable and fruit vendors, recharges, bill payments as well as OTT (telecom and media) and EdTech players,” said Sanjay Doshi, partner at KPMG.

2020 was certainly a year that most of us would like to forget. But as we enter 2021, it would be a real pity if we don’t assimilate the many lessons this year taught us. Even as a new variant of the SARS-CoV2 virus is putting many countries on alert, there is hope in the form of a vaccine at the end of a dark tunnel. Sure, vaccination won’t be mainstream in India any time soon, but things don’t look as hopeless as we enter 2021.

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