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With do-not-disturb app in store, Apple finally TRAIs hard to warm up to India
The Money Control, December 06, 2018

The development brings to end a two-year struggle between the iPhone maker and the regulator, both of whom champion consumer rights but found themselves on opposing sides this time.

One swallow does not a summer make but when the weather has only been inclement, a small sighting -- in this case an app of a developing-world regulator in the store of the world’s most valuable company -- can mean a lot.

And so Apple Inc last week began to host the ‘do-not-disturb’ app of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on its App Store. Does it signal a certain thaw in the approach of the maker of iconic products like the iPhone and Mac computers? Maybe.

The development brings to end a two-year struggle between the iPhone maker and the regulator, both of whom champion consumer rights but found themselves on opposing sides this time.

At heart was the regulator’s insistence that Apple hosted its ‘do-not-disturb’ app so that users can download it and allow the regulator to access their calls, contacts, SMS and other features to track origin of unwanted telemarketing. The maker of iconic products from California’s Cupertino city cited privacy concerns while not implementing the regulator’s diktat.

So what changed?

“They realised their approach had been inflexible. The regulator could not have had any other motive besides protecting the consumer interest. The company officials understood this and made efforts to accommodate the regulator’s concerns. Any other way would have made Apple look high-handed. That doesn’t help, not anymore, not in this government, not with this regulator,” an official familiar with the goings-on told Money control.

Sources told Money control Apple changed its tack only in last one year, shedding its belief only it could protect consumer rights and that any collaboration with the Indian authorities would jeopardise its policy.

The two-year joust -- one side indulging in verbal volleys and the other, being a multinational, only writing letters -- took a sweet turn only in June when the company expressed its willingness to play along. This was even before TRAI came out with its notification in July mandating such an app be provided to the users. Last week’s hosting of the app, well before the regulator’s January deadline, was a culmination of that promise, without the giant compromising its principles.

“The DND app that is there on the App Store does not give wholesale access to a user’s calls records and SMS like the Android app does. The DND app on an Android phone gives access to the operating system itself. That doesn’t happen in an iPhone. The app raises a query and then gives TRAI access to one particular call or one particular SMS where the problem seems to be emanating from. This meets TRAI’s demand without violating Apple’s own commitment to its iPhone users,” an industry official told Moneycontrol.

In an era where privacy has become a big concern and many of the other technology giants from Silicon Valley -- namely Alphabet and Facebook – have been found wanting on that front -- Apple has maintained its swagger on not sharing user data. The company has refused to accept government requests even in the most compelling of cases.

One such instance was in early 2016 when the company declined to cooperate with a US government order to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the two shooters in the San Bernardino mass shooting that killed 14. The US’ Department of Justice had to finally take the help of hackers to unravel the iPhone ‘secrets’. That Apple agreed to meet TRAI’s requirements and has since taken several steps to restructure its India business show its willingness to engage with the authorities and seriousness to do business in the country.

Apple has had a tough going here and today does not command more than 1 percent market share in the world’s second largest smartphone market -- the culprit being its premium pricing in a sensitive market. Its cheapest phone, iPhone 6, still sells for Rs 19,000 here, four years after its launch, when arguably there are better Androids for much less.

It was only in early 2017 that the company’s contract manufacturer, Taiwanese company Wistron Infocomm Manufacturing, started making iPhones in Bengaluru. It is now poised to expand that manufacturing at a site outside the city. For more than a year, Apple tried to get relief in terms of a lower customs duty, exemption from mandatory 30 percent local sourcing and permission to operate fully-owned outlets in the country. The government budged on none.

That the Tim Cook-run company is keen to get rolling in India and put the past behind is also reflected in it appointing a new head for its India operations. Nokia Network Executive Vice President and Chief Business Officer Ashish Choudhary will slip into that role next month. This happened only a couple of months after its top three executives looking after its sales in India quit. The company has also reduced the number of its distributors to two from five.

According to reports, the company has also revamped its distribution channel in India, reducing the number of national distributors to two from five earlier.

Apple is a company obsessed with quality, privacy, product design, service, environment, margins and great experience for the consumer. It would now surely be looking to have a better version of the last element for itself. If you don’t Make in India, you don’t sell in India!

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