Fourteen-year-old Sujit Sen had been badgering his father for a personal computer (PC) at home for a while. His father did not trust assembled PCs and branded ones were out of reach. All that changed when Mr Sen chanced upon a billboard promoting a local brand of computers starting at less than Rs 10,000.
Suhrid Roy's Delhi-based sister fell ill on a trip to Calcutta. She had to stay on for a few months and work from home. The Roys were looking for an 'affordable' computer but were wary of assemblers because of poor after-sales service. They were glad to settle for a local brand that cost Rs 25,000. 'The same configuration of an MNC brand was for Rs 45,000,' argued Roy.
As the Sens, Roys and thousands of other Calcuttans are finding out, when it comes to PCs, local is giving global a run for its processor power.
Case in PC point: the rise of home-grown brands like Aamar, Isyn and Chirag, who are offering personal computers at more than pocket-friendly rates and promising after-sales service to match an MNC brand.
'We are selling around 5,000 PCs every month in the east, compared to HCL's 2,400, HP's 1,800 and IBM's 1,400,' rattles off Santanu Ghosh, chairman of Xenitis, the company behind the one-and-a-half-year-old Aamar PC brand. Xenitis was the first in the country to launch a PC for Rs 9,790.
Isyn and Chirag do not have immediate plans of a sub-Rs 10,000 PC but their models ' ranging from Rs 11,990 to Rs 33,000 for Isyn, and Rs 14,500 to Rs 24,500 for Chirag ' still work out cheaper than most MNC brands.
Since launching five months ago, Isyn has been able to sell around 2,200 units while Chirag (which debuted last month) claims to have sold over 1,000 PCs already. And it's not just the lower-end models that are selling ' the sub-Rs 10,000 version accounts for only 20 per cent of Aamar's sales ' with the players claiming demand for all models.
'There is huge scope for business, since in Bengal we have not been able to tap even 15 per cent of the population yet,' says Dilip Banerjee, director (marketing) for Syntech Informatics, which manages Isyn.
Just how are they doing it' 'The price, so long, was being governed by the MNC brands since there were hardly any Indian brands in the market. And the gap between assembled and branded PCs was huge. This also means that the components were available at a lower price but the players were not passing the benefit on to the consumer,' offers Aamar's Ghosh.
That's where the PC-come-easy brigade, plugged into ground realities and playing on low-cost operation models, is trying to make a difference. 'It also matters at what price one can buy the components and by how much the cost of integration can be lowered,' says Banerjee.
The local brands are experimenting with different production and delivery models. While Isyn and Chirag are both only assembling the PCs, Aamar is manufacturing peripherals like keyboard, mouse, CD ROM drives and computer cases with technical knowhow from its Chinese partner, Unitek Computer.
Again, while Aamar and Isyn are following the traditional route of reaching customers through dealers and distributors, Chirag is trekking a more direct path by opening its own outlets.
Opting for cheaper processors (all three have Intel's Celeron in their lowest-priced models) and cutting software licence costs (free operating system Linux is the preferred one) also help lower price barriers.
And if consumer trust in new brands was an issue, it's changing, say the manufacturers. 'That phase is gone. Now, the brand pull of Aamar is much better than HCL,' claims Ghosh. 'The bigger hurdle is to convince the country that it is possible to manufacture PC products in Calcutta.'
The local invasion is having its effect on the established brands, forcing them to offer more for less. HCL has just launched its Rs 9,990 model (with a VIA processor at the core) while HP's entry-level model has come down to Rs 17,990.
'HCL has its own position, and now we have broken the price barrier as well to further bridge the gap between branded and assembled PCs,' says Rajendra Kumar, executive vice-president of HCL Infosystems.
Who is buying' Everyone, goes the buzzword. While the home and small & medium enterprises (SME) segments are key target areas, volume is offered by corporate houses and government bodies ordering in bulk.
'Profits come later, the main aim right now is to grow the overall market with better PC penetration,' offers Kaustuv Roy, chairman of RP Infosystems, promoters of Chirag.
That is a prime factor with Union minister for communications and IT Dayanidhi Maran recently announcing plans of raising India's existing PC penetration of 14 per 1,000 to 65 per 1,000, by 2008.
It's still a long way to go, but current hardware sales trends provide manufacturers the push needed to set such targets. According to Manufacturers' Association for Information Technology (MAIT) data, PC shipments in 2004-05 grew by 20 per cent over the previous year, while the expected annual growth for 2005-06 is 17 per cent.
MAIT's research on the first quarter of financial year 2005-06 also found that in the desktop market the business segment is being driven by banks, financial institutions, insurance companies, educational institutes and IT and IT-related companies. The household segment is also riding high on reduced prices coupled with applications for entertainment and education.
Back in Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his tech team have had quite a role to play in the rise of local brands. Besides wooing software companies to set up shop in the city, government-to-citizen (G2C) initiatives like e-governance and computer literacy programmes in schools are prodding the demand for PCs.
'Irrespective of brands, the cost of equipment has to come down if we have to reach the masses,' admits G.D. Gautama, IT secretary. Better research and development, and entry of more local players can only help the cause, he adds.
The existing brand brigade is setting its own targets for meeting the spiralling demand. Chirag plans to set up 30 outlets in the state by November, and 100 by March 2006, to achieve sales worth Rs 100 crore. It is also unveiling Phase II of its ad campaign with a helpline number ' 22136524 ' where the last five digits affirm the company's 'commitment to service' (365 days, 24 hours)!
Isyn hopes to become 'not the cheapest brand but the preferred one' and is working on an after-sales service tool to minimise the number of service calls. By December 2006, Isyn plans to sell 8,000-10,000 PCs a month, have a national presence and extend the brand to consumer electronics products.
Aamar, which already has offices around the country, will try to sell 3.5 lakh PCs by March 2006 and do business worth Rs 500 crore.
All this adds up to a PC-buyer empowered and enthused.
'I finally ended up buying a PC that cost a little more than Rs 10,000 but from a local brand, and I've had no problems so far,' says Sujit Sen's father. 'If my work is done and I'm happy with the service, is there any reason I should pay more for an MNC brand'
On that answer hinges the hopes of the 'made in Calcutta' computer.