“Why you will call Justdial if you get a list of all the ATM’s in Mumbai on your Mobile, without SMS, without GPRS in less than 5 keystrokes?”

M4Mumbai, launched as a local bus information service for the city of Mumbai, India, has plans to go beyond just bus information and beyond the city. I must confess that I was quite short-sighted in my assessment when I first came across M4Mumbai, limited by the following questions: why only Mumbai, why only bus information, and how will they monetize if they’re giving a free application that doesn’t use premium SMS or GPRS? But these are still questions that M4Mumbai has to answer.

Monetization

Answering the last of these questions, M4Mumbai founder Raxit Sheth told MediaNama that they haven’t yet decided on how they will monetize, saying that the focus is on scaling drastically. They have recently launched an application on Bharti Airtel’s App Central. Prior to this launch, they saw installations of 60-130 per day, and have installations in the five figures in three months since launch. Around 40 percent of the installations, Sheth says, are not from their website, but of users side-loading the application using Bluetooth. He expects the installations to increase post the launch on App Central. They are already on Samsung Fun Club.

One option of monetization is that they can offer branded applications to consumers, or charge for it. “We strongly believe Tech solutions should be cheap, cheaper than a Rs. 10-15 local information booklet.” If they charge, it won’t be for more than Rs. 5 or Rs. 7 for the application.

Side Loading; Offline vs Online

The other interesting thing about M4Mumbai is the fact that they’re doing side-loading, which allows the proliferation of their application. So far, mobile applications and services, including Google’s local information service, have monetized by using premium short codes. Sheth counters this by asking “Why one should go Online or use an SMS shortcode when you can do it offline. (for bus ticketing) People don’t want to remember the short code, type a source, type destination, risk a spelling mistake and spend Rs. 3 on SMS. GPRS is great but many people don’t have GPRS activated.” Come to think of it, I don’t remember the Google short code, though I use Latitude extensively.

But how will they provide updated information for users who aren’t using GPRS? Sheth says that they store users’ mobile numbers when they install the application for the first time (an SMS is sent for verification of the installation, which is how M4Mumbai tracks installations). They then inform users of updates via SMS. But updates without GPRS? Sheth says that they’re developing a framework by which an end users can update the database without GPRS. This, I’ll have to see to believe.

Why Only Mumbai, Why Only Bus Information?

Sheth says that using the same framework, they planning to scale – scale beyond Mumbai in India, scale beyond India, and scale beyond bus information. The company is in talks with government bus agencies in other cities, and they also intend to expand their mandate from Bus Search to Local Search, and cover information like train information, ATM, (blood)bank, hospital, petrol pumps etc. “In 10 keystrokes,” Sheth emphasizes.

The other premise is that, by looking at businesses from a pan-India perspective, we often tend to forget that a users need for information more often local, than national. M4Mumbai isn’t parochial in its approach: Mumbai is a large enough market in itself, so why not go local, go deeper and create for this city alone before looking at others?

Is M4Mumbai Defensible?

As a business, two things in particular make it defensible. First and most critical is the quality of the information that it has. Bus information, which we believe Google is also in talks for after they added Delhi Metro information to maps, is not defensible. Neither is ATM information from banks. What works is the magnitude of otherwise not-easily-available information like local businesses (which JustDial does) that one is able to collect, and then keep fresh. Much of this information is expensive and tedious to collect and keep fresh, and we think M4Mumbai needs to go beyond, and seek data beyond that which is easily available. M4Mumbai plans to crowdsource local information collection, and Sheth says it will announce a few initiatives in the coming weeks. A preliminary initiative is already up: Collect and Get Famous, and they’re seeking informations like bus-route details that users don’t find in the application. That’s a difficult sell, frankly, and we expect the ratio of contributors to consumers to be fairly low. The onus remains on M4Mumbai to validate the data: if users find their info unreliable, then that’s it for them.

The other element that could make it defensible is the base of users: how many have the application installed on their handsets, and can receive updates. This is where M4Mumbai’s side-loading becomes an advantage. Their base, when large enough, then can be monetized using features like premium listings, click-to-call, among others.