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India reveals 6 truths about the future of tech that would surprise many Americans

Passengers use their smartphones at Mumbai Central railway station in Mumbai, India, on January 22, 2016.
Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Passengers use their smartphones at Mumbai Central railway station in Mumbai, India, on January 22, 2016.

A recent visit to India was a stark reminder to me — even as a tech reporter with an Indian background — that billions of people in Asia will become more active online in 2018 as internet accessibility and language recognition improve.

I've been able to take for granted during my lifetime that major technology companies were designing the Internet around their core consumer — English-speaking Americans. In a few years, that might not be the case, and U.S. tech companies would be smart to take note.

Here's what I observed.

1. Apple's brand is far from dead

As expected, Indian street vendors in the garment district were flush with knock-offs of Western brands like Addidas and Puma — and ready to haggle. But I also saw some "luxury" clothing that you'd never see in the States: Clothing plastered with the Apple logo.

While U.S. consumers now have flagships from Samsung and Google that rival the iPhone, Apple's brand power is still very strong in the rest of the world — the Microsoft logo just doesn't have the same fashion appeal, I'm afraid.

Although India's per capita income hardly justifies shelling out $999 on a phone, the iPhone X is not far from people's minds (it helps that iPhone X billboards are all over Mumbai.) While Chinese brands like Oppo and Vivo were prevalent, I saw many a flagship phone in the same streets as cows and camels.

In short, the iPhone is still an aspirational product for much of the world, so don't count Apple out yet.

2. Autonomous vehicles ain't seen nothing yet

Traffic in San Francisco or Pittsburgh might be relatively bustling by U.S. standards. But it's nothing compared to riding in an Indian autorickshaw. In countries where traffic rules are more fluid, autonomous vehicles may need to start the artificial intelligence process in from a fundamentally different point of view.

In the U.S., it's possible to train a car to learn the rules of the road, and then refine the technology around rare "edge cases." A car driving in India, on the other hand, might need to be reactive first and learn to say, read the eye contact of a motorcyclist to see where he intends to go, or track the distance of honking horns and warnings like flashes of floodlights.

3. If we don't invest in infrastructure, the developing world will leapfrog the West

Magarpatta City, a township within the metropolitan area of Pune, more closely resembles something out of a sci-fi movie than a post-colonial Asian city. It's a smart "cyber city" that leaves no detail unplanned, from safety for schoolchildren to irrigation of tree roots. The water treatment, energy consumption, schooling and shopping is all self-sustaining.

While North American cities like Toronto are experimenting with "smart" infrastructure, what I saw in Magarpatta City could only be built from the ground up. Most Western cities are comfortable, by in large, with the existing infrastructure — the challenges that have forced India to change, like exploding population growth and pollution, don't push on the West as hard.

But the pressing need for change in Asia, as well as the willingness to demolish old infrastructure, could present an opportunity for India to take advantage of new technologies like hyperloop in a way that the New York Subway system never could.

4. US technology companies should be wary of inequality created abroad

At the same time, communities like Magarpatta City are built around IT companies that largely feed the American tech ecosystem. And that's created discussions about inequality there. While the narrative of the "coastal elite" is already entrenched in the U.S., America's tech companies are also the world's biggest companies — and America is far from the only nation wrestling with a resurgence in nationalism.

5. Data collection can challenge the fundamental idea of privacy — even in a democracy

Purchases that U.S. consumers wouldn't think twice about — like buying a cell phone or signing up for Skype — are a whole lot more intrusive in India. That's because of the Aadhaar ID program, a government ID that's based on the biometric data of each citizen. It's scanned everywhere one goes, even to claim a lost Amazon package.

It's a reminder that today's computing capabilities can make it possible citizens to fear a "surveillance state," even at the scale of the world's most populous democracy.

6. H-1B visa reform should be taken seriously

India is a much different business environment than it was even a year or two ago. Thanks to companies like telecom giant Jio, India's population is coming online and on mobile faster and faster. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone to extreme lengths to cut down on corruption, going as so far as to pull almost 90 percent of its currency out of circulation overnight.

That means that India is a better place than ever to start a tech company. At the same time many Indian engineers, hoping to start companies in the U.S., are being turned away.

Indians are the top workers hired by companies receiving H-1B visas, getting about 71 percent of jobs in 2015. Companies offering computer-related occupations got 66.5 percent of H-1B visas that year.

If promising engineers do decide to start companies in India instead of the U.S., it could present serious competition for U.S. technology companies, and America must be willing to take on that challenge.