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Netflix & Amazon battle for a piece of India’s 500M smartphone audience, but which strategy will pay off?

The Netflix original series Sacred Games, based on the novel of the same name by Vikram Chandra, will debut later this year in India. Like Netflix’s 2013 U.S. debut series, House of Cards, it is meant to be a prestige show that establishes the service as the dominant player in the Indian market. Netflix plans three more Indian original series for later in the year.

The problem for Netflix is that Amazon Studios is already there, and in a big way. Amazon’s first Indian series, the cricket-money-and-sex drama Inside Edge, went live last July. Its second series, the thriller Breathe, started streaming in January. And Amazon has a lot more shows in its Indian pipeline.

Amazon launched its Indian studios last year with plans for 17 original programs , including shows in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Additional Amazon programming is available in other regional languages like Bengali and Marathi. Netflix’s Sacred Games is so far only available in one version, which uses a mix of English and Hindi.

In a deeply multilingual country like India, that just won’t fly. Though elite Indians often speak both English and Hindi, most people speak only regional languages. Minority languages like Telugu and Tamil can have more than 50 million native speakers. As a result, the Indian television market is something like the European one. A prestige service can get away with broadcasting in English, but to really succeed you have to speak to people in their own language.

The prize is a rapidly growing user base of more than 500 million internet-connected smartphone users, the largest open media market in the world. China is bigger, but its media market is essentially closed. India’s video streaming market is wide open and growing fast. The largest digital market in the world outside China by sheer numbers, India is also starting to post small but meaningful numbers for subscription revenue as well.

Amazon Prime seems to be the early leader in the subscription race, but Amazon’s Indian service is priced far below the level of Netflix, suggesting that Netflix remains the revenue leader. That may not worry Amazon much. Unlike Netflix and local competitors Hotstar and Voot, Amazon is selling more than just television. Amazon Studios might even be seen as a loss leader to hook Indians into the wider Amazon online ecosystem, giving Amazon many ways to monetize its Indian customer base.

Thus while Netflix focuses on selling premium subscriptions to a narrow elite segment of Indian society, Amazon is reaching out to the burgeoning middle class of India’s multilingual society. That may or may not be a winning strategy, but it does differentiate Amazon from the competition. Amazon is looking to become the same kind of everyday necessity in India that it already is in the United States and many other developed countries.

With an economy that is set to become the world’s fifth largest in 2018, India will increasingly be seen as the most important emerging market for Western companies in industries that are blocked in China. Retail and entertainment, both highly fragmented in India, are ripe for consolidation. Amazon seems set to disrupt both. If it comes to dominate both, India may be a major driver of Amazon’s growth in the 2020s and beyond.

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Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: