All posts by Shyam Somanadh

About Shyam Somanadh

Founder and head janitor of the company. Seen mostly on the highways travelling or planning to travel when I'm not consuming copious amounts of content.

Moto G Review

Having now spent close to a month using the Moto G, I can now sum up the device in one word — fabulous. The device has not been officially launched in India. I was fortunate to have been gifted one by someone living the US and it cost the regular $199 retail there. If they manage to price it under Rs 12,000 (and closer to Rs. 10,000) in India, Motorola could have a winner on its hands.

DSC_0543What I like about the device:

  1. Battery life: I use location services during a major part of the day, which, previously, was a huge drain on Android devices. I am easily getting 24+ hours on a full charge and have never used the battery saver feature.
  2. Android Kitkat: The slight lag (more like a stutter than lag) that used to be there on even the high-end Android devices is gone. Even with 1GB RAM, the transitions are buttery smooth and comparable to iOS.
  3. Nearly-Stock Android: There are a couple of Moto-specific apps in there, but nothing that gets in your way. Rest is pure Android all the way.
  4. Price: You can pick up at least three of these babies at a price that is lesser than a Samsung S4 or an iPhone 5C.
  5. Main camera is pretty decent. Just remember not to shoot with it in low light.

What I don’t like:

  1. No external SD card support. I don’t store much media or click a zillion pics, but I’m already down to 9 GB left on the device.
  2. 1 GB of RAM.
  3. There’s a bug (not sure whether it is software or hardware) that can cause call volume to drop after using a wired or bluetooth headset. Can be fixed with a reboot, but annoying all the same.
  4. USB port is at the bottom of the phone. Never liked that positioning. It is a personal preference, though.

DSC_0552While I really like the device, you do need to keep in mind that I don’t fit the profile of the average smartphone user for the following reasons:

  1. Limited apps usage: I don’t use Facebook, Twitter, G+ and most other social networking apps. I do use Whatsapp and BBM, but they don’t seem to eat up as much battery and processing as the first three.
  2. I don’t game at all on the device. There’s a chess app that I keep for the odd rainy day, but have not used it more than twice or thrice in the past year.
  3. I don’t watch much video on the device other than the odd YouTube clip.
  4. Reading has moved completely to a 7-inch Lava tablet.
  5. My data connection is permanently set to EDGE. I don’t use 3G.

Before I picked up the Moto G, I was using the Micromax A116, which has been a pleasant experience. After using it for almost a year, I’d rooted it and switched to ROM that had thrown away a lot of the unnecessary bits and made it nearly stock Android. Even that phone was giving me a good 24-hours of usage on a single charge. The reason why I wanted to try something else was that the build quality is extremely poor and I doubt it will be able to take another year or two of abuse. There are also little niggles like the problematic GPS lock, lack of a compass and issues with the filesystem at times.

DSC_0548The Moto is my first Google Android phone, which is a route that I have been looking to go down for a while now. The migration assistant provided by Motorola (works over Bluetooth) is quite good and I could switch devices (with data and apps) in a couple of hours. The device does only MTP, so it cannot be mounted as a regular volume on computers. Since I’m on Linux, I use gMTP, which can misbehave a bit at times. The fallback is Bluetooth, which is the disagreeable option when it comes to speed.

Overall, Kitkat seems to have improved how Android handles the idle state. This has resulted in better battery life, for me at least. There are rooting guides and ROMs available for the interested parties, as usual, on XDA, but I’m pretty happy with the way the device is right now. So I don’t see rooting and custom ROMs happening anytime soon. I like my devices to function flawlessly and stay out of the way and the G increasingly looks like a good candidate for that. I’m well past my weekly flashing phase on my phones and a lack of excitement is a welcome change on that front.

Hybrid Entertainment: Free-roam Network Games

I have been a great fan of the  GTA series of games from Rockstar for a long time. The political incorrectness and violence that is there in the game is a different topic that I won’t deal with in this post as I will be focusing on other aspects of the game that could open up a whole new type of entertainment.

Gameplay screencasts are probably almost as old as YouTube itself, but they have always been constrained by the fact that they tend to be all about completing missions and little exploration is built into the game itself. They are also pretty linear in nature and rely more on damage/health variables to determine difficulty than use a large number of changeable variables.

Free-roaming games are extremely complicated and costly affairs. It is one thing to design a game world that has 5% accessible spaces and it is another to bump it up to even 20%. The inaccessible parts are just images plastered on regular shapes that look reasonably OK from a distance.

Designing a highly-accessible game world is hard. You have to define behaviours every object in the accessible areas, irrespective of whether a player will interact with those objects or not. Add other factors like weather and time of the day to the mix and the complexity becomes much harder than what most production houses can afford or handle.

A Free-Roam Real World

What GTA V has done differently is to mimic the real world to a great extent. Between the nearly-unrestricted world, the game AI that controls the non-playing characters and other gamers on the network, the outcomes and possibilities are incredible. Which brings us to the most significant aspect that you cannot script much and even the best laid plans have little certainty about the outcome.

This aspect of GTA V is so incredible that the story mode (where you play offline and complete the story) is pretty tame and boring and you will finish it pretty easily. That, though, is just the gateway to the real deal, which is the online mode. It is a teeming world that is constantly evolving. The list of possibilities for Rockstar with GTA V is endless. There is already a fully functional stock market in the game, where you can trade with other players and you can affect the market’s movements with actions in the game world.

The Live Stream

Games have been live streamed for a while now. Most of the MMORPGs have been doing this for years now. But I have always found them to be tedious and often downright boring unless you have been part of those gaming communities for a long time. For an outsider, it is often hard to make out what is going on in the game and the game worlds themselves are not of the free-roam types, which restricts the ability of a player to do something totally out of the ordinary.

Compared to that, a GTA V live stream provides a level of entertainment that is incredible. Players often ask the audience or fellow players what needs to be done and plans are arbitrarily made and executed. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. Obviously, this requires an extremely well-done game in the first place as there has to be some degree of predictability in the system, but make it too predictable and it will become boring quite easily.

Since the online world in GTA V is constantly evolving, these episodes are highly entertaining even if you have no idea about the game at all. One of the most popular things to do in the game is to steal a fighter jet from the military airbase and escape with it. Even though it is attempted regularly, no two attempts look the same. Rockstar also makes changes that ensures that adds to the unpredictability.

Why Is This Different?

Admittedly, a lot of the underlying themes are hardly something that is new. Second Life has a lot of these concepts — a free-roaming world, its own currency, property ownership — in it for years now. But it always felt like a lot of work (since the players have to build the worlds) and it did not feel fun at all.

The semi-structured world of GTA V online actually makes it really fun to watch these videos. From what I could make out, the viewership for the live stream itself is not all that great, mostly maxing out at the thousands, but the recording seem to do really well. A search for long videos on the game throws up twenty videos. all of them have at least a million views and some of them have cleared a year or two of viewing hours. That is a lot of hours and a lot of content that has been consumed.

In my opinion, we are on to something here. That said, it is also not free of problems. The language, violence and correctness issues aside, with that kind of consumption, it was only natural that game companies and other IP owners have started pushing YouTube to crack down on these videos. It maybe true that this is a new form of entertainment that is taking root, but it is also taking root in channels that are not owned by game companies, cutting them out of the advertising revenue generated by these channels.

Also, should the game companies somehow figure out a way to make this happen in a PG-13 manner on platforms they own the scope for experimentation is huge and the videos can become really big as a sort of reality television. They would not want anyone else to get a piece of that pie.

On Media And Hypocrisy

This post is not going to be about the business or technology aspects that I normally tend to cover here and it quite a rant, so feel free to skip.

The past couple of days have been really hard watching the terrible events at Tehelka unfold. Even though I have worked for a very short period at Tehelka during the really early days, I can’t claim to personally know either Tarun or Shoma and I have no clue about the identity of the victim either. The industry, though, is one where I have worked for a good decade and more and my relationship with it has been a troubled one. I still have very good friends in the industry and I do consulting work on and off in it.

Sadly, the incident and how everyone is reacting to it sums up my major problem with Indian media. We behave like entitled holier-than-thou cretins in the best of times and in instances like these it gets worse. Even senior journalists shed any modicum of responsibility they have towards bringing out the facts and everyone essentially turns into armchair inquisitors. Combine this with the readily-available lynch mobs that form only too easily on social media and reasonableness is nowhere to be seen.

Before I continue, I’d like to make one thing clear. What seems to have happened (‘seems’ because we need a proper investigation to look into it and I fear what comes out will be worse than what we know right now) is terrible. While I do enjoy the odd Tehelka story forwarded by friends, I am not a regular reader of the magazine and even while I am aware of its thinly-disguised bias or agenda, I find it has a significant role to play in providing a counterbalance to the fringe at the other end of the spectrum.

That said, it is also sad to see an organization slowly being bled to death like this. I have no idea why Shoma is doing what she is doing, but whatever she is doing is destroying the organization one statement at a time. It may well be the case that she is trying to save a dear friend or the company from a potentially devastating legal scenario, but saving it like this won’t leave an ounce of credibility left on the table when it is all over and done with. For the subjects that the magazine tends to cover, credibility is everything.

When you ask for exceptional things from the people you cover (honesty, courage, moral standards, fairness), it is only natural that people would expect at least a similar standard when the story is you. The internal emails that addressed the incident were so Clintonian in nature that I almost expected a diatribe on the meaning of “is” somewhere along the way. Not only were the choice of words extremely poor, but it also displayed a sense of denial about the gravity of the accusation.

Even so, the victim has every right to choose the manner she sees feels is the right way ahead. Unless you have been in a similar situation, which (fortunately), I have not been in, you cannot imagine even the smallest thing about what she is going through. So, pretending to understand and know what is the right thing to do for her is nonsensical. Similarly, it is for the law to determine what course it should take and pursue matters to the logical conclusion; it does not matter whether Tarun has recused himself or not.

Which brings us back to my main problem with the industry — which is that we are a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites. It is not uncommon for a senior journalist to be on a prime time show and criticize the hell out of a celebrity caught in a DUI/hit-and-run case and go straight to the Press Club for more than a drink or two, which is often followed by driving home drunk. Should a cop pull you over in such a state, the ‘press’ privilege is flashed and you go scot free.

I can bet that pretty much every single senior journalist raging at Tehelka has, at some stage of their career, known about some instance or the other of harassment or abuse in their organization that was hushed up. Media organizations, especially the news desks, are high stress, hostile environments to work in, especially for women. If we exercise the same degree of fairness and action that we are clamoring for from a Shoma, in organizations that we work in, a lot of these problems would not exist in the first place.

The fact is that most of us don’t and when it comes our own responsibility, all kinds of excuses start showing up.

It is hypocritical to be shocked by how Tehelka is handling this as this is how almost every media organization handles incidents of a similar nature. This is certainly not the first case of “drunken banter” the industry has seen. I am more shocked by how everyone is pretending this to be the case. It will be enlightening to do an assessment of the level of support for women on the issue of sexual harassment is in media organizations in India. I will not be surprised, if the results are shocking. Yet, every journalist out there is pretending that Tehelka is somehow a unique story.

It is not.

The sad reality is that this incident is yet another instance of everyone washing their hands off the problem. When the December 16 gang rape happened, the undertone was of a problem that is precipitated by poor, unwashed migrants who have nothing to do about their raging hormones. For the educated, cultured and privileged, such problems are always nicely compartmentalized away. It is something that happens to “those people”.

The sad reality is that in almost every family there is an uncle who is fond of pinching/fondling young kids a bit too much. The number of friends I know who have been sexually abused as kids is just way too high. These stories are all from so-called cultured, well-to-do, educated families where the solution is to hush things up. The unwashed gets the blame because there is nobody influential enough in their lives to ensure that there is no coverage, but they are, by no means, the only ones who are raping, molesting and harassing both the young and the old.

That said, lynch mobs or not, I consider it a good thing that these horrific stories are starting to come out. The first step towards solving any problem is to acknowledge that we have a problem in the first place. On that front, at least the well-to-do are in so much denial that only the shocking truth in more such revelations will show us how rampant abuse of every kind is in our society. But it will get a whole lot worse first, when we face up to our true selves, before it gets any better.

Quitters, Speculators And Spectators

If you, like me, consume news and information mostly fed by the usual tech/digital sources, odds are that you would not have missed the outrage du jour — Google’s cumbersome attempts at streamlining the identities of their user base across their product lines. The right or wrong of it aside, I think we need something new to get worked up about every couple of weeks. Consequently, the highly-connected community goes through phases of quitting Facebook (because of privacy and UI/UX concerns), Twitter (because of how they treat the developer ecosystem) and Google (too big a list to be listed here).

At the end of each of these episodes, a bunch of geeks will go and attempt to build products/platforms that aim to provide a viable alternative. A handful actually will quit and a fraction of those will write blog posts about the whole experience, while most of the users stick on as the benefits from using these products outweigh their negatives. In a sense, quitting digital products is like weight-loss these days, only that the former is at best a niche hobby, while the latter is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Through all of this, the normal users (including my parents) seem to not care much. More of them are now exposed to the same products and engage with them without the worries that seem to affect us to no end. The number of people who seem to agree with Zuck’s assertions on privacy or Google’s assumptions on why enforcing real names and a singular identity is much bigger than what a vocal minority comprises. But, unfortunately, our proclivity towards pushing the ‘one right way’ to use a product or a platform, is something that blinds us to all of this.

That said, I deleted my personal Facebook account in 2011. I have a friendless, hidden account that work compels me to keep (same as a Google+ account I have) on the side to admin pages and I don’t miss it much. My concerns were really not related to privacy. I’d be very surprised if it is no longer impossible for the state to get its hands on any piece of information, should it want to. On that front, technology has always provided only reasonable safeguards and not an absolute one. Privacy is a social expectation and that technology can help in delivering. Most of us seem to not comprehend that minor, yet significant, distinction.

Anyhow, coming back to Facebook, I quit it because it was absolutely the best time sink I could ever find. I would waste hours mindlessly clicking through pictures and profiles and, even after trying hard, it was impossible for me to use it in a productive manner. The problem was with me and not with Facebook. It was as simple as that. Which, once again, brings us back to the same point, that technology and platforms are only amplifiers and enablers. They cannot provide motive by themselves. We, the people, provide that motive. So, instead of trying to fix technology, a lot of problems in the world can be solved if we try to fix our own (often) not-so-good motives.

Speculators

Speaking of motive, nobody seems to agree anymore on why bitcoin moves in any direction at all. It is, frankly, amusing to see the volley of “it is so dead” stories pop-up every time it drops in value and the corresponding “second gold” stories pop-up every time it goes up in value. For me Bitcoin is just a different form of derivative. In fact, it is exactly what a derivative would look like if it did not have its origins in the financial industry. But, that does not make it any less a derivative (which is mostly glorified legitimacy-clad-speculation).

In a world that is increasingly depending on speculation to work as they key driver of growth ($4 billion valuation for a 3-year-old company should be enough proof of that), bitcoins are a natural fit. The greatest attraction towards it is that there is no regulatory authority for bitcoins. But, as it is with any fringe phenomenon that goes mainstream, there are already workarounds being put into place. We have started to see legitimate speculators now move into the domain and it won’t be long (especially if it sustains its current levels of volatility) before cartels are formed around market movers. And we’ll be back to square one then.

Spectators

It has now been nearly four-months since I decided to quit Twitter for a week. The reason why I quit, I’ll save it for another post. It really has nothing to do with platform issues, tech or time-wasting. I do swing by regularly, read a bit of my timeline and go away. On most days it is painful an experience. The amount of snark and vitriol on display is amazing; so is the lack of consideration towards both individuals and organizations. It is almost like we are constantly on the lookout for a mistake or an error that we can put out on display as someone’s stupidity.

Once I accomplish what I need to, I will re-engage on Twitter, but this part of it troubles me a lot. Yes, it is wrong to say that everything is negative, there is a decent share of positive, which is what brings me back regularly to read up on the timeline, but I honestly believe that most of us are far better people than we allow ourselves to be seen as.

Mobile Data Tales From Rural India

One of the rather unfortunate aspects of most of us switching to air travel as a primary mode of getting to places in the country is that we miss out on a lot of what goes on in vast regions of the country that don’t fall into the urban/metro bucket. It is important know what goes on in these regions because unlocking the potential in our billion-plus market has a crucial dependency on producing products and services that make sense for this market. With travel being sparse this year, it was a pleasure to hit the highways once again a week ago and we traversed some rarely-visited parts of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. It was back-breaking in parts due to the road conditions, but it was, as always, extremely informative.

State of Rural Mobile Data

At least in the regions we covered, mobile data was fairly ubiquitous. The speeds were not much to write home about. Outside urban centers, 3G in India is a joke, so I’ll not even try to address it. Airtel offers up EDGE wherever it can get a signal to you (which is, commendably, almost everywhere), but possible peak throughput on the network is often thwarted by abysmal backhaul. At one place (in Chakrata, Uttarakhand), I was getting 30000 ms pings to Google’s servers. Even 1997-era wired internet in India didn’t have to put up with something as terrible as that.

BSNL provides a service that is mostly there to make up numbers. If you put up a tower on a hill that can cover four villages, you’d be technically saying you cover four villages, but if within those villages you reception is limited to certain areas, what good is that service anyway? Similarly, they do offer data in these remote places, but they are often only GRPS services and not even EDGE. Then there are the longstanding complaints about the generators that power the towers running out of diesel and going offline for big chunks of time.

Low Data Usage In Low End Smart Phones

Between Airtel, Idea and Tata Docomo, you can now travel the country and stay connected with a barely-acceptable level of service. The modern, full-experience web is unusable under 20 Kbps and that is exactly the kind of data quality/speed on offer in a big chunk of the country. If you keep this in mind you can imagine why data services have not taken off at the lower end of the market. The first problem is cost, which I’ll tackle later. The speed and quality is so awful that it won’t be possible to even download apps that are less are 5-10 MB in size.

The small towns work around this problem, to an extent, with “mobile downloading” shops that sideload apps. This will work for the popular apps, but for ones that don’t fall into the popular bucket, you’ll be out of luck. And then there is the case of app discovery, which will be non-existent in an environment like that. Next time you feel like making fun of people using nearly zero data on lower end smartphones, do keep in mind that this is not just because they may be stingy (compared to the high-end smartphone owners), there are also other factors involved in it, which you won’t be aware of unless you travel regularly out of well-connected cities.

Form Factor, UI/UX Comfort

What was heartening to see, though, was that the newer devices have catapulted over a lot of interface-related issues that has hampered PC penetration in these areas. Even now, many decades after its introduction, the PC is still not an easy device to master or interact with. Even experienced users have a degree of discomfort in using a PC, which is hard to explain. Mobile devices, somehow, have seemingly decimated this problem. Even the lousiest tablet interface is picked up easily in no time by a user who otherwise has a lot of trouble using a PC.

Is this because there are fewer things — couple of buttons and a touch screen v/s mouse, keyboard, screen — to coordinate? I’ll leave that to the interface and UX experts to determine, but the change is palpable. It was interesting to see a bunch of soldiers in the small tea shop that we were in had one in their group who was immersed in his 7″ tablet. Compared to previous years, the mobile phone shops also seemed to market and stock a lot more of the 4-5 inch screen phones. Three-years-ago, such a thing was a rarity.

Where Are The Products?

The adoption gap, in terms of time, between rural and urban areas, for smartphones may be reducing, but we still don’t have products that mean much for them. Most of the existing products address either extremes — the really upscale and urban audience or the other extreme pushing alerts about agriculture and similar things — and there is really no product that is available that makes sense for the consumer in those markets. So, we wind up again with a situation where content served up on these phones are basically pushed in through the aforementioned “mobile downloading” centers that has been the perennial revenue leakage fountain in India.

Cost Of Data

Every year we have big numbers that are put out by different agencies about mobile data usage in India, but I have a hard time buying that. A remotely usable data plan in India will cost at least Rs 200 a month, even now. And that’s on EDGE and not even 3G. Considering that there’s still major resistance to a wired data connection at the Rs 500-Rs 600 price point, the Rs. 200 per month cost is non-starter. A wired connection can potentially be reused by members of the family, while mobile data is rarely shared.

Even if you consider two as an average number of devices in a household, it is a Rs. 400 outlay on a fixed cost basis for a family. In a market that is a price sensitive as ours this is not a good thing. Mind you, even at Rs 400 you are not going to get the full speed experience, which means that the user is more likely to try it and not continue because of the poor experience.

Adventures In Entrepreneurship Of An Asocial Person

For someone who would rather not interact with anyone at all, if I could help it, trying my hand at entrepreneurship was probably the most illogical thing to do. See, the thing with taking risks, for smart people, is to take manageable risks. And for an asocial person to attempt being an entrepreneur is akin to trusting an addict with the keys to the contraband store. The end results are not often pretty and quite predictable. And that is as bad as it gets when it comes to taking manageable risks and getting it miserably wrong.

It, honestly, is not fun to face the end of the year (well, yet another year) with the same conclusion — that you need to try harder and that for all the effort, results are just not there — at what is effectively the fifth year of trying out entrepreneurship as a means to make a living. As the opportunity costs mount, derision is abundant and faith — from yourself and from close ones in yourself — is non-existent, the logical choice is to be logical (and smart) and bail while you still can.

I have read probably hundreds of accounts of where I find myself right now. Yet, living it feels like nothing I have read before. Yes, I know the drill. You should reach out and find the support in people around you and it will all become bearable, if not a whole lot better. That is the theory, real life is quite a bit different. Since the choices that led to now have been only mine, the failure exclusively belongs to me and me alone. Success — well, that finds many owners.

The dull, dark and dreary stuff aside what I can tell you is that entrepreneurship is the best test of who you really are. And I don’t mean, by entrepreneurship, freelance gigs. Actual entrepreneurship tests you like nothing else. Everything begins and ends with you. And, should you fail, it will all exclusively belong to you. Considered as a coin toss series, in this game, the odds are loaded against you. Lose — it is all yours. Win — it is a collective effort.

In short, it is not for the faint of heart. Those who have succeeded, you have my greatest respect. Those who have failed, you have even more of my respect. Those who have failed and outlived the failure, I respect you the most.

At an earlier phase in my working life, I have really held it against the talkers in the business. I mean, how could you, without anything to back it up, talk your way into a fine deal? It looked unjust, much on the lines of a lot of successful managers being good only at managing people with no other core skill of their own.

And, as always, life becomes the greatest teacher. Business, is the best social activity out there. It is all about people. You need to be able to read people well. You need to be able to read people well to understand what they are looking for and appeal to the part of them that needs appealing to. That, is the primary enabler of a deal and not any other ability of yours. Thus exists the baffling bias towards who can paint a pretty picture better without having a clue about how to bring that picture to life.

Business is all about the persona, it is all about the narrative, it is all about being able to trust, just on a hunch. The longer you survive trying to do this, the more you realize that the overbearing bias towards a positive narrative and the persona is not an aberration, but a reasonably reliable social signal that is valid within a particular context. The popular exposition of this extends from not being fired for having Microsoft or Oracle as a vendor to understanding why that four figure (in dollars) tux is well worth the price you have paid for it.

If you are smart enough, you will realize that value is not what you perceive as value, but value is what the key players in the game perceive as value. There are probable instances of overlap there — between what you think as value and what the crucial players think of as value — but it is a rare overlap to find, should it be the case that you are asocial by nature.

For me, it is a journey that has taken five years too long. I wish I could have seen and known all of that I know right now, when I started out in 2008. But, as life will make it amply clear to you, there are things you learn by thinking and imagining and there are things you learn from experience. This is something that took me five long years to come to understand. It is frustrating as hell, and I won’t lie about it. But there is no other way I could have learnt all of this.

But, for all the losses, I am not giving this up. This is what I will sink or swim with.

Onward and upward!

About The Imminent Online Future Of Indian Media

NYT’s India Ink takes a swipe at that contentious topic of the future of media in India, seen through the eyes of an emerging online media scene in India. The post covers interesting aspects of the problem and is well worth a read, but it also misses a few key points.

For one, niche, experimental new media websites are hardly a new thing in India. In some ways, we have been ahead of even the western markets on that front. There used to be this fantastic (but way too costly to run) product called The Newspaper Today from the India Today Group and the first incarnation Tehelka was another of these experiments. Now, if you consider that, both were products from the 2000 – 2003 period, you will realize that our experiments in the space go that long back.

I was involved with both products for very short periods of time early in my career and I went on to work at digital operations of many other media companies after that. The idea that good content, somehow, will change the game was a popularly held misconception then and it remains the same even now and someone is bound to revisit that theme every couple of years, only to go home pretty singed by the whole experience.

Secondly, it is not the quality, but the cost that makes the proposition rather untenable in India. It costs way too much to create even less-than-average content here (points tackled in a bit more detail in an earlier post here), creating good quality content, on the lines of a daily, is even harder and costlier. The concept has been a first love of sorts for me, since content and journalism is where I started my career, and every now and then I wonder if I should try doing a venture there. By the time I am done with even the most basic financial models on it, the stark reality always holds me back.

Thirdly, the myth of the booming class of novueau-riche Indians who are dying for quality English content is something that is created by people like me who want to read more of this type of content and imagine ourselves as a growing tribe. Let me break it to everyone, we are not a growing tribe. We are a vocal, somewhat visible group given to group-think and internal amplification like any other group. Unfortunately, the group is so tiny that most niche online publications in India consider even half-a-million page views in a month as an excellent month.

Lastly, it is not impossible to have a growing, scaleable online content business in India. It will be in a non-English language, with content that probably won’t appeal to the upper class and it will need the backing of some really good investors who are patient enough to put money into a team and a business that will take 3-5 years to bootstrap properly.

P.S: Ironically, one of the people interviewed in the post, P V Sahad of VCCircle, was a colleague at The Newspaper Today. He’s one of the smarter guys in the business who realized early enough in the game that there is no money in doing content if you want to do a lot of it.

How Not To Build Software For SMBs: SAP’s 3 Billion Euro Story

Tucked away in the story about SAP closing down its SMB suite is one significant detail: It cost the company about 3 billion euros to develop.

SAP, one of the world’s biggest makers of business management software, originally projected that Business by Design – which was launched in 2010 – would reach 10,000 customers and generate $1 billion of revenue.

The magazine reported, however, that the product, which cost roughly 3 billion euros to develop, currently has only 785 customers and is expected to generate no more than 23 million euros in sales this year.

By comparison, in the second quarter, SAP’s software and software-related service revenue stood at 3.35 billion euros.

I am astonished by how on earth can you spend 3 billion to develop almost any software, leave alone one that is aimed at small and medium-sized businesses. The ERP/CRM/PLM landscape these days is an ocean of riches for companies looking for an implementation; be it customization of a generic or product or niche, extremely vertical ones. When anything costs as much as that to develop, it is hamstrung from the word go. I am just surprised that they have managed o keep it going for ten-years. For some perspective, three billion is still considerably north of what most successful software companies are valued at with revenue in the hundreds of millions.

Looking at the pricing for the product (link) it makes no sense at all. If you have to price a product/service like that and yet spend even a billion euros on developing it is nothing short of suicidal. They were hopeful of doing a billion dollars in revenue (annual, I assume); which is astounding considering that their main offerings brought in under 4 billion euros in the second quarter. Normal SAP implementations are long-winded expensive affairs, which plays a key factor in how the company makes most of its money. When big companies lose their way, they tend to do it a spectacular manner like this.

The SMB marketplace is extremely price sensitive and resistance to any change is fairly common place. The newer crop of companies who provide similar services also operate on lower pricing, have no contracts and don’t have many other nice bits companies like SAP are used to. Not surprisingly, the revenue is not expected to top 23 million euros this year, which puts in only in the league of a successful newer SaaS companies.

The upside to all of this is that it makes acquisitions a better option companies like SAP. Three billion euros could easily have been spent on 300 million every year on acquisitions and it would not be a stupid bet to assume that they could have had at least a couple of winners or more in that pick. That said, the conflicts in the business models of the newer crop of software companies and the older mammoth-sized companies is far from a resolution. Companies that are acquired this way have to often force fit themselves into the larger picture, which can be a huge drag. But, that’s a different story altogether, for some other time.

Is this the best we can do?

This is a post that has been in the works for a while, even though I have not been able to find a way to frame it in a manner that is to my liking. It does not cover the usual tech/early stage/digital topics that I prefer to write about here. In a sense, it actually does cover all of them, but it goes a little bit further than that.

The time since June this year has really been quite an intense one, mostly thanks to a complete switch to focusing only on executing plans made over the past year. Somewhere in that time period I stopped logging into Twitter (I don’t have Facebook/G+ accounts other than ones I keep for work) to intensify the effort to get more done as I’m really prone to getting distracted easily. The idea also was to hit a few targets before I allowed myself to be active on Twitter. Some of those targets have been met, while others have not (that’s a post for later) and even though I have started lurking on-and-off on Twitter these days, something about the state of affairs in this very (digitally) social age bothers me.

The question that keeps coming back to me is: “Is this the best we can do?”

If you look at the history of mankind, this very moment that you are reading these words is the most enabled entire societies have been able to do good. A vast chunk of humanity carry in their pockets more computing power than what was available to an individual, irrespective of the money, even as recently as 50-years-ago. We have access to information, at practically zero cost, on our fingertips, the creation and access for which  tens and thousands have fought and died for in earlier times. We can connect and communicate with others, sitting half way across the globe, at the speed of light, while 50-years-ago, two-way-communication was still a marvel of technology that was accessible to a handful of people.

All of this should have made better people of us. We should have be more open, considerate and warmer towards our fellow beings. Yet, for how all of this should have enabled us, we only seem to have grown a stronger sense of entitlement. As people, we communicate more (actively and passively); yet, we are more isolated from each other than ever before. All this technology should enable governments to serve who they truly serve — the people — a lot better; yet, the same technology is being used to shackle people than to free them.

This, I must stress, is not a holier-than-thou exposition on my part. In the past months I have had fleeting episodes where I could set aside my own limitations, prejudices and conditioning to reflect on the life that I have lived and the values that I have lived by and it is not a pretty picture. I have often reveled in being sarcastic, dismissive and not doing even 1/10th of what I could really do. I am as much part of the problem as anyone else is and my disappointment is with myself as much as it is with anyone else.

We think of legacies as what we leave behind at a particular point in time. We are wrong in thinking that. Our legacy is what we create over a lifetime of individual moments. If we are not living the best lives we can live and be the best that we can be through most of our lives, chances are that our legacies are not what we would ideally have liked it to be. We also leave the fate of our legacies to circumstances, bosses, political leadership and and a million other factors, while the truth is that we are the only people who really control it, while anything else is just an excuse to shy away from doing what you say that needs to be done.

What is also lost in all the noise is that most of my generation is slowly progressing towards middle age. We are the age group that will determine where things go from here. Most of us are no longer twenty-year-old youngsters who really don’t wield much influence. A lot of us are in places and positions of influence and if we truly desire a world that is better, we should use that influence in a better manner than just sit on the sidelines lamenting how wrong things are.

And it need not even be about going out there and starting a revolution. It is about stepping up, taking the responsibility towards your immediate environment. Be nicer to people,  be more helpful. Help others succeed while you chart your own course for success. Be less negative and snarky. You have far more with you than what most others have and to get more you need to first learn to give more; not just that what can be touched, but also that cannot be touched.

At least, that is what I feel. That it is not enough to just want better things for myself, but also for the world around me and back it up with action. A first small step towards that for me is stop being negative, cranky and being proud of being an ass. In the end, for me, it is about using these great tools I have been provided with, in a better manner. Yes, the world usually uses these same tools in a negative manner, but I can choose to use the same things in a different way and that’s my first step small step.

Scaling Notifications On Elgg To Support Rich, Context-Aware Emails

One of the core aspects of a social networking site is its ability to notify its users by leveraging different frameworks. Social networks that have complex access restrictions are entirely different beasts to build and scale compared to sites that are either mostly open, or are those where the content generation can only be done by a handful of users.

I have been running an Elgg site for an old client since 2009, which is a private gated network. At an early stage itself we ran into problems with the newsletter that had to go out to the entire user base. This was from a time when products like MailChimp were not an option and we were also working with a fairly limited budget. At the first stage, we mitigated the problem by using a job queue that was built on MySQL.

As any engineer will tell you that a job queue based on an RDBMS that can only run one worker, or even worse depends heavily on locking to run multiple workers is not a job queue. Eventually, it will cause more trouble than what it is worth and that is what we got into. Besides, as an Elgg site grows and you introduce more features to it, something that can farm out jobs and handle them asyc is worth its weight in gold.

Eventually, I wound up creating a simple set-up using Beanstalkd. The notification handler and the generic mail handlers are overwritten to add jobs to the Beanstalk queue and a PHP worker job (managed by Supervisord) processes the jobs in the background. I could go a level deeper and even leave out the individual job creation to Beanstalk itself, but the current approach seems to be holding up well for the moment, so, that next step can easily wait for a while longer.

Couple of pitfalls you need to watch out for, should you attempt to do the same thing:

1. Content encoding. This will drive you nuts if your scripts, DB tables and the CLI environment are different in how their locales are set up. Do not assume that everything that works in the browser will work the same in CLI. It won’t.

2. Access: The CLI script loads the Elgg environment and has no user. So, be aware of any functions that use sessions to return results.

3. Valid entities: PHP will error out when faced with an attempt to call a method on a non-object. If you don’t kick or bury a job (which is not possible when the script exits with an invalid object error) that is causing the error, the script will endlessly start and stop again. You have to obsessively check every object for validity before you attempt to do anything with it.

4. Use MailCatcher on your development set up. It will save you a ton of time, even though it does make the server itself a bit sluggish.

There are few other options available in the Elgg ecosystem to do the same like Jettmail and the upcoming Async notifications feature in Elgg 1.9. But both have their own complexities and issues and I could not wait till 1.9 and I needed something that didn’t require as much fiddling as Jettmail.

It is also possible to further extend this kind of development to leverage some of the transactional email services out there to use the inbound email feature to post to Elgg with webhooks. There are, though, no plans to roll that out right now and I will update this post if we ever get around to doing that.