Category Archives: Industry

Google’s Mobile Woes: The Search Bar

With the exception of transactions, discovery is one of the best aspects of any business to get into. While both discovery and transaction are intermediary plays, the former tends to push much more volumes compared to the latter. Perfect examples of such companies are Paypal (transactions) and Google (discovery), with Paypal representing the transaction piece, while Google represents the discovery piece when it comes to information.

It is always interesting to watch people use a computer, more for the manner in which even really tuned-in folks use Google as a quasi-DNS service. Vast majority of users I have observed refuse to use the address bar in the browser (leveraging the browser history and suggestions) and will open up a Google search page and enter the domain name there. This places a disproportionate level of power in the hands of Google and it is also one of the reasons why the company is so powerful in the information game.

The problem for Google is that they can’t replicate that one-stop-shop experience on the mobile. Even on an Android phone, searching is not an activity that is done easily. On a computer, a good chunk of time is spent inside a browser. On a mobile, phone very little time is spent in a browser and vertical apps have little reason to include a generic search feature. In fact, it would be considered antithetical to how mobile apps are meant to be used.

It is not that Google has not tried. There is a persistent search bar in most Android devices and then there is the Google Now, but neither lends itself to extensive searching compared to what users do on a desktop. There’s also the mobile version of Chrome, which is an excellent little browser, but it needs some serious firepower (processing & network speeds) to do its magic and the experience is awful on lower-end phones. Considering all of that and looking at the manner in which mobile usage is skyrocketing, eclipsing the laptop/desktop usage growth, mobile search volumes must be considerable concern at Mountain View.

The problem is also that the mobile experience itself not a singular one, but one of groups of silos and is heavily push-oriented. Computers tend to be devices where you have to provide the context for the usage. Compared to mobiles, it is a very pull-driven experience. On the other hand, mobiles tend to push the context at you and the apps are increasingly becoming self-contained silos. It is almost like having a separate browser on the computer for each site you want to visit and almost none of them provide an easy way to search using Google from within the app. And therein lies the problem for Google.

As if none of these issues were not a problem already, the newer markets where mobiles growth is most explosive are where Google has little influence as an intermediary. There are hordes of people in countries like India where, for many, the first experience of the internet is not on a computer, but on a mobile device. And as it happens, this first experience also tends to be a WhatsApp or Facebook, cutting Google entirely out of the equation.

Thus, the problem for Google on mobile is not that vertical search will somehow eclipse horizontal search, but that access to horizontal search is a problem that is not going to go away. Mind you, this is the case when Google practically owns the mobile OS with the largest market share out there. What must be even more worrying for Google is that there is no easy way out of this problem. A user who spends 90% of her/his time on Line/Facebook/WhatsApp, won’t start searching in a browser for something as the context switch (apps than tabs) is inherently more expensive on mobile.

In a way, the tables are getting turned on Google on mobile as the app that gets the user’s attention majority of the time will hold all the cards in this game. Eventually, Google will have to wind up doing deals with the top 20 or more apps in each market to establish the distribution for search on mobile as it successfully has done on the desktop. Which can only mean one thing for app makers — more money in the days to come.

Customer Acquisition In Online Media: The Newsletter

Over the past year or so I have switched to consuming a lot of content on email. Well, to be precise, email newsletters. The poor little newsletter has, for long, been consigned as a necessary relic, especially in news organizations and content publications. This started during pre-post-PC era (I know it sounds funny and it is intentional) when mobiles were still primarily voice (than data) devices, RSS aggregators were for niche audience and much of content consumption started at the primary gateway of a publication’s homepage.

Newsletters, at that point in time, added little value to homepage-centric consumption pattern. Moreover, they were seen first as places to sell advertising inventory if you had huge subscription numbers, as an add-on to the primary ad slots on the website. Something like a buy-two-get-one-free kind of deal, a sweetener that cost the publisher nothing much and made the advertiser feel good. Since email-on-mobile was still not a widespread phenomenon, majority of consumers used to access their email on their laptops or desktops, limiting the visibility and utility of the newsletters.

Enter Data On The Move

The switch-over of handheld devices to becoming primarily data devices (that could also handle telephony) has been a game changer for every industry. I prefer to look at this change in the nature of the devices as a better distinction regarding the various eras in computing, than as a pre/post PC thing. The mobile phone, for a large chunk of its life, was a device that handled telephony and telephony-related functions. The switch-over turned them into generic computing devices that could handle wireless data natively and efficiently, while delegating functions related to telephony as one of the many applications that the device could run.

Death Of Branding And Context

This development dovetailed nicely with the emergence of social networks, whereby content was suddenly stripped of the context and branding at the point of origin. In the pre-social/mobile world, a consumer’s path to a particular piece of content was clearly defined. For example, this would mean (more often than not) I would know that I am reading an opinion piece on a particular publication because I went seeking out something specific to read on that publication’s website.

The main contexts for me in that example are 1) a publication that I like to read 2) a section/topic that is of interest to me and 3) a visual representation (design etc.) that is familiar to me. Part of the reason why some content properties can command a premium in advertising rates is because of this degree of certainty that is provided about the context for their audience. The emergence of social and omnipresent data has decimated this certainty.

The growth curve of Facebook and Twitter (and other niche social properties) is captured best in the referral section of the audience numbers for content websites. Save the gated and private networks, the top sources of traffic for almost every site now is social at top with organic search and direct traffic below it. Contrast this with the pre-social era where direct was the primary driver of traffic, followed by organic search.

Even within social there is no predictable path that is possible. The publication’s own pages on the platforms may drive the the traffic. The traffic may come from a much-followed curator’s page. It may lead from a link going viral, which means tens and thousands of pages may be generating that traffic.

Why Email Newsletters?

The greatest downside for content websites of these developments in social and mobile is that they no longer have a constant engagement with their audience, as represented by direct traffic. And it is only going to drop further as the volume and ability to publish more content ramps up, driving more people into the hands of social and content aggregators. The resulting loss or alteration of context (ranging from appreciation, to ridicule and a variety of other not-so-nice things) also impacts advertising options, which in-turn negatively impacts viability of the business itself in the long run.

This is where the humble newsletter becomes a key factor. One application that has weathered all this data and social onslaught is the old school thing called email. Strangely, email has wound up being an off-app notification aggregator of sorts; emerging as a high-engagement app of its own. And unlike the earlier times when email was accessed a lot over browsers in laptops and PCs, it is heavily used in mobile devices. Some of the key numbers regarding use of email on mobiles read like this.

  • Daily we spend 9 minutes on email via a mobile device, that is 7,6% of the total 119 minutes we use our phone per day. O2 – “Mobile life report” UK (2013)
  • Mobile email opens have grown with 21% in 2013, from 43% in Jan to 51% in December. Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2014)
  • More email is read Mobile than on a desktop email client. Stats say 51% of email is now opened on a mobile device Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2014)

You can read more of those stats in this excellent post on EmailMonday. And these are numbers that should make every content producer sit up and take notice.

It is not that nobody is taking email seriously. As pointed out by Nikhil in a recent offline conversation, it is a good source of revenue for some of the trade publications. Similarly, e-commerce sites make extensive use of email as a sales funnel. The former is more a fire hose approach, while the latter — e-commerce — has many years of evolution in both methodology and technology that enables them to segment and target customers effectively for acquisition and retention. There is no such thing that is present with the content domain.

What Should Publications Do?

Firstly, they should consider the audience as customers of a product they are selling. The product here is content, which has a tiny ticket size compared to other (especially transaction-oriented) businesses. The desired outcomes here are a) acquisition b) retention and longer term engagement c) transaction. For content plays, the juicy bit are in (b) as (a) is too volatile a number to reliably build anything on. (c) is also a hard one for most as the options are limited to subscriptions, affiliate models or events.

Secondly, they need to have clear-cut retention strategies for the difference audience segments. Presenting the same recommended articles or email sign up forms for all first time users is not the smartest way to go about retaining a horde of new visitors from a link that has gone viral. I can bet my bottom dollar on the assertion that only a tiny percentage of content publishers anywhere will have a handle on conversion percentages from the last viral spike they experienced. This is unacceptable situation if survival is key for you.

This is also the place where email finds a lot value in building an engaged audience where the publisher has at least some modicum of control over the context. But, to get started on that path, publishers have to both market and put together their mailers better. While the automated solutions like Feedblitz are easy to integrate, they also generate incredibly big blind spots. While email can work as a high-engagement platform, it can also quickly wind up in the death folder (spam) or remain unread if you don’t make the best of the tiny window of opportunity a consumer gives you.

It is vital to recognize that the email context is different from anything else. As a result, you have to re-purpose content for it. In the email app, you are not looking for a quick fix. Other than spam, every email in that item already has an established relationship with the reader. It is the publisher’s responsibility to leverage that relationship and trust to meet the aforementioned objectives.

Lastly, it is important to understand the numbers. What are the open rates and referrals from your email campaigns? What is the bounce rate from the email like? Which form factor represents the largest consumption percentage? Is your email layout responsive?

All the points only touch the surface of a good email strategy for publications. While I hope that most publishers already have in place a strategy that covers all this and more, the reality is that most would struggle to answer even basic questions regarding their email strategy. Even so, right now is a good time to start work on it and leverage a tool that allows for persistent engagement, in a world where prolonged engagement is nearly impossible to find.

Fix For Call Volume Bug In Moto G

The Moto G has been a fantastic phone so far, except for one small bug which becomes a big irritant. If the phone is used with a headset (wired or bluetooth) and you take it off, the call volume will drop to really low levels, making it hard to hear what is being said on the other side. A reboot usually fixes the problem, but that is not an ideal solution.

The other, simpler, fix is to reduce the volume while in call and then max it. What usually happens in a situation like this is that the user will only try to push the volume to the maximum (which the phone usually is at) than reduce it. To make the fix work, you have to first reduce the volume and then increase it, making it very likely that this is a software issue than a hardware one.

Update: Motorola has released an OTA update for the single SIM GSM version for this with the 174.44.1 update that fixes this bug. There is no word on when it will be rolled out to the other models.

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.

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.

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.

On The Content Business

Fair disclosure: I have no idea why Jeff Bezos bought WaPo. You won’t find much about that in this post. This is going to be a rambling, ill-focused post.

Much of the discussion around the content business eventually comes around to the question of paywalls and subscriptions. I feel this is the wrong approach to trying to find a future for an industry that always has had a key role to play in the society. The business of content has not been supported by subscriptions for a long time and that has been the case even before the internet became as big as it is right now.

The scale that the bigger content businesses achieved during their glory days was not because the consumers of the content were paying a price that was close to what it took to produce that piece of content. The scale was there because of the advertising the content producers could bring in. The majority of the damage has happened on that front and trying to repair that damage by getting subscriptions to cover for it is bound to fail.

The business of content is really quite simple:

What do you publish?

How is it consumed?

Who gets to consume what is published.

The three factors together makes a publication a platform play for advertising. Yes, subscriptions are there, but they only make for a bit of nice loose change in the larger picture.

A hypothetical publication, if it attempts to explain its business of content may wind up looking like this:

What do you publish: A weekly magazine on automobiles.

How is it consumed: Print and internet.

Who gets to consume it: 20-45 year-old, 80% male, from the top three metros in the country.

Where internet has been destroying the old content business is in identifying the ‘who gets to consume it’ part of the business. You are not going to make up for the losses on that front by trying to fix the subscriptions part of the business. That horse bolted long long ago and the fact is that, as a large publication, you can’t hope to survive and revive based on how you can charge your subscribers more.

The key question is: how can you deliver a better audience for your advertisers, without compromising the quality of what you publish? There seems to be little effort being put into addressing that crucial question. Audiences these days, like good content, need to be curated and nurtured.

It won’t, though, be an easy thing to do as traditional advertising is used to picking quantity over quality and a historical lack of instrumentation in the industry has allowed them to get away with this. So, even the newer products and models are essentially reinventing the older flawed way of doing things and a way forward that is different seems to be nowhere in sight.

A Quick Micromax A116 Review, Some Things Android, Is DEN Going DTH?

On Android

In his post, Android Is Fading Into The Background—And That’s A Good Thing, Dan Rowinski says that Android’s become mature enough now to slowly fade into the background as the devices themselves take their place in the limelight, compared to the limitations of the operating system. Mobile operating systems and platforms represent some of the most opinionated reporting and fan base on the internet. So, a claim like Rowinski’s always trips my sensationalist filter and this one was no different.

The extremely polarized opinion on the mobile front always makes me wary of getting into any discussion regarding the domain. Every day, a large chunk of the world’s population use handheld devices of varying sizes, shapes, brands and prices in spite of whatever positivies or limitations we may find the platforms out there. The reality is that the data-on-by-default mode in handheld computing is a revolution has only begun and only the foolish would claim any sort of victory — be it for iOS or for Android.

Coming back to how much Android has matured, I find it hardly surprising. An ecosystem that tends to large variety of devices (unlike iOS) will always evolve slower and in a clumsier manner compared to iOS. If you look at how Android has developed since the time of the G1, it was always going to be a matter of  ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ when Android would eventually mature and stabilize. And when it reaches that stage, the impact it will be far wider and deeper than what Apple has accomplished in opening the floodgates of the ‘smarter’ devices. We are starting to see that ‘when’ materialize now.

For iOS, as Android matures, its own consistency and polish, which acted as a fair trade off to its major downsides (lack of intents, proper file system access) will increasingly find itself losing the initiative. It is one thing to set the agenda when you are practically the only game in town and a totally different thing to both defend and attack when there are other big players in town. Digital companies, products and platforms have limited windows to react and adapt in the 21st century. If you remain largely unchanged over anything more than a 2-year window, you are going to be in a lot of trouble.

Micromax A116

Those thoughts about Android bring us to the Micromax A116; otherwise known as the Canvas HD in the market. I happened to pick up this phone because my trusted roadwarrior — the Samsung Galaxy S — finally decided it has had enough abuse at my hands by letting the screen crack badly when I dropped it as I seem to unfailingly do every few days. The other option was to go the import route and get a Google Nexus 4, but the warranty situation on it made me pick this one as the temporary choice, while I wait for Google to officially release the device in India.

I already own a low-end Micromax Android phone (the A72) as my backup device, so I’m not a complete stranger to the mysterious ways of Micromax. That phone had a heavily modified version of Android (Gingerbread) and was never updated. While a lot of the changes were quite nice (compared to the travesty that is called Touchwiz on Samsung), it was still not very desirable compared to the stock Android experience. With that in mind, I expected the A116 to be not quite different, but I am extremely surprised by the outcome.

First of all, the phone is incredibly fast. It has a quad core processor and one GB of RAM. But we already knew that about the phone. What I was really surprised by was 1) the OS. It is quite close to stock Android. Yes, there is a bit of modification here and there, but it is nothing compared to what it was on the A72 and coming from a AOSP build of Jellybean on the SGS, I felt instantly at home. 2) The battery life is spectacular. Even with both SIMs on (one is a 3G SIM) and GPS on all the time, it easily lasted a day for me on a single charge. There is the downside that the battery also takes a long time to get to a full charge, but I can live with that a lot better compared to a battery that charges and drains quickly.

The significant downer is the camera. It is 8MP, as advertised, but the sensor is pretty mediocre and it produces mediocre photos. Thankfully, I don’t click a lot with my phone these days, so it is not a big problem for me.

Which brings us to the interesting angle on the price point of Android devices. When I picked up the A72, it cost me a good Rs. 7000. Phones that were in the similar spec used to cost close to Rs 14,000 a year before that. The A72 now retails close to Rs 5000. The A116 cost me less than Rs. 15000. Most of the quad core phones with that much RAM on it will still cost well in excess of Rs 25,000 even now. The point being, the quality of the Android experience is improving systematically across the price range, especially towards the lower end.

In two or three years we can’t make the distinction much between smartphones and feature phones as feature phones will be lower spec smart phones than the dumb phones we are used to these days.

DEN Networks

Why would a cable network company need over Rs. 870 crore in investments in one go? That’s the question that comes to mind If you look at the $110 million raised from Goldman Sachs and $50 million through a QIP by Den Networks Ltd. The obvious answer would seem that the company wants to get into the DTH game. The DTH license is not cheap by any means and add transponder costs, costs for the technology platform and setting up a proper sales/distribution/service network all will cost a lot of money. From that perspective, the money makes sense, especially if the company is still structured in a manner that keeps the Indian promoters above the 51% holding limit.

From the business side, DTH makes more sense than cable. Negotiating right of way in each state in India is one of the most horrible things you can get yourself into. Every big cable network has a local fixer who is there to handle this part alone and god help you if you don’t have the blessings of the local powers-to-be. Moreover, in rural India, DTH is the undisputed king. In 2012, at a place called Pang (on the Manali – Leh highway), which had little power or life beyond the camps for the tourist and the army TCP, we still found a small shop with a television set hooked up to a DTH set up. Rural India is now dotted with the little mushroom-like dishes and while mobile has been our loud revolution, DTH has been the quiet one.

It is no wonder that DEN would want a bite of that, especially as the competition is loaded with debt and still bleeding money. Of the others, both Tata Sky and Videocon D2H are said to be looking for an IPO in India this year. That, along with the government’s push towards digitization will mean that DEN, as an already listed entity, can stand to reap a good harvest both in the DTH marketplace and in the markets.

 

The Next Big Mobile Wave

The popular history of the evolution of mobile phones is something on the lines of pre-iPhone and post-iPhone, which is, admittedly, quite a convenient way to look at things. The actual history, though, is a far more nuanced (or, complicated, should you prefer that) affair. The evolution of the mobile phones has gone through various phases like full QWERTY keyboards, colour screens, touch screens, WAP browsers, ability to record and handle videos — the list is endless. Reducing that to a pre and post iPhone world does a lot of injustice to pretty much everyone but Apple.

While Apple deservedly gets a lot of credit for changing our idea of what a smartphone is and how we interact with it, what they don’t get enough credit for how they also changed the way we think of how to use data on a smartphone. If you used a smartphone in the pre-iPhone era the one thing that stood out was that packet data was a second class citizen on the phone. The devices were phone-frist and data access devices second, or later. More than the iOS interface or the physical experience of using an iPhone what is seldom spoken about is this drastic change Apple bought to the market – it was a data access device first, while the phone functionality was a secondary issue.

Always On Data

Data being always-on was a game changer. Phones prior to that would ask you which connection you wanted to use to access packet data and if it should ask you again should the need to use data arise again. Taking data connectivity for granted has changed the way we use these devices. More than faster processors or wider and longer screens, always-on-data is the critical path that has led to the state of affairs today in the mobile domain. Pretty much all of our interactions on a smartphone now takes it for granted that it will be able to access packet data. If it was not for that we’d still be largely relying on text messaging and closed access methods like Blackberry Internet Services.

Momentum, Implications

If you look at the winners and losers in the smartphone game, you will see a clear pattern. The players, like iOS and Android, who adapted quickly to the always-on-data paradigm have moved rapidly ahead of the competition. The ones who failed to adapt that quickly, like Nokia, Palm and RIM, have struggled and continue to struggle. Rapidly growing and evolving markets like smartphones place a premium on momentum and you’ll always find that on the winner’s side. Without momentum, the best of platforms will struggle. And smartphones, being one of those rare objects that potentially can belong to every human being, is a ruthless market where you cannot blink for even a second.

Cycling is a brilliant analogy in this case, especially some of the stages of the Tour de France. The best riders always look to stay in the front group — called the peloton — at all times. This is due to two factors. 1) Momentum: The guys at the front have a much better average momentum through any stage than the rest of the others 2) Safety: In the case of unforeseen eventualities like crashes and crazy headwinds, being at the front gives the riders a better chance of working around problems. Always-on-data was a headwind that was unforeseen by the industry.

The Next Big Wave

Changes in these domains can easily make or break companies depending on whether they ride or miss out on the important waves. Even established big companies can die or go through near-death experiences if they can’t ride these waves quickly. If the last big wave was the switch from seldom-on-data to always-on-data (the one that made Apple), the next big wave in mobile could be anything from a multitude of devices using the same OS to devices that are embedded within/on us than being actual handhelds.

Crystal ball gazing, though, is not an easy task here as products in the domain are not often ruled by simple value choices either to the consumer or to the companies that are involved in the game. There is considerable regulatory interference that stands in the way of services and there’s considerable commoditization at the hardware end. For the skeptics, this is the reason why Apple is very touchy about keeping a cash hoard, the size of which confounds everyone. You don’t take anything in this market for granted and ease off, Nokia is a classic example of that.