Month: November 2009

Year In Review: Mobility

2009 was the first time in so many years that I desperately wanted to change my mobile service provider. It started with the problems I was having with Airtel once my phone connection was changed from corporate billing to personal billing. This number has been with me, in my name, for close to 8-years now and it was a bit crazy to know that every time the billing changes, they register you into a new customer ID, forcing you to start fresh from credit limits and whatnot. This just fails on so many levels on rewarding customer loyalty. Thankfully, for them, the other providers are no better.

There were not many other changes on that front. I have stuck steadfastly to Nokia E71 as the platform. The phone is getting a bit long in the tooth now and as the joke goes, even the milkman has one of these nowadays, but it is built like a tank, works reasonably well and I have gone through only a single intentional factory reset to fix the regulation Nokia sluggishness. At its current price levels the phone is a great value-for-money proposition, only if we could slap something like a decent operating system on it, than the mindlessness called S60.

Usage of the phone is limited largely to voice (~70% for local outgoing calls in billing), lower single digit percentages in text and data is covered by the Rs 99 plan which has a bundled 250 MB per month free usage limit with it. I do intend to change my call plan, which should see a marginal drop in total billing. Data will remain the same since I've not felt the need for the Rs 500 unlimited plan and I've never run afoul of the 250 MB download limit.

One significant switch that has happened through the year is my switch away from the paid applications in the GPS segment. I've tried all three paid products — Nokia Maps, MapmyIndia and Satnav — and found all to be weak in different ways. The Nokia license is really expensive even if the UI is the best of the lot, MapmyIndia search is useless (which is a crucial part of a GPS app, especially when it can hook up to a server to do the same) and Satnav, while cheap, suffers from both problems. Besides, it does not work on my E17 with a QWERTY keypad. The winner this time around is Google Maps and it is a pity, because I will more than happily pay for the licenses and I don't want Google running every part of my life, but it is an opportunity lost for the others. For my normal travel, I got myself a Mapmyindia Lx device.

The apps that have remained on my deck:

Opera Mini 4/5. (sustained heavy usage, for mail mostly. I don't use push email)

Google Maps (sustained heavy usage, mostly within the city)

Nokia Sports Tracker (Tracking my walks/run)

Gravity (Tweeting, usage trending downwards now)

Putty (Rarely used, one of those things you have with you for the 'just-in-case' scenarios)

Filed under: Misc, Mobile

Year In Review: Connectivity

This is part of a series of posts on some of the products I have used and come to love/hate through the year.

About five months ago, I switched to Tata Indicom Wimax. Having previously used their data card, I was very apprehensive about signing up for it. But, having moved to working from a home office, reliable connectivity was a major requirement for me, which, my provider at that time, MTNL, was not. They had fiber cuts due to employees being on strike, horrific network latency and many other problems. At one point we had no connectivity for about three days and that is where I decided to draw the line.

I had heard good things about Tata Indicom Wimax from Surinder who had been using the service for a while by then. I would have gladly gone with Airtel, but they don't service the block that I live in, which is astonishing because this is bang in the middle of South Delhi and for some strange reason they have not bothered to cover this particular block. And it is not like there is no demand for broadband here. I know of three other customers for the Wimax service in the same block and there are many more on the crappy local cable internet service.

Surprisingly, Indicom's customer service is pretty decent. My request was processed quite quickly and even though the local franchisee made a hash of it later (usual problems with Indian Slow Time), that too was resolved quickly. The only requirement for Wimax to work is to have a good line of sight to a nearby tower of the company. So, it is essential that you have permissions to install the antenna on the terrace of your house and to run the cable down into your residence from there.

In crowded areas getting the signal right can take a bit of time, but once that is done you just have to sign up with their customer portal and you are good to go. All the basic plans come with a private IP that can be easily converted to a public IP by paying Rs 200 more. I chose the Infinity 384 plan, which is one of those somewhat-unlimited plans. There is no dialer software required for the service, but it does require you to renew your session at the customer portal every 7-hours or so. It should not be too hard to write a script to get around this, but I've not felt the need for it.

The Positives

1. Stable and reliable: I've not had a single instance of downtime with the service in about five months now. The speeds are consistently good and I easily get 40 KBps average on downloads easily.

2. Reasonable FUP. The combined (up/down) traffic limit for a month on my plan is 70 GB. Even with heavy downloads, my usage maxes out at 30 GB, leaving me with plenty of room to spare.

3. Online Payments: I can pay the bills online. Which is very important for a lazy ass like me.

4. The customer portal: Apparently it has been redone ever since I joined up. But it gives very good usage statistics and breakdowns.

The Negatives

1. The session logouts after the 7-hour limit. It is irritating initially and probably flouts the 'always-on' requirement for broadband, but I have made my peace with it for the stability I've had with the service.

2. The unit can take a while (~10 minutes) to get back on to the network after a power disruption. It is a good idea to buy a low capacity UPS just for this.

Filed under: Internet, Mobile

How To Not Fail In Indian Internet: A Proposal

Abinash Tripathy lays it out, in pretty good detail, the litany of things that are wrong with the great Indian media companies in how they are going to blow it with the opportunities in the online domain. I have added my two bits in the comments there and I have written quite a bit on the subject here and elsewhere, so I won't add to the chorus that is already cooking up a hit record there now.

Over the past couple of months I realized that there is too much energy and effort that is spent on the wrong aspects in our industry. On one side we have what I lovingly call the 'carnival of the clueless' who either churn out products or help others churn out products that have no sustainable long-term value, while on the other we have the parade of the naysayers, which I've often been a part of.

That status-quo needs to change. Why? Because of the simple reason that the Indian digital opportunity does exist. Telecom has already demonstrated that. What needs to change is the 'how' aspect of how we unlock it. As mentioned earlier, the two aspects where a lot of energy is spent in our industry won't bring about that change.

So, how can we go about it?

  1. Be constructive: There is just way too much of criticism and hype in the industry. Companies love to talk up their products and the other end of the spectrum loves to talk it down. Between the two points, we are making little progress in going forward. All we are do is to argue endlessly and do little more than that.
  2. Less talk, more action: The ecosystem is full of people just talking about how the various aspects of starting up than actually doing any starting up. Most of the industry events have people who have done well on the one side and the wannabes who are agape, intellectually and orally, at being in such close proximity to the former. There is little enablement that happens at these events. You come, group-hug and leave.
  3. Share, reach out, teach: Making a venture work in India requires you to tackle a multitude of things that you would not probably have to deal with otherwise. There is a lot of learning out there which can help others starting out, locked away in companies. We really don't have a culture of sharing knowledge or information. We'd rather kick down a brother than help him out. Competitive edge is not always about holding back information.
  4. Reduce cognitive dissonance: A lot of products launched through the 2006-2008 period in online in India has little rationale or practical use case. Truckloads of money has gone down the drain launching these products that have little backing them other than the 'strong belief' of the managements and VCs that it will do well. We have to stop doing this. 90% of doing a business is pure common sense — of how much you make back on every dollar you put into a venture.

    Can we please stop the guesswork and make reasonable assumptions made on what is known in numbers than go with the mutual suck-up games played in board rooms as the only rationale?

  5. Kill the inbreeding of ideas: There are a million good ideas out there in the non-online world that are begging for an online solution in India. We can't seem to think beyond the five pet themes (and their variants) in our industry at any given point in time.
  6. Honest measurement and instrumentation: Let us stop the inflation of numbers across the board. The industry lies through its teeth, starting from user engagement to inventory figures by the sales teams. This does get your balance sheet to look great in the shorter term, but it harms companies and the industry as a whole in the long run. We already see this in action where every study mentions numbers that will double or triple in the coming years, but, internally, every product hits a glass ceiling at sooner than later.

Of course, I do have an agenda in doing this and I will be quite upfront about it. After being somewhat of a free agent in the past year, I'm about to kick things up a notch with what is being attempted with Frontiernxt. I do believe that we can unlock the potential in the Indian digital space without burning a crore in SEM budgets every month. I do believe that the unlocking won't happen with a massive frontal assault on the news pages and psyche of the nation. We need to build bottom-up, in a federated manner. We need to have an eye on the marco aspect, while understanding and working closely at the micro level. And most importantly, none of us can do this alone. It is a big opportunity that requires buy-ins from various players.

The good news is that in terms of capital requirements, the Indian online opportunity still has a pretty low entry level. Most of what is done on, can be replicated at a fraction of the cost now (well, spare the domain name and the expensive music licensing that does little more than bleed cash). Most of any other leading internet property in India has done can be replicated on the cheap. But, cost of replication has never been an issue. It is cost of adoption and the quality of adoption that has been the key on the internet. And the even greater news is that worthwhile adoption is not something that money can buy, which is exactly why none of the existing players have cracked it so far. You can't make things work on the internet by throwing more money at it.

But, I digress.

For modest sums, we can build smaller products that focus more on engaging 10 new good users in a day than 10,000 hit-and-run users. For this to be possible, you need genuinely good content or(and) genuinely good services. What we often to forget is that the medium (the internet) is just a conduit or tool to meet other ends and there are numerous such ends that need to be met out there. Just “being online” does not construe a business model.

What we need to do is to slowly turn the ecosystem around to allow for these ends to be enabled online. This does require thinking, measurement and products that are different from what we have seen till date. It probably won't be glamourous as the online we know of now, but it is something that I am going to bet really heavily on.

Filed under: India, Internet