Month: December 2011

Looking Back At 2011

This year easily qualifies as one of the toughest I have had after 2007. Almost everything that was planned and attempted for this year has either not worked out or not done well at all. The good part is that I have learned much, the bad part is that the entire year is almost a complete write off. It is back to the drawing board for 2012. Meanwhile, here’s wishing everyone a wonderful 2012.

Filed under: Frontiernxt

What Is A Good Mobile Strategy For India?

As the previous post focused on an overview of the scenario for banking applications for Indian banks on Android, I thought it would be a good idea to have a follow-up post on what is a good mobile strategy for your products. Products built also for Mobile Internet in India goes back a very long way. Rediff had a mobile website in 2000 which was marked up in WML. Those days, more than a mobile phone it was a PDA that was the target device and it was a requirement from a product hygiene that led the well-funded companies down that path.
By 2005 the focus had changed drastically from building WAP-enabled websites to leveraging the SMS-based revenue streams. A lot of money and effort was spent on getting ‘on-deck’ with the operators, which was followed by the era of the short-code. Then came the age of the backend service providers such as July Systems who would transform your data into a mobile-friendly format and handle the presentation of it as a managed service. And now we find ourselves in the app era where content and service apps targetting iOS and Android (Blackberry, Symbian and WP being after thoughts) are being released by companies on a regular basis.
For decision makers in the industry this is a very confusing time since there are multiple strategies that could be deployed:

  1. Only web: Ignore mobile and all facets of it due to cost and operational complexities. There are zero cost workarounds possible if you are on WordPress by using plugins that will accomplish this for you. On custom platforms you can use a mobile-friendly template and hope that it renders decently across most devices, or at least devices that are less than 4-5 years old.
  2. Web + SMS: Considering the mess created by TRAI regarding bulk messaging, this is still an evolving scenario, but it is feasible to have an SMS-based operation with a managed service longer short code for a reasonable amount of money.
  3. Web + SMS + Mobile web: This is (2) augmented with a dedicated mobile website, or a main website that detects a mobile device and serves the right format for pages.
  4. Web + SMS + Mobile Web + app: This is (3) augmented with apps that are built for various mobile platforms.
  5. Web + Mobile Web + app: This is a strategy that seems to be picking up a lot these days, with a variant of Web + app.

There is no hard and fast rule that will help you decide which is the best route to pick. There are significant cost and operational complexities that are involved in adding a new target platform. Even with a managed, outsourced service the support needs to be provided to supply the right data, which is just one part of the entire integration puzzle.
Key Metrics:

  1. Cost: Of deployment, maintenance and growth.
  2. Audience: Size, geography, demographic.
  3. Platform: Size, geography, demographic.
  4. Monetization: Ads, subscriptions (current and projected)

Most operations don’t have a good handle on the four key metrics before they jump into the mobile rabbit hole. Of the available strategies (4) is the most expensive and worst in terms of integration issues. Even though apps are the in-thing to do, the costs for development of an application is quite high and in India you have to support the application on at least three platforms to reach out to a demographic who can be monetized a bit better. The NDTV application in Android Market has about half a million as an install base, but most of that came as a result of the app being featured in the marketplace and installs have fallen off a cliff ever since.
A good rule of thumb to use is to not go with apps for content-only websites, unless you can either support a significantly different/superior user experience or if you have content that is accessible only under a subscription. Non-aggregated content apps always stand the risk of being crowded on in the app screens and eventually decay without repeat usage. It is better to stick to having a mobile-friendly website in this case and only switch to an app if you see the demand for it or you have services that work well with an application. You also have to take into consideration that bandwidth is an issue here, even when it is available over 3G.
Service-oriented businesses are better off with a focus on applications primarily because monetization is already built into most online services. For instance, should a Flipkart decide to eventually support e-books, a fully functional (better than the wrapper around the mobile website approach they currently have) application will allow them to ease into that segment. Same is the case with ticketing services. These businesses also have a greater opportunity in providing unique user experiences around their services compared to content-only players.
For smaller shops, mobile applications are best left alone at the moment. There is simply not enough size/support in the market to justify the cost and effort. It is much easier to clean up the mark-up and have a website that presents a reasonably degraded and functional website to mobile browsers.

Filed under: Android, India, Mobile

Quick Look At Official Indian Banking Apps On Android

The main list of banks to track has been sourced from the BANK-NIFTY and it throws up an interesting set of results
Axis Bank Ltd.
No official Android app, supported in NGpay. There is a Java mobile app for it.
Update (13th, August, 2012. Thanks, Rajashri Ray in the comments): There is an official Android app now: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.csam.axis.activity
Install base: 100,000 – 500,000
Bank of Baroda
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.fss.bob
Install base: 1,000 – 5,000
Bank of India
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.
Canara Bank
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.
HDFC Bank Ltd.
No official Android app, supported in NGpay. There is a Java mobile app for it.
Update (13th, August, 2012. Thanks, Pankaj Batra in the comments): There is an official Android app now:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.snapwork.hdfc
Install Base: 100,000 – 500,000
ICICI Bank Ltd.
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.csam.icici.bank.imobile
Install Base: 100,000 – 500,000
IDBI Bank Ltd.
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.
IndusInd Bank Ltd. 
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.fss.indus
Install Base: 100 – 500
Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd.
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.
Punjab National Bank
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.
State Bank of India
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.sgs.sbi.mbanking
Install Base: 50,000 – 100,000
Union Bank of India (FSS)
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.fss.ubi
Install Base: NA
Other Notables:
Citibank India:
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.citiuat
Install Base: 10,000 – 50,000
Stanchart India
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=air.app.scb.breeze.android.main.in.prod
Install Base: 1000-5000
Notes:

  • Interestingly, only five of the twelve banks from the list have official applications on the Android platform.
  • Pretty much every bank on that list has a J2ME app for mobile banking, which makes a lot of sense in a country like ours.
  • Even the banks with Android apps don’t feature it prominently on their websites.
  • Only exception to (3) is ICICI Bank, who are a bit overenthusiastic in promoting iMobile.
  • HDFC Bank is a notable absentee in the list, even though they are supported through NGpay.
  • The apps mostly have the same feature set. Understandable, as the backend service providers tend to be the same few across banks, which makes feature-based differentiation a hard one to pull off.
  • Citibank India and Stanchart India have a reasonable install base.
  • nGpay supports both Axis Bank and HDFC, which should be the cheapest route for banks to integrate with an Android or mobile app.
  • FSS powers the services of Bank of Baroda and Union Bank of India. Looks like they are using a white-label application.
  • SBI’s install numbers are a pleasant surprise. Shows a level of awareness in the market I had, honestly, not expected.
  • Quite revealing that both SBI and the FSS-based apps have a minimum requirement of Android 1.5 and up, while most of the others are 2.x.
  • These numbers can be quite misleading. It is nearly impossible to track the install base of the J2ME apps. So, usage could be a different matter altogether.
  • Install base leader board
    1. ICICI Bank
    2. SBI
    3. NGpay
    4. Citibank India
    5. Bank of Baroda
    6. Stanchart India
    7. Indusind Bank
Filed under: India, Internet, Mobile

On Online Privacy, Snooping

We are gradually entering an age where data generated by an average person about her/himself will just be beyond anything we could have imagined twenty-years ago. From mobile phone towers to cashless transactions, we leave trails and pointers to ourselves all over the world now. There used to be a time when there were only a handful of touch-points for non-cash transactions, everything else was done using cash. CCTVs were a rarity, phones were connected to wires and not mobile and there was no internet.
We have not yet grasped the degree of this change in its entirety, while the impact it has on an individual’s privacy and safety is far beyond what we can imagine today. Just take the case of the internet, everything from your DNS lookups to requests made to another computer online is logged and in the case of unencrypted traffic it can easily be examined too. It is not just spyware and backdoors that are a threat these days, the entire intermediary infrastructure is open to abuse by both the good guys and the bad guys equally.
In a manner of speaking, privacy really does not exist and nothing is really a secret anymore. Any secure system is only as secure as its weakest link and our basic communication infrastructure is riddled with multiple weak points. Does that mean it is wrong to have an expectation or to ask for privacy? I don’t think so. As citizens of a free country we have every right to ask for it. More importantly, it is more important for enforcement and law to not criminalize the citizens of a country, by default, if they have to have an easier time of nabbing the bad guys.
Coming from that line of thinking, I don’t find the overtures by the government to somehow censor the content on the internet more as a case of having no idea of a scary new world than an outright attempt at curtailing dissent or any such thing. As people who publish content, we often don’t have a clear handle on how to deal with things that are written on our sites by the vistors and also what is written about us on other sites. If we don’t have a clear cut idea on this, it is easy to imagine the confusion of people in power, who have to deal with this on a much bigger scale.
I had a first-hand experience of this in 2008 when we were dragged into a case regarding some defamatory comments published on my then-employer’s website. Both parties in the case were well-meaning, but neither of them had a clear understanding of how these things work, nor did the people who were enforcing the law. I do advise a law firm on issues related to technology and I find the same problem there. Both law and enforcement  are dealing with issues over which they have little understanding or clarity. When you work backwards from “this needs to stop,” you are a hammer and the world is full of nails.
The risk in all of this a blanket criminalization of anything anonymous or pseudonymous in the digital world as these are the favourite paths taken by people who abuse the wonders of the digital world. Laws are increasingly being made or drafted that look at abuse as the rule and everything else as an outlier. There are enough individuals and organizations that are willing to help governments and agencies bridge this crucial gap in understanding the inner workings of the digital world. I hope that we can find a better tomorrow where we can all work together to bridge the gaps and progress towards a healthier place.

Filed under: India, Technology

BWA at Rs 10 per GB is an invitation to ruin RIL

Medianama recently posted their analysis on the reported plans by Reliance Industries to roll out their BWA-based product at a bundled cost of Rs 10 per GB with their Rs 3500 tablet.
Since this is a topic that has been of some interest to me, I thought it was worth taking a deeper bite into the pricing and other factors of this offering.
As far as per-GB pricing goes, even the cheapest cost, even for fixed lines, is not to be found under Rs 30 per GB. Data on wireless (2G or 3G) is considerably more expensive, other than the sole exception of Airtel’s Rs 99 for 2GB plan on 2G. RIL could tap into RCom’s FLAG and also leverage RCom’s their ‘preferred’ status with YouTube to mitigate a bit of their costs, but that will hardly be enough to start making a dent on the pretty penny already spent in acquiring spectrum through the Infotel acquisition.
The comparison with fixed line broadband or Wimax is not entirely fair when in it comes to BWA. They have different cost structures. Traditionally, fixed line broadband is used by an entire household and is shared over multiple devices. A tablet, on the other hand, will mostly be used by one person. For this to work out, RIL has to sell aggressively to the demographic that currently contributes to Rs 200 ARPU on voice. You can see how the pricing makes sense if you compare it to a mobile phone.
The only problem is that online services in India don’t yet have the utility status that mobile phones enjoy, thus requiring an entire layer of content and services to be added for the users. It won’t work if you just give people cheap bandwidth and a cheap device. It is not that we have not had reasonably priced broadband in India for a while (BSNL’s DSL services now reach a lot of remote places in the country), we just have not had enough India-specific products and services for people to use in those places so far.
Anyway, let us work some more numbers to see how much money RIL can make out of the current plans.
To establish a base (reasonably flawed) benchmark, we will take Airtel’s assertion that their 3GB plan is one of the most popular ones and assume that a user on the new service will use 3 GB per month. For the sake of convenience, we will spread the cost of the tablet over the course of a year. This will mean that for the first year the user will bring in revenues of Rs 291 per month and the cost of data used on the service.
This gives us an ARPU of Rs. 321 for the first year.
Total first year revenue per user = Rs. 3852
Second year revenue  per user = Rs. 360
Total revenue for 2-years  per user = Rs. 4212
Even on a subscriber base of 100000 users in the first year, this will only bring in revenues under Rs 50 crore in the first two years. Considering that the spectrum alone cost Infotel well over Rs 12,000 crores, the outlook is horrible for the company. At a million users, the company has a shot at a marginally more realistic runway (if you can call two decades that), but I am not sure if those users are there for the taking and we are not yet taking into account the Rs 18,000 crore – Rs 20,000 crore that the company plans to invest in setting up the services.
As a thought exercise, let us bump up baseline usage a bit to 30GB per month. This will bring up the data costs in a month to Rs. 300. Add the device cost of Rs. 219 per month to it and you get an ARPU of Rs. 519 for the first year.
Total first year revenue per user = Rs. 6228.
Second year revenue per user = Rs. 3600
Total revenue for 2-years per user = Rs. 9828
This bumps up total revenue estimates for two years to around Rs 98 crores. On a one million user base it will recover the spectrum costs in a bit over ten-years.
The main takeaway from these numbers is that RIL really needs to get users to use a lot of data or/and get a lot of users from the word go. What stands in their way is that in reaching out to the people who are not already online, they will be dealing with the ceiling of the Rs 200 ARPU on voice segment. They won’t easily move up at all on this curve. Another data point that will be a cause for concern is the ARPU on wire line broadband. These have always been around Rs 600 – Rs 700 level, from information that is not easily available. That more or less keeps the ceiling a bit too low for RIL to succeed with this offering.
There is, though, an alternative way to go about this, which is to not  directly charge for the device. Instead, you get a Rs 350 flat rate per month, on a 2-year commitment from the user. It will come bundled with 3GB of usage per month. You can buy more GBs like talktime for phones.
First year ARPU at 3GB data per month = 350 PM
Total first year revenue per user =  Rs 4200
Total second year revenue per user =  Rs 4200
Total revenue for 2-years per user = 8400
This should get them a much healthier Rs 84 crore in revenue with a better certainty that the users will continue with you.
If you bump up the data usage, the picture gets a lot more healthier.
First year ARPU at 30 GB data per month  = 350 + (27*10) = Rs. 620 PM
Total first year revenue per user =  Rs. 7440
Total second year revenue per user =  Rs. 7440
Total revenue for 2-years per user =Rs. 14,880
In theory, this is the sweetest deal RIL can hope for. Around Rs 150 crore in two years is not a bad number to have in revenue, but it also requires users to consume data at a rate which is comparable to a more than moderate wire line data user at the moment. I also think that Rs. 500 is a major point of resistance for the average household to spend on anything beyond bare necessities on monthly basis.
There are a lot of factors that can change the equation for RIL, but knowing what we know now, it is very unlikely that the offering is a sustainable one in the long term for the company.

Filed under: India, Internet

The Great Promotional Mailer Overdrive

Contrary to what seems to be popular sentiment on the internet, I actually like advertising as long as it is not overly intrusive, has some form of relevance to things/services I am interested in and is not spammy. As a result I don’t at times unsubscribe from promotional mailers sent to me by various companies and in certain cases I do actually check out most of the offers. Of the many that I subject myself to, I like the efforts of both ICICI Bank and Ebay. So I figured it will be a good idea to track one of these companies for a month to check for volume for and quality. Below is the list of mailers ICICI Bank has sent me through November:
ICICI Bank:

Nov 30: Refer iMobile to 5 friends and get Rs. 500
Nov 30: Just activate iMobile and get a Free Voucher worth Rs. 500
Nov 28: Get 5x reward points for online recharge of Mobile, DTH and Data Card
Nov 27: Get 5x reward points for online recharge of Mobile, DTH and Data Card
Nov 25: Special Privilege: Rate of Interest now reduced on your ICICI Bank Credit Card
Nov 23: Refer iMobile to 5 friends and get Rs. 500
Nov 20: Get a Gift Voucher worth Rs. 500 just for activating iMobile
Nov 20: ICICI Bank presents Home Loans at fixed rate of interest for the first 2 years
Nov 18: Discovering Malaysia is now 5X more rewarding
Nov 16: Prepaid Mobile Recharge at your fingertips!
Nov 16: Count on us to cover your medical expenses, with the Family Protect Premier Insurance!
Nov 16: Money Manager
Nov 14: Rs 100 off on tickets
Nov 14: Presenting Culinary Treat - Minimum 15% savings on dining
Nov 12: Personal loans
Nov 9: Cashback travel vouchers
Nov 8: Redeem payback points
Nov 6: Activate imobile
Nov 2: Get Rs 500 Cashback Travel Voucher by spending on your ICICI Bank Debit Card
Nov 2: Get 3 exciting gifts absolutely FREE just for activating Internet Banking!
  • 20 mailers in a month are a few too many for my liking.
  • They don’t seem to do much of a finely tuned campaign. I am already using imobile, same is the case with internet banking.
  • Quite a few repeats.
  • The tracking is sub-par
  • Copy quality is average
The feedback for ICICI must have been good as this flooding has now been taken up also by their sister company ICICI Direct, but the latter’s campaigns have hardly any tracking enabled on them, keeping them at a much earlier stage of evolution.
Ebay India:
  • 23 mailers in all of November, 2011
  • A lot of effort is put into the creatives, they are really well done. Copy quality is also good.
  • They are pushing deals/offers really hard. Not surprising, since they seem to be flavour of the current boom (or bust).
  • The tracking is meticulous on the campaigns. Opens and clicks are tracked, I am assuming so would be transactions conversions.
  • Other than offers/deals, most of the mailers are content initiatives. They categorize existing items on the site.
Filed under: India, Internet, Marketing

Ice Cream Sandwich On Samsung Galaxy S

ICS On Samsung Galaxy S

The phone is now well over a year old and has been good to me. Sometime earlier this year I managed to dead boot it (a condition where you wind up corrupting the bootloader itself) and it had to be revived with a JTAG pinout. I was running a rooted and lag-fixed stock Gingerbread ROM on it for a long time and was quite satisfied with it. The primary reason why I love this phone has been how abuse-friendly it has been so far. I tend to drop my phones and carry them around without any screen guards or cases. This one has been dipped in water once, keeps falling on the ground at regular intervals and is not treated with a great deal of gentleness. To survive all that and to still keep going gets my loyalty any given day.
By 2.3.4 itself I had decided to hold off until Samsung releases (or leaks) a build of Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) for the phone before I do any more experiments with the new ROMs. Over time, I have come to dislike most of the heavily modified ROMs and it also tends to be a bottomless pit, you keep trying one after the other and waste a lot of time on it. When Google announced the release of ICS to the developer community, I was expecting a wait of a few months before a stable enough build was out for the SGS. But, things have changed a lot on Samsung’s end since I bought the phone over a year ago, when it was on Froyo and took forever to get a stable, non-leaked official Gingerbread build out.
Early in November Onecosmic on XDA Forums had released a build from AOSP codebase. I tried the beta2 release and found it to be quite stable, but the battery life was the worst I have ever had on a mobile device. It would not last more than 10-hours if I was lucky and it meant that I had to carry around my old Nokia E71 as a backup phone. But things changed dramatically when Teamhacksung released an AOSP build of their own late November. The first build I tried was build5, which was a vast improvement in battery life over the Onecosmic build. Build6 was the best I have ever had on their releases with the phone being at its fastest best. I am running build7 at the moment, but it has not been as snappy as build6. There are a few things that don’t work well (video recording, front-facing camera), but it is very stable and “force close” is not that rampant and I can now easily go a full 24-hour day of normal usage with 12% battery left on the device.
I have tweaked a few things to get that kind of life.

  1. Force GPU rendering: Off
  2. Window animation scale: Off
  3. Transition animation scale: Off
  4. Email service: Disabled
  5. Exchange services: Disabled
  6. Google Plus: Disabled
  7. 2G networks only
Other than the excellent stability, the perceptible change in ICS is cosmetic. The UI has been made a lot more consistent and less nerdy, which should catch the attention of the market segment who have been used to the simplicity and smoothness of iOS, but it is not a real competition to iOS yet. It may also be a possibility that Google will decide to take Android in a different direction from iOS. The hints of it are there in the ICS interface (even though it also has enough ‘inspiration’ from iOS) in terms of button placements and other visual elements, but I think is a release that aims to set right the UI wrongs in Gingerbread, making it an evolutionary release. We may see the actual direction the OS may head in by the time Android 5 comes out.
This build is also the first instance of me having spent an extended period of time on the AOSP build. The handset manufacturer OS is almost always laden with a lot of extra apps and services they carry on deck. It is nice to be able to live in an environment that does not have any of that. At the same time, they too need to make whatever money they can out of these devices, so you can’t blame them a lot for it, which is where the freedom (not openness) of having Android phones that allow you to throw out all the official firmware and start on something like this becomes invaluable.
Build 8 Update Highlights (12-12-2011): 
  1. Turned back on Window animation and Transition animation.
  2. Email and Exchange services are still disabled.
  3. First run after new update was awful, got barely 10-hours of battery life.
  4. Changed modem to JP5 and battery life is back to normal. 11-hours on 55% battery, Wifi on all the time, more than 2-hours already on phone calls.
  5. Trying out the Thunderbolt scripts, even though the jury is divided whether they work or not. It seems a lot smoother for me.
Filed under: Android, Mobile