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.