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Crave, consume, create value; like an addiction

There is no doubt in my mind that we are in the midst of a revolution when it comes to information. It has never been this easy to create, distribute and consume information in the world. This is also the reason why the models associated with creating, distributing and consuming information that we have taken for granted don’t often apply anymore. As a former dedicated devourer of information from mainstream sources I find it fascinating to roam around Youtube’s ‘Most Popular’ section and discover interesting things much before it bubbles into the mainstream sources. Information flow has certainly changed and we are only in the very early stages of a major transition.

This revolution also brings with it unavoidable pitfalls that accompanies the dismantling of any existing system. The pre-internet era was one of only a handful of players who could produce and distribute information. Competition was not rampant and as a publisher you had to compete only with a handful of established players. The current landscape is vastly different from that time. Everyone is competing with everyone else, from being the most read to being the fastest. As the gatekeepers of information multiply, unlike the earlier times of a few, it is no longer sufficient to be an established brand to be read widely anymore.

Consequently, there is a now a perspective or a theory to address any requirement/bias, no matter how oddball that requirement/bias may be. This glut of information has led to a situation where we mistake information for knowledge and knowledge for wisdom. This is best illustrated by an example. I may be well informed about the numerous scams and corruption scandals, but my knowledge of how the scams are taking place is certainly not as good as my information about. Lastly, my wisdom about why these scams are taking place (other than popular trivial generalizations) is non-existent. Yet, in today’s world, since I am well-informed about the scams, I consider myself now knowledgeable and wise about these things.

This blurring of lines between information, knowledge and wisdom has also generated a need for quick-fix bits and morsels that confirm to the popular bias of the day. Since the popular perception on that front is a picture of only corrupt officials, a perpetually suffering population and a world that is horrible to live in, most of the information that tends to get published and distributed also toes that line of thought. If you read the news, browse the opinions voiced by the readers online, it will appear that the world is more like a vision of hell as mentioned in various mythologies and that there is no good left in the world.

A cursory look at our own lives will prove that is not the case. Yes, life can often be tough, but it is certainly not as bad as what people had it ten or hundred years ago. We enjoy facilities and features in our day-to-day lives that our parents’ generation could not even have dreamt of. For every instance of corruption, there are tens of hundreds of people who now have a chance step out of poverty and make something of themselves in the world. A fair world is not one that provides a pre-packaged world with all the benefits to its inhabitants. A fair world is one that provides the essential tooling and infrastructure that anyone who is looking to breakthrough can make use of.

But, the wash of popular information these days will tell you otherwise as it makes for spicier, sensationalist material. For instance, we may know more about the PMGSY as something that is mired in various difficulties. It is easier to report on the failures (which, there are many) in the project, but there is little reporting on how much it has worked too. If you travel in the rural areas of India, you will find these roads going off in different directions. Yes, the quality of execution leaves a lot to be desired, but these programs have also put into place roads where none existed before. Yet, after being ‘well informed’ our recollection of all this will be that the program is another disaster.

Similarly, we have overfunded start-ups, VCs who don’t understand the companies and a million other difficulties. The corporate sector is full of undeserving middle and senior management people, the markets are massively manipulated and doing business here often feels more like a punishment. But, these are all problems that is hardly surprising in a country which could not deliver basic telephony or healthcare for a huge number of people even as recently as 10-years ago and we still have not been able to deliver that to vast chunks of our people. While we constantly keep looking at the Valley, Wall Street and the West, we often don’t recognize that there is tremendous value we can provide towards genuine problems we face in India.

For instance, I do not consider the current e-commerce wave in India as a disaster. For me, these are the early babysteps our market is taking towards moving slowly away from a system heavily dependent on cash and non-existent price discovery. Growing a greenfield market has significant costs involved purely towards educating the market. Yes, not every e-commerce start-up that is there now won’t survive after 5-years, but it is wrong to assume that what is going on right now has little value. In the past 5-years, the ground that we have covered in generating business online is laying the foundation for what will happen five years down the road. That is value, only that it may not be value in the form we like to think about.

This fact about generating value applies everywhere. In the consulting businesses it can often be extremely frustrating to deal with the realities of our country and the people and its organizations. But those realities are a fact of life here that we need to overcome to unlock the value we can provide. A genius painter sitting on a rock, painting a fantastic painting in his mind is only as good as the rock he’s sitting on. To paint, he may need to arrange for canvas, paints, brushes and so on. Maybe, the artist is too poor to buy what he needs. Often, in life, triumph is what follows after you overcome adversity. We have a vast number of adversities to overcome, but we also have a vast amount of value to unlock here.

How we eventually unlock that value may not be a pretty process, nor may it be the most efficient one, but we have to keep chipping away at it, in every possible avenue we can. That will only happen when we have a change in mindset from expecting people around us to do things and bring in the change to doing those things ourselves (no matter how small those things are).

On Speculation And Doing Good

We do live in interesting times, especially in India. While things look more or less familiar on the surface — markets, technology, culture  have not been drastically different in the past ten-years, once you account for organic growth — almost every aspect of the modern life is changing underneath. The modern world, unlike the ancient one, relies a lot on things being predictable. We rely on out-of-band events in the future to be minimal to make our way forward in the way we do now and we trust that the underpinnings of the world as we know it will always be stable, trustworthy and predictable.

The key thread that holds most of these together is the expectation from money. For most of us money has rarely been anything beyond a means to pay for things we want and use. There has always been income derived from interest in various forms, but that has never been even close to a multiple of the principal to figure as a major factor, unless the principal itself was substantial in the first place. For most of its existence, economic growth in the modern world was always tied to actual economic activity. Someone produced something, which was sold to someone else at a price. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but we won’t stray from it for the sake of convenience.

Somewhere in the past 20-years that apparently simple equation changed and money started to be used to create more money (edit: In the sense that wealth creation led by money being directly used to create more money). Speculation in its various forms is hardly a new thing in the world. It has existed probably since the first economic activity took place in human history. What is different is the scale to which it has grown in the past two decades. By recent estimates, the derivatives market is at a quadrillion US dollars, which is twenty times the global GDP. Once, as a minor part of the global economic activity, speculation was not a problem and was even a required feature. Now, the size it is at, it is like proverbial riding of the tiger. You can only get on it and not off it.

Now, why should this post be concerned at all with complex financial instruments? The reason why I am concerned is that the we don’t really understand or know the impact that this speculation has had on our lives. This is the beneath-the-surface change I had referred to in the beginning of the post. Our exposure and understanding of the impact of money being used to make more money is severely limited to the fear cycle that kicks off when a slowdown or a contraction looms high on the horizon. What we don’t realize is that much of the uptrend, that we too benefit from, is a result of the same speculation.

As a part of our daily existence we hear now about scams, media manipulation, paid news, start-ups without revenue attracting investors in their hyper-growth phase. All these are essentially linked and the common link is the speculation-driven money that is looking for stories of growth everywhere. As a result, we are starting to lose one of the key factors that enable our modern lives, which is the predictability/reliability of what we know and what we have. Civilization is a massive unspoken/unwritten social contract that depends on this predictability and on that front we are on unchartered waters.

As it is the case with everything in the world, there is hardly anything purely black or white about all of this. While the speculation has brought about a lot of problems, it has also opened to  us a lot of possibilities to do good with it. While not every problem in the world can be solved with money, there are a lot of problems in the world that can be solved by it. The key is in finding the connections and ensuring that the greater context is to do good than to purely ride the wave, cash in and then leave the world a far worse place than the one you started your life in.

Rewiring, retooling

As the year quickly winds itself up, the work to switch over Frontiernxt to a different, mostly non-technical solutions provider grinds on. It is one thing to have clarity at a high level that the focus is now on strategy than technology, it is an entirely different kettle fish to actually go about doing it. From tooling to methodology, everything has to be rethought and rewired and digital is such unknown territory that there are often no rules and you make them up as you go along.

When I normally research technical offerings and options, the context is not that important. In such a scenario, browser bookmarks are more than sufficient to capture almost everything that I need. But, in the case of strategy bookmarks provide nearly zero context. Broad classifications don’t do anything other than a cataloguing mechanism to capture information. In strategy, classification is only the beginning of the journey and to complete the rest of it, I’m having to find other options and approaches.

India – Thinking Outside The Box

I’m writing this short post over a GPRS connection (yes, you read that right) in a quiet orchard, straddled by mountains on three sides. I am quite fond of taking breaks like these regularly. It helps me stop, reflect and interact with a part of the world that I don’t often interact with.

Yet, such interactions are vital if we are to understand India and the massive opportunity she has to offer. We speak often of our massive mobile opportunity, how 3G has had better penetration than EDGE, smart v/s feature, data APRU and all. But at the ground level, all these assumption fail. As product people we need to understand the reasons behind this failure.

India has always been, at best, an abstraction. Technology adds another complicated layer on top of this. Take the case of mobile. BSNL supossedly has the most widespread 3G network. Yet, even in towns that have 3G on BSNL the coverage is less than spectacular. I’m sitting now, barely 40 kilometers away from a main district center in Himachal Pradesh, with clear line of sight to at least 4 cellphone towers, yet the best I get is EDGE and BSNL is carrying data over GPRS.

When we build products, especially for mobile, how do we factor all of this? Yes, it is awesome to have an iPad app for our products, but I have not seen a tablet for at least 3-days now. How do we take into account data availability that ranges from nothing to 4G within the same country? Do we even think about that?

Obviously, it is possible to build healty businesses that tap into the current base of smartphones and tablets, but if you are looking to tap into the billion-plus-people opportunity you have to get out of the cities and travel and learn how people are using various technologies.

The bubbles that we live in within the cities lead us often into cycles of validation that are based on our immediate peers in the industry. The world outside of it is a different ball game. Step out, understand the real problems faced by people outside our immediate circles, then the billion-plus opportunity will open up us.

Publishing, Distribution And Consumption In A Brave New World

One of my greatest disappointments with the past ten years in the digital sphere has been the absence of the creation of something that is immense. The eighties saw the growth and evolution of computing in the personal sphere, the nineties saw the evolution of the internet. But, over a decade into the new millenium, we have nothing to show more than refined versions of what has already been put into place. What I did not realize was that we may just be in the midst of experiencing something that is immense, but that something may not be a particular technology or a product. That something is only what a bunch of technologies or products enable us to do with information.

The past 15-years has been a frantic, often unpredictable, ride for the publishing business. What, even 20-years-ago, was the domain of the few has exploded into a creature so different that everyone who reads or write anything these days are still struggling to grasp the enormity and the meaning of the changes that are affecting it. The existing rules regarding who, why and what gets published is being shred to bits and new rules are being made up every day. All parts of the trade — writing, editing, distribution and consumption — are so drastically different from two-decades ago. This is disruption on a scale seldom experienced before.

Death of many gatekeepers

Content is now created on so many platforms – blogs, tweets, personal websites, photo sharing sites; content is now distributed over so many channels – email, social networking sites, content aggregators; content is now consumed over so many channels – browsers, desktop applications, mobile applications, email. What used to be a strictly linear process (create -> distribute -> consume) is now something that is best described as being similar to Brownian motion. What used to be predictable in most cases is vastly unpredictable now. In this brave new world almost everyone is a participant and nobody is a real gatekeeper anymore.

In a pre-internet world there existed clear definitions regarding producers/writers, distributors and consumers of content. Content could be only a handful of things; books, articles in newspapers and magazines. Only a handful of people were either allowed or enabled to create this content and there were clear rules regarding membership into this select club. This content was consumed over clearly defined channels like books, news publications and magazines. If you could not access any of these channels, what you wrote had little value as nobody could consume it. Consumers of content had no other available option, but to be reliant on the established channels.

The scenario now is so very different. Almost anyone is now a creator of content. And by anyone I mean anyone. For a long time now, I have held that there is no social media. There are only creators, distributors and consumers of media/content. Comments, tweets, mashups, curated lists – all these are as much content as any form of reporting or long form writing. Of course, all comments, tweets and mashups are not the same quality as all reporting out there, but it is also true that all reporting is not really all that great. Yes, it is jarring to see slang, SMS-language and badly written text in things I read, but that does not make it any less useful or informative compared to established publications.

This has serious implications for the old guard. Gatekeepers, in any ecosystem, wield tremendous power. This power is accrued from predictability, reach and resources. Publications are valued because they publish to a predictable schedule, with a quality that is predictable, with topics that are predictable. Publications are valued based on the number of people they can reach. Publications are also valued based on their ability to cover topics; some cover a large number of topics at a shallow level; some cover fewer topics at a far deeper level. The new world of content and publishing has attacked each and every source of power of the gatekeepers.

Implications on the present

The first implication of this is on pricing. Ability-driven scarcity has been one of the key factors in enabling publications to charge what they used to charge. Since the information they publish is no longer scare, that rug has been firmly pulled out from underneath their feet. Almost every new old-school style publication that has attempted to charge a premium in recent years has tried to based it on opinion or exclusivity than attempting to do it over information. The businesses based on pushing information like in the old ages will survive as long as digital reach continues to exhibit the current constrained growth and the lack of understanding and translating key businesses metrics in digital remain. But it is an inescapable fact that such businesses are living on borrowed time.

In 2004, I remember telling my boss at that time that we need to pro-actively plan for a world where we can’t control the form factor or context in which information published by us will appear. In 2012, I consume most of the content I read and view now from my Twitter timeline, Hacker News and Google News. There are very few instances where I consume content from homepages of publications. I had previously tackled this topic in 2010 and the risk to brands and publications on this front continue to only grow with time. Brands and publications that ignore this threat will pay a big price in the coming years.

Crystal Ball

It would be the greatest lie if I were to tell you that I know exactly how this is going develop and what the future of publishing will look like. Currently, content anywhere is one of the bleakest businesses to be in at scale, while it is one of the easiest to bootstrap and hit Ramen profitability, should you choose to put your mind to it. Nearly non-existent entry barriers (domain registration & basic web hosting) and a preponderance of Ramen profitability creates an illusion of stellar prospects for the domain, but the actual outlook at scale is really dire. It is rare to find successful large-scale digital/non-digital publications that are in the black. The risks in being involved in the domain with any sort of significant investment on either side of the table is significantly high.

For existing publishers, the way forward is to measure everything and understand the numbers and your core audience very well. Monetization strategies will continue to be unpredictable for many years to come. That you are pulling good revenue is now not a guarantee of the same in anything other than the immediate term. Audience funnels and goals need to be set and tracked as a core operational metric. The industry still has an excessive reliance on gross numbers that does not differentiate in value between customer A and customer B. If you can’t make that differentiation, it is only natural that you can’t monetize better.

For investors, at least in India, publishing is a no-go territory for any fund that probably has a size in excess of $100 million. There is no scale in the business at this point which will allow for returns that justify the investment. Even established players have been demonstrating flat or slow growth in revenue (no point talking profitability) over the past three-years. Even that growth is impacted by increasing operating costs that have not slowed down in the same years. Valuation, based on potential, can be easily ignored here. Exits are rare and at a level that makes no sense for anyone other than the founders and some form of relief for early stage investors. There are way too many shackles that make any attempted disruption too costly.

For the consumers, publishing is a lovely place to be at right now. Both quality and quantity has grown in content that is available for consumption. The growth is quantity has also led to the emergence of aggregators and curators. They used to play an important role in the early web as consequence of nearly non-existent means of searching the web with its limited content at that time (problems of discovery and scarcity of content), now they play an important role because of the excess of content that is available for consumption. Things will only get better for them. These are the true winners in this game.

Four Years And Still Figuring It Out

It is hard to believe that it has been almost four-years since I left my last regular job and started this little gig. The story since has been one of many false starts, some promising starts and a whole lot of learning and frustration along the way. I quit my job at Network18 towards the fag end of 2008 in a lot of anger, anchored by the rather outlandish idea that, given a chance, I could do everything so much better. And this was to be my chance to do that and set everything right.

Four years down the road, I stand humbled and have become a less-angry and a much-happier person. I guess four-years is where most people give up the dream when they don’t get anywhere. For me, four-years is what it has taken to believe, without any doubt, that this is how I want to live the rest of my life. More importantly, four-years is what it has taken to for me to get a bit of a clue.

I still remember the early meetings with many who mattered in the industry and sitting across the table from them, trying to sell them something. I was not sure what exactly was it that I was trying to sell. It sounded grand, but it made no sense. My personal folders are still littered with product and service ideas, half-done code, architecture diagrams and other plans for world domination.

There were some promising starts too along the way, but they mostly fizzled out. Sometimes, for reasons that had everything to do with me, other times for reasons that had nothing to do with me. Thankfully, a couple of clients who I started with in 2008 stuck it out with me and kept me going. I mostly did technical work, writing well over 20K lines of code to manage a fairly complicated gated private social network. Somewhere along the way, I also managed to keep a few big WordPress MU installations going that were not full of cat pics, but were full of information that is still helping small nondescript organizations and locations around the country to have a digital foothold.

And to think that I am not even a programmer or a sysadmin.

Looking at it by the normal start-up metrics, my four years outside the corporate loop has been an utter failure. The total strength of my little company is well, one, which is me. I never launched a product. I never managed to raise any money. I have done some bit of useful work, but I have done nothing that would be deemed to have created any kind of an impact anywhere.

The truth is that in 2008 I thought I was the cat’s whiskers. As the years rolled on, I realized how little I knew. I could visualize and build out a product, but I knew nothing about running a business, marketing, pricing and a million other things. It is not that these things are incredibly difficult, much like how cycling or walking is pretty easy once you learn how to do it. It was that I did not realize that I did not know most of these things and made the mistake of assuming that being passionate would cover for all such shortcomings of mine.

I’ll be the first to admit that it has been a struggle at times. It is not easy to see your peers who stuck around in the normal corporate world climb up the ladders and do well while you meander along wondering if you should kick your tail back between your legs and sheepishly go back to that world. The temptation to do that was strong at least through most of last year.

On the other hand, these fours years have been the most fruitful of my life. I have travelled a lot (mostly not on work). I have had the time to sit and reflect on things personal and professional and work on myself. I am the healthiest I have ever been in a long time and pretty fit too. I can afford to sit back, take half of the day off and have a pretty flexible schedule, unlike how it would have been in the corporate world. I treasure that more than anything else and would never want to give it up if I can help it.

That said, I also feel that it is time to make a firm commitment and get started on something more substantial than doing just enough to keep going by myself. I have planned similar things many times, but always backed out and never followed it through. Most of this was because I was never sure, till now, about what I really wanted to do. Since I did not have that certainty myself, it did not feel right to pull anyone along on this ride, only to cut them loose a few weeks down the line.

So, I am ending the year letting go of the oldest clients I have had. I love what I created with them (including the warts and all), but I don’t feel that excited by pure-play techincal work anymore. I feel that I can contribute value elsewhere in the ecosystem, mostly in the strategic domain. It is going to be a hard one to crack. Nobody pays you, unless you happen to be a McKinsey, for strategy in India. But I don’t want to die wondering.

This, though, is my personal experience. I would not recommend either doing your own thing or staying in the corporate world. Each has its own benefits and the corresponding downsides attached to it. We all live different lives and realities and have to make choices with only one end in mind – to do exactly what makes us happy. Success, failure, riches and poverty will all come and go, but if you are not happy about what you’re doing in life, what you have with you won’t make an iota of a difference.

So, choose wisely, live well. You can’t go much wrong with that even when you have nothing with you.

Influencers, Initiatives And Their Impact In Digital India

This is a post that has been in the making for a while. Having failed at trying to frame it properly all this while I figured it was better to just write it the way it came out. Before I start off I should make it clear that I am not an entirely unbiased party in all of this. I have my skin in the game in the social* industry segment primarily through Shack Companis who have been a client of mine for about a year now. They are involved in various aspects of the industry built around the digital social system and the subject I am about to cover are equally applicable to them too.

As a sort of an insider (due to my aforementioned work) and as an outsider (thanks to sometimes being considered an influencer due to my 1600 followers as of August 13, 2012) I am fairly unenthused by how brands and agencies are using the social platforms to promote themselves through various events. The concept of using special initiatives as entry points to having a substantial presence in earned media is nothing new. The practice itself is almost as old as Twitter’s breakthrough into the internet’s public consciousness; but with time agencies have figured out how to game this system and give an exaggerated view of the impact and effectiveness of the initiatives.

To be honest, this form of misrepresentation is only a small chunk of the larger problem of determining key metrics for anything digital. Even as the domain slowly creeps up on its 20th birthday, the tooling to measure various aspects of the digital business is still notoriously absent, be it on the product side or, more crucially, the investors’ side. We have seen the industry progress from the ‘eyeballs’ of bubble 1.0 to the ‘likes’ of the current times, both driving often misinformed decisions at the product, process and business levels of any digital operation.

Anyhow, going back to the special events bit, I was fortunate to be invited to one such event. Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t consider myself as in influencer. Yes, I have about 1.5K followers on Twitter, but most of that is thanks to being one of the early adopter crowd (started in mid-2007) and organically getting to that figure. If you have been around for that long on Twitter and have been an active user, you’d also probably have a similar or greater number of followers. I am not on Facebook or on Google+ and I love Twitter for the small, but carefully curated, list of people I follow there (and dislike it with a vengeance for odd periods when I see lynch mobs form).

Thus, the invite did not make me feel the full weight of my influencer status, rather, it made me feel quite grateful that as a near-nobody I was getting an opportunity to do something that I’d otherwise probably be unable to do. The invite was to drive a few laps in a newly-launched car at the Buddh International Circuit and being a fanatic motorsports fan I jumped at the opportunity. The event was well-organized and it came with no conditions that I generate any given number of tweets about it. The organizers were even kind enough to accommodate a dear friend of mine to be a part of the event. So, what exactly went wrong?

What I did not like was that at the registration counter for the event we were asked to register our Twitter/Facebook accounts at a kiosk and during the registration the application posted tweets/updates on our accounts without informing/asking us about it. This is where the mechanics of the exercise comes into play. If you have 50 people registered for an event and if you get all of them to tweet with the same content or hashtag, you can easily amplify it through a network of ten others re-tweeting it, thus easily creating a trend out of it for smaller demographies like India. And the sad fact was that the event was so good that if it was not for that forced tweet, at least I would have tweeted a lot more about it.

Since that time I have declined similar invitations. I did attend another event at BIC, but that was thanks to an invite to a relative of mine to a members-only event for owners of a particular make/model of automobile. For me, there is an inherent conflict involved in this – both as a consultant working in the space and as someone who likes other things outside work like travel and music. It is a conflict that I have seen before in my years in the media – of paid junkets for journalists – and I would really dislike to see the same thing happen in digital social ecosystem.

That said, it would be wrong to paint the entire practice as wrong with a broad brush. I do enjoy some of the content that is posted by the participants in events. But I am never sure if the participants would post as much or the make the same posts if they were not, in a manner of speaking, sponsored by a company. This is the key conflict where the ‘earned’ in all of this slowly crosses over into ‘paid’ even if that payment is indirect. What makes it worse is that brands are often sold the impact of an event on the volume than quality/sentiment. Even when sentiment is measured, it is often inaccurate as even the more accurate sentiment measuring tools don’t get it right enough for our market.

I do not, though, have any solutions to offer for this conundrum. For both brands and users it is crucial to understand that reputations are hard to earn and easy to squander. For me at least, Twitter is like a little social club of around 100-people I like to know and converse with. I have little desire to use it to excessively promote myself or my work. I love the ability to be able to speak my mind on it without having to think twice about professional conflicts and I intend to keep it that way.

Britney Spears And Venture Capital

In my younger, considerably more rebellious days I used to be one of those really irritating people who could appreciate only one kind of music. At that time I was passionate about all forms of heavy metal, and later, the alternative/indie rock scene. As a connoisseur of a niche genre, it would bug me to no end that artists like Britney Spears (or name any other global pop sensation) get so much of fame and money while the kind of artists that I liked always seemed to struggle.

As I grew older and started having a bit more of a clue as to how the music industry worked, it became obvious to me that if it was not for the success of the many pop sensations and manufactured global stars, a large chunk of the smaller, niche artists would never have been allowed the luxury to record and be heard by a lot of people like me. The way venture capital works is in a similar manner. They need at least a couple of multi-platinum runaway hits on their hands to be able to afford to take their chances on smaller higher risk ventures.

For a product person, it is irksome to see some of the ideas/concepts that get funded. It makes no sense and it looks stupidly driven by hype. Oftentimes, the purist product person is the niche indie artist and can’t see anything beyond the purity of what she/he is doing. But the fact is that there is no single route to success. Some of the routes are fair, some are more unfair. Some who wind up being funded and (or) successful may not even deserve it. But every bit of success collectively adds up to open the doors for a few more outliers.

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.

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.