Tuesday, July 27, 2010

PayPal suspends electronic withdrawals for India users

Yesterday, I received this mail from PayPal:

In accordance with regulatory instructions, we would like to notify you about a change in our withdrawal functionality in India starting on August 1, 2010. At present you can request for either an electronic or cheque withdrawal of funds from your PayPal account if you are an India user.
From July 29, 2010 onwards, you will only be able to request for a cheque withdrawal of funds from your PayPal account.
While we are working hard to restore the electronic withdrawal service, in the meantime, we are bringing this matter to your attention so that you can plan your future withdrawal activities accordingly.
To request for a cheque withdrawal:
  1. Log into your PayPal account, click on 'Withdraw'.
  2. Click on the 'Request a cheque from PayPal' link.
  3. Enter the withdrawal amount and select your mailing address, then click 'Continue'.
  4. Click 'Submit' to confirm your request.
In order to help you with this change and until further notice, we will refund the $5 USD cheque withdrawal fee to you for cheque withdrawals made on July 29, 2010 onwards.
For any questions, please log into your PayPal account and click 'Contact Us' at the bottom of the page.
We apologise for any inconvenience caused from this change in our withdrawal functionality. We will provide ongoing updates to you here. We thank you for your attention and patience as we work tirelessly to resolve this situation as quickly as possible.

Thank you,

The PayPal Asia Team

This is not the first time the e-pay service has faced hurdles from Indian authorities. In Feb 2010, all PayPal services in India were temporarily suspended, apparently due to inquiries from Indian regulators about the classification of payments as commercial payments or as personal remittances by people working abroad to their families. The suspension of service took many Indians by surprise. PayPal resumed the service in March 2010, adding an additional field called 'purpose code' to collect information on the nature of the transaction.

However, Indian users can still make international payments to vendors.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Audiophile quality IEMs in India

I have been a fan of Ultimate Ears since 2007, when I read positive reviews of the brand on Head-Fi, where  the audiophiles of the world congregate to share their passion. Ultimate Ears specialises in creating IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) a type of earphone which is inserted into the ear canal. I like IEMs because they are light and easy to wear, drive MP3 players efficiently, allowing you to listen at lower volumes, and offer passive noise-cancelling (the silicone 'tips' seal the ear canal and cut out ambient noise, negating the need for an expensive battery operated active noise cancelling module).

The history of Ultimate Ears makes for fascinating reading. The company was founded by Jerry Harvey, who was audio engineer for Van Halen. After developing IEMs for Alex Van Halen, and getting his resounding approval, Harvey and his wife Mindy, saw a business opportunity. Initially, Ultimate Ears manufactured custom monitors which were worn onstage by the world's biggest musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Enrique Iglesias and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Founded like the best entrepreneurial ventures on passion, struggle and guts, UE survived and thrived. In 2005, the company rolled out its first 'Universal Fit' IEM; the Super.fi 5 Pro, and then created a whole range of audiophile IEMs targeting the consumer market.

In 2008, Ultimate Ears was acquired by Logitech, who brought the UE range to India last year. The range has regular IEMs as well as IEMs with microphone (the models tagged with vi), which double up as handsfree devices for use with your cellphone. Logitech will not be launching their customs (made to order) range in India in the recent future. What is currently available are the 'universal fit' IEMs, under three different ranges;

1) MetroFi 

This is is the entry range for UE products. There are 3 variants, 100, 170 and 200, priced between Rs. 2000 and Rs. 6500. You could get them for less if you buy abroad; Amazon is currently stocking the Metro.Fi 200 for just $39.

All 3 variants get good reviews for sound quality; clarity in reproduction and decent bass. If you step up from the stock earbuds provided with your iPod, you will be impressed with the difference. Obviously, the more you spend, the better the sound gets.The 170 and 200 get a vote over brands like Sennheisser, VModa and even lower end Shure earphones. The users of 100 report some 'cable noise' (microphonics) which is caused by the cable brushing against your clothes. The upper end models have rubber instead of fabric cord, which eliminates this noise.

What you might have to watch out for with this range is durability. IEMs are delicate. I always use the hard case provided by UE to store my 'phones.

 (Image of Metro.Fi 170)

2) Super.Fi

The Super.Fi range is the entry audiophile range of Ultimate Ears. It features models under Super.Fi 3, 4 and 5. To simplify this confusion, I suggest that if you want to spend this much on a 'phone, go straight for the top-end of the Super.Fi Range. The Super.Fi Pro is not available in India. However, The Super.Fi 5 is a great, fun earphone with a good reputation in the audiophile community,and a comfortable fit in the ear. I put the Super.Fi 5 on my 'buy' list after reading Martin Sagmuller's review on ABI.

Do note that only the Super.Fi 5 Pro has two drivers (speaker) per ear to deal separately with treble and bass. This creates a more detailed and nuanced sound. The rest of the earphones in this range have single armature drivers.

In India, the Super.Fi 5 vi (with inline mic) is available for Rs. 9000 at the Logitech Store on The IT Depot

(image of Super.Fi 5vi)

3) Triple.Fi 10 Pro
The top of the line and highly acclaimed Triple.Fo 10 Pro has arguably been one of the best Universal IEMs around since the past 3 years. Hotly contesting for the position with the equally popular Shure E530, the Trips have held their own and have a huge fan base in the audiophile community. As the name suggests, the Triples have 3 dedicated drivers per ear for low, mid and high sound frequencies. There is some argument I have read about how they are not true-triple drivers (And I can't find the link) but forget about that. What ought to interest you is the sound and having owned the Trips for 3 years, I can testify that it is SUPERB. But don't take my word for it, read the review summaries across sites at ZDNet. If you have the time and inclination, read the Triple Fi Appreciation Thread at Head-Fi, which is 212 pages currently; it has several audiophile reviews and a lot of user comparisons with other IEMs.

Maybe those reviews will make the MRP of Rs. 23,000 a little sweeter. No? Well, you have to be not just an audiophile but also slightly mad (or so rich that you don't care) to spend that much on headphones. I bought the Triple Fi's when I could not afford the price tag (came to Rs. 19000 on my credit card) at Jaben, Singapore. My budget was for the lower priced Super.Fi 5 IEMs. But I heard these, and I was just blown away. For me, that is what being a geek is about. To be able to compare specs, prices etc. is fine, but at the end of the day,buying what you love and crave for, is what counts.

Insist on trying before buying any IEM. Carry your MP3 player and your current headphones with you so that you can really sense the difference. IEMs will sound terrible and tinny without a proper seal in the ear. So make sure that you get a proper fit which does not loosen up when you walk around. You can test UE IEMs at any Croma or Staples outlet.

Currently UE sells through stockists in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Chennai and Delhi/Gurgaon. You can also order  online through IT Depot.

(Price, model availability and retailer information in this post have been obtained from Logitech India)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

High spec ultraportable laptop - Dell Vostro

If you run a small business/home office like me, you will want a laptop that balances portability with decent specs. At the same time, you will want hassle-free service and repair, since you would have to take care of it yourself.

I regularly browse the Dell website and it seems to me that currently the Vostro range that they are offering in India is the best combination of specs and portability - at the right price. While Vostro is positioned as a small business range, there is no reason why you cannot purchase it for personal use; in fact you get the added benefit of Vostro service which is extremely prompt.

The range under Vostro which is getting my vote is the Vostro 3300. At a price range from Rs.35,000-Rs.50,000 (excluding tax) you can get an iCore processor, 3-4GB of RAM, a 13 inch screen, upto 500 GB hard drive and a machine which weighs in under 2 kg. Oh, and Dell finally has re-vamped color options, giving you a choice of silver, red or brown in an aluminium casing. Don't forget to add a 3 or 5 year Complete Cover Dell warranty to your purchase and remember to negotiate HARD to bring it down. It helps, as past experience has shown me. Laptop repair is an expensive proposition.

If  you can stretch your budget, opt for at least the i5 processor, and get the extra 1GB of RAM for greater power. But even the base spec of i3/3GB RAM should be fine for running MS Office. More than fine..

This is the laptop I would buy today, if I needed one. Do note that this may not be the machine of choice for creative people - for fast speeds on Photoshop or any editing software, you would need at least 4 GB RAM and 1 GB graphics card, and probably you would be better off with a bigger screen.

The catch is that Vostro is not available off the shelf, either at retailers or online. The wait period is approximately 2 weeks (when I last checked in Croma, Mumbai) and may be more.  The default battery is 4 cell and users have complained of low battery life (2.5 hours). And the i3 variant does not have bluetooth which is inexplicable. If you travel, look at option of a 6 cell battery or a second 4 cell. And the HDMI port is missing but this is less of a surprise on a business oriented laptop

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tubeless tyres and punctures

For a self proclaimed geek, I don't know too much about cars. The proof - I did not know that my Ritz Vxi has tubeless tyres. No one told me so, but I don't think that's a good enough excuse. Anyway, the point is that I kept noticing that the air presure in the front tyre got low very fast (from 33 psi to 20 psi in 2 weeks). Then one day, the petrol pump attendant advised me to check for a puncture and sure enough, a long nail was embedded in the tyre. Got it pulled out and all was well.

For everyone's benefit, I am sharing the collective wisdom I have gathered from the Net about tubeless tyre punctures

1. The puncture may not be visible. In some cases, a nail may enter the tire and 'seal' the puncture itself, therefore slowing down the leakage of air. This is what happened in my case
2. The only indicator is the rate of loss of air pressure. In extreme cases, this may be a large figure (down to 20 psi in two days after refilling air), or it may be a slow loss (5-6 psi in 2 weeks). Some drivers may notice a 'drag' in the steering towards the tyre which is punctured. If you have a doubt, get it checked ASAP. Slow deflation is the norm with tubeless tyres. I have driven my car for 3-4 weeks with the puncture!
3. While tubeless tyres do not need as frequent air refills as regular ones, it's a good practice to check the air regularly. I check once in 2 weeks.
4. Leakage from the wheel rim is also a possible cause of pressure loss. This is not the same as a puncture, and the only solution is to replace the tyre or to live with frequent refilling.
5. The way to check a puncture is to inflate the tyre and dip it in water.
6. As you would already know, the roadside tyre repair guy cannot properly repair a tubeless tyre. Ideally, take  the puncture to your authorised service centre, or to a specialised tyre repair outlet. Improper repair can further damage the tyre. You can also buy a tubeless tyre repair kit and fix it yourself.
7. Carwale has a useful suggestion for long-distance travellers. Buy a spare tube and a plug puncture repair kit. Just in case you cannot find someone to repair your tyre, you can insert the tube into it and use it as a regular tyre for the rest of the journey.

20north - order products from US in India

 E-tailer 20north offers a dream proposition for the Indian consumer "Buy anything in the world from anywhere in India". It's a seductive promise, even for a post-liberalisation India with relaxed import norms. Living in Mumbai, I can honestly say that there are more imported products on the shop shelves than I will ever need or use. If you do need anything else, provided you are willing to pay the hefty international courier fee, a lot of companies and some sellers on ebay, are willing to ship them to you.

But do I still feel a need gap? Yes, I do and it is in geek land. I regret that I cannot buy a top class espresso machine or coffee grinder, the latest Westone IEMs, the fantastic geek gear at thinkgeek. Well, I could, but not without a lot of interaction with customer service and at a huge premium over the discounted prices available in US or other international markets. Oh, and also the 5% foreign exchange transaction fee which will be slapped on my credit card on each purchase. Better to blog it, admire, and wait patiently for days when they will be more accessible.

20North has a fair selection of products and brands featured on the site which you can purchase  in INR (customs duties may be applicable). And in case you want to order something off another site, they will source it and deliver it for you.

The site adds another dimension of complication by offering a 'duty free' tag on products priced at less than Rs. 10000. Apparently, if these are purchased in USD, outside India and gifted to someone in India, they will not attract customs duty. But of course, we know that the Customs people can decide to tax anything!It appears from consumer reviews  that several hopeful Indians have tried to gift themselves duty free and ending up paying huge customs duties.

Consumer reviews on Mouthshut suggest that there may be a few teething problems. I am not surprised. Getting things shipped to India and through Customs is still a laborious process and there are bound to be slip-ups.

If you can take the risk, you could indeed order your Nexus One or iPad from them. I am going to wait and watch and see how the site shapes up.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

iPhone 4 is jinxed

It seems that the guns and knives are out against iPhone 4 and how. Apple's latest toy is plagued with jinxes since launch and  the troubles are only escalating.

The issues started when reports of a possible antenna design flaw causing calls to drop, began trickling into technology news sites and discussion forums. Users are divided, some claiming that they do not experience the problem and an increasingly vociferous majority asserting that they do face the problem. Meanwhile, tech sites ran a battery of tests and confirmed that the issue was caused by the antenna design. I am reproducing a  image from Anandtech, which conducted testing on the device.

They report that the steel band shown in the image is the external antenna of the iPhone. Today, most smartphones have internal antennas positioned at the bottom of the 'phone but Apple apparently chose this design for improved reception. This also created a huge potential problem.

To summarise what the engineers are saying in non-technical terms, the bottom left corner of the phone, where there is a gap between the two antenna's is a 'dead zone'. If a user grasps this corner his hand he creates a 'contact' between the two antennas which affects the reception and causes the signal to drop. Holding the phone in this manner is being described in forums as the 'death grip'. The problem is caused because the antennas are external to the device, and human skin is a conductor. Engineers have said this is a design flaw and ideally, Apple should have put an insulative coating on the antenna.

Apple's initial response to the problem was apparently to tell people 'not to hold the phone that way' which justifiably annoyed people. In an already complicated world, do you want to think about how you should be holding your phone?. Alternatively they suggested buying a case (bumper) which would reduce the incidence of the problem. Since Apple sells the official bumpers at $30, obviously this suggestion did not go down well either. And a demand went up in forums for free bumpers, which Apple has not yet agreed to provide.

From this point on, the issue just got murkier. Apple, choosing not to address the design issue, instead issued a release claiming that there was a software issue which cause the iPhone to display the signal strength incorrectly. Now it appeared there was a hardware issue and a software issue, which only went to prove that a hapless AT&T had a worse network issue than the one that people were already cribbing about.
 Meanwhile, BGR leaked a document purporting to be a customer script for Apple Care. In a nutshell, it is reported that Apple reps are asked to deny that there are any antenna problems, and advise them to hold the phone correctly or use a bumper. Basically, leave the issue where it is. While the leak could not be verified, it obviously added fuel to the fire. By now, the Apple and anti-Apple camps were engaged in full-on (and often irrational) battle, mostly polarised on the lines of "Apple fanboys are dumb and suck"  and "Android fanboys are dumb and suck". While this has generated many pages of digital content being stored free on someone's servers, it has not really solved the problem.

There was worse to come. Consumer Reports reviewed the phone and despite giving it a top rating across smartphones, refused to give a 'recommend' rating based on the antenna reception problem. Till now, the Apple War was being fought on technology sites, among geeks and the majority did not know or care. But Consumer Reports caters to the average user, who wants to read an informed opinion before buying, and suddenly, the issue was mainstream. Probably on the mainstream news too, for all I know.

Hard on the heels of the Consumer Reports findings, came more rumors that Apple had deleted threads in its Support Forums which linked to the report and discussed it. Of course, it could be argued that the report did not have a place in support forums which are meant for troubleshooting, and also that Apple has a right to control content on its site. But it did not go down well in the light of all the negative PR that the company had already amassed. Apple was basically looking like an ostrich, burying its head in the sand and refusing to admit that it had a problem.

Demands and rumors for a recall of the iPhone 4 have already started circulating, with industry experts predicting that a recall of the millions of devices sold would be horribly expensive for Apple, yet seeing this as the only way out for the company.

If  you are like me, and prefer to use Handsfree, this might have been a potential solution for the antenna problem. But just today, I noticed that TUAW (an Apple blog) has put up a post noting that the iPhone 4 is having a problem pairing with certain Bluetooth devices. Could this be the final straw that broke the camel's back?

After all this reportage, I want to share my opinion. While I am not an Apple user, my sympathies are with the company. Apple has always taken justifiable pride in its impeccably designed products  and user experience and so far, literally no company has managed to overtake them. I believe that flawed products can sometimes accidentally come out of any company stable. As long as they are honest about rectifying the issue and customers don't suffer, it's fine. And the world should move on quickly.

I have read some speculation that the whole issue is nothing but orchestrated anti-Apple propaganda, but I tend to disagree with that. After reading hundreds of user comments, I realise that there are genuine iPhone loyalists out there who are grappling with the issue. Yes, the frequently vicious attacks on Apple and Steve Jobs tend to drown it out, but they do not detract from the fact that there is a problem. If it is being hyped, it is because Apple as a company attracts that hype and fanfare. And their self-proclaimed quest for perfection (which differentiates them from the perpetually and cheerfully 'beta' approach of  Google) makes them vulnerable. So does their phenomenal market share growth and profitability. Leaders will be attacked, it is the law of the jungle. Hasn't Microsoft been bearing this for years? They must be quite relieved now that the heat is off them and the experts who were criticising their approach to the smartphone market have moved on. (The Kin debacle is quite forgotten thanks to the iPhone disaster)

I for one, will wait to see what Apple does and I trust that they will do the right thing. But for once, we in  India should be happy that we are way behind the technology curve. Imagine if people here had bought the iPhone 4 at Rs. 30,000 plus and had to deal with this!

Monday, July 12, 2010

the future of mobile internet in India

My attention was grabbed by this article in Advertising Age by Steve Rubel, dramatically titled "It's time to prepare for the end of the Web as we know it." The article references a Morgan Stanley report which predicts that within 5 years, global internet consumption on mobile devices will overtake internet consumption on PCs.

Based on this prediction, the author goes on to say;

"Mobile devices, by their nature, force users to become more mission-oriented. As more internet consumption shifts to gadgets, it's increasingly becoming an app world and we just live in it. Innovation, fun, simplicity and single-purpose utility will rule while grandiose design and complexity will fall by the wayside.
It won't be enough just to build branded mobile applications that repurpose content across all of the different platforms. That's like newspapers taking the print experience and replicating it on the web as they tried back in the 1990s. Rather, we will need to rethink, remix and repackage information for an entirely different modality than platforms of yore"

What will this prediction mean in an Indian context? Let's look at how the figures add up.

According to the TRAI telecom data, as of May 31st, 2010, there are approximately 617 million wireless (mobile) subscribers in India, and teledensity is over 50%. In other words, more than half of India owns a mobile phone.

Look at internet penetration figures and they tell a dismal story. Broadband (speed of 256 kbps and above) subscriber base stands at just 9.24 million. The picture is not much better for GPRS services. Figures shared by industry heads at Mobile India 2010 project that there is a GPRS enabled consumer base of 50 million customers, but only 15-20% actually use it. So there are only 8-10 million active users of mobile internet, out of the 600 million plus mobile subscriber base.

Still, mobile internet remains a potent possibility, with lower end handsets priced at Rs. 2000 also having internet capability. With the right data plan and availability of the right apps, think of the potential for growth if most of the mobile users in India start using internet. According to me, here are some of the factors that could drive the growth of mobile internet in India;

1) Growth of a developer base
Operators drive the market growth through voice and SMS - developers create platforms and apps that facilitate web access on mobiles. There are lots of apps available for smartphones/ mobile operating systems like Android and iOS but what about the non-smartphones? We need some innovative apps and content that will create an interest in accessing the internet through mobile.

An interesting example of a mobile innovation is being offered by a company called HP Labs. According to thinkdigit the company has developed a technology based on web computing which will allow non-GPRS phones to browse the web through SMS and voice. Described as 'compressed web interactions on the mobile', the 'SiteonMobile' technology uses widgets to deliver selective functionality and content to users.

2) Innovative GPRS data packages
3G will take time to become a widespread technology, but meanwhile the basic GPRS service needs to be packaged attractively to consumers. Once they get a taste of it, they are likely to get hooked onto it.

Aircel has been quoted as a case study across the mobile industry. This article from Business Standard describes how the telco pioneered the launch of the pocket Internet card at just Rs. 98 per month and targeted the youth. In response, Aircel saw a huge spike in data usage, with 1.7 million customers subscribing to internet services by October 2009.

Videocon, Docomo and Reliance all offer attractive packages ; some offer free unlimited browsing on specific sites like Facebook and Yahoo while others offer completely unlimited internet plans. Plans which are transparent and simple will encourage more people to sign up.

3) Growth of smartphones 
Smartphones constitute a small percentage of total phones sold, but occupy a lions share of the internet traffic globally. The smartphone in 2010 is in fact, nothing but a mobile internet access device. When we see the launch of 3G in October, hopefully the latest smartphones from HTC, Motorola, Samsung etc. will also pick up sales and lead the mobile computing scenario in India.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Using Snaptu on my Nokia E63

Ok, so we live in a 3G-less country (at least till October). And there's not much you can do on a painfully slow GPRS connection on your phone right? Especially if it's not an Android-powered phone or an iPhone with those cool apps, or a Blackberry.

Actually, you can do quite a bit even with a smartphone which is no longer a smartphone (like my Nokia E63) which runs the now-outdated Symbian  S60 3rd edition. For the past 6 months, I have been using Snaptu on this phone and I am quite pleased with the results.

Snaptu is free to use and install. If you use Airtel, you can download it to your phone from the App Store. Otherwise point your mobile browser to m.snaptu.com to start the download.

Snaptu is a strange animal. According to Ewan Spence's reviewat All About Symbian, it is a Java based app that launches a home screen with a bundle of web services - Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, news feeds and dozens of others. It has an attractive tiled interface which is pretty cool looking and somewhat like an iPhone

I like the convenience of Snaptu which puts most of the major sites that I use onto a single screen; Snaptu is also updated regularly and you should check for newer sites to add. Now that I have it set up to my satisfaction, I don't need to open a browser on my mobile. I just go straight to the Snaptu app and then I have this window where I can choose what I want to open.

When you click on say, Facebook or Twitter on Snarptu, it does not just open the website, it also renders them in a way that is small-screen friendly and consistent in appearance. I have learnt from bitter experience that all sites do not render easily or well on my mobile browser. Snaptu provides a working, clean (if basic) interface that I can live with and checking my FB status or updating my Twitter status is a breeze even on a slow net connection. Here is an example from Ewan's review showing how Twitter is rendered on Snaptu

There are tonnes of links on Snaptu that I use regularly including youtube, reuters news service, picasa, cricinfo and my favorite tech sites like engadget, ars technica and mashable.It is reliable and stable and has never hung on my phone. It renders sites fast and efficiently. It may not be the most sophisticated tool for interacting with sites like FB or Twitter, but it is definitely convenient and is one of the most often used apps on my phone. Judging by the Nokia user comments on Allaboutsymbian, though Snaptu is not designed to use with Symbian, it works pretty well across a range of Nokia handsets. And the beautiful words - it's free to use. Recommended for anyone with a lower end phone who wants simple and convenient access to the web.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Foursquare and Yelp : new flavors of social networking

So Facebook is generating more negative than positive publicity of late, MySpace is kinda passe, LinkedIn is great for professional networking and Twitter's something you either dig or don't get at all.

Want one more social networking tool in your life? There are two hot services which are rapidly capturing the imagination of users, though both are still US based. They will add a different dimension and flavor to your networking experience..and yes, I am posting this hoping that my friends in India who read my blog, will be tempted to log into these sites as well.

1) Foursquare
A small, barely year old New York based startup, FourSquare has already acquired 2 million users after crossing a million users only 3 months ago.  Seems the service is picking up steam.

Foursquare is a location-based social networking service. With the ability to link to your FB or Twitter account, Foursquare lets you share your location with your friends by 'checking in' at different places - localities, malls, movies, restaraunts, events etc.Your friends will see you on a virtual Foursquare Map. You are incentivised for frequent check-ins, with badges and titles. Checking into the same place multiple times will get you the title of 'mayor'. Basically the site rewards people who explore and share their adventures, and their friends benefit from their experience too. Brands benefit by offering you incentives for checking in at their stores or events. With a functional bent, Foursquare offers a very different social networking experience compared to Facebook.

And the concept has a lot of potential for interesting apps. Crave reports about CheckoutCheckins, an app that plots your last 50 check-ins on Google Maps and lets you actually step back and review your activity. I can see this being immensely useful especially on a holiday when you view and do lots of things within a short period. The map looks pretty interesting...

According to CNet, there is a 'matchmaking' app called Meet Gatsby, which will help you to meet other Foursquare users with similar interests if you happen to be in the vicinity. It will make user matches by collecting some profile information on hobbies, likes etc., as well as taking into account Foursquare check-in data. This also sounds like a novel and exciting concept.


2) Yelp

The Yelp homepage defines the service as "an online urban city guide that helps people find cool places to eat, shop, drink, relax and play, based on the informed opinions of a vibrant and active community of locals in the know. Yelp is the fun and easy way to find, review and talk about what's great — and not so great — in your world."

Yelp encourages locals to provide trustworthy reviews of businesses in their community, to benefit both visitors and other localities. And similar to Foursquare, it allows people to post reviews on places they visit. According to CNET, Yelp has recently added a check-in option like Foursquare and also an 'augmented reality' option that lets you search your surrounding area through compass and GPS

Obviously there is a lot of overlap between Yelp and Foursquare. If I dig into user forums, this is the picture I get in a nutshell:

1. Foursquare has pioneered the fun activity of 'checking in', which has captured people's imagination. The site also allows you to 'create' any venue you want and then check into it (you could check into your office, house etc.) .It also offers points, rewards and generally fun incentives for checking in frequently, making it a playful, game-like interface. With a recent influx of funding from venture capitalists, it is also getting its share  of hype and publicity. And yes, it's growing very fast, which is a crucial factor for success of a social networking site.

2. Yelp has recently added the check-on feature which was a differentiating factor of Foursquare. Yelp check-ins are GPS based meaning that you really have to be in that place to check in. This also means that if you forget to check in, you can't do it later. Some Yelp users are annoyed that FourSquare users are constantly updating their location - do you really need to know every move they make? Yelp also has a large and fairly loyal user base and businesses which use the service to get interaction and customer feedback. It offers deep and detailed data including user reviews and opinions on specific localities.

A poll conducted a few months ago on Mashable showed that Foursquare had a distinct edge over Yelp. Currently I am logged into both and testing them out, and I will give you feedback on both! It's kind of boring out there, so I'm hoping that you guys who read this will join one or the other and give me company!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Your smartphone platform choice and why it matters

I have made several posts over the last few months about Android, S^3 (Symbian 3)Blackberry OS 6.0 and other smartphone platforms. As I mentioned earlier, very soon, your choice of a cellphone will not be purely about the brand and feature set that you prefer. You will also have to commit to a choice of mobile operating system.

The real fight in the cellphone market is no longer just among brands.  The name of the game is platform ownership and the real tussle we are seeing is the one between Apple and its iOS (for iPhone) and the Google-backed Android which runs on multiple handsets of Motorola, HTC, Samsung etc. Among the top-end phones like HTC Evo, Droid X, iPhone 4 etc, hardware parity is rapidly becoming a reality. It is the operating system that runs on the phone and therefore, the user experience, that will differentiate the top-end of the market.

Why is this happening? Primarily because mobile phones are rapidly taking over the mantle of mobile computing devices and thin clients that allow access to the cloud. In the future, mobiles will take over many of the activities that you do on your laptop or even netbook today. Owing to small screen size, work/productivity may not be an activity you choose to do on your mobile.  But the day has already come when you can plug your mobile to your HDTV through an HDMI cable and watch a movie, and the day may not be far when you can connect your mobile wirelessly to a keyboard and a monitor and work a presentation off it.

So what are the implications for your choice of smartphone in an Indian context?

1. Wait before you buy a smartphone, if you can
Mobile computing is meaningless unless your phone can actually access a reasonably fast internet connection. Until 3G comes in the picture, it makes little difference which OS you run. This is also why most of the game-changing phones including Motorola Droid X, HTC Evo and even the iPhone 4 have not yet even bothered to make their way to the world's second largest mobile market. But I still feel there is little point spending 10,000 plus rupees on a 'smartphone' today which is already not a smartphone according to the new definition. Chances are that what you own today and called a smartphone, is not one anymore (read the new definition of a smartphone). Wait till the world's top brands make their way into the market, before you decide. The added advantage is that this will also allow the relatively new Mobile OS platforms to get updated and stabilised. Android particularly is still on an upgradation curve.

2. Expand your brand choice
Most people I know are brand loyalists - Nokia, BlackBerry and Sony being the brands of choice. But new brands are coming in at the cutting edge of the smartphone market. The Taiwanese HTC Corp, a once-struggling Motorola, and even Dell is reported to be joining in the fray soon. Hardware parity is a reality (though design and aesthetics is not). Nokia already seems to be feeling the heat of competition abroad and so is RIM BlackBerry. Ultimately, a whole new set of brands could be leading the smartphone market.

3. Do you need to change your operator?
The government has made good money off 3G auctions, but in reality only a handful of operators will be offering the service in each circle. (For the entire list, read this post). I am hoping that they will offer the expensive top-of-the-line smartphones on contract as is the norm in the US.  If that is the case, the most economical way to own a smartphone will be through such a contract.

4. Do you need a smartphone at all?
Going by recent launches of Motorola Droid, Sony Experia etc. in India, it appears that we are talking of a budget of Rs.25000 + to own a 'real' smartphone. Some of us may decide not to spend that much and be happy with 'just a phone'. However, let's face the reality - many people want to own the best and latest phone. And we may not be happy to spend, let's say Rs. 15,000-20,000 - and find that we don't have a smartphone. So, some of us may just opt out of the smartphone race and just use a phone to make calls, maybe receive emails. It may drive us back to lower budget options which companies like Samsung and Nokia are more than happy to cater to. (And mind you, thanks to their own OS re-development, these companies will also offer you a great user experience). Or you may choose to invest your mobile computing budget in a notebook/EVDO.

Truly, the mobile phone market is seeing a shake-up and re-definition. I for one, am waiting keenly for the outcome for us here in India.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Luxury cellphones

Here are some of the cellphones that most of us will never buy, but you can bet your sweet life some celebrity somewhere (maybe even in Bollywood) will. No talk about (possibly non-existent) specs, let's just roll our eyes at the images.

1. GoldVish, Geneva
These Swiss luxury phones are well...bejewelled.

The Goldvish Revolution with a built in watch movement. I can't confirm but apparently it is priced at approximately 50000 USD or Rs. 22 lakhs

And the Goldvish Le Million touted as the most expensive mobile phone in the world - it actually costs slightly more than a million dollars.

And finally, the slightly more normal looking Goldvish Illusion, which you can buy if you prefer, in yellow gold, with a crocodile leather back inlay, and several choices of colors

If you really crave this, the Google search throws up some Chinese sites offering cheap replicas starting at 2000 dollars.

2) TAG Heur Meridist
The Swiss engineered phone comes in at a relatively modest 7000 USD (Rs. 3.2 Lakh)
(image from MobileMag)

You have a choice of rubber, alligator skin or calfskin for the back cover

A limited edition launched earlier this year gave you a choice of a Lamborghini logo (image from engadget)

3) Vertu
The latest from Nokia;s high-end stable is the USD 7500 Constellation Ayksta which is a flip phone. Images below are from Gear Diary

Vertu also has a Signature collection in its exclusive store in Japan. At approximately USD 210,000 (Rs. ten lakhs each), the signature collection has a phone for each season.

In case you are anxious about specs, I should assure you that all these phones have bluetooth, MP3 player and calendar, and also show the time. Some may have cameras. But like all luxury phones, the spec list is pretty thin.

The Microsoft Kin Story

While Apple gets flamed for its iPhone 4 reception debacle, can Microsoft be far behind?

The cellphone market today is defined by a punishing rate of innovation and demanding users who expect their devices to push the envelope with each launch. Even the much-hyped Google Nexus One failed to hold its own against the superior offerings from HTC and Motorola. And even the iPhone it seems, is facing a tough time from its competition.

Microsoft, yet to launch its much-awaited Windows Phone 7, put one exploratory toe into the mobile market and got rather badly burnt. The Microsoft Kin (in two versions, Kin One and Kin Two) targeted at the teenage demographic, was launched in May and already, MS has announced that the project is being shut down and merged into the W7; apparently they barely managed to sell 10000 units of the phone. With just 6 weeks on the shelves, it's the shortest lifespan of any product put out by MS in its history

Zack Whittaker gives the Kin a tongue lashing on his ZDNet blog , saying that MS paid the price for not truly understanding the teenage segment, which is a technologically demanding and evolved user group.

Looking at CNet's review of the Kin, and reading the user experiences, it appears that the phone focussed on the social networking experience, believed to be critical to teens, by providing easy access to Twitter, FB, MySpace etc. through the home screen, and providing an app to facilitate sharing.  It had a couple of neat features that sounded interesting such as the timeline, which shows all your activities (pictures, messages, contacts) in a timeline for a designated period. And the Kin Studio service which provides an online free backup for all data.

On the flip side, the phone was said to have a sluggish interface and was bundled with an expensive data plan from Verizon which must have been a deterrent for price sensitive students. And the review mentions more glaring omissions like absence of calendar (Why??) and IM clients. Not to mention no App store.

The phone itself is cute looking, but I would imagine teens want cutting edge, rather than cuteness. (images from CNet)

Anyway, while the tech pundits analyse the Kin's failure and the implications it has for the upcoming W7 platform, and while some blame Ballmer for the fiasco, some dude has put up a Kin Memorial Site Microsoft Kin Forever Missed. You can light a candle, leave a tribute, write a story, or just gawk and grin a bit like I did. Aww, MS I feel bad but you win some, you lose some. To rub more salt in the wounds, ZDNet reports that the site has already attracted 32000 hits. Clearly, we all LOVE funerals.

(Image from Kin-Forever Missed). Sources for this post : ZDNet and CNet

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Your car security system and the monsoons

I am sharing this bad experience with other car owners - if you have a remote security system for your car, be careful in the monsoons!

This weekend, I dropped my car security remote into a puddle in the rain. Now, I have butterfingers and it is not the first time I have dropped things (cell phone, MP3 player, camera - hope my Dad is not reading this!). The remote peversely worked fine immediately after that and I drove off to Pune down the expressway. Then disaster struck when I stopped at the Food Court for a snack and toilet break. The remote went completely dead and refused to unlock the car. I was forced to use the key and I set off a siren which went on for 20 minutes. The Food Court crowd watched disinterestedly as I struggled and finally drove off with lights flashing and sirens blaring (alternate howling and singing) feeling like a cross between a thief and some action movie stunt girl . After some time, the Nippon Security system decided that either the car had been stolen or that no one cared and mercifully fell silent till I reached Pune. Then again, the moment I cut the engine and opened the door, the sirens starter blaring again, till Dad disconnected the car battery. We called the Maruti Nippon service. Thankfully, the engineer arrived in a few hours and solved the problem. Basically the battery in the remote had died (Dad feels it might have short circuited or gotten spoilt because I dropped it and it got wet). We replaced the battery and everything worked fine.

Moral of the story
1) Don't drop your car remote in the monsoon, and protect it from getting wet. If you insist on your right to be clumsy (I do!), then carry your duplicate remote with you, especially on long distance journeys. Follow this precaution at least during the rains.If you are uncomfortable with carrying both sets of car keys with you, detach the spare key and carry only the spare remote.
2) Keep the number of your service center accessible in the car.
3) Familiarise yourself with the security system manual or get your security system provider to give you a demo. I feel it is essential to learn how to disable your security system in an emergency. (In the case of the Nippon system provided with my Ritz, it is disabled by switching the ignition on, then pressing the disarm button in the car and then switching off the ignition. Repeating this cycle seven times disarms the security system and silences the siren). Also remember that once the car has been locked using the remote and then unlocked using only the key, the siren will stay activated. If you locked using the remote, you MUST unlock with the remote, or follow the disarm code for the system.
4) In case all else fails, open the bonnet and disconnect the battery. This will cut all power and at least your neighbours will not kill you for causing noise pollution. Once you have done this, you can call a service engineer to come and sort out the problem.
5) From the Nippon service engineer - avoid carrying the remote in a handbag or in a pocket where it can brush against other things, because if the buttons gets pressed repeatedly, it drains the battery.

Question : If we can have water resistant watches, why can't we have water resistant remotes?

Smartphones come of age

I am a regular reader of CNET reviews. Over the years, I have seen the site give fantastic reviews to various Apple products (including earlier versions of iPhone). Recently, Kent Gerrman  reviewed the Apple iPhone 4 on CNET and wrote this remark, which I am quoting:

"We won't say that the iPhone 4 is the best smartphone on the market today. To do so would ignore so many great competing handsets, not to mention the fierce rate of change in the technology world. If you prefer Apple's vision of a polished, highly organized, and slightly closed user experience, then by all means you'll be pleased. But if you prefer a smartphone that offers more personalization, that isn't shackled to AT&T, or that is equal parts phone and mobile computer, than there are plenty of smartphones in the sea." 

It is an interesting reaction to Apple's best iPhone yet. And this comment does not detract from the favorable review and 'Excellent' rating that the site gives to the iPhone 4. But it makes me think that smartphones as a category have finally come of age. There is the 'polished, organised and highly closed' (controlled?) experience of Apple and there is the open-source, non-consistent, slightly messy, democratic-anarchic experience of the Android phones. My point is not to debate which one is good or bad, I just think that we can celebrate that both have their place, and depending on the kind of geek you are, you can choose the experience that works for you.

And I wanted to mention two of the best smartphones of 2010 (so far) which have been getting rave reviews from tech sites. Both come from companies which were earlier not frontrunners among the handset manufacturers, both are dark horses which have rightfully gained huge attention and praise and both are certainly strong contenders for 'best smartphone of the year." And more interestingly, neither attempt to be or replicate what the iPhone is. They are proudly, different.

1) HTC Evo 4G
The Taiwanese manufacturer was associated with Microsoft for a long time since it started up in 2007, but it is the Android-powered devices produced by the company that are garnering the attention and praise of the tech community. Earlier, it was the HTC Incredible which got my attention, but since then the EVO 4G has eclipsed its predecessors.

Take a look at the specs list : a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 4.3-inch WVGA touchscreen, 8 megapixel camera with 720p video recording, HDMI-out, and WiMAX compatibility. The big draws for this phone have been the HTC Sense User Interface, and the WiMax support for the 'Hotspot' app provided by Sprint, the carrier for HTC in the US. Basically, the phone can share its 3G/4G data connection with other wi-fi devices such as your laptop.

And look at the phone in all its glory (and be sure to read the Engadget review from where I have  taken these pictures)

And I am also including a picture of the sexy red inside of the phone, simply because I love it :)

2) The Motorola Droid X

Motorola's success over the past few months has hinged on its backing of Android. The company released the hugely acclaimed Droid earlier and now the Droid X is a worthy successor. Incidentally, the Droid X is Motorola's 11th phone on the Android platform and clearly their commitment to Android is paying off.

Reviewed by Andrew Nusca at ZDNet and by Engadget, are pretty positive.
There are some things about the Droid X that make it stand out against its predecessors and competition, namely

1. The Texas Instruments OMAP processor with 512 MB RAM
2. 4.3 inch screen with 16:9 aspect ratio akin to widescreen televisions
3. No less than 3 microphones for better audio quality
4. Removable 1570 mAH battery (the standard battery in EVO and iPhone is 1500 mAH) and battery profiles like Performance Mode and Power Saver Mode give the user control of power consumption
5. It is the first phone with DLNA technology, allowing you to output high quality video through the HDMI port
6. With its wide and generous screen, Engadget points out that it is designed for people with larger hands. Well I have pretty clumsy hands, so I qualify. And this attractively spaced onscreen keyboard certainly attracts me. No cramped up keys here, I really feel I can type comfortably on this beast (image from Engadget)

7. Motorola has promised an update to the latest 2.2 (Froyo) version of Android soon, while HTC has not yet committed the same for Evo. Given that Android is getting better with each update, this is a serious plus point.

And here are some more pictures of this gorgeous phone (images from Engadget)

I am seriously sold on both phones. There is no word on the HTC EVO launch in India and Motorola's Droid X will be launching in the US in early July. Meanwhile Apple is just launching the iPhone 3Gs in India at Rs. 41,000 (32 GB) and Rs.35,000 (16 GB), according to PluGGdin.

I am unclear what use the 3GS will be to anybody, or who will be interested when the iPhone 4 is already out. It's one of those rare times when I feel frustrated to live in India. iPhone 4, EVO and Droid X are all available on attractive contract pricing from different carriers in the US - you can get them for $199 or less. I think its high time that system started in India too. But wait, where is the 3G network to use them? I guess this is a rant for a separate post. Meanwhile, let's just enjoy looking at these phones..