Friday, December 30, 2011

Troubleshooting wi-fi connectivity with Intel Centrino Wireless N-1030

There is a problem which has cropped up recently on my Dell Vostro 131. It refuses to connect to my Linksys WAG54G2 router, and when it does, the connection breaks almost immediately. I established that it could not be a router issue (I sit and work on the sofa next to the damned router) and besides, other devices including my iPad and my old Dell XPS laptop are connecting perfectly well. So I figured that it's a problem with the network adaptor/ drivers.

Here is a summary of the steps that I took to address the problem. They seem to have worked, but I will be calling Dell customer support if the problem persists. Do note that I use Windows 7, and the screenshots I have posted may not be applicable for XP/Vista machines.

Intel acknowledges that there is a problem with several products - see the list in the article for details. The feature called 'Power Saving Polling' which is intended to save battery life but can cause problems if the router or access point cannot implement it correctly.

Intel and other support forums for Dell and MS offer three simple workarounds for the adapter issue;
1. Go to the start menu and type 'device manager'. You will see this screen:

2. Right click on the network adapter (Intel Centrino N-1300 in my case) and select 'properties' from the menu

3. The  Intel Centrino N-1300 Wireless Properties Box will open. Select the Advanced tab ; the first option you will see is 802.11n mode - check 'disable' in options.

4. Next go to the Power Management tab and uncheck the box which says "Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power and click 'OK'.

These steps will disable PSP, but you need to take one more step to correct the issue-
1) Go to Control Panel/ Hardware and sound/Power Options. Choose your current power plan and click on 'Change plan settings'

2) Click on 'Change advanced plan settings'

3) The power options box will open, under that select 'Wireless adaptor settings/ power saving mode. From the drop down menu, enable the option 'maximum power' for both 'battery' and 'plugged in'.

I would say that this has fixed 80% of my problems. I still experience a problem re-establishing the wi-fi connection when the laptop goes into sleep mode. Microsoft help forums suggest another fix, which is editing the registry. I wanted to avoid doing this but maybe I will try it now.

Disable the DHCP Broadcast Flag in Windows 7

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Handy Guide to the Samsung Galaxy Range

There's one word to describe the Samsung Galaxy smartphone range - confusing . Well, Nokia did much worse with the endless alphanumeric combos like C2-03 and X2-01 and I spent half a day figuring out what they all stood for when I composed my handy guide to Nokia phones earlier this year. Samsung has not made it too easy either. The company tags "Galaxy" to every Android phone/tablet it makes and "Wave" to every bada phone and after that, price is really the only cue to figure out what's at the top of the heap and what's at the bottom.

So here's the low down on the Galaxy range. Earlier this year, Samsung introduced a naming convention to define the Galaxy Range (thanks, Mobile Gazette for the lowdown!) which is as follows;

S = Super Smart (Top End phones)
R = Refined (High End Devices)
W = Wonder (Upper Mid Range Phones)
M = Magical (Mid Range Phones)
Y = Young (Entry Level Smartphones)

In addition, a 'Pro' handset will feature a QWERTY keyboard and 'Plus' signifies an upgraded  version.

The nomenclature of course, means nothing much till we dive into the features and see what Samsung offers in each of its self-defined categories.

1. The S Series (Galaxy S I9000, Nexus S, Galaxy S LCD, Galaxy S II, Galaxy S Plus I9001)

The Galaxy Note and the new Galaxy Nexus are standalone and do not form part of the S Series. However, the other phones here are almost all best sellers for Samsung. Typically, these are in the Rs.20,000-30,000 range  unless you are lucky to find an older model going cheap. All these phones run at least a 1 GHz processor, have a 3.5 inch plus capacitive touchscreen and run Android Gingerbread. Some have Samsung's SAMOLED screen.

The Galaxy S2 is of course the flagship and current bestseller in this range, and should receive the update to the newest Android 4.0 ICS early next year. It is currently priced at. Rs.30,000 on Flipkart.

The best selling Galaxy S I9000 has been replaced with the newest addition in the S Series -  the Galaxy S Plus priced at Rs. 23,000. It offers a 4 inch AMOLED screen and 1.4 GHz single Core CPU and it  runs Android Gingerbread. The CPU has been upgraded from the old 1 GHz processor in the Galaxy S and it runs Android Gingerbread out of the box. 

If you want good specs on a budget, there is still some stock of Samsung Galaxy S I9003 with 4.0 inch LCD screen, which is way cheaper than a SAMOLED and priced at just Rs.18500 on Flipkart. The other specs include 1 GHz Hummingbird processor and 512 MB RAM.  But do note that it only runs the older Android 2.2 FroYo and Samsung has just  announced that it will not receive the upgrade to ICS (Android 4.).

The Nexus S (now discontinued) has a 4.0 inch SAMOLED touchscreen, but otherwise shares the same internals as  the Galaxy S series. It runs stock Android and has already received an update to ICS. 

2. The R series (Galaxy R I9103)

I could not really get a clue how the R series ("refined phones") would be different from S series phones and the Galaxy R I9103 really does not help to solve this puzzle. It features a dual core 1 GHz processor (that's the same power as an iPad 2) and a whopping 1 GB of RAM which should please gamers. However, the 4 inch screen is S-LCD and not AMOLED. It runs Android Gingerbread and sells for a tempting Rs.21,000 on Flipkart. This is an attractive handset if you consider that it's a bit wasteful to spend Rs.30,000 on a phone.

3. The Y series (Galaxy Y S5360)

Targeted by Samsung at young users (who are also on a budget), the Y series Galaxy phones  run Android Gingerbread and have a processor speed of 800 MHz. They also have 3 inch TFT screens and 2 MP cameras - a big step down from the Galaxy S phones, but this also keeps the price point at Rs.7500.

Currently the range offers 2 options - the Galaxy Y and the Y Color Plus which offers 4 additional changeable back panels for a moderate price premium.

4. The Galaxy Pro B7510

Pro devices from Samsung feature a QWERTY keyboard. The Galaxy Pro B7510 has a slightly small (2.8 inch) TFT touchscreen in addition to a QWERTY keyboard and packs an 800 MHz processor. It runs Android FroYo and is priced at approximately Rs. 10,000.

5. The Galaxy Ace S5830

While it does not fall into Samsung's classification system, this mid-priced (Rs.14,000) phone has been justifiably popular. It packs an 800 MHz processor, and the Adreno 200 GPU for handling graphics gives it a little performance bump compared to Samsung's budget offerings. The 3.5 inch TFT screen offers decent real estate for browsing. It runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)

6. Entry level phones - Galaxy Fit S5670 and Galaxy Pop S5570

These phones may have gotten a bit outdated with the launch of the Y series, as they run on the older Android FroYo and it's unlikely that Samsung will upgrade them. They have slower 600 MHz processors and 3 inch touchscreens. They are also in the same price range as the Galaxy Y S5360 - in fact at Rs.9000 and Rs.8000 respectively on Flipkart, they are more expensive. It seems unlikely that anyone would pick one of these over the Galaxy Y and I expect that once the stock is over, they will be withdrawn from the market.

Doing this post definitely helped me to clarify my own confusions about Samsung's range and I hope it helps you too!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review of Dell Vostro V131

I don't usually do reviews - there are so many sites who do a fantastic job (and more importantly, do it at the time of launch - whereas, I am usually  a late adopter). But the Dell Vostro V131 is likely to interest a lot of people like me who are buying on a budget so I thought I would do a quick recap after two weeks of using it. This does not purport to be an exhaustive review - I'll give you some links to reviews that helped me to make up my mind at the end of this post. It is rather a recap of the good and bad points.

I bought this laptop for work use (I am self employed). I was looking for a light, 13 inch laptop with good service support at a price point under Rs.60,000. No graphics card. Good keyboard. The choice narrowed down to  the Dell Vostro V131 and the Sony Vaio S series which features some models under Rs.60,000. I also considered the Dell XPS 14, but did not see an additional value for paying Rs.65,000 other  than the good looks. As an aside, the XPS range has really gone downhill. At the time when I bought an XPS 1330 nearly four years ago, nothing could match the XPS range. Now, everything seems to have overtaken it in specs, but not in price!

I bought the Vostro V131 primarily because of the attractive price (Rs.48,000 including 3 year extended warranty for parts and next day business service). And also because the service support for Vostro is best in class.

My machine comes with an Intel Core i5-2430M processor (2.4 GHz), 4 GB of RAM and a 500GB 7200 RPM Drive from Western Digital.

Firstly, let's see the good points;

1) The battery life is awesome

I get an average of 8 hours a day working non-stop, with wi-fi on. It is fully worth the ugly little 'battery bump' that Dell created on the laptop. It's good for almost an entire working day without power.

2) It has a decent keyboard

Frankly, I am not a fan of the chiclet-type keyboard which first showed up on Macs and is now being copied on all laptops. I liked the old 'floating island' keyboard on my Dell XPS 1330, because it had more depth and tactile response. But, I guess I am  getting used to the keyboard. Keyboard is THE most important thing for me on a business laptop - I need to be able to type fast and smoothly and so far, no complaints about this keyboard. Just as well, because it would have been a deal breaker otherwise.

3) The build quality is reasonably good

I mention this because many of the reviews point out that the build  quality is poor and flimsy compared to more expensive  machines like  the Dell XPS 14 or the Dell Latitude. I appreciate great design and a strong build, but there is nothing much wrong with this. My Dell XPS 1330 had a good build but shoddy finishing around the (then) ultra-thin LED screen and after three years of use, it looked pretty scuffed up. The V131, ironically, seems better finished overall, and less likely to show wear and tear with its matte and scratch proof surfaces. Maybe it won't survive a fall, but I am thankfully not in the habit of dropping laptops. Cellphones yes, but laptops no. Having said  that, I have invested in a good laptop bag and a slipcover for transport.

4) It  runs cool
My comparison point is the Dell XPS 1330, which would expel hot air in a steady stream all the time. The Vostro 131 is thankfully cooler. I have not felt the need to purchase a cooling pad for this one.

Now, for the flip side

1) Terrible, terrible screen

After keyboard, screen is the next big deal breaker for me. I need to say this upfront - the screen sucks big time. It's not so noticeable when working on a powerpoint, but it is really bad when I watch video. Maybe, if I had seen the display before purchase, I would have been put off. I can live with it now, but let's just say that it's going to drive me towards wearing reading glasses prematurely.

2) Dell Bloatware is a nuisance

The Vostro V131 comes with pre-installed Dell Bloatware including Dell DataSafe online backup and a Dell Support center which is pretty redundant, given that Windows 7 can take care of itself, thank you very  much. Disabling the automatic  back up and updating options requires you to dig into the settings.

I would still recommend this to anyone whose primary  use is business - which is what the laptop is designed for anyway. The poor quality screen rules it out for movie watching or gaming. Otherwise, it's a fantastic package, at a starting price of only Rs.42,000 for a Core i3 processor. You will not find an ultraportable at a comparable price point in India. The battery life and keyboard make it great for daily business use.

For me, the average life of a laptop is 3 years. At that point, whether it's working or not, I upgrade because hardware  and software have moved way ahead and a laptop is a basic business investment for me. Also, let me confess that I get bored  and I need a change. So it does not make sense for me to spend big bucks on a laptop. I look for a reliable and trouble-free three year performance and that's it. And I feel very sure that the Vostro V131 will be working just fine for the next three years.

Here are links to the reviews that helped me to make up my mind-

The AnandTech review
The LaptopMag Review
The CNet Review

Will Windows Phone be the third wheel in the mobile party?

It's been  a year of massive upheavals in the volatile mobile phone market. First of all, smartphones now constitute 30% of mobile shipments worldwide. Secondly, according to Gartner, in Q3 2011, Android gained more than 50% market share globally, doubling its market share over 2010. And Samsung overtook Nokia to become the world's largest cell phone manufacturer. The casualties were RIM and Nokia - Symbian lost nearly half its market share while RIM plummeted below 10% in the US market. Nokia continued to maintain some momentum thanks to a slew of low end devices aimed at  the emerging markets, but RIM did not have the same fortune.

Now in a scenario where Apple's iOS and Google's Android OS rule the market, is there room for a third player? And who is it likely to be?

The logical answer is of course Microsoft with its WP OS. Microsoft has so far not made a dent in the mobile market - it is stagnating at less than 2% market share even  after the launch of the new operating system. Even the old Windows Mobile OS has  a better share, with nearly 8% of the market, thought it's expected to dip rapidly.

But it's still too early to write off the still-nascent WP platform. The operating system has been praised in the tech press for its polished UI  and its potential integration with Microsoft Enterprise, Office, Web and Cloud products. And with Skype in its arsenal, and a growing base of apps and developers, Microsoft can offer an attractive proposition to both business and individual users - a secure, well built operating system optimised to run well on handsets at different price points.

Till now, the growth of WP OS  has been hampered by  the less than enthusiastic response of hardware partners like HTC and Samsung, who have released very few handsets compared to the steady stream of Android handsets from both companies. Of course, Microsoft is also to blame for this, as the company  has imposed severe restrictions and controls on the hardware from the start. It's not an ideal position to control specs when you have no real control over what manufacturers do! But Microsoft would seem to have overcome that hurdle through the partnership with Nokia. Now that Nokia has thrown in their fortunes entirely with WP OS, Microsoft has a powerful ally in their battle to build a strong market. And while Nokia may have failed to create a viable smartphone operating system, they sure know how to build good phones!

Gartner seems to have a positive outlook for the alliance, predicting that Microsoft will gain upto 11% market share in 2012 and 19% by 2015, pushing it to third position behind Android and iOS in the smartphone market.

The low hanging fruit for Microsoft is really the enterprise/business segment - which is rapidly being vacated by  RIM, creating a gap that MS is uniquely able to fulfill. Android and iOS smartphones are increasingly being used for business, but they  do not command the equity that Microsoft has already built in this segment. If Microsoft is able to convince businesses on the aspect of security, and ability to integrate smartphones with enterprise needs and applications, then they might have a winner on their hands. Of  course, they did not have great success with Windows Mobile, but WP is a new proposition altogether.

I for one, am looking forward to the launch of Nokia's new WP handsets. I do feel that we need a viable third  alternative and frankly, no one else seems to be offering one right now!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The best 3G data plan in Mumbai

If you use 3G a lot, on your smartphone or tablet, you would also have figured that 3G data plans are prohibitively expensive and restricted in many ways. For example, there are almost no unlimited plans, you pay extra for roaming on other networks and 3G coverage is patchy.

MTNL Mumbai has some extremely attractive unlimited 3G packs. The pick of the bunch is the 3G 4500 plan which gives you unlimited data for 6 months at just Rs.4500. Pair this with the seamless 3G roaming on BSNL networks at no extra charge and you have the best plan for Mumbaikars as of now. This plan is available for both prepaid and postpaid MTNL users and can now be purchased online.

Do bear in mind that MTNL Mumbai does not offer MicroSims for iPad so you will have to purchase and cut the SIM yourself to use with an iPad. That's easy to do, and TechRadar has an excellent guide which I followed to create my own MicroSim.

Here are the MTNL 3G settings for iPad in Mumbai.

How to increase partition size of C (System) Drive in Win 7

I am back to blogging after a long gap!

This post is based on my practical experience (Read : struggle) with partitions in my new Windows 7 PC. Windows 7 provides a disk management tool which makes it very easy to create new partitions. You simply go to Control Panel/ System and Security/ Create and Format HD Partitions and you get a window which lets you  easily and intuitively create partitions.

So creating partitions is easy. The problem starts when you later decide that you want to increase the partition size of C Drive. There is an option called Extend Volume but it shows up greyed out and it cannot be used. So you are stuck with lots of extra free space elsewhere and you can't use it on C Drive. What do you  do?

At this stage, you need  to get a third party software to help you. I used EaseUS Partition Manager which is a great freeware tool. Ten  minutes and one boot up and my C drive volume got extended.

Here are the steps:

1) Backup your data!

2) Download the partition manager and fire it up.

 To extend the C Drive, you first need to make free space available next to it. So click on the drive with extra space (in my case D Drive) and select the option to resize/ move partition. You should get this window:

Use the slider to select the amount of space that you want to free up for your C Drive and click on OK, then Apply. You should be able to see the free space available next to C Drive.

3) Next, select the C Drive  and the option to merge partitions. You should see this window;

Tick the boxes next to C Drive and the contiguous space that you want to merge. Click OK and then click Apply

4) The software will ask you to reboot your machine. Merging of the two drives happens during the reboot.

When your machine starts up again, your C Drive volume will be extended.

Friday, September 23, 2011

MTNL broadband plans are more expensive, less attractive

I have been a huge fan of MTNL Broadband on this blog. Out of all the internet service providers I have used, they have proved to be the most reliable and most reasonably priced till date and the customer service experience has not been bad either. Of course with the shrinking base of landline customers, it also stands to reason that they are able to service them better.

But the latest TriBand plans from MTNL Mumbai have been a huge disappointment. They favour low-bandwidth unlimited usage and are seem to be priced higher to discourage high-bandwidth, heavy data users. High bandwidth is a misnomer - 2 Mbps is not considered high speed in most developed countries and 256 kbps is not even broadband anyway. With most households now connecting multiple devices wirelessly to the internet (laptops, smartphones, even tablets), speeds below 512 kbps are not going to cut it anymore.

With multiple device access, and heavier web pages, the data download has also increased and I have experienced this myself. Downloading apps on the iPad, downloading mail on 3 separate devices, watching more videos has doubled my usage. I used to barely get to 3 GB download per month last year, and this month, I have crossed 7GB.

But MTNL has been extremely stingy with its 2 Mbps plans, offering a measly 2.5 GB for Rs. 598. As speed increases, so do downloads, and they just don't seem to get this! The rates for high speed broadband are comparable to the unreasonably high 3G rates.

After sifting through all the plans, I have been forced to settle for the Combo 1249, a plan which gives me 75 free calls that I do not want, but at least gives me a 20GB monthly download limit. Hopefully I should be able to keep within that. I was eyeing Combo 1749 (4 Mbps, 50 GB monthly download) but I don't feel rich enough yet. Maybe next year.

You can view MTNL Mumbai tariffs here.

Incidentally, MTNL Delhi has much better broadband plans. Take a look. The Trib 850 plan offers 4 mbps speeds and 10 GB of monthly download for just Rs. 850 per month, or Rs. 8500 if you pay it annually. For once, I wish I lived in Delhi! And I am not even comparing BSNL here, because it would just get too depressing. BSNL not only offers lower rates, but also higher speeds.

Property Tax for Mumbaikars simplified - pay online

Since last year, my housing society discontinued the practice of paying property tax on behalf of the residents and now hands our individual property tax bills to us to take care of. I have been once to the local Municipal Office, and while it's not as bad an experience as I thought it would be, it does take up half the day till I reach, park the car, stand in a queue and get the job done.

Thanks to my dad, I discovered the online property tax payment facility offered by the BMC. You can find it here.

To enter the site, you just need to enter the SAC number (usually an alphanumeric code) printed on your property tax bill. 

The payment gateway accepts payment through credit card or netbanking from a whole list of nationalised banks, but not from too many private ones. However, you can use the ItzCash or BillDesk facilities to pay through any credit card or netbanking account. A small service fee is levied per transaction, but in these days, with the petrol prices what they are, you would spend as much just getting to your nearest ward office. Not to mention, the working hours that you would end up spending there.

I have used this facility to make my last two payments and both have gone through smoothly, with printable e-receipts that I can download and save. Be aware that the payment gateway is moody and acts up sometimes, but works in the end.

If your property tax is overdue, a penalty may be chargeable and you will not be allowed to make the payment online. Then, you have no choice but to visit the local office.

It's a fantastic convenience to be able to avoid visiting a government office and it's a pity that more people do not avail of it. DNA reported in April that only 1% of property tax bills in Mumbai are paid through the BMC website. Of course, discomfort of most people with online payment is cited as the reason for this, but equally I think people are unaware that this option is given by the BMC. The site shifted to a new URL sometime ago and I had to spend half hour digging through the BMC website to find the new link. I could not find it by googling and that's the reason for this post - to save someone else's time!

Update : A new post is up on this subject. The method and way of payment has changed slightly.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Will Daily Deals do well in India?

Ben Parr's  post on Mashable sums up the rather bleak international scenario for daily deals sites - things are not looking good. Groupon, which created the online coupons category, is struggling to make profits despite large revenues. Facebook has withdrawn its Facebook Deals product after a short experimental stint and Yelp is scaling down its deals offerings, with an intent to exit the category. It appears that the industry is headed for a shakedown and only a few players are going to survive.

Meanwhile, the sector has just begun to explode in India. At least 30 different players, some large, some small, have sprung up. The market leader is the homegrown Snapdeal, which recently raised 40 Million USD in funding. Times Group, EBay India, Rediff and Groupon (via a buy out of have also entered the fray. Makes you wonder whether the bubble will burst in India soon, as it already has abroad

But at least for now, the going is good. Data shows that 4.6 million users accessed coupon sites in July 2011. The graph below reproduces the traffic for the top deal sites (Source : online marketing trends )

And Snapdeal's success in the market has been inspiring. The company's operations now extend to 50 cities and cover partnerships with over 10,000 brands and 50,000 retailers. The registered user base has crossed 4 million with  an average of 1.5 million new users signing up every month. Mobile has proved to be a valuable vehicle  leveraged successfully by Snapdeal to offer deals on the go, through SMS.

Snapdeal's CEO, Kunal Bahl has an interesting take on his business. "In India, group buying is an pure offline marketing business with a website." He goes on to explain the psyche of the Indian merchant, who will never make a deal on the phone but needs to see and shake the hand of the person they are doing the deal with, necessitating the company to invest in a strong sales team to build deep relationships with retailers.

Indian consumers are also a pampered lot. We are used to being wooed with ultra-high levels of service and irresistible discounts. We expect as a matter of routine, free door delivery, free 24X7 access to telephonic customer support and even lifetime warranties. This is beneficial for consumers, but it does increase the pressures, and squeeze the profit margins for e-tailers in the Indian market. And it implies that only really good deals, on really good brands will work. We are a little too smart to fall for patent anti-baldness oils, magical multipurpose Ayurvedic tonics and ab flatteners.

So, will daily deals sites be able to sustain the momentum in the long term? The answer lies in innovation and creativity in offering deals that differentiate from the rest of the pack in an overcrowded market. Here perhaps Groupon has  an idea that will work. The company has experimentally rolled out Groupon Now, time and location based deals delivered through a phone app on Android or Apple handsets.

Mobile based deals are definitely the way to go in India given the large user base and the ability to pinpoint location. Also while Facebook Deals may have tanked, social networks remain a good bet for offering group deals. We do tend to shop and buy in groups and rely on our social networks as influencers for a purchase. Finally, understanding and building a user profile for deals will make a big difference. For example, if you know that I work in Mumbai in an office in Nariman Point, and you make it a point to offer me deals on restaurants, takeaways and pubs in that area on weekdays, at lunch hours, I would be more likely to avail them. If I purchase air tickets to Chennai, and you send me Chennai based offers on the day that I flew there, I would pass the lead to local friends, even if I could not go myself. Given the low usage of mobile internet and GPS in this country, most of this would need to work on text messaging, but I am sure it can be worked out.

The concept of daily deals is interesting, and works to the consumer benefit. I do hope that the various companies in this business manage to turn it into a vibrant and strong industry.

Sources : TechcrunchMashable, BusinessInsiderOnline Marketing Trends

Low cost tablets hit the Indian market, will they succeed?

According to this report published on, India saw fairly healthy tablet sales in 2010-11. A total of 85,000 tablets were sold from November 2010 to March 2011, with Samsung's Galaxy Tab taking a lion's share of 85%. Apple's iPad 1 was launched in India in April 2010, but managed only 5.9% market share in the same period. The same article mentions that tablet sales in India are projected as 250,00 units for the current financial year. That's a drop in the ocean compared to the approximately 40 million iPads that Apple will be shipping globally in 2011.

All major tablets launched internationally including the iPad 2, the Motorola Xoom, Acer Iconia and the Galaxy Tab 750 are now available in India While these premium offerings are hovering at or above the Rs.30,000 mark, there are also some low cost options.

Reliance has launched a 3G tablet and the specs are decent for the asking price of Rs.12,999. You get a 7 inch capacative TFT/LCD screen, 800 MHz processor, Android Gingerbread and 3G/Wi-fi connectivity. It supports voice calling although video calling is not possible due to absence of a front camera. Reliance is bundling the offering with special data plans

Bharti Beetel has followed suit and launched the Beetel Magiq tablet. This tablet breaks the 10,000 price barrier at Rs. 9999 and offers a 1 GHz processor, 7 inch LCD screen and front facing camera for video calls. It runs on the older FroYo Android platform. While you can get an Airtel plan for the tablet, it can also be used with any other telecom provider.

For those curious about the OlivePad launched last year, it's still available on the Olive site. Unfortunately, the specs stay the same - 600 MHz processor, 512 MB RAM, FroYo but the price is down to Rs.15,990 (direct from Olive Telecom)

Since last year, I have been predicting that tablets will sell bigger numbers in the price sensitive Indian market when they drop below the Rs.15,00 mark. Now it seems to be happening, but the question is, will this alone be enough to trigger a tablet boom in India?

India is operating a little differently from the international market, and even from other large Asian markets like China, where mobile devices are concerned. India has a huge mobile user base (800 million and growing), which is second only to China. However, India has low usage of both broadband and mobile internet compared to China. Infrastructure is a problem - broadband coverage remains low, 3G rollout is still patchy, and data tariffs remain high although State telcos BSNL and MTNL offer attractive packages. Hardware is another problem - PC and smartphone penetration remains low. But a real and serious problem has been the lack of access to vernacular language content, another crucial area where India is lacking compared to China, Japan, Korea etc.

It is now pretty well accepted that mobile internet accessed through handheld devices will trigger the internet revolution in India, as it has done in China. But what content will the masses access on their mobile devices?

The question is of particular relevance to tablets, which are today primarily devices for content consumption. I don't know if one needs to buy a tablet just to check mails, social networking sites and do sporadic browsing or gaming - the same activities can be performed even on a dumb phone today. More than even phones, tablets need a content ecosystem to justify their existence and this has been one of the big reasons that Apple has had such great success with the iPad, and the Android marketplace is scrambling to catch up.

So, in short, it's not enough for the telcos to launch low cost tablets - someone needs to provide relevant local content (streaming video, movies, TV channels, live cricket, music channels, internet FM radio etc.). Apps are not content, they are merely enablers and gateways to content.

When this is done I can see a great future for low cost tablets in this country. They could become mobile TV units, dispensing live cricket scores to the city commuter, blockbuster movies to the Bollywood-crazy fans, the latest instalment of a popular TV soap to the housewife on a long-distance train. In a country where audio-visual medium is way more popular than the written word, this is the way to go.

Clearly, this calls for a partnership of telcos, hardware manufacturers and content houses to develop the tablet market. And this is bandwith-hungry content, which will need to be subsidised - bundled offers or subscription based services would make this content affordable to the masses. It would be a challenge to work around the deficiencies in mobile broadband infrastructure - I see a role for cloud-based content which can download directly to your device.

Maybe it's an idea for the future, but it's also an idea whose time has come. I predict that whoever moves first to crack the content question, will rule the market!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Could we have an India-specific mobile platform?

Chinese search giant Baidu recently announced  the launch of an Android-based mobile platform called Yi, which means 'easy' in English. Currently, the platform comprises a set of tools available to developers to create mobile apps for Baidu products and services. But there seem to be strong indications that Baidu is taking steps towards developing an operating system with a user interface, which will eventually find its way onto phones. Chinese e-commerce portal Alibaba has already launched its own Linux-based Aliyun OS.

With 200 million registered users, Baidu is one of the largest sites in the world - to be precise, the sixth largest. And as China's Google, with 80% market share, it certainly has enough user base to develop its own mobile operating system.

Update : Dell has just confirmed that it will partner with Baidu to produce tablets and handsets.

There's more. Now the South Korean government has plans to join hands with local companies like Samsung and LG to develop an open source mobile operating system that will rival Google and Apple. Apparently, the acquisition of Motorola Mobility by Google and its emergence as a potential competitor in the hardware space has made the prospect of an alternate platform to Android, more attractive to Samsung.

These two pieces of news signal a potentially new trend in mobile OS development. Asian countries are the fastest growing mobile markets in the world, and the majority of users would not have comfort with English as a language. There is a huge opportunity to tailor an operating system, and user interface to the needs of the local population, especially if the operating system can link to local language content, as Baidu will be doing.

In India, one can add to this the challenge of adapting an operating system to lower income groups, and users with lower levels of literacy, who rely primarily on icon/ visual based navigation.

Idea for an Indian entrepreneur -

1) Get venture capital to develop a basic operating system for the masses. Vernacular language and visual based. It's not that difficult or costly. Baidu is creating a 'fork' of Android - using the open source and free code to build its own operating system, stripped of Google's apps, marketplace etc. In short, completely independent of Google.

2) Tie it closely up with local language content providers (including vernacular news channels, internet radio stations, Bollywood studios and TV production houses)

3) Sell it to local handset manufacturers - Micromax, Wyncomm etc. Given the interest of companies like Samsung and LG in the Indian market, maybe even they would go with it.

4) Figure out a viable business model (no, I am not going to do that in a blog post!) Possibly though, it could be advertising funded. The HLLs of the world can afford to buy expensive TV advertising, but a lot of companies that target small town and rural India cannot compete with them on ad budgets. They would gladly buy cheaper ad space on mobiles, especially as mobiles can reach media-dark consumers in India.

Horace Dideu notes that mobile platforms have proliferated in the last 2 years - currently the count stands at 15. We should see many more coming as smartphone penetration climbs upwards.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Strategy to gain market share with low cost tablets

After deciding to end support for the webOS software, HP dropped the price of its TouchPad tablet to $99 for the 16GB version and $149 for 32GB and within a short span of time, the existing stock was sold out. Now, the company plans to manufacture at least one more limited run of tablets to meet the overwhelming demand. When it was priced competitively to the iPad there were no takers, but at the new price, people are apparently prepared to invest, even without the promise of a future ecosystem. Efforts are on to release an Android port for the TouchPad, which would link it to the Android marketplace, and that would make the TouchPad an attractive buy. But the story of the TouchPad makes an interesting case study about how to fuel mass adoption for a new alternative platform. Discount the hardware, create a large user base in a short time span, and then automatically the developer community will step in to build applications. It's a viable market strategy for a company with long term ambitions and deep pockets. Sadly, HP has not chosen this route.

Now Amazon seems prepared to walk this path too, with plans to launch two Android tablets by Q4 2011. Analysts at Forrester Research have predicted that Amazon could sell as many as 3 to 5 million tablets if they are prepared to sell the hardware at a much cheaper price than Apple, even if they lose money in the short term. In any case, the device will be a platform to integrate Amazon's services like Kindle Books, Cloud Drive and the App store, which the company will make money from. And they will be cashing in on the Android boom while upgrading the Kindle ebook reader, which was becoming obsolete as tablets move to touch based technology. Amazon has already promised that their tablets will be 'hundreds of dollars cheaper' than the iPad.

So far, Android market expansion has been driven by hardware manufacturers like Samsung, who have no incentive to discount that hardware. In the tablet space, this has prevented them from making much inroad against Apple. Let's put it bluntly, when Apple and Android tablets are priced equivalently, people incline towards Apple because of its head start in apps, and the useability, refinement and stability of the interface.

The story has been different with Android phones, where budget offerings from HTC, Samsung and others have expanded the Android user base. People are keen to invest in budget offerings to sample Android, get access to the marketplace, and do the same things that people do on high end smartphones. In fact the success and growing market share of the Android platform has been based on rapid adoption across price points. Surely the same paradigm can apply to the tablet segment also.

Do note that this argument only holds when the basic hardware and operating system is sound, and when the future holds some promise of an app ecosystem and/or cross platform migration. It's early days yet to say whether TouchPads will end up becoming obsolete, or whether Amazon will enjoy the same success with their new tablets as they did with the Kindle. But if I were Google, fresh from buying out Motorola, I would take a good look at the potential of low cost tablets as a means to end Apple's dominance.

Source : Ars Technica

Monday, August 29, 2011

BlackBerry's 2011 line up

BlackBerry is currently in the thick of a huge launch and re-vamp of its product line - a measure that the company must be banking on to stem the eroding mind share and market share in the smartphone segment. India is a important market for BlackBerry, and one where the company has lost less momentum compared to the US, so we can surely expect the latest releases to land early on our shores.

First of all, the new BB range debuts with BB 7 OS, the newest RIM mobile software. Preliminary reviews suggest that it represents in terms of user experience modest upgrade over OS 6, though not changing the way the operating system looks and behaves - that's probably a good thing. But BB 7 still lags behind iOS and Android in two critical areas - the browsing experience and the app ecosystem. This should not be of concern to loyal BlackBerry users, who will be welcomed to a new OS that runs way faster (especially on the top-end Bold), offers NFC, HD Video recording, better graphics support and more.

What should concern the BB User is that OS 7 cannot be upgraded on older devices. Which means that the Torch and the Bold 9780 will now be obsolete. Do keep in mind that OS 7 is also a temporary fix and RIM proposes to shift to the all-new QNX OS next year. Effectively, that would probably make this year's crop of BlackBerry's obsolete? The first QNX handset, the BlackBerry Colt, is expected to debut in Q1 2012. Do note that QNX phones will likely feature a software update that supports Android apps. So you would be able to overcome the limitations of BB App World by gaining access to the better-equipped world of Android apps.

1) BlackBerry Curve : 9350 (CDMA)  and 9360/9370 (GSM)

(Image Source : BGR )

The refreshed entry-level Curve range will be launched globally over September-October. The Curve 9350, 9360 and 9370 feature the brand new BlackBerry OS 7, 5 Mega Pixel Camera, slim design and support for NFC and GPS.

It will be unusual to see phones of this calibre without the mandatory touch screen that now comes on even sub Rs.5000 handsets, but that is RIM's differentiator and fans of RIM's QWERTY keyboard will have no problems.

No word yet on pricing, but I would expect BlackBerry to price it on par with the current Curve line-up.

2) BlackBerry Bold 9900 (GSM) and 9930 (CDMA)

(image source : Techradar )

It has drawn attention as the 'best BlackBerry ever', replacing the flagship Torch at the top of RIM's smartphone Pyramid. RIM has updated the phone with a 1.2 GHz processor,  2.8 inch hi-resolution capacative touchscreen, HD video camera - all packed into a svelte, exceptionally good looking body measuring 10 mm in thickness. In reviews, BlackBerry geeks have praised the physical keyboard as the best yet on any BB device and that's saying a lot, given that BB has always featured the best keyboards.

Again, we have yet to get a pricing for India, but looking at pricing of 250 USD plus on US networks, I would imagine that Indian pricing would at least touch the Rs.30,000 mark. That's what most Indian tech sites also seem to be suggesting.

3) BlackBerry Torch 2 9810 (GSM) 

(Image Source : Techradar )
Physically, the Torch retains the looks of its predecessor with a sliding QWERTY + touchscreen, but processor speed has been ramped up to 1.2 GHz, 768 MB RAM, and it has been equipped with a higher-resolution display - the 3.2 inch screen gets an upgrade from HVGA to VGA.

While it is faster and smoother in operation than its predecessor thanks to the upgraded OS and hardware, it does not represent a major refresh on its predecessor. It also yields place to the Bold 9900 as the RIM flagship.

Letsbuy is currently listing the Torch 9810 at Rs. 30,000 (approximately) The original Torch (9800) is already being heavily discounted, deservedly so, since it cannot be upgraded to OS7.

4) Blackberry Torch 9850 (CDMA) and 9860 (GSM) 

(Image Source : the  BlackBerry Website )

The all new touch-only version of the Torch evokes memories of the ill-fated BB Storm but thankfully, things are much improved.  The yet-to-be released phones feature a 3.7 inch (BlackBerry's largest) WVGA screen and other features including HD Video recording, digital compass etc.

Let's wait for the pricing which should be in the range of Rs. 28-30,000.

Sources : BGR, the official BlackBerry Blog

Friday, August 26, 2011

The handy must-read guide to buying a Nokia phone (Symbian only)

Nokia has been off my radar for sometime now, but they have gotten my attention again with a slew of launches. While most of us are pre-occupied with the world of Android and iOS, the Finnish phone maker has quietly been adding budget handsets and mid-range smartphones to their vast range, offering great functionality and solid build quality as always. The dropped prices make the purchases a little sweeter.

So I spent some time poking around Nokia's new launches and here's the deal - the current Nokia range is bafflingly complex to figure out. Full of nomenclature like C5-03, X1-01 and stuff like that - you get the idea. There is a mix of touchscreen, 'touch and type' and QWERTY/physical keyboard across price points. So this is an attempt to present my own categorisation, based on my understanding of the prices and features on offer. It would be handy to read this if you are considering buying a Nokia phone right now.

This post will only deal with Symbian phones, which still constitute the bulk of Nokia's range.

Here's an overall perspective:

1) Symbian

Different handsets run different versions of Symbian, Nokia's ubiquitous operating system. The lowest models in the range (100 and 101) run the basic S30. Some of the budget phones run S40, while most run S60. The latest top-end  phones from Nokia run the highest version, Symbian 3, which debuted on the Nokia N8.

What is the difference for you? Lower versions of Symbian (S30, S40 and S60) will offer less advanced features than Symbian 3, which tries to match Android and iOS. However, S60/S40 will be adequate for standard push mail, Facebook and internet usage. Both S60/S40 and Symbian 3 have an app ecosystem too.

With S30 phones, you get the older and more basic versions of Symbian which power basic call and messaging features.

Nokia has made Symbian 3 a fully upgradeable OS, like Android and iOS. In fact the company has already started rolling out the first update for S^3, called Symbian Anna. A subsequent update called Symbian Belle, should be deployed by Q4 2011.

Nokia's CEO has announced that the company will support the Symbian platform till 2016. So it's really quite safe to buy a Symbian phone given the short lifespan of mobiles today.

2) Phone Series

Nokia follows an alphabetic nomenclature, with 4 series - C, E, X, and N. Within each series, there are model numbers from 1 to 9 eg. C2, C3, C5. The numbers signify both functionality and price, with 1 being the lowest, and 9 being the highest.

Broadly the alphabets define the functionality of the Series. E series consists of phones for enterprise/ business and they typically tend to have QWERTY pads though some may also offer touch functionality.

N series refers to top of the line flagship Nokia phones with mobile computing and advanced multimedia capability. But there  is a bit of a confusion - the older Nokia 900 and the yet to be launched Nokia N9 both feature the MeeGo platform and not Symbian 3. Since Nokia is discontinuing MeeGo, later N series releases will all feature Symbian 3.

The C Series is widely viewed as one of the most solid line-ups of Nokia handsets, encompassing budget to mid-range offerings. The C Series emphasises easy communication options through push mail and enterprise mail connectivity. It mostly runs S60, but C6-01 and C7 both run Symbian 3 and are currently receiving the upgrade to Symbian Anna.

The X Series features phones optimised for download and playback of music, and takes off on the earlier Xpress Music series. X series spans the gamut of budget, features and iterations of Symbian, from S40 at the lower end to Symbian Anna on the X7. It also includes handsets with only physical keyboard, with 'touch and type' screen and pure touch.

Here is another spin - a purely numeric series has also been launched. At the bottom end, it consists of the recently announced budget handsets - 100 and 101 running S30. It includes the Nokia 500, the first  S^3 phone to feature a 1 GHz processor. Also count in the recently announced Nokia 600, 700 and 701 which will run Symbian Belle. Go figure.

Now let's move on to my classification of the entire range. I have provided a recommendation in each section

1) Bargain Basement (X1-01, X2-01, C2-00, C2-02, C2-03, C2-06) : Rs. 1500 - Rs.5,500

Targetted at the low income consumer in developing markets and aiming to compete with white box and local manufacturers, these are spartan phones with basic call and messaging, sans 3G connectivity. You can identify them by the number 1 or 2 appended to the series (eg. X1-01).

Recommendation  : The C2 series stands out in this category, offering a decent browsing experience and a new version of Nokia maps. With C2-03 and C2-06, you will also get Nokia's unique touch and type interface. Nokia C3 has the distinction of being the first QWERTY phone running S40 and also features wi-fi support.

2) Dual SIM (Nokia 100, 101, X1-01, X2-01 C1-00, C2-00, C2-03) : Under Rs.5000

This is actually a sub category of bargain basement phones, but warrants its own section, because Nokia has finally jumped into the dual SIM game. The recently announced Nokia 100 and 101 will possibly be sub Rs.1000 phones. Currently the X1-01 is the entry level phone in this category.

Recommendation : The S40 based C2 series (C2-00 and C2-03), feature dual standby (two active lines) and an easy swap feature that lets users change SIM cards without rebooting the handset. The handset remembers the settings for upto 5 SIM cards. 

(The Nokia C2-03. Image Source : GSMArena )

3) Touch and type phones  (C2-03, C2-06, C3-01, X3-02) : Rs.4500-7000 

Touch and type is Nokia's novel addition to budget phones, offering a resistive touchscreen paired with a numeric (not QWERTY) keypad.

Recommendation : The X3-02 is currently Nokia's touch and type flagship. It's slim, well designed, good looking and the resistive touchscreen still offers a decent experience, while the numeric kepypad is large and easy to type on. It's also 3G enabled and has GPS.It also offers USB On the Go support, meaning you can connect it directly to a flash drive using the data cable.

(The Nokia X3-02. Image Source : GSMArena )

4) Budget range (C5-03, C6-01, C7,  Nokia 500, 600) : Rs.9,000-15,000

Nokia offers an attractive budget range with a mix of QWERTY and resistive touchscreen phones that suit a range of needs. If you are not hooked onto Android, these are the best handsets you could pick up on a modest budget. For me, the key selling point of these phones is that since they run the mobile-optimised Symbian software, even with lower hardware specs, they are fast and they have a great battery life.

Recommendations : The C5-03 is a bargain under Rs.10,000. It comes with a touchscreen, and the fastest processor for an S60 device (600 MHz) which makes it very zippy. 

(The Nokia C5-03. Image souce : GSMArena )

Increase your budget by a couple of thousand rupees and you will get the newest Nokia 500, which would be my top pick for the feature set on offer at the price. You get a capacitive touchscreen, a 1 gig processor (the first on a Nokia phone) and it runs Symbian 3. 

(The Nokia 500. Image source : GSMArena )

5) Mid Range (Nokia C7, E6, 700, 701) : Rs.15,000 - 20,000?

The Nokia 700 and 701 phones are just announced so I do not have price information, but the feature sets suggest that they may be upwards of Rs.15k. If they cost less than that, great!

I want to point out that there is a gap in the Android segment for phones priced in this range (15-20k). I usually buy in this price range and I assume that some of you might want to as well, so these phones seem decent options.

The display gets a bump to nHD AMOLED which is Nokia's top display, and the phones will be launched with Symbian Belle on board. There is also a 1 gig processor.

The Nokia 701 is touted to have the brightest smartphone screen till date, using LCD with Clear Black Technology. Obviously, it will feature a fast processor and bigger RAM for faster speeds.

The E6, clearly a successor of the E72, is a great QWERTY business phone for the price tag it carries, running Symbian Anna and combining a capacitive touchscreen with a QWERTY keypad.

Recommendation : While you could wait for the 700 or 701 to be launched, the C7 (Rs.16,000 approx.) is a phone which stands out as a more affordable version of the flagship N8, minus the phenomenal camera. It has a 3.2 inch screen, a 680 MHz processor and 256 MB of RAM and with the latest Symbian Anna update, it is also equipped with NFC (Near Field Communication)

(The Nokia C7. Image Source : GSMArena )

6) Flagship phones (X7, N8, E7) : Rs. 20,000 plus

These phones have superlative design and build quality and match up to many features of Android, but they equally compete head-on with some of the best-selling and most-desired Android handsets from Samsung and HTC. If you want to operate in this budget and are a Nokia fan (I am), I would suggest you wait for Nokia's Windows Phone range to start rolling out.

Sources : GSMArenaThe Nokia Blog

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The real future of tablets

As far back as 2001, Bill Gates predicted that tablets would become the most  popular form of PC sold in America. It's not yet happening, but the tablet segment is poised to grow rapidly - research firm In-Sat estimates that 250 million tablets will ship in 2017, with the number reaching 100 million by end 2012. It's perhaps a little ironic that the pace of growth is driven by not by Microsoft but by arch rival Apple.

Today, it seems like everyone has a theory about the future of tablets. And these predictions have value as a measure of the decisions that companies will take, which will ultimately shape the future of the market. In that sense, the tech sector is similar to the fashion industry. It decides what will will be the 'next big thing' and we as consumers just follow it. Today we have a choice between Android and Apple, but that's just a fallout of the industry leaders' decision that mobile phones would become mini-computers and browsing devices rather than plain calling and texting devices.

Most recently, JT Wang,  Chairman of Acer has suggested that tablet fever is a fad which is on the decline and people are already shifting their interest back to notebooks. Intel concurs in this theory, supporting the concept of an Ultrabook  (a super thin high performance notebook with a solid state drive, but priced like a notebook) and predicts that Ultrabooks will constitute 40% of PC sales by end 2012. The first ultrabooks will ship by end 2011.

On the other hand,  Microsoft has repeatedly insisted that tablets are the future of PCs, keeping in line with Bill Gates' stand in the past. In other words, tablets will run Windows 8 (a PC OS) rather than Windows Phone and essentially do the same things that a PC does, with the new touchscreen based form factor. So tablets will replace our PCs?

Let's hear Steve Jobs' theory - after all, he is the modern-day architect of the tablet revolution. Steve believes that tablets will usher in the post PC era and the PC form factor will rapidly get outdated. He also admits to the limitations of tablets today as content creation devices but believes that these will sort themselves out in a matter of time. So it appears that Apple and Microsoft are on the same page - tablets are  the future. There is however a major difference in the way the two companies are viewing the future of tablets.

Steve Jobs thinks that they are 'Post PC devices'. This is reflected in the tablet experience from Apple which is significantly different from the PC experience. We are being shifted to a new paradigm, which transcends issues such as hardware specs, use of touchscreen input etc. These are enablers of the experience, but do not define it. And with the release of OS X Lion, and maybe even earlier, Apple has been re-working the PC experience to be more tablet like than ever before. For instance the usage of apps as a gateway to the Net. Hypothetically, in the future one can see productivity software running as an app on the cloud - on your tablet and on your PC.

Microsoft's approach has a subtle difference. If the tablet will replace the PC, running a desktop OS rather than a mobile OS, then it must take on the mantle of what the PC does. So Microsoft's approach will probably consist of engineering the tablet to deliver an experience that's as close to the PC as possible. Maybe you will dock your tablet into a productivity centre consisting of a printer, keyboard, external hard drive. Maybe a Kinect-like technology will replace the use of a mouse with hand movement.

What will be the role of Android tablets in this party? There is no single spokesperson on what Android tablets will due in the future. Google's stake should be clear, if one looks at what they did with Android as a mobile phone OS - Google wants to be the platform of choice on the maximum number of devices, to retain their monopoly as a search, ads and apps company. To this end, Ice Cream Sandwich aims to be a unified OS working on all Android devices, very much as iOS works across Apple's mobile devices. As for the hardware manufacturers of Android, their scramble to gain market share will do for tablets what they did for mobiles - democratisation of the market. I believe that the thrust of Android manufacturers will be to introduce affordably priced tablets with great specs (hardware based innovation) to deliver iPad alternatives. Of course, the flexibility and freedom that the Android platform offers will be an added incentive to buy into these devices. But the real potential of Android tablets will be unleashed when the operating system is exploited to transcend the boundaries of just content consumption or creation. For instance, an Android tablet could sit in my car, controlling the music, air-conditioning, navigation etc. and it could be used to remotely control my security system at home when I am travelling. The open code of Android can be adapted to huge uses that the closed Microsoft and Apple systems may not allow.

What's your take on the future of tablets?

The mobile landscape is changing rapidly, but not through innovation

The last month and especially the last week, have been eventful for the world of mobile devices. The hot topic today is Steve Job's resignation as CEO of Apple, but several other top business stories have been foreshadowing the shape of things to come.

The big shocker was HPs decision to move out from its Web OS (tablets and smartphones) business - just 16 short months after purchasing Palm and just a few months after launching the HP Touch Pad, Veer and Pre 2 smartphones. WebOS received a lot of positive feedback from the tech community - a rare occurrence in a world ruled and defined by iOS and Android. But sales did not inspire confidence : until HP discounted the TouchPad to prices starting at $99 two days later. HP did not wait or persevere but inexplicably decided to give up. And what's more, the company has also announced that it will move out of the personal PC business. Horace Dideu beautifully analyses the demise of HP in this post on Asymco.

Then there was the announcement that Google would buy Motorola's mobility division for $12.5 billion. Motorola's 17,000 strong patent portfolio was clearly a big motivator for Google's biggest acquisition yet, but the purchase also raises questions about whether Google would gain unfair competitive advantage over other Android handset manufacturers after staying neutral all these years.

And the tech publications are regularly reporting on the woes of RIM, once the smartphone leader, now a struggling contender increasingly losing its glamor to high end Android and Apple products. It has been regularly rumored that competitors like Microsoft were planning to buy RIM, while shareholders and the press have been critical of top management at the company and their ineffective response to competitive pressure. Even if RIM does not decide to sell out, their  announcement that the next generation of QNX BlackBerry phones would support Android apps, speaks volumes about their outlook.

Nokia's marriage to Microsoft earlier this year and the jettisoning of the MeeGo and Symbian platforms has drawn lots of coverage (mostly critical) in the tech press.

Put together, all these pieces of news point to an obvious but important conclusion - not only is the mobile landscape changing, it is changing at a pace that is frighteningly fast. And it is not innovation that is setting the pace - it is corporate decisions to ditch products and software that were created over years, with huge R &D investments. Consolidation, acquisition, mergers are the order of the day, as companies play safe, put revenue and bottomline first.The pace of failure of long standing innovations is faster than ever before, and I wonder if companies are also giving up faster than they used to.

Web OS was unveiled by Palm in 2009, before the company was acquired by HP. It took just a few months after launch of the first Web OS products in 2011 for HP  to decide to jettison the entire project.

For Nokia, one could argue that innovation had become an overkill over the years, with a bloated budget that ate into bottomlines. Horace Dideu points out that Nokia spent 10.2% of its budget on R&D in 2010, while Apple spent just 2.2%. Bloomberg reported that Nokia's R&D budget was $4 billion in 2010, higher than Samsung, Motorola or RIM. Small wonder that Eelop lost little time in transitioning to Microsoft's Windows Phone platform that would cut down on associated development costs and improve profitability. It is a different matter that the move gave short shrift to Symbian and the work-in-progress MeeGo platform.

Being in the phone business for years, both Motorola and RIM also hold considerable R&D expertise (as well as hard patents) which they have invested heavily in over the years. While Motorola has sold out, RIM does not seem to be leveraging its next gen QNX platform or its BB OS effectively.

In short, many promising mobile platforms, developed by former industry leaders, have gotten killed off in the last few months, or are in their death throes. Maybe they were guilty of spending too much time and money, not taking enough risk, not having enough of vision, offering too little, too late. But the disturbing fact remains that in a still nascent and rapidly growing smartphone market, there remain almost no alternatives to Android, iOS and Microsoft. And failure is making news more consistently than innovation.

It is still possible that an entirely new entrant may come in out of the wild, but this will obviously take more time. It would have been easier for alternative platforms to evolve on the basis of what already existed, than for someone to create something out of scratch.

It's not that I don't welcome change, or believe that its necessary for the old to shift to make way for the new. But such rapid change comes at a cost. I don't see any of the smaller players being willing to invest in R&D for a new platform when there is so much possibility that it could become a costly mistake.

And we as customers will be the ultimate ones to suffer from a lack of competitive stimulus in the market. Does the mobile phone OS market have to go the way of the PC market (only 3 major alternatives between Windows, OS X and Linux?) Not necessarily. There is a much bigger audience base for mobiles which could easily accommodate more platforms.

With the uncertainty over Apple's future after Steve Job's resignation, the mess of lawsuits that Android handsets are attracting and Microsoft's glacially slow pace of movement, we desperately need a fresh injection of vision, passion and excitement in mobile innovation. I just wonder who wants to, or will, provide it!

Budget Android Phones in 2011 : part 2

As the buzz about Android grows bigger, more and more people are keen to sample it. The good news is that Android handsets are getting cheaper and more accessible thanks to initiatives by HTC and Samsung. And there's more good news - you are getting more bang for your buck with the latest flavor of OS available on at least a few phones.

There are some disclaimers for budget Android phones. Today top-end smartphones today are becoming like powerful mini-computers with dual core (and soon, Quad Core) processors, huge RAM and large displays. You can think of budget smartphones as being like netbooks in comparison. They will be underpowered, the interface will be slow and gaming may be a less enjoyable experience. The display will not be the best. To the best of my knowledge, these phones will also not play Flash video due to lower processor speed and performance. You could get a workaround for YouTube videos, but you might have to forego other sites with flash content.

 If you are prepared for this, then there are lots of decent budget options in the market.

I am featuring phones priced between Rs.10,000 and Rs. 15,000 here. I already did a round up of some sub Rs.10,000 handsets. Of course, there are many more now. But in that price range, you would get more mileage from some of Nokia's excellent feature phones or even the BlackBerry Curve sans 3G.

1. Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini (Gingerbread)

Sony's new sweet little Android package offers the best spec set that you can get in the budget range, at a modest tag of only Rs.13,000 on FlipKart. It features a 1 gig processor, 512 MB RAM and an LED capacitive touchscreen - solid smartphone specs. The only catch here is the 3 inch screen. If you love the small, compact dimensions of the phone, you will embrace the screen. But in an era when the screen size is  normally 4 inches or more, you may struggle with this, especially with the keyboard. I don't think it might be a problem if you have small hands (Women, take note - and the Xperia Mini is very much a feminine phone in its styling and aesthetic)

This is the only phone which stands out among the budget set, because of its features. But as I mentioned, the small screen can be a deal maker or breaker. Check it out and try to type some SMS on it.

(The Sony Xperia X10 mini : Image from GSMArena )

2.. Samsung Galaxy Ace (Android FroYo)

(Image from Techradar )

Samsung has released a confusing array of phones under the Galaxy branding, (they have recently made a complicated attempt to rationalise it) but the one which stands out by far among their budget offerings is the Galaxy Ace. At Rs. 13,900 on Flipkart, it's a good entry level Android handset. As an added bonus, reviewers have noted a passing resemblance to the iPhone 4 in appearance (I'm not sure how long Samsung may continue to create such resemblances though, given the bitter lawsuit with Apple).

The Galaxy Ace has a 3.5 inch capacative touchscreen, a 5MP camera with flash and expandable memory. The processor is only 800 MHz and can get slow and choppy and the display is only low-res TFT, but what more can you expect at this price? I would rate it a little better than the Widfire S featured below as it at least runs a faster processor.

The Galaxy Ace officially runs FroYo but Samsung selectively rolled a Gingerbread update for it last month. No news yet when it will reach India, but you can update it unofficially through Android forums.

3. HTC Wildfire S (Android Gingerbread)

( Image from TechRadar )

The successor to the wildly popular HTC Wildfire, it runs Gingerbread out of the box and features a better display and 5MP camera with flash. The 600 MHz processor is slower than Samsung and the 3.2 inch screen is smaller, but the popular feature-rich HTC Sense UI compensates for this. There is no front facing camera, so no video calls are possible.

The Wildfire S retails for Rs.13,399 on Flipkart.

4. HTC Salsa (Android Gingerbread)

You pay a little more than the Wildfire S (approximately Rs.14,500 on Flipkart) but you get much more.  Notably an 800 MHz processor which improves the browsing experience hugely over the previous two phones, tight Facebook integration and a large 1520 mph battery which gives it a solid battery life. Like its sibling HTC ChaCha, it also features a dedicated Facebook key for social networking buffs.

I would pay the difference and buy this over the Samsung Galaxy Ace.

5. HTC ChaCha (Android Gingerbread)

(Image from Techradar )

This is a phone for a different demographic, the rapidly receding QWERTY keyboard using population (Blackberry users?). Tech Radar puts it nicely in their review - 'body of a BlackBerry, mind of an Android."

For me QWERTY Android phones are a contradiction in terms - Android, like iOS, is designed as a touch interface and over time, touch keyboards have improved vastly. I started out as a hardcore fan of a physical QWERTY but over time, I have settled in with a touch-based input.

This is a cute looking phone with a funny 'bump' or curvature in its shape, which may or may not appeal to you aesthetically.

The ChaCha provides a great QWERTY keyboard, but seriously under-delivers on the screen - it's just 2.6 inches and compromises not only the browsing experience but even the app experience and the default home screen. Like the Salsa, it features a dedicated Facebook key. It has the same processor as the Salsa, but a smaller battery. However, owing to the smaller screen size, the ChaCha also optimises its battery life to last longer without a charge.

The ChaCha is currently retailing at Rs. 14,499 on Flipkart.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

threebudget ultraportable notebooks - finally

(This post has been edited to include a new ultraportable entrant, the Dell Inspiron 13z)

Sometime ago, I was struggling to find a decent ultraportable at a reasonable budget, and now it seems that there are three available in the market. The heartening news is that they carry the latest specs, and have been launched pretty much in line with international launch dates. Maybe Sony and Dell will inspire Asus and Toshiba to follow suit and launch their top of the line ultraportables in India too!

1. Dell V131 (13.3 inch)

The Dell V131 is a successor to the one year old V130, a slick ultraportable which suffered from poor battery life, underpowered ULV processor and finally a non-replaceable battery which drove the last nail into its coffin as far as I was concerned.

This time round, Dell has refreshed the V131 with a large 6 cell removeable battery promising upto 9 hours of battery life, and given options of a second generation (Sandy Bridge) Intel Core i3 or Core i5 processor. Overall, it has good reviews for battery life, keyboard and touchpad. But it does poorly in graphics performance and has a subpar screen resolution which puts it at a disadvantage compared to the Sony Vaio S series. Also the extra large battery protrudes to create a bump at the base of the laptop which you may find unappealing from an aesthetic point of view.

The Dell Vostro V131 is part of Dell's Vostro range and can only be ordered directly from Dell or an authorised Dell reseller. According to Indian sites, prices start from Rs.30,000 onwards, but I doubt if an ultraportable, even from Dell, would be so cheap. I would peg this at Rs.40,000 plus. I have placed a query with Dell and I will update this post with the exact price when I hear from them.

2) Sony Vaio S Series

Announced in May 2011, the Vaio  S Series is a praiseworthy attempt from Sony to offer high end performance at an affordable price in an ultraportable form factor.  At approximately 1.7 kg, the Vaio S series will pack in a second generation i3 or i5 processor and trumps Dell V131 by offering an optical drive, dedicated graphics card and superior display.

There are a number of models listed under the Vaio S Range on the Sony India website. The entry level offers 3 models under Rs.60,000 - 2 of these have Core i5 processors.

3. Dell Inspiron 13z

I have edited this post to include the newly launched Inspiron 13z, an exciting product as it is the lowest price (yet well spec-ed) portable in India till date (under Rs.40,000). Weighing approximately 1.76 Kg, the Inspiron offers 2 or 4 GB of RAM, a second generation Core i3 processor, 320 GB Hard Drive and a 13.3 inch screen. No customisation is possible. Apparently this model has been launched for Asian markets only.

At that price, it should certainly pick up volumes.  However, I would like to take a look at the keyboard, the build quality and the trackpad. I have found the Inspiron range to under-deliver on these aspects in the past compared to the great quality of the Vostro or XPS range.

I like the Vostro range a lot for its reliability and level of customer support which is ideally suited for a home office/ small business user. And I don't have very pleasant memories of Sony laptops based on the performance of two units in my last workplace. In one, we had to replace the keyboard and in the other, the battery and optical drive were dead within a year. Of course, it does not mean I will not check out the new Sony laptop!

And apart from these two candidates, I am also interested in the future 'ultrabook' announced by Intel at this year's Computex. Coming as a response to the tech pundit's predictions that we are in a Post PC tablet era,  Intel has trademarked the name ultrabook to describe an  ultraportable SSD based notebook, similar to the new MacBook Air range which has replaced the traditional MacBook lineup this year. And now AnandTech reports that Intel has also put its money where its mouth is by creating a $300 million fund for innovation in hardware, software and design of the ultrabook. According to AnandTech, Asus will be launching the first series of ultrabooks as early as September this year.

As my current laptop (XPS M1330) has turned 3 this year, I am definitely in the market for a replacement. Until these laptops showed up, nothing I saw in my budget was exciting me. Now it looks like I have some viable options to explore. I will post back on my impressions after buying one!