Monday, February 28, 2011

Anonymous and the modern day spy fiction :)

I have been too busy to post for the last few days, but luckily not too busy to read. For all fans of Ian Fleming and Len Deighton, I recommend reading the HBGary-Anonymous saga which Ars Technica has been covering over the past few weeks. Anonymous is the hacktivist collective which recently espoused the cause of Wikileaks by taking down the sites like PayPal and Visa when they shut off services to the site.

Now the spotlight is back on Anonymous thanks to their spat with a US based security agency called HBGary. The story unfolds like a modern day spy novel. HBGary apparently produces malware, rootkits, viruses, socially engineered profiles - but is on the side of the angels, since this is done in the interest of counter-cyber terrorism. Or is it? The lines seem to blur as you read more about their activities. Anyway, to cut a long story short, their CEO, Aaron Barr, tried to track down the Anonymous ringleaders and claimed to have gotten some of their identities.

Retribution was swift and ruthless, as Anonymous captured HBGary's mail server, shut down their website and published their emails. The emails of the company revealed that they were engaged in several dubious proposals including one to Amex to target WikiLeaks. Of course, there is no evidence that anyone has actually done anything shady yet, but what is proposed is shady enough. Needless to say, potential clients and business associates dropped HBGary like a hot potato.

You can read the entire saga on Ars. Many thanks to the site, and to Nate Andersen, Peter Bright and the folks at Ars for putting together these absorbing features. Inspires me to get back to novel writing. Maybe I was waiting to write a 22nd century tech-hack-spy fic!

How one man tracked down Anonymous
Nate Andersen writes about how Aaron Barr set out to expose Anonymous

Aaron Barr meets Anonymous face to face
Chat transcripts show the virtual 'clash' between the CEO of HBGary and the Anon folks in a chatroom

The Plan to attack Wikileaks
Aaron Barr's  social media skills revealed - the guy could 'scrape' facebook profiles to put together a complete picture of any potential target. Reading this was when my lines between good and evil blurred. :) As it does when you read spy fiction!

The Inside Story of the HBGary Hack 

For the technically minded, Peter Bright puts together a detailed description of how Anonymous systematically went about avenging itself on Aaron Barr and HBGary

Of course, there are a few more but these are my favorite links. Hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do. Personally, the whole expose made me think a lot about how vulnerable we have made ourselves because of the Internet. Our new precious possessions are not just the ones lying at home. It is our gmail accounts, facebook profiles and the tonnes of personal data, photographs and opinions that we spew out in huge quantities over the years. Cheerfully, not aware that some patient person somewhere can put everything together. Without knowing us, without meeting us, this person can put together our likes, dislikes, family profile, know what irritates us, know what medical problems we have, what's our kids' names....the list is endless. And use all of this against us, to control our online presence, to leak our confidential information - which can be much more traumatic than someone breaking into your house and committing a petty crime. Someone shadowy who controls you online, is way scarier than a thief who wants to make some money. What do you think?

Monday, February 14, 2011

A ready reckoner - do you need a tablet? Or a netbook?

With the explosion of smartphones, tablets and laptops, I've been wondering what I really need (Note : need is different from want, and operates in a world constrained by budget and common sense. It's unexciting but it does save money and frustration)

You NEED a tablet if
You travel/commute a lot and use the Net when you do
You are considering it as a netbook substitute
Your usage is more oriented towards browsing and less towards data input (you surf the net or check your mails, more than you type or do work). If you watch more movies/ videos, a tablet has a better screen than a netbook and will give you more viewing pleasure
You are prepared to spend on an additional 3G connection (in India, we cannot rely yet on the WiMax network and 3G connectivity rollout is likely to be faster. So it makes more sense to buy a 3G enabled tablet even if it's costlier)

You NEED a netbook if
You travel/commute a lot and use the Net when you do
Your usage comprises mainly browsing and also some data input. The physical keyboard definitely makes a difference if you type a lot
You are cost conscious about data. There is enough evidence that 3G/WCDMA connectivity through dongle will be cheaper than 3G on phone/ tethered device.
You already do most of your browsing on a premium smartphone and you are just looking for a bigger screen and keyboard for doing your mail/ attachments/ browsing.
You think it's a shame to cough up big bucks on a tablet when a netbook does the same function at half the price. Netbook prices have crashed in the recent months, starting as low as Rs.15,000. Apart from the Olive Pad, tablets are priced in the Rs.30,000 range.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Android will grow in India in 2011

This Sunday, I was at Croma in Phoenix Mills, Mumbai, and I was observing shopper behaviour at the mobile phone counters. Just 3 months ago, the buzz was all around the Blackberry Torch, then the Nokia N8 and of course, the iPhone. This month, for the first time, it was impossible to get near any of the Android phones - HTC Desire especially generated huge interest. The Nokia and even the Blackberry counters had a deserted look in contrast.

With HTC finally launching a full and almost up-to-date range of models, Samsung introducing many-priced flavors of the Galaxy series, and Micromax and Ideos bringing in some very respectable budget models, Android is finally revealing its full potential in India.

IDC India projects that approximately 155 million handsets were sold in India in 2010, of which a modest 6 million were smartphones. But smartphone market share is growing at a whopping rate (over 200% Year on Year growth in 2010). With smartphone prices falling and more models becoming available in the market, we can certainly expect the smartphone segment to grow in 2011.

In the new scenario, Android is also doing well in India, though not as well as it has done globally. According to IDC, 9.6% of smartphones shipped in Q3 2010 carried Android OS. Also, in 2010, the number of Android vendors in India has grown from 1 in 2009 to 7, and 19 models are available now. Again, this should act as a spur for growth.

Of course, the growth of Android (and indeed, any smartphone OS) will be closely linked to increased penetration of 2G/GPRS and deployment of 3G. In an interesting trend, a lot of the newer telecom operators like Videocon and Uninor have been launching attractively priced 'unlimited' GPRS packs, no doubt with a view to attract youth. Free surfing is packaged for sites like Facebook and Orkut, or for a fixed number of days, and is targeted at the prepaid users who form a huge chunk of the Indian market.

As Indians get a taste of data on their mobiles, they will definitely want more of it, and will upgrade to smartphones that offer a better surfing experience. Will the likes of Micromax and Ideos be able to hold these consumers or will they upgrade to better handsets from Samsung, LG etc?

I also wonder where Nokia will stand in this equation, now that they have tied up with Microsoft and committed to WP7. Windows Mobile has had limited deployment till now and more with the corporate/ enterprise sector. It would be interesting to see how the future of Nokia plays out in India, now that the focus and thrust of growth will be smartphones!

Source : IDC

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Will Nokia do Android? WP 7? Rise like a phoenix from ashes?

The big news buzz now is around a leaked internal memo sent out by Nokia CEO Stephen Elop to all employees. Engadget has published the memo, in which Elop has acknowledged the failure of his own company to act, and warned that they are standing on a 'burning platform';


"The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don't have a product that is close to their experience. Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable."

Any Nokia watcher, or Nokia loyalist would agree.Unbelievable. Especially here in India, where we hold Nokia close to our hearts. All of us who started using phones in the 90s have probably owned or used a Nokia phone at some point (if not through the years). I don't think any of us would dispute their huge expertise. It shows in every best selling model they have created through the years -  5190, 3310, 6600 and more recently, the e-series phones.

This expertise may have come at a price though - according to this blog post on Asymco, Nokia spent 9.3 billion dollars (13.4% of sales revenue) on R&D in 2010, almost 3 times what is spent by peers in the industry. Of course, this is across hardware and software platforms like MeeGo, Symbian, and so on. What pinches is the failure to stave off competition despite a headstart and these huge investments.

Anyway, Elop's wake up call is a welcome one and of course, the speculation raised by the memo is, what is the next action planned by Nokia to fight its way back to supremacy? Elop promises that a new strategy will be announced on Feb 11th and that it will be a huge effort to transform the company.

Clearly, the focus will shift from devices to the platform and the apps, as Elop points out;
"Our competitors aren't taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem. This means we're going to have to decide how we either build, catalyse or join an ecosystem."

So the choices are - Android, Windows Phone 7, Symbian, MeeGo...or something new? Each platform choice carries potential pluses and minuses for Nokia.

I think it is a tough strategic decision - but here are some of my thoughts. (Like everyone else, I am not willing to wait quietly till Feb 11th to hear what the company has to say)

1) Will Nokia abandon Symbian?
Joining an existing ecosystem eg. Android vs. building your own is a very big decision. Apple, with its focus on vertical integration, owns the consumer from handset to OS to app marketplace. Nokia has had a similar business model in the past. This model is hugely profitable to the company and ensures control over every aspect of the user experience.

Having nurtured Symbian through the years, Nokia does have an ecosystem  in place, which has been outpaced by the market.  It's one thing to urge Nokia to jump onto the Android or Microsoft bandwagon for now, but it is not an easy decision to abandon what you have built up. And equally, it is easy to say that Symbian can be developed into something awesome but time is of essence and I don't think there is a lot of it left.

One possible solution, is for Symbian OS to drive the budget handsets. If there is any gap in the smartphone market today, it is at the bottom of the market. The cheaper Android handsets, with their weak processors are somewhat half heartedly addressing the budget segment. Symbian with its superb optimisation to mobile hardware combined with Nokia's expertise in building low cost devices, can easily capture this 'smart feature phone' market. This was what Samsung was aspiring to do with bada, but it does not seem likely to happen. At the end of the day, operating system is only a platform to access the net and if it offers a good user experience, there is still room for Symbian to flourish.

2) What will Nokia do with MeeGo?
There are enough indications that mobile devices will be the future of internet access. For example, in India, there are barely 100 million broadband connections, but nearly 700 million mobile users, many of whom will taste the internet first on their cellphones. Nokia has already partnered with Intel to develop MeeGo, a Linux-based open source OS that is potentially a huge rival to Android. It has been a frustration that Nokia has barely released any devices based on this OS and has not even seemed interested in marketing them. Yet at this stage, it might be easier to abandon MeeGo than Symbian. In which case, the company can probably look to Android or WP7 to revive its flagging fortunes in the smartphone segment. Increasingly, the industry buzz is that the tie-up will be with Microsoft, rather than Android.

3) The future of non-touchscreen devices
By default we are being pushed into a touchscreen era  in mobile devices but I am not sure that everyone wants to join this party. I know a lot of people (and not necessarily budget phone users) who prefer a physical keypad, a QWERTY keyboard, and even some who are averse to touchscreen. This maybe a niche segment, but it will have takers. I just realised that there are NO non touchscreen high end smartphones - and display adds significantly to the device cost. There is another little pocket here that stretches across budget and smartphones, and is worth looking at.

I have said my little piece, and I will be waiting keenly to hear what Nokia does next.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Budget Android Phones in India - 2011

Android ended 2010 as the largest operating system in the world. While it was hard to find the top-selling Android phones in India last year, this is not the case any more. HTC, Motorola, Samsung and even Sony, have launched a wide portfolio of Android handsets in India.

In this post, I am going to deal with budget Android phones. As per my definition, a smartphone which costs less than Rs. 15,000 is a budget phone. The high end or premium phones mostly cost Rs. 25,000 - 35,000. In fact, Rs. 35,000 seems to be the ceiling for a smartphone today.

A smartphone operating system is best showcased on top end hardware. Keeping this in mind, there are some conscious trade-offs that you make when you buy a budget Android phone.
  1. Slower processor speeds (average is 600 MHz) are on offer at this price and make the phone interface feel a bit sluggish. It can also limit the apps and games that can be used on the device. Also, it seems that at this speed Adobe Flash 10.1 will not work, so flash videos are disabled on most budget handsets including the Andro and the LG Optimus One. For many people, Flash is the big reason to buy Android, so it's a bit of a pinch to be without it.
  2. Smaller screen/ display makes browsing and even typing in landscape mode difficult. On an average, screen size is 2.8 inches and that is pretty small!
  3. A resistive rather than capacative touch screen which can make the entire experience of navigation less than enjoyable.
  4. Smaller battery which may lead to less battery life.
  5. In the past, budget handsets would be loaded with old and obsolete versions of Android. Thankfully, that trend is changing now.

If you are willing to live with some of these limitations, then it is possible to enjoy a smartphone experience even if your budget is less than Rs. 10,000. Also some of these phones offer you a treat that is only available on the android flagship nexus phones - they carry an unskinned/ stock OS and you can directly install Google's updates without waiting for your handset manufacturer to modify and release an update.

1. Micromax Andro

Image Source : FoneArena


At Rs.7000 or less, Micromax Andro, positioned as your 'first Android phone' makes immense sense in a world where top end brands like HTC Desire and Samsung Galaxy are priced at Rs. 25,000 and above. I can see the Andro being a huge hit with the young crowd. It has a respectable (at the price) 600 Mhz processor, good battery life, it's 3G enabled and it runs Android 2.1 (Eclair) which may not be the latest-latest but it's fine. It will still give you all the flexibility of an Android phone to download games and apps, sync your gmail, install widgets on your homescreen etc. With all this, you should be aware of the one big trade off you will make. The touchscreen is resistive which will make it appear less responsive and sluggish especially if you are already familiar with capacitive/ multi-touch screen. So if you want the 'apple like' smoothness of touch interface, this handset will not give you that. Also it's a 2.8 inch screen. That's a small piece of real estate and won't let you enjoy browsing to the max.

You can read the review by Gaurav Shukla at AndroidOS.in

2. Huawei Ideos

Image Source : CNet


You probably know Huawei as the company that made your Reliance NetConnect modem, rather than a cellphone manufacturer. The Ideos has met with a lot of positive feedback and attention in the international market. For one thing, it is Google branded and Huawei claims they worked closely with google to develop it. It has 3G, and it also runs the unskinned Android 2.2 (FroYo) OS - so you can upgrade it whenever you want. Unlike the Andro, it has a capacative display, which makes the touch interface much smoother and faster, though screen size is still limited at 2.8 inches. However, it is bogged down by a slow processor (528 mhz)
The Ideos sells at Rs. 8500 in India. And I would feel that the capacitive touchscreen alone, makes it a more worthwhile buy than the Andro, unlesss you are on a terrifically tight budget.

Review of the Ideos on Pocket Lint

3. Dell XCD28

Image Source : Dell India


At Rs. 8000, this phone faces some stiff competition from the two listed above. It has the same 2.8 inch screen, but a resistive display and runs Android 2.1 It has a 600 Mhz processor like the Andro, but a smaller battery (and low battery life). Incidentally, the buzz is that this phone and its bigger more expensive sibling the XCD35, are basically re-branded ZTE handsets. I think the Andro and Ideos are better bang for your buck.

4. LG Optimus One/ P500

Image Source : TechRadar


This is a blockbuster phone - over 1 million handsets sold globally already. It crosses the Rs. 10,00 barrier and takes you to Rs. 13000. This is also a Google branded handset like the Ideos, with Android 2.2 (FroYo). For the higher price, you get a (much needed) 3.2 inch capacative LCD touch screen with very good resolution. And a large capacity 1500 MaH battery with a good life - this is a rarity on the higher end power sucking Android handsets and it's a definite advantage in favor of this phone.

On the flip side, LG has skinned the operating system so you may not be able to update FroYo. That may not be such a big deal. And you still cannot play Flash videos on this device.

Here are links to comprehensive reviews of the handset by Techtree India and GSMArena

5. HTC Wildfire




Available at Rs. 13,500 on FlipKart, for me it's a close run thing between the LG Optimus One and the Wildfire. HTC introduced this phone to replace the older HTC Tattoo which had a resistive touchscreen. The Wildfire has a 528 MHz processor, a 3.2 inch capacitive touchscreen and a few bonuses over the other budget handsets. It has a 5 MP camera instead of the standard 3.2 MP that comes fitted on phones in this class. It also has 384 MB RAM instead of the standard 256 MB on other budget phones - this is a valuable addition to speed. However, balance this against the fact that you are stuck with Android 2.1 on this device till HTC sees fit to upgrade it in India. Other countries have just started to get the update through their operator and it's a 9 month old handset.

So what is the verdict? If I were looking at a budget phone, I would probably pick either the Ideos or the Optimus One.  Battery life, larger display and capacitive touchscreen are the key deliverables that I would look for in a budget, because in the long run, they make the usage experience better. The later the version of Android, the better - I think chances are very low that you would go through the nuisance value to upgrade it. Unfortunately, it seems that you cannot get a faster processor in this budget range - that is something that I would have paid more for.

I must confess that my dream budget Android phone is my Samsung Wave stripped of bada and rooted with Android Gingerbread. Guilty of pointless fantasising. It won't happen for sure. But I sure wish it would....

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dell launches Venue and Venue Pro phones in India

The Dell Blog has announced the launch of the Venue and Venue Pro phones in India on Feb 3rd. According to the blog, both phones will be showcased at the Bangalore Fashion Week in Swapnil Shinde's fashion show on Sat. 5th February.

International reviews so far have praised both phones for their superlative build quality and finish. Both phones share some hardware specs : a 1 GHz QualComm Snapdragon processor, 4.1 inch AMOLED capacative touchscreen protected with Corning's Gorilla Glass for additional strength. However, Venue runs Android and Venue Pro (touchscreen + QWERTY) is Dell's first smartphone runnning the Windows Phone 7 OS. Also the Venue has a 8MP camera while the Venue Pro has only a 5MP camera.

Formerly codenamed Thunder, the Venue, runs Android 2.2 (FroYo) and will be priced at Rs. 29,990.



Formerly codenamed Lightning, the Dell Venue Pro has been reviewed as the best among the bunch of handsets running Windows Phone 7. It packs an appropriately high price tag of Rs.34,990.



Dell India lists the Venue as 'coming soon' and the Venue Pro as already available with Dell mobile resellers.

Interesting mobile stats for 2010


1.It was estimated that the number of cellphone users worldwide crossed 5 billion in 2010.

2. Approximately 300 million smartphones shipped in 2010 (and 101 million shipped in Q42010 alone). The smartphone segment has a YoY (year on year) growth of almost 80%. and represents approximately 20% of total mobile phone sales.

3. Google's Android  ended 2010 as the largest operating system in the world. In Q1 2010, Android held just 9.6% market share; by Q4 2010, it had  33%. With 600% YoY growth, Android is growing faster than the smartphone segment itself, indicating that it is actually driving the adoption of smartphones.

4. Apple is placed 5th overall in terms of global market share among cellphone makers. Apple has just 4% of global market share, but makes more than 50% of the cellphone industry's profit. In  December 2010, Apple overtook Nokia in revenue share.

Sources
Canalys
Asymco


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bada apps - what are you using?

If you read my blog regularly, you will know that I own a Samsung Wave and like other bada users, I have been waiting to see how the bada app store shapes up. 2011 will be a critical year for the future of bada. Some people still do not consider it as a true smartphone platform, but a hybrid 'smart feature phone' OS that could potentially compete with older versions of Symbian like S60. Samsung's own vision for bada suggests that it is meant to make dumbphones smarter!

Since the past few  months, Samsung is offering paid apps which I feel is a bit premature. I am not even sure if I will settle into this OS in the long term and I am still sampling what the store has to offer. I get the feeling that the ratio of paid apps in the Samsung store is very high. As with all app stores across platforms, the big problem is that you cannot try before buying and have no way of knowing if the experience will be good or not.

Since October, when I bought my handset, I have downloaded nearly 30 apps and widgets. I regularly use maybe 10 of these, while the rest are, well, around. Here's a list of the stuff that I have found useful;

1) SNS Widget
It's a very basic point, but widgets are the first thing you want on your phone because they function as shortcuts. You can go directly from your desktop/ screen to the place you want to go. The SNS widget linking to the default mobile FB/ Twitter sites is the most used widget on my phone. Samsung also offers a widget with live feeds, but I don't use it because it kills the battery life.

On the subject of widgets, I really like those which load as small icons as they enable me to keep more stuff on a single home screen. This is a shot of my current home screen. You can see how packed it is, and that is how I like it to be.

2) Date calculator
This useful app lets me enter two dates and then tells me the number of days between them. Handy all the time for planning work deadlines and travel.



3) Quick Mirror App
Women would love this one, and for all I know maybe men too! Quick Mirror uses the front facing VGA camera of the phone to create a 'mirror' that lets you check your face discreetly, any time.



4) AP Mobile widget
The simple reason for using it is that I get a few live news feeds on my desktop and the experience  is quite addictive. Android users may be used to this all the time, but it's pretty sensational to experience this on a feature phone! I normally do not use AP and I am not as interested in general news as I am in tech news. It's a case of an app actually changing my behaviour (or the mere presence of an app, getting me to do something that I normally do not)



5) XE.com widget
I use this currency site all the time for my dollar-to-rupee conversions, and it's handy to use it like a calculator from my phone while I am working on my machine.

 

6) Weather Bug for bada app
I'm usually interested in the weather even though I travel a lot. But winter has been crazy in India this year. Mumbai has been cold in the evening, hot in the daytime, Delhi has been freezing, even Chennai has been pleasant! I got this app to check weather in different cities before travelling and make sure I carried enough warm stuff (or not) depending on the conditions.Its another case of an app altering my behaviour!



And finally, here are my show-off apps. Confession - I use these only to showcase my Wave's abilities to other people!


7) Asphalt 5 : T
This pre-loaded game came with my Samsung Wave and I give it to people to play. They are pretty impressed to get an 'iPhone type effect'!



8) Broken Screen :
Ask me as an adult, and I would say that this app is for teenagers. It runs in the background and plays a trick - when you touch the screen, it 'cracks' with a loud breaking sound. Dramatic way to fool around with people. I am a certified adult most of the time, but I find myself using this a lot with other (certifiably adult) friends to have a laugh together. It's a fun, innocent, foolish thing and we need some stuff like that in our lives.



9) Piano
I use this just to show off the beautiful screen. Period. It's only half a piano but who cares? The time still passes :)