Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tablets, smartphones and everything else - how many devices do you need?

Today, a friend told me that he is considering whether to buy an iPhone or an iPad. Of course, the short answer would have been 'get both' but that's just not a practical answer for most of us. I believe that every device - dumbphone, smartphone, ebook reader, tablet, netbook, laptop, desktop - has a precise application. As manufacturers flood the market with more and more types of devices and form factors, it becomes important to know what your applications and usage will be and then you can make an exact choice. Otherwise, we run the real risk of throwing a lot of money down the drain buying expensive devices that don't really do what we want them to do.

Today smartphones are like the proverbial Swiss knife, doing a bit of everything on the go - gaming, browsing, productivity, music, photography, movies etc. Yes, phones are a portable solution, but there will always be a better solution. For instance, an enthusiastic photographer will never substitute his standalone camera for a phone camera. Yes, it can be a handy alternative at an office party, but when he goes to shoot 'real' pictures, he will want his stand-alone camera.

I spoke to someone who was very unhappy after buying an iPad. He wanted a device that would help him to make presentations on the go and be light to use and carry. He soon found that while it was easy to create basic presentation decks on the iPad, he could not edit objects with the same precision and ease that he did on his MacBook.  His expectations did not match the set of applications that tablets are really good at, and therefore he felt he had wasted his money.

Historically, convergence has not worked and it is certainly not in manufacturers' interest to make it work. Standalone devices, even at budget price, always have better specs for specialised applications - especially gaming, photography, music.

What combination of devices you own, and how many you own, is a matter of your need and choice. However, here is my checklist on which device is best suited for which applications;

1) Smartphones
If you will mostly use email, text and chat, then a BlackBerry and BBM is what you need. Given the current uncertainty about RIM's future, a Curve at under Rs.15,000 would be a safe bet.

If you want a Swiss knife - to browse the net, game, download apps, take photos etc. but have a  budget, go for an Android phone. It is a fantastic smartphone platform that offers something for every pocket.

When you spend over Rs.25,000 for a phone, then I believe that it should constitute a major chunk of your online browsing, or it should offer an additional functionality like a good camera or MP4 player. Apart from the iPhone 4, the Android ecosystem offers some great choices like Galaxy S II, HTC Desire HD, Dell Streak etc. Hardware freaks (I am one of them) will always be fascinated by the specs on Android phones, which tend to be ahead of the curve, like the new superfast processor in the Samsung Galaxy S2.

2) Tablet 
At the current stage of evolution, a tablet is useful for browsing, light gaming and some basic typing (mails, short documents). They are not yet engineered to be great productivity devices. Tablets are simply perfect for consuming content in unconventional positions - lying down, curled up on the sofa, on the floor. But this is a convenience that you are paying a premium for and if you have a budget, you can easily substitute a tablet with a netbook, or a regular laptop.

If you intend to buy a 3G enabled tablet, then you should seriously consider what you intend to do on your phone. Maybe you could re-focus on the phone as a messaging device and go for one with big keys, or a great QWERTY keyboard like BlackBerry or Nokia. At most, you would need only push mail on your phone!

If you still intend to get an expensive smartphone, save yourself some money and get a wi-fi only tablet.

3) ebook reader
Like tablets, ebook readers have a fantastic form factor that allows you to read in pretty much any posture. If you have a tablet and you are a light reader, you would not want an ebook reader. But if reading is going to be your main application, I would recommend that you get a Kindle. E-ink is just so much easier on the eyes. And the future of ebook readers very clearly includes improved touch screen functionality and maybe even color+E-ink combo screens, which will make them more tablet-like in nature

4) Netbook
While the analysts threaten that this category will become obsolete with the advent of tablets, the price factor (Rs.15-18,000 as opposed to Rs.30,000+ for tablets) makes netbooks hard to ignore if you are on a budget. It appears that Intel will re-invent the tired-out Atom range of processors, and some other manufacturers may put ARM processors into netbooks and this could breathe a new life into the category. For me the parallel for netbooks is touchscreen phones with QWERTY keyboards. The touch+QWERTY smartphones satisfy a niche audience and netbooks can do that too. My friend who was dissatisfied with the iPad for editing presentations would have found a MacBook Air to be a much better tool. The Air could well be the future of netbooks - touting cool and fast solid state drives, ultra thin and light and with reasonably powerful processors. Now if we could get this in the same price range as tablets, netbooks would become a great alternative.

Looking at the functionality of each device, I would say that most of us need just a smartphone and some of us may need a smartphone and one extra device. But gadget freaks are not driven by pure need, otherwise most gadgets would never get sold at all!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Activating MTNL Trump on iPad

It took me nearly 2 days and a few hiccups, but I have just successfully activated my pre-paid MTNL Trump connection on my iPad 2.

After comparing the 3G plans available in Mumbai across operators, I thought initially that I would take Airtel. I changed my mind for 2 reasons. Firstly, Airtel is only offering postpaid plans with the iPad. I have 3 net connections already and adding one more postpaid connection to the mix would spike my monthly bills very sharply. Secondly, I would get fantastic connectivity while roaming on the BSNL network, including smaller towns and sections which Airtel is yet to cover. MTNL also offers good pre-paid rates;

I have taken a SIM with lifetime validity and I needed to do a one-time recharge + activation which I did with a Rs.91 coupon.  I then loaded the SIM with a Rs.100 data coupon.

Since it is not a Micro SIM, I first had to cut the SIM Card to size. I used the excellent How-to guide on the techradar site to do this. Once the card is trimmed it cannot be used in a regular phone, so I did all my recharging before I performed the surgery.

Then I ran into my first glitch. The 3G settings were automatically recognised by my phone, but needed to be manually entered in the iPad. I got the settings from Trump customer service. I want to mention that it was easy and fast to reach customer service from a landline phone and I did not have to navigate numerous tortuous menu options that are designed to prevent you from talking to a human being! My good opinion of MTNL has been re-inforced.

Here are screen shots of the 3G settings for the iPad

1) Go to Settings/ cellular data/ APN settings

2) Enter the following information under APN settings

APN : gprsppsmum
username : mtnl
password : mtnl123

Switch off and restart the iPad. Your 3G connection should be up and running.

Over the next week, I will check the speeds in different parts of the city and post some speedtest results. But right now, I am going to take a well deserved break!

Monday, May 23, 2011

2 weeks with an iPad :)

So, it's been two weeks since I got my iPad and I am still very enamoured with my new toy. Despite it's 10 hour battery life, I have to charge it every night because its on, through the working day. Either I am playing games or browsing, or downloading, or just fiddling with it.

I have observed that the tablet has completely substituted my notebook for pure browsing behaviour. For example, I have imported my RSS subscriptions onto an iPad based feed reader and so I read all my tech news on it every morning. I still prefer my phone to check e-mail, Facebook and Twitter handily but I definitely use the tablet more to update my status or share links. While I am more likely to read from the tablet, I still prefer the Kindle for reading e-books, as I just find the E-ink easier on the eye for prolonged reading.

And for composing this blog post, I am back onto my notebook. I have still not got around to enjoying typing on any touch screen device. I have been considering attaching an external wireless keyboard as an accessory, but I don't think I will.  As of now, it is designed primarily as a consumption device and I don't think accessories can change it 360 degrees to a productivity device.

What has changed hugely, is that I have completely stopped browsing the Net on my phone. I might still do that in an emergency but the experience is just  so much better on a 10 inch screen. I am cutting down my Reliance Net Connect and cellphone 3g plans and putting the saved money into a bigger data plan for the iPad.

And today, I dug out this blog post by Peter Bregnan. He talks about returning his iPad after he realised that the device was making him compellingly consume more content, at times when he would normally be idle. He notes

"Being bored is a precious thing, a state of mind we should pursue. Once boredom sets in, our minds begin to wander, looking for something exciting, something interesting to land on. And that's where creativity arises.
My best ideas come to me when I am unproductive. When I am running but not listening to my iPod. When I am sitting, doing nothing, waiting for someone. When I am lying in bed as my mind wanders before falling to sleep. These "wasted" moments, moments not filled with anything in particular, are vital."
I completely understand where he is coming from, and agree that the tablet is an addictive form factor. Perhaps more so than even the cell phone. I am not returning my iPad (I am supposed to pass it on to my mom when I am fed up, she has already booked it!) But I will treat his words as a caution. Idleness is certainly precious in an age of constant connectivity.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Juice Geek

I mostly write about mobile tech and sometimes about audio tech, but I love kitchen gadgets too. I raved about some seriously cool espresso machines sometime ago. And this post is about my new favorite kitchen gadget - the Philips Juicer HR 1858/90. This machine is a serious juice monster with a 650W motor, a giant sized mouth that takes whole fruit (or at least fruit halves) and juices up anything you throw at it including carrots and beetroot, in a few seconds flat. Strongly recommended if you are a juice geek and especially if you love vegetable juice.

I have wanted to buy this juicer for sometime, but hesitated because of the steep asking price in India (Rs.6500 at Croma). Last month, I was inspired to pick it up, as the summer heat became relentless, and my desire for a daily dose of juice  increased. This is off topic, but it is nearly impossible to get a vegetable juice on Mumbai streets, while it's fairly easy to get one in certain localities of Delhi. And they are yummy vegetable juices with beetroot, carrot, mint, ginger etc. that really taste good, especially in the heat furnace that Delhi becomes in summer!

Back to the topic. I did a comparison with other juicers available at Croma, but frankly, this one is head and shoulders over the rest. The only one that merits comparison is Croma's own juicer which is a copy cat design, not of this juicer, but an earlier model, the Philips HR 1861. Croma's juicer has a stainless steel body, a 700W motor and a slightly larger mouth, but costs Rs.2500 less than Philips. It's a much better bargain for the same features. I bought the HR 1858, frankly, out of nostalgia, because I think Philips' makes great products (except in sound/ music) and I love the design, finish and quality of the stuff they make. In this case, I loved the quality of the filter mesh/ blades which is the heart of the device. It simply looked better quality than those in the other juicers I looked at.

The factors that make this juicer worth it for me are
1) Big mouth : this makes a big difference as you can literally toss in the fruit or veg. without cutting it too fine. I drop in whole tomatoes by the dozen, small beetroots and whole carrots, watermelon slices etc. and it takes them all in.
2) High centrifugal force : The motor rating of 650W in itself does not make sense - it is the high motor speed that makes the juicer desirable. This juicer operates on centrifugal action where the sheer speed of spinning causes the pulp to be thrown in one direction, while juice oozes through the filter in the other direction. It is this speed and effective centrifugal force, that gives me juice within seconds, and squeezes more out of the pulp.  Just operating the juicer is a kick!
3) Easy to clean : all the part detach easily and clean well, and this is a make or break quality of a juicer. If it's a pain to clean, you simply will avoid using it. Ask me, I have enough gadgets sitting on my kitchen shelf for years.

I enjoy using this juicer regularly, but I must warn you, it will not work for pulps/ milkshakes (your blender will handle those) and it will not work for oranges either, unless you are prepared to peel them. If you prefer orange juice to any other, you can save Rs.5000 and buy yourself a regular citrus juice extractor.

Incidentally, from a health angle, the juicer gives two outputs - the juice itself, and the pulp, which is a fantastic base for soup stocks or even cutlets. If you want, you can also make it into face packs!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

3G Data plans for Apple iPad in Mumbai

While it's fun to use my iPad at home, I look forward to being able to take it out with me on outstation trips and even to work, on days when I do not need to work on a presentation. For that, I need to enable the 3G connection and I have been checking out data plans that work for me. Not too many choices but I have to make do with what is there.

There are four telecom operators offering 3G in Mumbai - Vodafone, Airtel, Reliance and MTNL. None of them have dedicated iPad plans yet. Pity we do not have BSNL in Mumbai. They really have some good offers (the plans below are taken from their site)

Prepaid Plan :
Unlimited Monthly Plan
Limited Monthly Plan
Daily Plan
MRP of Recharge Vouchers(RCV) in Rs.^
Free Data Usage
6 GB
30 Days
30 Days
1 Day
Data Usage Charges Beyond Free Usage
Starter Pack in Rs.100^. Free usage with activation 1GB/month for six months.
^MRP is inclusive of Service Tax @10.30%.

Postpaid Plan :
Unlimited Monthly Plan
Activation Charges in Rs. *
FMC in Rs. *
Free Data Usage
30 Days

The iPad takes a MicroSim, not a regular SIM, and currently, only Airtel and Vodafone are offering this.

My observation is that the Airtel plans are better for you if you are going to be a light user of 3G and mostly connect in wi-fi environments. Airtel offers light-use plans in increments of Rs.100, starting at Rs.100 for 100 MB and going up to Rs.450 for 600 MB. The plan charges are the same for pre-paid vs. post-paid but the MicroSim is offered only for post-paid plans. As I do not plan to watch videos or do heavy downloads on 3G, I am starting with the Rs. 200 plan which offers me 250 MB. I am also likely to cut down the 3G plan on my cellphone to 100 MB/Rs.100. I doubt if I will use it for anything more than mail, if I have the iPad with me.

Vodafone tariffs are similar to Airtel - they do not have a Rs.200 equivalent to the plan I am taking on Airtel. There is a Rs.375 (500 MB) plan which is quite a decent one.

MTNL as always, has very good tariffs, but I wish they would also launch a MicroSim. You could cut the SIM to size yourself, but not everyone wants to do that.

And I am already experiencing life getting more expensive in an always connected world. I pay for 4 net connections now - on my phone, iPad, a Reliance Net connect and then of course, MTNL at home. I have to remember to distribute my browsing across all the four connections so that I use up my volume quotas on each.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Which mobile platform will dominate in 2011?

The reports on the growth of Android, growth of Apple and general decline of everything else have been pouring in. I've said before in this blog, it takes a brave soul to predict the future of technology, because the opposite of what you say (or something you never even thought of) is always likely to happen.

So here are some of the more interesting facts and figures that are floating around now

1) Android the Giant
Google revealed with justifiable pride at I/O 2011, that Android has reached its 100 millionth activation since launch and further than 400,000 Android devices are activated every day. If that's not enough, analysts are predicting that the Android App store will overtake the Apple store by August 2011, with an estimated 425,000 apps. Currently the Android marketplace has around 200,000 apps. Pretty impressive when you consider that it all started less than 3 years ago.

2) Apple the silent growth engine
Apple holds 5% share of the global cellphone market (yes, that's all phones not just smartphones) according to Q1 2011 market share figures released by IDC. And at this level, it seems other than Apple, all other manufacturers including Nokia and Samsung, have actually lost share. In addition to holding a significant share in the mobile phone and smartphone segments, Apple is also dominating the tablet segment with 80% plus share. 

Add to this the fact that BrandZ has just ranked Apple as the world's most valuable brand, valued at $153 billion and the future of the company in the mobile space looks very promising. 

3) Microsoft the dark horse
To add to all the hype, an analyst from Pyramid Research claims that Microsoft's WP7 will overtake Android in market share by 2013. The prediction is based on the powerful Nokia-Microsoft tie-up which will drive down handset costs across global markets and facilitate adoption, presumably also from Nokia's large existing customer base. It seems a plausible argument

4) Blackberry, the weakening force
Wall Street Journal has reported weakening investor confidence in RIM in the US, with newer launches like the Torch and PlayBook getting only a tepid public response, while the new slew of launches for 2011 will just bring the company on par with other smartphones and mobile platforms. 

As per the latest ComScore figures for the year ending Dec. 2010, RIM has lost its lead in the smartphone market to Android, and has Apple nipping at its heels. RIM holds just 27% of US market share, with a rapidly growing Android poised at 34%.

To add to RIMs woes, rumors have been circulating of a buy-out by Microsoft.

As for Apple, I think they will continue to hold value leadership (financial value and brand equity) in an increasingly price competitive and fragmented mobile phone market. While European and US markets are showing more of a trend of upgrading from dumbphones to smartphones, the bulk of growth in cellphones will continue to come from markets like India, where the iPhones's price premium will deter many customers. 

Where RIM is concerned, I think they might continue to stem the tide somewhat in the Asian markets, where the brand still enjoys a lot of equity and loyalty with customers.  It has been interesting for me in to see two trends with RIM in India - the price point of the Curve has dropped below the psychological Rs. 10,000 barrier - and the latest BB ads are targeting college youth basis a slew of features notably the BBM service. There will definitely be interest in lower priced offerings from this premium brand.

As of now, I don't see any huge threat to Android from WP7. I mean, they have to launch some phones before that happens. But I fully agree that if MS and Nokia find a formula and price point that clicks, they could rapidly add numbers and most of those would come at the expense of Android handsets. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

lemons I have bought

Let me confess, that I have bought my share of lemons down the years. Stuff that simply was not worth the price I paid and gave me more grief than joy. I guess every geek would have a lemon list, just as much as every chef has a list of culinary experiments that inexplicably went wrong. Here's my list of lemons:

1) Logitech Kinetik Backpack
I fell hard for it when I saw it reviewed on the Net. Put down Rs. 5000 at a time when it was rare to pay so much for a mere rucksack. But I soon realised that it had a basic design flaw - the tough plastic shell picked up scratches too easily. It stands as one of the most expensive lemons I ever bought! You can read the entire story here.

2) Koss Earplugs

I bought them on impulse when I needed a back up pair. Truth to tell, they turned out to be the most awful sounding earphones I have ever had. I disembowelled them to use the silicon pads in my other IEMs and then quietly disposed of them. I confess I am an escapist and I do not like to see my mistakes glaring at me all the time.

3) 2 Belkin routers
I made the mistake twice in two years, of buying a Belkin router. The first one did not work with my Tata Indicom connection and the second one is currently not working with MTNL. Or maybe the lemon here is me, and I am unable to configure routers! Certainly there is something lemon-like about buying two routers which do not work. I should have  done this post before making any fresh purchases, because I think I conveniently forgot about my previous experience.

4) Cellphone mistakes
When I look at the list of cellphones I have owned down the years, I own up that half of them have been lemons. Well, mostly the later ones I bought. And I am ready to acknowledge that rather than buying cheap and buying often, I should buy into more expensive ones that last longer. 

5) Lenovo Y Series laptops
Thankfully this was an externally funded lemon, though it was selected by me. The Lenovo laptops were selected by me and a colleague, when I was on my last job. It turned out that this particular series have something seriously wrong with the keyboard. It would never type what I intended it to. Both me and my colleague had the same issue with it, and we were hugely frustrated. However, there was a happy ending as I found the misery unbearable and quickly purchased my own laptop, the XPS M1330. And I bought it just before Dell pulled the model off the market. So the Lenovo laptop proved to be a blessing in disguise. 

I am glad I wrote out my lemon list. If as Oscar Wilde says "experience is the name men give to their mistakes", then my mistakes have taught me quite a bit. Infallibility would have made me very egoistic and insufferable. Whereas my failures, backtracks, and mistakes have kept me goofy, a little sheepish, ready to laugh at myself, and most importantly, ready to learn a lot. I'm happy that I still pick lemons now and then!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Picking up my iPad 2 tomorrow

I  pre-booked my Apple iPad 2  at Croma last week and I will be picking it up tomorrow as fresh stock came in over the weekend. It has been refreshing to see Apple launch a new product in India on schedule and not after 1 year as their norm has been in the past.

Got a black 32 GB 3G-enabled model. I plan to use this as a netbook substitute and carry it with me when I travel out of station, which I do quite often. I do not plan to do my office work on it though. 3G seemed a logical choice as I do not see any extensive Wi Max coverage in India right now. I still need to select an operator and I will be figuring that out in the weeks ahead.

Oh, and in case you are curious, this is my first Apple product ever. I sprang for it after demo-ing the new iPad and finding it really fast thanks to the dual core processor. Also, I frankly don't see Android tablets catching up with the iPad for another 1-2 years, in terms of the range and variety of apps available. In the meantime, I want to enjoy the tablet experience. Apple has also sweetened the deal for me by not pricing the product too steeply in India.

 I am looking forward to playing with it, and of course, I will be blogging about it in the weeks to come!

First Anniversary post - e-Publishing for aspiring writers

First off, it's good to be back to writing posts. Year-end project work has kept me away from blogging, and sadly, also from following up regularly on tech news. I have missed both, and intend to get back to regular posting from this month onwards.

I started this blog in March last year. It seems a great time to say a big 'thank you' to all of you who regularly visit. Thanks for the encouragement, for commenting and for giving your time to read what I write; it has kept me going strong.

Like many bloggers, I am an aspiring writer, who found a voice through the internet. If you were to ask me why I write, I would tell you that it is hugely rewarding. I read and research a lot for each post, and in the process my own knowledge has increased. In real life, I hold a demanding and very enjoyable job that has nothing to do with technology. Blogging is my way of self-enrichment, of growth beyond my profession, and maybe towards a different future!

That's enough about myself - this was supposed to be a post about e-publishing.

Long ago, I came across this site called everyone who's anyone. Gerard Jones had a book called Ginny Good, and in an attempt to get it published, he contacted every literary agency and publication house that he could hunt down. Now anyone who has even tried to publish (I have) knows how hard it is to get a foot-in-door with any of these places. Gerard retaliated to the rejection (or in some cases plain silence) by publishing a comprehensive list of every literary agency and publisher.He tried to include as much details as possible including name of contact people, email IDs. If this were not enough, he also put up every rejection letter he received. Needless to say, many of his targets protested against this breach of privacy, but he persisted. I remember how much this site made me laugh when I first visited it, but I also felt that this was the power of the internet.

Nowadays however, we do not have to depend on the publishing houses or the agents, for our moment of fame. Nor does your work have to be a huge tome. Depending on what and how much you write, there are dozens of options for you to publish your work, and get a fair shot at making money for it.  Here are just a few that I am aware of.

1) Blogging

Sometime ago, NY Times published this article about Heather Armstrong, dubbing her as the "Queen of Mommy bloggers." Heather, who blogs about her own life and family at her own website Dooce, gets an average of 100,000 visitors per day and makes an estimated $30,000-50,000 per month in advertising revenue. Over and above this, she has also bagged a book contract.

Interior decor blogger Holly Becker is another example of a successful blogger who has not only gone on to publish her own book, but also to train, advise and inspire other bloggers through Blogging your Way, an online workshop for aspiring bloggers.

For me blogging is a safe sandbox kind of space to experiment with writing, find a style that works for you, discover what readers like and at the same time, get an audience that gives you constant feedback and encouragement. There seems to be enough evidence that if you persist, have a clear idea and write well, you will get some form of reward.

2) Self publishing through Amazon

The world of e-books has removed two of the huge obstacles to traditional publishing. Firstly, publishing houses/ agents as gatekeepers are no longer the arbiters of what will sell or not. Secondly, the cost of distribution and marketing no longer exists. All it takes, is to upload your work to a publishing site and collect a percentage of royalty on sales as and when they happen.

Amazon offers two options for e-publishing on its Kindle. One is KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). An author can publish a book in the Kindle store at any price between above 99 cents, and keep 30-70% of sales value as royalty. Amazon is basically giving a retail shelf to aspiring writers and keeping a profit margin.

The KDP system has created several best selling authors, the most notable one being 26 year old Amanda Hocking, a young indie writer who makes millions of dollars through her sales on Kindle devices, without a conventional publishing contract. She sells around 100,000 e-books every month. And she started earlier as a blogger, not as an established writer, so the digital platform has directly aided her success. The Business Insider points out an interesting fact; out of the top 25 selling e-authors on Kindle, only 6 were affiliated to a publishing house earlier.

In case you do not have a full length book, but just a short story, a well written article, or anything else, Amazon still has something for you. You can opt to publish shorter format  Kindle Singles, which are typically 5000-30,000 words in length. The definition of what could constitute a Single is pretty fluid. It's a new kind of content. John Gruber notes in his blog, Daring Fireball, "each Kindle Single is intended to allow a single killer idea - well researched, well argued and well illustrated - to be expressed at its natural length." 

And Wired Magazine extols the fact that Amazon will revive long form journalism, with article lengths that lie in the no-man's land between a short article and a short book.

As Charlie Sorrel observes in the article "In the past, there was no way to easily sell work of this length. Magazine’s just aren’t big enough, and book-buyers want to get their money’s worth in terms of page-count. Electronic publishing has no such limits. Indeed, the format seems perfect for tablets and cellphones."

Kindle singles will sell in a price range of 99 cents to $4.99 cents, which is a similar range to many e-books, But there may well be a target  audience for well researched shorts. 

It's good to know that writing and reading are alive and well in the digital era. And it's good to know that it has only become easier to publish, access and connect with people through the written word.