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 SoSaasta.com) 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 trak.in, 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.