Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What's your usage of free vs. paid apps?

When I read reviews of free apps in tech publications, they often have a line to the effect, "There is paid advertising which is/is not intrusive. I would gladly pay a dollar to turn the ads off".

There is a line of thought that subscriber payment can support the app developer and also provides an alternate business model to ad-funded apps. It is an extension of the ad-free model of paid television - subscribe to the channel and we will turn off the ads.

In practice though, it does not work  that way for consumers, or for businesses. 

I presume that in the course of a customer life cycle, showing ads will earn more revenue than the $1 or 2 that I pay one time to remove  them. The scale increases exponentially when we talk of hugely popular free  apps with  millions of downloads. 

Also, strangely, I do not mind it if mobile apps display ads. I do not find them obtrusive, I don't worry about how much data they consume and I would not find it a value proposition to pay purely to turn them off. 

This time-scaled infographic of the iOS App Store published by Appsfire and featured on TUAW reveals that app developers and consumers seem to share this view. The report by Appsfire reveals that the percentage of paid apps has shrunk from 74% in 2008 to 34% in 2012. Simultaneously, as the number of apps has increased, gaining visibility and traction has become much more of a challenge. Few apps make it to the top ranks and the majority never gain traction, revealing that app discovery, let alone trial, is a huge problem for apps today.

There are several ways to subsidise apps - free trial of a basic version with paid upgrade for more features and functionality (the freemium model), in-app purchases, and of course, ads. 

I did a check of my app downloads on my iPad and Android phone and I discovered the following trend:

1. Currently, I have 180 apps across my phone and iPad of which 20 are paid apps - roughly 11%.
2. The first 50 or so apps on both devices were purely free ones as I was not prepared to experiment with paid apps initially. Thus in the first 6 months, I did not spend on any free apps.
3. The first apps I bought  were games (all of these were upgrades from a free to a paid version like Angry Birds Seasons HD, Shanghai, Cut The Rope and Rush Hour), demonstrating that the freemium model certainly worked for me where games were concerned. In all these cases, there was also a desire to support the developer because these games gave me a lot of enjoyment.
4. The most expensive apps I spent on were 'productivity/ tools' - like Quick Office, a Feed Reader, ROM tools etc.. Interestingly, I bought most of these based on reviews and 'sight blind' (without a free trial) and ratings/user recommendations played a very important role. In fact, in many cases, I was using a free solution which was not satisfactory and instead of upgrading to a paid solution from the same developer I went straight to a new, paid app. It seems that my purchase process for these was similar to that for gadgets - read, compare and select the best one based on my need. I did not purchase impulsively and it took me time to reach a stage where I was ready to buy expensive apps, although 'expensive' is a relative term - at most, these were a couple of dollars more than the games.  But it does present an interesting cycle of evolution - from when I started using my mobile devices as a toy - till when they became an integral and important tool. 

Sources : TUAWAppsfire blog

Monday, December 10, 2012

The war of the social networks has begun!

If you are a user of Twitter and Instagram, you must have noticed the controversial clash between the two companies which has been widely reported in the media, and escalated after Instagram rejected a buy-out bid from Twitter in favor of being acquired by Facebook. The latest episode involved Instagram revoking the ability of users to see photos in their Twitter Stream, and Twitter retaliating by launching their own  photo filters which compete directly with the photo sharing apps' functionality.

Twitter has been in the news for other hard hitting decisions notably increasing restrictions placed on developers of third party Twitter applications like Tweet Deck and Twitterific. Twitter's new policies appear to be directed towards creating and owning the unique user experience of Twitter rather than leaving it to competition. Instagram has made a similar move with the launch of web profiles, which make pictures taken with the app publicly viewable and searchable. 

I am not a heavy Instagram user so these changes do not affect me much. What did affect me was Twitter's decision in June to disable the automatic posting of tweets to a LinkedIn profile. I used twitter as a means to cross-post news updates to all my social networks, and this would mean an additional step of posting to LinkedIn separately, which I did not want. Strangely, I can still cross-post my tweets to Facebook. Maybe I should expect the plug to be pulled on that as well.

Twitter is not the only one trying to own the user experience. Today I received a mail from LinkedIn informing me that they are activating a new and improved profile. That's good, but the mail also added:

Now there are more ways than ever to tell your professional story on LinkedIn, and we're excited for you to try them out. As we roll out these changes, we'll also be streamlining our app offerings, so the following LinkedIn apps will no longer be supported on the homepage or profile as of December 11:

  • Box.net Files

  • Blog Link
Dig into the changes on LinkedIn and they are much deeper, and implemented over time. You can no longer link most RSS Feeds directly to groups, profile or company pages and need to post a status update instead. Also LinkedIn is encouraging people to use their new rich media content to showcase profiles (presentations, videos etc.)

The business thinking behind these decisions is very simple
1. By getting people to create content specifically for the network, and sign in to post 
    manually, we are getting them to spend more time on the site. Right now, they have no real 
    incentive to log in or spend time when they can just push content from third party apps.
2. When people spend more time on the site creating content and browsing, they also reveal a 
    little more about themselves and this can go a long way to build our understanding of our user
    base. This also improves the monetisation of the users.
3. People may complain a little at least initially about these changes, and say they make life   
    worse, but it's the nature of people to resist all change. When we create great native apps 
    and allow only a handful of tightly integrated third pary apps, we will deliver a fantastic user 
    experience that they will love. Go back to point 1 and 2.

And the bottomline : if we do not create and own the user experience, we will never own the users the way Facebook does. 

As a user, what do I think? I think my time spent on networking sites is going to double. Today it's just a matter of sharing content without leaving the app or website I am currently accessing. Tomorrow, I will be signing into 3x sites to individually post updates, status messages etc. Extra clicks, page views, time spent. It's good till I see a utility and value in doing this. Otherwise, there will be a shakeout in my usage habits. I will stop visiting a few sites, I will stop updating regularly. And everyone will make this prioritisation depending on where their interests and contact bases lie. Photo enthusiasts will migrate to Instagram. Businesses who rely on professional networking sites will spend more effort and resource on LinkedIn. We will continue to Facebook, because we have to, don't you know.

There will be a shakeout, a shifting of audience bases and a segmentation of the networking markets. Because our time resource is limited and we do need to (ocassionally) work.

The war of the social networks has begun in earnest. Twitter vs. Facebook vs. Instagram vs. Pinterest vs. LinkedIn vs. Google + vs. many others. Where does your interest lie?

Why Android Jellybean has overtaken iOS

Over the weekend, I have been using Jellybean 4.2.1, the newest Android OS update from Google, on my Galaxy Nexus. I have been using iOS 6 on my iPad since a month as well. After comparing the latest operating systems from Apple and Google, I have to give it to Google - in a remarkably short time span, Android has surpassed iOS in terms of features, user experience and sheer future potential. It is clearly the most dynamic operating system in the market now, and competition will have its work cut out to deliver something more compelling.

Here are my reasons why Android has pulled ahead of iOS with this update

1. Google Now - the future lies in telling you what you need, before you search for it

Google Now represents a huge breakthrough in search interface and technology innovation. Search till now has been a passive  tool - as a user, you have to type a search query - and the search engine uses algorithms, a knowledge of your profile, and an understanding of what other users searched for (and wanted to search for) to deliver what it thinks are the best results. 

With Google Now, search moves from passive to active, and truly predictive. The cards used by  the service proactively deliver the information that you will need. For instance, my search cards give me an update on traffic and estimated time to reach work based on Google Maps data, the birthdays of my social network contacts on Google +, and reviews of nearby restaurants. Cards change interactively depending on the area - when I am near a bus stand, they show me bus timings and routes. Google Now can even be set to search my email and send me flight reminder notifications. As Google Now with the cards system is set to migrate to the desktop, the predictions are going to get better. And it offers a superb convenience to users. Every click and swipe saved on the phone, is a precious resource of time and energy saved for the user. If I can access all the information I need through search cards instead of opening individual apps or typing queries, I regard it as a big convenience.

Both the concept and the implementation are superb and offer immense business opportunity for Google and advertisers. I can see a future for location based paid search opportunities to list restaurant and retail deals, nearby events, empty seats in movie halls - the opportunities are endless and real time.

Here Google's edge over Apple lies in their search expertise, honed over years, and the tight integration with Google Maps which makes real time location based prediction possible. 

2. Voice driven operation, with local accent/dialect recognition

Apple's Siri has proven to be huge hit with customers, providing useful and relevant answers to queries including some (un)intentionally  funny ones. A voice assistant powered by Artificial Intelligence, offers great and often humorous companionship and manages your phone, life and appointments, even opening apps at your command - what's not to like?

Sadly, Siri does not like my voice. I spent nearly 15 minutes  with a friend's phone trying to get some responses to my questions but received no response. Accents in a country like India can differ hugely, and even with the best wannabe American drawl I could put on, I got nothing. Yes, my English is heavily Indian accented.

I do know that language recognition software needs a training period to learn and understand your speech, and I was expecting a frustrating time with Google's voice SMS dictation and voice search. To my surprise, there was no learning curve at all. I have to speak close to the microphone and a little slower than usual, but from Hour Zero, I was able to dictate my SMS and voice commands were recognised with almost no errors. Seriously impressive stuff.

With giant user bases in the maturing mobile markets including India, Google clearly has a stake in getting voice recognition right. The exciting thing for me about voice assistance on Google, is that it is meant for everyone who buys an Android smartphone running JellyBean. As the user database expands and scales up rapidly, Google will be able to refine the services better. I do feel bad that Apple gives Siri access only to people who buy the  iPhone 4S/ third generation iPad and above. I understand that older hardware like my iPad 2 can support Siri, but Apple has taken a business decision to restrict their flagship service to flagship devices. Frankly, it's not enough of an impetus to make me upgrade to a newer device, but it's a good enough reason to feel resentful. And when I get a similar feature, gratis, as an Android update, it's a delighter. 'Nuff said.

3. Better cross platform integration of Google products

Apple has always offered a tight integration of products and services within the Apple ecosystem. If you use an iPhone, MacBook and iPod, you will experience this first hand. But if you own a standalone Apple product in conjunction with a Windows PC and an Android phone, as I do, you will soon run into some of the headaches of integration. Recently, I evaluated the purchase of Keynote for my iPad and had to go in favor of Quick Office because Keynote will only sync to iCloud, while Quick Office supports Google Docs, Box and Dropbox. iCloud is not a natural or first choice for a Windows PC or an Android phone while the other cloud solutions are device and platform agnostic. 

Google has an advantage in being a  web and browser based (and until recently, primarily desktop-based) ecosystem. Google products and services work on a Linux distro, work on a Win PC and on a Mac, and on almost any web enabled phone.

If you use GMail, YouTube, Google Docs, GTalk and Chrome - and you probably do - you will just experience how much better they integrate into a seamless and smooth user experience on Android. I first began to appreciate this when Google launched Chrome with ICS Android 4.0 and the integration just gets better. A single sign-in to Google configures all accounts automatically. I can pick up reading on my phone, where I left  off on my iPad, thanks to Chrome's device sync. The Android Gmail client is truly superior to Apple's mail solution, and as our business uses Google Apps, it's yet another good reason to choose Android.

With JellyBean introducing multiple profiles sign in (similar to user login on Windows and currently only available on tablets), you can even have separate home screens for different users. Useful if you have kids and want to restrict their access only to certain items, or if multiple family members share a tablet and want to maintain their separate organisation of apps and desktop. 

iOS6 has its strengths - the biggest one's being its stability, intuitiveness and the fact that it 'just works beautifully' - but they may not be differentiators for long. Android is catching up rapidly in all these departments and emerging as a smooth, mature and polished operating system. Right now, I would use one word to describe it - exciting. And in the world of tech, that's always a good thing.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wearable tech and the future of health

Last week, I started using the Fitbit wireless activity tracker. Of course, fitness and activity monitors have been around for years - the Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up and Fitbit are just some of the products that come to mind. Till today, all the activity trackers are basically pedometers/altimeters, with some (like Fitbit) offering an additional functionality of tracking sleep, linking with inputs from other mobile apps etc. 

The real differentiation apart from design and looks comes from the software interface and the way it presents statistics and graphs of your activity level to help you understand and modify your lifestyle to be more active. For example Nike Fuel is designed to share data and competitively motivate each other to perform better. Fitbit is more oriented to people who like to monitor their own stats personally

I really like the Fitbit for a simple reason - as a researcher, I believe that data empowers us to change. At work, I deal on a regular basis with customer data and statistics. Understanding and analysing these is my job and when I do it well, it results in useful decisions and actions that impact clients' businesses for the better.

Why shouldn't the same principle apply for my personal data, and transformation in my own life and routine? 

Today technology makes monitoring and collection of data easier than ever before. All smartphones are equipped with basic GPS sensors which allow a plot of distance and altitude. Some have advanced sensors like barometers and altimeters which can be deployed for greater data richness. Mobile broadband and app interfaces make it easy to enter, sync and present real time data to users. At the backend, enterprises are developing increasingly sophisticated tools for processing "Big Data" for customer delight. And there is a possibility that customers are willing to pay for such data. One of the simplest and most effective tools offered in Fitbit premium ($49.99 annually) is the ability to benchmark your activity and fitness levels against your peers in a granular way - here is a sample graph;

I have learnt a lot about myself from Fitbit - for example, that I walk much more than I realise, that I eat much less than I blame myself for (!) and that just a small and conscious increase in activity level can make me way fitter than I am. It's not that I don't know these things in theory, but seeing them backed by data makes  them a lot more convincing and real. 

And the future of wearable tech for health just got a lot more exciting. Just recently, Basis has launched a sophisticated activity monitor using cutting edge sensors like an optical BP monitor,  a three axis accelerometer, a perspiration monitor which monitors change in sweat levels from different activities and a skin temperature sensor. Put together, this can take data collection to another level, using a physiological understanding of your body to recommend incremental and long term changes in habits that will benefit health.

If you were planning to spring for a Nike FuelBand, I advise you to consider the Basis at a similar price range of $199. In fact, reading about Basis made me spring for a Fitbit, because while I cannot really afford to spend that amount right now, apart from from the fact it does not ship to India yet, I still wanted a small piece of the action.

Those of us who spend thousands of rupees annually on gym memberships that we don't use (I am guilty) can probably benefit from changing the routine that we already follow rather than trying to introduce a new routine eg. balancing a one hour workout with a demanding job. It's easier to just take the stairs at work everyday AND feel good when you see that it's made a big difference. Senior citizens, heart patients and diabetics who cannot undertake strenuous exercise can get a companion through a device which gently encourages them to be active - and achieves better results than the doctor's exhortation during monthly visits to lose some weight.

Educating and motivating people to be healthy can be the biggest trend in wearable tech this decade. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

From data privacy to digital profiling - the new age of the Net

For the past couple of days this viral Facebook privacy hoax was circulating on my FB network. It is not a virus and did not cause any harm, but it led me to wonder why people get so wound up about their privacy in social media.More than two years ago, I said that social networking and privacy are by very definition contradictory terms. Media and privacy are by definition contradictory terms. If you gave an interview in mass media (TV, radio or newspaper) you would be very careful about what you say. You certainly would not dream of demanding that the news channel or TV channel expunge all copies of the interview and return all recorded matter to you because it's your property. It helps to think of social media the same way. 

What you say in the public domain, will stay in the public domain. No matter how many privacy controls you are given, you must assume that anyone would be able to see your information, now, later on, in perpetuity. Armed with this knowledge, it's up to us to use social media responsibly and leverage it for our own benefit. In my own experience, people who have a skill, passion or hobby and share it on social media, benefit hugely from building networks and influence. People who use social media as a tool to discover and re-connect with family, old friends and colleagues benefit hugely. People who log in to simply share and consume shared content, benefit hugely and the 1 billion fanbase of Facebook testifies that it is relevant for all these needs. For anything more private, controversial or titillating, there is email, phone, skype etc. which are better suited for expressing views to smaller personalised groups. All of these can also be tracked and read under certain conditions, but that subject is outside the scope of this post.

Aside from the question of privacy, I believe data transparency  is important. You should be able to see what information is held about you, and understand clearly how the information is used. Our time would be better spent in protecting ourselves from data misuse, than trying to erase our data from the web.

As someone said about the internet 'if you don't pay to use it, then you are the product'. Nothing demonstrates this better than Google. And it frankly surprises me that people get all hot and bothered about facebook data when Google has way more data on you than facebook ever will.
If you use gmail, search, sign into a chrome browser, use Android, Maps and the Play Store, use YouTube or any other Google product, then this information can be consolidated across products and platforms. As you know, Google uses this information to target paid advertising/ search. 

And it's scary to think how much Google knows about us. On a social media site, what we put up is what we voluntarily and consciously choose to share. What we search for, may be things that we would never publicly share. People google to diagnose if they have HIV, to learn how to kiss, to diagnose if they have UTI, to find cures for bad breath - and much more which they would NEVER talk about even to close family, let alone friends. Yes, it is scary. 

Google's data policy is however, is way more transparent and easy to understand. Through your Google Account Dashboard, you can see how much data they have on you, and Google guides you through ways to customise (not disable) the ads that they will show you. You come away from the experience feeling reassured, if not in control of your data. To do Facebook justice, I think they are trying to move towards transparency but battling with the legal and business implications as well as the complicated, bafflingly rich data constructs on the site. They have not even figured how to fully monetise it yet! I would give them time to get there. Google has had a head start. I am sure Facebook will do what it takes to reassure its huge user base on data privacy.

As big data becomes more compelling, we can expect tracking of data and people on the internet to grow. As the 'internet of things' (objects which connect to the net to transmit data) grows, your fridge, car, television and lights will be transmitting information to you, and about you. Yes, there will be concerns and worries. But the tracking will not stop. Soon, it  will not be about deleting a facebook account or a google account to get your privacy back. 

It may be about deleting yourself from the internet.  And I wonder at that point how many of us would have the will or courage to do that. 

It's simpler to breathe, and accept data collection and tracking as part of life. It's more important to ensure that steps are taken to protect and respect the data and keep it from unauthorised people. And it's crucial to treat your online presence, as though you are on a public stage. No one can protect you, as well as you can protect yourself. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The confusing, flooded Indian feature phone market

A few days ago, I did some digging into the Indian feature phone market and came up with some interesting nuggets based on an analysis of brand websites:

1. Between four top brands (Nokia, Samsung, Micromax and Karbonn) there are no less than 
    200 models of feature  phones in the market. If I as a market watcher find that confusing, think 
    how overwhelmed the first time phone buyer will be.

2. Nokia and Micromax have the maximum models and ranges in feature phones. Micromax 
    has 70+ while Nokia has around 50. To understand the Nokia (Symbian range) you can refer
    to my Handy Guide to buying a Nokia phone. The categorisation I observed last year still 
    seems to hold for Nokia. Though some new ranges have since been introduced, notably 

3. Samsung is currently market leader in India, expected to close 2012 with 60% share, yet the 
    company has a relatively small set of feature phones (just 30 compared to other players). 
    Clearly, some of these models like Star Duos, Guru, Hero, Champ etc. must be best sellers.

4. Micromax has some of the most innovative new feature phones, with features such as solar-
    powered battery, giant sized 1500 MaH long life batteries and projector phones.

5. It's a rough estimate but nearly half the feature phone models across websites are dual SIM. 
    India is estimated to have 30% dual SIM users and teledensity of 100+ in pockets like New 
    Delhi indicates that concentration is even higher in these areas.

5. Garter has estimated that the average cost of a feature phone in India is USD 45 (Rs. 2500). 
    And most of the phones are priced between Rs.2000-6000. Interesting to note that entry level 
    smartphone prices overlap with feature phones. Karbonn and Micromax have feature phones 
    starting at Rs. 5000, while Samsung Galaxy Y series starts at Rs. 7000

Creating your own website for a small business

When my partner and I went about setting up our digital consultancy Bright Angles, one of our big discussions was around our digital strategy. We are not a digital execution firm and neither of us can code, but we wanted a good, simple, professional looking website and blog. And being a start up, we did not have a huge budget for this. I wrote a few months ago about taking your business online for $10, which is easy to do thanks to Google Apps for business. Initially our website was hosted on blogger, but we soon hit a lot of limitations in terms of modifications we could make. It was time to move to a 'real' site and the next step was to look for a website editor and host.

I identified three options that make the task of site design quick, easy and not too expensive -  WixWeebly and Jimdo.

All three website builders offer entirely free tools to create your website and also give you an option to publish your website free on their domain (eg. brightangles.wix.com). You obviously have to pay for additional functionality like more hosting space, removing their advertising from your website or linking the site to your domain name.

I used all the three for nearly a week before I took a call. I compared the features and the end result from each product before taking a call. Here is my assessment of each as a DIY website creator and end user.

Wix creates the most gorgeous looking websites and provides the most user friendly editing tools. However, it has some limitations:

1) It is a closed editor with no scope to add your own HTML/ CSS. Not that we know any to add right now, but who knows we may acquire a new skill (or an employee with skills) and then we would surely miss the ability to customize the site.

2) It has the most expensive pricing plans of the three. The basic pricing plan which is approximately $50 (Rs. 2500) per year, still displays brand ads of the site. To get the bandwidth and hosting we wanted, we would have ended up paying at least $150 (approximately Rs.8000) per year.

3) It lacks an inbuilt blogging tool. Incidentally, we prefer to continue hosting our blog on blogspot because it has a better feature set, but many people would like to just have everything in one place.

I would whole heartedly recommend Wix to a small business for whom the look and design of the website is really critical. For example, food, fashion, retail, decor etc. You would need to spend a lot more on a website designer (and be lucky to get a good one) to get the kind of look you can create with Wix. Also, it's a great option to create a temporary site for an event like a wedding, conference or exhibition - then the steep monthly cost does not become a deterrent. If you are using Wix, you don't have to buy your domain separately as it is included as part of every plan.

Jimdo seems to strike a decent balance between pricing and functionality. One welcome feature is that it shows me pricing in INR - I save on the forex transaction fee that gets levied on my credit card when I pay in USD. The basic package (Jimdo Pro) costs only Rs. 3600 per annum and gives me ad free hosting of 5 GB. Out of the three options, it is the most e-commerce friendly, offering ways to easily set up your online shop and link it to your PayPal account.

These are the strikes against Jimdo

1) It has fewer (and less awesome) templates than Wix. Also access to templates is restricted according to pricing plan - Jimdo Business customers get more templates than Pro users. This need not be a constraint if you can get a designer on board, but it does mean extra expenditure or time, which defeats the purpose of a pure DIY website builder.

2) It is a little less user friendly than Wix were you can literally drag and drop any element on your page. On Wix, I would guarantee that even the most tech unsavvy person would LOVE creating a website.  On Jimdo, it needed a little more patience to figure stuff out, but this is only a relative statement. Jimdo is not difficult to use or master.

3) E-commerce options are great but bear in mind that Jimdo's credit card payment option is PayPal based and RBI tends to crack down suddenly every now and then on PayPal.

Still, I think Jimdo is ideally suited for any e-commerce business. The value for money is tremendous - to  set up an e-commerce site with a payment gateway, one would be spending at least Rs. 50,000-100,00. With Jimdo Business, it costs just Rs. 9600 per year. Also, Jimdo does not force you to buy a domain so you can use your own with it.

I left Weebly for last (that's what we went with for our website). There were some things about Weebly that I liked immediately. As a policy, they do not display ads unless you opt for it. They let you link your domain for free with the website. They do not put a constraint on your hosting or bandwith if you are using their services for free. There's a file size limit of 5 MB for a free account but no limit on the number of files you can upload. The only indicator that you are using a free site is a small Weebly ad at the bottom of the page. You can still see it on our site but we will be upgrading to a Pro account very soon. I'm just testing the site for now to see if it runs smoothly. It's the most reasonably priced of the three - Rs. 2600 per year for just about everything we require. Not that we wanted the cheapest option - but if it provides everything we require, then it's good enough!

So what are the negative points of Weebly?

1) The biggest one is that if you use their Ad Sense Widget, they keep 50% of your advertising revenue. It does not make a difference to us because we have an ad-free corporate site. But you need to be aware of this, and circumvent it by using your own Ad sense code.

2) The website editor is a little limited in options compared to Wix (but then, most things are!). It's good enough to create a decent looking, neat website, but it does not inspire you to be wildly creative, which Wix does. Having said that, I liked the Weebly editor more than Jimdo.

I think Weebly is well suited for businesses which want corporate websites, especially services and consultancies like ours. If you want a neat and professional looking site rather than a flashy or elaborately designed one, it does a great job.

I do think that its important for small businesses to be hands on with their websites, and be capable of doing basic editing and adding content. We do not have IT departments and cannot afford to be dependant on external freelancers every time something needs to be done. In fact, such an approach can be disastrous. A friend of mine got her website done through a freelancer. While the work was in progress, she fell into a payment dispute with him and he vanished/ went out of contact. He had all the site information like domain/ DNS access and refused to hand it over so that a third party could carry on the work. 

This is why I think it's better to be independent and in charge of your website - until you can afford your own team to take charge of administration.

Edit : a few friends asked me why I did not review or recommend WordPress in this post. I did take a look at it but in my opinion, it needed a lot more investment of work and time OR money to get it up and running. I did our website on Weebly in 2 hours. I think WordPress is fantastic in terms of customisation options, security and community support. I will work towards understanding it better and probably upgrade our website  to it as a later stage as our web needs get more complex and demanding. I am all in favor of a gentle learning curve where it is possible. You get more time to read up, and you manage to retain all that you learn. Building and editing our site, first on blogger and then on various web editors has given me a lot of confidence to push myself more next time. And I also know exactly what limitations I have come up against in the process. That's the joy of DIY!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Nostalgia trip - my 30 year old model train set

I have come to visit my parents for the Diwali holidays and I was amazed and touched to see that they have still preserved many of my childhood toys (my childhood is way behind me, we are talking of toys that are 30 years old or more). Dad said hopefully that hey have antique value and we might make a fortune selling them on ebay. I don't know about that, but I know that it was priceless for me to see the Scrabble, Monopoly and Meccano sets that I grew up playing. Pat on my back as well - I clearly looked after my toys well because they are all in perfect condition.

What I was most excited to see was the model train set that Dad got me as a kid. Railway modelling was a HUGE hobby in the 70s - while the popularity has dwindled with the younger generation today, it still has some very serious and passionate fans, and dedicated online forums.

I have one model set - a Lima British Rail model set which Dad thinks we paid 20 GBP for, way back in 1978. I was delighted to find it sitting snugly in the loft. It's not in running condition - that's a little too much to expect after 30 years of neglect - but it's in pretty good shape! Here are some pictures that I could not resist taking immediately with my phone cam. I have requested a friend with a DSLR to take some good close ups when I bring my old toy back to Mumbai.

The rakes connect securely to each other with little hooks

The car carrier is one of three types of rakes included with my set

If you could peep inside the compartment, you would see beautifully moulded seats

I love the detailing with which the wheels have been moulded

The loco is really heavy and has steel wheels. Check out the close up below!

This is the electrical circuit which supplies power to the tracks. Add a 6V transformer and watch the trains zoom! I need to source this part to get my set running.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The new Sony Handycam series is a mixed bag

Just yesterday, I bought a Sony Handycam for official and personal use. Sony has unfortunately followed a strategy of increasing price while reducing the functionality and build quality. 

For example, they have done away with Hard Drives altogether in the lower end models - the minimum you need to pay for an HD is Rs. 44,000 for the HDR-XR260VE. The older and cheaper hard drive models which costed within Rs. 30,0000 like the HDR 160 series have been discontinued and are no longer found in the market.

I also found the LCD touch panel to be smaller, less easy to operate even with my (small!) fingers and the large touch buttons that surrounded the LCD touch panel have disappeared.

I don't find a built in projector to be a useful feature in a handycam - unless you are displaying home video to a home audience, you would always check and edit video clips before playback to an audience. However, it would be a great feature in a digicam since people are always dying to show their photos to each other.

I would have appreciated a wi-fi or bluetooth transfer capability to PC since this remains the biggest pain point with heavy media data. Even cooler if this could happen during shooting itself as I do not have to worry about the card getting full.

However, the handycam does well with what its supposed to - it does a good job of shooting amateur video at reasonably high quality. I have been familiar with the operation of Sony Handycams for years and this one does not alter the basic functions and makes the entire process simple and intuitive. Unlike the process of image capture, video capture should not require prolonged adjustment of settings. It needs a 'set it, forget it' approach so that you can be part of whats happening.

However, I ran into a bit of a problem with the HD video format used by Sony - AVCHD. All the latest Sony cameras advertise this format which is a good balance of HD quality with file size. The problem is, it is not compatible with most media players we use normally - notably VLC and Windows media player. 

When I tried to playback the HD files on my PC, they played in Windows Media Player/ Movie maker without any audio. In VLC, I got audio but the frame rate was off - there was a jitter or shadow effect. Fiddling with the settings did not solve the problem. Ironically, the same HD files look gorgeous when you put a straight HDMI output into an LED television.

I finally found a solution through online forums - a free HD player called Splash Lite which plays the AVCHD format natively and without need for additional codecs. Unfortunately like most HD players, you need to pay for a full-functioned version. There is no point in playback of video without editing capability. More importantly, without a popular and standard player to support playback, you cannot share video with others.

I have defaulted to Standard Definition video. This also does not look bad but I miss the sharpness of detail that HD brought. It's not as if I save a lot of space or battery by doing this - HD video offers many more options for long play and seems to occupy roughly the same amount of space.

Hopefully, if we wait for sometime, the format will gain popularity and be natively supported by more media players. Weighed against this is the fact that Sony has had mixed success in gaining mass support for the formats they have introduced in the past. In particular one recalls 'beta PAL' and the ATRAC audio format. Despite the facts that they were attempts to provide a better end quality, they were killed by lack of compatibility and support from other platforms. 

Step outside the safe world of DivX/AVI/MPEG and the video world is  a confusing mix of formats where terms like codec, filter and container are discussed seriously by pros, while amateurs are only trying to figure how they can get trouble-free playback. The bad news is  that you cannot, without spending time and effort to understand. Why can't all manufacturers agree on a common and universal standard like MP3 for music or JPG for images?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

iOS 6 vs. JellyBean - is there really a difference?I

Today, I posted on Facebook that I am a happy camper and with good reason. I finally got  to download Android JellyBean on my Galaxy Nexus as well as iOS 6 on my iPad. It's great to receive two major operating system updates at the same time. Since yesterday, I've  been like a kid in a toy shop, juggling my phone and iPad to figure out what's new. After several hours at play, it occurred to me that we have finally reached the horizon where there is very little to choose between the two operating systems. We will continue to have our preferences between the two, and we may become comfortable with one of the two because it is better on certain functionalities than the other, but if I were to compare now, it's really 50 of one, half of the other.

The two biggest smartphone platforms are reaching parity. Part of the credit goes to constant innovation and upgradation by both companies, especially Google, which has played a remarkable game of catch-up in the last three years. And both platforms in the drive to excel, have borrowed the best features from each other to strengthen their own offering. In the process, the defining characteristics of each have merged. 

I discovered today that iOS 6 on the iPad finally allows in-mail attachments and has done away with the need to go to the camera roll to individually share a picture. Of course, this is a basic feature that gmail on Android has always incorporated. gmail continues to be a way better email client in my opinion, but Apple's mail client has improved hugely too.

On the other hand, Google Now is representing a good alternative to Siri. Though it initially was as unresponsive as the latter to my Indian accent, on encouragement from a friend to 'keep talking' to it, I have seen it improve in its voice recognition capability in the space of a day. It cannot yet open apps the way Siri does in iOS 6, but I am sure it will in a matter of time.

JellyBean lives up to its promise of buttery smooth fastness,  rivaling the flawless Apple UI.  Google has built upon the feature set introduced with ICS and made the entire operation more swift and intuitive. More and more often, I find myself guessing the way something should work and finding that it actually does work that way. 

Apple Maps are still experimental to my mind, so I am not going to say anything about them. The fact that Apple is a serious contender in maps is a good thing - for example, that is probably what forced Google to launch Navigation in India a few weeks ago. This is one of the few areas where Apple will have to play catch up and I am sure that they will. 

I find Apple hardware to be beautifully built and of higher quality than Android handsets And things are just more reliable. Google Play store app reviews are filled with user complaints about how some app crashed their phone, force closes every time etc. Apps designed for iOS seem to do their job, leaving the user  reviews to focus  on the UX and actual utility of the app. 

With its push towards iCloud, Apple devices now receive all iOS updates OTA, doing away with the need for cables, iTunes etc. Android has done this for sometime - Google has an edge in cloud services, with seamless sync of documents, videos, pictures, browser and contacts over the air since a long time. 

I have never felt tempted to jailbreak my iPad and it's a sort of compliment to Apple - I see no need to go to extra trouble to hack something that works well, and which I accept with its inherent limitations. I am very happy that I rooted my Android phone - it gives me access to my fantasy list of features and upgrades and is a testimony to the high potential of Android to transform your smartphone experience into a much better one, and one that is customised to your preference. In exchange for this, I am willing to invest time and put up with occasional crashes and bugs that are part and parcel of experimentation.

In short, at this stage, I could interchange devices from either platform and use them without a sense of loss, frustration or regret.

It's a good time to own either a great Android smartphone or an iPhone. And that is only good news for all customers. 

Do you like 'Live Chat' based customer service?

Live chat has been around for ages including on some not-so-savoury online services, so it's surprising that Indian companies are electing to add this to their websites just now. Most e-commerce websites have begun to display a Live Chat option prominently on their home page.

At first glance, Live Chat seems like a win-win option for both customers and companies. Customers save the cost of a phone call and long hold times which raise their blood pressure and keep the phone busy. Also, you can save a live chat transcript in most cases, so you have got an answer in writing from the company which acts as proof in case of further correspondence. 

And companies get to free up busy call centre lines, leaving them accessible for other callers. Most non-urgent queries can easily get handled through live chat especially new product enquiries and requests for information. And it provides easier monitoring of the quality of customer support - I presume chat records are faster to scan through compared to call records and can be shared easily among supervisors.

In the course of the last few months, I have used Live Chat several times on different e-commerce sites with the same end-result. I was not satisfied with the resolution I got through chat and each time I reached for the phone to complete my query. Here are my main complaints;

1. Technical issues : 

Laggy chat windows which take a lot of time to log into the system, log me out suddenly and provide no feedback as to whether I am still online in the chat or no. Nor do I get to know if a new message has arrived (like the flashing window in GTalk)

2. Long response times : 

I wonder if support executives in chat are multi-tasking while attending to me, or find it harder to respond in real time. As a customer I appreciate the advantage of multi-tasking while chatting but I do not appreciate it being extended to customer support! I still expect a speedy resolution.

Every chat I opened dragged on for at least 20 minutes. Effectively I was put on hold and while it was not as irritating as holding a phone, it defeated the purpose for me. Combined  with point 1 above, I found myself accessing the chat window several times to check if it was still working.

3. Unsatisfactory closure of complaints/ requests : 

I would find in each case that the chat would terminate without a proper resolution. The customer support exec. would leave suddenly or without notice leaving me to close the window and try again on the phone. It's interesting that this is exactly what happens when you chat with friends - long silences/ non-response is OK and people assume automatically that you are busy or away from your PC. It's alright to leave a question unanswered on chat  but you would never do that if you are on the phone with the same person. 

While I am not going to name the sites I chatted on, I would conclude that Live Chat still has some way to go to get streamlined. Smoother interfaces, faster response and closure of complaints all need to be worked on. Till then I am sticking to the phone!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

5 innovative ways that entrepreneurs use Facebook

I use Facebook both as a way to connect with friends and to grow my business. I have observed how entrepreneurs and small businesses/ sole proprietorship firms use Facebook, which is very different from the way corporates do. Perhaps there are some interesting nuggets here that are applicable to larger companies and brands. 

Small businesses tend to be single minded and focussed in the way they use Facebook. It is either to get orders and new business or to build relationships with prospects. Seldom do they simply keep a Facebook page because it's required. And this repays them with active dividends in terms of creating awareness, revenue streams and broadening of customer base. Which also explains why they tend to be extremely active on Facebook. This research on SocialMediaToday indicates the growing importance of social media for small businesses

1. Pictures work as eye candy to attract genuine prospects to like and share

Pinterest has demonstrated the success of eye candy! If you have eye catching products, or launch new ranges regularly (think fashion, travel, home decor, kitchen accessories, gadgets), then keep a habit of posting pictures or videos. They are more likely to be shared and commented on. In our Bright Angles blog we had posted on how Facebook believes that they influence 'mid funnel' decision making when people are not yet ready to buy, but are actively considering options. Pictures are a great way to get people to file  away your products in their mind and buy when they are ready or recommend to others who are looking.

2. Demonstrate expertise

Not all businesses need to build relationships or get immediate orders. Service businesses like consultancies, hospitals and diagnostic centres, or specialised news sites can maintain a Facebook page simply to demonstrate their expertise in their chosen field. The posts may or may not relate to the products and services they offer - they can share interesting news items, research reports, facts and figures that people would like to read and know about. This works as an image building exercise - people build a perception about your expertise and see you as a credible source of information and knowledge. This would work really well for a financial services or health care brand.

3. Become a rallying point for a community

Do you operate in a category which is not well understood, or where numerous and divergent view points exist? (Think of weight loss, herbal remedies/ health supplements, instant foods and more). You may benefit by creating a Facebook group/ community rather than a brand page. Instead of preaching to converts, let the interested and expert members of the community share the benefit of their experience  with others - which is not only more credible than the voice of a brand but also works in your favor by creating customer education over a long term. It will require moderation and maybe in the initial stages, you need to recruit some experts to get it going - or better still, you can hand over this task to an expert in your team. If you are willing to not let your brand be the center piece, this can be a great way to build knowledge about your category.

4. Recruit and mobilise the community

If you are a brand/ company with a strong social agenda, or your brand offering can genuinely transform people's lives (NGOs, mass media brands, hair dressing salons, beauty clinics and more) then Facebook gives you  a strong platform to motivate and involve people in what you do. Invite users to sign up and volunteer for offline events, programs and activities that they would themselves want to share with their friends. It's a great way to tap into user's circles of influence and spread your message rather than sitting on a Facebook page and hoping that people land up.

5. Create a platform for face to face interactions with customers

I have always found it to be a massive contradiction that while I am on Facebook to meet my friends, brand expect me to 'like' and 'add them' as friends. A brand or company page is not a person, and as such, my involvement with an entity is much less than that with a person. You can make it interesting by being bold - use Facebook as a platform for your employees to interact with customers. Not by role (customer service rep.) but by name. For a spa, it could be the masseur interacting with customers on the benefits of a certain massage. For a tech company, it could be the techies answering customer questions. Companies like Dell and Microsoft already do this through company blogs. I believe it can be equally done through Faceook. Of course, this may be more appropriate for companies that encourage a culture of consumer friendliness and transparency. And it may not be at all appropriate, say for finance companies, where you need to be more accountable about what is said to customers. And it will require some or all of your employees to get training. But the beauty of this, is that it is natural and real - people can be themselves and interact with other people, and in the process, your company can come across as caring, authentic and multi-dimensional. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Should I buy the iPad 2 or the new iPad?

It's a question which is dated till the last stocks of iPad 2 pass out of the market, and of course, there will continue to be sales in the second hand market. But it's a question I get asked frequently, so here is the answer.

Unless you find old stocks, Apple currently only sells the 16GB iPad 2 in India, in two configurations - wi-fi only (Rs.25,000 or lesser) and wi-fi + 3G (Rs. 32,000 approximately). This is approximately Rs. 4000 less than the corresponding new iPad models. In both cases, you need to add on at least Rs. 2000 to the price to purchase a minimum screen protector/ carrying case. 

If your usage is going to be mostly browsing and you plan to do that on the sofa (ie. holding the iPad in your hands) then jump and get an iPad 2 before it's too late. Apart from the price value differential, it is also lighter, less likely to heat up and has a longer battery life - all boons for someone who reads a lot. And it will receive the iOS 6 update this month, so you do get iMaps and all the good stuff. You definitely will next year as well.

If you can afford to spend the extra money and want to do more of gaming, video calling or streaming, or use a lot of apps, get the new iPad which will offer a 8 MP camera, fantastic graphics, a hi-res retina screen and a powerful processor. Apps are getting updated or created for the new high speced iPad everyday.

To my mind, price is less of a difference in deciding the purchase than the purpose you will use it for. I have not been even remotely tempted to upgrade my iPad 2, though I eagerly look forward to the iOS 6 update.

Do you tweet or are you tweeted at?

With a 50 million + user base, which is growing rapidly alongside mobile, Facebook has become an established social media platform in India, overtaking the persistent Orkut in 2012. And with a user base of 14 million, LinkedIn has entrenched itself firmly in the professional space.

The growth story for Twitter has been slower among Indian users. With 15 million users and 20,000 users with more than 500 followers, it's not as if Indians do not use the site. What is more subtle and interesting is the difference in the quality of usage.

Do a qualitative check on the quality of Twitter usage among your peers in office, or your offline friends. You may hear something like this. 

Many will have Twitter accounts but everyone will surely have a Facebook account. 
Those who have Twitter accounts may use them less frequently than Facebook.
Those who are active on Twitter may be passively following rather than tweeting, or at best clicking on some links.
And those who tweet may be re-tweeting more than sending out original tweets.

Brands generally have more active followers  on Facebook than Twitter. The exception would be customer service oriented twitter accounts of telcos/ online service providers which do see more action.

It would be interesting to understand just what's going on. 

Speaking for myself, I use Twitter more frequently than I use Facebook. I use Twitter to quickly push out links that I want to share, which get cross published on Facebook as well. I don't know if this qualifies as tweeting! I seldom compose original tweets. I think the 140 character limit taxes me and pressures me to be extra creative and concise. Unfortunately I am neither. 

Then again, I enjoy the vibrant community of my friends much more on Facebook. Twitter feeds move at such a dizzying pace that I miss half the tweets and I don't know if anyone gets to see mine. While I push out more tweets, I get more and deeper responses to them on Facebook. And I spend more time on Facebook, though I post less. I frankly feel more connected through Facebook.

Abroad, twitter has been adopted and grown through various creative user-initiated ways. Using hashtags to create movements and trending topics. Using @ to include people in an interactive tweet fest. By nations like Syria and Egypt to spread messages about the situation suppressed by the government and to overthrow the political regime. In drug-war over-run Mexico, people rely on Twitter for real time news of shoot-outs, to know if it's safe to step out, to send kids to school. And even as an informer network to track drug dealers.

In India, it's just not happening and I wonder why.

I see Twitter becoming a very practical and useful tool, with a distinct role compared to Facebook. It could be fantastic to disseminate breaking news, real time traffic updates (Mumbai traffic jams), status on public transport strikes and bandhs, just to name a few. All these can also carry user-created real time updates so that we pool together information to form a picture. It could be addictive. The last time it happened was during the Mumbai terrorist attacks nearly 4 years ago.

What I see instead is a tendency to passively follow film stars, sportstars
  and CEOs. 

Is it the character limit that inhibits loquacious Indians, is it a lack of  understanding of tweet etiquette or do we just like the comfort of chatting with our friends?

I would like to see Twitter carve out its niche in India. Maybe it would take some innovative ideas in terms of sites and mobilisation of users. Certainly, it can be a much more powerful tool than it is today.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Back to the future - from massive hard drives to flash memory

Those of you who browse for MP3 player and camcorders would have figured that in-built hard drive memory is becoming scarcer and scarcer. You can find only a handful of devices with 100 GB+ memory and newer launches (for example Sony's Handycam range) pass up a hard drive in favor of external SD Card storage.  Bad news, if like me, you are a hoarder and want to carry everything on board at one go. But the good news is that flash memory is getting cheaper.

We first saw the trend in high end phones which carry at least 16GB on board flash memory. Now, even 32 GB memory cards are priced at an easy Rs. 1000 on Flipkart and if you check on eBay I am sure you will find it even cheaper. And with ultrabooks setting a benchmark of affordable notebooks with flash memory, it's only a matter of time before the price of flash memory (and the amount of available storage) drops even further.

There are many advantages of flash memory over hard drive - faster read/write speeds, longer life, less battery consumption and less chances of data corruption. However, I still prefer HDD memory simply because we have been spoilt in the interim by massive storage capacity at cheap price. Also, devices are not becoming cheaper just because they use flash memory, and you have to account for extra expenditure to buy SD cards.

The other day, a colleague and I were chatting about the era when our IBM Think Pads had only 20 GB of hard drive  (this was in 2004) and how we were excited when our office issued new laptops with 40 GB memory! Nowadays, we take 160 GB for granted even on low priced netbooks.

Interesting to see how industry trends are driving us back to compact storage. But there is a difference - we are clearly being pushed towards cloud storage as a future option though it is yet to take off in a big way.

So if you are a hoarder, my advice is to buy up those devices with HD space. I'm betting you will see less and less of them in the future.