Sunday, January 29, 2012

Has e-commerce come of age in India?

All reports indicate that ecommerce is booming in India. With a growth rate of  40% per annum the industry is currently valued at Rs.50,000 Crore, of which 80% comes from travel-related purchases (online ticketing and booking of rail/air tickets) and 20% comes from retail e-commerce (purchase of products). Research also reveals that 40% of ecommerce activity comes from small towns (Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities). Further, venture capitalists like Tiger Global and Accel Partners have pumped in more than $300 billion into the sector, heavily backing companies like FlipKart, Indiaplaza and Myntra.

And the ecommerce industry is predicted to grow to Rs.400,000 Crore by 2025, with retailing projected to have 50% share of the total.

I have seen changes in my own online shopping behaviour in the last two years.One of the biggest ones is that I do not hesitate to buy high ticket items online - mobile phones, laptops, expensive speakers. Another change is that I often end up buying from foreign sites, in dollars - the range includes content subscriptions through apps, software, ebooks and even gadgets. And I am not counting the numerous apps that I have purchased through the Apple Store, or the dozens of monthly bills that get processed directly through my bank account or credit card,

Clearly, my trust in e-tailers has increased. I trust the security of online transactions and the reliability of online sellers. Even more importantly, I have purchased most products, including the most expensive ones, without ever seeing or testing them out in real life. In fact, I would not have been able to, because many of these products like the Kindle, my Audioengine speakers and my Dell Vostro V131 laptop were simply not available in any brick and mortar store in India. I have learnt to use customer reviews and forums to get comfortable with products, and it is working very well for me. Ten years ago, I worked on a research project to study the (then miniscule) audience of e-shoppers in India, and I encountered barriers like "how can you buy something without seeing it?" "What if they cheat me? How will I get my money back?". Our very innate cultural need to touch, see and smell what we buy and make sure we are not cheated, seems to be finally dissolving, and this is a welcome change.

Finally, online buying has brought me a lot of value. I buy online under two conditions - either I get cheaper stuff (upto 30% cheaper than brick and mortar stores in some cases) and secondly, I get stuff that is otherwise simply not available in India. And when I buy through sites like Flipkart or Ebay, I get the option to avail EMI schemes on my credit card, which makes it easier to decide on high value purchases.

I imagine that the same factors are driving the growth of ecommerce in small towns, fuelled by the steady growth of internet penetration which has finally crossed 100 million in 2011. The internet bypasses many limitations of brick and mortar retail, allowing you to order the most expensive international brands and get them delivered anywhere from  Bhatinda to Madurai, and that too at a discount! With many sites offering Cash on Delivery, payment by DD etc, you do not even need to own a credit card to order online.

The growth of ecommerce has been promising, but lots more effort is needed for the sector to reach the ambitious figure of Rs.400,000 Crore.

Firstly, we need to see more action in the mobile space by ecommerce companies. By 2020, mobile internet access is projected to reach 600 million, completely overhauling the stagnating broadband access. Companies need to start initiatives to encourage shopping through mobile phones and I do not mean only apps. I am talking about payment gateways, mcommerce and even  devices set-up for purchase like the Nook and the Kindle Fire. We have already seen the launch of many cheap. sub Rs.15,000 tablets in India like the Akaash and Reliance 3G Tab, and any of them could be set up to provide exclusive access, to say Indiaplaza or Flipkart products. Sell them discounted, and it could be a huge trigger.

Secondly, we have to see more flexible online payment mechanisms. Credit cards are under-penetrated in India, and while penetration may grow, e-banking is likely to grow faster. I would like to see growth of methods to securely transfer money to a seller including e-drafts, bank transfers etc. Of course, all of these need to be accompanied by a foolproof buyer protection mechanism. It would be good if banks can step in to create a system, like Ebay's paisa pay, which protects buyers from fraud.

Thirdly, we need vernacular language versions of ecommerce sites (Off topic, but vernacular content lags behind big time in India), so that people can transact in the language they are most comfortable with.

And finally, we need to see more initiatives to encourage women to shop online. Worldwide, including in India, women form the bulk of shoppers in brick and mortar stores. In India, internet access by women continues to lag behind men. Educating and encouraging the housewife to switch to ecommerce could lead to an explosion of online categories like perfumes, clothes, household groceries and provisions, and even toys.

Forbes India
Deccan Herald

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA - Why India (and everyone using the Net) should protest

At the time of writing this post, Wikipedia, Reddit and hundreds of other sites are in blackout, as a protest against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). Meanwhile, many industry experts, bloggers and journalists have reported in depth on the draconian law, currently before US Congress, which may well be re-titled "Stop the Free Internet".  To understand why the international web community is up in arms against the law, it's worthwhile to read some of the well-written articles about it:

Why SOPA is dangerous by Chris Heald at Mashable
What is SOPA and how does it work? by Nilay Patel at The Verge
SOPA page at Wikipedia which is available through the blackout period

Why should this US law have relevance for India, or for that matter anyone in any country other than the US? 

The web unites us, more than we ever realise. It connects people together, as strongly, and perhaps more strongly than national boundaries ever will. Whether you are a Youtube user uploading a video to the tune of a song from your favorite US artist, or on Facebook, sharing articles with friends, or a member of a vibrant online community like Reddit. In your own life, you will realise many instances of how the web has expanded your world view, your friendships, or your readership, through the discovery of users, readers and like minded people across the globe.

What binds us equally though, is the hidden architecture of the internet and the way it works. Servers which host content across the world, payment gateways, domain registrars, companies which are headquartered literally anywhere. As users, perhaps we do not realise the invisible all-pervasiveness of the web, which is its real power - companies and entities across the world make the Web work smoothly for you. And the beauty of this, is that you do not need to know or care about this.

SOPA threatens to challenge this. SOPA, in the name of preventing theft of US property, proposes to throttle everyone's freedom of expression. Did it matter to you that PayPal, Google, VISA, Facebook, GoDaddy, Microsoft or anyone else was based in the US? It never mattered to me, except that I admired the US as a vibrant cradle of innovation. If SOPA goes through, it will begin to matter, because it will give the government a free hand to crack down on those companies for violation of copyright/ IP by users and they will be forced to crack down on you and me. The bill includes provisions such as blocking search results, taking down domains, shutting payment gateways and Ad Sense. This does not just mean shutting off access to a US audience - it means shutting you off the Net, period.

And obviously, this law does not originate from a concern or interest for the citizens of the US. Laws made for the common good are enlightened and carry a resonance and respect for the freedom and rights of people everywhere around the world - for free speech, security, financial well being etc. Take a look at the list of official supporters of the Bill : it is dominated by movie studio associations, publishers, record labels and government departments. Judging by the reactions of people in the US, this is not a bill that they want passed. This is pressure from traditional media who feel their business is under threat from a vast anonymous entity called the World Wide Web. 

Will killing the internet really solve copyright issues? Can you really control the actions of the 2 billion plus (and growing) base of internet users? Really?

Finally, passing of this law is going to set precedents. And in India, we do not want precedents of this nature. All of us have been reading about the Governments pressure to get Google and Facebook to practice self censorship and self screening for political/ defamatory content. If SOPA was to pass, perhaps we would take it as a precedent to pass laws that police content and take down websites too? And this would not even be about copyright issues, but freedom of speech. 

Till now, I have never used this blog to make political statements. I write about tech and I would like it to stay that way. But I feel I owe this post to the internet and the internet community. For everything it has done for me, for all I have learnt, all I have written and all I have shared. You and I belong to the great worldwide democracy of the internet. And the net deserves each of us, even with a small forum of listeners, to raise our voices and defend it. I would urge everyone in India who loves and uses the Net to read up on SOPA, discuss it, spread awareness and speak up against it. You will, and can, make a difference.

Buying a future proof Android smartphone

This is a continuation of my  previous blog post on buying a future proof smartphone. In this post, I want to address the issue of buying a future proof Android phone (quite a challenge, that!)

If you are looking for an Android phone, chances are that you would have heard of Android 4.0 (ICS), the latest and greatest version of Android. Currently, the official ICS update is available only on Samsung's Galaxy Nexus (yet to be launched in India) and the earlier Nexus S (now discontinued). Of course, several unofficial custom ICS 4.0 ROMS are already available for certain devices, but many people might not want to experiment with these, and would prefer to wait for official updates from manufacturers.

I believe that it's important for everyone buying an Android phone in 2012 to ensure that they get ICS 4.0 as their operating system. 

For one, it's a unifying update from Google - henceforth all Android tablets and top smartphones will run on one operating system, while budget phones will continue to run Gingerbread. And Google is committed to ensuring that in the future, updates are issued across devices and manufacturers within a reasonable time frame. Therefore, getting onto ICS gives you a better chance to stay updated in the future.

And secondly, ICS is a fantastic operating system, praised by those who try it as fast, fluid and feature-packed. 

To get a complete feel of ICS, I recommend reading Eldar Murtazin's exhaustive review (in two parts) on the Mobile Review website. 

So how can you purchase a future proof Android handset?

1. Buy a phone which will get upgraded to ICS

It's not enough for Google to push out a new OS, the manufacturers need to implement it on their handsets, integrating it to work with the software that they have installed (TouchWiz, Sense etc.) Do note that no manufacturer has guaranteed an ICS upgrade by a specific date. And going by past track record, the lag between Google's release and release of the OS by a manufacturer has been anything from 6 months to 1 year. Hopefully, this year it will improve!

Samsung has promised upgrades to ICS for  the Galaxy S2 (Rs.30,000), Galaxy Note (Rs.34,000) and Galaxy R (Rs.22,000) in Q1 2012. Basically, if you own any Samsung mobile  other than those listed here, you are out of luck for an ICS upgrade. The Nexus S received an ICS upgrade directly from Google, but it is discontinued.

HTC will issue ICS updates for HTC Sensation (Rs. 30,000), Sensation XE and XL (Rs. 32,000 approx.), HTC Rezound and HTC Vivid. (source : PC World ). Everything else is out in the cold.

Sony will issue updates for its Xperia Range (2011 only). As per the company blog, the the high-end Xperia arc S (Rs.28,000), the Xperia Ray (Rs. 19,000) and the Neo V (Rs.18,000) will get upgrades by Q1 2012. While earlier models like Xperia Arc, Xperia Neo, Xperia Mini/Mini Pro and Walkman Live will receive this upgrade only after April 2012 but hopefully before end of the year. In fact, Sony has a far better upgrade road map than  Samsung or HTC, which spans more devices, at different price points. Purely from this point of view, buying a Sony Android device might make sense.

If you have not considered an LG handset before,here is an incentive to do so. LG has promised ICS on the Optimus 2X (Rs.20,000), Optimus 3D (Rs.30,000) and Optimus Black (Rs.19,000), via the company's Facebook page. No timeframe though.

2. Buy a phone running ICS out of the box

This is actually the most headache free solution for an end user. Upgrading the operating system can be at best a slow and tiresome process - at worst, something can go wrong. But at least in India, we have a wait on our hands before we get a phone running ICS. The Galaxy Nexus is due end January 2012 (price not yet known, but likely to be on par with the iPhone 4S). Of course, you can buy it on ebay for Rs.40,000 :) 

Huawei has promised three phones with ICS - The Huawei Honor, Ascend P1 and P1S. The Honor is of particular interest as Huawei has claimed that it will launch in India in February with ICS on board. Huawei is an upcoming brand and is likely to price even high-end devices more competitively than HTC or Samsung.

HTC also has three phones with ICS scheduled for a Q1 2012 launch  - HTC Ville, Edge and Elite. 

(update : GSMArena just released a list of SE Android devices planned for 2012. Looks like all of them will run ICS. That's another good reason to take a look at Sony if you're buying an Android phone)

3. Load a custom ROM

ICS Custom ROMs are available already for several phones including older ones. Here is a good list which gets updated regularly : Droidangels blogspot. Developers work constantly on bug fixes and updates, so as time goes by, these ROMs will all get more stable and widely adopted. 

When I was editing this post, I realised that everything is pointing to one inevitable conclusion - you want ICS, you got to wait! Seems that things have not changed since last year, when I was giving the same advice about Android. Had this post been about Android tablets, I would have had better news. Most of the biggies - ASUS Transformer/ Prime, Motorola Xoom, Galaxy Tab - are already getting, or will be getting their ICS updates soon.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Buying a future proof smartphone

Every time the 'latest' phone comes out, I feel tempted to buy it, but I have developed a strategy that protects my pocket. I just wait for a few months. Grit teeth and wait. Sure enough, the next greatest phone appears on the horizon, is announced, or already launched. Waiting without jumping for  the latest phone has saved me thousands of rupees, and something more important - it has saved me angst. I have a different type of angst - for example, now my dilemma is to choose between a Samsung Galaxy S2 and the Galaxy Nexus - but this is better than being stuck with an S2 and wondering if I should have waited for  the Nexus.

How do you make sure that your expensive piece of kit stays relevant, at least for the 11.5 months that an average smartphone user keeps a phone before replacing it?

1. Software upgrades are the key to having an updated phone

It's the software, more than hardware alone, which controls the 'up-to-date-ness' of a phone.

Nowadays, all the major operating systems (Android, Apple, Microsoft) offer upgrades on a regular basis. All Apple and MS phones will receive updates promptly. Only Android phones will face a lag in getting updates as the manufacturer has 'skinned' these phones with their own operating system.

As a first step, if you want a hassle-free upgrade each time, perhaps its simpler to just buy a Windows Phone or an iPhone. Both are guaranteed to be future proof at least for a year if not more. In fact, the iPhone 3Gs has received an update to the latest iOS 5, making it still relevant even 3 years after launch. With Android, unless you put up Rs.30K + for the Galaxy Nexus, the bets are off. Of course, you could load a custom ROM, and with that we go to the next point.

2. Buy an Android phone and load a custom ROM

Android being a (largely) Open Source software, developers have the chance to develop Custom ROMs, which are their own flavors of Android. Custom ROMs can be modified to extract the most from the hardware - improve the battery life, improve the speed of the phone, set different themes etc. They also allow you to access and load 'unofficial' apps which do not appear in the Android Marketplace. And most importantly, custom ROMs allow you to gain access to newer versions of Android that might have never ever gotten an official release on your phone. For example, Samsung Galaxy S is officially not going to get Android 4 (ICS). However, at the XDA-developers forum, onecosmic and some other guys have released an ICS 4.0 Custom ROM for the Galaxy S. Obviously, it's like a breath of life for  the phone, plus these guys with 2 year old phones get to thumb their noses at those of us who are still waiting for ICS!

If you buy a phone with the view to load a custom ROM, it's worthwhile to first check if there is one! For example,  the Galaxy S has ROMs but Galaxy S i9003 (the S-LCD version of the Galaxy S) does not.  The LCD version of Galaxy S has a different chipset, display and battery and requires a different ROM, which has not yet been developed. Similarly the recently released Galaxy R does not have a ROM. If you do buy these phones you need to take a chance and wait for devs to start work on them. The lists are constantly updated but some good source links to check are -

Cyanogen Mod - list of supported devices
AOSP (Android Open Source Project)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's resolution - take care of your gadgets in 2012

Our life expectancy  from gadgets (and the timespan in which we get bored and want to replace them) is shortening rapidly. Earlier, I had blogged about how the lifespan of my first two mobile phones was 7 years. Nowadays, I get bored with them in less than a year, and I don't have to feel guilty about it - research shows that the average smartphone user replaces his handset after approximately 11 months.

However, even if we replace our toys sooner, we can still take care of them better. In fact, extra care is indicated because they are more expensive AND more fragile than ever before. Touchscreens, even those protected with Gorilla Glass, are not likely to survive falls.  Both battery longevity and life are under threat from increasingly powerful processors in tablets, mobile phones and laptops. The displays and the fancy surfaces of gadgets are increasingly susceptible to smudges, scratches and scuffs. 

Whether you plan to sell or exchange your old gadgets or simply pass them on to other family members, it's nice to keep them in mint condition, so that the next user is happier to get them! So let's see some simple tips to ensure that you do this -

1. Give your gadgets a rest!

I credit this idea to David Carnoy's post on CNet. When he took his iPhone to the Apple Genius Bar complaining of poor battery life, the Apple Genius gave him a simple and ingenious solution - turn off your phone at night, at least once a week. According to him, all gadgets get 'stressed' when they are continuously powered up, even if they are idle. 

Whether or not this improves battery life, it seems like good common sense advice to me. Every now and then, let your gadgets get a good night's sleep. This applies especially for your mobile phone, your router and your laptop, if you prefer to hibernate it rather than shut it down. 

2. Get screen protection first!

The most vulnerable part of your device (especially a touchscreen device) is the screen. Not only is it likely to crack if you drop the device, it is also a magnet for fingerprints, smudges and oily marks. As soon as you buy a device, buy the touchscreen protector - a thin protective plastic film that covers it. This is the first line of defence for your screen. Touchscreen protectors for mobile phones are available in most stores, in a range from Rs.200-400. And ask the shop to install it for you, to make sure it is done perfectly, and without ugly air bubbles. They will usually oblige, even in the Apple Store. 

3. Get a slip cover for your iPad or laptop

There are a host of fancy accessories like the Smart Cover for  the iPad and lots of laptop bags. But in a country like India, which is hugely dust-prone, a protective cover is a must. A slip cover or sleeve which completely encases the device, is a cost-effective solution with dual use - it protects the device in transit and if you leave it on at home, it also prevents dust from accumulating on it. At least in Mumbai, where pollution and dust levels are  high, I can see how much dust accumulates on my keyboard and screen, everyday.

Slip covers start at Rs.600 for the iPad and for a 13 inch laptop. You can pick them up at Heera Panna, or at a good luggage store like Sayonara on Linking Road, Bandra (W).

If you are disinclined to spend this money, you can employ the time-tested solution used by my grandmother and most Indian housewives - cover your gadgets with a small cloth when not in use. :) 

But don't underestimate the additional layer of protection that a slip cover will provide in transit. My friend dropped her well-padded Samsonite rucksack in a rickshaw and found that the fall had chipped off the edge of her  Inspiron laptop. An extra protective padding could have prevented it.

4. Charge wisely

There are so many conflicting reports on how to extend battery life through proper charging, and battery life is such a subjective parameter, that it's hard to give advice. But here are some basics that should work for everyone -

  • Never leave a device to charge overnight, you will tend to overcharge, and this reduces battery life.
  • As a general rule, to the extent possible, keep the charging threshold between 30% and 90%. This means, charge the device when  the battery is around 30% and stop charging when it is around 90%. 
  • Never, ever leave a device or charger plugged in permanently or for a long time. It will destroy the battery.

5. A wet tissue, everyday

Wipe your devices every morning with a slightly damp tissue to remove dust and dirt. Of course, it is safe to do this when they are powered off. It will not take you more than 2 minutes and you really  do not need a more expensive cleaning solution. This will prevent dust from settling into open sockets and between the keys.

6. Dedicate a pocket for your phone

While I favor slip covers for tablets and laptops, I don't find them a practical solution for phones. For one thing, you will need to pull out your phone all the time to check messages or answer calls, so it can be inconvenient. Also, in my own experience, if you try to take a phone out from a slip cover in a hurry, say when you are walking, you may accidentally drop the phone. I recommend a separate dedicated and accessible pocket - in your trousers, handbag, or rucksack, as the case may be. A dedicated pocket is necessary because hard or heavy objects like keys or loose change can scratch your phone's display.

I wish you and your gadgets, a high performing and trouble free 2012!