Monday, February 20, 2012

The curious success of Samsung Galaxy Note

"It's a's a's SUPERMAN!".

I've not seen a phone generate as much controversy and heated debate as the Samsung Galaxy Note. Is it a large phone? Is it a small tablet? Is it a useless product? Is it a great  product concept? Can you really use a phone with a 5.3 inch screen?

Samsung shipped 1 million Galaxy Notes in just 2 months in 2011. This was before the US product launch, and  the world's largest smartphone market will definitely add on to the sales figures . It's early days to predict success, but one can certainly say that the novel phone-tablet has not been a flop. In press, it gets written about constantly. And I have met several extremely happy users, who simply love the phone.  At stores like Croma, I have always seen people checking it out, or asking for it. All these seem positive indicators.

And it's important to note that some people simply love the product and others can't stand it. Going by the marketing textbook, we are taught that any strong product will create a strong and distinct target audience, and by default, exclude some portion of customers. I see that happening with the Galaxy Note.

I was seriously considering a Galaxy Note. Seriously, there is a lot to love about  this phone and it's not just hardware specs that only excite techies - there is stuff that makes a huge impact in the way you use the device. Like the powerful 1.4 GHz dual core processor which makes the phone super fast. The gorgeous 5.3 inch HD Super Amoled Display, the S-Pen which allows you to write notes or sketch.

There is really only one strike against  the device - the low battery life. The screen size is not a negative in my book - it can be a turn-on or a put off for you, depending on your requirements.

Why do I think the Galaxy Note has worked with consumers?

Firstly, Samsung has gotten the price value equation right. At Rs.32,000 (approx.) in India, it is priced only slightly higher than the Samsung Galaxy S2, and it combines a high-spec tablet and a high-spec smartphone. People who have not yet bought a tablet will save at least Rs.30,000 by buying this device. The large screen makes it a fantastic ebook reader and browsing device - which is the basic functionality of a tablet. I think it's a truly different concept, in a world where too many smartphones look like carbon copies of each other.

Secondly, I think large-sized gadgets have a huge appeal for men. It's not just that they like carrying around a chunky, big, sexy device. With my small hands I still find typing on a small touchscreen keypad to be a pain. With bigger sized hands, guys will find it much easier to type on the large virtual keypad offered by the Note. Equally, I must note that most women (including myself) are put off by the huge size. Unlike men, we will not have a pocketability issue - women carry phones in their (ever-present) bag and not in their pockets - but it just feels too big and heavy. We may not all love the 'girly' phones put out by cellphone manufacturers, but I think women prefer lighter and smaller devices for sure.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the screen size is a boon for anyone who wants to give their eyes a bit of a break. We spend an ever  increasing proportion of our time staring at our too-small, often too-dim cellphone screens. With texting and browsing on phones on the rise, this proportion of time will only keep increasing. A large and bright display will make this easier on our eyes, and may especially be a boon for people who use spectacles!

So in a nutshell, I think Samsung has an interesting product, and there is definitely a bunch of people out there who will be interested in it. With the Note due for an ICS 4.0 Android update, it's a compelling product. I think everyone interested in buying a smartphone or tablet should take a look at it. It may not be  the device for you, but it's a device that's very hard to ignore!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Part 4 : Selecting your first Custom ROM

This is part 4 of a series of posts on rooting and ROM-ing on my new Galaxy Nexus. This guide will be useful for other newbies like me who are trying ROMs for the first time.

1. Don't ask 'which is the best ROM?'

You will not get an answer to this question in forums and rightly so. Instead, you will be directed to read up and choose. Developers put a lot of effort and time into creating ROMs and giving them freely to the community. So it's unfair to compare or rate them, though you can always ask people to share their experience.

If you read extensively on the XDA Developers Forum's it is easy to figure out popular ROMs. Look for indicators like number of replies, response time of the developer and number of updates. An active thread is a lead indicator of a popular ROM and this is a good place to start.

As a Galaxy Nexus user, I am excited by the wide range (at least a dozen) ROMs available for my device. I intend to try each and every one of them over time and grow my own knowledge and experience in the process! For me ROMs are a perfect metaphor for Google's dessert themed Android OS - they are sweet, available in many flavors and you can gorge as much as you want!

2. Understand the approach of the developer.

Every developer introduces their ROM with a detailed note on features, sometimes including screenshots to give you a feel. And each developer/team also has a unique approach/ philosophy which reflects in the ROMs they create. Some ROMs are heavy on customisation and theming and can give your phone and user interface a completely different look and feel. Some focus on being light, simple and fast. See if the approach appeals to you, and choose a ROM accordingly.

3. Download a stable/ milestone version rather than a nightly build

This depends on your comfort level, but as a newbie, I started with trying stable (though older) versions of ROMs. These are bug-free and there are known fixes for problems which have been documented. Once I am more comfortable, I will move to downloading experimental builds

4. Judge a ROM by qualitative rather than quantitative factors alone and take your time

I try to not get caught up in stats like battery life, benchmark tests of speed etc. To be frank, I don't understand them totally. I rather focus on my experience - do I like the look and feel? To what extent can I customise it? Does it feel fast and fluid? Does my phone last longer through the day? Does everything work the same or differently? For me, this is the enjoyment factor of a new ROM and I don't want to spoil it by anxiety about battery life or performance. So far, I have tried 3 ROMs and kept one for a week, so that I get a complete feel of how it works. And before this, I used the stock ICS which comes with the phone for an entire week too, so that I understood the difference with custom ROMs. I like to spend enough time with each ROM to do it justice. The only time I removed a ROM in a day, was  when it had a bug which drained my battery. I will re-load it as soon as it is fixed!

5. Try a kernel after trying a ROM for sometime

I have not yet downloaded a kernel for any of the ROMs I am trying. Because a kernel will add a new dimension of experience and I first want to get a hang of each ROM and understand how it works. Then, I will understand better the difference and improvement which comes from adding a kernel. Also I am reading up a lot more about kernels - the ultimate goal as an amateur is to learn as much as I can about hacks and mods. And learning is half the fun for me!

And this goes without saying - backup everything with ROM Managers backup function and Titanium Backup before you flash a new ROM. It's a matter of ten minutes to restore your old settings if you decide to discard the new ROM.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Part 3 : Flashing a Custom ROM on the Galaxy Nexus

This is Part 3 of a series of posts on how to flash a Custom ROM on the Galaxy Nexus. Part 1 dealt with rooting the phone and Part 2 dealt with preparing to load a Custom ROM. I think Part 2 and 3 would be applicable for most Android devices, but since I don't have experience with them, I would say that this guide works for the Galaxy Nexus.

Start the process by making sure your phone is adequately charged.

1) Load the Custom ROM on your phone
This was where Part 2 left off. I am assuming that you have downloaded two zip files - a ROM and a Gapps file as mentioned by the developer and then checked the MD5 sums (refer to the previous post). Connect your phone to your PC and transfer the two zip files from your PC to the internal SD Card of the Nexus. To access  them easily, do not put them into a folder. Leave them in the root so you can find them easily. And make sure they are not unzipped.

2) Disconnect the phone from the PC

3) Fire up ROM Manager and select Boot into Recovery from the menu

4) Follow the instructions of the developer
They usually go like this
Make a nandroid backup (I am assuming you have already done this if you read my previous post. Also, you should have downloaded Titanium Backup and backed up your apps)
Select Factory Reset/ Wipe Data
Select Wipe Cache Partition
Select file from SD Card - here you can access and select the ZIP files you have loaded. First flash the ROM and then the Gapps file.

4) Your ROM will load. The first time you flash a ROM, it will take a long time to load, so don't panic!

You will see the language selection screen, select the language of your choice

You will be prompted to set up wi-fi, do this if you wish.

When the ROM starts, Google will prompt you to sign in. Do this. It will also ask you if it should restore your backups. Make sure you do not check this option.

Now you will see a blank home screen minus your apps. Do not panic!

Through the menu button, access the app drawer and see whether Titanium Backup has been installed. If not, go to the Android market and download 1) Titanium Backup Free 2) Titanium Backup Pro (if you have purchased a license key). You must download both separately, in this order.

Now fire up the app and go to the backup/ restore menu and select the 'batch'option

Scroll down to see the backup options. What I usually do is restore all apps with data first. Then I selectively go to system apps and restore data like call logs, SMS etc. I do not restore apps+system data because it can cause a crash if the ROM is incompatible with earlier system data. If you restore any system data, Titanium Backup will ask you to reboot your phone - do this to avoid problems.

If you have purchased Titanium Pro, it will process the batch command in one shot. If you have the free version, you have to approve and install each app individually.

After you have performed these steps, you will see all your apps back in the app drawer. You probably still need to populate your home screen with apps if the launcher has changed.

Now you can explore the features of your new ROM, and enjoy it! Remember to make another Nandroid backup if you like the ROM and plan to keep it. If you don't want to keep the ROM, or encounter bugs, make a Titanium Backup again. Then open ROM Manager and boot into recovery, and restore your earlier ROM through the 'restore' option. A saved ROM will automatically reload your home screen and apps, as they were earlier. You can restore any missing stuff through Titanium Backup.

If you like the ROM and plan to keep it, remember to make a donation to the developer through the forum where you downloaded the ROM. And do thank the team for the hard work they put in! 

Part 2 : Preparing to load Custom ROMs

In my earlier post, I covered what to do in order to root my Galaxy Nexus. In this post, I want to discuss how you prepare to load and try a Custom ROM. This information was acquired from reading the Android Developments forums for Galaxy Nexus. This is a guide for newbies who are loading their first Custom ROM.

1. Download Titanium Backup

This is an indispensable app if you plan to try custom ROMs. It backs up all your apps and data on the internal SD Card of your Nexus and restores them later. When you load a custom ROM, it's a clean install - none of your apps, call logs or SMS get loaded. You can download your apps from the Android Marketplace again, but Titanium Backup restores them at a click and saves you a lot of trouble and time. I recommend the Pro version because it restores everything in just one click (as a batch operation) whereas with the free version, you have to approve each app re-install manually. To buy the PRO version (which is a licence key and costs Rs. 280), you need to first download the free app, and then buy the license as an in-app purchase. Do it right away, it's worth it!

2. Do a Titanium Backup
This involves several steps when you first set up backups. Fire up the app and go to the backup/restore screen.

Then select the batch command from the bottom of  the screen :

You should see the following options:

You should select 'backup all user apps + system data" and then run the command. Now, your apps and data are all backed up and you are ready for the next step.

(Note : all these features  are available in the free version of Titanium Backup)

 3. Do a Nandroid backup

For this you need to have ROM Manager from the Android Market. Fire up the program and select reboot into recovery.

Your phone will enter recovery mode and you can use  the volume buttons to navigate and power button to select. You need to navigate to 'backup and restore' and create a backup. Now, restart your phone and go to ROM Manager and select the option "Manage and restore Backups". Find your latest backup and rename it so that you remember which one it is. I use a combo of date, ICS version and ROM to name each one and I also add a tag like 'latest' to help me remember which was my last backup.

With all this in place, you are ready to download your first custom ROM

4. Downloading a custom ROM.

ROMs usually consist of two files - one with the ROM itself and one GAPPS file (with Google Apps). I prefer to download the ROMs to my PC and then transfer them to my phone - so that I retain a backup of the files. Always check that you are downloading the correct version of the ROM for your device (GSM or CDMA - the wrong ROM can cause your phone to crash)

 A dev will provide an MD5 Checksum for any downloads. This is used to verify the integrity of the download.    You can use any free program to do this - I downloaded the MD5 checker 2.31 from Softpedia. Simply paste the MD5 code into the checkbox and then attach the file. If it flashes green, you're good to go!

Now you can transfer the ROM files to your mobile phone. The next post will be about how to flash a ROM .

Part 1 : How I rooted and unlocked my Galaxy Nexus

I acquired my Galaxy Nexus last week. After a week spent browsing the Galaxy Nexus forums on the XDA Developers site, I realised that I had found a purpose and meaning for buying this expensive phone - loading custom ROMs. And I also understood that the gateway to this heaven was through unlocking and rooting my device. I have managed to do that successfully, and since then, my enjoyment of my phone has reached a whole new level. I intend to post about the new ROMs that I try out in the next few months. But I will start out with rooting because this is the key to unlocking the magic world of ROMs. You can find this information in the forums of XDA, RootWiki and several other sites. I'm putting it down here, because I am a newbie and I want to share the steps that I took! I have a Galaxy Nexus (GSM) phone which is not locked to a carrier, so the steps I am posting are only relevant to this device.

1. Reading and understanding about rooting
This was the first thing I did. I spent two whole nights browsing the Galaxy Nexus forums on XDA developers and other sites to understand what happens when I root my device.

 First of all, I understood that rooting means that you get complete control over your phone, similar to 'Admin' rights on a Win PC. The real benefit of rooting, is that it's very hard to brick your device because you can always revert to a backup and restore your phone to an earlier state.

2. Finding a simple method

I decided to use WugFresh's toolkit which I found on the XDA forums. This PC based program talked me through all the steps of rooting my Nexus. I mean literally talked at each stage and told me each thing I had to do. It was a fantastically painless process. All the information and video tutorials can be found on the thread that I linked. I only want to add one thing - rooting for the first time can be very scary because you have no idea what is happening! The only thing to do is to read everything and follow every instruction completely. That's all I did.

Rooting was actually a two stage process. The first stage was 'unlocking' the device. The second step was rooting. At the time of rooting,two programs got loaded on my phone - one was Super User which acts as a command interface between you and your rooted phone. And the second was Clockwork Mod, which is the backup interface for the phone.

I really faced only one problem while rooting. The first time the phone entered what I call DOS mode (no touch access), I panicked. No DOS experience here since WordPerfect days! I figured out that I need to use volume keys to scroll and power key to select.

3. After root
After rooting, I lost all apps and contacts (although I could recover it from Google). I personally think it's best to do this soon after you buy your phone so that you have not loaded too much on it!

The first program I downloaded after rooting was ROM Manager and I flashed CWM Recovery as instructed in the rooting guide.

 I also installed  ES File Explorer (a free download) to browse files on my phone.

And that's how my rooting experience was!

Friday, February 3, 2012

What Android manufacturers can learn from Apple to build strong branding

Just today, I read Philip Elmer DeWitt's post  on Fortune Tech on Apple's awesome performance in 2011; with just 8.7% market share, the company pulled in 75% of the cellphone industry's profit. Yes, that is the entire cellphone industry, not just smartphones. The post goes on to point out that only 5 out of 8 top cellphone manufacturers are profitable, which does not paint a very bright future for Android or WindowsPhone powered devices.

Last year, I had blogged about the very different business models adopted by Google (Android) and Apple which have resulted in very different growth paths in the mobile industry.

Apple delivers a single, high cost, high quality mobile device every year (iPad and iPhone) and controls all aspects of the user experience, profiting on each front - hardware, software and app purchases. Apple owns the user, and this means more rigidity, controls and restrictions, but also results in a simple and intuitive interface, which works consistently and reliably each time. With  just one device, Apple has a streamlined and effective innovation program. And the sheer scale of production enables them to keep costs down to the minimum, while maximising profit. It should be noted that Apple Stores (despite being full service stores) earn huge profits per square foot, even in expensive retail locations.  Apple has clearly benefited hugely from focusing on the user and the user experience. Even a 3 year old iPhone 3GS is not yet completely obsolete -it can run iOS 5 - and today, at Rs.19,000, it commands the same price as the latest mid-range Android handsets!

The story of Android has been one of breathtakingly fast growth and scale. When this blog started in 2010, Android handsets numbered just 24 million - last year, they reached one billion activations. Market share crossed 50% of the smartphone market. And Android is a free and open source OS - the manufacturers do not even have a large innovation cost. So why is it not profitable?

Samsung sold 97 million smartphones in 2011 against Apple's 93 million. Apple has 3 smartphones in the market. Samsung offers Android and WP, but given Windows' miniscule market share, we can assume that most smartphones sold ran Android. How many Android models does Samsung have? Can you distinguish each of them clearly from each other? I tried to keep tabs of the Galaxy range in this post, but its a hopeless task. I am ready to bet that someone who wants to buy an Android phone and looks at  the Galaxy range, will be completely confused. There are too many models, and the differences between them are too obscure.  Just when you understand it, a whole slew of new phones comes out and then you have to understand it all over again.

I understand that it is an attempt to cater to every market segment, but at some point, it becomes counter-productive, and a drain on innovation resource. Remember that Android has to be tweaked for every display unit, every processor, and literally every component. And every time Google issues an Android update, everything has to be tweaked and tested again. Isn't this a huge innovation burden on companies manufacturing Android smartphones? And it's innovation that consumers cannot see the benefit of because it is only confusing them further. It seems like innovation for innovations' sake.

If I were an Android manufacturer today, here's what I would do
1. Reduce the number of handsets drastically. Focus on developing one or at most, two handsets in each segment - low cost, mid price and top end. Put all my efforts into creating the very best value offering in each segment. Create the very best phone that I can.
2. Educate customers about my range and clearly tell them the benefits of each smartphone. So  that people buy an Android phone because they understand how it benefits them. Not just because it fits in their budget, or a salesman tells them so. Nokia is doing a good job of this with the Lumia. The demos I have seen in the Nokia showroom and in Croma, focus on the real benefits like Nokia Drive  and baked-in MS Office access. I have yet to see any Android phone pitched on benefits, it's just about hardware and price.
3. Make phone software easily upgradeable, OTA. Stock Android is a fabulous example of how to make phones easy  to upgrade - the user has to do nothing but push a button. And put a time frame to make sure that manufacturer upgrades closely follow Google's upgrades. This is actually a real brand differentiator. Especially if you go one step further and guarantee to support software upgrades for the next 2 years. This would be possible to do only if you were not pre-occupied with pushing out 100 new phones next year. The hardware on many modern phones is good enough to run upgrades at least for the next two years.
4. Reduce hardware upgrades to a reasonable timeframe. Too much of hardware upgrading is creating rapid obsolosence in the mobile phone space. As customers, it makes us think that all cell phone manufacturers want, is for us to buy more cellphones, faster. And this is counter productive if you are building a brand. I would pay a premium, with better grace, for a phone, if I knew that it will not be rendered obsolete by a hardware upgrade in 6 months time. This would also improve the brand value.

I believe that these principles will create stronger Android brands in the market place. They will make the manufacture of Android phones more profitable and also build back to keeping Android sustainable in the long term. Achieving huge scale in a short time span is great, but it has come at a cost of clarity and coherence in the brand portfolio of most manufacturers. Android still remains an attractive base on which to build an enduring cell phone brand.