Saturday, July 28, 2012

Budget tablets in India force us to pay attention

The Indian market is flooded with budget tablet offerings from newly set-up Indian companies like Swipe TelecomMilagrow Humantech and Zync. I have noticed some refreshing and interesting trends in budget tablets over the past few months:

1. Budget tablets are no longer under-powered

1.2 GhZ and 1.5 GhZ chipsets are  becoming de facto on budget tablets, even those that cost under Rs. 10,000. The credit for this goes to Chinese SoCs like the Allwinner A1x series wihch uses a Mali-400 GPU. To give you a context, this GPU powers top smartphones like Samsung Galaxy S2 and Anandtech tests showed it to be the most powerful smartphone GPU last year. Allwinner sells its chipsets for as little as $7 and upwards, which explains why such high performance internals are now entering cheap tablets.The Allwinner series has revolutionised tablet technology by outclassing budget SoCs from established manufacturers. 

2. Active USB ports to connect 3G Dongles, and much more

Instead of raising the cost by incorporating an expensive 3G modem, budget tablets all support a 3G/EVDO dongle. This is not an optimal solution (imagine holding and reading from a tablet with a dongle sticking out) and I suspect that net access may not be as fast and seamless as it would be with an on-board modem. But it's a pragmatic solution and it enables them to keep costs low while making high speed net access optional. In India, a wi-fi only tablet is worse than useless as we have woefully few hot spots. 

As a bonus, the USB ports on these tablets will also support mounting of external memory and devices : Milagrow claims that its tablets will support a USB hub, enabling you to connect multiple devices simultaneously. 

To the best of my knowledge, most Android tablets require root access or a hack to implement this functionality which is innately present in the budget tablets

3. Running Android ICS or will promise upgrades

It is refreshing to see budget tablets offering ICS out of the box, when there are still few top-end smartphones that offer it! Milagrow already has the 4.0.4 upgrade available on their site for their Tab Top tablets. 

I am curious to see whether the Indian developers who are part of the rooting/ ROM-ming community will work on root solutions for these tablets. I don't think that the manufacturers have bothered with too much modification or skinning of Android, so root hacks should not be hard to develop.

4. Service Networks

What distinguishes the men from the boys in the hardware space is service capabilities. Among India's 100-odd phone manufacturers, the one's who will last the duration are those who can offer repair/ warranty  services efficiently - no small challenge when you think of the huge number of small towns and rural areas that they will have to cover.

It appears that most budget tablet manufacturers are taking the promise of service seriously. Zync is offering on-site pick up and drop under warranty. Swipe Telecom's service support page lists service centres even in small towns like Parbhani (Maharashtra) and Raipur in Chattisgarh. 

I cannot comment on the useability/ user experience of budget tablets, as I have not operated any of them. That's something which I strongly recommend for you to  check out for yourself before purchasing. What I can tell you is that in terms of specs, features, price and service support, this segment is taking itself very seriously and looking for big growth in the Indian market. And it's worthwhile  to check out these offerings. Maybe you can find a suitable tablet for your needs at half the cost of the big guys like Apple and Samsung. And that can't be a bad thing!

Google Fiber - the next frontier of conquest is the TV screen

There are two things  that I rather like about Google. They think big and scale up their ideas fast. And, they are not afraid of falling flat on their faces. 

When their products fail (and they do, time and again - think Google Wave, Google Health and dare I say it, Google Plus) they nonchalantly pick themselves up, and try again.

I am always interested in their offbeat projects, so I perked up my ears when I read about Google Fiber, a broadband service offered currently only in Kansas City. At $120 per month, subscribers get  unlimited GB bandwith at 1 Gbps, hundreds  of cable channels and on-demand channels, and no caps or restrictions on downloads. This compares favorably with Verizon, Comcast etc. who have caps AND start throttling connections that use too much data. You can read more about Google Fiber here.

So how will a cable offering in one US city change the world? The answer lies in the struggle for power that is going on between data/cable providers and content providers. And the bone of contention is network neutrality, which I have written about in the past.

In a nutshell, net neutrality implies that data carriers (Broadband, cable and ISPs) need to provide internet services without discrimination to both content providers and customers. They should not discriminate based on what type of content is being consumed or demanded more. In other words they should just act as a pipe for data.

Let's use a hypothetical example to understand this. Let's say that I have an unlimited broadband connection from MTNL and I am a heavy data user. MTNL investigates my  usage pattern and finds out that I am streaming HD movies from Netflix. This matches data gathered from several other heavy users. 

Even if the number of 'heavy users' is small, MTNL stands to lose from us, because we consume a lot of data and clog up bandwidth. Also, MTNL feels that Netflix is to blame because their service is bandwidth heavy. They may be popular but their success is riding piggyback on MTNL's copper fiber which cost them a pretty penny to put up and maintain. So MTNL decides that  they need to make money off this whole situation. They are in an advantageous position to do so because they are the conduit controlling my internet access. 

Possibly, they could approach Netflix and propose a revenue sharing model where they get a 'cut' on Netflix usage. Alternatively, they could charge me for Netflix usage. And they could threaten to 'choke' or cut down the speeds for usage of Netflix if they failed to come to a deal.

It is obvious from this example that net neutrality is beneficial to us as customers because it ensures a 'free and fair' internet. 

Net neutrality is also beneficial to Google, who dreams of world domination through their search and ads platform. Google would love us to be heavy users of the internet. They are not averse to roundabout ways of achieving their goal - the huge investment in Android as a means to dominate search on Mobile is a proof of this. And the next frontier for Google is television, the mother of all screens. Google is aiming at television dominance through Google TV

Google TV is currently just an Android-based software platform which can either be integrated into your TV, or added on though a hardware device. Google TV makes YouTube channels, Google Play, apps for televisions and Chrome Browser accessible on your TV. And you can control it from your phone!

This sounds modest, but Google TV has the potential to re-define TV as we know it. If Google manages to muster enough paid and free content through YouTube, and other tie-ups, we could be looking at an unlimited bank of on-demand content at our fingertips. In the past, news  has come up about Google being active in attempts to create high quality paid content for YouTube. 

So, coming back to Google Fiber. If Google does indeed  want to dominate the television set, they need to bypass the regulators of how many MB we should consume and what for. And certainly they need to bypass the traditional cable operators who will never let Google TV come up because it would kill their business.

So in typical Google roundabout way, they roll out the fiber themselves. And do it  cheaper than other cable providers. And will still benefit in the long long run. You got to love these guys, seriously.

I look forward to Google Fiber in my city one day. It could be the next frontier of change after smartphones!

3G plans for iPad in Mumbai

I have been using an MTNL 3G connection on my iPad since May last year and I am quite happy with it. Currently, I am on the Rs.4500 pre-paid plan which offers me unlimited data for 6 months. It's due for renewal within the next month and I see to my disappointment that MTNL has withdrawn it. These are the current pre-paid plans offered by MTNL Mumbai

The bad news is that there is nothing as good as the unlimited 6 month plan. However, there  are still two decent plans for long term users - 3G 1190 with 9 GB for 90 days and 3G 2500 with unlimited usage for 60 days. It compares favorably with Airtel which has no unlimited plans at all, and does not seem to have too much choice for pre-paid users other than 'charge and use'

I have mentioned that MTNL works for me because I actually travel/roam extensively and I find my iPad working well on BSNL networks in small towns, on trains  and even on the road. And they now offer online recharge like all the private operators. 

I definitely find myself consuming more data on the iPad than my phone, so the unlimited MTNL plan is worth a shot if you are going to be travelling extensively in the next one or two months. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Take your business online yourself at just $10

Last week, I started a partnership firm called Bright Angles Consulting with a friend, in the digital branding and marketing space. One of the first questions that we had to tackle was getting our business online. We needed to put up a website immediately and we certainly could not operate using our gmail IDs. However, we did not have money to spend on  getting professional help. As the self-designated technophile, I was asked to look around and figure what we could do. There were three things that we needed to take care of

1. Official email IDs
2. A website
3. Social media

I soon figured that the easiest route was Google Apps. The basic suite of services is free and includes upto 10 email IDs, Google Drive, Calendars, a blog, website etc. All we needed was a domain. We could purchase one independently and link it to Google, but it was easier to spend $10 on Google Wallet and purchase it from one of Google's affiliates - you have a choice of eNom or GoDaddy. Google then automatically configures the domain for email and blogger, without my needing to do anything manually. 

Our email was up and running in 2 hours time, and I get cheap thrills from the fact that I am now the designated 'superadmin' of our two-man company. 

The next step was to get our website up and running. Since I have used blogspot for 2 years, I was more comfortable using blogger to create our website, rather than Wordpress. I spent some time in blogger, mostly trying to figure out a blog template which looks more like a website and less like a blog. Blogger lets you do basic stuff like remove date and time stamps, create pages and remove the blogger NavBar, so that the blog like elements can be hidden from view. is the result of our efforts. This site took two hours to create, sitting on my comfortable sofa, on a wet and rainy day. It is not going to be winning any awards, and we will obviously continue to improve on it as we learn more. But my point is, we created it at zero cost, with zero experience, no effort, no coding and no help. It's not a testimony to our skills, but rather to Google, who have made it so simple and intuitive for small businesses to acquire online presence. 

As our business grows, we will spend on a professional site. But I love the awesome feeling of doing everything on our own for the first time. It made us feel smart, confident and good about ourselves. It is a reminder of the basic power of the internet as a tool to empower people. Anyone can take their business, their hobby or their idea online easily. It's one of the things I love about the web. And  it's available to all of us. A big thank you to Google. I know that to the advertising giant, I am a target and a product. But I feel more than compensated when I look at the result I have achieved, in ten dollars and two hours

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why you should stretch your budget for an Android

As the popularity of Android increases, I get more and more requests to point out the best Android phone to pick up. This is a practical decision, and linked to a budget which is often modest. Most people do not need the latest and the greatest and there is a price threshold beyond which they are not willing to spend. This post is written from the perspective of telling you the LEAST that you should spend to get value from the Android experience.

The fact is, when you buy a smartphone today you are buying a mini-computer. And just as you experience with a PC, there is a steep trade-off between price and performance. A netbook or entry level notebook PC has a slower processor, lower-grade display, variable keyboard quality and compromises on the hardware quality and finish. All of these factors affect the user experience, the performance and therefore overall useability of the device. It is no different with a smartphone.

What do I mean by useability?  I mean the ease with which you can use and enjoy using the device. Useability is critical for a phone. By default, your phone becomes your most-often-used device simply because it is always around you - to check mail, browse on the fly, post a quick comment or response on Facebook or simply to pass time playing a game. If the useability compromises performance, you will find yourself first getting irritated, then giving up on using it too often for certain things and finally, you will exchange it for a better phone, spending a little more. This is inevitable, sooner or later, depending on your patience level.

Android is the only smartphone OS which does not define basic hardware requirements. Apple and Microsoft both rigidly define this, with the result that iOS and WP OS both run smoothly on lower end handsets. This is not the case with Android. The fact that it does run on a budget phone does not mean that it runs optimally.

So when people come to me saying that they have a budget of Rs.10-15,000 and want to buy an Android, I first ask them how much they can stretch. It's a no brainer that the more you spend, the better the hardware. But a small increment in budget can actually translate into a huge jump in useability where Android is concerned. By stretching to Rs.20,000, you can get a Sony Xperia. By stretching to Rs.25,000, you can get a Samsung Galaxy S2 which runs ICS and is still a fabulous device despite being eclipsed by the Galaxy S3. Think of Apple - the iPhone 3GS is still very useable even after two newer variants have been launched. With Android, the user experience is very clearly feature/spec driven as I discussed in this post.

So to conclude, Rs.20,000 seems to be the price point from where useability of Android picks up significantly. If you can afford it, it's worthwhile to stretch till here and the price value equation is still maintained because you get the true Android smartphone experience. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

When BlackBerry is still relevant

I have just returned from a one week beach-side vacation with a bunch of good friends. In a low network (Edge only) zone, my Galaxy Nexus quickly gave up on uploads, the super-slow FB app and browsing of most sites. My mail worked fine (GMail on Android is just about the best mail app, apart from BlackBerry) and I was happy because I expected nothing else.

My friend is a BB addict and she was constantly on BBM, uploading pictures and chatting with friends. Within a few hours of our arrival, she had uploaded pictures of our beautiful beach cottage and idyllic rural surrounds and elicited envious responses from other friends. I was still struggling to find the best network zone within the house. I could upload literally nothing. Nothing. Until we went up a lighthouse one day and miraculously I saw the H (HSPA) icon flash. Immediately I choked up Instagram with the many uploads I had wanted to do on all the preceding days and was unable to.

It's not that I could not have  tweaked my smartphone settings (camera especially) to work on 2G. The point is, that smartphones by default assume high speed internet settings while good old BB and Nokia work smoothly by default on 2G. This is their biggest strength, and ironically, the biggest reason for their failure in the modern smartphone era. In other words, the earlier generation of smartphones work perfectly well, indeed better, if you just require a phone with basic connectivity.

My friend was constantly typing out status updates, messages and e-mails. I realise that I used to do a lot of that on my old Nokia E63 and I have drastically reduced typing and texting since I moved to touch phones. I tend to use more apps and type less, one of the main reasons being that a touchscreen keyboard, no matter how awesome, just does not make typing a breeze the way a QWERTY keyboard does. The touchscreen phones have driven us to the 'app internet' where social networking is based on common cross-OS platforms including Instagram, Pinterest, FourSquare etc. In fact, we spend more time downloading, uploading, browsing, liking, sharing, re-tweeting what others write or post, and less typing lengthy mails, SMSes and status updates. Whereas people on BB seem to do the opposite. They type copiously and obviously use less apps, simply because the app internet has lagged way behind on BlackBerry compared to Android or iOS. They rely on native RIM applications which work seamlessly with the phone - low-res pictures upload smoothly onto BBM. Mails get pushed efficiently. Fingers fly on the best QWERTY keyboards ever made. The data hungry apps that power the superlative Android and iOS experience would not enrich the BB experience, no matter how much BB tries to update its OS. Because by default BB and Symbian are built around a core concept of a phone with texting ability. They will function effectively irrespective of internet speed. Whereas a smartphone without great internet connectivity is like a horseless carriage. You cannot do much on it without superlative net connectivity.

This insight got me thinking around the fate of BlackBerry especially in the light of the many reports on RIM's woeful performance and imminent shutdown. Symbian has of course been killed by Nokia themselves, but RIM is still attempting to fight the battle to the bitter end. As we all know, RIM has found some measure of success among an unlikely market in India - the youth, who have eschewed the more 'modern' app experience of Android on over priced smartphones and expensive 3G for unlimited texting and sharing on BBM - a market which has generated healthy sales for the low priced BB Curve. I  think there is indeed a market for BB but one which it must swallow its pride to claim and that is the low-end/ entry handset market. If you had a choice between a BB at Rs.5000 and a Micromax at the same price, which one would you take? It's a no-brainer. The low price handset constitutes a huge chunk of the market in India and most other emerging cellphone markets. Yes, it is a bitter fight with other white box manufacturers but it is a credible market. And unlike white box manufacturers, RIM does have  chance to generate revenue after sales through BlackBerry mail and messaging services, so this can be a sustainable market for them.

If I were RIM, I would take my best shot at this growing market. BlackBerry has all the ingredients to succeed in entry level phones - great and simple to use hardware, reputable and aspirational branding, and an efficient operating system that can deliver a good experience on a basic 2G connection. Think up a creative and economical method of charging for BBM on a pre-paid platform and I would say they have a fantastic value proposition.

I would sooner own a BlackBerry, than a cheap Android handset. For the price, it does it's job more honestly and efficiently. I think most consumers recognise this. For this, RIM would have to give up their 'smartphone' credentials, and that's a hard call to take. But I think that being the undisputed king of the largest phone segment (which is neglected by smartphone manufacturers completely) is not at all a bad deal.