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.