Monday, November 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The confusing, flooded Indian feature phone market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating your own website for a small business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are the strikes against Jimdo

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

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

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

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

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

So what are the negative points of Weebly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Nostalgia trip - my 30 year old model train set

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

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

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

The rakes connect securely to each other with little hooks

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

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

I love the detailing with which the wheels have been moulded

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

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