Thursday, December 5, 2013

The mess called ECS

It was designed to be the simplest and easiest way to pay your bills on time. Free of charge. Easily set up online. If you are worried about your bills overshooting your bank balance, you can even specify a cut-off limit above which bills will not be paid. 

It is of huge benefit to billers, as they are assured of timely payments and do not have to go to the additional expense of follow ups, disputes with customers, cheque pick up services etc. 

Then why is it so chaotic, bureaucratic and hard to set up, change or cancel?

In the last few months, as our business goes through a transition of switching banks, I have had to change my ECS set up a couple of times. I imagined it would be an easy procedure as nowadays most banks actively urge you to do it online. I was so wrong.

Here are some of the things that I found out about ECS:

When there is a mess up you have to run between the bank and the biller, as both will pass the buck. Ultimately, it's better to sort the issue with the biller as they are the ones with a stake in the issue - you are their customer and your bill payment is at stake. 

You cannot simply transfer an ECS from one bank acccount to another. I thought a fresh instruction over-rides the previous one, but I was wrong. You need to cancel the existing ECS to register a fresh one.

The call centres of most service providers will tell you that you need to visit the service centre to sort out the issue. Insist on speaking to a supervisor.  It is possible to cancel an ECS over the phone or email. Just make sure that you speak to someone who knows the correct procedure.

Online registration through the bank is still your best bet. It takes less time for registration to be approved and there is no loophole for error. 

If you choose the manual method to register an ECS (and you may have to do it if the biller is not registered online with the bank), then do not forget to complete the loop by submitting a copy of the final form with the bank. Otherwise, there is a great chance of the bank not receiving it and rejecting the ECS. Each time the biller presents the bill and it gets rejected, you will be charged a rejection fee. This has happened to me a couple of times!

I think a lot of the confusion is down to the fact that the method is hybrid - half online, half online. And some banks operate on branch banking (still) while billers have mostly graduated to a centralised system (MTNL is an exception among my billers)

In many cases, the ECS process is smooth, requires virtually no set up time and you do not need to give it a second thought. But when things go wrong, it can still be extremely messy and frustrating to sort out!

Monday, October 21, 2013

How to create a screen mirroring connection between a Samsung Smart TV and the HTC One

This post and the accompanying video have been created to spare others from going through the pains that I did to achieve this! 

I recently purchased a Samsung  Smart TV (Series 5 - F5500) and one of the things that make it 'smart' is the ability to wirelessly project your mobile device screen on the TV. It's a nice way to hook up and share your pictures and videos with the family and view them without the hassle of connecting a cable. Do note that this is different from screen sharing, which is what you get with Apple TV and certain TV adapters, or even with pairing apps like YouTube's TV app, where you can stream from your mobile device to your TV while you continue browsing. What I am talking about is just a simple projection of your screen.

I wanted to connect my HTC One with the TV and this presented a slight problem. It's a simple matter to connect a Samsung Smartphone using AllShare, which is the Samsung protocol for wi-fi Direct. Connecting the HTC device required a workaround which I am presenting in my video tutorial. Incidentally, Samsung telephonic tech support was not able to help me with this, and that's the main reason I am putting this up. In principle this method should work for any other high end smartphone which is capable of creating a wi-fi direct link.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Forget about internet speed, can we just have reliable connectivity?

In the last month, I have been making a number of work-related skype calls in different corners of the city. Mostly in Bandra, but sometimes in Andheri, Goregaon, Chembur - all are core, highly populated and well connected Mumbai suburbs. You would never think that an internet problem could crop up in such locations. Well, it has.

Skype is not the most brilliant video conference client, but it's the best of the pack currently. It is also an acid test for the stability (more than speed) of an internet connection. In my experience Skype can run satisafctorily on a connection speed upto 256K - provided it is steady. It can certainly work on a 3G signal if WCDMA/ HSPA is not available. However, if the connection fluctuates or drops, it plays havoc with Skype. This is the problem that I have been experiencing.

I use a variety of internet options on the move - an Airtel (WCDMA) dongle, a TATA Docomo (CDMA) dongle and two HSPA/3-G enabled SIMs from Airtel. Each one acts up in a different place.

Airtel roams well (though at extra charge) but has patchy connectivity in certain parts of the city including Sewri, Lalbaugh and the higher stories of tall buildings including my own house. As a telco, they have to provide a signal in all parts of the city, but I notice that in these areas, the signal stays at 2-bar strength, and drops frequently from 3G to Edge. Under these conditions, your regular mail and WhatsApp will not be affected, websites will load slowly, but Skype will drop perenially and will show you as 'offline' - the connectivity is so poor that you will get signed out.

Tata DOCOMO generally has a steady connection (it stays either fast or slow) but virtually nothing works on the slow connection. It drops in high buildings, and in certain parts of Bandra, especially Carter Road and Sherley Rajan Road. Our branch office is there, so I know what I am talking about - we had to surrender our Docomo connections on account of not working in either our office, or my home! Which is a shame, because otherwise it is a decent connection and it roams for free. 

Reports show that Internet speeds in India are slowly improving - in Q1 2013, Akamai reported an average speed of 1.3 Mbps. But I realise that speed is actually not a good measure. Airtel sometimes gives me 6 Mbps, but where is the connectivity when I need it? I pay nearly Rs.4000 a month across my various internet connectivity options. There is virtually no operator I have not tried in Mumbai, and I cannot say that any option has really been superb. I am making do with the least-worst rather than the best!

Broadband-like stable connections are the need of the hour more than explosively fast ones. Till we get them, our productivity will suffer, and our frustration will mount.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Nippon Car Security System for Maruti Cars - what to do in an emergency

Three years ago, I posted about an embarrassing incident when the central locking/ security alarm system of my car went kaput and the alarm went off continuously. When I look back, this has happened to me three times in three years. If you have a car security system installed, then it's useful to know what to do in case of emergency. Because the emergency involves a loudly wailing siren that goes off unpredictably every hour, neighbours whose sleep is disturbed and general stress for you. My advice in this post pertains only to Nippon, which is a Maruti Genuine Accessory installed by all Maruti dealers. 

1. Ask your dealer for the Nippon Service Center number for your city and enter it in your phone, you are going to need it one day. The Maruti helpline does not give the number for third party accessory providers, only the dealer will.
2. The number of 'beeps' of the car alarm will alert you to a problem
When all is well, one beep = lock and two beeps = unlock
Any other sound indicates a problem, and indicates that the alarm system needs to be re-set. 
3. If your car alarm goes off repeatedly, at random time intervals, then you can try any of the following steps
  • Unlock and then lock the car using only the key.
  • With the door of the car open, press the 'alarm' button inside the car constantly till it lights up red. Then shut the door, lock and unlock using the remote. Now the alarm should go into 'mute' mode.
  • Switch on the ignition, press  the alarm button inside the car, then switch off the ignition. Repeat this cycle seven times to re-set  the alarm.

After each of these steps, check if you are getting the beep sounds described in Point 2
4. If you are comfortable with tinkering around inside the bonnet, identify the wire that connects to the siren (it's behind the battery) and pull it out. This will make your siren go mute, but the lights will still continue to flash, draining the battery. So it's not a permanent solution, and you will need to call Nippon Service.
5. If all else fails, disconnect your battery. The siren will not function without power supply.

For an immediate emergency, and for performing step 4, you can call Maruti On-road Service at 1800-4200. They will send someone within a few hours to troubleshoot your problem, at a basic service charge of Rs. 450. This may be waived off if you are still under warranty. Nippon Service center is harder to reach, but in my experience, they always respond within 12 hours. You are covered by warranty for three years, after that the service charge is Rs.225 per visit.

For me, each of the following situations has triggered the alarm system to misbehave, so watch out carefully for problems if you have had similar experiences:

1. The car was locked with the remote, but unlocked with the key or vice versa. The lock and unlock mode MUST be the same, or the alarm gets activated.
2. Misbehaviour of the remote due to low battery, damage etc. This may lead you to do what is described in Point 1. Carry the spare remote with you on long distance journeys!
3.Damage to the bonnet, or boot. Both bonnet and boot are equipped with sensors that get activated if they do not shut properly. This may happen out of carelessness or because of a dent. 
4. There are different  grades of sensitivity in alarm settings. At the extreme setting, the alarm will go off if a hand touches the car (or a crow sits on it!). Make sure that you test the car after you first fit the security alarm system. Hit all surfaces a few times with your hands and check if it triggers an alarm. Insist on a full demo from the dealer. Especially a demo on disarming the system. This may save you heartache later.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Don't just think digital strategy, think mobile strategy

The writing is on the wall - as a marketer, it's time to ask what is your mobile strategy, and more specifically, what is your smartphone strategy. India recently became the world's third largest smartphone market and simultaneously, in Europe and USA, there are strong trends that the high-end smartphone market is maturing, with flat or even declining sales.

The future lies in the emerging digital markets of Asia and Africa, and in the fast growing budget phone/ tablet category which is driving adoption in these markets. The power centre is shifting to our markets, with more developers, marketers, manufacturers and service providers turning their attention here. 

Just a few years ago, a brand's digital strategy required a website, a social media presence, and of course, online advertising. Only a few brands felt a need for mobile presence, let alone a strategy. Some categories, notably news channels, e-commerce sites and financial brands moved early to set up mobile apps. Others adapted their WAP sites to different mobile browsers and languages. 

In the space of just a couple of years, things have changed. Last year, when smartphones crossed 10% in market penetration, marketers started paying attention to the need to have mobile apps. However, the market is largely at exactly that stage - that brands are developing apps. Not too many companies have started to define a dedicated mobile strategy which starts with examining the needs of their mobile audience and then chalks out the plan. And few companies have started to even think beyond phones to the next screen - which is tablets. Depending on the category, tablet strategy can be completely different from mobile strategy - think of Flipboard which for a long time stayed tablet specific. 

We believe that it is time for change. There will be a wave of first generation smartphone users across demographics and chances are, many of them will be your users. Further, many of them may have maximum, or even solus, net access on their smartphones. How will you connect with them? Here are some possibilities that you need to consider when you develop a smartphone strategy:

1. App discovery strategy : 
It is no longer enough to only have an app. How will you ensure that it is discovered by your user? And when you consider that first time users are still learning how to use their devices, this becomes a challenge. It may seem funny, but to an extent, mass media will still be required to promote app awareness, especially for mass target audiences. Targetting influencers also becomes important. 

2. Alliances with handset manufacturers and operators :
SMS and other value-added services of the feature phone era will gradually get replaced by newer, innovative alliances with manufacturers and operators. Smartphones are optimised for every type of rich content, so marketers need to figure out how they want to reach it out to consumers. Alliances can help discovery, and cross-subsidise your promotional costs

3. Being a second screen
Literally, the mobile and tablet have become the second screen, which is surfed while watching television. TV is by nature a passive medium, and mobile is active - however, TV viewing is not going away any time soon in India. One can see how synergies can be brought between the two screens. Of course, this is easier to do if you are a media channel with a presence on both, but there is no reason that brands cannot create a bridge between both mediums

4. What are the other mobile applications that you can capitalise on?
Through an understanding of mobile usage behaviour of your target audience, you can identify the mobile applications that you need to capitalise on (and your target may demonstrate a different behaviour on mobile vs. PC). Should you integrate Instagram or Vine into your strategy? Should you empower your mobile user to create content?  Is your audience engaged strongly with some other mobile app or platform (WhatsApp, BBM etc.) And if that is the case, how can you as a brand engage with them there?

Lots of questions, and the answers will emerge only when we start understanding our mobile users.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Router troubles #Lesson 1 : Check the splitter and cables first

Since the past 3 days, the green 'internet' light on my Buffalo router has stopped glowing, and I have lived in an internet-less hell hole. 

Troubleshooting proved to be in vain. The Buffalo router showed me the message 'internet cable not connected' but also helpfully added that 'any information may be displayed if your internet is down'. As this has proven to be true in the past, and all cables were securely connected, I ignored this message. It was easier to blame MTNL, especially with the stormy monsoon weather, for a cable fault. But I was not quite at ease doing this. I know from experience that the internet light fault usually reflects a hardware failure or hardware conflict at the user end, though it may also be that the DNS server is down. But this is a temporary issue and it certainly should not continue for a full day.

I googled for answers only to find that the world is full of frustrated router users like me looking for answers in a maze. PC problems are relatively easy to troubleshoot as in most cases they are software based. Router and network-related problems are way  more specific and harder to solve since hardware interfaces are involved in addition to software. Here, the rule is to check and eliminate hardware issues first.

Finally I got a clue from some exasperated users in a Sky TV UK forum (the posts were at least 4 years old). The moderator advised the users to  check the 'splitter' which routes the DSL connection to the modem. On an off chance, I did the same. If you have a phone+broadband connection, you would also have the splitter, a cheap plastic device which splits the MTNL line so you can plug the cable into your phone and modem.

I changed the splitter, as a last resort. And immediately, the internet started working, perfectly.

A big lesson - before you go into forums, start changing DNS server settings on your modem or blaming your ISP (all of which I did), check the basics. Cabling problem need not be caused by a loose cable, it could be a faulty junction point. And keep a couple of splitters handy at home. You never know when you might need them!

Monday, June 17, 2013

What's the best Android phone your money can buy?

Recently, I have gotten a lot of calls to ask which is the best Android phone to buy. If you remove the constraint of budget, there are many exciting Android handsets this year - HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, Galaxy Note 2 and Sony Xperia Z are some of the names that come to mind. Here are my views on getting the best Android for your buck:

1) A smartphone with the Nexus Experience 

Till recently, Google has been putting stock, vanilla android only on their own phones - first the Nexus One, then Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus and the latest, the Nexus 4. These phones have always done well with the geeks but have never been mainstream.

In 2013, things have started to change, with Google attempting to push the 'Nexus experience' to more handsets - notably the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. The Nexus phones are separate from the original phones skinned by the manufacturers. But the Nexus experience is a step in the right direction - what if you had a choice to keep the manufacturer's skin, or load vanilla Android on your phone.

My recco - buy the S4 or HTC One, and if the Nexus experience becomes a reality, you will have a fantastic piece of hardware married with the latest and best Android updates - truly a marriage made in heaven.

And if the manufacturers and Google don't get their act together on this, the folks at XDA surely will. 

2) The screen size debate

The giant sized (5 inch plus) 'phablet' phone is a category created by Samsung and now everyone wants  a piece of the action. Phablets from Micromax, Karbonn etc. are available for as little as 10,000. Even Samsung has realised the potential of the budget market for phablets and introduced the Galaxy Grand. I do not recommend cheaper phablets (including the Galaxy Grand) unless the screen resolution is really good like the Micromax Canvas HD Pro. Simple rule of thumb - the bigger the screen, the more important it is to have a hi-res display. A large screen will show up a poor display very badly. 

So spend the extra bit for the Galaxy Note 2 and remember to budget for the portable charger because you are going to need it. Every day.

3) The older crop of top-end phones are a bargain

Hesitant to spend more than Rs.30,000 on a smartphone, but still want a good deal? The Samsung Galaxy S3 at Rs. 27,000 on Flipkart, is still a fantastic deal while it is in stock. And the low profile LG Nexus 4 at Rs. 26,000 is not at all a bad phone. The Galaxy S2 is also not a bad buy by any stretch of imagination. All these three phones stand out as best buys in the Rs. 20,000 + segment.

4) And finally, is the S4 or the HTC One, the best Android phone?

I never get into such subjective statements. I think both are fantastic phones, but if I had to buy one of them, it would be the HTC One. What holds me back is the risk factor - HTC is not doing very well and one does not know at this stage if they will continue in the smartphone business. Then there will be a question mark over service, warranty, exchange value etc. If these things don't bother you and you just want to own a phone that's gorgeous inside and out, then go for the HTC One.

So my list of phones is:
Galaxy Note 2
Samsung Galaxy S4
LG Nexus 4
Samsung Galaxy S2

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bye Bye Google Reader, hello paid RSS reader!

It's not the first time that Google has pulled the plug on its users and it won't be the last. They will be shuttering Google Reader on July 1st. I have been a victim of their shutdowns in the past and I usually take it philosophically but this one has hit me very very hard. I am very invested in Google Reader. Here's why. 

My job as a digital consultant requires me to be on top of the tech news. I keep track of 40-50 tech websites and blogs on a regular basis. It's not possible to go through this list everyday. Increasingly, I catch up on my reading in a few spare minutes in a taxi, while waiting at a coffee shop. And it's almost exclusively happening on mobile devices. 

 Initially, I was lured by the exciting magazine like appearance of Pulse, Zite and Flipboard. And on my iPad, Flipboard initially lured me. But with time, I felt these options did not work for me. I used to keep missing interesting articles from certain subscriptions.  I did not need a glossy magazine. I needed a school bag with clearly labelled text books. And that is exactly what Google Reader is - a vanilla interface designed to make sure you see every article and know exactly what you have read, or need to read. 

It is ok, but not fantastic on mobile, and non-existent on iPad so I tried out different readers. Finally, I settled for the paid Mr. Reader app on my iPad. The iPad is the device where I read, and from where I tweet the most, and Mr. Reader has a fabulous user interface to facilitate it.

The shutting of  Google Reader has taught me a valuable lesson - it's really not safe to keep your data in a 'free' place. Yes, Google always gives enough advance notification when they close a service and they faciliate easy export of data, but I would not trust a smaller service, it might close down any time.

When I started looking for alternatives, I realised that the best ones are paid, and not free. Paid Google Reader alternatives charge subscription rates averaging $12-$19 per year. They also offer the advantage of being ad-free and keeping your data confidential. Though they cannot rival Google's huge server advantage, they also do their best to maintain reliability and uptime. Most importantly, a service which takes your money, will owe you a responsibility to inform you and save your data if they plan to close down.

I also realised that it's important for me to choose a Reader alternative which has a Google compatible API as it will enable me to keep using the mobile apps like Mr. Reader. I can compromise on my desktop experience, but its extremely important to have a mobile RSS reader app with an excellent User interface. It really saves time and effort.

I am currently evaluating 3 paid RSS readers - BazQuxFeedly and Feed Wrangler. I have to admit that all of them have done a great job of giving you the comfort of the familiar Google interface while making heaps of improvements, the most important one being better mobile access, and easy sharing and saving.

I have a 30 day free trial ongoing with each of these services, and I will update at the end of the period which one I decided to go ahead with.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Can Yahoo re-invent itself?

Rewind to 1999, a year when I was just starting my career as a researcher. I was doing my very first piece of digital research - understanding Indian internet users, at a stage when usage was gradually becoming wide scale. 

Believe it or not, in those days, we had PCs in office, but they did not have an internet connection! And I used to go to the cyber cafe around the corner on weekends to pass a couple of hours. It's hard for me to believe that such an existence was possible. Actually, I remember being quite happy, sociable and active. But I digress.

So I was talking about doing research among internet users and the name of one portal was on everyone's lips - Yahoo. Yahoo was the gateway to the internet for literally every first time user that we spoke to. And the very first action of a first time internet user (often with a friend perched on a stool next to him at the cyber cafe) was to create a Yahoo! Mail account. It was the go-to sites for jokes (and was responsible for all the mail forwards that troubled us for many years hence). It was the premier search portal. It was the place to pass time playing games. And Yahoo! Messenger was the definitive way that Indians chatted, flirted with strangers or courted future spouses. 

Those were the days when portals were big business. Yahoo, MSN, Rediff,, all aspired to be the sticky honey-trap that held the attention of a new generation exploring the wonders of the internet. 

Fast forward to the last few years when Yahoo has been reduced to a spectre of its former glory and has been fighting to survive. Here is the reason why, in one line - Yahoo derived revenue from monetising the vast user base it attracted for its content, but missed the entire mobile revolution. Android has been Google's investment in keeping a user base on mobile and eventually serving them content, search, ads and other applications. Yahoo had no equivalent platform, and until recently, it had precious few mobile applications offering a decent user experience. 

The biggest example of Yahoo's failure to catch the mobile revolution is Flickr. The desktop oriented, real estate grabbing photo site lost out on the entire trend of mobile photography and social photo sharing which was seized by Instagram. 

To add to Yahoo's problems, it's not even relevant any more as a desktop offering. The age of specialisation and fragmentation has made the portal concept obsolete. We no longer seek 'everything under one roof'. We go to a search engine for search, a YouTube or Vimeo for video, a Netflix for video streaming and so on. There is no particular reason to visit a Yahoo any more.

But the winds of change have been blowing at Yahoo ever since Marissa Mayer, ex-Google executive, took over the company. She has made her ambition and intent for Yahoo clear, right from the beginning - she wants to make Yahoo! a part of people's everyday lives. She did a basic exercise - she created a list of people's daily routine, and the tasks they performed on their phones, and then she set out to deliver content based on these daily habits. 

But she also recognises that in the mobile context, merely serving content is not enough. Mayer defines the core of the Yahoo offering as personalising of content, for mobile and desktop. Obviously, this also leads back to better user profiling, and therefore, advertising revenue. 

And she has been about actions, not just words. Here are some of the actions

1. Pruning of Yahoo's vast portfolio of 70 mobile apps down to 10-15 core apps. This is WIP but it has already started. Paired with re-design of many apps notably mail and Flickr, Yahoo is striving to improve the mobile user experience. With 200 million monthly users on mobile, Yahoo's mobile strategy is going to be extremely important.

2. A non-exclusive partnership with Google to run Google Ads on the Yahoo network. At one point, Mayer was  in charge of the Ad Words product at Google and the alliance with her ex-employer will be beneficial to both companies, as Yahoo stands to gain its share from users clicking on contextual advertising.

3. Yahoo may be too big (or too old!) to do disruptive innovation, so it has gone the acquisition route to bring in the fresh thinking. Summly, a news aggregation app was acquired for $30 million, and more recently, Tumblr was acquired for 1 billion USD. In the case of Tumblr, the lure was clearly the 84 million users of the social blogging platform who represent a potential source of ad revenue.

4. Yahoo has also come into the business of making offers you cannot refuse. At least, I hope they continue the trend, but the specific offer I am referring to is Flickr. 1 TB of photo storage is not just generous - it's insane and it is audacious enough to lure users back. Already Picasa looks feeble. Paired with a superb mobile app and sharing capability through mobile, Flickr is already seeing 25% increased usage. This is really a great example of cross-pollination of the mobile, desktop and cloud to create an irresistible offering for users. If Yahoo has more of such offers, then their worries can start receding a bit. 

It will be exciting to see  the route that Yahoo takes, and how they gain back presence and usership in the market. 

Sources : MashableZDNetTechI

Saturday, May 25, 2013

In the future, an Xbox may replace your PC

I am not a gamer and I have never really been tempted to pick up a console till date. The latest Xbox One from Microsoft may cause me to change my mind though. Touted as a single device to meet all entertainment needs, the Xbox One is much more  than a gaming console. It is Microsoft's attempt to colonise the living room, while Windows Phone struggles to take off, the Surface Pro tablet flops and PC sales continue to slide in double digits globally. The Xbox One could be Microsoft's real centre of dominance in the Post PC Era. Here are some reasons why:

1. Conquest of the TV screen

First of all, Microsoft positions the device as a 'new generation TV and movie system'. It adds voice and gesture support. It will login based on your voice and you can order it to switch to the TV. You can even tell it 'watch CBS' and it will switch on the channel for you. It supports multi-tasking - while watching a movie, you can bring up a side web panel and browse the web. Microsoft aims to partner with NFL for live broadcasts and interactive experiences like split screen live chats. They even have an ambition to integrate gaming with live TV - Steven Spielberg will produce a live action series based on the blockbuster game Halo, exclusively for consumption on Xbox One. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how the Xbox will create a 'social' TV experience. The console has a 'trending' page which lets you see what your friends are watching online and you can talk to them via Skype on your TV, even while you are watching it.

Conquest of the TV screen is currently the holy grail of every major corporation - Apple, Google,  and Amazon are all trying to achieve it. Mobile devices may have eaten into PC sales, but the TV is going nowhere for a long time. Hence it is the next frontier of dominance. As traditional media corporations and business models struggle to adapt to the new internet age, it's not surprising that the tech companies should leap in to take advantage. 

2. It may even run Window 8 Apps

In an era of fragmentation, software integration across devices, and within a platform, can become a valuable asset for a company. To put that in simple language, if your Surface tablet can run the same programs that you run on your Windows PC, and your Xbox can run Office, then you as a consumer would be tempted to invest in the range of Microsoft devices.

Microsoft would obviously aspire for this cross-device platform loyalty, which only Apple has been able to command till date. And the Xbox One is part of the game plan. Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley reports that the XBox shares a Win 8 Core with other MS devices, which will allow it to run customised versions of Windows 8 apps. It is possible that Skype, social media, Netflix type of apps may find their way to the Xbox. In any case, a common developer platform will encourage developers to port their apps across.

3. Enhanced motion sensing for greater useability

Along with the xBox, Microsoft will debut a re-designed Kinect motion sensor. It  can detect subtle gestures of hands or fingers, and it can even 'watch' your heartbeat in exercise. It can capture upto 6 faces in the room. The applications for such a technology are mind boggling and transcend gaming. Imagine Reality TV centred around people's own drawing rooms!

Sony and Nintendo have already dropped behind MS in the console game and with the new launch, they will have to scramble to keep up. The Xbox One might actually cross the chasm that separates hard core gamers from mainstream users like me. It might be the next PC for Microsoft. Time alone will tell.

Sources : Slashdot, ZDNet, BGR

Croma Portable AirCon - a good solution for AC-proof homes

Our family home in Pune is almost entirely AC proof. It has a large living room, an open plan kitchen and long passages. Of course, we installed a window AC in the master bedroom, but till now, we have postponed the installation of a split AC in any of the rooms. We would have required at least a 2 Tonne AC, but the inability to seal off the room would have made the cooling impractical and infeasible. Pune is blessed with a good climate and the old-style thick walled construction kept the interiors fairly cool. But climate change is real and the last two summers have been cruel and uncomfortably hot. This year, we had to install an aircon in summer and we came up with a decent solution - the Croma Portable Air Conditioner. It's a 3-in-1 airconditioner, air cooler and dehumidifier.

It may look like an air cooler but it is a proper aircon with a rotary compressor. As you can see it's a compact device, roughly 3 feet in height, and with a 16X16 inch footprint. It will not occupy too much floor space when not in use. 

You need to attach this large pipe at the back to expel hot air, and a smaller pipe for the water overflow. This is needed only if you use the compressor/ AC mode.

There is a neat window attachment through which the pipes can be let outside the window. These pictures are of usage inside the spare bedroom. When we use it in the hall, we just let the pipes exit into the spare bathroom.

The cooling is like a real aircon but I would describe it as 'spot cooling'. You need to sit in front of it to really feel it. This is exactly why it works for AC-proof rooms however. The cool air is not dissipating away and getting lost in a large space. I was reminded of my childhood when me and my cousins would come in sweaty from playing and jostle each other to stand right in front of the air conditioner. We found ourseleves doing the same again! But rest assured, it does cool well. 

At Rs. 24,000, this one-tonne device is the perfect solution for large rooms and for rented residences where you do not want to invest in AC installation (which costs a minimum of Rs. 2000 and in many cases, at least Rs. 4000). Above all, if you are prepared to endure the slight inconvenience of wheeling it from one room to the next, it saves you from investing in two separate  units. Bear in mind that this is a huge saving, considering that after the one year warranty expires, you need to take an annual AMC for each aircon. There is a substantial saving in buying one instead of two units AND saving on the installation for each one.

The folks at Croma told me that they had a tremendous response after launching this product and I am not surprised. Indians are quick to embrace anything that offers Paisa Vasool, and this device certainly does. It has saved us at least Rs. 30,000 down payment (the price of one additional AC + installation of two ACs).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cooking tech - which cookware is safe to use?

Last week, Dad came over to visit me and happened to see my non-stick cookware which is 7-plus years old, and peeling to reveal silvery metal surfaces below. "You have to replace it immediately", he warned me, adding that non-stick surfaces are suspected to release toxic chemicals, and will probably be banned or discontinued within the next 2 years.

I have heard rumors about health issues with non-stick pans but I have not taken them very seriously. Now that I had to replace all my cookware, I decided to spend  a couple of days researching options on the internet. There is a lot of confusion and many contradictory opinions as to which cookware is safe or not. I do not really know which are the reliable sources to cite. But here is my perspective, based on technical inputs from my Dad (who is an engineer), granny's wisdom, and the factual sources on the internet.

1. Start replacing or phasing out non-stick cookware

Non-stick cookware must be replaced if the surface cracks, peels or warps. Generally, you will find that this happens within 2-3 years - it does not have a long life, and proof of this is that most companies will not offer a long warranty period for it. There is no unanimous verdict on the safety of non-stick surfaces, but what everyone accepts (including Du Pont, the inventor) is that over-heating of the surface beyond 260 Celsius can cause toxic gases and chemicals to escape. They are not proven to be fatal to humans, but neither would you want to expose yourself. If like me, you bought a lot of non-stick cookware because it is cheap, attractive and practical, I do not see any need to panic and throw it all away. But it does make sense to start replacing it or phasing it out of your kitchen.

2. Keep cookware in a range of materials including new and old ones

Almost every cookware has some reaction with heat, and food. The goal is to cook the right foods, in the right vessel. This means it's practical to keep cookware made with different metals and surfaces, for different cooking needs

Stainless steel is perfect for boiling and for acidic preparations with tamarind, tomato, lime etc. It is  the most non-reactive. However, it reacts badly in my experience to saute/ shallow fry cooking especially if you like to use less oil. It burns easily and creates dark hot spots. Therefore I do not find that it makes a good kadhai or wok.

Prestige Steel saucepan

Cast iron (available abundantly in wholesale market areas and big steel shops) is great for dosa tavas, kadhais and woks. We have used this traditionally for years. We know that it leaches iron content into food, and this has been a reason to use - to enhance iron intake in the diet. Cast iron is good for saute/fry but acidic cooking including rassam, sambhar or sabji with tomato, reacts to iron giving an unpleasant metallic taste in food.  I prefer cast iron for dry roasting with oil rather than any wet cooking or boiling. I have to flag off here that most iron vessels are improperly seasoned  and therefore rust easily. If you have the patience and correct technique to season the vessels yourself, you are fine. Otherwise, buy from a reliable brand or supplier, even if it costs extra. I am very partial to the steel shops in Mylapore, Chennai. I have bought some awesome cast iron there.

Lodge Logic Skillet

Aluminium/ hindalium is still extensively available in Indian steel shops - as tavas, saucepans, kadhai's and more. Despite the scare of aluminium poisoning triggering Alzheimer's, or causing kidney and brain problems, we continue to use them. Fact is, we ingest copious amounts of aluminium on a daily basis (soft drink cans and antacids are big culprits) and with well maintained vessels, the aluminium dosage would be minute.

Mom has some age old aluminium vessels at home and Dad is quite keen that she throws then away. Aluminum does leach into food, especially with acidic preparations. And the leaching will increase as  the surface becomes more pitted and old. I would say that we need to start retiring these vessels from duty and replacing them. The urgency is not as great as non-stick but it's there.

Glass, ceramic and stoneware are hugely recommended as being the most non-reactive cookware materials but are unfortunately poorly suited to flame/ stoves and are most suitable for microwave or oven. Most Indian food is not cooked this way, so their utility to us may be limited.

Hard Anodised Aluminium is what I have chosen to replace my non-stick. It is aluminium cookware whose surface is made non-reactive. It seems that under certain conditions, it may leach a little aluminium into food, but the quantities are extremely miniscule. If well maintained and treated with love, it will last very long indeed. 

Hawkins Futura Frying pan

Other cookwares include ceramic coated aluminium, enamelled iron  etc. However, there are some reports that some of these products from cheaper manufacturer's contain traces of lead, cadmium etc. I think safety lies in buying from a reputed manufacturer like Le Creuset or Steub who have developed proven techniques and know their business well. Le Creuset costs heaven and earth (USD 200 per pot on average) but I hope to acquire one in this lifetime. This brings me to my last point.

3. Spend a little extra on a good brand of cookware

Human nature being what it is, we probably shell out more on attractive table ware, serving dishes and cutlery and less on cookware. Actually, we are better off doing the reverse. Cookware is put to a daily torture test and ought to be off good quality to withstand heat, rough washing and different types of foods/ cooking techniques.

It's worth the time and effort to search out slightly more expensive cookware, which is well finished, endorsed by a trusted manufacturer and heavy rather than light. Heavy vessels will last longer, and will also hold heat for longer, enabling you to save fuel. 

This is specially true if you still intend to buy non-stick. A reputed brand which charges more, is also likely to put more care into creating a durable product.

Here are some pictures of cookware that I really love

Staub Cookware on Amazon

Friday, April 26, 2013

My 8 handbag gadgets : stuff I cannot live without

This post is about the gadgets that literally travel everywhere with me - the daily gadgets that stay on my person, or in my handbag, and I will feel incomplete without. It is a relatively short list because I have excluded a lot of things that travel in my rucksack - those are mostly work related and I would not carry them, say if I went shopping to a mall on a weekend. But these gadgets are my slightly worn, scuffed and much loved companions. I'd like you to meet them.

1. Fitbit Ultra

wrote about my Fitbit purchase in December and I have to say that in practice, it's working well as a constant companion and measurement device. I do not take it off even when I sleep and I am wearing it as I type. It has survived the washing machine once and has been dropped twice but recovered!

Fitbit is now graduating to a cool looking wrist band but I still find the clip-on device more unobtrusive and I can wear it on any formal or casual dress.

2. Galaxy Nexus

This was my pick for budget smartphone earlier this month. I do buy whatever I recommend. I am a happy owner of the Galaxy Nexus since a year, and looking forward to running Android 5.0 next month. I have no real reason to upgrade from this awesome phone.

3. Swatch steel watch

This green steel watch from Swatch is a classic fashion accessory. It does not talk, display a stop watch, measure temperature or do anything cool. It exists to look good on my wrist and does a great job of that. It's four years old, and you will still find it in some Swatch outlets. Clearly, it never went out of style!

4. iPad 2 (32 GB, Wi-Fi + 3G. Two years old)

It has grown on me with time. Though I still do not work on it, I have gotten used to carrying it for presentations, sales pitches and client meetings. I often use it in preference to taking a print out for my own use. I have not upgraded to later versions simply because it still works well and it has an awesome battery life. It's lighter than the later iPads too! 

I am not posting a separate picture, as it has been used as the base for all the other gadgets I photographed. And no purchase link, as it is discontinued since last year.

5. Cowon D2 (8 GB Flash MP3 player with 16 GB memory card. Four years old)

I have replaced the screen connectors once, the buttons twice, but it still works good. It's a fantastic portable dictaphone and I use it to record my research interviews as a back up for my more expensive Sony dictaphone. It also pairs well with my headphones and with my Audio Engine speakers.

Flipkart still stocks a slightly later version of  this device for Rs. 7500 and I would advise you to buy one before all MP3 players generally die off. It's one of the best I have owned, and I have owned a few.

6. Ultimate Ears Triple-Fi headphones (Two years old, USD 200)

This is my third pair of Triple Fi's. I bought the first pair in Singapore in 2008 at the princely sum of USD 350. I got them replaced free under warranty once and then they gave way again. I re-purchased them off Amazon courtesy some dear friends in the US. And this time, they look set to last another three years. Sometimes I want to change, just out of sheer boredom. But over years, I have begun to take for granted the purity and delicacy of the sound that these blue beauties turn out. Every now and then I plug into some allegedly 'high end' headphones in malls and I realise how muddy they sound. And I am grateful for what I have!

You can find a pair on Logitech's India site for Rs. 21,000 but you can definitely get them cheaper if you buy them abroad.

7. Croma portable charger

Purchased for Rs. 1300 three months ago, this indispensable device is capable of re-charging my phone from near zero charge to 30% in about 20 minutes. It is indispensable when I am on the move, in a train or a cab, or at a coffee shop without a power point. It saves  me every now and then. In case you are wondering, it comes with connectors for virtually any type of phone you can imagine including the old 'thin pin' Nokia phones.

8. Jabra EasyGo bluetoooth headset

It's my third or fourth headset but Jabra's famous patented ear gels make this by far the most comfortable one I have ever worn. I can have this on my ear for 6 hours plus and not get fatigued. Rs. 2000 on Flipkart and worth it just for the comfort.

9. The handbag

It's not a gadget, but it looks geeky so here is a picture. Rs. 1500 from Dharavi.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The best budget smartphones in 2013

So there are lots of candidates for  the best smartphone right now, but which are the best picks for a budget smartphone? In my opinion, all that is newest and glitters is not necessarily gold. Some of last year's phones are available at hefty discounts and are well worth taking a look at.

1) Samsung Galaxy Nexus (Rs.20,000)

It's more than a year old already, and it has been replaced by the LG Nexus 4, but the older 'Google phone' is still well worth buying. Samsung never launched it officially in India, but you can pick it up at Rs.20,000 or less on eBay India. With a dual core processor, Super AMOLED screen,1 GB RAM and a good battery life, it has specs that can outclass most newer phones in this price bracket. The icing on the cake - with software updates directly from Google, your phone will not be obsolete for a LONG time to come. Lots of Custom ROMs and mods for the adventurous to try as well.

Source : GSM Arena

2) Nokia Lumia 520 (Rs. 10,000)

Win 8 OS may be struggling to gain traction, but the new Lumia range has given it a fresh lease of life.  Most budget phones below Rs. 15,000 tend to be cursed with slow and laggy hardware, tiny low-res screens and tacky finish. Not so with the Lumia 520. At this price point, I doubt if you will find any phone with better build, OS stability and features. The screen, dual core 1 GHz processor and 5 MP camera are what you find on it's higher priced siblings, Lumia 620 and 720. Specially created for low-cost smartphone markets like India, there is no doubt that this beauty on a budget will find many takers.

Source : Nokia

3) iPhone 4 (Rs.20,000 with exchange scheme)

Apple has aggressively jumped into the smartphone war in India. Firstly by increasing availability through third party retailers and secondly by launching buy-back schemes, such as the one on the iPhone 4. Demand for the third-generation, three year old handset has waned in Western markets, but Apple can still juice some profit from this range in markets like India. The iPhone 4 (8 GB) is priced officially at Rs.26,500 but retailers will offer a minimum and guaranteed exchange price of Rs.7000 for your old handset. The exchange price can go up if your handset is valued higher. So you can get  the iPhone 4 for Rs.20,000 or less. It's a sweet deal, replacing the similar deal on iPhone 3GS a year back. 

At this price, an iPhone running the latest version of Apple OS is a good buy, as much as the Nexus!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Health goes digital - emerging trends in 2013

Digital health took off in a big way in 2012. Health tech accelerator Rock Health reported that investors poured $1.4 billion into digital health companies last  year, and an overall increase in the number of deals closed, as well as the value of funding. Further, healthcare purchasing tools for customers and health tracking were two of the focus areas for investment.

Technology undeniably has a huge role to play in the area of personal health, and the advent of smartphones has made it even more ubiquitous. You might have noticed the increase in the number of calorie counting or exercise monitoring apps, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In this post, I want to highlight the latest developments and emerging trends in health tech in 2013.

1. Health goes mobile

With an estimated 40,000 health apps available across platforms, mHealth is clearly poised to become huge. Smartphones are always with us, and they usually have constant internet connectivity. This makes them ideal as tracking devices (counting steps climbed or distance walked) and also as input devices (entering the meals consumed in a calorie counter). As the sensors on smartphones become more sophisticated, they can even function as rudimentary recording or measurement devices - we already have apps that use the cell phone camera to measure blood pressure and heart rate. 

It has been estimated that 1/3rd of US smartphone users turn to cell phones to track basic things like diet and exercise. When you look at the older segment (above 35), this figure goes up to 60%. It's an interesting indicator of how the mobile phone is becoming ubiquitous in health.

Hospitals and health care providers are also using the mobile to connect with patients - to provide outpatient care, to share tips and reminders with expectant mothers, to automate reminders and booking for regular appointments and health screenings and to monitor elderly and ailing people who live alone.

2. The internet of things makes health tracking continuous!

Companies like Withings and Fitbit have pioneered wireless scales that record your weight, BMI and body fat percentage and transfer it to a mobile app. 

Health tech start up Asthmapolis wants to help asthma patients by hacking their constant standby - the inhaler. The company has designed a snap-on bluetooth sensor to track how often people use inhalers and sends the data to smartphone apps that provide analytics and tips to users. Most importantly, the data helps to identify patients who are at high risk for getting an attack, and implement measures to bring the asthma under control. In fact, studies have shown that access to realtime data has led to a 50% drop in patients with uncontrolled asthma. It's not only patients who benefit but also health insurers, who buy the software and monitoring solutions from Asthmapolis to cut their own health care bills from patient admissions

And now Swiss scientists have developed a tiny bluetooth capable device that can be inserted easily under the skin using a needle and is equipped to collect constant stats on several markers including blood glucose and cholestrol. This is of huge value to track high-risk patients with chronic conditons.

And of course, let's not forget the huge trend of 'wearable tech' - devices such as the FitBit, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone Up and Basis Watch - which constantly collect and present information to the user in a way that aids habit change.

3. Education, diagnosis and early detection

For a moment, let's go back to the basics. A recent survey by Pew Internet research showed that 80% of internet users turn to a search engine first when they have a health related query. Access to internet on both mobile and PC, offers a huge opportunity to put accurate information at the users fingertips - information that can be used for prevention, self diagnosis and even early detection. Web MD and iTriage both offer 'symptom checker' apps on desktop and mobile. There is a serious potential for a health search engine that gives access to reliable health information. And there is a real scope for governmental/ institutional health bodies to increase access to people, and to offer netizens the chance to book a health appointment, diagnostics test, or even a telemedicine consultation over phone.

On a more futuristic note, SF based start up Scanadu is developing a device along the lines of the famous 'tricorder' in Star Trek - a gadget that lets you check your temperature, pulse and other vital signs, simply by holding it close to your body. It then sends this information to your smartphone, from where it can be sent to your doctor.

4. Social media as a tool of behaviour change

This is perhaps the most interesting and potent development in health tech. Any device or technology, no matter how advanced, needs to outlive its novelty value. It needs to induce a behaviour or habit change in the long term if it is really going to solve a health issue for the user. And to this end,  it's not enough to create a gadget or an app, we need to figure how to motivate and emotionally engage with people. This is where the social angle can play a big role. Programs that use technology along with some element of human interaction (an expert coach and/or a peer group) are those that show the best results.

San Fransisco startup Omada Health targets people at risk for diabetes to sign up for an online coaching program called ‘Prevent’ that can cut their risk of developing the disease by upto 58%. The 4 month program utilises a proven curriculum developed by the National Institute of Health and adds a digital component.  Participants in Prevent are placed in 12-member groups with a health coach leading each group. They interact only through an online public forum and strive towards common goals. For example, the first goal is a weight loss of 7% - group members do not know how much the others weigh, but they can track each others' progress towards the goal. The peer group functions both as a support mechanism and a motivator to compete/ showcase oneself favorably. It contributes hugely to members achieving their goals.

Sources : GigaOmTechiTechCrunchFastCompanyVentureBeat