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).