Saturday, March 22, 2014

The definitive social media guide for painful introverts

The beauty of life is that all people are created differently. Some people are naturally sociable, extroverted, self expressive and enjoy dealing with others. Such people tend to shine in social media. They naturally attract large networks of friends, engage with and befriend new people and are completely comfortable in the limelight.

And there are people who are a little shy, reclusive and sensitive to share deeply personal stuff.  There may even be people who tend to avoid socialising too much, either offline or online. Perhaps they like to have large amounts of personal space, perhaps they just have quieter personalities. I fall in the latter category myself.

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but even an introvert may want to be popular in social media. They may be the late adopters and laggards, they may be more cautious and even suspicious about the security of their information, and they may struggle to understand what to do. But they may have business to run, a talent to showcase, or simply have an interesting perspective to share, and they may rightly recognise the power of social media to help them.

When I speak to the so-called extroverts who shine in social media, I invariably find that they are too ready to downplay their own popularity. They suggest, unprompted, that they are exhibitionistic, attention seeking and egoistic. Sometimes they even denigrate what works for them – they say that shallowness and populism is the key to success. Undoubtedly they are sensitive about their behaviour in a world which psychoanalyses the popularity seekers who feed off social media. No one said that being an extrovert gave you the hide of a rhinoceros! It’s almost as though a successful social media user is a dumb blonde and no one wishes to fit that stereotype.

The social media introverts will do themselves a great disservice if they compare themselves to the extroverts – either to distance themselves from them, or to decide that they need to emulate them. The former is nothing but a self-defensive reflex, and it will prevent the genuine growth that comes when we are open to learn from others. The latter is an even more disastrous strategy, because the introvert who adopts it believes that by morphing into someone else (this social media monster), they can achieve the success that their own, genuine self cannot. It is a rejection, both of oneself and the person one is trying to be. And it will lead only to confusion, and an emptiness that cannot be disguised from anyone.

At the end of the day, let’s agree on one simple thing – we all want (at least a little) attention, recognition and empathy. In real life, we know that there is only one way to get this – by doing our best, and being ourselves, with the people who care about us.

This is my recipe for social media success, for my fellow introverts. Do not go into it as a fame seeker. Do not go into it seeking the formula for success. Contrary to what anyone may tell you, there is none. The fact that something worked for a bunch of people in the past will not negate the unique things that will work for you.

Go into it as yourself, as someone who wants to find a tribe of people who care about you. You will find those people. They may not be as numerous as someone else’s tribe, they may not be as talkative or verbally appreciative and they may come into your life more slowly. Be patient about it. Nurture the relationships that you build. This is how you built them in real life. You did not strategise your offline friendships. There is no need to strategise your online ones.

If you need to achieve reach, spend a little extra money to promote your Facebook posts or your tweets, assuming you can afford it. But promote the stuff that is your own true voice, not the persona that you think works in social media.

Whatever you do, do not obsessively check your likes, pluses, follows, shares or whatever (you will, because that is human nature, but detach your self-worth from them).  If you don’t get a lot of attention, there is no need to despair. Even if you have created the most beautiful, powerful or erudite piece of work and no one saw it. The internet is thankfully designed to preserve, not destroy. Good stuff always gets discovered, as long as it’s properly tagged and searchable. If no one read it today, someone will later. I have discovered this myself. Blog posts that I wrote three years ago, which I would imagine are dated, still regularly attract readers. Try to figure out days and day parts when you are likely to get more eyeballs in social media. And when you do, re-tweet or re-post old stuff that you think deserves a second chance.

There is something we can learn from the extroverts. Be truly interested in what other people are doing, if you like what they are doing. Write to them, comment on their stuff, praise them, share it with your friends. If people or their content help you in your work, acknowledge it publicly. This is at the heart of social media success in nearly every case that I have seen. Your work will reach out to people, if you reach out to them. That’s the ‘social’ in the media.

I want to share a personal story with you. I started blogging in 2010. I have seen my reach grow, from 300-400 page views a month, to an average of 10,000 a month. Are their people whose blogs grew faster and bigger in the same period or a shorter period? Of course! And initially I made the mistake of comparing myself to such people. I made the same assumptions that I have warned you against. When I wrote this post, I realised how wrong I was. Paradoxically, introverts who claim to not need other people, can be very insecure about what they think of them!

Having something to say is a huge gift. Those of us who have run dry of interest and inspiration at times, know this well. And if you regularly have new experiences and new things to say, then that is a huge blessing. I may lack time to post as regularly as I did earlier, but it’s still fairly effortless for me to think of what I want to write and put it down. Reaching out to other people? Let me be honest, it is still work in progress. But, the good thing is, it is in progress, and meanwhile, I do find people, and they do find me. I am sometimes surprised by how many people know that I write a tech blog even if they have not read it. I find more people asking my opinion about gadgets and which phone they should buy. It's an image, but it’s founded on my very real interests, passions and abilities.  I am not (yet) famous. But in an increasingly extended circle of people, I am known for what I love and what I am good at. That’s a lot. And that’s what I owe to social media.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

5 must have accessories for gadget freaks

You may spend a bomb on your gadgets, but sometimes the cheapest accessories can complement them perfectly, and enhance your usage experience. Here are my top 5 picks for accessories that I love and use daily and do not cost a bomb:

1. MX Universal Extension Box

With the number of gadgets increasing, the plug points in your house cannot keep up. There are any number of 'chalu' extension boxes which are guaranteed to raise your blood pressure, as you try to keep two-pin phone charger plugs from falling out, try to jam in a three-pin plug or notice belatedly that the box  is not drawing power from the wall at all!

Put your electrical woes to an end forever and treat yourself to an MX Universal Extension Box. At just Rs. 600, it offers some fantastic features including a three pin wall connector, in-built fuse with indicator lights and no less than three 3-pin sockets - three laptops can be comfortably connected to it. Also, you can control each socket individually, as you do with a power strip. 

If you want a cheaper variant, the one I use (pictured below) below costs Rs.440 and does away with individual switches for each socket.

You can buy directly from the manufacturer, MDR Electronics' website or you can search in your nearest electronic store, but in my experience, it's kind of hard to find MX products in stores. In Mumbai, they are available at electrical stores at Pali Naka, Bandra West.

Incidentally, every MX product is fantastically built and great value for money, so I strongly recommend that you pick up their multi-plugs, power strips and adapters without a second thought.

2. MiniSuit DuoCharge Power Bank and AC Adapter (3000 mAH)

With smartphones becoming more battery hungry and our non-stop device usage through the day (blame Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp), portable power banks are becoming a necessity. For me, they are lifeblood, as I travel frequently, and increasingly spare plugs are not available even in corporate conference rooms, let alone at public places like airports and coffee shops. Seems everyone wants to draw power, all the time.

The good news is that power banks are getting cheaper and cheaper, and the more high-end ones come with capability to simultaneously charge two devices. You can get a generous 10000 mAH device for Rs. 2000 or less if you keep track of the many deals going on Amazon, HomeShop18, Flipkart etc. But there is a huge catch here. You need to charge the power bank if it is going to be of use to you, and literally every power bank out there charges through USB and not wall power. This means slow and long charging, and you will not be able to re-fuel it unless you are also carrying along your laptop. (Hint - do not use a smartphone wall adaptor to charge it, unless you are prepared to spoil your charger, or your device). In my experience, after some time, you stop charging the power bank and it becomes a redundant piece of plastic that you lug around.

Now you have an option that is the best of both worlds. MiniSuit, a  company known for gadget accessories, has introduced their  DuoCharge Power Bank with AC Adaptor. This nifty little lipstick sized device packs 3000 mAH, charges off wall power in a jiffy and then supplies juice to your gadgets. It even lets you charge your gadgets directly from the wall socket in case you forgot to carry your charger. 3000 mAH may look tiny compared to beefier power banks, but it's more than enough to charge your smartphone, or give a little lease of life to your tablet. And remember that that huge 10000 mAH power bank will take 10-12 hours to absorb a full charge from your puny little USB drive. You are guaranteed to not charge it fully on most days. 3000 mAH which you can quickly plug and charge anywhere is way more useable power.

The MiniSuit DuoCharge Power Bank costs $20 on Amazon. Launched just a couple of months ago, it does not yet seem to be available in India. Unfortunately, to use this device in India, you will need to use a US Adapter. But the device is compatible with Indian power sockets.

3. MX three way universal conversion Plug

Sometimes you do not need an extension box, only a multi-plug, if you happen to sit close to a wall socket. Multi-plugs are often terribly designed, and two-pin plugs are notorious for forming loose connections in such sockets, either not drawing power at all or not fitting properly at all.

Here again, I strongly recommend MX for their Three Way Universal Conversion Plug. Priced at Rs. 199, this neatly designed little plug has come up with a revolutionary yet simple design idea of putting two 2-pin sockets and the three-pin socket in a row. It has always been a mystery to me how we can use a two pin socket at the bottom of a plug unless some gravity-defying power is also packaged with it. Coming back to the MX multi-plug, I can guarantee that all three plug points work (which hardly ever happens with other brands). Bonus - they also work on 15 Amp plugs, so I use them in the kitchen to plug temperamental gadgets like the juicer and the hand blender. I have several, and I have gifted several.

4. Case Logic USB Flash Drive Shuttle

You have carrying cases to protect your phone, tablet, hard drive, MP3 player...but how do you transport your USB drive, internet dongle and SD Cards? 

If you carry them loose inside your rucksack or bag, chances are you have had to upturn it several times to hunt for them. And maybe you have really lost them a few times too!

That's what happened to me until I bought the Case Logic USB Drive Shuttle. This invaluable little case protects my three 16 GB pen drives, the spare SD Cards that go into my MP3 camera or Handycam and my airtel dongle. And nothing has ever gotten misplaced or lost since I acquired it. Well, except for the cap of every pen drive :)

I bought the case at Rhythm House, Mumbai for Rs. 350 nearly three years ago. I am linking to an international eBay seller who is quoting Rs. 1849. Still worth it if you have multiple high capacity pen drives and are loss prone.

5. Fishbone Cord Winder for headphones

Sometimes the cheapest and simplest things can give you the biggest joy. This is one of those things :) My Triple Fi IEMs have cables that seem to be designed to get tangled with every other cable. Put them in their own dedicated box and what do they do? They get tangled with themselves. Ditto for the mobile handsfree cables. The only solution. A couple of fishbone cable winders like these cheap ones on Ebay. At just Rs.99, they save you from the frustration and heartburn of unwinding cables. Ladies, these also work for elastic drawstrings on your garments. Keeps them from retracting. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Why the mobile revolution succeeded but the broadband revolution failed.

Digging around on the TRAI website, I found a white paper published in collaboration with CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) in 2009 - a roadmap for inclusive Broadband growth. The report projected an ambitious vision of 695 million broadband users or 214 million connections by 2014 (as each connection is accessed by multiple users), with equitable rural and urban access to broadband. In those days, broadband was defined as a non-dial up connection with a speed higher than 256 Kbps.

What has been our progress against this vision? At the time of publishing the report in 2009, India had 6.8 million broadband subscribers, but approximately 50 million internet users (this would include cyber cafe, and dial-up access). Home PC penetration was under 10% and household penetration of broadband was under 3%.

As per Jan 2014 TRAI data, broadband subscribers stand at 57 million. 238 million Indians have access to internet. Home PC penetration is still under 10% and home broadband is still under 3%. Effectively, 7 out of 8 Indians are accessing internet through their mobile phones, and most of them are accessing slow 2G internet.

If we have seen any growth in broadband, it has mostly been a default growth, and all of it has happened as a fallout of mobile operator initiatives. We have failed magnificently against the roadmap we set out with.

What was proposed in the report to trigger broadband growth?

One category of proposed initiatives lay in the realm of government policy. This included a reduction in excise and import duties on devices and accessories like PCs, routers etc. Another and far more critical proposal, was for a comprehensive ICT policy which integrates IT, Telecom and Internet growth - a strategy of convergence.

The second category of initiative lay in the realm of providing service. This included encouragement of vernacular content and thrust on internet enabled services like education, e-governance and iPTV. The report also recommends utilisation of the fixed wireline infrastructure to provide high-speed broadband wherever feasible, especially in urban areas, and promoting wireless broadband in remote or sparsely populated tracts of rural India.

None of these proposals are rocket science. In fact, we have proof that they work, when we look at the spectacular growth of mobile telephony. At the foundation and heart of this growth is the New Telecom Policy (March, 1999). At this time, there was a modest vision to achieve 15% teledensity over the next decade, from the current level of 2%. 

But the far-reaching outcome of the NTP was the decontrolling of the mobile sector. DoT (department of telecommunications) held a monopoly in the sector, as a deciding factor in disputes, and as a service provider. The government set up BSNL as a corporate entity (PSU) and a separate independant tribunal to resolve disputes and effectively exited its dominant role in the telecom sector. Competition was allowed in overseas call segment. License fees of telecom operators were lowered. In the 2000 budget, the import duties on mobile handsets was cut to 5% paving the way for  the flood of cheap devices that have hit the markets today. In contrast, computing devices including tablets still attract 12% duty. Policy reform stimulated private entrepreneurship and there was no looking back.

According to figures shared by TRAI a couple of days ago, India has a mobile subscriber base of approximately 920 million. Private telcos hold nearly 90% share, while the PSUs (MTNL and BSNL) have just around 10%. With rural subscribers contributing 40%, there is finally a more equitable growth in the sector. It has taken us 14 years since NTP, to reach this point.

In contrast, the wired line (landline) subscription data tells a different story. The wireline base is approximately 28 million (it has gone down by 10 million since 2009) - and here the PSUs hold a 78% market share. Every wireline customer is also a potential broadband customer, so it comes as a surprise to know that only 50% of wireline connections have broadband. The majority use wireless broadband through dongles or 3G connections on their phones. (TRAI defines broadband as any internet connection with a speed higher than 512 Kbps). 

And this is the most interesting statistic - BSNL figures among the top 5 providers of both wireless and wired broadband, and has 30% market share. Not bad, in a market with over 144 broadband providers! 

Here are some of the top measures that can be taken by the PSUs and private sector to promote broadband penetration in the country:

  • Partnership with computing entities like Dell, Microsoft and Ubuntu Linux to bring in low cost laptop access. All the boom around tablets notwithstanding, laptops are of more utility to the entire family as a medium of work, education and entertainment, and as such will appeal to Indians. When we have laptops at parity pricing with tablets and TVs, we will see adoption pick up.
  • Tackle the power problem by encouraging indigeneous innovation - solar powered charging for laptop batteries, or low cost inverter devices.
  • Bundling schemes with devices that trigger internet adoption. No one will buy a TV and not take a cable connection - the TV becomes a useless plastic box. It's no different for a laptop in the 24X7 connection era. Bundled schemes can include one years internet subscription, more user friendly pre-paid recharge schemes and cheap pay as you go schemes. It has been my observation that private telcos actively discourage pre-paid broadband connections and try to push more expensive post paid plans. If necessary, regulators need to step in to protect the consumer interest. 
  • Cable operators have last mile fibre connectivity and can play an active role in marketing internet to consumers. Bundling of internet offering with the mandatory Cable TV subscription would help, as it would to use common hardware for set top box and internet connectivity. This would significantly lower the barriers to adoption.
These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. What's more important, is that the government needs to take a stance to push broadband adoption, as they did with telephony. It is going to take time, maybe another 10 years. But for a million-year old civilisation, a decade is a very small period. And if we actually reach the place where mobile telephony has reached, and most Indians access broadband internet say in 20 years time - that is huge. It's something to dream about, aim for and look forward to.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Health tracking tech is getting big, time to get on board

I've been increasingly using, and writing about health tech in the past year. And the category is truly growing - not just in terms of users, but in the sophistication of the devices, the way that data is captured and presented and the inter-connectedness of apps that use the data that is generated. Let's look at some of the most cutting edge health tech on the market in this post, and then you can decide how much you want to spend :)

1) Analytics

Nike Fuel started the trend, but it has long since been outstripped by better technology.

At the more conventional end of the spectrum we have the Jawbone UP, the Fitbit Force and the Withings Pulse. All of them in a range of $100-$150 depending on the specs. Essentially all of these are advanced pedometers with some ability to measure additional stats like sleep, steps climbed, and in the case of the Pulse, heart rate as well. They are great for any person with a fairly sedentary lifestyle who wants to motivate themselves to be more active. There are two key differentiators between devices. The first is access to statistics. All devices now offer sync to smartphone apps but some, like the Pulse and the Fitbit Force, also let you view stats directly on the device, which is an advantage, for example during a workout, or while you are running.  

Jawbone UP

The second differentiator is analytics. As these devices amass daily stats over a long period, there is lots of analysis that can be run on the data. This requires cloud software, and analytics come at a price. To access more than the basic stats on a Fitbit, you need an annual subscription, the analytics come built in with the price of the Jawbone and Withings does not offer much. 

The cutting edge of health trackers are represented by the Basis Tracker, and the yet-to-be-launched Airo and Angel trackers. Basis represents a definite step up in both hardware and software. The Basis has sensors that track heart rate, perspiration and skin temperature and automatically sense the activities undertaken and calories burned. Where it really makes a difference is the quality of analytics. I know as a researcher that data is useless in itself, the value addition comes from the interpretation and recommendations that you make based on the data. Basis analyses the data to suggest habit changes, helping you with the trickiest aspect of a fitness regime - sustainable behavioural change. That's why I am excited about the Basis and I have ordered one. I will post a review once I have used it. Basis is on the more expensive side of the spectrum, priced in the $150-$200 range.

Basis Health Tracker

The Airo makes some very exciting claims that put it into a class by itself - it has a built in spectrometer and uses light wavelengths to detect nutrients that are broken down into your body and released after eating. Thus, it is able to not only detect the calories consumed but also the quality of the nutrition intake, supplementing the data on calories burnt through activities. This means that you no longer need to input your calorie intake physically - a task which is irksome and error-prone. If this works (and I am waiting to see if it does!), then it represents the holy grail of health trackers.


Angel represents a more serious effort, with a focus on collecting and transmitting data that can detect potentially dangerous conditions. It uniquely offers an open API, encouraging developers to create apps and programs that utilise the data. For people who are sensitive about the privacy of their data, this is a very important point. With many other health trackers, the data is stored in their cloud on their platforms and you need to check the fine print to ensure that your data is not shared or sold to interested parties - say, health insurance companies. With an open platform, you own your data and make a choice which apps you will use and whom you will share the data with.


2) Personalised coaching and training

Naturally as more and more fitness bands and trackers flood the market, they will attempt to target different audience segments. The Moov tracker, which just completed a successful crowd-funding campaign, is aimed at people who want a personal trainer. Moov is equipped with 3-D sensors to evaluate the quality of your workout - if you are doing bicep curls correctly, or enough push ups to meet your goals, and it will talk to you through your phone, giving you instructions and motivation to do it right - in real time! The companion app also offers video instructions - so it's like having a personal trainer each time you hit the gym. 

Interestingly, a similar device has just launched in India - the Goqii, a free device bundled with an annual coaching subscription. Your personal coach gets your stats live, can interact with you through voice or video calls and can give you advice or even a high five based on your workout stats. GoQii even lets you collect exercise karma points which can be redeemed as donations to charitable organisations. Goqii will retail free of charge in India, with a fee charged for the coaching service only - Rs.5999 for six months, or Rs.9999 for a full year.

The concept is an interesting one, as it brings a human touch and expert input - definitely a value add over pure analytics. What remains to be seen, is whether people are ready to pay over time for the value add.

3) Body Fat Analysers

In case you don't know it already, then it's time to throw away those bathroom scales, even the smart glass ones with digital display. Why be content with measuring only your weight when you can measure so much more; for example your body fat percentage, your BMI, your resting metabolism and the 'body age' which tells you exactly how unfit you are. If you don't need to hear all this, then how about analysing the quality of the air? How about scales that connect through wi-fi to a smartphone app and upload your measurements automatically?

It is definitely worthwhile to measure more than your weight if you are working out regularly. And especially if you are aiming for overall health and fitness rather than weight loss. Because a body fat analyser can help you to see if you are gaining muscle mass, which is the holy grail of gymmers, and it can also show you progress which may not necessarily translate into weight loss. You do not need to over-do measurements, once a month is good enough, but it's useful to keep a track of your stats.

Withings, FitBit and several other brands offer wi-fi scales which sync to an app and also to their own health tracker devices, rendering yet another input automatically. But as I mentioned, weight and body fat are not measurements that you need to take everyday. If you are comfortable with keeping your own track, then I recommend one of Omron's Body Fat Monitors. I like the HBF-375 model which gives some very cool stats like specific fat deposits on different parts of the body, against the average for your height, weight and gender. It's not the easiest device to learn to use, but it's Japanese made, accurate and trusted - this is a model you will find in most gyms today. It retails for between Rs.6000-8000 and is covered by warranty from Omron India.