Saturday, June 28, 2014

App families, app constellations and why you need a dozen apps to succeed

Have you been amused, confused, or just p***** off by the number of games that King, the maker of Candy Crush Saga has been releasing? From Pet Rescue Saga to Papa Pear Saga to Farm Heroes Saga and what not. Yet, one can understand that the game maker is under pressure to keep producing and converting existing players to new games so that people do not become bored and migrate to some other company (who still plays Angry Birds? And  who still plays Farmville, or will even admit that they do?)

But did you know that the strategy that applies for a gaming company, is equally valid for other mobile app developers? in his blog, venture capitalist Fred Wilson dedicated an entire post to explaining the concept of app constellations. Wilson points out that as the app market matures, big companies like Yahoo, Google and Dropbox are simply acquiring the best apps in the market place to attain leadership. 

For examples, you probably use multiple apps from Google. Across all these apps you have a common log in. This makes it easier for ad targeting. It makes it easier to offer a fluid user experience through linking of different apps - for example the integration of Maps into Google Now, Gmail with Drive and more. This in turn creates stickiness for your app constellation.

It also makes it easier for you to discover newer apps from the company - and that is increasingly important in a crowded app store where app discovery is a huge challenge. 

A recent post on The Next Web about Line, the popular Japanese messaging app revealed some interesting facts. Line has 450 million active users, but the company is not putting all its eggs in the messaging basket. It has an ecosystem of upto 63 apps, and 13 of them have passed the 10 million download mark, taking the cumulative downloads of the company past the 1 billion mark. In particular, Line Camera, which complements the core messaging app, has soared to 90 million downloads in the last one year. Line's app family is designed to satisfy a wide range of needs including content, games, tools and media - speaking of their ambition to be much more than a messaging company. 

Of course, 63 apps may be an overkill. In the past year, we have seen Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer express the intent to prune down a similarly over sized app portfolio that her company held, to a more reasonable 12-15. Yet her aim is very clearly to integrate these 12-15 apps into a users' daily needs - to check weather, get news updates or share content, for example. 

And increasingly we are seeing more companies diversify their app portfolio - with LinkedIn introducing a dedicated job search app, Facebook launching Slingshot, it's homegrown version of SnapChat and Twitter acquiring Vine. 

The bottomline is clear. A single app strategy is no longer an appealing strategy for the big players. Putting all your eggs in one basket does not pay, as you are vulnerable to user fatigue, competition and are always challenged to offer freshness. App constellations make users more loyal to you as a company, increase your chances of trial, and recommendation to others, and raise the value of the ad exposure you can offer.

Loyalty to an app may be short-lived, but loyalty to an app family (and through that to a company), might just be the way ahead.

Sources : AVC, The Next Web

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mumbaikars, you can now pay property tax online again!

The post I made three years ago about paying property tax online in Mumbai received a lot of comments from people who were unable to follow the steps I outlined. I gather that in between, for reasons best known to them, MCGM had discontinued this useful facility which saves at least half a precious day that would be spent locating, and standing in some arbitrary queue at the nearest BMC Office.

Now it appears that the facility to pay online has been re-introduced. And basis a mail exchange with my neighbours, I have gathered that it is working smoothly and they have successfully made their payments.

Here are the steps:

2) Locate the property tax hyperlink on the left side of the home page (circled in red below)

3) Enter your property account number (it's mentioned on your property tax bill) to login to your account. For your reference, this is a 15 digit number starting with ME

4) Your property tax details will be retrieved and displayed on the screen. You have an option to make an annual or half yearly payment, just enter the amount that you wish to pay.

5) Click online payment. Currently only internet banking (online transfer) is supported and credit/debit card payments are not possible. Feel very disappointed when you see only 4 banks supported

6) Click on Citibank and you will be taken to a page giving the name of 60 other banks. Stop feeling disappointed. (This must be MCGM's version of the Google Easter Egg). 

7) Complete your payment and download the online payment receipt which is generated.

Let me know if this works for you!

Edit : 25th August 2015 - I made the payment recently and I found out that late payment is possible, which was not earlier. Citibank payments and most private banks are supported now, in addition to public sector ones.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The future of marketing? Make machines think like humans do.

What's the next big thing in internet tech? It's getting computers to think more intelligently and laterally the way that the human brain does. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines (Source : Wikipedia) and it's been around for some time. It has led to some fun and interesting applications like the Turing Test, intelligent supercomputers that beat humans at chess and increasingly smarter robots - the latest one is Softbank Mobile's emoting robot Pepper. But the newest and most exciting trend in AI is 'deep learning'. Put simply, deep learning understands and models how the brain works to improve computing tasks and it is increasingly getting applied in areas like image recognition, voice recognition, language modelling etc. 

Google unsurprisingly has led the way in this field with the "Google Brain" project, an ambitious attempt to recreate the human brain using hardware and software. It's not surprising that Google got interested in this field. They have always been interesting in staying ahead of the curve on what people need to search for and how they search for it - and this would require them to understand and replicate the way the human brain works. Even a driverless car has to be trained to behave in the way a driver would. Baidu, the Chinese search giant, has wooed one of the brains behind Google's experiments, Andrew Ng, to supervise a similar project.

Now, companies are finding this approach to be promising for a more commercial application - understanding how the human brain works and using this to make better product recommendations. Movie rental and streaming service Netflix recently shared in a blog post that they were trying to construct a neural network based on deep learning to improve their video recommendations to users. Pinterest recently purchased a small startup called VisualGraph, which works on the area of image recognition, identifying and co-relating elements to show users pictures that are more relevant to them.Obviously this is fits well with improving Pinterest's user experience.

And more recently, a mobile app called 'Beautiful Me' uses deep learning and neural networks to deliver personalised skin care recommendations. It uses Facebook images of the user to analyse and identify a series of parameters including skin tone and age and prepare a skin profile - an online version of what a beauty expert at the counter might do. This can then become a vehicle for product and brand recommendations. 

What makes deep learning projects more feasible is the increasing availability of big data and the power of the Cloud. For example, Netflix is leveraging Amazon's public Web Service Cloud and their powerful GPU servers which enable quicker processing of complex queries.

And a lot of future research in deep learning will focus on 'unsupervised learning' - where machines will not need to be spoon fed with labels and tags that help them to identify and categorise information. Humans have an ability to teach themselves, and researchers are trying to get machines to emulate this. A huge quantity of data out there is still unlabelled so machines have to be trained to absorb and understand data on their own, without  human intervention to teach them. This will lead to more cost effectiveness and more applications for AI.

This is the future of AI and it while it may not be as interesting as humanoid robots, it definitely holds a more practical commercial interest for marketers!

Sources : Venture BeatWired

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Is an Android phone better than an iPhone?

My answer to this question has not changed down the years, it remains the same 'It depends on what you are looking for'. The huge differences between the Android and iOS platforms have narrowed down over time making it a choice that is based on your preferences and priorities rather than any inherent superiority of either platform.

I have been pondering an observation made by A B Bernstein analyst Carlos Kirjner who wrote;

We believe … Larry Page’s discussion about the new mobile, multi-screen world …. is really about the importance of cloud services in that world. This is by no means a trivial statement and we believe goes against a more device centric model favoured, we believe, by Apple. 

This really sums up an importance differentiation in what you buy into when you use Google-backed products (Android phones) vs. Apple-designed products (iPhones or iPads). Increasingly, intelligence resides in the cloud and not on devices. Whether it's a Google Glass or a Google Driverless Car, its made possible by access to artificial intelligence and learning technology that Google is increasingly invested in. I wrote about this difference a couple of years ago when I compared Google and Apple's business models. 

So how does this translate into your next smartphone purchase?

I believe that the iPhone scores on certain hardware and software aspects:
  • The hardware is beautifully designed and it tends to be trouble free through a lifetime.
  • High resource eating games still run smoother on iPhones notwithstanding the higher specs on many flagship Androids. An iPhone is still less likely to crash, dither or stall.
  • Because Apple only has 2-3 devices in the market at any given point, apps and external accessories can be easily optimised to work with iPhones. This does translate into a better user experience with many apps.
  • If you live in an Apple device ecosystem using a Mac, iPad etc. then you can benefit from Apple's cloud connectivity between the devices
  • iTunes is a fantastic place to buy music at unbeatable prices.

Having used Android phones since the past 3 years, I am aware of the downside and upside, and I have seen the huge improvements in the last two iterations of the OS, namely  JellyBean and KitKat.

  • Google's native apps - Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Drive etc. - deliver a superlative experience on Android. I want to single out Gmail. We use Google Apps for business and the Gmail app is simply the best one I have ever used on a phone. I do not miss my desktop. I have been able to search and locate the oldest and most obscure mails on the fly. I cannot claim the same experience with Apple.
  • Small functionalities on Android  - like the Copy and Paste method, the 'swipe to type' keyboard and the implementation of notifications are really brilliant. They make daily usage easy. I struggle and miss these things when I work on an Apple device. I did note that iOS 8 will bring third-party keyboards to Apple and I welcome that.
  • Contact implementation on Android is the best that I have seen across any platform. You will never lose your contacts again and it's effortless to access, share or transfer them between devices. 
  • It's easy to transfer your photos, videos and music between devices. It's easy to access files you have downloaded. In an iPhone, unless you have downloaded an 'app for that', downloaded files disappear in a black hole. In Android, I can always find them with a file manager.
  • I increasingly find that Android has a cleaner, more elegant and intuitive interface. I love the level of control that you get on which apps appear on your home screens and how you organise them. 

There are some areas where it's a level playing field - like battery life, camera and video quality, music player quality. 

When I look at the lists I have generated, I realise an important distinction. Apple is all about the high ground of a better device while Android is about better connectivity and access to your stuff. This broadly corresponds to the difference between a device-centric company and a cloud-centric company.

You will be happy with a flagship Android or an iPhone. More choices, more reasons for everyone to be happy! 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A handy guide to the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a word that has been bandied around a lot in the past few years. But now, with the advent of mobile, it is actually becoming a reality. Put simply, the future is about connected devices that can capture and transmit data on a constant basis. This data will give us a new level of control and understanding in our daily life.

IoT consists of many different categories of devices and technologies, so let's take a look at them;

1. Wearable tech 

Wearable tech is the first frontier of the IoT. It started with health trackers, which are increasingly syncing data through smartphone apps. Next came Google Glass, which sees the world through your eyes and takes pictures when you blink your eye. And a more recent trend is Life logging - using gadgets that clip on your clothes or around your neck, and keep taking pictures of the world around you. 

And of course, there are the ubiquitous smartphone watches from literally every manufacturer, which allow you to control basic smartphone functions from your wrist. 

The biggest potential in wearable tech is in the health sector. Think of a tiny gadget worn by a heart patient that can send out an alert in case of a cardiac event to a family member, a doctor, and to an emergency response number. Think of the huge potential to save lives. Similarly, other devices can monitor sugar, pulse and other parameters on a constant basis and transmit the data to a server. The doctor gets a daily printout, or better still a graph of the patient's stats on his mobile through an app. He can send prescriptions or messages to his patient directly from the app too.

2. Gadgets that connect to smartphone jacks

From digital thermometers to heart monitors to credit card readers, manufacturers are building devices that connect to smartphones through the audio jack.  This technology  is relatively cheap compared to connectivity through wi-fi or bluetooth. Which means that a thermometer that is only incrementally more expensive can be a 'smart device' too.

3. Gadgets that monitor the environment

The very first exemplar of this genre was the beautifully designed Nest Thermostat, (recently acquired by Google) - a learning device which figures out your schedule and adjusts temperatures in the house to make substantial savings in your electricity bill. For a long time, Nest had no competition, but now, Honeywell has launched the Lyric thermostat which takes environmental factors like humidity and temperature into account when adjusting the heating/cooling levels in the house. 

Honeywell Lyric Thermostat

At the recently concluded WWDC, Apple announced the launch of Homekit, a set of tools which lets developers create sophisticated iOS apps that connect with, integrate and control home devices. This move is expected to spark a lot of new product development. Philips is already working on a smart home app which will give control over their Hue Wireless lighting system, from the iPhone Notification Center. You can select the color scheme and lighting settings that you want, from your phone.

And the Edyn Garden System, which just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, is a set of devices that monitor and guide you in your garden. There is a sensor which analyses soil conditions and uses a smartphone app to suggest the best plants and fertilisers. And there is a Garden Valve with a companion app that works out the perfect watering schedule for your plants and decides when to water your garden, taking weather conditions into account.

Edyn Garden System

4. Cars and appliances that talk to each other

The AllSeen Alliance, an industry alliance of corporates including Cisco, D-Link, Haier, LG and Qualcomm, is working on an open source software framework which allows devices to discover, connect and interact with each other, irrespective of the brand or the operating system it uses. The framework will have cross-platform compatibility with Android, iOS, Windows and Linux. If it works out, this platform could become the Android equivalent in the world of Internet of Things. It will make simple tasks feasible - for example connecting your wireless device to the nearest pair of speakers at the click of a button. Anyone who has struggled to pair with a bluetooth headset or speaker, or Smart TV, will appreciate this!

5. Robotics, Androids and Artificial Intelligence

This is most sci-fi application of them all - intelligent devices that do not require human intervention and can perform human tasks. Google's Driverless Cars, Softbank Mobile's Pepper Robot, with cloud powered Artificial Intelligence are examples.Apple's Voice Assistant Siri impactfully demonstrated the power of the cloud. We can expect many more innovations to follow suit.


I'd like to leave you with one thought at the end of this post. Currently 99% of devices in the physical world are not connected to the internet. But analysts predict that by 2020, we will have 50 billion connected devices. There is a huge gap to be bridged and if manufacturers and software developers find a sweet spot, then we can expect adoption of the Internet of Things to ramp up as rapidly as smartphone penetration did.

Sources : The Fast CompanyTUAWApple InsiderMIT Technology ReviewBGRComputer World

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Basis Watch analytics

Since two months, my newly acquired Basis Health Tracker has become an integral part of my fitness regime. I have made a short video to share with you the analytics offered by the Basis, which are fun, pictorial and truly help you to improve your habits.

Hope you enjoy it :)