Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Towers of Death - does radiation from cell phone towers cause cancer?

My story is about Dr. Nalini Busa, who is the mother of my childhood friend, Purvi. They live in an apartment block in Borivali (West), Mumbai and 5 years ago, the building next door put up multiple cell sites on their terrace. The view from the Busa's spare bedroom looks like this, with no less than 21 antennae mounted at a distance of within 50 feet of their windows. Three rooms, or one entire side of the 7th floor apartment, overlooks these towers. The shots below are taken from different rooms and show how close to the house the site is:

From the bedroom
From the Utility Room

Another view from the bedroom

From the kitchen

At that time, no one thought too much about it. Then, 2 years ago, Purvi's father was diagnosed with lymphoma. He unfortunately expired last year. This year, her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Though it was detected early, the cancer had spread aggressively in a short time span, necessitating both surgery and chemotherapy. 

As I write a tech blog, Purvi and her mother both requested me to post about this. Here is an interview that I did with Ms. Busa in the hospital where she is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

Another disturbing fact : 5 people in Purvi's building have developed cancer in the last 5 years. 2 people have passed away and another case is terminal.

The time period for these cases coming up, co-incides with the installation of the tower next door. Co-incidence, or co-relation?

Purvi got a test done of the radiation levels in her house, and the results show that they are through the roof. Three rooms in her house are in the danger zone, while two others are in the 'caution' zone. Her society is now petitioning to get the site removed - a difficult task as the neighbour whose building houses the site is making a handsome rental amount from the telcos and is unwilling to forego it. 

With 900 million-plus cellular subscriptions, and 600 million+ active users in India, it's not surprising that India has more than 15 lakh cellphone towers or sites, with a high concentration in urban areas. Cellphone towers are usually mounted at a height (upto 200 feet) to ensure that the antennae can cover the surrounding area. The word tower is a misnomer - in Mumbai you will see antennae along with electronic communication equipment, placed on the terraces of building, to form a ''cellphone site." Mobile phones communicate with these sites using RF (Radiofrequency) waves, a form of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum between FM and Microwaves. 
There is extremely scanty credible scientific evidence published online, linking radiation from cellphone towers to cancer. However, there are scattered reports that begin to make sense when we put them together.
  1. NY Times has published a report on a 'meta study' combining hundreds of other studies - which confirmed that RF waves from cellphones can damage your DNA. For example, just using your phone 20 minutes everyday increased the risk threefold, for a certain type of tumor.
  2. In 2011, The World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that RF electromagnetic waves are classified as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans.'
  3. Finnish scientist Dariusz Leszczynski, who is one of the members of the expert committee of IARC, has claimed that long term exposure to cellphones and cell tower radiation causes increased risk of brain cancer. 
  4. In 2013, the Delhi High Court issued notice to the central and city government on a plea seeking removal of cellphone towers from the vicinity of schools and residential areas. The petitioner claimed that cellphone radiation from a tower within 20 metres from his house caused multiple illnesses in his household, including death of his son from cancer in 2011. There are similar cases in Jaipur and Mumbai too, in the past 5 years.
  5. The Indian Department of Telecommunication has published a handbook on mobile radiwaves and safety. The publication points out that distance and time are key factors in exposure to cellphone site radiation - exposure over time is dangerous, and as distance increases, exposure drops exponentially;

In the Busa's case, the windows of the house face the antennae directly - in fact, face multiple antennae, which explains why the radiation levels exceed limits and could indeed have adverse effects on health.

If you live in a building with a cellphone tower nearby or in your line of sight, you need to act urgently to get it removed. You can petition your local Municipal office, approach your corporator/MLA/MP and also write in to any leading newspaper. If you are active in social media, Tweet to TRAI, DoT, The Ministry of Health and telcos as well. 

You can petition the Government and DoT to evolve more stringent guidelines for cellphone sites, along the lines of 'precautionary principles' - giving a more-than-safe margin to residential areas nearby.

Whenever a telco erects a tower, it should be mandatory for them to test and publish the results on emissions. Also, re-testing should be done at a specified interval, especially in cities like Mumbai where construction is rampant and new residential areas could fall into a danger zone.

We also need to petition more independent and credible bodies to conduct research on buildings in the vicinity of cellphone towers to gather results on long term, continuous exposure to RF Waves. Such research can be the basis of future policy change.

The case of cellphone radiation seems to warrant an approach based on what WHO calls 'the precautionary principle'. Put simply, in a world where technology development outpaces scientific knowledge and evidence collection, we cannot always wait for conclusive and concrete proof that some aspect of technology is life threatening or hazardous. For example, there may be scanty proof that cellphone radiation causes cancer. But we ought to take ample precautions to protect what WHO sums up as 'public health, the environment and the future of our children.' Let's protect health by ensuring that telecom companies take responsibility and ownership for positioning towers properly and ascertaining that radiation does not affect neighbouring areas.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Six things Twitter can do to bring in new users

I was pretty disappointed today to read that Twitter's stock price has fallen below the 2013 IPO price, for the first time. I admit that I am once of those who don't really get Twitter, but the site has a robust base of users who engage regularly and seem to enjoy doing it. What will be crucial for Twitter, going ahead, is to build up a user base in the emerging smartphone/internet markets of SEA, South Asia and Africa. And here, the focus has to be on youth, who still remain the most active social media users.

Here are 5 things that I would do if I were Twitter, to open the doors to new users.

1) Drop the 140 character limit
Last week, Twitter formally dropped the 140 character limit for Direct Messages, acknowledging that people trying to connect through the social media service might want to have a slightly lengthier conversation. I would look at relaxing the character limit on Tweets as well. Would that put off existing users? Maybe, maybe not, and the site can still continue to display only the first 140 characters and cut-off the rest below the break. More importantly, this move would not only bring in new users, but allow existing users to create and consume more content.

I recently read that Facebook is trying to revive Facebook Notes (remember circulating notes on your 10 favorite authors or movies, a few years ago?). LinkedIn is evolving from a recruitment platform to a content publishing platform, with the launch of Pulse and long-form posts. The message is clear - content creation and sharing will will be the core of social media. Twitter needs to see, how they can facilitate that.

2) Be more friendly to other companies
Experience shows that web companies grow and benefit from a collaborative approach. Twitter has bucked the trend by taking a confrontational stance towards external services like Instagram, Meerkat and even to third party developers that served its own user base. I would rather look to greater collaboration to develop ideas and tools that make it easier to post on Twitter. For example, a third party photo sizing app like Canva, which can automatically re-size images and creatives for Twitter. A tweet generator that can create funny or interesting tweets for me. The list can go on.

3) Re-design the mobile experience
Facebook and even LinkedIn, have taken efforts to evolve a differentiated mobile experience - some of their experiments like Facebook Home may not have worked but hey, at least they keep trying. Twitter's mobile interface remains behind the curve (and it does not help that a few years ago, they virtually shut down third party sites and apps who did a better job than they did). Do they need to spin off different sections like direct chats, lists and newsfeeds etc? I think they need to introspect on this. The mobile redesign is crucial  because a lot of Twitter users are silent consumers of content and maybe the company needs to look at a new way of presenting the content to them. People who are there to tweet, chat and interact may find a cleaner, simpler view to be more engaging.

4) Greater integration with media
For whatever reason it may be, Twitter shines when used in conjunction with traditional media - whether it is news, serials, music or movies. There is a fantastic ecosystem of journalists, actors and musicians, their fans and their shows or events, that is waiting to be tapped better. Twitter needs to liase more closely with the media entities/individuals, both on and off-site. For example, can comments on news sites be twitter-powered? Twitter has also undertaken some fabulous experiments with TV producers in the US including Tweet to turn on your television, and live tweets displayed during shows.

5) Using Real Time location to advantage
Twitter shares with Instagram and Four Square, a sense of immediacy and urgency. We associate real time updates, breaking news, and building of conversation trends, with Twitter. This is, in fact, its most powerful and real use. In Mexico, people use Twitter to communicate about shoot-outs and commute safely. In many cities including Mumbai, crowd sourced traffic updates on twitter can help decide routes. In Major disasters, political coups and more, information is unfolded piece by piece, user by user, on Twitter. I always think that Twitter should encourage us to share location data, for our own advantage. It can then help us to buy/order/ ask for quotes from local businesses, including plumbers, gyms, grocers etc. Twitter experimented with a buy button, and I think they should go all out with that. Additionally, Starbucks has partnered with Twitter in the past to do some interesting stuff, including Tweet a Coffee (a gifting program through Twitter) and ordering through a Tweet while standing in line. 

6) Creating Groups or Hangouts
The power of Twitter is to reach out to new people, who are not your friends, or professional circle, unlike Facebook and LinkedIn. You do not have to know them, follow or friend them to interact with them. I think Groups would be a great way for Twitter to bring together enthusiasts with shared interests (lists does not do the same job). 

Friday, August 14, 2015

My first 72 hours with Windows 10

The pop up comes on my laptop screen “It’s almost time for your update to Windows 1 hour” and I click to postpone it, as I have done the last 10 times I saw this message. I really want to upgrade from Windows 7 to the new and free version. It’s just that I am apprehensive about many things – what if the update does not go smooth? What if it takes too long? And above all else, will I like it, or will it suck like Windows 8 did?

As an owner of a one year old laptop running Windows 7, I am entitled to a free upgrade, but I have procrastinated for nearly a week.

Finally, 3 nights ago, I just gave up and gave the green signal. The decision was helped by the fact that I had inadvertently downloaded a malware which caused BSOD a couple of times before I managed to disinfect it, and I was feeling a little bored at the prospect of re-installing Win 7. I started the upgrade, then, as I was very tired, I went off to sleep. I woke up to a new sign-in screen.

I have updated or reloaded Operating Systems before, and it was invariably a painful process involving ISO images, loading of separate discs and multiple reboots. This was the first time that I saw such a smooth and seamless update. I did not have to save or backup anything, all my files were exactly where they were earlier, all my programs (now reborn as ‘Windows Apps’) were intact and working as though nothing had changed. I noticed only two small changes. I had to re-install the HP Printer Drivers and Kaspersky Internet Security. Only the latest version of Kaspersky is compatible with Windows. But Windows even remembered my Kaspersky Licence Key and activated the Anti-virus automatically. Had I opted to reinstall Windows 7 on my laptop, the process would not have been so easy. Well done, Microsoft.

The beauty of the new set up is that it looks like a new Windows (and somewhat like the much-hated Windows 8) but it’s also the same Windows. There is much-needed, and well executed change in the design and UX but the basics stay the same. It does not try to re-invent the way my desktop behaves by covering it with tiles. But it looks cleaner and better. I never thought I would say this, but for the first time, the Windows interface looks cooler and nicer than the Apple OS.

Clean and bright menus and notification screens change the look of the desktop
The boot up time is way faster and the battery life seems a tad longer but it’s early days yet to form a conclusion on the latter.
The huge difference is when you fire up Edge, the new browser that has replaced Internet Explorer. It looks futuristic, clean and lean, and I think I like it even better than Chrome. I rarely used IE – I am quite sure that I will be using Chrome.

Edge looks neat, and works like a treat! Way better than IE.

There are some irritations. Games have vanished (I was looking for the much-discussed new version of Solitaire). I still cannot find where my Office programs are. To access Power Point, I had to find and open a Power Point File. And the search function does not seem to actually find anything on my laptop! I cannot find the Control Panel, and it seems to have been replaced by Settings, with fewer options than what I used to have earlier. I’m sure that I will figure all this out along the way, but as of now, I am a little puzzled.

Search cannot find PowerPoint on my own PC, but finds a lot from the Web.

One look at the Microsoft App Store and you can be fooled into thinking that you are looking at the Google Play Store. It is bright and well populated with interesting apps that you will want to download. I am not so sure what has happened to my existing programs – some of them are called apps and others (like Office 2013) are not, and have vanished.

The colorful, app-filled store is a welcome addition

All in all, what are my first impressions of Windows 10? I am happy that I upgraded, and I have no intention to roll back (which is a relief, because I have misplaced the OEM Operating System Installation CDs that Dell sent with my laptop – now, I need not worry about them). In case you do not like the upgrade, you can roll back to Windows 7 within a month, without any need for installation CDs or backups.

It feels new and yet it feels familiar, and that’s an important factor in the PC world where familiarity breeds productivity. Vintage wine, in a beautiful new bottle, is a winning recipe!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

No more writer's block : a DIY Content Creation guide

Today everyone realises the importance of blogging, publishing and sharing information as a means of personal branding. This is important if you are an entrepreneur or consultant with a service to offer, a professional who wants to command appeal in the job market, or a senior business leader projecting his/her expertise to potential clients. 

Everyone knows it is important, but few people do it! And I can understand why. For me, content creation is key to new business development, yet it is the first ball to drop when things get busy for me at work.

In this post, I aim to practically address some of the most common barriers to content creation, and offer DIY workarounds that can help tide over busy periods.

1) I don't have the time to write!
This has to be the most common excuse I have heard, especially from senior people with experience, who can potentially share the most valuable content! I understand, but I don't think that this excuse holds. Here are some workarounds for it.
All content need not be original. There is also curated content - stuff that you have read, filtered out from the general mass of information, and shared with your readers. On days and weeks when you feel that you do not have  the bandwidth to create, don't stop curating. I want to draw a distinction between curating and random sharing of links. Curation has to be relevant to your area of interest, expertise and to your target audience. Choose interesting pieces that highlight an ongoing trend, or showcase how your business area (for example - research, analytics etc.) can solve problems. Or simply share very interesting news items that people wouldn't normally stumble across.
So, in a nutshell, even if you don't have the time to write, make the time to read. You can use a good Feed Reader (I use Feedly) to aggregate the news feeds from different sites. Or you could use Twitter Lists, StumbleUpon, Flipboard, or any service that works from you.

2) I have a writer's block
Every writer suffers from writer's block, so it's hardly surprising when people drag their feet over starting a blog, writing a post on LinkedIn, or creating an article for a third party site. Maybe writing long-form posts is not your cup of tea, so here are a few alternatives that you can select from:
a) Put up your presentations on Slideshare
b) If you are a good presenter, consider recording your voice as a narrative on your presentation and uploading it to YouTube
c) Are you a photography buff? Do you find yourself taking pictures when you are out on work? Do you snap interesting pictures that give insight into people, communities or cultures? Visual content is powerful and stimulating and gets lots of eyeballs. Consider creating an Instagram Account or using Tweet Pic. Of course, you can also simply upload your pictures to any social media site.
d) Check out the compact writing style of tech blogger John Gruber on his hugely popular Daring Fireball blog. John typically quotes a news piece or blog and adds two lines on his own opinion. Simple, effective and original, and the reader can take it in without having to spend a long time reading.

3) I'm too busy to spend my day on Facebook!
This is one of the easiest barriers to tackle. Use a social media management tool like BufferHootSuite or TweetDeck. I have a free Buffer Account that lets me schedule the posts for all my social media accounts, even a week in advance. It takes just 5 to 10 minutes to do this, and then I don't have to worry about logging in and posting regularly.

4) I can't find anything to say or share
Many people think that they should only create content that's related to their work or industry. But let's face it, that may not be the content that interests you. For example, though I have an advertising background, digital advertising does not interest me as much as pure technology. I share, and write, around my interests. You will never feel a shortage of things to say if you do this. It can make the process of content creation easier, and also make you look (and feel) interesting!

5) We do great work, but we can't share it due to confidentiality
Many of us are bound by NDAs or confidentiality clauses that prevent us from sharing our work. However, there are two workarounds that still allow us to showcase what we know, without breach of client confidentiality
a. You cannot share data, but your insight, learning and experience are your personal intellectual property, and you can always talk about it.
b. You can tap into the power of re-packaging of content. Re-packaging is a concept that requires an entire post to explain it and I will probably do that later. But as of now, it simply means, milking any content that can be shared, to its maximum potential. Have you done a pro bono project on digital marketing for a charity? It can provide food for several blog posts. Eg. 5 top visual content ideas for non-profits. 5 exciting digital marketing ideas that corporates can learn from non-profits. A slideshare presentation. A LinkedIn post. You get the idea. Whatever is in the public realm, you can maximise its reach and potential.
There are so many new mediums and channels to explore too. Not new to digital media, but new for businesses to try out. Creating courses on Udemy. Live streaming events through UStream, Periscope or Meerkat. Publishing on LinkedIn. And these are just a few.

There is no getting away from the fact that creating quality content on your own requires time and effort. However, neither is it as daunting or time consuming as we feel it is. It is possible to fit some time for content creation into your schedule, and benefit your personal brand image, or your business through it!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How Apple Care sucks as much as any other service experience.

Last week, I had an experience that few people have in their lives - A visit to an Apple service centre, with a dead iPhone. Not mine.  A close friend called me to help when his iPhone 6 did not switch on, after charging. As the phone was within warranty, we were entitled to free service or replacement. 

No Genius Bar in India. We went to the nearest Apple centre at F1 Info Solutions, Dadar (West). Contrary to my expectations, this was not an exclusive Apple franchise, and serviced Asus as well as Apple products. It was interesting to see the subtle caste system that exists in the service set up for the two brands.

The list of Apple Engineers was published with pictures and designations eg. Junior Apple Engineer, Customer Service in charge etc. Asus engineers had no such distinctions.

Apple had a designated customer service rep at reception who was clearly senior and better trained. She also had an iMac while the Asus service rep had a floating laptop that kept disappearing inside with a technician.

Customers were given short shrift at the Asus counter, while Apple customers got longer face time with the service reps.

The waiting area was unfortunately common so Apple customers had to be exposed to the usual ruckus, confusion and raised voices that pervade in all Customer Care centers. 

We had to wait for around 10 minutes before the rep met us. The process of registering our complaint was smooth but from here onwards the customer service experience began to unravel.

1. She told us there is no policy of giving a temporary substitute or replacement phone. 
My comment : We are talking about a 64 GB iPhone 6 valued at above Rs.60,000A temp replacement would have been a godsend. There are third party phone repair companies that offer this convenience. Apple could even charge for it!

2. She told us that the phone would be checked by Apple and they would decide on a replacement and it would take minimum 2 days before we got any update.
My comment : No online tracking number, no helpline number was given where we could check the live status. Even HTC service did better, giving me a ticket number that I could check online.

3. After 2 days, needless to say, we had heard nothing. Repeated calls to the centre were not picked up. This part of the experience was not different from any of the service centers I have visited - or for that matter, from MTNL or any other government office.
My comment : A customer service center HAS to answer calls. And if you are Apple, then it should be table stakes that this is done. Not answering calls increases the frustration and anxiety level of consumers. 

4. On Day 3 morning, my friend visited the center and they still had no update, though it was 72 hours since the phone had been handed in. So we called up the Apple Care Helpline. It was a refreshing experience to get a customer care rep on the line within 3 minutes, and one who was polite, fluent and wanting to help. I use the term 'wanting to help', because practically, she could not help. She had no knowledge of our case, despite receiving the IMEI number, no ability to track where our phone was or get back to us. The best that she could offer, was to give us a reference number, and ask us to call her from the service center. She promised to speak to the service centre and then give us an answer
My comment : There seems to be a huge gap in communication if the service centre claimed that Apple needed to decide what to do with our phone, but Apple had no knowledge of it, and needed to speak to the service centre. Who really has the authority to replace the phone here? Apple or the service centre? And why were we not told that?

5. My friend had given my number to the service centre, and on Thursday evening (72 hours after we gave in the phone) I got a missed call from them. Refer to Point 3 - repeated calls were not picked up, so my friend visited again in the evening. The service centre not only had no fresh information, they did not know who had called or why.
My comment : Atrocious customer management, given that Apple does not get thousands of complaints every day unlike other phone manufacturers. If they have a dedicated engineers, then why can't Apple give a dedicated customer care phone number at the service center? We asked for the customer service manager to meet us, but the receptionist refused to let us access him.

6. On Saturday, we went back to the centre. This was our 4th visit. This time, we were told that we are getting a replacement phone. However, she could not say when it would come in. If it came before 4 pm on Saturday, we could collect it the same day. Otherwise, we would need to come back on Monday. She claimed that the shipment had left Bangalore. She told us that the engineer from the service center would call us when the phone came. We showed her the missed call on Thursday and requested her to check. She went inside and came back with - wait for it - our brand new replacement phone. She told us that it had 'just come'. We were too relieved to fight or question. We just took it, signed the necessary papers and left.
My comment : A gap in communication between Apple and the customer service center is OK. But this pales in comparison to the gap between the reception desk and the technicians in the same service centre. Our conclusion (which we cannot prove) is that the service center can independently decide to replace a handset that cannot be repaired, and they even have handset inventory to do so. 

The fact that the handset was replaced, with no questions asked, within 4 days. This is a decent time period, by any standard. It appears that Apple set up a system to fast track replacements, by giving the service centre autonomy to go ahead without centralising the process. Yet, it's not about the number of days, but how those 4 days were spent. As customers, we were not made to feel reassured, in the know, or happy that our complaint was being fast tracked. In these 4 days, we felt lost and it seemed no one knew or cared what was the status of our complaint. And that's something no one expects from Apple. Despite getting a new phone in a short period, the whole episode left us with a bad taste in our mouths, and that's a pity. Had they told us definitively upfront ''Come back on Saturday to collect a new phone", we would have felt better!

I am publishing this post, on behalf of my friend, who wants people to know what his experience was like. He is a hardcore Apple fan and he has been a bit shaken by this experience. I think that he may hesitate next time before he buys an Apple product. And that is a shame. I hope someone from the company reads this, and takes it up!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Don't really get Twitter? You're not alone.

Recently, my curiosity was piqued by this admission by the Twitter CFO that the social network has failed to gain a mass base. With 300 million active users, Twitter still reaches only early adopters and tech enthusiasts, according to Anthony Noto, and non-users are still left with the question, "why should I use Twitter?" No one asks why they should use Facebook - rather people feel compelled to give reasons why they do not use it. 
When I posted this news item on my own Facebook page, I accompanied it with an admission of my own - that I do not use Twitter as extensively, or as well, as I use Facebook. I was surprised by the number of people who popped up and agreed that they never 'got' Twitter - including a couple of friends with hugely popular blogs. All of us are social media users, and a new medium should not be hard to master. Some of my own friends are expert twitterati, and are more than happy to explain to me how Twitter works and what I should be doing on it.
But it's not that I don't know what to do, it's just that I don't enjoy it. It seems to me, as a qualitative researcher, that there must be a segment of people who are Twitter users, versus those who are not. And I don't mean in terms of demographics, but rather, the user mindset and attitude. 
First of all, I do not agree entirely with Noto's statement that Twitter only reaches early adopters. Two shining examples in my own household contradict his statement - my parents are both retired and they have taken to Twitter like a duck takes to water. My mom routes all her customer service complaints through Twitter. Dad pitches into political arguments, and his comments get retweeted more than a dozen times a day. Both of them read the news every morning through their Twitter Feed, since we stopped the newspaper at home 6 months ago. And I am the so-called tech enthusiast who does not get Twitter. By admitting this, I am being uncool :)
Here is my take on people who gravitate towards Twitter:
1) My guess is that people on Twitter prefer to have a control over the kind of online persona they build, rather than being 'out there' as real people, which Facebook forces them to do. My parents for example, are violently anti-Facebook. The last thing they want, is to advertise their opinions and activities to people that they know. They both started using Twitter because they could stay anonymous and browse to their heart's content. Once they were comfortable, they began to tweet.
2) They are interested in both participating in, and following, opinions and debates on current topics. On Facebook, I rarely get into debates or arguments with my friends. We agree on most major issues (that's probably why we are friends!). I would avoid getting into controversies with ex or current colleagues or clients. But Twitter is a place where one can express controversial opinions and disagree strongly with strangers opinions. What trends on Twitter? The current topics of discussion which invariably offer a chance to take either side. People take sides, and often dispose of opposition with very crude/rude remarks. This also ties in with the earlier point I made. When you preserve your anonymity, it makes it easier to participate in arguments with strangers, and express strong views.
3) They actually want to make new, like-minded friends. Some years ago, when I had more free time than I do now, I was an active member of several tech forums and discussion groups. There I made an entirely new set of friends - people in different countries whom I would never meet - but who shared a common passion or interest with me. As I became busier, I could barely manage to stay connected even to my first circle of friends. Along with Whatsapp, Facebook became a way to manage these connections, and that became a priority over engaging with new people. But there are people for whom the priority is to engage with newer people, for both personal and professional reasons. Paradoxically, the Twitter user may be more extroverted than the Facebook user, though both need to be sociable people. 
Do note, that none of these may apply if you are using Twitter purely for professional reasons. Rather, this is about the personality type of people who naturally gravitate to Twitter.
One of my friends rightly pointed out to me that it's not fair to compare Facebook and Twitter as they serve different purposes entirely. I guess what it boils down to, is that we have limited time and need to make a choice of where we spend more time. For the sake of my business, I might make an effort to maintain a strong presence on every key social media platform. But when it comes to my personal life, I will make a trade off, and chances are, I will end up spending time where I am more comfortable.
If you have experience or data to share, I would love to hear it!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Top Budget Phablets of 2015

By definition, a phablet is a phone with a screen size that exceeds 5.5 inches. When I bought my Nexus 6, I posted about my change of heart regarding phablets. They definitely make a positive difference to the browsing, typing and viewing experience. Meanwhile, clever engineering and design ensures that they are still not too bulky to fit in your palm or pocket and give you a full day's worth of battery life.

You may want the benefit of a phablet, without spending the Rs. 40,000-plus on a Galaxy Note 4 or similar super-sized phone. Here are some great (and surprisingly cheap) workhorses that won't break the bank, but will give you a good working life.

1) The Google Nexus 6
I freely admit that I have changed my mind over this one, going from being a disappointed naysayer, to a big fan. The Nexus 6 is smooth, fast and problem free. Calls are clear and do not drop, the speakerphone works well. It is a good phone, and a good browsing device. And it falls in the budget list because Flipkart is currently running a promo as a result of which you can get it for as little as Rs.25,000 on exchange, compared to the old price of Rs. 44,000. At this price, it's a fantastic bargain, and worth a look. We can't guarantee that the sale will be on indefinitely, so rush to buy it if you are interested.

2) The Galaxy Note 3 
If the Nexus and Note 3 are in the same price range, I would recommend the Nexus, as a later piece of hardware, and for the updated Android firmware. But the older Galaxy Note 3 has an edge if you are looking for the productivity apps optimised for the larger screen size, which are missing in the Nexus 6. When it came out, it received universally positive reviews for its performance, battery life and user experience. And these factors do not change just because newer phones have come out in the market. At less than Rs.30,000, although its well over a year old, it still represents a bargain. You get the S-pen with it too!

3) Asus ZenFone 2
Asus may not have rocked the scene with laptops lately, but the Taiwanese manufacturer is quietly picking up a reputation as a manufacturer of modestly priced phones that deliver a performance way beyond their price. 'Quietly' is the operative word. Asus is like the budget counterpart of HTC, another understated company that delivers some truly awesome phones. The ZenFone 2 from Asus runs the latest version of Android Lollipop, and offers a smooth performance, full HD screen and decent battery life. You get two variants - with 2 GB RAM at Rs. 15,000 and with 4 GB RAM at Rs. 20,000.

4) Galaxy Note 3 Neo
To be honest, the Note 3 is a way better buy than its budget-priced counterpart. But at its current discounted price below Rs.20,000, the Note 3 Neo merits a second look. It is essentially the Note 3, with a slightly less powerful processor, a lower-definition screen and a poorer camera. If you are willing to trade off these aspects to save nearly Rs.10,000 then the Note 3 Neo is a decent compromise. As a bonus, it's also a tad smaller, lighter and sleeker than the Note 3.

5) The Asus ZenFone 6
An understated gem of a phone, I am constantly surprised that it does not attract more praise from users. It's truly a budget phone at Rs.16,000. It also has a nice metal finish, Gorilla Glass and a quietly efficient Intel processor that matches up to most daily user requirements without eating battery life. I speak from personal experience as my mom uses this phone. It ticks the basics like good call quality, battery life and performance. The only caveat is that it may be too large for you. The Nexus 5 does a magician's trick to make you forget that it's massive. The ZenFone is HUGE. You might want to look at its smaller and more affordable sibling, the ZenFone 5. But that's not a phablet, so it's outside the scope of this review.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Five disappointments I faced as an owner of Hyundai i20 Elite

You will be hard pressed to find too many complaints about Hyundai i20 Elite. In fact, it's one car that garners overwhelmingly positive feedback from both owners and non-owners. I brought home my own i20 Elite Asta (petrol) a month ago and overall, I am a happy owner. What I'm doing in this post is flagging off little disappointments - things that I did not register when I signed up to buy the car, but realised after I actually started driving it daily.

1. They removed the second charging socket
One of the attractions of the top end Asta variant, was that it gave two charging sockets, like the top-end Ford Titanium Ecosport. In the current i20, they have removed the second charging port, without intimation. Yeah, call it a small thing but I am still a little pissed. 

2. It is under-powered
In 2010, I compared the Ritz and the old version of i20 and decided in favor of the Ritz because it had a better engine. My decision was right then and unfortunately it still is. On paper there is not much to choose, but I miss the power and throttle of my old car. Especially on the ghat section between Mumbai and Pune I could feel the lack.

3. No option for reversing alarm
Reversing onto a crowded Mumbai street is a nightmare. Pedestrians, animals and two-wheelers pay scant heed to you unless you nearly run them over, and that's not a good idea. I found that the reversing alarm/song/noise that's part of a third party AutoCop solution is useful as it at least warns oblivious people and they are more likely to stop or get out of the way. Hyundai has an inbuilt security system without this option. They do provide the strange one-side only reversing light that seems to be the standard feature on top end cars (but really? Who needs a one-side reversing light, and what use is it exactly, to whom?)

4. Not enough storage compartments 
As a driver I miss the front seat storage options. There is no place to keep a tissue box (in the Ritz, there was a shelf above the glove box). There is no ticket holder in the sun visor above the drivers dashboard. There is no coin holder for change. These are small things but they make a difference to the driver's convenience.

5. The boot does not lock till you move away from the car

This is a potential car jacking or theft threat. While you hold the smart key in your hand and stand around the car, the boot will stay open even if you lock the car. Move away a few feet and it will lock. There is also no option to lock the boot from outside, or open it from inside the car using a lever. By default the boot can be opened from outside while the engine is running. That's a little funny. It's also not very safe.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

How I fell in love with the Nexus 6 - Phablets are GOOD!

I was one of the many people who were publicly disgusted/heart-broken/annoyed when Google announced that the Nexus 6 would be an over-sized 'phablet' (and with a 6 inch screen that made it bigger than the Galaxy Note and the iPhone 6 Plus). I have never been a fan of large sized phones. I tend to believe that a phone should behave (and be sized) like a phone and people who want something more  should pick up a tablet.

Most of Asia disagrees with me. IDC reports that in 2015, phablet volumes will hit 318 million, overtaking portable PCs (tablets+laptops) by a wide margin. This growth is fuelled by emerging markets, where the smartphone is the device of choice for internet connectivity and the large screen of a phablet is considered as an advantage rather than a weakness. And with phablet prices dropping constantly, adoption rates have also picked up.

Coming back to the Nexus 6, I ordered it with some apprehension. But I needed a phone urgently and Flipkart was offering a great exchange price against my old HTC. This was the best deal I could get on short notice (I paid Rs. 28000 including shipping) so I took the plunge. And I have to say, that I adjusted to the new phone in a suprisingly short time span.

Here are the reasons why I fell in love with it:

1) It's awesome to read on a plus-sized screen!

The arrival of the Nexus 6 co-incided with the arrival of my first pair of reading glasses. It was certainly the right time to appreciate the super large, super clear screen and the HUGE font size that it can display. It definitely made the reading experience smoother. Over the past week, I have noticed that I reach less often for my iPad or laptop, and I do more browsing on the phone. I understand now why so many people buy these giant sized phones. It certainly improves the browsing experience by leaps and bounds. My mom has an Asus Zen Fone 6 (another 6 incher) and she also confirms that she has substituted it for her tablet. 

2) It's not as big as you fear it is!

One of my biggest fears with a phablet, was how funny it would look when I used it for calls (like holding a purse to your ear, as one of my friends had derisively described it). Thankfully, the design and ergonomics of phablets are constantly being improved by manufacturers. Motorola has proved its design chops by reducing the bezel size and doing away with the physical button in favor of capacitive buttons. It may come as a revelation to you that the Nexus 6 is almost the same size as the iPhone 6 Plus while adding half an inch of real estate to the screen. Still there is only so much of bezel management you can do, and it cannot mitigate the fact that this is a massively sized phone. But Motorola has done some magic that makes the phone easy to manage. As you can see from the pictures I posted, the Nexus 6 is not so unwieldy that it becomes unmanageable. In situations where you are sitting comfortably, it's easy to type. But I have more or less forgotten about one handed typing while carrying a shopping bag! Those days are behind me.

The funny thing is, now when I handle smaller phones including the Galaxy Nexus and the HTC One that I upgraded from, they feel really small and cluttered compared to my new phablet. I don't know if I will go back to a smaller phone so soon - I know that I would miss this experience.

3) Battery Life does not suck
Poor battery life used to be one of the strikes against phablets - something that early adopters of the first Galaxy Note would remember well. Screens are the biggest drain of battery and today's super high resolution screens with qHD, Super Amoled etc. are battery sippers. One of the reasons that phablets are huge is that the huge screen also requires a super-large capacity battery to power it for a decent number of hours. Here is where the Nexus 6 really scores. Not only does it have decent battery life (provided you don't abuse it), it also charges really fast through the supplied adaptor. You can bring it upto 60% charge in 20 minutes and that is really fast. 

4) The pure joy of unadulterated Android
I have used and praised HTC Sense, and appreciated that Samsung is improving on TouchWiz. But there is nothing that can beat the simplicity and pure joy of undiluted Android, and the good news is that it gets better with each subsequent release. I used Lollipop on the HTC for a few months, but it barely gave me a flavor of the OS compared to the way it operates on the Nexus. I started out my Android journey with Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy Nexus 5 years ago, and I truly appreciate how much Google has refined the operating system over time. Stripped down to basics, simple, liquid-smooth  is how I would describe it. It does not get in the way of the tasks you want to do with your phone, and that's the way it should be. Apple could learn a thing or two from Android at this stage. I have heard complaints that Google should create special apps that use the large screen, like Samsung has done with the Note 4. But somehow, I am OK if they don't do that. I am ok with the vanilla experience, because to my mind, that's the essence of the Nexus. It's for people who do not want the bells and whistles that come in the shape of fancy branded features. And if they do want them, there's a host of custom ROMs and they can pick which bells and whistles they want. Incidentally, I will not be rooting or loading a custom ROM, at least in the immediate future. I want to savor the awesomeness that Google has created. Believe me, it is awesome. And it's way better on the Nexus 6, than on the Nexus 5! 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Troubleshooter's Guide - Fixing Automatic Disconnection of Intel Wi-Fi Adapter

Google for "Intel(R) Dual Band Wireless-AC 7265 Disconnection Problem" and you will see a slew of complaints across forums. This wireless adapter came loaded in my Dell Latitude E-Series 5450 machine and caused me a lot of trouble.

Put simply, the wi-fi would disconnect everytime the laptop went into sleep or hibernation mode, and it would not re-connect without running the troubleshooter/re-setting the network adapter.

A call to Dell Support did not prove helpful as they recommended reloading Windows (Thanks Dell!) Luckily I could not apply that solution because I have lost my Win 7 OEM Discs - I need to figure out how to get them replaced, and that's a different story!

Anyway, coming back to the problem at hand, after reading a lot of forums, here is what solved my problem.

1. Open Device Manager from the Search Bar

2. Under Network Adapters, select the Intel Adapter AC 7625

3. Right Click and select Properties

4. The Properties Box contains several tabs. Select the Advanced Tab and make the following settings

Sleep on WoWLan Disconnect - select disabled

Throughput Booster - enabled

Transmit Power - set at 5 (Highest)

Wake on Pattern Match - enabled
Wake on Magic Packet - Enabled
Next, go to the Power Management Tab and make the following settings
- Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power (enabled)
- Allow this device to wake the computer (enabled)

After these changes, my Intel Adapter works without any disconnections. Write back and let me know if this fix worked for you.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Troubleshooter's Guide - Frequent disconnections in MTNL Broadband

When I learnt last month that I am eligible for one of MTNL's 8 mbps plans, I upgraded with lots of excitement. But the last 30 days have been a nightmare.

The connection goes down literally every 4-5 minutes, and comes back up on its own after a few minutes. These casual brief disconnections play havoc with the usability of the internet, especially with large downloads. I could literally do nothing on my 8 mbps broadband (yes, I was getting that speed till the modem, despite MTNL's initial apprehension that I could not get it, being more than 1 km away from the exchange).

I did some research and figured out two things

1) I have a noisy line (literally, it makes a lot of noise)
2) The broadband line drops are related to a low SNR/ noise margin. SNR (Signal to Noise Ratio) compares the level of the signal with the amount of inteference. A higher value is desirable. A lower SNR means a more unstable line. There is also a relation between line speed and SNR. At a lower speed, the SNR level is usually higher. You need to find the optimum balance between speed and SNR.

Both the above values are also related to the distance from the exchange. The closer you are, the better the quality of your line. 

I monitored the SNR/ Noise Margin value for a few days using the excellent Router Stats utility. Then I figured out the danger zone for SNR. Every time the SNR dropped below 6, my broadband would slow down, and when it dropped below 1, the line would disconnect. 

High fluctuation in SNR/ Noise Margin, and frequent drops below 6 dB. Using : Router Stats Lite

So I visited the MTNL office and spoke to one of the officers in charge (go with some time in hand for this!). I requested him to get my line checked - especially the 'joints'. And secondly, I asked him to get the speed reduced/ capped at around 5 mbps. I have not yet gone back to a 4 mbps plan. For this month, I am testing out if I can get a stable connection at this speed or not. I am willing to pay for 8 mbps, even if I get a slight increase in speed.I have the luxury of this option because MTNL's price differential between a 4 mbps and 8 mbps plan is very small. Currently the 4 Mbps plan with 50 GB download limit is Rs. 1250 and the 8 Mbps plan is Rs. 1350.

While I was writing this blog post, the powers-that-be decided to drop my connection speed below 1 Mbps and look at the immediate improvement in SNR values:

When speed dropped, Noise Margin improved immediately

Of course, the ideal scenario would be, a high SNR with a high speed, but as I said earlier, you have to find the sweet spot for your connection, the lowest possible SNR you can live with and the speed you get at that SNR. For this, you need to monitor the connection for a little time and test at different speeds.

This whole episode re-inforced an important lesson for me. Speed is not everything. A stable line is more useable and valuable than a fast line. Without stability, speed is nothing.

Update : 29/03/2015 : My speed is still stuck at less than 1 mbps and the connection is rock solid. It has not dropped even once. I think I am going to be forced to trade off the higher speed, and stay with something below 4 mbps.

These are the results of my test:
  • At 1 mbps, there has been no disconnection since last 24 hours and noise margin is 24-plus
  • At 4 mbps, there are disconnections at least every 2 hours and noise margin is between 0 and 14
  • At 8 mbps, internet is not useable, and disconnects every 5 min. noise margin keeps dropping as I have shown in my graph.
My conclusion is that I would probably be better off with a 2 Mbps connection (sigh) but if MTNL manages to improve my line quality, maybe I can live with 4 mbps.

Edit (May, 2015) : After repeated complaints, and with the assistance of an extremely co-operative manager at my local exchange, the cabling to my house was replaced by MTNL. I replaced the last mile internal wire in my flat at my own cost. Now, at 4 Mbps, I have  a rock solid connection since the past month. Not a single drop!