Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Digital gift cards

The festive season in December has a unique charm. It’s not only Christmas but also the turn of a new year. Like all such joyful occasions, it’s a season of giving; an opportunity to renew and reinforce bonds, of family, friendship or togetherness. It’s also the time to loosen the purse strings, and surprise our loved ones with gifts.

But not all have the luxury of time and convenience to wind through chocked traffic, and trawl crowded markets and malls in search of the perfect present. Cyberspace is a good alternative enabling us to sit in the comforts of your home, and sift through products, review prices and specs.

Online malls have been proliferating as shoppers feel there is more variety in terms of categories, products and prices online. Some of them are: Indiatimes, Ebay, Naaptol, Myntra, Futurebazar, Tradus, Homeshop18, Indiaplaza; the list goes on. There are also category-specific malls like Flipkart for books or Seventymm for movies.

When our loved ones are far away, often our plans to present them a gift remains just a idea, given the hard logistics involved in picking up a gift, getting it packed, and couriered. Digital gift cards, which are popular abroad, are now fast catching on here. One, it gives you the advantages of online shopping; two, it’s easy and quick; and three, it gives the recipient the choice to get himself or herself something that he or she really loves.

Gifting online is hassle free. Go to one of the websites, like Giftcardsindia, Giftbig or Infibeam, and pick up the favourite card of the desired denomination, enter the shipping address and pay. Websites allow sorting gifts by category, occasion or price. The gift card can also be electronically sent by email. The recipient can redeem the card at the outlet physically or shop online and get the gift couriered.

Buyers can customize and add personal messages. These cards have validity period of 3 to 12 months giving recipients liberty to wait to get their gift of choice. May be nothing like personally visiting a friend to give a gift, but given the fact that not all our loved ones are nearby, digital gift cards are fast becoming popular.

(This article appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Serious Networking

Besides buzzing social networking sites, there is a segment that’s quietly growing and becoming popular -- the professional networking sites. It’s a platform that shares characteristics with social media but conversations are serious academic and business issues,

“Are you on LinkedIn?” is a common question. One of the answers is: “Well, I am; but not so much into it. By the way, is it like Facebook?”

In a way, it’s: the Facebook of professional networking. With 135 million members worldwide and 12 million in India, it’s huge database of employees. With LinkedIn recently opening an R and D centre in Bangalore, the focus on India is bound to Increase. It also sees India as region where it can grow exponentially.

Since a full profile is important to make LinkedIn work well (by getting the right contacts and networks), many see it as a job portal. Though it does help in career advancement, the site is much more.

There are many interesting features, like Answers -- where questions can be asked and answered. Users can post questions related to any subject. Queries could be like: “What are the options available to control high inflation in India?” “What are the terms and conditions for health insurance in India?” Specific queries stand better chances of getting accurate answers. And, answers could come from anyone in the world. Users can also showcase their expertise by answering others’ questions. The section can be searched in-depth with key words.

Another feature that works well is Groups. It’s like other online communities, Yahoo! Group or Google  Group, but the difference here is the members are a niche crowd, and conversations are serious and targeted. Users can discover the popular talk points in their industry, follow views of influential people and even win their attention by taking part in the conversation.

There are company pages on LinkedIn. For members, it's a great way to research companies, see what kind of people work there, and even review the company products and services that are used. For companies, it provides a peek into the individuals behind the brand and highlight how members use your products.

There are other similar networks. Six or seven years back, Ryze was very popular in India. Besides LinkedIn, Apna Circle and Silicon India are networks that are popular. They work much the same way, but with different focus areas.

(This article was published in The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Notebook of a different

Not all good products are popular; many are under-rated, under-utilized. Microsoft OneNote, for example -- a store-room where you can put everything from random notes and documents to photos and videos; and even audio and video clips. Contents can be backed up online, organised and searched.

This eight-year old product is quite user-friendly after many revisions; and comes with Microsoft Office suite. There are many reasons why this is such an excellent tool for anyone who handles large volumes of data of various forms.

Write anywhere
OneNote is like a real notebook. You open a page, click anywhere and type or draw anywhere on the page! You can’t do that on your MS Word or Notepad or on the email. Also, what you have scribbled, can be clicked and moved to another place on the same page! You can insert photos, tables, screenshots, links, symbols, mathematical equations, time and date stamps; and attach web-links and files of any form.

The best part -- use OneNote as a tape recorder or video recorder to capture a song, speech or conversation. New notes are linked to the time the audio or video recording was done. The recording can be fast-forwarded or rewound 10 seconds or 10 minutes.

Within one page, new sections can be opened. The page or the section or the notebook can be saved on the web, on a network or on the PC, and set to private or public. Pages can be shared with others, who can review or edit the contents, a handy option in collaborative projects; and multiple versions of editing can be viewed. Pages are saved online on Microsoft Skydrive, which can be accessed using the Hotmail or Messenger or XBox Live password. The Hotmail homepage displays the Skydrive link.

Evernote & Google Docs

There are similar products. Evernote came after OneNote, and has similar features, and caught on well, mainly because it’s easily accessible across devices and platforms. The big advantage of OneNote is, it comes with MS Office and can be accessed with Hotmail account. Another product is Google Doc, which can be accessed with Gmail password. But its use is limited to creating documents, presentations, speadsheets, drawings and tables, and sharing them to view and edit in collaborative projects.

In January, Microsoft launched a OneNote app for iOs, but we are yet to see one for Android, which Evernote has. Seeing the Android popularity, it wouldn’t be long before Microsoft has one for it.

(This article was published in The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Life in IM yuga

It's eons since we last wrote a letter, took the pains to go to the post office, buy stamps, stick them, and post it. Email is the order of day, or that's what we thought. But when I heard this confession of my friend -- "I don't send long mails to anyone. I either sms or IM or call" -- I wondered if humankind had turned another corner.

I checked my email’s “send folder”, and was surprised to find that in the past six months, there were just 4 long emails I had sent -- 3 of them to my cousin (who is abroad, and not on chat) and another to my friend (who is mostly available on chat). The rest of the emails were official correspondence or forwards or greetings; none of the personal mails were more than three or four paras long. Mails -- the snail variety or the email -- were, once upon a time, ran into a couple of pages.

Communication has become not just easier but shorter. With a variety of ways to share messages, there’s a feeling in the back of our minds that all our friends are just a phone call or an email away. Their proximity, virtual though, is taken for granted. No one has ever gone away; they are around, as blobs on the chat list. Lost threads of conversations are picked up and carried on effortlessly, many months, and even years later; as if there never was a break.

There’s no going down the memory lane, trying to bridge the passage of time. There’s no catching up with each other’s lives, simply because there’s so much of our lives on display on social networking sites -- career changes and holiday visits; even family alliances and visits of stork. If ever you plead ignorance about them, get ready to be greeted with embarrassing exclamations like, “O, you didn’t know?! You didn’t see my Gmail status message?” Or, “Where were you? I had put up photos on Facebook and there were so many comments!”

In this instant messaging yuga, there are no conversations, no discussions, no perspectives, no contexts. Everything is instant, to the point, to a purpose. Life on the info-bahn is a pause-less cruise bereft of thought process. Patience has worn out. Don’t we all go through this urge to update others or to receive others’ updates?

Life’s progress has now been compressed into a series of status messages and tweets; comments, and more comments. When is the last time we sat down to write a long mail to a friend or relative, long narratives and vivid descriptions, of crests and troughs of our lives?
Last year, when Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook’s revamped messaging platform, he famously said, “Email is dead.” Has it, finally? May be we all log into our emails. But what do we end up reading, and what do we send one another?

(This article was published in The Times of India, Bangalore, today)