Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Phone have all become smart

Once upon a time, you could only make voice calls and text a message with a mobile phone; and all those phones were basic or feature phones. Around 2000, Research in Motion introduced Qwerty keypads, brought in features like emails and instant messengers, and positioned BlackBerries as good enough to do office-related work. These devices came to be called smartphones because they made office workers “smart” and increased work productivity.

Smartphones are typically expensive, since they have advanced features. They have bigger storage space, faster processors, wider screens, touchscreens, advanced browsers for surfing websites, and they can be used to download applications and run them. Apple added a popular dimension to it with its iStore from where apps could be downloaded.

Now basic phones have turned smart. There’s this typical anecdote of a basic phone user cocking a snook at a smartphone user by playing Angry Bird, sending emails and uploading photos on the go to his Facebook. The game-changer was Google’s Android operating system, mainly because of the open-source nature of Android. Samsung’s Galaxy series, LG and Indian models like Lava began bridging the divide. Android created quite a wave that has still not abated.

Nokia, the handset many Indians will easily associate with, has been a tad late to wake up; but has caught on. Instead of reinventing the wheel it went back to its good-old S40 operating system, dating back to 1999 and on which its basic phones operate. It tweaked the OS sufficiently to make applications, which usually work only on smartphones, to run on it. So, we have a series of Asha phones that Nokia hopes will give handsets that operate on Android a run for its money.

V Ramnath, Director Sales, says, "Our next billion consumers are young and urban, hyper-social and hyper-aspirational. They want the smartest phones at prices they can afford."

Not just games, the new S40 phones also come with many utility features embedded in them, like eBay, ngPay, ESPN Cricket, Bookmyshow, Yatra.com, BharatMatrimony and Bejan Daruwalla's Ganesha Speaks. Having such sites embedded means the average no-so-tech savvy user finds accessing them much easier.

They also come with improved Nokia browser that compresses data much like the market leader Opera Mini browser. Data compression means you pay less for internet connection.

Blurring of the smartphone-feature phone divide will mean more and more users getting online on their mobile, validating the hypothesis that the next generation will experience internet first on their mobiles rather than on PCs.

(This was published in the Wireless World column of The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lure of the instant message

The recent report that telecom operators lost $13.9 billion in revenue to social messaging applications has got many wondering if our good-old SMS is on its death-bed. It may be early to write off SMS, but it’s a fact that IM apps like Nimbuzz, Fring, WhatsApp etc are rapidly gaining popularity.

These apps are nothing new -- they have been around for many years. But we now see a huge surge their adoption mainly because of availability and affordability of better-quality of handsets. The biggest advantage of these IM apps is that messaging and calling friends who are using the same app is free of cost. Even if the other person is not using the same app, the cost is minimal. Incidentally, Fring recently dropped the call rates.

Nimbuzz Ping, for example, helps users save on even data charges. Vikas Saxena, CEO, Nimbuzz India, told me how this works. "It allows users appear online and available to their contacts even when Nimbuzz app is closed. When contacts want to reach them, Nimbuzz Ping delivers free SMS prompting users to log in to Nimbuzz and communicate.”

There are so many things you can do with these apps. Users can also play games, compete with friends, check live cricket scores, get astrology forecasts etc. You can also video chat and chat in groups.

Figures testify the surge in usage of IM apps. WhatsApp users send more than 2 billion messages daily up from 1 billion in October. Even much smaller Pinger users sent 2 billion messages in January up from 1.7 billion in December. Some 150,000 new users register daily on Nimbuzz which has 15 million uses from India.

Other than the free-of-cost attraction, whta’s driving their adoption is the convergence factor -- you can add Google Talk, Facebook, Yahoo IM, Windows Live IM etc -- a huge convenience when your buddies are on different platforms.

For example, you may be a regular Facebook user, but your close friends are on Google Talk and Yahoo! Messenger. You can still chat with all of them via one app like Nimbuzz, even if they are not on Nimbuzz -- a one-stop shop for all communication needs of a user.

But, there are downsides too. One, many apps are heavy and if your mobile is low on space and memory, they could slow down the device. Two, since they need a data plan, IM apps are only as good the connectivity, which in turn depends on the device and the network provider. Three, keeping the app on for long time could drain the battery. And four, shared files could be infected harming the device and compromising information.

Telecom operators who are losing money aren’t just sitting back. Some of them in France, Italy, Germany and South Korea are currently testing a new messaging system called Joyn. They are targeting what they see as a drawback of current IM apps -- that these apps need to be downloaded, and to enjoy free-of-cost facility, both the parties should have the same IM installed.

The proponents of Joyn say that their messaging system will come embedded in all phones, very much like the current texting facility, but it will go step further and allow users to chat and share files. But these are early days, and Joyn is indeed a long way off.

Let us be realistic: texting wouldn’t just go away like that. But, for sure, its usage may see a gradual decline, as more and more people, especially the youth, adopt smartphones, data plans get more affordable and more free wi-fi hotspots become available.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope; and a shortened version of this appeared in my column Wireless World in today's Times of India, Bangalore)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pongala goof-up: police file cases against devotees

This is really bizarre. Police filing cases against thousands of women who were offering pooja -- not in any remote village, but in the heart of Kerala's capital, Thiruvananthapuram. Their contention: the women were violating a court order against assembly of large number of people, and blocking traffic on main roads.

Well, the background goes like this.

The annual religious festival is called Pongala, an exclusively women's event. On that particular day (this year, it was yesterday), thousands of women, line the main roads and lanes surrounding the main venue, Bhagavathi temple at Attukal, some 2 km from the more famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, in Thiruvananthapuram. They cook porridge made of rice, sweet brown molasses, coconut gratings, raisins etc, and offer it to Devi. 

With the number of women taking part in this ritual swelling over the years, the crowd has been spilling over to main roads and lanes at a bigger radius around the temple, bringing traffic and any normal activity to a complete halt. As the festival got more popular, the ritual is now conducted in about a dozen temples across the state.

To anyone in Kerala, this is a day when normal life comes to a standstill, in a few kilometers surrounding the Attukal temple. The crowds in other towns aren't as big as in Thiruvananthapuram, but they are growing.

There's a high court order that bans taking out processions, holding roadside meetings and obstructing traffic. The order was passed in the light of many political parties holding such snap meetings and holding up normal life.

Is Pongala, any different? Normal life obstructed, yes. But this is definitely not like bandhs or party meetings called out of the blue. The temple ritual has been happening over many, many years. The date of this festival is well-marked out in all calendars. Everyone in Kerala knows very well about this festival, and they plan their schedule accordingly. It's highly unimaginable that people's lives have been thrown out of gear, when everyone knows well in advance about this festival and the fact that main roads and lanes in that locality will be blocked on that particular day.

So, how come this year alone, two police officers filed cases? Defies logic. The only reason I can think of is the approaching Piravom by-election and an attempt by someone to paint the administration in a bad light. Soon after the cases were filed, some parties took out a procession condemning the police move. The chief minister Oommen Chandy, acting swiftly, placed police officers under suspension.

But the chain events was wholly unnecessary; and just shows how logic and commonsense are easily given a go-by to achieve some cheap brownie points.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A web on your behalf

In a scramble to stay afloat, websites are tailoring content to user preferences. Everyone is doing it in some way, but Yahoo!, which is intensely feeling the heat of the competition, is on an overdrive to harness the power of the social content. It’s trying its best to be different by pegging its vision to bring meaning, as different from relevance, to the web.

“We would like to be the trusted broker on the internet, where the user will control everything, where web will be, not on your request but, on your behalf,” says Blake Irving, Executive Vice-President and Chief Product Officer, Yahoo!. He sees “meaning” more personal and deeper than “relevance”.

As part of a slew of improvisations, Yahoo! has rolled out a “refreshed’ homepage that has customized content -- meaning, when logged in, different users see different contents. It works on an algorithm called CORE or Content Optimization and Relevance Engine, developed by R&D team in India. “It understands the user’s reading pattern and provides a fare closer to what the user likes,” said Shouvick Mukherjee, VP & CEO Yahoo! India R&D at a demonstration of the product.

Another innovation is “Conversations”. Here you start a discussion by posting a comment to a group of friends, who get notified via email. As they join, their jottings appear on top of the article. Unlike the conventional comments at the end of the article, this is a discussion within a group; and the conversations are visible only to those who are part of it.

Blake Irving describes this as Real social networking. “The model that will survive is not broadcast social, like what Facebook is, where you don’t want to share information with 1,500 people. The model we are building is one that is around groups of people with content that you care about; where you can share, for example, an extreme political view with a group that has similar views or with people you feel comfortable having an argument with.” The premise is content will be “meaningful” when conversation is private as against with an entire friend’s list as on Facebook.

Alongside customization, Yahoo! is scaling up video quality using the Publishing Platform developed by the Bangalore R&D team. The hassle of buffering is overcome with Adaptive Streaming, Transcoding and caching that reduce congestion by factoring networking conditions and device feedback. “Though videos are hosted from Singapore, its caching servers in Mumbai, Chennai and New Delhi, give users better experience,” said Suresh Hosakoppal, Vice-President, Service Engineering & Operations.