Wednesday, December 19, 2007


This is the gist of a short presentation I had made to HR students on an MBA course. Since I myself have never 'studied' these things; it is merely an arrangement of a few lessons I'd been taught by time. While some lessons were gleaned from successes, quite a few were learned through mistakes :-).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

WiFi, Cellphones and us - Wireless Frying?

In its entry on the microwave oven wikipedia says,

Cooking food with microwaves was discovered by Percy Spencer while building magnetrons for radar sets at Raytheon. He was working on an active radar set when he noticed a strange sensation, and saw that a peanut chocolate bar he had in his pocket started to melt. Although he was not the first to notice this phenomenon, as the holder of 120 patents, Spencer was no stranger to discovery and experiment, and realized what was happening. The radar had melted his candy bar with microwaves. The first food to be deliberately cooked with microwaves was popcorn, and the second was an egg, which exploded in the face of one of the experimenters.
So, thats how back in 1945 Spencer unwittingly discovered that his radar could cook him and his popcorn as well ;-). Anywayz, over half a century on, we're literally swimming in a sea of microwave signals. TV towers, telecom repeaters, cellular networks ... and 802.11 - the relatively humble WiFi.

What prompted my short study and this post was a recent BBC report WiFi: Why Worry?
lots of blog noise and the fact that I have a WiFi router in my house.

I've bulletted the 'givens' as follows:

1. Natural Electromagnetic radiation exists around us, the most obvious being sunlight (visible and otherwise).

2. There have been studies on the thermal as well as non-thermal effects of EM. The relative biological 'danger' depends on (a) The frequency (b) The power (c) Duration of exposure and an implied (d) Distance from source.

3. Following are some stats I could collect:

a. WiFi normally operates at around 2.4 GHz, 100 mW peak power? typically at 50 ft range.

b. A cellphone operates 800 MHz to 1900 Mhz with upto 2W peak and .25W average at typically 0 ft range!

c. A cellphone tower operates at a similar frequency range, power 20 to 30 W continuous at 100 ft plus range.

d. Microwave ovens emit around 1000W peak though human exposure due to typical leaks out of the box are less than .1 W.

On one hand there are many a scare sites that say - "look, if this stuff can 'pop' corn and break down DNA structure of bio materials inside a petri dish - it can fry you too! So cover yourself with anti-EMF paint and wear a Aluminium Foil Deflector Helmet"

Here's a seriously fun study that some MIT dudes conducted with the AFDH.

At the other extreme are many 'studies' (some say - industry sponsored) as well which conclude that normal human exposure to these is 'fine' since they haven't literally found anyone 'directly' fried or even made cancerous directly through WiFi or cellphone! - at least statistically.

So, where does that leave us? The usual middle ground for now - avoid em as much as possible - for instance - by not gluing the cellphone next to ones ears for over a few mins, not fixing the WiFi router under the office chair (does someone do that?) and not drying a cat inside the microwave oven! ;-)

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Last Supper at (172181 x 93611) pixel square resolution

Post Da Vinci Code the book and the movie, the Last Supper does not require much of an introduction. Many myths and stories surround this masterpiece. The only problem is - there are so many look-alikes, enhancements and fakes around that perhaps not many have seen the real thing (which of course, is not hanging at my neighborhood museum either ;-) ).

Thats when I bumped into a BBC online news piece saying they'd found musical notes hidden in the pattern of breads as arranged on the table. I don't know if that harmony of patterns (== music) was a deliberate act or a natural coincidence. How I wish Leonardo Da Vinci had a personal blog in his times ;-)

What really impressed me was this related website (the tech part :-)) Here's the link to the site we anyone can now see the original masterpiece in as much detail as a non-critical eye can perceive! and in an amazingly smooth flash interface.

Site: Heltadefinizone

(teaser site screen-shot)

They say, at 16 billion pixels, its the highest definition picture in the world! Here are the specs of the image:


Size: pixel (172181 x 93611)
Color depth: 16 bit per channel


May, 7 - 2007
Number of shots: 1677


CPU: 2 Two Quad Core AMD Opteron™ processors
16 Gigabyte RAM memory
2 Terabyte hard disk space

Photographic Equipment:

Camera: "Nikon D2Xs"
Lens: "AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4D IF-ED II"
Real time acquisition Software: Nikon Camera Control Pro
Postprocessing and real time verification software: Nikon Capture NX

The technology partners for this project include AMD, Nikon, Clause, DiAugustini, iNet and powered by HP. Really impressive stuff. I'd recommend this site - this is research grade material.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who can be an entrepreneur? Part I

Lately I've been reading on 'who' can be/ is an entrepreneur. Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be - what normally/ usually is the profile of a person who becomes an entrepreneur? Is it an 'in-the-mind' phenomenon? How much do external factors influence? What roles are played by family, upbringing, education, society and others?
And finally, which of these factors influence success? And what is 'success' in the first place?

Whew! quite a few questions in one breath and none new. I'm sure these have already been dissected and studied elsewhere to the minutest details - I'm also learning, my way. I'd first attempt to review some articles written by different people and analyze them and then maybe, over a period of time try and answer at least some of the questions I'd started with.

I'll start with this recent interesting article that appeared in the businessworld magazine written by none other than the Nobel laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh - Muhammad Yunus.
Here is the link to the online version of the article.

Muhammad Yunus provided me a really wonderful insight - entrepreneurship is innate in almost every human being! Whats even more interesting about this 'gyan' is that it is a demonstrated fact and not a mere management-guru rhetoric. And demonstrated at a scale that should silence even the staunchest shadow critics - 90,000 'part time beggars' transformed into entrepreneurs with nothing more than 20$ worth of seed funding in each. Excellent!

Two things worth pondering
1. Definition of success. It shows success is relative. (I guess the happy beggar is in his own way as happy as Bill Gates - at least almost ;-) )

2. Incentive for the investor. I cannot but accept the fact that one common thread that runs through most entrepreunial stories - someone who acted as the catalyst - supplying either the push or the money and expecting something in return. All such catalysts also set their sights on 'returns' to be rightly expected. Will all investors be satisfied with the kind of returns that say, 'the Bangladesh experiment' brings, coupled with the higher level of micro-management that might be involved - I don't know. Again, the 'success' criterion on returns are different for different investors.

Thats all for now, part II continues this journal focusing on a different article.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gphone , Android and the Open Handset Alliance

I hereby 'relay' announce 'the' Mobile Revolution - The quiet November Storm - as I hope this initiative will be known down the lane by future generations (and I thought iPhone was the coolest thing for the year)

What is really unnerving is the false sense of calm (say, viz. the Apple Way) that seems to accompany the announcement. This IS the most understated product announcement I have come across. Well, Google being Google does not really have to try hard ;-). Here's the link to the official google blog:
Official Google Blog: Where's my Gphone?

And if you've got time, you might as well check out this cute video on the Open Handset Alliance:

Here's a gist of what has/is to happen:

  • The 'Gphone' that the enthusiasts had speculated has arrived! albeit as quoted from their intro video "as a cool moniker for 'Android' ".
  • Android heralds the Open Handset Alliance. A consortium of the top stars in the mobile manufacturing ecosystem.
  • What this means to developers - An absolutely OPEN, FLEXIBLE and POWERFUL mobile software platform. WOW!
  • So if I now want to make a mobile phone exclusively for my dog which uses barks as dial commands and special barks as ringtones and runs a dating service for dogs in the locality - I should be able to.
  • There will be no such thing as a lowly limited third party app! Every app will be as good as a native app and anyone can add/remove modules to one's satisfaction.
  • So - move over Symbian, MS, iPhone and what not, make way for the Android. (Hmm..., sorry guys hold on a while longer - even the OHA SDK is slated to be released only by November 12 - the devices themselves... - we'll figure out along the way :-) )

And here's one introducing Android (which had been acquired by Google)

Three Cheers!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Project Management Tools

Most software projects nowadays get implemented by multiple people/teams working in multiple geo-locations and time zones. How does one collaborate, plan and track the project in terms of modules, peoples and milestones?

Since I've had a few queries on this subject, I thought I'd publish this list here. I have personally used ZoHo (recent), AceProject and Quickbase. Some are free, some paid, some hosted and some open-source. So just make your pick Wink

1. ZoHo
- Lots of Ajax.
- Time track, gantt charts etc... feature rich.
- Free signup.
- Subscription plans starting from $0 to $80 per month.

2. AceProject
- Used by many firms.
- Solid and simple time tested framework and interface.
- Available as hosted solution or in source code!
- An exhaustive list of features.
- Upgradeable free starter subscription.
- Subscription from $0 to $99 per month.

3. Projectory
- Free! (Do make a donation)
- OS Agnostic
- Un-complex

4. SourceForge Enterprise
- Integration with svn (subversion) is a great feature.
- Free download for upto 16 users.
- Very powerful

5. QuickBase
- Used much by Fortune 100 companies (so says its site)
- IT projects management is just a part of its wider array of offerings
- I guess its the costliest of the lot (need to confirm though)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Entrepreneurship and me

My tryst with entrepreneurship started on a rather weird note. Back when I was in school, it was an incredibly twisted word with an equally twisted pronunciation. From the time that I can remember, I've been a creative person. So as kid, cardboard boxes lying around would get wheels added and get turned into toy buses; There'd be NO electronic or electric or mechanic device in my house that I'd NOT opened and put back together (mostly in one piece) ever after I'd found how to use screw-drivers. By the time I was in high school, I was playing with diodes, LEDs, capacitors and soldering irons. But there was one tool that I'd admit had provided a really wide canvas - the humble PC. I would've been eleven when I wrote my first program in BASIC - all I can remember are the green pixelated dots that formed the characters on the 'screen' of its monochrome display (I'd reckon, most mobile phones today have screens and processors that are an order of magnitude better than those). Anyways, by the time I graduated as an electronics and communications engineer, I'd made my mark as a hobby programmer (thanks to a few of my seniors who'd introduced me to C++ and VB), I even got offers from a few schools near our college to develop custom software for them (While I did a few demos, none of the 'deals' materialized) and it felt good! I had a dream of being able to do this as my vocation - but then it had to remain a dream. Personally, it was an intention to completely express a God given talent - creativity. I consider myself compulsively creative - almost a software artist and so when I got a chance, I thought that the best way to express it would be in the freedom offered by an entrepreunial context. Creating, understanding and solving give me an 'adrenaline rush' - my highs. My choice of not joining a regular IT company (I was even placed into one through campus recruitment) was more providence than a real 'choice' because at that time I really did not have anything else to chose from. My association with Tandem Infotech (a 30-40 member strong IT company which was a part of my friend Jayadev's Tandem Group) was supposed to be a stop-gap arrangement till I'd found something else (I'd even written the GRE). My initial role there, as a consultant, was to come up with an anti-piracy solution for their cafe management software. Along the way, I got to work on a few mobile games as a part of an international project and then in late 2002/3 (after a brief crisis), it was decided to spin off the then nascent mobile arm into an independent division and eventually into a separate entity in which I'd also be a significant stake holder (if not, I'd probably have looked elsewhere for a living). And thus started my real rendezvous with entrepreneurship (though the new company Tinfo Mobile actually got registered only in 2005). Its been a wonderful journey. I have learned a lot though I'd admit I haven't earned as much ;-). Here's a gist of my most important takeaways: 1. Be optimistic, but expect failures - they are bound to come - in droves. 2. There will be the occasional good times - most projects do go right, media spotlight etc... 3. Not every entrepreneur ends up with a money-spinning juggernaut of an enterprise. 4. The entrepreneur's role gives one a chance to work against all conventions and established norms. 5. Money does not grow on trees. Ideas alone cannot seed money trees. Ideas can grow into revenues, if combined with - people who can implement it - people who can sell it - money to fund the above two - money to market it - lady luck / divine providence. 6. Abraham Maslow was right. 7. Work towards customer delight and at the same time NEVER promise what you're not confident of delivering. 8. A satisfied customer is your best asset and an unsatisfied one could prove to be your undoing. 9. Let go when you must! Nothing lasts for ever and there are no guarantees. 10. Avoid getting emotions involved in taking pure business decisions. 11. The core team must be dedicated to a plan and a goal. People with other commitments and other goals will inevitably stall progress. 12. While one needs to multi-task, there would be one thing that one is really good at. Just creating an environment where people are free to do what they are best at is a good strategy. 13. Factors like aesthetics, design, location and packaging do matter. 14. Never stop learning. And finally, as I'd mentioned in an article earlier: An added advantage of being an entrepreneur; borrowing Edison's words after thousands of failed attempts at his inventions - "At least I know 10,000 ways this will not work!" :-) (In my next article, I plan to review another article written on why certain people might be more successful entrepreneurs than others.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A few scanned pics from the REC days

(File under non-tech)
I had a few scanned pictures from my REC days, mostly ECE 97 guys, on my hard-drive. Thought there might be people who'd like to see 'em, so here goes:

PS: You are invited to identify yourselves in comments to the pics :)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Jan Shatabdi Trivandrum Ernakulam - the invisible emergency hammer.

Train journeys are seldom uneventful. Yesterday, Jayadev and I went on a one-day business trip to Ernakulam (Kochi) and back to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram). This was my first trip on the Jan Shatabdi Express (the link says how these trains came about). Though conceived as a 'cleaner', faster and slightly costlier service, it is does not even come close to what would internationally be considered fast and clean. A google search also drew out this undated document lamenting its low occupancy rate (? - our train was pretty full; the doc seems to have been written in 2003)

Anyways, this train is better than the average Indian 'train' on all counts (more on that later). Though low cost carriers like Air Deccan may soon threaten its existence - there are quite a few who'd prefer to travel well grounded :) So the good things first:

1. Pretty fast with just a few stops and pretty comfy luxury bus kinda push back seats.

2. GPS / GSM (?) based station display which shows ETA at the next stop, the time we passed last waypoint etc.

And now the bad things:

1. Whoever designed the air-conditioning system, gave no thought to the noise it made! It made a constant shrill high pitched tone almost throughout the journey! Unfortunately, no one else seemed to share my sensitivity towards this sound - they seemed happily unaware of the sound that was driving me crazy.

2. Tea / coffee / snacks. Although the entire journey hardly last a quarter of a day - it does make one hungry. I was pleasantly surprised to find Nescafe coffee vending machines and microwave ovens inside the compartments (Now that sounds like a first inside indian railways). However, I was told that these had just been there for a few weeks and might take months to get functional. I sure hope railways can make it operational asap.

3. Now for the (dangerously bad) icing on the spoilt cake ;) This is something that we Indians are pretty good at - being terribly unprepared for emergencies. The pictures are self explanatory. However, for those who cannot see the writing on the image clearly, here's the text - "HAMMER FOR BREAKING THE WINDOW GLASS DURING EMERGENCY". The only problem is - there is no hammer inside the beautifully sealed enclosure (or it is of the invisible kind). A quick glance revealed that even the next compartment had a non-existent emergency hammer.

Now, I do not know for sure how much difference that hammer might make in an emergency, but I sure do hope and pray that no-one gets into such a situation!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mobile handsets as gaming devices. Part III

(...Continued from Part II)

The following graphic depicts a rough time-line. Most of the handsets like the Motorola T720 and the Nokia 7650 are now extinct.

A notable and notorious handset as far as mobile gaming is concerned was the N-Gage and the N-Gage QD from the Nokia stable. Though visionary in its purpose, it failed in its execution at being a mass market gaming device which could also make phone calls. The take-away from its life was the fact that until the technology so matures, mobile phones are not a hard-core gamer's first port of call. They will always have their PS3s for that.

However, what is notable is the progress made in handset technology over these few years (you may note that a major part of this whole 'history' I am talking about has unraveled in just about half a decade! The growth IS that frantic and this means that the cool phone that I carry today will be tomorrow's junk. This rapid evolution can be tracked using the following attributes which are relevant from a developer's perspective.

a. Screen resolution
The following representation should give you a good idea:

100 x 80

128 x 128

176 x 220

240 x 320

480 x 320, 160 dpi - The iPhone

b. Keypad and its layout
Undoubtedly the most used and abused parts of most erstwhile digital devices. More so for phones used as gaming devices.


Number keys only.
Other keys did not exist except for make / break call ones.
Even if other keys existed, their use inside apps was undefined and unintended.


Standard layouts.
Soft-keys defined.
4-way simple joysticks incorporated and used in menus as well as simple games.


Additional game specific keys prominent.


Six+ way joysticks.
Simultaneous multiple keypress detection.


Other innovations in human interface including screen-touch and camera motion detection.

c. Processing power

Very slow, inefficient processors, primarily intended to feed text only screens and very simple computational needs.

Playable frame-rates for arcade style games. Reasonable number crunching.

Good frame-rates, even 3D gets introduced, advanced screen rendering algorithms.

The lines between personal computers and personal mobile phones is blurring further and further. Some devices as capable as earlier PCs and some like the iPhone carving a niche for the way in which the UI and power has been designed to give a superior user interface.

d. Memory
All the graphics, sound effects and rendering code need space - the more the better. More space translates into a better ability to pack in richer textures, detailed sprites and backgrounds with a good color-depth and range. Also, games gobble a good amount of working memory - the stack and the heap to give a better gaming experience. There is a lot of data associated with any game instance and these must be buffered for quick access. In simple terms abundant heap and stack space translates into a smoother and richer game-play.

32 to 64KB jar size
200KB heap

200KB jar size
512KB heap

Jar size in Mega Bytes
Introduction of Virtual memory...?

This pretty much sums up the evolutionary pattern being followed by mobile handsets. I'm sure as technology progresses, these parameters will be redundant - but until then and even beyond, they're welcome to stay on my journal ;).

In the next piece I intend to list out a few notable games that can be called milestones in the handsets' journey of evolution. Till then - adios!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Mobile handsets as gaming devices. Part II

(...Continued from part I)
Around the same time, Qualcomm launched BREW - a rival platform for CDMA phones running on its chip-sets. While J2ME had a mass following due to a high number of Java developers available, BREW had a smaller following.

Many would argue that despite the ease of coding and huge developer network, BREW had an edge over Java for the reason that it was built as a product with a monetization mechanism built it, while the engineers at Sun Microsystems were more intent on building a 'standards platform'. That apart from the fact that BREW code works closest to the machine and hence has potentially better performance.

However, considering its reach, J2ME (now known as JavaME) which is available on almost all GSM phones and a few CDMA phones is unrivaled.

The following is the first Java enabled phone from Motorola - the i3000
Year 2001. Motorola i3000. Screen 110 x 110 px. Black and White

Siemens too launched its first Java handset the same year- the SL45. For many J2ME enthusiasts, the Siemens SL45 was an introduction of sorts.
Year 2001. Siemens SL45. Screen 100 x 80 px. Greyscale (better than BW :) )

Not to be left behind, Nokia too came out with its classic Java enabled phone. The rugged and handy Nokia 3410 candybar was perhaps the first mass market J2ME MIDP 1.0 device.
Year 2002. 3410, Nokia Series 30. Screen 96 x 96. Greyscale

The 'other' platforms

It was not as if there were no other mobile development platforms around, infact there were a handful of them, some very good ones too - alas, not all are as successful as J2ME and BREW.

The most notable among the 'other' platforms was Mophun. Mophun was a revolution of sorts. Initially built for the Sony Ericsson T300 (We called it the soap-box phone ;) ), it was the first arcade level mobile gaming platform with a freely download-able SDK. The T300 was one of the first handsets to have an 100 x 80 color screen, sound effects support and a joystick. It even supported an external camera ;)
Year 2002. SonyEricsson T300. Screen 100 x 80. 256 colors

Infusio meanwhile developed another Java based platform name ex-en. It featured on a few Sagem, Philips, Toshibas and its likes.

Another notable platform was Do-ja. Again Java based (J2ME based to be more specific) with the exception of having a proprietary Profile originally built for the Japanese telcos.

The year 2002 and beyond witnessed mobile technologies literally leapfrogging. The screens kept getting better, the processor got faster and memory was bigger. The mobile world as we know it can be called the post 2002 era which we will explore in the next article.
(To be continued ...)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mobile handsets as gaming devices. Part I

The humble mobile phone has come a long way. There was a time when this device was available only to the elite few, looked like a brick and cost a fortune to have and to keep. Heres how it all started. Though many wireless devices did exist before this brick, it holds the distinction of being the worlds first 'cellphone'.

Year: 1984. The Motorola DyanTac 8000x.

Nokia (which started in 1865 as a wood pulp mill!) debuted its first GSM mobile phone only in 1992 with Nokia 1011 (though it too had made the first transportable phone in 1984)

Year 1992. The Nokia 1011

Mobile phones were pretty serious business till some geek at Nokia decided to add some fun to it and along came Nokia 6110 with Snake on it!

Year 1997. Nokia 6110 - There's a snake on board!

Nokia's Snake is considered the 'pioneer' in mobile gaming.
The enormous interest on this mobile game, even among the typical 'business' folk is legendary, with people vying with each other to break the high score record. For a few years, games such as Snake were production-embedded on handsets.

All that changed in 2000-2001, with the Java platform claiming a new playground. (... To be continued in part II)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Glimpses of Aranmula Boat Race 2007

A few snaps from the spectacular Aranmula Boat Race, 2007. There is something charming about this race which takes place every year on the Pamba river in central Kerala (aka God's Own Country).

What is interesting is the role of team play in winning a race (or even moving the snake boat an inch forward). There are so many people involved on a snake boat that unless there is a good co-ordination and understanding among them all - from the guy who makes the drum beats to the oarsmen - it ain't as easy as it looks.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Adding Voice to SMS

The telecom revolution is sweeping the world at a scorching pace. Nothing has changed the way people interact and transact as the humble mobile phone has. For the first time, an Information Technology device has become accessible to even the less privileged in developing countries. SMS has today become an integral part of inter-personal communication. Consider this: worldwide, 620 billion SMS messages were exchanged just in Q1 2007!

Unfortunately there is a vast community for whom SMS does not hold relevance- the visually challenged. Trust me, they DO use their mobile phones extensively and it IS a great blessing for them even if it just provides them a means to attend or make calls.

Back in 2003, we at Tinfo Mobile had realized this and did whatever little we could. We made a Java based application for Reliance India Mobile users. Most of the Reliance handsets being very limited B&W ones at that time, we made a lightweight client app that resided on the phone with the bulk of processing handled by on the server-side.

The idea was simple:
a. The client app would retrieve the SMS text and send it to the server.
b. The server would use a TTS (Text to Speech) engine and convert it into an audio stream.
c. The client app would play-back this audio stream.

We were able to create a working prototype which won us a Special Award. We also made a lightweight application that was client only which would read out just the missed / dialed /received calls. This app was named 'Call History' and was launched by them.

A few other softwares are also available:

1. TALKS. The most notable among them is TALKS for Symbian mobiles from Nuance. The only problem is - its limited to a slightly high end mobile phone category - Smartphones running on Symbian OS. Nevertheless its a great piece of software.

2. Mobilespeak. Developed by Code Factory, mobile speak has a braille hardware support option also.

3. Pocket HAL. Developed by Dolphin Computer Accessories, Pocket HAL supports Windows Mobile PDAs.

I wanted to provide more options if I could and thats when a new product idea struck. Most mobile phones (even the relatively cheap ones) support bluetooth, infra-red or cable connectivity. Quite a few visually impaired people (though I admit, only a small percentage) have access to a computer either at home or office and PC IR/ BT dongles and cables are pretty cheap nowadays.

The result is SMS Talkz - an advanced voice enabled SMS management software for plain old PCs supporting most handsets with bluetooth, infra-red or cable. A software that resides completely on the PC requiring nothing to be installed on the phone and still reads out your SMS in voice. (Its also designed to be a good companion to those blessed with a good vision too)

The first Release Candidate is being readied at the moment and we require people to use, test and report bugs. So, those who have a little time to spare, please pitch in by downloading the beta from the SMS Talkz site. Serious bug finders will be rewarded by serious discounts too (do sign up at the forum with valid email address for that) :)

Also, do help spread the word on the product by including any one of the following banner images on your blogs / sites:

Banner Code (copy paste to your page, replace IMAGE_URL):

Box banner 320 x 265:

Leaderboard: 750 x 80

Banner small: 505 x 70

In case you want to provide just a text link, please use the following code:

Thanks! Your help is appreciated.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Presenting the iPhone Shuffle :-)

(File under - LOL :-) )

Found this link on the inimitable David Pogue's page on the NYT.


I want to make a mobile game! - Part II

Continuing from where we'd left. Its time to get into the typical process of mobile game development - lets call it 'Life of a mobile game'.

Day 0 - A game idea is born!

The starting point

Keeping all the things mentioned in Part I in mind, the starting point for a game is – your mind. The whole cycle begins from an idea that you get (while you were perhaps taking bath in cold water on a chilly Monday morning ;-). The first step would be to document this into a form that even a layman could understand and appreciate. If possible (if you can draw decently well), add mock up-screen shots as well.

Remember, a sketch is sometimes better than a thousand words. Present your concept to your colleagues/ friends and get their feedback on it. Obviously, one attitude a game designer must have is to be very open to criticism.

Documenting the concept

So now your concept document is ready. It’s time then to create the design document. The design document essentially connects the concept to the intended game play and takes into account the constraints that might be imposed by the target handsets. The design document should be treated as the main reference material for your game project. It would be a living document which grows with your project. The design document should capture the aim of the game; describe the characters, friendly objects, enemies, platforms, levels and how each of these
elements would interact with each other in simple words. It could also specify which keys are supposed to do what function in the game, the target handsets and the audience.

End of Month 1, still doesn't say ‘mama’


As a part of the design process, you must have also come up with a list of graphics assets that will be required in the game. The artwork is the skin and clothes for your game. It is what will be visible to the rest of the world. Make your artwork as snazzy as possible. The specialized art-form for mobile games is called pixel art. (It is a specialization skill in itself – google it out to know its wonders).

There are a few game components that every game developer must be familiar with. The first among them is a Pixel. A pixel is simply the smallest distinguishable unit of a screen display. Currently there are no direct techniques to draw less than one pixel on the mobile screen.

The second is a Sprite. (No, its not the green bottle of carbonated 'all taste, no gyan' that I am talking about :-) ). A sprite is a transparent image, usually depicting a character or an object in a game. Every character in a game therefore has its set of sprites for each action that is involved. The image containing the set of sprites is usually referred to as the sprite-sheet. The following is a selection of sprites for the the protagonist 'Ramson', from the game Ramson's Quest.

© Tinfo Mobile 2006

The next component is called a Tile. A tile is conceptually similar to the mosaic or ceramic tiles that might have been used on the floor of your house. A tile is a rectangular (mostly square) piece of the background of a game screen. In other words, a set of tiles arranged as rows and columns make up the background layers of a game. Why use tiles? Why not have a large image that could be drawn on a screen? Consider a platform adventure game like Ramson's Quest, where the hero has to move across platforms (which are pretty long) to reach some destination point. Assume that the level is currently 100 tiles wide and 15 tiles high. If each tile is 16 x 16 pixel square in size, that translates to an area of 100 x 15 x 16 x 16 = 384000 pixel square. Since every pixel of image space costs two bytes space, this translates to a whopping 750 KB just for the background image! This is simply not feasible due to the following reasons:

1. Most devices have a hard limit on the maximum image dimensions. Though there is no hard and fast rule, it would be a safe bet to limit any image within 255 x 255 pixel square size.

2. Most devices do not have a separate image memory and the heap in most devices is restricted to 200 KB (again, this could vary, but 200 KB limit is the safe limit, 512 KB is quite usual on most MIDP 2.0 phones).

3. Such a large image will take a lot of space in the jar file. (A Java application is packaged as a Java Archive file- the same as a compressed zip file and has an extension .jar). The safe limit for the jar size is very low. On some devices, as low as 64KB.

4. A game involves a fair amount of interaction between the background and the characters. Having a big image will necessitate getting the pixel data at a given position. For example, Ramson can stand on grass but has to be hurt by a water-fall. If the image is single piece, the only way to do this would be to get the pixel data at the location where Ramson is situated. But this, is not directly possible at least in MIDP 1.

5. Certain regions in the background need to be animated, for example the waterfall in Ramson's Quest is animated, to make it appear as if its flowing. This is not again not possible with a single background image.

All these reasons effectively rule out the possibility of using a single background image for the entire level. Now let us see how tiles help.

Below is a small section of a game level from Ramson's Quest 2 (a 1200 x 200 image scaled down to fit blog):

© Tinfo Mobile 2006

This 'big' image can be drawn using just a handful of 'small' tiles (just around 12 of them)!

To map which tile gets drawn where on the screen, we have a Tile-Map. A tile map is a two (or one) dimensional array which says which tile is to be drawn at the given location of a map.

The tile-map for the layer above may look something like:






(Assume, waterfall tile numbers are 1,2. Blank tiles are 0 and 4 is the wall tile)
I hope you get the picture.

As to how exactly a tile-map and a tile-sheet (an image containing the set of tiles) can be used to render a background and thus design game levels is something we will investigate in the next article.

As an exercise, google out the terms mentioned in bold in this article and know more about them. For the more enterprising readers, do go ahead and make a tile drawing algorithm! And do post a comment if you need any help.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I want to make a mobile game! - Part I

(Or, how do I get started on a mobile game development career?)


Mobile game development is an art. As with most other forms of art, it demands two attributes from its practitioners and practitioners-to-be: aptitude and attitude. While attitude can be built up, aptitude is something that is inherent (or conditioned over time). A better term to use would be – talent. The only point I would like to stress here is that though it is by no means a rocket-science, one just cannot expect everyone with a degree in computer science to be good mobile game developers by default. So if you really want to be in the games development industry you should have by now at least tried to have made your own game – at least a tic-tac-toe! Whenever you've played Roadrash on your PC, you should have pondered and thought over how you could do something like it yourself! If you think you're on the right track- read on :).

This article is intended to provide you a general backgrounder on mobile games development and the industry so that you could take informed decisions on whether this is what you might want to chose as your career (or you just want to kill some of your time, reading though something interesting ;-).

As for me, my initiation to this enchanting word was perchance (providential). I just happened to be put on a mobile game project half a decade back with nothing more than a web browser to rely on. So, most of the things I learnt - I learnt the hard way (Which is kinda good, since you know how exactly things should not be done). Anyways that brings us to the all important question:

Why mobile?

Thats a 'Yeh PSPO nahin jaanta? (an ancient Indian television saying ;) )' kind of statement. Anyways, it makes sense to know why anybody (people like us) would want to bother about making games and applications for mobile phones in the first place!

1. The mobile handsets today are essentially programmable / re-programmable devices.

More than 90% of the handsets being shipped nowadays have some programming interface. Java is one of the most popular options today but not the only one.

2. They are connected devices. Connectivity is a built in feature of the mobile handset. Assuming that you have signed up for data services, the mobile phone is now a device that is capable of sending and receiving data over the Internet.

3. The mobile phone is clearly the most popular digital device in the whole wide world. Just look around and count. The number of mobile handsets you see will outstrip the number of the other digital devices that are around you. And this represents enormous opportunities. In India, there are almost 200 million mobile subscribers! And that my friends is the basic reason for the existence of the mobile entertainment industry. Even if the revenues might not be initially attractive, the customer base is.

4. Mobile game development is cool! Game development in itself is considered the cutting edge of programming. While most software engineers will end up in typical software services firms; only a chosen few will get to be in this industry. For the moment – this IS niche :-).

It might also be helpful at this juncture to have an overview on mobile network technologies prevalent today. GSM and CDMA. This does not have a direct relation to the gaming world except for the fact that most CDMA handsets use BREW, while most GSM handsets use Java.

GSM stands for Global System for Mobile communications. This clearly is the more popular sibling.

Usually Narrowband TDMA, 8 calls on one freq.
1 billion + subscribers (2004 statistic).
India 2007 August: 135 million

CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Based on a declassified US Defence encoding technology to which Qualcomm Inc. holds the patent (So for every CDMA handset sold anywhere on the globe they get a royalty!) Supposed to be more spectrally efficient than CDMA and is completely digital.

Based on spread spectrum modulation.
Roughly 25% market.
India 2006 August: ~40 million

Mobile games are different

Since I belong to the mobile entertainment industry, this article will be based on the mobile platform. Mobile games are different from games on other computing platforms due to following reasons:

1. Too many constraints. Everything is limited and in short supply including screen-size, memory and customer's patience. So mobile game programming is all about writing the most optimized codes and designing optimal graphics and putting it all together in the smallest package.

2. Shorter development cycles. While game or console titles' development typically spans over a year, a mobile game takes a few months to develop. Therefore, while a full scale title on a PC would cost billions of dollars nowadays, a mobile game would cost only its fraction.

3. Mobile users are spread out among all socio-economical classifications and therefore a major chunk of the users comprises of casual gamers or first time gamers. The primary function of a mobile phone is not gaming and this must be kept in mind while designing the game. A gaming console on the other hand is designed from the ground-up for gaming and for gamers. The games there would be a bit more mature in nature and might not be as generalized as a mobile game might be. Another important statistic now available says that there are almost as many female mobile entertainment users as there are male.

4. You must keep in mind that the mobile games market is already crowded. Make sure what you develop is something that is clearly different from what is already available.

Assuming that you are by now convinced about the size and scope of the task at hand (and are still interested), lets carry on.

In Part II, we will move on to the actual process followed in developing a mobile game.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

ARPUs don't lie

This post is a part of my research into the Indian mobile content market - a general 'state of affairs' estimation relying on ARPU figures.

Disclaimer: All calculations here represent my personal estimation based on plain high school maths, figures available on the net (as in Q1 2007) and certain assumptions, which may NOT be accurate :)

VAS: Value Added Services
ARPU: Average Revenue Per User (per month)
COAI: Cellular Operators Association of India
IAMAI: Internet and Mobile Association of India

Starting Assumptions

Indian GSM subscriber base
= 135 million (COAI)

ARPU, Avg. Rev. Per User
= Rs. 300 (rounded)

%, VAS Revenues
= 10 (IAMAI)

%, SMS contributing VAS Revenues
= 55 (so remaining 45% has ringtones, CRBT, wallpapers, games, apps, mms...)

%, Games and data contribution to VAS Revenues
= 7

%, VAS operator rev. share
= 60 (remaining split between developer and aggregator)

%, Revenue share, developer (from what an aggregator gets)
= 40

%, Postpaid of subscriber base
= 20 (IAMAI)

%, Postpaid customers revenue contribution
= 80

Calculations, Non SMS VAS ARPU


= (10% x Rs.300)
= Rs. 30

= (45% x Rs.30)
= Rs. 13.5

Calculations Non SMS VAS Revenues


VAS 'Market' including telcos share
= (Subscribers x VAS ARPU)
= Rs. 4.95 billion

VAS Aggregator Revenues,
= (Subscribers x Non-SMS ARPU x Aggregators Rev Share)
= Rs. 891 million a month
= Rs. 89 crore (1068 crore annual)

VAS Developers' Revenues,
= 40% x Aggregator revenues
= Rs. 356 million
= Rs. 35.6 crore (427 crore annual)

Game developers' Revenues,
= (15.5 % x VAS Developers' Revenues)
= Rs. 55.8 million
= Rs. 5.58 crore (67 crore annual)

Twisted Analysis

1. How much does an Indian mobile consumer actually spend?

Assuming that post and pre-paid spending ratio applies to VAS as well,
(Since 20% post-paid subscribers make 80% of revenues)
33 million subscribers contribute Rs. 3.96 billion VAS revenues per month

Excluding SMS share,
33 million subscribers spend Rs. 1.78 billion a month
Therefore, on an average, a post-paid user spends Rs. 54 a month on VAS excluding SMS.

There is one catch though! all these services require GPRS and it would not be fair to assume that all the post-paid subscribers would also be GPRS subscribers.

Assuming that only 20% of the post-paid subscribers are active GPRS users,
6.6 million post-paid GPRS subscribers spend Rs. 1.78 billion on VAS per month.
Therefore, an active GPRS user spends Rs. 270 per month on VAS.

Now, there is another caveat, GPRS by itself attracts a 'fee' for most subscribers, a few operators do provide pay-per-KB data transfer plan. (Airtel, for instance has a Rs.250 per month plan and a Rs.1500 per year plan) Still, I think it would be safe to assume that 40% of this customer spend goes towards paying for 'data' and that leaves an actual spend of close to Rs. 165 on actual 'buying' digital content per month?

2. Where is the moolah flowing?

Riding on the sheer volume of users, the telecos are building up their kitty by the virtue of owning the pipe and controlling the gates.
The next in line are the aggregators. India has the following major aggregators, there might be a few more:

IMI Mobile - Good operator tie-ups
OnMobile - IVRS leaders
Mauj - Good portfolio
Indiagames - Relatively recent shift of focus on aggregation
Indiatimes - Portal.

They'd make 60% of VAS Aggregator Revenues (after paying out developers/ rights owners). Put together, their revenues would be close to Rs. 50 crore a month.

Now come the developers, ringtone, wallpaper, game, app providers put together. Logically they'd get as their share whatever is left after the operator and aggregator takes, which would be 40% of VAS Aggregator Revenues close to Rs. 35 crore a month.

The only problem is, there are hundreds of fingers in this pie. A cursory glance at the portals will give a good picture at the enormous selection of content available. While a good percentage of such content comprises of scaled down bollywood/hollywood posters, trailers, screenshots and ringtones, the next major set of content providers are global studios. Then come relatively obscure studios, including many Indian content developers.

The pan-Indian mobile content shelf:
Item: Tones | Images | Games Apps
Share: 78% | 7% | 15%
Rev: 27.3 cr | 2.45 cr | 5.25 cr

Active: 5000 | 2000 | 500

Avg revenue per item for a developer
= Rs. 5,460
= Rs 12, 250
Game and app
= Rs. 1,05,000

However, an 'average' can be misleading, since what really happens is that the downloads are heavily skewed in the favor of top 10 to 20 content items, the rest of the items together might constitute just 10% of the total downloads.

3. Is developing content really worth the time and effort?

To get a perspective on these figures, let me take the case of games and apps since these would be the most resource intensive. A good 'visible' game or app could thus make $2,500 or close to $6,000 over its Indian shelf-life. So, for an developer investing at least four months worth of team effort in developing an international class product exclusively for the Indian market, is a high risk. The other alternative is to make a lot of low-quality quick games - one might just about break even with such glut!

The only reason why someone would consider this market is its sheer size and 'potential'. So those with deep pockets spend to build the brand and be ready 'when the time comes'. Also, most content items have a global appeal. India can just be one of the many spokes in the developer's distribution wheel.

Another word of caution: These figures lead me to believe that there is a 'revenue leak' somewhere in the chain. The 'numbers' passed down to the content developers rarely come even close to our estimates. Perhaps some members of the Content Providers community could comment on this?

Also, I might have made mistakes, logical or arithmetic in my calculations - please point them out. Baseline- ARPUs dont lie!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Blast from the past

(File under: Non-tech) Last year about this time, I went back to my old high school- St. Thomas Residential. While I was walking from the junior section to the senior section, I found this drum set lying in a heap by the corner - junked.

I was shocked and excited at the same time, since I had quite a few memories associated with it and so would a few of my batch-mates from santhome. Perhaps I should have done more, but the only thing that drew upon my mind then was to take a snap. Thank God, I at least did that!

Its been a decade since we left school; we were the batch of '97 Indian School Certificate Examination students. I'd joined the school in '94, as a ninth standarder. Though I am a 'native' of Kerala, till then, I'd never spent more than a few holidays here; so it was a new beginning of sorts. With the new school came a new bunch of friends, some of whom are very much in touch to this day. One thing that bonded a few such friends was music. That bond and the timely encouragement from a few teachers and friends resulted in 'Excalibur' - the first ever school rock band from this part of the globe (and perhaps the only one which batches after us and teachers remembered, at least for a while, with - "oh, you're one of the Excalibur guys!"). The initial team: Jayadev (lead vocals), George (keyboard), Zach (rhythm, lead guitars/ drums), Danny (Lead Guitar), Vivek (guitars) and me (vocals). There were others too, who'd pitched in when some of us had to leave.

Today, while I was flipping through my old pics, I chanced upon this shot again. This junked piece of equipment, which I'm sure my friends would recognize, had once formed the center-piece of our meager ensemble. A day before our first live performance, George - our keyboardist (thanks for pointing this out) Reghu our designer geek, designed the logo - Excalibur, The mythical sword of king Arthur, on a round sheet of paper which we stuck to the bass drum. If I remember right, it was this very drum that first bore our emblem. We really could not afford to buy a new drum and so were happy and thankful to have at least the old school drum-set! Slightly off-tuned and somehow precariously functional, it served us well and gave us a quite few good times.

I also recall once while Zach (Guitarist, keyboardist and a drummer rolled into one) was at the drums, we were playing "Miss you in a heartbeat" (?) on stage for the school-day. He hit the cymbal at the end of a roll, the cymbal went crashing all the way down to the floor and the stick flying through the air. We went on as if nothing had happened and Zach cool-ly rose from his chair, retrieved the stick, pulled up the cymbals and continued drumming.

Those were the best days of my life :) and this picture brought back some memories. I've jotted 'em down and hope that others with whom I'd shared my space and time, too could re-live a few moments from their past.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The iconic iPhone

Most people I know are either stuck with 'I am speechless over iPhone' phenomenon or an overdose of iPhone on the iNet symptom.

Anyways, here's my take: (for those who've had enough already, do keep an Aspirin handy)

The good things- iPhone = iPod+video+camera+phone. - An important event in the Wireless World History. ("Chapter 2007 - The iPhone. 'While many folks were doing many interesting things in the Wireless World, along came the iPhone and....' the rest as they say, is history) - A great PR job. - A neat design job. - The usual Steve Jobs. - Simplified, glorified and intuitified the user interface. All the technologies existed earlier, they were all just given a dose of the Apple treatment. - It IS different.

The not so good things- Completely Cingular Centric. - If the data services till now were 'walled gardens', this is the great wall of China. I don't think any content provider would be allowed even a peek into the iPhone ecosystem! - No games, no apps no anything except what is already in it. - Talk-time (nope, the big bright beautiful display does not run on drool) - Its a longish Cingular-Apple honeymoon (2 years long I hear!). - It looks too fragile to be regular cellphone replacement (I can't even recall the number of times I have dropped my phone, picked it up and continued) - The price tag. - Accessibility. I wonder how a visually impaired person might use it. I don't know if it is mandatory, but I see a little tactile mark on the '5' button on most handsets which I am sure is put there to help those who cannot see, to feel and use the keys. Are there any laws governing accessibility?