Thursday, January 31, 2008

How do I choose a mobile phone?

With the wide variety of mobile phones available in the market today, deciding on which one to buy is a predicament.

Here's my tuppaise worth:
1. Your profile = your phone's profile.
If you are a college student, you probably need the entertainment features, if you're a business user, you might need email access anywhere.

2. Your budget.
Needs no explanation. Just ask - do you really need to show off a gold brick in your pocket?

3. Features.
Some features have become so common that they risk becoming the standard. While some favor 'get as many features as I can', some others prefer 'why would I ever need that feature' approach.

4. Compare.
The web is perhaps the best thing that happened for buyers. In India, MyMobile is an established reference magazine for the latest Indian market rates for mobiles. In fact their monthly report is so successful that it has become an essential tool in the trade. They had recently put up their database on their website as a drag and drop compare phones feature. Do check out this link [My Guide] before you head out to the nearest store - will save you some time making your choice.
Bottom-line: There are no hard and fast rules: to each his own!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Railways as a research/ marketing point

Considering the number of posts related to the railways on my blog, you might think I'm a railways stooge. Though not a stooge (most of my posts have been negative); yes, I'm fascinated by railways. The reason why railways fascinate me (the Indian Railways, that is) is that it is perhaps the biggest classrooms in public interactions. No other institution has so many people 'touch points'.

No other institution moves as many people 24/7. Of all the infrastructure categories, the railway has a very important role to play. Thousands of people queue and jostle, look at or search at kiosks, ferry their luggage, congregate with their families, buy snacks and tea, make plans for their future, think about their next day at work or sulk over a bad event, smartly dressed businessmen, excited children, coolies, vendors, people in ragged clothes, old people, crying infants, touring foreigners.

(Image courtesy:

The railway stations especially, present an unimaginable variety of people and situations. I guess it must be every marketeers and ethnographers favorite playground. I'm sure someone could start a profitable research and observation deck on major railway stations in the country - dedicated research points where all kinds of surveys and observations get done and perhaps even the participants could be rewarded with say a 'sachet' product sample.

On a more personal level, apart from having been a frequent rail traveler, its the Railroad Tycoon game that taught me its importance (compared to today's games, this must be vintage stuff ;) ). I had the opportunity of developing a mobile game named Truck Tycoon on similar lines. It was wonderful to see small towns developing into trade hubs, residential centers and industrial locations once they were connected by the rail/road! It makes all the difference.

Also, sitting in the train or at the station gives you time to contemplate on the simpler things in life and ample time to type in a blog post or two ;)

Indian Railways - The Emergency Hammer again

Its the emergency hammers again. I think I'm addicted to this now. These are the other posts on my rendezvous with the emergency systems on Indian Railways:
- Jan Shatabdi Trivandrum Ernakulam - the invisible emergency hammer.
- Indian Railways - The Emergency Hammer returns.

This time it was on the Chengannur Thriuvananthapuram A/C Chair Car on the 'Parasuram express'.

1. Again there is a glass pane (which says its toughened glass) which needs to be broken before you get access to a chain which you're supposed to pull. This pull is somehow supposed to cause the emergency window to open (I guess its supposed to pull out the rubber beading and this would in turn free the big window glass). How do you break this small glass pane in the first place- should an emergency hammer have been installed near it? Or can the glass be broken with bare hands. A good answer might be - during an emergency, we'll find out!
2. Now, suppose you've learnt karate and with one chop you can smash the small glass. Whoever told you life is easy? This time they've bolted the chain with a steel strip over it in an unthoughtful improvisation. This metal strip is supposed to hide the curtain rails. Unfortunately, the cosmetics have effectively short circuited the core functionality of being an emergency window.

I seriously hope, with its cash surplus, the Indian Railways goes for a complete design overhaul. A hazaar things need to be made better, the chalta hai attitude must change. Or maybe Kaizen could do it well - continual little steps that could gradually make a big difference. Though unintentional, the continual neglect of passenger safety makes me a worried traveler, despite its relatively (compared to its scale of operations) good safety records.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The future of commerce in India - the Mobile way? Part II

Back in August 2006, based on the flurry of activities in the m-commerce ecosphere, I had speculated through my journal whether most 'commerce' in India would soon be transacted in a mobile way.

Very recently I came across another pioneer in this sphere. Its a vibrant venture named simply 'eko', which sounds like an echo and an eco (as in ecology) put together. Despite its jovial name, Eko means serious business!

To put it in its own words: "This initiative aims to increase the reach of lending organizations to low income people and also democratize financial services for this customer segment in urban as well as rural areas."

Eko addresses a lot of gaps that the other players had failed to, brings in a lot of innovation into taking banking (lots of interesting IP, that cannot be disclosed at the moment) to the masses and relies on a network of dedicated people and mobile technology to achieve this.

Watch out this space for more on this in times ahead.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mobile Development Report - A Review

Reports come in various shades, shapes and sizes. Mostly, reports are seen as means to fill up shelf spaces, attempting to make one look more informed than one might really be. At times, reports are sources to be quoted in a B-Plan or used smartly to justify certain viewpoints. Usually, reports are the result of painstaking research carried out by domain veterans. But the fact remains that not all good researchers are good story-tellers and that leaves behind somewhat unwieldy (not to mention costly) paperweights that might be full of unnavigable facts and figures.

There was one report however, that captivated me more than most others out there. I found a link to this report through Jan Chipchase's blog while trying to find out what exactly it was that the Indian mobile consumer at the so called bottom of the pyramid wanted?

The Mobile Development Report (note: its a 15+ MB download, 114 pages pdf), released over a year ago, commissioned by Nokia and beautifully executed and presented by Dr. Aditya Dev Sood and his team at CKS (Center for Knowledge Societies)

The report aims at finding out exactly what the next billion people waiting to be connected through the mobile network want. In other words, it seeks to find what developmental role the mobile can play in the Indian rural context.

The report first examines and explains the diversity India is known for and derives its justifications for a classification. Eminently readable, the article is full of graphics and images that provide a peek into the ecosystem. After laying a solid foundation for even the uninitialized to understand the social fabric, the report then proceeds towards listing out the following opportunities for mobile development:
1. Transportation
2. Micro-commerce
3. Financial services
4. Healthcare services
5. Governance
6. Education
7. Infotainment

The really interesting part of this report is the case studies section. It allows the reader to view first hand the life of people who would benefit and how they might benefit through the mobile revolution.

We had the opportunity of personally meeting Dr. Aditya Dev Sood at our studio last year - an enigmatic personality with a lot of energy and a mystic glow in his eyes. This report perhaps reflects some of that youthfulness and charm from him and his team at CKS.

A must read for
a. anyone seriously planning to be a stakeholder in the rural/ semi-urban mobile ecosystem.
b. anyone starting on writing a report with an intention that people would actually read it.
c. anyone who wants a peek at the real vibrant India, the next billion waiting to be connected to the rest of the world and each other.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Games Brains Play, Neural Drives and the future of communications

Back in 2006, I had mentioned that the future of communications would increasingly move towards a closer neural interface - I called it B2BC Brain To Brain Communication. I think good progress is being made in this direction.

I was trying to study further on what physical experience B2BC might result in; and thats when I thought of 'Déjà vu'. Déjà vu is a French word meaning 'already seen'. It occurred to me that future communication might be almost like a deja vu or out-of-the-body kindof experience - sounds a bit scary to me now (just as air travel might have sounded before the Wright Brothers ;) ).

Also, a lot of external information may need to be integrated with that already stored in the brain. For instance; say in a B2BC session, your new bank manager contacts in. The 'network' meanwhile would search for further details on the caller - say a holographic image of him, his name and location and feed that to your short-term memory center. So (if and) when you 'take' the B2BC call, you already 'know' and can visualize the caller. That would also require intricate knowledge on how the brain stores its information.

While delving further into such games that brains play and where the brain stores its memory, I came across following two sites of interest:

1. Mind Tricks Explained (PopSci)

2. Mapping Memory (NatGeo)

I obviously have some spare time now on my hands to do all this wacky and weird thinking. If you too happen to have some, I'd strongly advise you to exercise your thought muscles by paying those links a visit.

'Transformer' railroad market

(File under trivia)
For all Transformers fans out there. Here's a you tube clip I'd come across quite some time ago (don't remember how) from Bangkok. Donno if this is a fake or for real!

And I thought Mumbai was crowded.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

90 mins = 60 secs

I have seen compression - many flavors of it, but this one on techCrunch was the beatifullest of them all. Hats off to Mahalo’s Veronica Belmont for the feat, compressing 90 mins of Steve Job's presentation into 60 secs.


Kindof like how Apple compressed its new MacBook Air into the super slim framework (though I dont like the doing-away-with-dvd-drive thing)

Who can be an entrepreneur? Part II

(Continued from part I)

In my last post on this subject I presented my reading on the Grameen Bank initiative by Muhammad Yunus and found that entrepreneurship as a yearning is innate in all and that success is relative. In this post I'd take my study further on a slightly different viewpoint.

This viewpoint is based on this article that I'd come across a few months back by Clay Shirky titled, The (Bayesian) Advantage of Youth.

It postulates that entrepreneurship is a byproduct of inexperience, youthfulness and an idea. Or in other words - it is the result of not having a preconditioned mind and an ability to unlearn some things and start from scratch.

The author argues that experience, that comes through age is all about being exposed to a set of conditions, knowing its limitations and thus calibrating oneself to 'learn' how to handle the same or a similar situation based on this learning. Now, this process of 'learning' is by nature a process that aims at minimizing risk and moving towards stability and away from unknown territory.

While such experience might be advantageous in certain situations, the author further argues that the predictable-reactionary nature that experience brings is a contra requirement to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is mostly (not all) about making that dangerous leap that the experienced might think foolish or feel scared to. A beautiful analogy based on Bayesian logic is also presented in the article.

Another interesting book that I had read was The Ten Faces of Innovation by IDEO's Tom Kelley (thanks to Jayadev). In this book the author says that in most organizations, many an innovative idea is killed by people who love to play the Devil's Advocate. The 'idea-killer' role is kinda addictive, it kinda becomes a part of you once you've made a 'kill'. Unwittingly, while you might pride yourself in your devilish skills, some bright spark might get silenced forever.

While I subscribe to the fact that youthfulness coupled with wild imagination and creativity does lead to innovation, I would also like to have it tapered slightly (only slightly) with some expert advice. Which is to say - have a young person as the key ideator but make sure he has an experienced adviser. An adviser would be the dampener, but every useful coiled spring knows the importance of damping factor! Remember the dot com vagaries (ah... thats the devil's advocate in me speaking again - hushhhh!). Am I getting too old for the game ;) ?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Revolution on four wheels - Tata Nano

It had to happen someday and so it has. Delhi today witnessed the revolution on four wheels, literally, as Tata Motors unveiled the cheapest car in the world. Here comes the Tata Nano - called the "peoples car" (that name isnt new since thats what Volkswagen means in German).

The bright side:

Psst: I'm trying to become an optimist so please don't scroll down to find the dark side - it no longer exists :)

1. The fact that Tata was able to keep its word on keeping the price at Rs. 1,00,000 despite raw material cost escalation over the last four years is remarkable. And for that price, Tata Nano is more than a bargain anyway. It will probably take years for Tata to recover its investment, but thats well worth the cost of the goodwill, trust and eyeballs this product will generate.

2. Almost marks the coming-of-age for the Indian product manufacturing sector. I believe this whole project was executed from thought to the prototype stage, right here. Now, THAT is something.

3. Finally, there is a potential replacement for the millions of auto-rickshaws and centuries old fiats taxis that flood the streets today. Thats tonnes of greenhouse emissions cut in a single stroke! not to mention the potential ease in traffic congestion. (Image source: dancewithshadows)

4. You no longer have to worry about the dad riding the Lamby, blocking the road (Lamberretta - an Italian antique from the 1960s that some Indians continue to use well past its expiry date) with his son crouching on the foot-board in-front, mom on the pillion, daughter sandwiched in between along with the weeks supply of groceries and the little baby dangling from the mother's lap. (Image source: Saad, Flickr. CC. Some rights reserved)

4. Scrap dealers are partying ever since the Nano was unveiled. The favorite tune at these parties is an Indian remix of '2001: A Space Odyssey' (wierd, even the Tatas used it at the launch). All those Lambys, Vespas, Fiats, Old Bajajs, Padminis and the occasional Maruti 800 and Ambassadors to be replaced by the lil-chunky Nanos will have to go somewhere! Sample this news-bite that is going to appear on Indian media in the near future, "... the ragged rag-picker downtown (on his white Nano) is being chased by at least three leading Venture Capitalists (in the red, green and yellow Nanos) in broad daylight... and these visuals are being exclusively broadcast to your Mobile TVs by ABTV India."

5. A few months ago, Tatas had announced a partnership with the French co. MDI which had come up with an engine that runs on compressed air! I had then thought it would've been a good fit for the to-be Nano. Good that it wasn't used, at least for the time being. Rumor has it that unfortunately, the prototype MDI cars cant run more than 7.5 Km per air-fill. Lets use it for some drag racing then ;).

6. Lets admit it, Indians will have to wait ages till the government does something (if at all - and thats a big IF) about the public transport system. With the loan companies dangling the low EMI carrots, most of the Indian population would have had to take the two wheeler option. Add to it the fact, that Indians have a hate-hate relationship with the helmet, the fact that the bikes rarely if ever get serviced. 500 Nanos are better than 1000 bikes are better than 500 autorickshaws and fiat taxis are better than some future fantasy public transport system.

7. This is what Sherlock Holmes had to say when asked why he'd bought the Tata Nano: "Elementary Watson, four wheels are stabler than two; specially when you hit a pothole."
*bump, bump*
Watson: "That was no pothole, it was an open manhole in the middle of the road!"
Sherlock: "This is India Watson, even I find it difficult to distinguish one from the other."

8. Hats off to Prof. C. K. Prahalad, who saw the glass full to the brim where others thought was empty, right at the bottom of the pyramid. And, hats of to Ratan Tata the visionary who kept his word.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The art of design - I

Some forms of art are modes of self-expression that rarely take into account the beholder. Most painters paint because they want to express something only their mind has seen, poets write because they want to give words to their inner feelings - if at all some/most viewers or audience appreciate their work, that seems to be more of a side-effect than an intention.

The art of design however, must be counter selfish since its primary aim is to satisfy certain usability and aesthetic criterion depending mostly on/for whom the design is made. However, there is a certain signature creativity that often marks good design which distinguishes the artist behind the design - that comes only from experience and is a subtle expression.

Product, document and interface design have long been my subjects of interest and I'd like to share my take on this art through a set of commandments.

1. Thou shall standardize style.

Lets take a website design for example. The first step is to create a set of standards that would be used consistently across the entire product. That involves breaking down the layout into a set of components and defining each such component. The following are the usual elements involved:

a. Layout
Fixed size/ vertical flowing/ two column/ portrait/ landscape? Depending on how much information needs to be presented to the user at a time and how much screen/interface real estate is available, various options can be worked out. For instance, mobile interfaces generally prefer a vertical scroll only display. This fact has been beautifully exploited by the Opera Mini browser.

b. Margins
Not only the page, individual elements within a page too need to have a standard margin. Neither too much nor too less. Some designers prefer a uniform margin throughout while some prefer more space on top than on sides - again, the display real estate is an important consideration here. The folks at Apple are masters in design and it shows on all their products. For an sample of wonderful margins just checkout their website!

c. Fonts and spacing
I have come across many a document with headings written arched 3d and in psychedelic colors. While this might impress your junior school peers, its mostly a no-go as far as serious designs are concerned. A document rarely needs more than two fonts, three at the most and the fonts must gel. A 'Comic Sans' heading and a 'Helvatica' body-text simply do not go together. Spacings are the margins for the text. Again, the main purpose must be easy readability. A good example is the BBC World news site.

d. Color scheme
There are many resources available on the web which allow you to create a color scheme based on a base color. Pictured here is one such tool on siteprocentral. The purpose of a color scheme is to present visual information in a highly visible fashion. Some font colors are extremely readable over some background colors. Some colors signify the level of importance of a text of display. However, there must be a coherent bond among the colors used.

e. Shapes and edges
Squarish / rounded/ bold/ 3d/ raised/ beveled? The simpler the better. Elegant design does not overemphasize borders which tends to give the interface a rather larger and an open feel. Edges and corners, if used must be consistent. If you want semi-hexagonal corners, so be it! but ensure that all similar regions are similarly cornered. Take for instance the Adobe homepage - its all rectangular boxes for now :).

f. Links, buttons
The clickable items design philosophy is this - try to make it as obvious as possible without being irritating. That is, the buttons should not need additional advertisement stickers saying - 'This is a button here, please use your finger to press'. Also, using standard icons help a lot. For instance, the power button has a standard icon, used throughout the product world. While you are free to come up with your own, it could spare a user a trip down the manual just to locate the power button, if you follow the global standard. Ensure also that there is enough space in and around the place so that you do not end up pressing the wrong buttons. Providing a tactile feel for the button helps tremendously, especially for people who have a problem with accessibility. Except for the lack of tactility, the iPhone buttons and icons are a class apart.

g. Information display regions
If there is an area for the user to log in providing his username and password, make sure it is prominently accessible and not hidden on the bottom of the page where the user would need to scroll down to reach it. The weather information display on the HTC Touch mobile for instance is simple, clear and serves its purpose well. It almost conveys what you might feel if you step out on the London street.

h. Images and graphics - color tone, characters, ethnicity

The images/ graphics must blend in to the the general design. This can be achieved through careful selection of the subject, the color tones and backgrounds.

So how do you choose/ set these options? This requires a thorough study of the target group for whom the design is being made for. For instance, is this a corporate website? If yes, the style must match the corporate profile. Which age group is this product being targeted at? If it is a young crowd - make sure the colors are vibrant and youthful. Most of the time you will find that you need to spend significant time with them and materials related to them to be able to draw your conclusions.

The key phrase here is homogeneity.

2. Thou shall strive towards symmetry.

Many studies have shown that human beings perceive beauty through symmetry. A symmetric face is more likely to be marked attractive than an asymmetric one. There are many designers who wish to experiment with the exact opposite of this theory. While in some cases, it 'might' work - stark asymmetry tends to draw more attention from onlookers as the brain automatically tries to find a justifiable explanation for the imbalance. Some people find faces with a mole/ beauty-spot on one cheek highly attractive! Symmetry is however, still a safe bet as far as interface design is concerned.

3. Thou shall simplify.

While it might be true that some geeky users might root for an interface full of push buttons, blinking LEDs, scrolling texts and beeping alarms the rest of the human folk would rather have it simple. I good example quoted often in this direction is Apple's iPod interface. The iPod interface is almost always a list. The only possible options with a list (as we all know) are go up/ down/ select or back - theres nothing more to it. There are no additional buttons which pop up other sets of 'options' or any such bells and whistles. All you need is a finger to operate it. Brilliant! Simplicity sells.

However, it must be noted that simplifying does not mean cutting down on features! It merely envisages packaging and presenting these features in an easy standard way.

(To be continued in part II)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Taare Zameen Par (Lit:)Stars on earth

I must admit, I did feel tears well up my eyes while watching this movie. A movie is all about elevating the art of story-telling into a captivating, involving and enthralling experience. By that yardstick, Taare Zammen Par (Hindi) far exceeds its brief - easily the best Bollywood production of 2007.

Technically, the movie simply stands out. Beautiful metaphorical visuals, deft camera angles, brilliant acting, esp Darsheel Safary as Ishaan Awasthi, apt music by Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy, superb direction by Aamir and a simple bold story-line by Amole. Tata Elxi guys too seem to have done a good work with the visuals.

The movie sensitively portrays the travails of a Dyslexic child and his family but more importantly it shows how a caring (and aware) teacher (played by veteran actor Aamir Khan - I consider him India's Tom Hanks) helps everyone back on track. It emphasizes the role of a good teacher and warns of the dangers of having insensitive 'educationists' instead. I have seen many a student lose interest in a subject because of an inept teacher. I have also seen many 'below-average' children making 'above-average' achievements just because of a teacher's timely encouragement. Unfortunately, the present number of those who fit the negative stereotype far outnumber the few 'uplifters'. Thats why the script-writer states that he is afraid of losing these 'stars' on earth (Hin: Kho na jaaye ye, taare zameen par). Me too. I wouldn't like to spoil your fun by revealing anything further. So, I'd recommend this movie as a 'must watch' for all, especially for teachers and those aspiring to be good teachers- Just remember to carry your kerchiefs along (its NOT the tear-jerker kind, its something about the realistic, innocent and touching portrayal that pulls some chord within ;)

Friday, January 04, 2008

Indian Railways - The Emergency Hammer returns

Looking for Emergency Hammers in AC coaches on Indian Railways has almost become an obsession for me now (My first post on this here). My last series of travels was on four trains. Ernakulam-Satna, Satna-Chennai and Chennai-Chengannur. On almost all the coaches, I found really obscure directions for Emergency Exit and The Non-Existent Emergency Hammers.

However, I did for the first time ever find ONE Emergency Hammer. Atleast I now know what it looks like ;). In case you folks haven't seen it either (very likely), here is a snap of THE Emergency Hammer. *Applause, applause please :) *

India, when will you truly rise?

I've been traveling the past few weeks. Just returned after visiting my parents at Satna, MP (Madhya Pradesh, the heart of India). Our church runs an ICSE-ISC school here, my father is the principal and my mother is a teacher. I too was a student here over a decade ago. This little town is also the preferred railway station for tourists to proceed towards Khajuraho, famous for its erotic sculptures and a UNESCO heritage site. It also serves as a hub to Panna, the diamond district and Chitrakoot

What is startling is the sheer state of neglect and apathy towards public infrastructure development in these places. Compared to Kerala, these places (a significant portion of India) are decades behind, with little hope of catching up (not many residents of Kerala realize just how lucky they are. I'd suggest a North India trip to all Kerala cribbers). From what I've seen in my travels in India, the state of Satna is representative of most of India, the real India and not the 'Bangalore-India' or 'Delhi-India'.

The last time I'd been to Satna was 13 years ago. Sure, there are a lot more houses now - unimaginative, haphazard blocs of brick and cement. That makes me conclude that architecture, symmetry, design and aesthetics are 'higher' needs, maybe they are not even 'needs' per se. When people with limited resources just need a roof over their heads and four walls around - thats exactly what they make.

The roads are an excuse at best. ISRO can readily test its moon buggies, if at all it makes em, on any of the roads here. Even Kerala has its fair share of potholed roads but this place has more potholes than roads.

Water supply - non-existent (this is winter, I dread what will happen in summer!). Electricity erratic, the lights give an almost apologetic glow. Public transport - rickety metal boxes with an engine, wheels and a few seats thrown in.

Uncleanliness and an absolute lack of hygiene (cant blame the folks completely for this - when there is no water, how can one wash?). But some things should change. People here still defecate by the side of the railway and road tracks. Cows, dogs, fleas and mosquitoes share the space on the railway platform! The concept of sanitation has either not yet percolated down to some people or perhaps remains an unattainable luxury. A man no less than Gandhi ji was extremely concerned about this even half a century ago.

It is in circumstances such as these that resilience shines. I admire the warmth and hospitality shown by many at Satna despite their constraints. Some people just go out of their way to help. Heres a note of thanks to Mr. Jain who runs a popular book store there who helped us with all our railway bookings and personally came in at 5 am in the chilly winter to see us off.

How I wish the people running the state machinery would rise above their petty squabbles, corrupt selfishness and simply implement the development policies. How I wish most people would have access to at-least basic education and infrastructure. Before talking about broadband, wifi and what not in India, essential infrastructure, good governance and accessible education must be talked about. Only then will there be a chance for the real India to rise.