Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Powering the next billion cell phones

Despite the state of affairs with the world economy, there seems to be a sense of a treasure hunt as far as mobile companies' approach to the developing world is concerned.

Considering all the 'little' insights seriously could go a long way in ensuring the viability of a product or service in such a challenging environment. In other words; I think that the best way to approach this market is with a clear sense of the opportunity it presents and a much clearer sense of its constrains.

From a recent trip to rural India undertaken as a part of a usability research team, I realized that the biggest constraint to the uptake of mobile phone there was not money. From our conversations with existing users, we found that almost all of them used really basic handsets, some even bought as second/ third hand refurbished devices where the cost was just a couple of hundred rupees ($4 or 5!).

Connectivity was also fast becoming a non-issue with major operators trying to set up really extensive rural networks and even competing with each other to offer 'lifetime' pre-paid connections for less than half a dollar! We even saw how local village stores (each, just about the size of a small car) had morphed into outlets there selling small value airtime recharges.

The major concern there was finding a means to recharge ones phone! and to find a phone that required shorter recharges and lasted longer. I'd like to share two interesting developments (thanks again to in the past week give some hope here.

Solar powered phone.
Heres a launch news from Samsung and LG - earlier this year. I think these should become as ubiquitous as solar powered calculators. Rural India is blessed with enough sunshine to at least supplement the need for (non-existent) power sockets!

Ambient radio powered phone.
This is more interesting, though it sounds slightly more ambitious. I have always wondered why this could not be done! There is enough 'free' radio noise around to feed some power circuits. I remember having experimented with Crystal Radios (basically AM receivers that do not need power source) when I was into hobby electronics (the most difficult part I remember was getting the ear-piece right). All one needs to do is have a gazillion tuned circuits to harness the spectrum. Anyways, the good news is that Nokia allegedly has done just that!. This makes for an exciting powering solution for the mobile phone, especially in the Urban context.

I don't know if the news links are really trustworthy news sources, but I do know that these are relevant pointers in the right direction and at scale their cost should be really low.

On a side note, I think it is constraints that push the human ability to innovate and every era and region has its fair share of the same. If all was well with the stone age, I would have been engraving this blog post on a stone tablet now :) - Flintstones anyone ;)?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lessons on 'context'. Kiva - Cats that donate

I've been reading about Kiva. Its an amazing project that can turn anyone online with a credit card into a micro lender. If you always wanted to be a part of an MFI but couldn't get yourself to move beyond the edge of your office cubicle, Kiva puts you thousands of miles away, just a credit card and CVV number away from the wallet of a micro-entrepreneur.

I admire the way Kiva has touched the lives of thousands of people. But heres a candid confession made on his blog that takes my respect for its founder Matt Flannery a notch higher. It is a lesson on the importance of 'context' and communication. Every product, solution or communication is usually made on the basis of its 'context'. Take things out of their intended context and plop 'em in another - suddenly a perfectly sane piece begins to sound bizzare.

Catfood and Commoditization. In this blog Matt observes how the simple (and innocent) act of a lender in America setting his pet cat as his online avatar on Kiva leads to (an equally innocent) confusion for its recipient in Africa.
I heard a story recently from a Kiva Fellow stationed in Africa who, when showing the entrepreneur his lenders, was asked the cat question. How does that work? Why has a cat lent to me? How can a cat lend to me? Does that cat really want his money back? (he looks pretty fat).

Funny but true. Even at Eko, our User Interface was made keeping in mind a context. The context is an unbanked majority in India who however have access to mobile phones. Dig a few layers deeper - a majority of these handsets are Ultra Low Cost Handsets. - almost all the users are just number literate - most of them are pre-paid mobile users.

Eko's interface that uses just number dialing fits this context really well. But the trouble starts when analyzed by and within the frameworks of smart-phone toting, iPod sporting executives like you and me, the interface appears hopelessly outdated, outmoded, complex and what not. I've just been back from a field visit to rural Bihar and I couldn't help but imagine how useless it might be to give an illiterate villager a special 'hard-bound' edition of 'The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid' - being hard-bound he can't even feed it to his goats!

Project Architect

Its been less than three active months and Eko's pilot with the State Bank of India in West Delhi is now almost a thousand customers strong! Very soon we will be hitting the 10K mark. Internally we have begun the work required to prepared with technology to serve 100mn+ customers and many times as many transactions. This is where we have begun exploring for someone who could help us evolve the project architecture for what we call SimpliBank 2.0 - the next step in the evolution of our platform (or maybe an entirely separate/ off-shelf platform(s)). Someone experienced with having architected something of this scale and who fits into our current startup context well. Scale: in terms of the massive number of transactions, customers, flexibility and robustness. Context: One of the most promising startups in India with all its inherent caveats. If you find this really exciting and think you fit the bill, please send me an email and I could send you more details.

Do check out Amy the Architect. Its an interesting view on what an architect's role might be. Just to borrow their gist:
Suddenly, it struck Amy: she wanted to be the meaningful link between project decision makers and the technical people on the project. She wanted technical people to feel that project decision makers understood them and that the decisions made reflected that understanding. Conversely, she wanted the decision makers to feel confident that they had access to all the information they needed in a form they understood and believed to be what their technical staff really wanted to say.

Monday, June 01, 2009


For a commercial establishment, these are the first attention grabbers. Most customers would consider them informative rather than as advertisements. Imagine a marketplace with no signboards where folks have to 'guess' what shops they are entering! Signages are not restricted to shops alone, most organizations and most places of public utility need to sport clear monikers to efficiently guide people to their intended destinations.

Well, the other extreme is signboard cluttering where there are so many 'boards' clamoring for attention that the customer feels lost. Also, ad-hoc signages do end up making the view ugly. Sample the one alongside(this is not 'that' bad, it usually gets worse). Are there any standards governing the aesthetics? I am no expert on this subject but I guess some guidelines (or mandates) which state the size, orientation, stability, placement, margins, white-space and suggested font types and dimensions could help. Indeed, implementation of such guidelines could be really difficult considering the huge number of shops and boards we have and the fact that commercial urge takes precedence over aesthetic sense; but one has to start somewhere :). Also, I don't know if this is already there in India, but a paper on aesthetics and typography for public signboards would be a great addition to all professional courses.

Games on mind, MCD wants uniform signboards for a beautiful Delhi

Delhi Urban Art Commission. Outdoor Publicity: Sign Board - Bill Board - Hoarding