Archive for the ‘Take-two’ Category
I was able to barge into the new (beta) release of Netvibes, called Ginger, thanks to Techcrunch’s invite codes. While I have to say that it is a pretty nifty piece of work, I don’t quite see the point to it. That said, I will readily admit that I am not your average user of online dashboards and desktops, so the basic premise of this post itself maybe flawed.
The loading time for the basic framework is quite fast, but actions that require data to be updated is sluggish. As it is to be expected with the beta label that Netvibes goes to great lengths to point out to you, it is a bit buggy and some of the links like featured widgets and top blogs did not load.
Universe: The Universe is the public profile where the widgets the user has chosen to share turns up. I am a bit perplexed by what purpose the universe serves, other than to gun to be the preferred profile page for the user at a later stage.
Now, the “send to universe” feature kind of got me confused with the “share” feature, which happens at the item level of a widget. I still have not figured out where the share turns up. i assume it will show up a la Google Reader in your friend lists.
Themes: This is pretty much in the juvenile vein that iGoogle has managed to do it. But, unlike iGoogle, this does not get in the way of readability as much as the Google offering.
Activity Map: This is the online dashboard interpretation of the social graph (paging Scoble!) showing off what you shared last and what did your friends share last. And like any self-respecting web 2.0 website that makes social engineering by phishers a cakewalk, Netvibes too allows you to raid Gmail accounts to see which other friend of yours is a member of the website.
And that was just about all I could find on the website. At the end of it, the question that remained on my mind was this: What was the fuss all about anyway?
I won’t try and predict what is to come this year. I have always sucked at making predictions and I think it is a silly business anyway. So I’ll write about things I’d like to see in the year 2008.
First, a bit of background. It is no great secret that the US economy is progressively slowing down to a level where it is no longer possible to get a whopping rate of returns on most forms of investments. What this means is that there is money to be invested in the country, but there are no decent investment destinations where it can be plonked into.
This pile of cash sitting in the hands of VCs, hedge funds and investment bankers need to be invested somewhere for it to bring in the returns that justify their existence (and huge commissions). So it is likely that eventually a fair chunk of this will end up in China, India and other emerging markets.
Now, everyone loves the China story, but China has a major weakness that is not there with India. The Chinese economy is propped up largely by exports. Exports to the US, to be more specific. Any slowdown in the US economy eventually spills over to China, cutting down their own prospects for 2008 and the years to follow after that. This is the reason why you see interesting things like a Chinese bailout of an American institution, which would have been unimaginable a couple of years ago.
India, compared to that, has a degree of exposure which is considerably lower than China to the American (mis)fortunes? This is where we have actually benefited from not having a whopping trade surplus like what China has with the US. The coming couple of years will be entirely about companies who have limited or dynamically fixable exposure to the US markets doing well compared to companies that are dependent on the US economy for their daily bread and butter.
Most of India’s exports are service-oriented: basically software and a bunch of other trades like garments. Software will primarily take a hit on margins on existing contracts due to the exchange rate equation and an even bigger hit on margins on newer contracts. They still can afford, though, to look at ways to make through a couple of years of this slowdown. The garment trade, though, has been decimated by the downturn and the weak dollar, with many players raking up crores in losses just over a couple of months. Then again, of the entire garment segment, India still does not account for much.
Which brings us to the important point: India’s economic activity is largely internal. We can’t seem to produce enough of stuff for ourselves and with time all this economic activity is bringing an increasing number of new participants to the middle class segment that did not exist before. Of course, the trickle down is not happening fast enough, but if you consider how huge and how varied our nation is, this would come as no surprise.
But, essentially, we have a market that is looking good to grow well for the next decade (or even further), a vibrant democracy and a strong enough country that has been able to withstand and easily overcome terrorist attacks. Of course, there is much wrong with the country too at the same time, but that won’t disappear overnight. Such changes take time and we won’t see spittle-free walls or even marginally better politicians for a long time. But what we do need to appreciate is that it is improbable that even with any party coming into power, the development and economic agenda will be changed much. We will see sops and instances where politicians will play to their favourite gallery, but the larger economic agenda will keep going.
Now to the list:
Innovation: India will be one of the hottest destinations for investment in 2008, which will again be only the start of something much bigger. That said, investable properties in India are far and few, especially in the digital sphere. VCs and other players in the innovation ecosystem will need to find newer ways of finding companies and products that are worth investing into.
A lot of our products these days come from the copy-paste school of doing products. “It worked there in the west, so it must work here!” as a product peg needs to disappear. Use cases have to be considered as a must-have, alongside projections that are valid and current usage levels which is not inflated. It would be nice to see a bit of honesty within the system, just to begin with.
We have holes in our entrepreneurial system that have to be plugged. Instances like this won’t happen if the VCs step more into a mentoring role and help them along. I know the norm is that VCs like to limit their meddling in the company to the board meetings, but at least short term funding in this heavily commoditized times is not a major issue for people, VCs have to change the way they approach the business and their portfolios. If they play it right, there is a considerable amount of leverage they can exercise in terms of scale and in a scenario where the cost of replicating is product is peanuts, compared to the cost of finding a differentiator, that could be a killer point which makes all the difference to their portfolio.
You can make a decent killing in any segment by being lucky, being there first or by being plain smart a few times. Longer term profits and sustainable product lines, though, are derived from one thing: innovation. The kind of money that will flow into India will need a thought process and a product development stream that is better than what we have now.
This, mind you, is a long term change. It is something that will take years to precipitate. It is a habit that is acquired, one that needs to be forced upon ourselves before it becomes a force of habit. I think that soon enough we will be forced along that path because the volume of investment will demand that kind of effort. 2008 could be the year when we see the start of that process.
Mobile: We need to get over our fascination for SMS and the slew of value added services as the conduit through which the amazing growth is going to come. Of course, the market is constantly expanding, but with the dismal average revenue per user, the margins are not exactly mouth watering. This, in turn, will affect the telcos’ ability to move into the relatively unexplored rural markets. What they need for 2008 is a new product. They need to push out the first sub INR 5000 mobile internet access device out into the market.
As my friends know only too well, such a device is one of my pet themes and this is how it works. A Nokia E50 phone costs around INR 8500 in the market these days. This is a phone that does EDGE, has the lovely Series 60 browser that works on pretty much every website that I use on a regular basis and is rugged enough to survive India. Slap on to it the unlimited GPRS deal from Airtel (INR 500 per month) and you get a mobile internet device that has an initial cost of INR 9000 and a recurring cost of INR 500 per month.
Now, if a telco were to order this handset in bulk from Nokia, it would get them a significant discount and if they subsidize the cost further themselves, it could even be brought down to INR 5000 to start off with. You could also make it even easier by spreading out the start up cost in terms of installments (INR 50, 100 or any other amount), that could be added on to your monthly bill to beef up adoption.
It should ideally be a win-win deal for Nokia, since there is no additional development to be done on the device and they will get to move such vast numbers that the volume itself should bring in decent margins. Or, we could take the harder route, re-engineer the device, strip it down and change the orientation to bring more width than length to the screen and give it a full QWERTY keyboard.
The bottom line is that a pervasive internet experience is the thing that will save the telco soul. This will also allow them to price services and content that are not limited by what SMS and IVR currently limits you to. And if you consider how restrictive and artificial the interactivity are on those services, offering the internet experience on your handheld device can only be a winner, whichever angle you want to look at it.
And, before I forget it, did I say that it breaks the entire penetration issue?
I think this is a long enough post for now. I will post the second part a day or so later.
The first feeling you get after finishing Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the shore is akin to stepping out of being in a deep and delicious trance. Beyond the intricate detailing of events and characters, when you step out of the often-crazy world that Murakami sets up, you feel wrung inside-out, having been dragged along with the characters on their respective amazing journeys.
The most distinct thing about Kafka on the shore is that judgment is flung firmly out of the window from the first page. If you are the types who work overtime to make moral or any other type of judgments, this book is certainly not for you. On the other hand, if you love your fiction like if it were the best Tiramisu you have ever had in your life — multi-layered and mutli-flavoured — this is certainly the book for you.
The story has a pace that is quite unexpected and does not let off till the end and it covers grounds and cultures that is very obviously beyond what the Japanese isles — where the story is set — can account for. At the same time, it does not shut you out, even if you are not the average ‘intellectual’ and keeps you firmly interested and involved till the end.
The best thing about the book is that there are so many different ways in which it can be interpreted, but the overbearing theme is of a constant search for the self, which is the thread that joins together everyone involved in the book.
I guess that is what makes the book so special, that there is a little bit of yourself in every character, without it being entirely about you. The work stands equally tall, even when you don’t identify with it.
The only question that remains is if anyone would dare to make a movie. Rest assured, it will never be a commercial hit, but writing a screenplay for it and later translating it with a camera should be an adventure that very few would dare to start on.
Ethan Kaplan is one non A list blogger who has over time become a favourite of mine. Other than him being 28 and getting emotional in planes, he writes with a degree of lucidity and comfort that’s all too rare find these days. Today, he has posted an entry where he’s asking us to look back at where we come from:
Lets reverse that and see what technology did to us. And how we as people are defined by the machines at our disposal.
So here goes:
How I got into technology was mostly driven by necessity. I was not one of those gifted geeks who could magically figure out the difference between a transistor and a capacitor, understand circuit diagrams and make sense of how things work out. I grew up in a country where it was a huge thing to have a television set (that too black and white!) at your home in the 80s. As a kid, the exposure to technology started with the transistor, initially the huge brown valve-based ones that was later replaced by the solid state ones. This does not mean that I had a proclivity for opening them up. I used to leave them alone because I could not make much sense of them and I was more interested in what came out of it: the yearning to listen to something more than the run-of-the-mill state-run crap. In fact, I could say my dalliance with technology has always been led by the quest to learn and know more, but that was not necessarily tied to knowing more about the technology itself.
There were short-lived flirtations later, with DIY kits, rigging up small (and illegal!) FM stations, trying to cook up fancy antennas to first tap into the first generation (which most still are, even to this day) cable networks that we were not allowed to subscribe to at home and pick up any kind of weak RF signals and bounces on the radio. My first run in with a video gaming platform was when somebody gifted me an funny version (or a copy?) of the early Nintendo Gameboy. It had the classic game where you, as an ambulance guy, had to catch people jumping off buildings on fire at either ends of the screen. After living through many three lives and considerable thumb play, it broke down somewhere along the way, but that was all I needed to get hooked.
Unlike most fellow geeks, I did not grow up with computers and I have never seen a PDP. In fact, I had minimal interaction with computers through school and a fair bit of high school. It was more the VCR and corresponding technologies that used to keep me busy and at that age and time, VCRs were used almost exclusively for one thing: to watch porn. My first home computer was a Pentium I with 16 MB of RAM and a 4 Gigabyte hard disk drive that had Windows 95 pre-installed on it (yes, I started THAT late with computers). I had no prior experience in fiddling around with one and after changing considerable file type associations and even deleting a couple of DLLs or two, I at least had an idea of what not to do with the silly white box than what I should do with it.
It was around this time that the word ‘Internet’ began to worm its way into my conscience. I was then dabbling a lot in 3D animation (on the ancient 3D Studio for DOS, since I could not draw anything in 2D) and VRML was more hyped than Kentucky Fried Chicken in the country. Since India had terrible restrictions on internet use at that time (dial up and only shell access), I had no clue about what it was, other than this idea that it was a vast amount of information that I could dip into. That, coupled with the 3D ambitions, led me to believe that one day we could virtually walk into any library anywhere on earth and read whatever I wanted to if the internet dream were to come true for me. Everything I wanted to figure out was a gateway for more knowledge. It was just a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Somewhere along the way I had finished graduating in Economics and being the clueless sort I had no ambition of my own. The 3D animator career did not go anywhere since the big boys were playing with SGI systems and Maya and I could not bring myself to wring out that kind of money out of the parents. After getting a couple of robots to kill each other in two minute movies, the fascination pretty much came to an end. Time now was spent playing RoadRash and other assorted games, the names of which I can’t remember much about and there was still no internet on the horizon.
It was around that time that a friend gave me a CD which had something weird called ‘Linux’ on it. Since it was something new that I had no clue about, I had to know about it. Being one of those who don’t ever RTFM I’d struggled through an entire night, with rawrite and lilo for company, trying to get Redhat 5 installed on the poor Pentium I. Finally, with some help, I did mange to get it running along with X windows, but it had trashed the Windows 95 install and as you could imagine, my dad, who used the system to get real work done, was not mighty impressed by that.
Since the graduation was of no great help in getting a career, I decided to become one of the hordes who got into the ‘software engineer’ line of work. In a matter of 16 months I was supposed to have become someone who knew Core Java (Corba, anyone?), Oracle (Form Designer, anyone?), UML and many other bits of technology. Lofty course targets apart, the truth was that I was struggling with basic pointer logic and arrays (screw mutli-dimensional, even simple ones ended up giving me the creeps) during the 30 days for which that I attended the course. What it do for me was to give me access on a true multi-user system (an AIX box since the facility was affiliated to IBM), where I found the magical pleasures of ‘wall’ ‘talk’ and shell scripts.
Eventually, with good help from two buddies, I managed to write a simple program in C (no frame buffer crap, Iz loved mes ASCII text ) that in theory was intended to help fishermen with their catch and scripts to track when root was logged in and the commands he/she was using. Somehow, eventually, we managed to stage a DoS attack on the poor box that brought it down eventually. But the real breakthrough was that the facility had an ISDN line that we could hook up to every now and then. That was the first time in my life I actually saw a web page from a remote server in a web browser. It was nothing like the walk through library I used to dream about, but I don’t think that was the intended purpose of www.ftv.fr at any point in its existence in any case.
As fate would have it, I had, quite by accident and by unrelated events in my personal life, ended up in Delhi doing my Post Graduate Diploma in Journalism from here. Through 9 months of the course, I had my first run in with the Mac OS and free-flowing bandwidth via a VSAT hook up, most of which was spent in trying to circumvent various access policies that were set in place by the administration. You cannot keep a man away from his ‘education’ for too long, can you? The fun and games ended when the time came to find gainful employment following the course and thankfully (considering how messed up the media industry was in India at that time), I got offers from a major print publication and a web solutions company that was also running an online magazine. And you could guess which way the ‘thirst’ took me.
The job was back breaking, but it also allowed me to trawl the internet at will and I could not really complain about that. What I did complain about was the content management system that the company used to have. It was awful to use. You could only add articles, there was just no delete or edit function. To edit an article, you had to manually delete the record from the MSSQL Enterprise Manager and enter the modified copy all over again. About the time I’d left that job, I had helped the guys design an edit form and in the meantime I also figured out the basic SQL syntax, since it was terrible to have to call one of the tech lads to just delete an article again.
The second job was with these guys who were running an even more archaic system that was based on Foxpro, FTP and untar. Right after my joining them, things happened in such a way that we had to make radical changes to the operations and figured it was not possible because nobody had the source code for the Foxpro programs. Thus started the move to a new CMS based on JSP and Oracle (the boom years, remember?) that just refused to scale up beyond 10 concurrent sessions. To show that such heavy lifting (and expensive software, since we were using JRun) was not required, I started replicating the system using PHP 3 and Apache on a Windows 98 machine with 16 MB RAM (Oh noes, not againz!). It was the first bit of code I’d written after a very long time (since the C days) and strangely, what I learnt at that time slowly started falling into place.
The next two years I picked up a fair bit of technology (the first run in with Postgresql), operations and product development. Which was followed by a stint here raging against the system, launching blogs and RSS feeds in the process after which I switched to where I am these days. I could go into finer details of what exactly do I do here, but that would quite not be about what technology did to me, so I’ll spare all of you that torture.
As I’ve repeatedly said, it has always been the urge to know more that has driven me to technology. Knowing it helps you do things better, it allows you to function more in sync with the technology team. The strange thing is that in pursuing all of this I’d started out being a journalist, moved from that into technology later and eventually ended up at the operations and business end of the deal. A major part of what I am today, I owe it to technology, without which I’d not have been able to access and amass the knowledge I have today.
Feel free to spread the meme.