Why I am not Active on Facebook and other Social Media

It is a question I am asked by many people. Why am I not more active on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Other than republishing my RSS feed, I don’t tend to do much else – atleast for now. My answer has two parts: lack of time, and need for chunky time in what I do.In a way, both are related.

Unlike most others, I update my blog daily. Blogging may be considered an older generation of technology given the 140-char economy that  we now seem to be in, but I still like to write in a bit more depth than the cryptic one-liners. (Same goes for my reading habits.) Also, I like to have chunky uninterrupted time at work for what I am doing. Email and SMS/mobile calls are anyways there. I don’t want to add to it with the preesure to respond to many more interruptions (even though some of them may be useful).

I think in this instant, quick and short response world we are starting to miss out on deep thinking, interaction and engagement. Maybe I will change in the time to come, but for now, I am quite happy with the way things are. Is this a sign of age? Perhaps!

New Delhi Airport Terminal

My last two visits to Delhi have both been on Indigo Airlines (to and fro). I have been impressed with their punctuality and fares. Only one of the flights was delayed by about 30+ mins. They tend to be quite focused on ensuring a quick start – sometimes moving out a few minutes before the scheduled time. (I also took Indigo to and from Banaglore – which makes it six flights on them in a row.)

The new Delhi terminal is very impressive. Plenty of check-in counters, shops, departure gates and food outlets.  And yet, when it comes to boarding, I still cannot understand why we are bus-ed around. Couldn’t they have made aerobridges? (The same is true for Mumbai also.) Or, maybe it was the lack of space that prevented them doing so. Anyway, it is a good start – we have been 30 years behind the world with our airports, and are now only 20 years behind.

Book Reco: The Defector by Daniel Silva

Every so often, I will rapidly read a few fiction books. I read two recently — “The Defector” by Daniel Silva, and “The Apostle” by Brad Thor. Of these, I liked the former more. The Defector is centred around the Israeli spy-assassin Gabriel Allon. I had earlier read “Moscow Rules” and had quite liked that. The book is quite a page turner (on the Kindle it becomes the “Next Page button pressing”). The Apostle (a Scot Harvath novel) was comparatively more than a bit disappointing.

On a related note, I also read David Baldacci’s “First Family” a couple months ago, and didn’t find that as exciting as some of his earlier works.

Ban Morchas

A few weeks ago, I was taking a 1:45 pm flight to Bangalore. I left office at 12:15 pm – on a normal day, the airport (about 12 kms) is a 30-minute drive at that time of the day. Little did I know that the Shiv Sena was out in full force on a weekday afternoon protesting against MHADA at Bandra. The result was that all the approach roads from South Mumbai were absolutely packed with traffic with huge backups. A police inpsector suggested that it wasn’t going to clear up for a couple hours.

I got out from the car, took a taxi in the reverse direction to the Matunga train station, caught a train to Vile Parle, and then incentivsed one of the auto drivers to get me quickly to the airport (after three of his ilk declined to do the journey). I reached the airport counter at 1:20 pm, a few minutes before they would have closed it – the flight was on time.

I met someone else on the flight who also just about made it in time — it took him two hours to do the 18 km journey from South Mumbai.

I really think if we are going to move along as a nation we need to get paste these morchas and bandhs — they are a complete nuisance and waste of time, and cause great inconvenience. Everyone has a right to protest, but not at the cost of causing grief to many others.  Or, we can stay resigned to the “This is India” syndrome.

Queueing Theory Lesson Needed for Mumbai Airport

One of the first things I learnt during my first Communications course at Columbia University during my Masters was the M/M/1 Queue Model. Simply put, it states that it is much more efficient to have a single queue when there are multiple servers.  The person at the head of the queue goes to the first free server. This optimises (minimises) wait time for every one.

The security check at the new terminal in the Mumbai airport  (amongset zillions of other places) does exactly the opposite. There is a separate queue for each combo of baggage screening machine and the security personnel who check you. On a recent Monday morning, I happened to be stuck on one of the slow moving lines and couldn’t help wondering about a lesson I had learnt more the two decades ago!

There are times when I wonder why we need to reinvent solutions to problems the world has figured out and solved. We have enough other problems to worry about than trying to be creative with wrong solutions. Or, is it simply our TII (“This is India”) Syndrome?!

Blog Past: Two-Sided Markets

This is a series from November 2006:

Understanding two-sided markets is especially critical for entrepreneurs and managers in the Internet and mobile space. One of the dominant models that has emerged over the years is that of giving away services for free. While this has been around for some time, the Internet provides scale which would never otherwise have been possible previously. The combination of “software engines” and contextual advertising has made Google a powerhouse on the Internet. The next big opportunity is on the mobile. What will be the equivalent on the mobile Internet – where screen-size limitations and user impatience could potentially limit advertising. I can imagine mobile content (ringtones, wallpapers and games) being offered for free at a not-too-distant future – subsidised by advertising. This can shift power from mobile operators in India who keep a lion’s share of the end-user charges to platform providers who can build direct-to-consumer relationships and enable advertisers to connect with this audience.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The “Free” Business Model: by Bill Gurley. “If a disruptive competitor can offer a product or service similar to yours for ‘free,’ and if they can make enough money to keep the lights on, then you likely have a problem.”
  • Apple, RIM Outsmart Phone Market: from The Wall Street Journal. “Apple and BlackBerry’s Research In Motion…accounted for only 3% of all cellphones sold in the world last year but 35% of operating profits, according to Deutsche Bank analyst Brian Modoff. The disparity will become even starker this year when, he estimates, the two will take 5% of the market in unit terms but 58% of total operating profits.”
  • India 2039: An affluent society in one generation: An Asian Development Bank report.
  • The 2009 Shift Index: by John Hagel and John Seely Brown. “Wouldn’t it be better, we asked ourselves, if we could somehow quantify this Big Shift, and find a way to measure the rate and magnitude of the long-term changes happening in this epochal time?  And so began the pursuit of developing the 2009 Shift Index.”

Concept Note: New India Policy Foundation (Part 4)

The Differentiation

The Foundation will be different from existing think tanks in at least two different ways: (a) It will focus on developing policy ideas for practical real-life issues, rather than engage in mere theoretical pursuits, and (b) Engaging with policy makers and opinion leaders will be an integral part of its mandate, and it will be judged by the direct impact it will make in shaping the policy discourse in the country.

This Foundation will institutionalise the process of public policy research and intervention outside of the Government machinery. It will do so by employing and engaging the best minds under one umbrella, aggregating valuable information and ideas relevant for India, initiating debates in the intelligentsia and civil society and influencing the collective conscious of legislators and bureaucrats. It will be intellectually best in class and a constructive source of inputs on all important areas of legislation and policy making. It will aim to become the fountain head of all policy research and decision making in this country.

It will distinguish itself from other Think Tanks by its “result-oriented” (outcome focused) approach to policy intervention. The effectiveness of its output will be measured in a scientific manner and employee benefits will be linked to it. It will only have a guiding philosophy, and will have no pre-defined political affiliation. It will be accountable to its trustees and the country.

Concept Note: New India Policy Foundation (Part 3)

The Objectives and Activities

The two main objectives of the Foundation are:

  • Research and propose new policy alternatives to address pressing national issues.
  • Disseminate the work of the Foundation widely, especially with a view to directly impacting the course and content of national policy.

The Foundation will take up a number of activities:

  • Undertake research studies on existing policies of the government, both at the central and state level, with a view to examining the impact of such policies, and suggest alternative approaches where such policies are not delivering in the desired manner.
  • Initiate studies to propose new policies over and above what governments might have so far considered. This is expected to address the problem of short term thinking that is often prevalent in governments, at the cost of long term strategic planning.
  • Hold consultations, seminars, closed door sessions with policy makers, conferences on important national issues to stimulate debate and guide the policy process. Engage with formal (TV shows / appearances etc) and informal media for large scale dissemination and outreach.
  • Engage with and convene meetings with key policy makers (MPs / MLAs & beauracracy) and opinion leaders to shape national policy.

The Foundation expects to demonstrate tangible results within the first few years of its operation. The Foundation will try and forge links with like-minded individuals and institutions globally.

Tomorrow: The Differentiation

Concept Note: New India Policy Foundation (Part 2)

The Solution

There is a cross section of society who believes that there is space for new thinking beyond being wedded to socialist ideals. The Group believes that there is scope for new ideas with a right-of-centre thrust, on a range of economic and social issues in the country. This group is coming together to create a new think tank – the New India Policy Foundation — that will provide cutting edge research on a range of economic and social issues.

The Foundation will propose, educate and engage with policy makers (elected representatives and members of bureaucracy) with the objective of guiding public policy, legislation and delivery, and influencing public opinion. Its support in matters of policy and governance will be driven by India’s long-term requirement and not short-term opportunism. The Foundation will be guided by the principles of liberal democracy, free enterprise (keeping in mind the interests of wider sections of society), social inclusion, robust defence policy and nationalism and will deliver India-oriented research.

The Foundation will analyse ongoing programmes and make suggestions for new policies that can be taken up by policy makers across party lines. Even as the Foundation expects that it is likely to have a right-of-centre thrust in its work, the Foundation will take a well researched and reasoned position on issues affecting India, rather than being driven purely by any economic or social ideology. The Foundation will be supported by a wide range of actors such as grant making foundations, the corporate sector, and individuals.

Similar parallels can be found with Heritage Foundation and Centre for American Progress, which support the Republican and Democratic Parties in the US, respectively.

Tomorrow: The Objectives and Activities

Concept Note: New India Policy Foundation

One of the ideas that a group of us have been thinking is the creation of a centre-right policy foundation / think thank. Amit Malviya and I, with help from a few others, have put a concept note on the idea. We would be keen to get your feedback on this.

The Problem

India since Independence has seen politics of convenience, one that is driven by individual preferences and often catering to compulsions of electoral politics. In the process, public policy-making and delivery are severely compromised. It is ironical that the Congress party has at its convenience oscillated from opposing Socialism to being a strong proponent of it and then embracing free markets when driven by compulsion. The Party has straddled these positions all in a matter of a few decades. Likewise, the BJP when in power, neither emerged as Right of Centre nor did it espouse the cause of Swadeshi. Popular perception is that the two major national parties have little to distinguish their economic policies and are often accused of being opportunistic and short sighted when it comes to policy related matters.

As a result, it is no secret that India as a nation has not realised its potential even after six decades of Independence. Our agriculture is in dismal state, internal security is compromised with alarming impunity, manufacturing sector is not robust enough to employ the vast semi skilled work force, education is highly regulated, health services are woefully insufficient and infrastructure is grossly inadequate. A nation of over a billion people is ruled by absolute adhocism. We are invariably held hostage to one of the pressure groups operating to services the narrow interest of its subjects.

In essence, India suffers from a lack of critical thinking on several key issues of national importance.  The thinking that goes on happens within the confines of government – the civil service and the cabinet.  There is almost a complete absence of groups outside the formal establishment who develop new policy ideas and actively engage with policy makers to see the ideas through.

It is this state of affairs that has prompted the idea of creating a Foundation which will work towards creating a better future for India.

Tomorrow: The Solution

Blog Past: SME Tech Utility

I wrote this series in 2001. The idea:

Create an Technology Utility company, to offer a one-stop solution for SMEs globally covering business and technology needs in four areas:

  • Computing: Management of SMEs local IT infrastructure – the remotely managed desktop
  • Communications: A Local Server on the SMEs LAN with “intermittent connectivity” to the Internet
  • Software: An integrated e-business suite of applications covering ERP, CRM and SCM
  • Services: Outsourced IT-enabled services from an Indian base in core business areas

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Wilderness of Childhood: by Michael Chabon in New York Review of Books. “Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”
  • Can David Cameron Redefine Britain’s Tory Party? From the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Lessons may be applicable for India’s BJP also. “Conservatives — or Tories, as they are also called — are counting on Cameron to rescue them from the ideological confusion and public contempt that has been their lot since New Labour, behind Tony Blair, drove them from power in 1997, handing the party its worst drubbing since its founding in the 1830s.”
  • Board games are back: from Fortune. “By appealing to young, adrenalin-driven consumers, hobby games like Blokus have scrambled ahead of Scrabble and other traditional games…Unlike classic board games, these hobby games focus on quick game-play — generally, a full game can be played in less than an hour — and are designed to be different every time. They also incorporate more strategy, challenging players to earn points in multiple ways by, for instance, solving a puzzle or stealing pieces from their opponents.”
  • India’s Budget – Hopes Suspended: from The Economist. “It was inevitable that the new government’s first budget would be overwhelmed by the weight of expectations. When Mr Mukherjee gives his next budget, perhaps the reform traffic may be running more smoothly.”
  • Manage for Abundance, not Scarcity: by Chris Anderson in Wired. “We’re good at scarcity thinking — it’s the 20th-century organizational model. Now we have to get good at abundance thinking, too.”

Idea 4: Invertising for ads and marketing information from companies

Spam on phones is an even bigger problem than spam in emails. But not all spam is equal – messages that take into account our profile and have our permission are most welcome. In a way, these are messages we invite into our lives – think of it is invited advertising, or “Invertising.”

This is the world of publish-subscribe. As I wrote last September, “Companies will publish and continuously update various information streams (think of them as ‘feeds’). Customers can subscribe to any of these streams and then receive updates as soon as new items are published on the feeds. Customers can also stop subscriptions to the feeds anytime. Publish-subscribe ensures a spam-free world for customers.”

A new mobile operator can take the lead in ensuring an Invertising-drive, spam-free world for its subscriber base. This would be based on the combination of 3 Ps – push, profile and permission. Marketing companies would love it – they can now do targeted ads and messages. Subscribers (mobile users) would love it – they now have the control on the marketing messages they receive. The mobile phone now starts becoming more of a magic lamp for users, with the operator as a Genie who fulfills wishes!

Summary

What new mobile operators need to do is to think out-of-the-box – they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. As mobile number portability comes in, it will help level the field by allowing mobile users to switch operators and retain their number. What is needed is for operators to use data and VAS to provide the right incentive for users to actually make that switch.

Idea 3: Open the user profile to service providers

Today, the mobile phone operator has the data regarding whom I call and how often, whom I message and with frequency, where I am at any given moment of time, and so on. In other words, my personal and social profile resides in the collection of actions that I do with my mobile. In India, it is the mobile phone usage and not the email and Web usage which has a better potential of defining the all-important social graph. Imagine if this data were made available to developers to build the next-generation of social applications.

Of course, privacy norms will need to be respected – the mobile subscriber will have the control to decide which applications can use the data. This is somewhat like what Facebook has done.

Again, what the mobile operator is doing is converting itself into a platform and allowing other service providers to build on top. This is the approach which will pay dividends over time. Operators today have the critical mass (in terms of absolute numbers and reach) to make this happen. A new operator may just be the one to open up this space.

Idea 2: Create an open VAS Platform with 60% revenue share to content and service providers

The big advantage of the mobile is the in-built microbilling platform. Operators control that – both for postpaid and prepaid users. The Internet lacks a similar capability and is thus largely limited to relying on advertising as a business model. In the mobile space, micropayments by subscribers is an order of magnitude larger in India.

[Internet advertising is about Rs 600 crore ($120 million), while VAS accounts for about Rs 7,500 crore ($1.5 billion ). In contrast, mobile advertising on SMS and WAP is about $10 million  (Rs 50 crore).]

In India, the only workable way to do the “subscriber pays” model is to work with the mobile operators. Revenue shares of what the user pays are heavily loaded in favour of the operator, who tend to keep more than 70% of what the user pays. Also, the lack of an “open platform” (where any content or service provider can offer a service to an operator’s subscriber base) has limited the aggregate number of services and left users  largely with a range of operator-defined SMS subscription services, voice portals at Rs 6 a minute for access, CRBT (caller ring-back tones), and other downloads (ringtones, wallpapers, games).

Imagine now if a mobile operator can change the game by offerings its microbilling platform to anyone who wants to launch a service and offering a 60% or more revenue share of what the end user pays. The operator can also use its own portal to help in discovery of the off-deck services. Such an initiative will get the entire software and content community excited and spur a lot of services – similar to what happened in Japan when NTT Docomo launched i-mode in 1999.

These innovative services are what will attract users to the mobile operator, in turn bringing more service providers. This is what has happened with the iPhone Appstore. And it is an initiative that existing mobile operators will not match for a long time since they will seek to protect their existing VAS revenue streams.

Thus, for a new operator, an initiative like this on the VAS side can give a significant competitive advantage in getting data-loving, service-starved mobile users to switch.

Idea 1: A flat-rate data plan for Rs 99 per month

For the most part, GPRS plans are priced at about 5-10p per 10 KB. This works out to Rs 5-10 per MB. The problem is both with the price and the concept of metering. What is needed is a flat-priced plan that is less than Rs 100 per month. Smartphones are capable of doing a lot, and most of these services require network access.

I checked my own data usage on the Nokia E71 in the past couple months – it comes to about 50 MB a month. This works out to an effective rate of Rs 2 / MB. (I’m probably paying Vodafone Rs 500 a month for that usage.)

New mobile operators have enough spectrum. What they need is people like me to switch based on the appeal of flat-priced data and bring along the voice business as well.

In addition, as I wrote last December, “A plan like this will encourage the use of the mobile Internet and other services, and create the necessary pull for companies to start building out mobile data services. Operators will benefit from large-scale adoption of data plans.”

Ideas for New Mobile Operators

The arrival of new mobile operators in India never seems to stop. In the past few months, Aircel has gone national with its roll-out, Reliance has launched its GSM service, and Tata Docomo is also going national with its GSM service. There are a few more who could still come in. And then we will have the 3G auctions for some more.So, what should be the entry strategy for a new mobile operator in a saturated circle (near 100% penetration) like Mumbai? This effectively means that instead of trying to attract new users the focus has to be on switching users.I had explored this idea a few months ago when Idea had launched in Mumbai. This is what I wrote then:

What could Idea have done differently to switch users? I think the entry strategy could have revolved only around one of two key ‘ideas’. The first, aggressive reduction of voice tariffs since voice remains 90% of the industry revenue. But they would have known that this would have been matched within hours by the others. So, it would have only ended up in taking industry revenues lower for everyone, and not necessarily ended up gaining them subscribers.  Alternately, Idea could have created a first-class service targeting high ARPU subscribers, who are also VAS (value-added services) hungry. Idea could have created an i-mode in India – a platform that could have gotten content and service providers excited, creating a positive feedback loop for the service rapidly. In essence, Idea could have thought disruptively and differently. But so far, they haven’t. They still have a golden opportunity – many of us in Mumbai are hungry for innovative mobile data services.

New operators tend to either talk of network or try and come out with aggressive voice plans. I think the network quality is a given – all seem to be the same. Voice plans typically tend to attract the lower segment. What the new operators need is the upper end of the spectrum – and they have to get these users to switch from their existing service provider. For that, the focus will need to be not as much on Voice, but VAS and Data.

I still don’t see mobile operators (new and existing) with an aggressive focus on VAS – Aircel tried to talk about the “Pocket Internet” but I am not sure if that got the message across and had enough of a differentiation.

There is a lot that can be done on the VAS side that can give new mobile operators to disrupt the pecking order and get the more valuable, higher ARPU-generating mobile users to switch. This is what I will explore in this series.

Blog Past: News Refinery

I wrote this series in 2002 — on how to create a better system to navigate, search and derive value from news. “Even though news is critical for our lives and drives a lot of decisions we make, the way we process news leaves a lot to be desired. One can of course pay for certain services which can allow search but considering that most sites put up their regular editions on the web for free, it should be possible to create a site/service which leverages this to help us derive greater value for news.”