Is Software Eating our World in India ?

Just finished reading Marc Andreessen’s article on “Why Software Is Eating the World“.  An excellent read and worth your time, esp if you are not “seeing” what’s happening around of late.  As Simon Wardley comments on it, this article talks about mostly “what” and not “why”.

After reading this, I couldn’t help thinking and compare if it is really the case of software eating everything in our beloved country.

In the context of India, let me take a look at the industry examples that Mark talks about in his article and see if software is ruling the world.

Books – While it is known fact today that Amazon would launch the store in India sometime early next year, the only other name one can think of today is FlipKart.com. Beyond the top few cities, I don’t think if anyone knows this brand or uses it to buy books.  Back in 1999, we built india’s first online music store for a startup called Fabmall. We launched the original site in 9 weeks with complete payment integration from CitiBank (This was the first payment gateway implementation for CitiBank also and I still remember the integration issues and debugging them late into night, sitting in CitiBank office in Bangalore).  They went on to add Books, Electronics, Grocery and many more along the lines of Amazon.com.  I remember ordering groceries in the middle of the night to be shipped next day and I thought life was good. Alas, they were too early to the Indian market and couldn’t sustain for long.

What do I do for the books today? I rarely buy from Brick&Mortar stores. Mostly order kindle books and read-on laptop/tablet.  Costs less, delivered faster than any other approach and pretty much any book you can buy. On every count, they beat the physical stores.  Great, but “I” and people like me represent a miniscule percentage of India’s total population that buy books from online stores. Rest of the India continues to buy books from physical stores and probably for foreseeable future.

Music – Same story as books.  While the magnetic tape is dead in top tier-1 and tier-2 cities,  it still thrives in the rest of the population. While the younger generation has switched over to digital music, thanks to the countless clones of iPods, I haven’t seen anyone buying the music online. And where would they buy if they want to ? Internet connection at home is still a luxury in tier-3 cities and below.

In fact, when I asked my sister’s kid recently as to where she gets her music collection from, she looked at me with surprise as if the answer was obvious and replies  “Friends”. And where do these “Friends” get their music from ? The other “Friends”. This is where the Indian Jugaad comes to the rescue 🙂  You would find these enterprising guys in every corner of the main streets with a small one-room shop. Some just migrated from magnetic tape copying and CD burning business to digital versions. These guys, who usually have a techie friend (or a friend who knows a techie friend…) that can pirate latest music from torrents, would help you copy the latest music in bulk into your phone/digital player for just few rupees.

Video & Entertainment – Clearly, no one knows about NetFlix in India (except for the people like me who have directly worked with them or people working in MNCs visiting their US counterparts or people who closely monitor technology). Yes, some of us have youtube access and some download torrents regularly for latest movies etc. But to a large extent, it is still the movie halls & TV that dominate the scene. Even the online-ticketing is limited to top tier-1 cities. On the TV front, only now we are seeing some DTH providers transmitting half-a-dozen  or so HD channels.

LinkedIn –  I have been recruiting engg people in the past and I know several of my friends who recruit people into IT companies regularly. It seems that no one uses LinkedIn to recruit people although it sounds obvious that they should. We still rely heavily on the middle-men (recruiting agencies) and largely seem to be comfortable.  There are some other reasons, but I hope that this would change very soon (unlike the above)

 

Some interesting numbers from a different brick & mortar world. RBI estimates that only about 20% of Indian population have access to banking. Even if you take out the people within group of < 20 years, this is very sparse. With a total of about 84K branches (of all commercial and state run banks), only 5% of the villages have access to banking.

I can go on with more and more examples, but they all look like same story.  Our evolution to using the latest technology services doesn’t necessarily follow the steps the developed world has taken, and for a good reason. We probably will bump over several of the steps and catch-up with the latest. Cell phone is a good example.  This is one technology you would see in every corner of the country. You may find it difficult to find post office, internet connection, but you can pretty much expect someone having a cell phone.

But the analogy stops there. Our use of cell phone (again beyond the very small percentage of people who own connected smartphones) is pretty much limited to SMS and voice calls – what it was originally meant for.

I think that the root of the problem is still lack of widespread Internet connection. While we figured out some workarounds (digital music piracy examples), we are not gonna see a cell phone like revolution in other industries without widespread Internet connectivity.  I wonder what would drive this?

Some of us will continue to write software to eat the “worlds” out there, but not here and not now.

Instant Messaging with Roaming?

We all  use instant messaging (IM) on our desktops and laptops in our everyday life.  And I am sure some of you may use IM on mobile too.

Today, I was on an IM session where I was chatting with a friend in low throughput mode and not with full attention. I was reading an article, monitoring the twitter/facebook stream on Yoono and responding to IM messages with Adium (Yes, I am on Mac these days, but don’t mistake me for an apple fan boy).  My wife walks in, and asks me to get something quickly for her from a nearby provision store.  That would mean, either I have to sign off from IM or tell my friend to wait up for 15 minutes or so.

But what if it is possible to indicate to the IM provider that:

  • I am going to sign into my mobile and the conversation should continue using mobile IM client (esp, in campuses like Cisco you could move around all the blocks, buildings and cafeterias – pretty much still connected over WiFi)
  • I am going to use the SMS on the mobile as I may be moving into a no network connectivity zone

And do the reverse, when you are back to the laptop/desktop.

And all this should be possible without the user on the other end noticing it – much like your mobile phone.

Is it possible to do this with current IM clients today ?   Yahoo IM allows you to sign-in to your mobile and communicate using SMS, but the other party sees this change in your status though.  Some IM platforms (esp google talk related) allow you to sign-in using multiple clients , but I noticed that messages some times go to one client and sometimes to the other.

 

My Trick to Beat the Traffic

Unless you are very very lucky and your office is close to your residence, you would spend at least 2 hours a day in traffic in bangalore.  I spend about 2 to 2.5 hours driving to and from office.

Initially, I used to just listen to FM or some music but got bored of that very quickly.  As a result, I ended up paying more attention to all the nuances of the traffic and insane drivers.  And if you are in a bad mood,  you may loose temper with all those insane and hostile drivers – hurting yourself in the process.

I started listening to podcasts few months back. It took some time to find few good ones, but now I cannot stop. Listening to some of these podcasts is like a silent observer of conversation of friends in the car. I find listening to these podcasts so engaging that I hardly realize how time flies away – forget about paying attention to the madness.

Here are some podcasts that I listen to:

  • IT Conversations – This is a longest running podcast.  Sitting in India, I cannot attend all the cool tech conferences, but thanks to IT Conversations, I can listen to all the good ones here.
  • HBR IdeaCast – Hardvard Business Review’s weekly podcast bringing management ideas from leading minds
  • techzing – As they say “if you are a hacker, you will probably love our show”. I like listening to Justin and Jason and all the cool people they bring in.
  • UNTETHER.tv – This must be in your list if you are interested in mobile software companies, location,  mobile ads, mobile trends etc

I have created a public google feed for all of the above here

I actually wanted to listen to podcasts a while back itself, but I didn’t come across good software that makes this easy on Windows 6 phones. I own HTC HD2 for an year now and I love the device. I strongly believed that Microsoft will come back and gain the market with their new version – so I refused to buy iPhone or Android device. I kept updating it with unofficial but very cool windows 6.5 Energy ROMs. But after I heard about Windows 7 phones, killing of Windows 6.5 version and no upgrade path for existing phones, I ditched Microsoft and ditched very hard.  #FAIL Microsoft   #FAIL HTC for not having any upgrades.

Thanks to the folks at xda-developers, I have installed Android on Windows 6 phone six months ago and never looked back.  Infact, with the “Haret” approach, I have the flexibility of having several versions of Android installed on my SD card.   This allows me to play around with latest cooked ROMs and see if I like before I upgrade. Currently, I am running the latest gingerbread 2.3.2 with the bleeding edge cyanogen mod 7.  How cool is that ?

Anyway getting back to the point – if you are having an Android device, check out this cool app ACast specifically designed for podcasts.  Once you add your podcast RSS feeds, it just self-maintaining.  The moment I park the device for charging, it is configured to switch on and connect to home Wi-Fi.  ACast downloads all the latest podasts, adds to the playlist and deletes the ones you have listened to.  No unexpected or surprising data charges 🙂

With 2 to 2.5 hours daily, I have few more slots to fill in.  Drop in a comment, if you know of a good tech podcast.

tata sky – not so customer friendly policies

Came across this blog post about how unfriendly tata sky‘s policies are. Fully agree about the rip off. I encountered similar experiences. They give out an online mechanism to sign up for a channel (like sports) but to unsubscribe you have to make a phone call to them and that too only after minimum period of 2 or 3 months. And if you donot remember, lucky tata sky.

Day before, I received a letter from tatasky saying that they have launched TataSky+HD and they are giving me an offer (as some premium member or something like that) to subscribe at 3999/- before it is made public to others. wow, I thought sounds great privilege and that is probably some discounted price. I go to the website and check that it is already public and for the same price 🙂

They have launched HD about 9 months back and still they have only 3 channels.  I doubt if more channels would ever be added. Without some kind of roadmap ro assurances, it is just waste of money for 3 channels.

Unfortunately, there donot seem to be better alternatives. It is like you have to choose the best among the worst (similar to what you face when you go to exercise your vote during elections).

Increase prices to handle increased traffic ?

Knowing that Christmas/ThanksGiving is coming up and that there would be increased traffic, would Amazon turn off all existing promotions, discounts and increase the prices to reduce the traffic?

What would any company do ? A simple guess is that they take additional steps (for e.g., deploy more servers, offer more discounts to beat the compeition, have more sales counters if it is a B & M company) to handle the increased traffic, try and make the best out of it.

I thought so too…

But come any occasion, festival or a public holiday, my mobile service provider, Airtel, sends me this message:

AX-airtel: To ensure a congestion free experience, Per SMS charges on 14th Feb 2011 is Local-Re 1, National-Rs 1.5, International – Rs 5. No FREE/Discounted SMS applicable

yes, I know, I cannot do much because there would have been a fine-print as part of sign-up agreement that gives complete right to Airtel to do whatever it wants to do with prices. Not that I am a heavy user of SMS and that I will end up paying lots more money this valentine, but it irks me to see customers taken for a ride. This is just one of many such instances where I am fed up with my service provider, but there are no better alternatives out there (sounds lot like the scenarios during elections).

It is a little surprise then that over the top providers (OTP) are taking one service at a time out of telecom service providers.


Hiring talent into startups

It is hard to hire good talent in India these days – no matter which company. And if you are a startup, the problem only gets compounded.

While things are changing of late, I feel it is partly cultural and partly lack of awareness of startup advantages. I even came across few folks, who after going through complete recruitment process backed out in the last minute because they (and their parents) felt that their marriage prospects would be affected because of “unknown” company 🙂

There is ton of material on internet w.r.t startups. Based on my experience, few things I found that helps great deal in attracting smart geeks and good talent into startups:

Motivation & Vision. It is important to communicate this to the prospective candidate- why did you start this company and where do you see this would go in the future.

Give them examples of world changing startups and how they started. If your founding team members have past startup experience, have them talk about it. Recently, I came across the following quote from Alexander Tamas (of DST):

“The urge to built something meaningful that changes the world is a life time chance.”

Do you think of your company the same way ? If you don’t, don’t complain and stop right here.

Passion. Not only the candidates need this, but he/she should feel this in the company – in every employee out there already. So, think about how you are going to make candidate feel/perceive this in your company ?  There are no silver bullets here – if you (and your founding team) have this, it will ooze out in every thing that you do.

Sense of ownership.  This is one attribute that every single individual is bound to mention, if he/she ever worked for a startup. No big company is going to match what a startup can offer. Take full advantage of this and talk about at length to candidates. If you already have some team members, have each one of them (esp the junior ones if you are hiring into a junior position) talk to the candidates about the work they do and how they feel about it

– The Team. No smart geek wants to work in isolation. Developers like to hang out and work with other developers who are smarter than them. Having a brainstorming sessions on challenging problems with people they respect and lookup to – is like an extra dose of dopamine. They don’t mind getting addicted to this form of drug. The only question is do you have sufficient quantities of this drug (in other words, can your team produce this drug) ?  Expose the candidate to just a smell of this – he would be sold in no time.

Trust. This is ultra critical if you want your employees stick to the company, especially in startup companies. But unlike the other factors, this comes into play only after the candidate joins the company. Like a customer always trusts a company that is transparent and pro-active, employees trust their company if they find it transparent and company trusts them.

I am no expert in this matter, you will find plenty of stuff on this topic on the web. Only one key advise though: If you promise your employees something (be it their promotion, pay hike, change of work/roles & responsibilities, company future/next steps etc), please donot ever go back on your word. Put in extra-ordinary amount of effort, if required, to fulfill your promise. If you don’t, employees are gonna get hurt. Once they get hurt, they are gonna loose trust.  You may go out victorious by just announcing the failure to keep promise as some change in company policy etc. You think that meeting went well – but the effects of employees loosing trust is like a “slow release drug” – unless you are an expert in human psychology/behaviour, you are not gonna be able to correlate these negative effects with specific incidents.

But if you must go back on your word, there are ways to do that without lot of negative impact. Own it up!!. Just come clean with the employees, be transparent, explain as to why the promise couldn’t be kept, explain to them where you goofed up. They understand that  end of the day you are human and forgive you.  You may even see them even more committed if they believe you.

In short, just treat them as family – you donot have to take up any extra steps and your actions will be natural.

Comments ?

XSLT was James Clarke’s Joke ?

Came across this interesting exchange in xml-dev mailing list.

Norman Gray says:

“I still very strongly suspect that XSLT was a James Clark joke.  After being told that DSSSL would never take off because it had the wrong shape of brackets, is it not the case that he came back with a spoof mini-subset of it which had the right brackets, but which was received with such rapturous acclaim that he never had the heart to confess it was intended as a gag.  No?”

Having spent good bit of time myself on using XSLT, I couldn’t believe that XSLT was a joke. Anyway,  Henry  S Thompson was quick to assert that it was not a joke 🙂

“No. I was there. The decisive breakthrough in the DSSSL->XSLT move
was the realisation that by writing XSLT _in_ XML we could make the
‘output’ side of templates iconic — that is, instead of _describing_
the desired result tree fragment, as DSSSL has to do, we could
_manifest_ it.”

And Michael Kay (love his XSLT book) responding:

“No, the use of angle bracket syntax was to filter out undesirable users
whose minds had been corrupted by use of curly braces. This had the entirely
intentional consequence that the language is happily used (a) by people who
would otherwise be writing HTML and can see that XSLT is similar but does a
lot of the work for you, and (b) by programmers who are sufficiently
open-minded to see the deep beauty of the language through its superficial
ugliness, while scaring off the Javascript kiddies who don’t deserve such
good tools.

In fact, using XML as the syntactic basis has many benefits. The most
notable one for me is that it is very easy to extend the language: whereas
XQuery goes through anguish every time a new construct is added, because of
the ambiguities and inconsistencies introduced by new grammar, XSLT is
infinitely extensible through new elements and attributes with no problems
at all.”