“Conference calls try to match this [group] interaction, but it is hard to speak in turn or to see one another’s expressions when someone is talking. Conference calls have trouble replicating the intricacy of human conscious and unconscious group interactions that are critical to solve problems and accomplish tasks.”

Oh boy! I hate conference calls. Not only are you not sure when you should speak and whether anyone is even paying attention but also, you’ve no idea how your ideas are being received. Although expensive, this is a good case for more business travel and countries that account for most travel, in fact, do better.

Privacy vs. Free

“I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information,” said Cook. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”

Tim Cook presented this blistering attack on most Silicon Valley companies in his speech at EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event in Washington, DC. Privacy concerns about your online data have always been existed ever since Google started offering their awesome web services for free but have received renewed attention since Edward Snowden’s revelations. No one can deny the truth in Tim Cook’s words. You can nod and still choose to use the services of the companies he refers to. But hopefully, you’re making that choice consciously i.e. you’re trading your privacy for free services.

I’ve been trying to move away from Google services and choose to pay for any services that its competitors offer if it is nearly the same quality [1]. It may be near-impossible to not use services from companies that rely on your personal information to make a dime but it may help to spread them out across these companies. At least with Apple, I’m relatively sure that it is not using my private information to earn money. They charge a premium for their excellent products and I’m more than willing to pay. That way, I’m putting a cost to my privacy. Most may not and that’s fine. But it’s misleading to assume that you care about your privacy and yet have all your eggs in Google’s basket; simply because their entire business hinges on marketing your data. More than 90% of Google’s revenue still comes from advertising; a technology they learned to monetize in the mid-00s.

Apple was hated in its initial days for proprietary software and incompatibility with most hardware. That hatred was justified because if everyone owned an Apple product then the world would have fewer choices. Right now, the only criticism against Apple seems to be its high prices which is a strange protest because it begs the question of willingness to pay. Are you willing to pay what Apple asks for their products? If not, there are several alternatives out there that either compromise on quality or have hidden costs that require your private data to make up the difference. You may make an argument based on economic disparity but advertising dollars often are skewed toward the higher income demographic.

Similarly, given Android’s marketshare, if everyone is using Google products and services just because it is free, the world is worse off because not only are you tied into their ecosystem but also are subject to their targeting algorithms for marketing and advertising. But Google is smart. They often provide opt-out settings so the tech-savvy people who fill the comment threads can stand above the fray and claim that they’re not being taken advantage of. But for all the tech savviness, they forget the arguments they made against Apple and neglect the fact that most people do not opt-out and that makes everyone worse off. Further, you cannot opt-out of certain services. Just try to disable your search history and then try to use Google Now. Obviously, it wouldn’t work but you fail to see why it isn’t in Google’s interest to make it work. I’ll definitely not be using Google’s new fangled photo service. I prefer to spread my data across various providers. That way, no one has access to everything.

In the end, it all boils down to what’s important for you. In some societies, privacy is not valued and price is the primary factor for making buying decisions. Google fits well there. In other societies or sub-sections of the populations, quality of product and willingness to pay for that quality matter, Apple wins there.

  1. I still haven’t found decent alternatives to Google Search. Gmail is good simply based on search capabilities. But most of my communication is now spread across WhatsApp and Messages for Mac []

Relying on the middle class in another country

This is what the liberal writer Matt Taibbi invokes when, in Rolling Stone magazine, he deplores the rich for living “in a stateless global archipelago of privilege — a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.”

But you could also find the idea far afield from Rolling Stone in The American Conservative magazine last month, where Mike Lofgren, an aide to Republicans in Congress for 16 years, decried the “secession” of American elites. “Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it,” Mr. Lofgren wrote. “If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension.”

Source: NYTimes.

An excellent article by Anand Giridhardas highlights the malaise that I have been for long thinking afflicts America. As he points out in the paragraph following the one excerpted above, this was and still is often true in countries like Brazil, India, Haiti, etc. but not yet in America. One of the most populist lines in every other American political speech describes how anyone can come here and succeed. But now more than ever, it is becoming more of an applause line that is rarely true in reality.

One of my personal favorite ‘conspiracy’ theories (or not) for this decline or feeling of apathy among this country’s elite/rich is that, they don’t have to rely on the middle class that lives in the U.S. anymore. After globalizations, most companies find their markets spread all across the world so even if America’s middle class can’t afford it, perhaps the sheer number in China or India’s middle class make up for it. More so for the investing class of rich people like Romney who live off capital gains who no longer have to rely on the American companies. So when your livelihood doesn’t really depend on how your countrymen are doing, you are less likely to be sympathetic to their declining wages or quality of life. You have no rational self-interest in protecting much less preserving their welfare. Earlier, proximity was a big factor but with rapid strides in telecommunication and transportation, that is no longer a factor. Hence as inter-countries’ ties get closer, intra-country ties get further.

The whole notion of Ford paying their workers enough to buy the cars they manufacture goes out of the window when instead you increasingly rely on Chinese middle class buying your cars. Why care if MediCare is going bankrupt when you can simply afford the best care anywhere in the world or can simply fly to India to get the cheapest comparable healthcare? Although this country was founded on individualism, there was a strong sense of community and societal responsibility. This sentiment cannot be put into law and nor should it be. It was part of their moral fiber and institutional memory. I’m just afraid that this sentiment that make this country great might just be eroding a little.

Cash-on-Delivery and India

I have been away from India for more than 12 years now and have totally missed experiencing the rapid economic growth that has been dominating Western media. Although I have seen bits and pieces of the evidence for this growth like rising incomes matched with rising prices, proliferation of malls and cell phones, etc., I have never been a part of this growth. However, one thing that has always baffled me is the behavior of online retail. While Amazon has had great success in the U.S., only recently have we seen the rise of Flipkart in India. Portals like Rediff and IndiaTimes often doubled up as shopping sites and I shopped on there a few times to have stuff sent to Indian addresses, the experience was so horrible that I haven’t tried it in the past 6-7 years. So why hasn’t online commerce taken off as rapidly as it did in the West?

One of the most widely believed facts about the Indian e-commerce story is that Flipkart.com’s 2010 decision to start offering “Cash on Delivery” (COD)—a payment option that allows buyers to pay for goods at the time of receipt—catalysed the entire sector and set the stage for fantastic growth rates thereafter.

Source: Forbes India Magazine .

This article in Forbes gave me a little idea and elaborated on something that I have never seen in the West – cash-on-delivery. This is basically how it worked even earlier before the Internet. You call your local Chinese eatery with your order and thirty minutes later, a Nepali guy showed up at your door with the food and collected money from you. If you ordered enough times, you didn’t even have to pay him everytime but instead maintained a tab that you settled at the end of the month. So why in the hell of secure payment gateways and ubiquitous Internet access would you hang on to such an outdated concept?

My top two preconceived notions were lack of sufficient credit/debit cards among consumers and prolificacy of black money in form of cash. However, based on my brief interaction, the problem seems to be more systemic than individualistic – lack of trust in institutions rather than lack of infrastructure or any devious intent. People are still not comfortable sharing their credit card information with online retailers; in fact, people are still not yet reliant on using credit cards unlike the West where you are less likely to have more than $20 in cash on you at any given time. But where does this lack of trust arise from? Fear of technology? Or fear of not getting the things you ordered from a place that you can’t physically inhabit. Vikas (in the last tweet highlighted), perhaps mentions, in my opinion, one of the top reasons that drives this lack of trust. You are less or not likely to be taken care of if there is something amiss with your order. You may not have access to a dispute redressal mechanism that is effective and timely and as Nik says, you rather click on COD and wait till you get the item in hand instead of worrying incessantly about it.

Now undoubtedly, retailers like Flipkart are much better at customer service and I have heard nothing but great things about it. Add to that, the gradual entry of Amazon, known for its stellar customer service, in the Indian market will significantly increase the level of trust. However, at the same time, instilling trust in legal and judicial institutions and strengthening incentives to live up to your contractual obligations or rather in India’s case, cracking down hard on contract violations, are key to opening up the market. COD, with all its advantages, is a colossal waste of time and human resources when instead technology backed by trust would be far more efficient. Not every startup can afford to offer the COD option due to significant investment in resources that are not directly related to the product [1].

Abhishek Kumar from IndiCast writing for the Economist:

To secure repeat business, most portals offer incredibly low prices, payment by cash on delivery and, nearly always, free shipping. Consumers love it but companies are scratching around for ways to shed the operational burden. Ironically, the very things that have propelled e-commerce in India could lead to its downfall. When Mahesh Murthy, the boss of Pinstorm, a digital marketing firm, and investor in a few e-commerce companies, purchased a mobile phone online recently, he discovered two invoices in the parcel: one for 28,000 rupees ($530), which is what he paid, and another for 30,500 rupees, which is what the seller apparently paid to his supplier. Such price competition takes its toll.

People might say change is slow and gradual in India but I have seen the rapid deployment of STD/PCO booths and we all know how cellphones became ubiquitous in a short period of time. This was simply due to liberalization in the telecom sector. People talk about eliminating corruption while offering bribes to get ahead in line when instead you can achieve far more dramatic results if you beef up enforcement of contractual obligations (The question of ‘how’ I will leave to the experts). Developing trust among the consumers and the businesses while allowing for a transparent grievance addressal system will go a long way in expanding online businesses on the Internet. If India needs to call itself an IT superpower, it needs to first invest in institutions and policies that will foster such consumer-business relationship. As long as consumers are even relatively convinced that they will not be cheated, they will learn to trust businesses.

I may have oversimplified the issue without offering any concrete solutions but if any of you are aware of any progress being done on this front, please let me know.

  1. Personally I know of at least one example when the founders had to shut shop only to see their idea picked up few years later by a startup in the U.S. []

Twitter API changes – will we continue to use Twitter?

Yesterday Twitter announced the much-dreaded update to its API. To perhaps, 99% of the people on Twitter, this didn’t even register, especially if it didn’t trend, and especially so, if it didn’t involve levying a charge to use Twitter. However, the geek world [1] was up in arms since it severely limited which and how third-party applications could use Twitter.

Unlike email or any open-web protocol, tweets are a proprietary medium and Twitter still is a private company funded by investors in spite of the ubiquity of tweets so no one is claiming that the changes are not permissible. Unfair, unethical, and uncalled for maybe but definitely it is within Twitter’s rights and realm of possibilities to have implemented them. In fact, such changes have been expected for a long time given how long Twitter has existed as a free service and utilized by several applications and third-party services to generate revenue when Twitter itself hasn’t figured out how to. The party was going to end sooner than later as Twitter’s investors were desperate to get a return on their investment. Twitter basically had two options — charge users for the service or cozy up to advertisers and ‘sell’ their users to promote products. No web company has started out free and gone with the first option. There are a few that offer limited service for free and charge for the full buffet of features like Flickr, etc. But Twitter’s largely casual users will instantly quit even if they charge a single dollar and no advertiser wants fewer eyeballs. So Twitter went with the latter option i.e. of creating a unified experience across all the mediums you use to access Twitter and block or limit those third-party services/apps that don’t offer that experience.

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  1. I’m not using this term in a derogatory manner. If you have an alternate word to describe the demographic, let me know []

A More Flat World

Last week, an article in the NY Times on how the U.S. lost out on iPhone work made the rounds on the Internet; so much so that it was posted on Reddit at least a dozen times with different excerpts depending on your tech ideology. Spoiler: it is not just low labor cost but also expedient labor and manufacturing due to fierce competition in Shenzen, China complemented with China’s favorable yet centralized manufacturing-oriented policies. The article is a fascinating read into the machinations of 21st century manufacturing to fulfill the instant gratification needs of the electronics consumer market.

However, the way it is written, it pits American labor class against the Chinese labor force, although unfairly in my opinion. Although there are several layers and aspects to the article, the typical reaction among the American blogosphere and young idealists at Reddit is how Apple is taking advantage of the desperate Chinese worker who is slaving away long hours to make the iPhone that you use to compose frivolous tweets. The fact that FoxConn, the primary company described in the article, also manufactures/assembles XBoxes, Kindles, Nooks, and other electronics from Samsung, Nokia, etc. is often lost in the din.

But that’s not the troubling reaction the article elicits. The primary complaint is, how China enslaves its people and forces them into working long hours for minimal pay to make goods for the Western world. People often are distressed not just by what they consider unfair labor and trade practices but also the unfair advantage China enjoys by having the ability to dictate policy from top down. While China’s autocratic rule making might be a factor, the complaint that these workers are slaves in the FoxConn behemoth is often exaggerated. The case of suicides makes the news and makes us believe that people are desperately trying to kill themselves rather than work in the factories. However, the fact that the suicide rate per capita at FoxConn is significantly less than the suicide rate at American universities but we aren’t worried that our colleges are killing us.

FoxConn has offered hundreds of thousands of Chinese people a shot at earning a livelihood which otherwise wasn’t possible in their rural hometowns. It has lifted several million people out of poverty. Of course, they live 10 to a dorm on bunk beds and work long hours but often Americans think their suburban life with a house and a backyard with two cars, kids, and a dog is the norm when in fact it is the exception. Most of the world works and lives in comparatively abject conditions. The fact that the one person in a 10-dorm room might be sending money to his village to support a whole family is often not told. I’m sure, FoxConn is not shackling the workers to the assembly line and the turnover rate is high. However deplorable conditions at FoxConn may seem compared to the luxurious working conditions from where I type this blog post, the workers have made a conscious choice and are working hard. Imagine thriving businesses within Dharavi and then look at the conditions that they live in but people there have similarly made a choice to leave their poverty behind and earn a honest living in the city. We are in no position to judge what conditions someone in a foreign country in an alien culture should live and work in.

The other argument is that Apple and other companies shouldn’t mind pricing their products a little higher if it means manufacturing them in the U.S. Unfortunately, that is not how the free market works. People optimize their benefits by seeking a balance between the price of the product and their willingness to pay that price. A few dollars here and there would mean gigantic shifts in manufacturing costs, profits, and even quality of products. The factories in China adhere to the strict quality guidelines laid down by Apple and yet are able to deliver a product that many in the U.S. can afford ($199 + $15-20 per month is a pretty sweet deal for the Internet in your pocket). Also, the U.S. has moved past the rigors of manufacturing and moved toward services that require a higher skill set (hence the tag – Designed in California. Assembled in China). By seeking to forcefully bring back the jobs from China to the U.S., you would cause a net increase in poverty in the world as millions would be laid off. Now that would be a grave injustice, economically and socially.

So before getting all pissy about doing here what they exactly doing in China for less and just as good, we are not making any progress. Obviously, there are caveats about leveling the playing field for competition but more often than not, it is not a level field at any given time. We just have to keep seeking the higher ground. That’s how the world goes around.

Update: NY Times is on a roll and really doesn’t want you to buy an iPad. However, they wait until the 11th paragraph to mention this:

Apple is not the only electronics company doing business within a troubling supply system. Bleak working conditions have been documented at factories manufacturing products for Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba and others.

And then never mention them again.

Working in the top tech companies

The stress from keeping such secrets becomes too much for some. Jobs made a habit of personally conveying to employees the confidentiality of all-company broadcasts. Recalled one ex?employee: “He’d say, ‘Anything disclosed from this meeting will result not just in termination but in the prosecution to the fullest extent that our lawyers can.’ This made me very uncomfortable. You have to watch everything you do. I’d have nightmares.”

As much as I like Apple products, I wouldn’t want to work there.

Google does offer free food, massages, and nap time so it may seem like a fun place to work at. Unless you have a family. But it is definitely more open, no sarcasm intended.

Daddy put you in the top 1%

Bad nepotism promotes people above their abilities by virtue of connections, and it erodes rather than enhances economic productivity.

But there is even a larger cost. If the rich leverage economic power to gain political power they can also skew broader public policy choices—from the tax system to the education system—to the benefit of their offspring. This will surely start eroding the belief that labour markets are fair, and that anyone can aspire to the top.

Sometimes I wonder where would I be if I had joined my dad's architectural consulting firm in Panvel. Would I be better off? Then I think to myself, probably we would've ended up killing each other first; at least now we are on amicable terms.

[Link to Daddy put you in the top 1%]

May the Crazy One Live On…

My first Apple product was, like most PC owners, an iPod but the real Apple experience was when I got my first Mac. In 2009. Yup, I was very late to the party. The iPhone followed soon after and then the iPads, the Apple TV, and even the AirPort Extreme. People often mistake my love for simplicity in design, be it architecture (my major in a previous life) or technology, as fanboyism. I wear that badge with honor. But I never bought Apple products because I was in love with Steve Jobs. Actually, before buying a Mac, I had never heard a single Jobs famed keynotes. You could say I was living in the anti-reality distortion field.

I bought and loved Apple products because they just work and Steve Jobs philosophy, as I later discovered, emphasized just that. Breaking the shackles of complexity from computers and making users feel at ease was his underlying design principle, be in in hardware with a single scroll wheel or in software with the simple yet robust Mac OS X. Although the cult of Mac is derided and mocked relentless on any web forum, the sense of community is strong even if its growing by the millions every year (23% market share compared to less than 5% ten years ago). I remember my sense of puzzlement when I first got my Mac. As an avid Windows tinkerer, I had to unlearn all that. I still remember Supremus’ advice which he in turn had received from his Mac-using colleague:

When I got my first mac, my colleague had told me that I would go through 3 phases. 1st would be when I would get find myself comparing everything to windows and find things annoying with mac (ex: 2 button mouse, no way to expand apps to occupy full screen real estate etc). 2nd phase would be when I’d gloat over the fancy gui and tastefully done aesthetics and how everything fits together in OS X. The 3rd stage he told me was when I’d start looking *beyond* the beautiful UI and start knowing how the operating system has been designed, and that is when I’d appreciate OS X fully.

I went through the stages exactly as he described and if you are a recent convert or are planning on becoming one, I ask you to keep this in mind (although some things like “expand apps to occupy full screen” are now better than in Windows). As Supremus describes, it is hard to explain and has to be experienced firsthand with an open mind. If you think that the Mac is a toy then you haven’t yet delved into the wonder of AppleScript and Terminal which I’m no expert by any means. I have been proven wrong enough times by a work colleague who whips up a tweak that does things I have not thought possible on a Mac or any other platform.

As John Gruber put it succinctly, that Steve Jobs greatest legacy is not any particular Apple product but it was Apple itself. The company that he founded is instilled with this philosophy of providing the best user experience there is. Things may not be as ‘open’ or convenient or even have the latest top-of-the-line specs but the whole is always going to be greater than the sum of its parts. I hope this philosophy remains strong at Apple for as long as it can and although the domineering presence of Steve Jobs isn’t around anymore, we can only hope that his lessons have seeped in deep enough. Like all things, Apple may eventually fade away and be replaced by yet another innovative company but all I can hope is, that company would be guided by the same principles that Steve Jobs proved were so pivotal in creating a lasting and wondrous consumer experience.

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Wait till the fat lady sings

Consider the iPod. It debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only, FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and 5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in 2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop.

[Source: Macworld] In describing Apple’s style in innovating and developing consumer products, John Gruber highlights this fact of prematurely dismissing the success or lack thereof of any product. Of course, it doesn’t mean that any product launched by Apple will be a roaring success (pssst, Apple TV) but it might be worth it to wait a while before having a Nomad moment. Real-world consumers have this uncanny ability of making any pundit eat crow.

FourSquare for Businesses

FourSquare Business

FourSquare, the location-based check-in tool was always aimed toward businesses. The first step was to get users accustomed (or addicted) to checking in wherever they go and help them compete for points against each other by giving away emblems like Mayor badges. Now, FourSquare has made it easier for businesses to access all this rich data regarding their location.

With the new tool, businesses will be able to see a range of real-time data about Foursquare usage, including who has “checked in” to the place via Foursquare, when they arrived, the male-to-female customer ratio and which times of day are more active for certain customers. Business owners will also be able to offer instant promotions to try to engage new customers and keep current ones.

It was an obvious direction for FourSquare and I had wondered why hadn’t they implemented it sooner. This move might in fact be useful for both consumers and businesses as the latter will try to attract and keep their loyal base happy. One more advantage I see at least in another screenshot is that managers and staff are identified and listed separately. I have seen couple of my ‘friends’ check in every day (including school nights) at a bar at Northgate, College Station and have thought, wow! She definitely has a drinking problem. Until I realized, she probably works there. Of course, she is the frikkin Mayor of the bar with no chance of anyone else ousting her ever. Now unless, businesses or FourSquare matches consumers with their spending habits, they have no reason to worry about backlash. FourSquare users are willingly signing away their geo-location privacy and if they do it smartly, there is no discernible harm.

This feature is available only to 30 small businesses but FourSquare plans to expand it to more than 900 businesses soon. This might just be the social networking app that small businesses readily welcome.

Google to Cease Censoring Search Results in China

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

[Source: Official Google Blog: A new approach to China] After being subjected to a large-scale security attack on dissident’s email IDs purportedly by the Chinese government, Google has finally woken up to the fact that a despotic regime intent on curbing freedom of speech is not business-friendly. Perhaps it helps matters that Google has never been able to garner a significiant market share in China, but nevertheless the public relations impact of this decision is definitely detrimental to Chinese interests. At least now Google can revert back to their avowed slogan of Do No Evil and quit making excuses for censoring information in its search results. Subah ka bhula and all that. The news has spread quickly across the interwebs. It remains to be seen whether they end up withdrawing from China altogether.

Non-Programmers and Startups

When DesiPundit became popular, some suggested I try to create a business plan around it and treat it like a startup. Some blogger friends even offered to pitch in with capital. But the fact that I was still in grad school finishing up that elusive PhD and also, there was no solid business plan around the concept that relied exclusively on investment of extensive human hours (still isn’t). But one of my primary concerns was my lack of programming skills and I couldn’t really do what I envisioned with the limited time I had. I had to always scrounge around the net for code fixes and given my limited knowledge or rather lack of any programming language, I could never get exactly what I wanted. Hence I had to either rely on free advice or tips from geek bloggers or had to pay coders/designers for small fixes. The problem with free advice is that you cannot demand instantaneous fixes. Within that context, it was extremely enlightening to read this post by Spencer Fry on what non-programmers can do in a startup:

Providing excellent customer service singlehandedly transformed Carbonmade from a side project into a profitable company. I can confidently say that, as pro-active customer response is the most significant “update” to our product we’ve released to date.

Of course, this assumes that you have trustworthy partners who are expert programmers and can handle that aspect of the job well. However, the real and most significant stumbling factor to any entrepreneurial venture is the degree of risk averseness which in turn is affected by several inherent and environmental factors. More on that later.

Weather Betting

It seems like weather betting is in. First Nate Silver and now a Texan car dealer [hat tip]. The former to challenge global warming skeptics and the latter to boost his business.

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