Archive for September, 2016

Dumb Ways To Lie About Call Drops

Friday, September 30th, 2016

dumbways-fi-3If you used a mobile phone in India in the early 2000s, you might remember seeing the “Network Busy” message on your display whenever you tried calling during 6-8PM. It didn’t matter who you called – the dreaded warning was a reflection of network congestion at that time of the day. The Indian telecom regulator came down heavily on TELCOs for underinvesting in network infrastructure and threatened them with a fine for every busy network incident.

In a fairy tale world, TELCOs would’ve taken this warning seriously and done whatever it took to decongest their networks. However, in the real world, they stopped using the Network Busy message and obfuscated the congestion by inventing alternatives like “You’ve dialed a wrong number”, “The number you’ve dialed does not exist”, and other dumb ways to lie about network congestion.

Cue to 2016.

Looks like our TELCOs are up to their cheap tricks again after the regulator recently threatened them with fines for call drops. Not to be confused with “missed call”, a typical Indian invention, a call drop is an abrupt disconnection of a call in the middle of a conversation. You can find an exhaustive discussion of the technical reasons for call drop on Quora but, in plain English, it happens when the network can’t handle the volume at that instant.

TELCOs are back to network congestion. And dumb ways to lie about call drop.

The first time I felt something fishy was going on was when people complained that they found my mobile phone switched off even during regular business hours. I didn’t recall switching off my phone in a long time. Turned out that my mobile was going “off the grid” even though it was powered on.

dumbways03Despite that, my phone would show the maximum number of bars on the display. This was the first dumb way to lie about call drop I came across.

I then slid the notification bar on my smartphone. In the last line where the MNO’s name should be displayed, I saw “Emergency Calls Only”.

I had to enable “Airplane mode” and disable it to get my phone back on the grid.

Problem solved. Or so I thought.

The complaints continued.

When I checked, there was no problem with number of bars. The MNO’s name mentioned on the notification bar. But my phone was still off the grid – this was yet another dumb way to lie about call drop.

I then tried to toggle the airplane mode option but my phone hanged. No amount of fiddling around with any of the buttons helped. The only way I could get my phone back on the network was to power it off and then power it back on.

This went on for some time until I started finding it painful and time-consuming to restart the phone several times a day. I then devised the following alternatives:

  1. I speed-dial my MNO’s call center # with a single tap. If the call goes through, I know all’s well with my connection.
  2. If I’m in a meeting, I switch on Mobile Data on my smartphone (call me old school but my data is off by default and I switch it on only when I need it). If I see an H+, 3G or E symbol on top of the display, I’m sure I can make and receive calls on my phone.

dwcd01But these techniques won’t help if I forget to follow them as often as required, which is easily several times a day. Besides, since the call drop problem is not going away anytime soon and the government has threatened action against TELCOs that hide call drops, I expect our TELCOs to continuously innovate and find more dumb ways to lie that would render both my techniques ineffective.

Startup idea: Develop an app that automatically polls a mobile phone’s network connection status and alerts the user when the phone goes off the grid. (My company’s 3G360 Android app measures network strength automatically but it’s a bit of an overkill for merely checking connection status).

PS: As some of you may have guessed, the title of this blog post is inspired by “Dumb Ways To Die”, an Australian public service announcement campaign by Metro Trains in Melbourne to promote rail safety. The campaign video went viral when it was launched a couple of years ago. If you missed it then, I strongly urge you to watch it ASAP.

Aspect Ratio Is Not Rocket Science But Still So Many Websites Get It Wrong

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

AD-GRAPHICS-HONDA-05APR2013A few years ago, online images on websites and banner ads used to suck. Poor resolution, bleeding colors – these were a few common problems, even in ads by leading brands like Honda.

That’s mostly history now. Image quality has improved significantly in recent times.

I wish I could say the same about distortion of images caused by tampering with their aspect ratios.

I wrote “Preserve Aspect Ratios And Protect Corporate Identities!” six years ago. I didn’t expect to change the world with this one post but, just as image quality has become better owing to general awareness of the problem, I was expecting a similar improvement in aspect ratios as well.

Alas, that has not happened. I still come across distorted images regularly on websites, banner ads, emails, flyers, signs and other places. Given below are a few recent examples.

#1. CREST

I was a bit disheartened to note that a graphics design company bungled the aspect ratios of images on its own website!

crest-aspect-ratio-bungle

My tweet to the company higlighting the problem went unanswered. I don’t know what was the root cause of the image distortion issue.

#2. STARTUP MASTER CLASS

“Engineers do it with precision”.

This double-entendre was emblazoned on the IIT Bombay T-Shirt during my undergrad days at the institute.

Thirty years after I was graduated from IIT Bombay, one look at the website of Startup Master Class made me wonder if precision is still confined only to t-shirts! The Pan-IIT event held in the first week of this month had mauled the mugshots of its keynote speakers.

SMC-01-NRN-new

This is what my analysis of the mugshots of one of the keynote speakers revealed.

If you look closely, the aspect ratios of the native and website images are reciprocals of each other (0.85 = 1/1.17). This suggests that the designer / programmer of the website had wrongly substituted length for breadth while resizing the images, which is what probably caused the distortion of the images. This reflects a casual attitude.

A few hours after I sent the above tweet, the event organizer fixed the issue. The pictures of the keynote speakers now look perfect.

SMC-04-NRN-new

Kudos to @iitkaa_smc for taking my feedback in the right spirit – IITians do that usually in my experience – and taking prompt corrective action.

#3. FINEXTRA 

It’s not just Indian brands. The daily email newsletter of Finextra, the leading UK-based newswire and information source for the fintech community, carries a badly distorted image of SAP’s logo.

Going by my experience with the British program manager of a leading consulting firm, I’m hopeful that Finextra will fix this issue in the coming days.

This was in 2007. This guy’s slide deck had several typos. The next day, he and I were going to present it to the steering committee of a Top 5 UK bank. I couldn’t keep quiet. He raised his eyebrows, mumbled “What has the world come to when an Indian has to correct an Englishman’s spelling”, but took my feedback sportingly and immediately fixed all the typos.

I’m hoping that Finextra will do the same. My nationality shouldn’t matter in the context of my language-agnostic “graphical suggestion”!

*****

Aspect ratio is not rocket size. Designers / programmers can preserve it by following the “tiling” or “cropping” techniques explained in in my aforementioned post.

Reliance JioFi First Impressions

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

jiofiI purchased a Reliance JioFi Portable 4G Pocket WiFi Router two days ago.

Here are my first impressions of the product and the onboarding process.

#1. Scrappy, But Formless, Onboarding

There is no Jio store.

All leading telecom companies in India like Airtel, Idea and Vodafone have a retail presence. But not Jio – at least no stores I could spot. Existing Reliance Web World outlets belong to a different side of India’s largest business conglomerate and don’t sell Jio products (in fact they compete with Reliance Jio). If you thought Jio has gone totally online, that’s not correct. You do have to visit a store to sign up for Jio and pick up the SIM card. Just that it’s the store of Reliance Digital, which is a leading electronics goods retailer. While this is mentioned on the Jio website, many people have missed it. I know some diehard Reliance fans who, when they didn’t spot any Jio stores, thought that Jio hadn’t yet launched in their city.

Jio’s presence inside the Reliance Digital store – at least the one that I visited in a nearby mall – is totally makeshift. One table, one chair and one attendant wielding a smartphone – that just about describes Jio’s entire retail presence. Scrappy to say the least.

I first bought the JioFi WiFi Router from the mobile section of the store and then went over to the Jio section, where I was asked to join a queue. While the length of the queue wasn’t daunting – there were fewer than 20 people on it – it moved at a snail’s pace. It took me three hours to reach the said table. After that, the transaction got over in a few minutes, I received the SIM card and walked out of the store.

Most notable feature of Jio’s onboarding process is that it’s totally formless – no form to fill online or on paper. You show your Aadhaar Card to the attendant who enters the Aadhaar number into a mobile app and asks you to place your finger on a fingerprint reader. If all works well – which, in my case, it did only on the third attempt – your identity and address are both verified online within a few seconds.

This is my first experience of buying a product / service of this nature without paper, form or wet ink signature – in India or anywhere else in the world.

For that alone, Reliance Jio deserves major props.

#2. 12 Hour Activation

I noted that Jio didn’t talk about doing any feasibility testing of 4G strength at my address before selling its product. This was a bit surprising because another leading MNO had earlier conducted a feasibility test at my home and refused to sell its 4G broadband product since the distance to the nearest cell tower exceeded its upper limit. In fact, I kept my fingers crossed, wondering if Jio 4G would have enough signal strength at my home.

After reaching home, I installed the SIM card into the router and powered it on. A few seconds later, the LED display flashed “No 4G”. I thought my worst fears had come true. I anyway went ahead and called the given 1800 telephone number for televerification, as advised by the guy at the store.

The CSR who attended the call told me that, by submitting my fingerprint and Aadhaar number at the store, I’d already fulfilled the verification. He assured me that I didn’t need to do anything more and that my connection would get activated within 24 hours.

Well, it actually happened in half that time. By the time I woke up the next morning, the router was flashing the “Jio 4G” symbol, which was confirmation that the activation had gone through successfully.

I was now the proud owner of a 4G connection!

#3. Fast! 

JioFi gives a speed of 13 Mbps, being 11Mbps download speed and 2 Mbps upload speed. This is the fastest Internet connection I’ve ever used – either in India or abroad. In contrast, my other Internet connections give a speed of 3-4Mbps on a good day.

I noticed that the JioFi connection broke quite frequently. I shifted the router to another room in my house. The connection quality improved substantially. I won’t blame Jio for this because, nowadays, even voice quality fluctuates a lot when I move my smartphone by just a few feet. Besides, as a technology, 4G is known to be more sensitive to line of sight and obstacles compared to 3G.

#4. Voice Over IP

Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Jio Infocomm, the maker of JioFi, announced at the launch event last week that Jio will offer free voice calls forever. While this is a disruptive move, I didn’t pay too much heed to it since I was only planning to buy the JioFi WiFi router. Going by my experience of using a competing product for the last two years, I thought voice was only applicable on a Jio mobile phone connection, which I wasn’t planning on buying.

When the Reliance Digital store attendant was giving me a quick demo of how to set up the router, he made a passing remark that I had to download and install a certain Jio app if I wanted to make voice calls. I reminded him I wasn’t planning to use a Jio SIM on my mobile phone. He assured me that I could make voice calls from my phone as long as it was connected to the Internet via JioFi. This is when I realized that, when Jio says voice, it must actually be meaning Voice over IP (VoIP) i.e. voice is transmitted via data packets over the Internet.

We use VoIP to make overseas calls in our outbound marketing campaigns since regular phone tariffs to USA and UK being exorbitant. From this working knowledge of the technology, I know that VoIP calls guzzle data.

I began wondering if voice would really be free as announced by the company’s chairman or it would be charged indirectly via accelerated consumption of data. I raised this point with the attendant at the store but he didn’t know what VoIP meant. I subsequently tweeted Jio.

I’ll update this post if I hear from the company.

Interestingly, Skype, another VoIP service, does not permit voice calls within India. I don’t know how JioFi does.

#5. Rushed Launch

rj02

Jio has been delayed by a year. In spite of that, I got the feeling that its last week’s launch was a rushed affair for several reasons:

  1. Jio has a highly makeshift presence inside Reliance Digital stores, as though it was established in the eleventh hour. Like mom-and-pop stores, and unlike organized retail stores, Jio was closed for lunch for nearly two hours!
  2. The SIM card pack shows tariffs for voice and data e.g. 2p/sec for Local & National calls! This contradicts Mukesh Ambani’s announcement that Jio will provide free voice calls for lifetime
  3. When I attempted the televerification, I was asked to enter a Jio Number. I didn’t have a clue about it. The CSR who attended the call told me that it was a 10-digit number beginning with “70”. By chance I noticed such a number on the SIM card packet. It was scrawled in hand by the store attendant, who never told me about it. Since he’d overwritten the second last digit, I still don’t know whether my Jio # ends with 49 or 69 or 99.
  4. When I told the store attendant that I was interested in signing up for the INR 999 / 20GB plan, he raised his eyebrows and told me that he hadn’t heard of such a plan!

#6. Free!

jio-pricingWhile Jio’s tariff table can be found on its website, blogs and news sites, apparently the stores have not been informed about it. They’ve been told to simply sign up everyone for the one and only one plan available at this point, namely, “Free 4G unlimited”, valid until 31 December 2016.

So that’s what I signed up for. While I paid for the router, all my data consumption will be free until the end of the year.

**********

I’m curious to know what would happen come next year when the free benefits would end. At the time, consumers interested in continuing with Jio will need to select a paid plan. I wonder if Reliance Jio would subject customers to a few more steps at that stage viz. credit check for postpaid connections. As things stand, I can’t help feeling that the current formless, signatureless onboarding process has been made possible only because it has no commercial implication. Therefore, while I’m giving the onboarding process a 4-star rating now, I might reduce it to a 3-star if Reliance Jio introduces additional friction to onboard consumers that want to continue with its service beyond 31 December 2016.

It’s still early days but, based on my first 48 hours of using JioFi, I’d give the product a 5-star rating.

3 Ways To Make Events Memorable

Friday, September 9th, 2016

3wmem-fiRetail industry analyst RSR Research notes in “The Lasting Effects Of Shoptalk” that the new event in Las Vegas differentiates itself from other events by featuring “Full-out breakfast, lunch and dinner” that were accompanied by “impressive spreads of snacks and beverages throughout the day.” And goes on to remark, “These may seem like trivial things, but for someone who was in the event business in a former life, they tend to be the things that people remember most.”

I can’t agree more. RSR’s remark totally resonates with my experience of conducting several events. Through my career as a technology marketer, I have seen a few more things that make events memorable and boost their organizers’ brand recall.

boothbabes_912_2#1. Catch ‘Em Early

I was once traveling by the high-speed InterCity Express (ICE) from Frankfurt to Munich to attend a trade show. I suddenly saw some people walking up and down the aisles of the train on stilts, distributing cards to passengers. I thought they were rather brave to be on stilts on a train running at 280 kph and was wondering what was happening. A few minutes later, I found out from the card they gave me that they were staging a skit on behalf of a company that was exhibiting at the said Munich event. Although this incident happened over a decade ago, I still remember the vendor that pulled this stunt. Catching the audience even before they enter the expo hall is a great way of making events unforgettable.

#2. Sex Appeal Sells

In the late ‘80s, there was this PC manufacturer who participated in what was then the leading IT industry event of India. The company’s stand had “booth babes” in mini skirts and a floor made of mirror.

Enough said. Three decades later, industry veterans still remember this event and the vendor.

#3. Offer Exclusive Deals

They say deals work only in B2C. A leading core banking solutions provider proved otherwise. On the first day of a 2-day user conference, the vendor – who is my ex-employer – announced a special 20% discount offer on the new version of its product for people who placed the order for it before the event ended. By 5PM the next day, the vendor signed four deals. People familiar with B2B technology marketing would know that this is a BIG deal in a market characterized by multimillion dollar ticket sizes and 9-12 months sales cycles. Several years later, executives of the company keep talking about this event. More importantly, the experience gave its marketing team new ideas to compress long sales cycles.

*****

Now that we have a few tips to make events unforgettable, we need to come to terms with the logistics of organizing events. As anyone in the event management business would know, planning and executing events can be very challenging. Surprisingly, this is one area where nothing much has changed. Events seem to be as painful today as they were back in the day. As the lead organizer of the recent Startup Master Class event conducted in Pune in the first week of September 2016 noted, the core team of organizers had been working every weekend for the six months prior to the event and the volunteers hadn’t slept for 48 hours before D-Day.

3wmem-fiThis discourages many vendors from organizing their own events. Which is a pity since they deliver huge Return on Marketing Investment (ROMI) – notwithstanding what Dilbert says! Attending events organized by others is no substitute for doing your own events. An ERP company I used to work at one point used to regularly see a spike in the number of deals signed in the quarter immediately following its events. I guess it was due to the the feeling of comfort that its prospects got by seeing so many others “in the same boat” during a company’s event. Going by this experience, I’d strongly recommend vendors to go through the hardship of conducting their own events.

Another issue with events is that they can get very expensive. This was another thing confirmed by the lead organizer of the aforementioned SMC event.

But fear not. There are ways to breakeven on events. Or even turn them into a profit-center, as I’d learned during my stint with the above mentioned ERP vendor. If you have a compelling story that can attract the “right titles”, we’ll help you find ways to monetize your event.

Why Indian IT Industry Will Have A Fortune 500 Corporation Very Soon

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

FORTUNE-GLOBAL500-COVER-2016-02

The unthinkable has happened – the bar for becoming a FORTUNE GLOBAL 500 corporation has lowered.

Yes, the company ranking #500 in the latest FORTUNE GLOBAL 500 list (published in Fortune magazine dated 1 August 2016) posted a revenue of US$ 20.923 billion compared to the US$ 23.720 billion posted by its counterpart last year.  In other words, the “qualifying revenue” to join the GLOBAL 500 list has dropped by 11.79%.

This changes my rolling forecast of the year of entry of the leading Indian IT companies into the hallowed list of the world’s 500 largest corporations.

But before I deep dive into that, here are a few facts and figures from this year’s list.

  • In the latest list, WAL-MART STORES (USA) ranks #1 and OLD MUTUAL (UK) ranks #500, with the following revenues and profits:

fg500-2016-01

  • Fortune has reinstated the GLOBAL 500 feature as its cover story. No matter whether this happened because of my last year’s crib or otherwise, I’m happy to see the story restored to its former glory.
  • Total sales for the Global 500 fell 11.5% from US$ 31.212 trillion in 2015 to US$27.634 trillion in 2016. Fortune attributes this drop largely to a “historic surge in the value of the greenback” against major currencies during the reporting period. For the uninitiated, FORTUNE GLOBAL 500 ranks all companies by their revenues expressed in USD, regardless of where they’re domiciled.
  • Bangalore enters the list. Ironically, India’s Silicon Valley was not put there by an IT company.

Now coming to the Indian IT industry.

Last year I’d revised my model in response to the flat line revenues posted by the last qualifying company. This year, I’ve reworked it to account for the decline of 11.79% in the qualifying revenue. This is the result:

fg500-2016-fi

(Click here to download the Excel model).

Based on the revised figures:

  1. TCS will enter the GLOBAL 500 in 2018. Despite its sales growth rate halving (7.06%) from last year (14.97%), the drastic fall in the qualifying revenue has expedited the company’s entry into the list
  2. COGNIZANT will also join the GLOBAL 500 in 2018. But its earlier entry is as much driven by its faster-than-predicted sales growth (20.99% actuals versus 16.05% forecasted) as the fall in the list’s entry level revenue
  3. Thanks entirely to the lowering of the bar, both INFOSYS (2020) and WIPRO (2023) will enter the GLOBAL 500 within the life of the model.

The above predictions assume that (a) all companies maintain their current CAGR into the future and (b) that the qualifying revenue to enter the list will also follow its present trajectory i.e. it will fall by 11.79% y-o-y.

Going by the recent guidance issued by many leading IT companies, the first assumption might seem a bit ambitious. However, that’s if we presupposed only organic growth. It’s possible that some of these companies might deploy their huge cash reserves to make a few big-ticket acquisitions. That would tilt the scales as many of them would grow faster than their current CAGR and enter the GLOBAL 500 even earlier than predicted.

The second assumption can be challenged on various grounds:

  1. There’s no way a a billion dollar company will enter the GLOBAL 500 list (which the continued use of this assumption would allow).
  2. An American company whose revenues won’t get muted by USD appreciation will overtake otherwise-larger foreign corporations that will rank lower when their revenues are converted to the strong USD. This company could well be STAPLES, which is the smallest US company in the current list (Rank #497). It could be argued that its revenues (US$ 21.059B) should be treated as the backstop for the qualifying revenue.

On the face of it, both arguments are powerful.

glo-chart-3But, with the USD gaining further ground since Brexit, it’s unrealistic to presume that the dollar appreciation is a one-time event. Besides, as Fortune points out in How a Spike in the Value of the Dollar Is Hurting the U.S. Economy, “the greenback’s large, sudden appreciation is proving to be a major drag on the U.S economy … and inflict a big hit on growth”. So, it’s equally possible that STAPLES’ revenues will take a hit if the dollar continues to rise. So, there’s no guarantee that STAPLES – or any other US company – can serve as a gatekeeper for the Global 500.

Therefore, I’ve gone ahead with the second assumption for now, with a reminder to myself that I should revisit it next year.

In conclusion, the (likely) continuing fall in the qualifying revenue will help the featured Indian IT companies become Fortune GLOBAL 500 corporations sooner rather than later. If the list’s entry level revenue falls again next year, I’ll introduce the industry’s next ranked companies into my model – even they might stand a good chance of becoming a Fortune GLOBAL 500 company in the coming years. But all this is true only because the Indian IT industry is largely export-oriented and earns nearly 70% of its revenues in USD.