Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Android of things is coming, be very connected. Soon.

News that Google is buying Nest has come with the usual analysis and postmortems. Let us face it, Google is no longer a search / media company. They are slowly getting into the space of creating an OS that will keep us engaged with the space around us.  Roy Tennant of DigitalShift says eloquently that "I have a variety of opinions on the topic, but one seems inescapable. Google already knows so much about us. Having lured us into sharing our deepest secrets through free services like Google Search, GMail, Drive (formerly Google Docs), and many others, they inevitably want more." That 'more' is what Nest would provide, that more will come in the form of Internet of Things Architecture (IoTA) that I bet Google will go after very soon.

So here are a few predictions:

1. Google will buy more wearable technology companies to complete the Google Glass ecosystem. All those in India wanting some bit of sunshine - here is what you must do - go after creating apps for the Glass ecosystem, go after creating solutions that will enable Google to track everything about its users. Let us assume that Google will not be evil about the data and go get some money into the bank.

2. This year - 2014 will be the year of the Internet of Things. So get ready to have all kinds of things talking to all kinds of things, exchanging information and providing real time responses. Google Now was just the tip. wait for the Tsunami to hit.  

3. Android will move / Has moved beyond the 3 screens it was originally planned for. It will be the life juice behind the cars, behind the Thermostats, The AC, The Fitbit, The med equipments, The sugar monitors. Providing Google with minute details  that go beyond location, content and context. Imagine what it can do for advertisers with this kind of data, imagine what it can serve up easily on each one of us. 

This is going to be exciting. And scary. When did they say Skynet went sentient? 

Monday, January 6, 2014

The firsts of 2013 and the possible firsts of 2014

Last Saturday's issue of Mint Lounge is luscious. It lists a whole lot of things that an urban Indian can do for the first time. These were outlandish one like walking across Outer Mongolia or sipping coffee with the pygmies of Amazon (do they even exist), most of them were real things that could be done if one had the spine or the will to do so. The more I read the issue over the weekend, the more I felt that I had done a lot of firsts in 2013. So here is my list of firsts:

1. MOOCs - I discovered Coursera and online education for the first time. And in one burst over 6 months attempted 8 courses ranging from Gamification to Design Thinking. I managed to get certified in 6 and dropped out of 2. Not bad for someone who struggled through college. It was an amazing experience to find time to schedule 3 hours daily to watch lectures, take notes, prepare essays and submissions and give a test every week. If I had any doubts about my ability to discipline my unruly ways, this was it. And found many many enlightened educators and people who I would have missed out completely if I had not attempted my first education after getting educated. And even if they think that MOOCs are a big mistake, I think that this is foundation for education for everyone. 

2. A wedding in November made me go out of my comfort zone and got me to not act my age for the first time this year. I dressed up as Quick Gun Murugan - the sambhar sipping cowboy from South India. Between the time that I said ok to the idea and actually doing it, my friends bet 10000 bucks - (#@$$#@$s). I had to go to a smelly costume shop in Lokhandwala, brave the looks of Estonian long legged girls who dance in Hindi movies and a reality show participant to select the awesome costume that Nawaz put together for me. Yes it was worth it. Yes it made people in Versova's Kino's Cottage stand up and stare at me and yes I confess. I completely enjoyed it!

3. I hate fish! Even when it is scaled, gutted and deodorized, I cannot stand the sight. When the family goes to Gajalee - the famous for fish restaurant for their monthly quota of Bombay Duck and Tisrya - that's clams for the illiterates, I sulk. Last year I got over my hatred for fish and cooked with it, just to make my daughter happy. She insisted after seeing Jamie Oliver cook fish on a food show that I cook for her the exact replica. And that meant that whatever I cooked, I had to eat, else the little lady would sulk. This year I have to find a decent octupus and a very tame squid - all in the name of being a good father. 

4. I rode a donkey! No pictures exist of this spectacular adventure. My partner in crime - my daughter asked if she could ride a donkey - these donkeys were part of a caravan of nomads on the way to Chikmagalur. She would not ride unless I did - so we did. The donkeys were friendly guys, smelly but timid, docile creatures. After around a kilometer of riding them I promised never to call anyone a donkey ever. Respect!

5. Picked, sorted, roasted and ground my own mix of Chikmagalur coffee. It is something I recommend every coffee addict must do atleast once in their lifetime. And immediately brew the coffee fresh out of the grinder. The liquor sings, you hear notes that you never knew existed. I found hints of orange, cranberry and pepper - all from the plantation where the coffee beans grew. The terroir of the place gets embedded into the flavour of the coffee. You have to close your eyes to listen.

6. Worked on an area that I do not understand - Gaming and helped build a amazing portfolio of cross platform solutions for the next quantum leap in Gaming in India. You will hear more about it in 2014.

And now for the list of possible firsts of 2014:

1. Run a marathon by December - maybe a quarter marathon but do something about running
2. Grow atleast 1 week's worth of vegetables in my balcony garden every month. We currently have mint, spinach, carrots, chillies, red peppers, karela, pumpkin and beans growing.
3. Learn to dance (shudder!!)
4. Write my first full length novel ( I have been lugging it in my head for over 10 years now)
5. Stand for elections of the local Mohalla Commitee and show those guys who is boss. It is my AAP moment.
6. Learn to make cheesecake at home. 

Not bad eh?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The myth of privacy - we are already tracked and tagged everyday, so why bother?

I have been taking a MOOC course called Understanding Media by Understanding Google by Prof. Owen R. Youngman on Coursera for the last 6 weeks and the last assignment was about privacy - a debate on whether our decreasing anonymity online, and the increases in data collection and information sharing that accompany this decrease, either improves or damages 21st-century life. Part of the course work is a peer assessment which we need to complete and I ended up listing how many of the students were ok with the decreasing anonymity online. 

Around 90% of the students ( the sample size is too small at 10 students, hence I cannot say whether this is a trend) whose assignments I graded and a few people I interacted with on Twitter seem to say that they are not very concerned about the lack of privacy due to mega structures like Google and Facebook keeping tabs on them and sharing their information with governments. 

I have to agree with thinker and author of What Would Google Do, Jeff Jarvis who blogs at BuzzMachine when he says that it is impossible for us to hide ourselves from the eyes of who ever wants to study us. We cannot want the benefits of a cell phone network and then grumble that the operator knows where we are at any given time. The more data gets collected the better is the understanding of society and the world around us. 

In times of disaster the data collected can help governments keep tabs on the affected citizens. Disasters like the recent Phailin cyclone and the London riots have shown that responsible use of the information can be useful. Had there been some form of a ruling that disallowed the government from tracking there whereabouts of these potential victims, the toll would have been higher.

Data emerging out of our conversations on Twitter, Facebook and Google can help a greater goal of providing better healthcare, prevent riots and squash rumours in times of strife. One of the comments in the Jeff Jarvis debate on The Economist [1] asks "Does society benefit from people sharing personal information online? To me, the answer is a highly qualified "yes". Yes it allows like minded people to share information and experience that would not otherwise have been exchanged."

Google already knows enough about me, it has had me by the scruff of my neck since they went live with their search engine. Airtel probably has all my text messages and a copy of all my calls, HDFC Bank and Amex knows exactly how much I earn and what I spend on. I have to swipe to access the various buildings and levels at work and every toll booth I cross already takes a grab of my car number plates and my face. There are cameras recording the 24 kms I drive to and fro to work. There are cameras inside the lobby of my building, the lift and the mall. I get calls from 27 agents the moment I am 30 days away from renewing my car insurance. I do not think anyone can function without being tracked. Then why are we so worried about privacy? 

All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret, says Gabriel Garcí¬a Márquez  [2] . My opinion is that what is secret, our deepest darkest stories must be protected and if anyone has these in their lives they must ensure that it is not published on the net or on some social media. However the private part of our lives enhanced by the digital crumbs be leave behind can eventually help us in ways that probably have not yet been discovered.

If in the near future the Internet of Things becomes a significant reality then imagine how enriched our lives can be. And at that point would we be getting fidgety about lack of privacy?

In conclusion can just think of a new jargon I came across in one of the assignments - 'Privacy Currency' - the valuable we give away to get services for free. Think about it.

More things to read on privacy.

But imagine if we did feel free to share our health data. Think of the correlations and possibly causes and cures we could find. Why don't we?
Think of it this way: privacy is what we keep to ourselves; secrecy is what is kept from us. Privacy is a right claimed by citizens. Secrecy is a privilege claimed by government.

( A truncated version of this blog post was submitted as part of the coursework on Google Media on Coursera)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Once upon a time there was a girl called Tarakshi and a crow called Kaa...

Once upon a time in Mumbai lived a 7 year old girl called Tarakshi. She lived in a small apartment on the third floor of a building close to the beach. Her bedroom window opened to the lush green of a tamarind tree full of crows. One day while she was playing with her friends in the narrow space between the building and the moss covered compound wall she spied upon a small frail baby crow who has fallen off from his nest in the Tamarind tree. The baby crow was hurt badly. Tarakshi took him home and then she made her mother take the crow to a veterinarian. That night she kept him warm and cuddled in a shoe box under her bed and soon he was hopping around the flat behind her. She named him Kaa. He was a smart crow - and liked to sleep on the bed post right above Tarakshi's head every night with his beak tucked into his right wing. In the morning he would wake Tarakshi up with loud kaaa kaaa and flutter around Tarakshi's head all the while till she went off to school in her big yellow bus. He would be there waiting for her perched on the topmost branch of the tamarind tree when she returned from school. He made friends with the people who lived in the tamarind tree - the squirrels names Sniffy and Hoppy, the ant family - Bunty, Mungi and their daughter Chinti, Kooie the koel and Mignon the sparrow who had four daughters - Crystal, ChiChi, Tara and Maana. He also taught Tarakshi the language of these animal people. And what fun they had!

The story above is the template that I have used for the last 5 and 1/2 years to keep my (now 7.5 years) daughter entertained. Every night at bed time she would hear me narrate an adventure. To begin with the stories were simple - about brushing the teeth every morning and night and eating healthy fruits and picking up things after play time and so on. Eventually as she grew up Tarakshi became a role model. Tamara, my daughter would do things only if Tarakshi did the same in a story.  Tarakshi has grown up too. She is now almost 11 and has a cat called Kylie who used to belong to a witch queen and a dog called Tipsy - she and Kaa found him running behind cars on the road near Tarakshi's building.

I have wanted to create a blog for parents of little boys and girls to help them navigate through the years 2 to 10 when the kids we have hopefully listen to us and are fascinated with their fathers and their mothers. Afterall what we give them in those 8 years defines what they will be when they are older.  The 20-30 minutes everyday I spend with my daughter are the best relaxant that anyone can prescribe. The wide eyed wonder in the initial years has given way to questions about morals and rights and wrongs. It has helped make me a better man - taught me patience and discipline to be able to think up imaginative stories. I have had to wake up sometimes to her requests on a Sunday morning of wanting me to tell her that story about Ribbit the frog and how he sailed a paper boat to rescue a dragon fly who did not listen to his friends and went far away into the trees to play with the evil grasshoppers! Its been worth the effort. It has been an investment which I hope will be far more rewarding than letting Barbie stories and Shinchan hours be imposed on kids just to keep them out of the way.

I have often wondered if this series of stories could be turned into an illustrated set of books. I have day dreamed that one day there would be t-shirts and compass boxes with little anecdotes of the two. I even went to the extent of trying to convince myself that someday the creators of Chota Bheem ( ugh!) would hunt me down and buy the rights to the series and make me rich within the next quarter.

Until then...


Missed out posting last week. Was too busy trying to create a business model using excels and word files. Something interesting is brewing. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Losing our humanness - the age of distraction and the loss of imagination

I choose to think that if someone instinctively and repeatedly picks up a mobile device to consume media while engaged in another activity, then the person is not engaged or immersed in the first activity completely due to either boredom or due to lack of stimulation. We see this behavior happening all the time - recently I attended the performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the legendary Prithvi Theater in Mumbai, India. This theater is very strict when it comes to the audience using the mobile phone within the auditorium and the ushers are known to vocally point out people and throw them out. Even at the cost of being caught, there were at least half a dozen grownups who constants checked their phones. One of these was seated next to me and ended up asking what he missed when the audience roared with laughter. So much for the good old bard and his art and nuanced performance of the actors on stage. It is not engagement, it is being distracted.

We are bored because we are used to this constant attention that the phone provides. We get fidgety and jittery when we do not have a notification or a message or an email that beckons us to leave what we do and escape to that red blinking LED. The syndrome is similar to that experienced by people addicted to a drug - the withdrawal symptoms which includes physical and mental stress. Maybe it is because we want acceptance from our peers and want to not lose out on the whirlwind of news and events going on around us. 

A few of us might use the excuse that we are trying to be engaged with the event happening in front of us. I cannot justify what engagement would take place if you are tweeting whats going on on screen or updating a status message, and very quickly thereafter keep checking for responses while the nuance, the flavor and the essence of the event occurring at that moment is lost to us. Instead of deeping the engagement it creates a layer of technology interference. I have often spoken of the second screen being as important as the first, one assumes that the people using the second screen are not using it while the main act is being missed on the main screen. It would be downright stupid.

Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? asks Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other http://noetic.org/noetic/issue-eight-march/alone-together-why-we-expect-more-from-technology/

Overwhelmed by the volume and velocity of our lives, we turn to technology to help us find time. But technology makes us busier than ever and ever more in search of retreat. Gradually, we come to see our online life as life itself. We come to see what robots offer as relationship. The simplification of relationship is no longer a source of complaint. It becomes what we want. These seem the gathering clouds of a perfect storm.

We are beginning to behave like Pavlov's dogs - we need attention and the phone seems to provide it in easily doses, and we say we are bored.

I hear from friends and coworkers that their kids spend a lot of time using the tablets and mobile phones, that these 7/8 year olds are experts in using these devices. My question to them usually is whether their kids read a 20 page book with pictures at a stretch or can they listen to a story narration without getting distracted? I get weird looks. And therein lies the problem, we are so distracted that it is the normal for us and hence it is the normal for our children. Unfortunate that the next generation would not know what it is to lie under a banyan tree and watch the clouds go by and not have the compulsion to let the world know that they saw a dragon and a rabbit being chased by a mouse in the sky.

Further reading:

The crisis of Attention mentioned by Joe Kraus in "Slow Tech" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzpX0TLKS9Q which in the initial minutes illustrates how distracted we really are due to the mobile phones which are constantly buzzing and not letting us complete any one thing in its entirety.

Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? asks Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,”
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ - illustrates the loss of ability to absorb nuances and depth in any subject.

(I had to write a shorter version this essay for my assignment for a course that I have taken on Coursera.org - by Professor Owen Youngman, it has been tough to do it when all the phone does is vibrate)

Friday, October 11, 2013

RectifyCredit and OKListen - startups that are different and other ramblings

I started blogging again almost 2 months ago and the first blog post after that long break was about rejection.  A different kind of rejection happened a couple of days later - a bank rejected my application for a home loan (was mad enough to want to invest in one more property, logic was that one needs a property for every year post retirement, and considering I aim to be around for a long long time, I figured one more would do no harm).

I have been rejected before by banks and credit card companies for a lot of reasons - I used to work for a company call nautanki.tv (Citibank rejected me for this reason), had a bad credit history because my EMI cheques would regularly bounce - I had salaries to pay and any insane individual running a startup would understand this. After retiring from the business of startups, I paid back every rupee I ever borrowed and cleaned up my track record and eventually managed to get a car loan, home loan and a couple of credit cards (part of it was due to my employers and that in itself is another story).

The latest rejection was because the bank found that once upon a time I had taken a loan and had missed a few EMIs. I had repaid them with interest but the stain remained. In their view I am no less than a criminal with blood on my hands.  I tweeted about it and got a response from Aparna Ramchandra who runs Rectifycredit.com - the business is simple, her team works with the credit rating firms like CIBIL and the banks and helps people like me or worse in getting their credit history cleaned up so that they do not get rejected by banks. I found the idea simple and am happy to say that the service is efficient and effective.  I was curious to know how they function, their funding and the scale and called Aparna to chat. What I realised after talking to her is what a lot of us who have been in the startup have started to talk about - does it make sense to give away a huge chunk of your company to get money from angels who are not really interested in your business but are looking at a ROI of 16 - 17% on their investment. She says that it puts unrealistic pressure on the business and takes away the core ideas. RectifyCredit wants to expand, wants to go to new cities and wants to put humans in those offices to have a voice to deal with people who are already scared of the banking and financial sector. She wants to put the trust factor into the business and grow steady.

Another service that I have come to love is OKListen.com. If you are someone who is tired of the Bollywood noise masquerading as music then you must try the service out. It provides a platform for independent music to reach their audience. Currently available via the browser, one can buy jazz albums by artists who would never be found otherwise. They have some of the brightest artists on their service today and do a sizable volume of downloads per month.  I met Vijay Basrur, the CEO and Founder of the service over]coffee - he had the exact same thing to say about funding - do not want to give away equity for just some money.

These are two very small but robust ideas in my opinion and can be grown into large businesses if the inputs are correct. Simple things like connections to people who can help. Relationships that can be leveraged to benefit and possibly a small bit of cash to get to the next level.

I wonder why most angels and angel networks in India have gone the way a VC firm would work. Wonder why no one is willing to invest in a startup that needs sub 1 crore in funding and why do the ones that can fund want so much of equity that the founders do not have the incentive to work beyond the first couple of rounds.

Would a platform that interfaces and performs the role of a mentor work? Would it be possible to pool in resources of the startups and businesses that have crossed the threshold of death so that a pipeline of startups take root? I am not talking of accelerators and combinators and such, am talking even more basic - more grounded setup that provides synergy to the startups. I have a whiff of an idea here but I am not sure yet where it would go from here.

Do you have ideas that can help these two startups that I have mentioned. Write in and I would be happy to share their contacts or just go and look up their websites.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The martyr syndrome

According to Wikipedia, in psychology, a person who has a martyr complex, sometimes associated with the term victim complex, desires the feeling of being a martyr for his/her own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it feeds a psychological need. In some cases, this results from the belief that the martyr has been singled out for persecution because of exceptional ability or integrity. Does this sound familiar? If yes then you have been dealing with a startup or an entrepreuneur who runs a startup. Maybe it is because of our Indian mindset where failures and failings are considered to be taboo ( No, do not pay heed to that VC who claims that he is interested in failures, he probably has some reference check agency thats compiling a report about your life).

The problem starts when things begin to go wrong. When promises are not kept or when the business model that you so passionately put together does not make sense to most. The whining starts on a low note and grows and grows and drowns everything good that the startup and its team put together. I have been there and I have whined and am grateful to a lot of people who heard me out and did not throw their purse, shoe or a brick at me.

It took one kind investor who refused to part with his money since he firmly believed that the business plan would not work who called a swamp, a swamp and helped me out of the hell hole I was heading towards. He sat me down, made me buy him a doppio and a cookie and asked without mercy some 5 things that slapped me out of a day dream. First question was - did any of us ask you to start this business? Second question - why must we listen to your crap about how upfair the world is and how everyone is against you? Question number three - do you really think people have the time to plot against you with the sole intention of running you to the ground? Question number four - how do you know that what you have has not been tried before? Question number five - do you think you are incapable of getting a job to ride this tough time out or are you simple too lazy or scared or both?

Five questions that any of us startup veterans must answer. Must dwell upon and must lose sleep over.

Many a times, the demon we are trying to tame is only in our heads. We become martyrs inside our imaginations. We do not know when to stop and give the business we are trying to run / setup a hard look. We do not think beyond ourselves and run the people around us to the ground. We become toxic waste.

For every business that raises millions and goes public, there are a hundred that burns itself to the ground. It is important to see the signs and realign and survive. One of the cornerstones of being Steve Jobs or the latest flavor Elon Musk is to see what is coming and shed weight accordingly, being a martyr and wanting to be named such is not one of the strengths.

I see way too many startups, some with brilliant plans on paper getting bogged down, there is just one solution - cut the strings and start again, take up a job that pays the bills. Spend time with your kids, if you do not have kids, then get around to making them. Babies bring a new prespective to the way startups and people who run startups think.

No one will mourn you if you sink deep and never recover, and that is tragic.

( I was planning to call this post, The Nirupa Roy Syndrome, the bollywood fans will know why)