Friday, August 31, 2007

Cell phone as a security tool

Recently, I used my credit card for a transaction that was above 3ooo INR and guess what? Even as the transaction was completed, I got an SMS on my phone giving me details of the transaction. While I was impressed by the speed of it, the best part of it is the security aspect. Imagine if you got an SMS that said that you just completed a transaction at "xyz" for 20,000 rupees. It makes it easy to catch a forgery or go on the tail of someone who has stolen a card. Neat.

The range of applications that a phone can be used for is limited by our imagination. Already there are places where it can be, variously, used as a key to your bank account, filling petrol, electronic wallet and perhaps, it is really the key to the future...

Reuters tries out blogs

Reuters has introduced a new feature, that of having blog posts listed on their site - click the link; it is way below the agency news reports and comes with a stout disclaimer that these are independent writers, but its a good idea. The service is run via Blogburst (where I signed up some time ago), and you can see IEB posts, yours truly and a few others.

De-bunking third world myths

with the best stats you have ever seen by Hans Rosling. This, from TED, a must see site for anything. A slightly dated, yet, relevant link. (Link via Churumuri)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

TCS and innovation

Read this piece by Steve Hamm on how TCS harnesses start up innovation. A very interesting read and if you are one of those who follow this blog regularly, you would have seen that TCS is doing a lot of things that will clearly see it at the top of the IT heap very soon.

Wipro is taking the acquisition route to give it capabilities. TCS is doing acquisitions, innovation and then some. Watch out competitors, soon, TCS will be too far away to catch up with.

Industrial tour

Many years ago, when I was in an engineering college, study tours were in vogue. You went to a trade fair or a factory and saw the machines that were being used there. You interacted with the machinists, supervisors or the trade fair chap. It helped you see the practical application of a, say, automat, shaper, lathe and also see the advances that technology had made. The factory visit got you used (either positively or negatively) to the environment and at the end of the tour, there were two groups - one a positively elated and the other, "how am I going to work here". The trade fair visit got you similar two groups, one which felt amazed at the machinery and an other which had no clue what was what.

Cut to today. I recently chanced upon a college that did an industrial tour of an IT campus. So, great, what did they see? Rows upon rows of cubicle farms, blinking monitors, shiny white or black keyboard and server rooms from a distance. They saw training rooms, cafeterias and spoke to a few employees. They were not allowed to see a single line of code nor an insight into any process (proprietary, you see). Except for being dazzled by the campus, there is zero insight into how a company works or what is the practical application of any software. Wonder why IT compaines encourage industrial tours when it is really, just a "facilities tour"?

Sentence of the day

If you could film India play one-day cricket in black and white, it would feel just right; occasionally arresting and charmingly dated.

This, from Harsha Bhogle in the Indian Express, arguably India's best commentator (and cricket writer too perhaps?) Does he write as well as he talk or does he talk as well as he writes. Either way, a treat.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On private buses

This is the picture of a private bus. This is from Mangalore, but you will see the same in Kerala too. They are as rudimentary as it can get.

Notice that they dont have window panes - there is a tarpaulin or some equivalent to cover the window. And note that Mangalore is a place that receives tons of rain (like Kerala).

The seats have some cushion, but otherwise they are quite tightly packed.

The configuration of these buses makes it the cheapest configuration available. Any lesser and they would qualify as trucks. Perhaps there are no rules that make it necessary for these chaps to provide better buses. But every single private bus is built like this, in the stingiest manner. They have chrome fittings and really loud speakers and perhaps a television, but little else. As far as quality of ride goes, they are pathetic. Perhaps some passengers are happy about the television (and I have seen passengers crane their necks to see something stupid on these rattletraps and miss their stops) that they dont care about the ride.

So, what does the public do - especially if they do not have an option. Nothing - they use these rattletraps. Unless, there is some competition in the form of a separate entity. Government buses for instance which could be better and hence spur these chaps to do something better on their own or a game changing private service.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Con tests

Many years ago, I used to watch out for contests in the newspapers. And I was a regular participant. Armed with envelopes, stamps I was ready to pounce on any contest that was worth contesting. Especially the ones that came during any big event. I remember quiz contests during the 1992 Olympics, the 86 and the 90 football world cup and some of the cricket events which saw a rash of contests that promised winners prizes ranging from a golden ball to tickets to wherever. Then there were the slogan contests most of which started with "I like/watch/wear because . Obviously I won nothing. I did win a smallish carton of mints that lasted six months and created a permanent dislike of anything minty on my tastebuds, including toothpaste.

As life progressed, I realized that these contests would not guarantee any income, much less permanent income and gave up hopes of winning a diamond studded Ferrari and concentrated on things where the returns were more stable - like a job for instance.

As the internet age dawned upon us, there were sites which made the whole premise of winning in contests their USP. Now, you can SMS and win a whole house, technically, I mean.

Then, very recently, a thought came across my mind. (Coincidentally along with the IPO and free photo scam.) Most of these quizzes and slogan contests have such low barriers of entry, especially the ones on MTV, most of which start with the logical equivalent of the question, "Your name is". And then give you three choices out of which two are outrageously stupid. The idea of the contest (and I am sorry if this is an already documented fact known to everybody but me, like those proverbial neighbourhood love stories where only the parents dont know) only seems to be to collect email addresses and postal addresses for some future marketing event or for some profiling. As more and more contests are outsourced, that seems to be the case. Most contests are just that, con tests?

Whats that again?

"Computerised Mobile servicing"- not quite sure what that means...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Why is Nokia doing well in India?

For Nokia India is the second largest market and in India Nokia is the largest selling phone brand, period. This post started off, like a few good posts, as a comment here and now has a life of its own.

If you are in India and have seen Nokia, it is not a surprise at all. Almost since day one, they have exhibited a good understanding of the customer. One of their early ads (they were the first to advertise) was about a banker with his kid in the park. His phone is shown as bouncing all over the park, it falls on the slide, but he nonchalantly picks it up and uses it - the look and feel of the phone and overall reliability to take the rough and tumble of Indian life went hand in hand. This was the super reliable Nokia (was it 3310 or 3315?) series . This was the model that took the race away from competition. Till then there were many were other handsets around, but this was the best with the sturdiness to weight ratio, a decent price point and good looks (it even had interchangeable covers). It broke through the clutter and how.

Also in those early days Nokia was never in a supply shortage situation. Somehow, the market was flooded with Nokias, grey or white, Nokia was all over. And they established dealerships very fast in every major city which almost made them synomous with the mobile phone in India. By the time the others established a toe hold, Nokia was driving the bus.

One of the other things they did was appealed to the thriftiness of the Indian consumer. Their charger was mostly constant across phone models. For every phone lost, you could continue to use the same charger while you upgraded your phone. Also, in a place with multiple phones, it was convenient to have lesser chargers (yes, the price dropped if you did not want the charger in the grey market). While the Sonys and Motorolas went with multiple charges, Nokia had (and even today nearly has) just one charger.

Also, as people upgraded Nokia found a life in the used phone market - thanks to its durability and sturdiness again.

Then came the game changing 1100. With a rock bottom pricepoint, utilitarian looks, a torch (simply brilliant), a look that conveys sturdiness all over and performance that took rough handling (who can forget their ad where the phone is hung outside a truck under the engine like a slipper to ward off the evil eye) smoothly, this phone was a runaway success. There were other no frills models with radio and simple looks and Nokia never really looked back.

Now of course, Nokia straddles the higher end and the lower end comfortably and it is because the brand has delivered in all respects. Sundar, Sasta, Tikau (Beautiful, Cheap, Durable) at the entry level and Sundar, Tikau and Feature-rich at the higher end.

Friday, August 24, 2007

One more DVD player

When creating products (check this post out esp for the comments) is so easy, what stands out? I mean, adding a name to a product is so easy if you have the money; with Chinese sourcing, anyone can sell any electronic device. Watch out for the ecophilo range.

I read recently that Godrej has launched a DVD player, which made me think. Does it look any different from Samsung, LG or Philips? Does it do anything differently? Godrej is not even in the TV segment of the consumer electronics market. Give the customer a good reason why they should buy any new DVD player when everybody seems to be sourcing it from China (complete with stamping their name on it), unless you think that the average customer would walk into a store, see the Godrej name, be happy that he has found a reliable DVD player and walk out with it? This was my initial hunch, but it turns out that the story is bigger than that.

Many of these DVD players area actually manufactured/assembled in India (by a few players - contract manufacturers included) with the key components imported and Philips make a small sum out of every DVD manufactured. Also, most of these plants are located in tax free Uttaranchal so it looks like there is a scramble of sorts to open some plant in Uttaranchal and/or sell something produced there- either with an intention of fattening margins or with an intention of passing on the benefits to the customer as part of a strategy (Bajaj is doing this very well - it slashed 30,000 on a model recently).

But even so, does this make sense to Godrej? As a brand, their mindshare is not in electronics - refrigerators yes, washing machines and airconditioners, perhaps yes - the name spells reliability for these kind of equipment, but DVD's? Where to from here? I mean, will they launch a home theatre system? Or branch out into the computer electronics space? Or into the already crowded televisions space? I think Godrej is losing its way here, unless this is part of a strategy to make a splash in electronics. Then again, is there a long term vision here to compete with an LG or a Samsung in the DVD space - or is this a flanking strategy? Unlike an LG or a Samsung which are inherently into electronics for a while and have a head start, Godrej is a newbie here. These are my thoughts. Answers?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The caste system 2.0

There has been a little spotlight on Indias caste system recently. Here and here.

For those who came in late, here is a guide to how caste functions in Indias IT industry. It is sort of like a parallel universe and most of you wont know it exists, but it does. Because international journos say and I am also saying, with repeated assertion, it has to exist. As Sherlock Holmes would have put it, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Heres the insider information on it.

So how do you get into this industry. Simple, your caste does it for you. You are either born into IT or you are not. Mostly, as a fresher you caste your vote write an exam, which is basically a method to find out your caste. So, many companies require you to pass written exams. Behind the puzzles, behind the technical questions is, really, a caste numeric code that you have to crack or you end up cracking it as part of your genetic caste DNA. (sort of like learning Parseltongue). You can crack it only if you are a member of some of the secret clans. That was how it was intended. Later on, with the worldwide web, many people posted these secret combinations out there (look inside my blog) so the tests were useless which is why they introduced interviews - so that they could cast(e) you in the right role.

The interview is usually carried by the highest ranking heads of each caste in the company. It doesn't matter what you are qualified as. What does matter is your surname, your caste certificate (don't have one? better get it.) and some secret rituals. This is called the HR round - which is a actually a CE round - a Caste Examination round - the HR is just to confuse people. Just so that people think that they are doing a great job, they do something before this round - what is known as a technical interview. Here they ask you obscure puzzles, ask you to write code, but believe me (or them above), all that is useless. What they really really want to know is your caste. How they know it is by the way you solve those puzzles. (Now you know why some of you were recruited despite the fact that you were fractured? Thank your cast(e).)

Firstly, if you observe very closely, every IT company has two (or more) entrances at the back. Some of these entrances are hidden in nearby pan shops, bus stops, foundries (yes, where they cast iron) or nearby places of worship. Each is manned by an appropriate caste security guard and each gate has passwords. Therefore some gates have pundits as guards while some have warriors. Don't be too scared. If you can prove your caste at the entrance, you will be let in. Foreigners have a separate entrance that is, really the front of the company. The real chaps get in (did I hear someone say dissapparate) from all these secret entrances.

Every company has 14 canteens manned by 14 different kitchens. You see some castes do not eat strawberry, while some have an aversion to cauliflower. They sorted it out by creating multiple kitchens. Also, employees on bench from these castes work in these kitchens.

Then, once you are at work, the caste bias is all too evident. Some castes get faster internet connections, some slower. They also get the bad projects. Desk allocation, building and floor allocation is all as per caste. Indeed in some of the companies business units are allocated on the basis of castes.

So, the high caste people get all the accounting jobs - where they don't have to mingle with people you see. The warriors defend the company both internally and externally and here they have to fight a lot - with customers, with rival companies, rival teams and sometimes within themselves. The traders do all the estimates and the warriors have to justify those estimates or the accountants boil them in oil. Guess who does real work - you got it? The accountants, warriors and traders, well, they just expropriate the cubicle spaces of the "real workers" and charge them rent for it. Promotions are purely caste based. Period.

Tip of the day: This applies only to "some" firms that operate in India that the above journos know of. I have not been able to track them down. Most "other" firms which I know of do not believe in caste - they actually never ever ask you about it. They, apparently, believe in a forgotten practice called Merit, sort of like Sanskrit. Very few know it exists, fewer still practice it, but apparently it is very effective. Now if the government has its way, they will have to do away with it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Temples and Tamil Nadu

In place after place in Tamil Nadu, there are temples with gopurams. Magnificent, towering ones.

If you have seen the Tiger woods golf course ad for Accenture where he identifies the green with just one look at the picture of the course - identifying a temple from the gopuram could be a nice challenge in itself. TN transport's(?) emblem used to be a gopuram at some point in time.

But coming back. The fact that the number of temples in TN with historical significance could be more than the total number of temples in the country seems to have escaped it. To locate any of these temples on your own is quite difficult. We had a cab driver who knew these places like the back of his hand, so we could locate them, but otherwise, TN seems to have made it a point to make it difficult to reach these places. And once you reach, they religiously charge you parking fees, without providing adequate parking facilities, at almost every place.

Chidambaram is one such place. For all its significance (check the wikipedia page), it is a supremely pathetic place. It is tough to get a decent place to stay - the one good place there is Sharada Ram both for food and stay. The rest are downright pathetic. The temple is open till night, almost 10 pm, but to get anything edible at that point, you have to be either lucky or a cow, so you eat off the streets. No wonder tourists reach Chidambaram and scoot once they are done with their darshan. The amazing Sirkali Thoniappar temple has no signboard in the town that it is a part of. To locate it, you have to just ask around and reach it - which is fine, but there is so much tourist potential there (check the page I have linked above). For all its magnificence, the Vaitheeswaran temple is mostly a place where touts want to sell you stuff ranging from Nadi astrology to plastic trinkets among other things. Not sure if the other temples in this state face the same fate - is this some state policy or something - those who know please enlighten.

(These are just some of the temples in TN and to cover them and their historical significance, you would need a lifetime and then some. For more on temples, check this site.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Non-headline of the day

"Sale of radio sets stagnates" in FE.

Interestingly, people still listen to radio in India, as they do in many other parts of the world. Indeed, the numbers are expected to grow. FM Radio is exploding with more stations slated to open (as many as 175). So reducing demand of radio is clearly not the issue. Worldspace is not doing too badly, though their radio sets are different.

Most cars have stereos and radios, many mobile phones have radio options inbuilt into them, as do many mp3 players. Indeed on almost any footpath you will find 50 rupee radios - the kind that fit into a pocket, run on a single AAA or AA battery. So, clearly, it is not the technology nor availability that is the issue.

So, what do these chaps make if they are not making the cheap 50 rupee radios or the higher end mp3 combo?

Perhaps they are making stand alone radio sets which look horrendous, cost a bomb and are barely portable. And they managed to sell 7 million of them? How? Why did anybody buy them? And these dinosaurs from Indias socialist age crib that the culprit is the 30% tax that is levied on them. Talk about barking up the wrong tree.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mitumba in India?

What? Never heard of Mitumba? Fret not. Mitumba is the African term for second hand clothes from the western world. In any case you dont have to go that far to experience Mitumba. Come over to Bangalore and on Sundays you can find markets of used clothing in places where there are migrant workers. (Not sure if it happens in other cities.) They create a mess and I am no fan of them, occupying and clogging streets illegally, but I happened to read about how second hand clothing from the US finds its way into Africa in the book, The travels of a T shirt. I had long held a suspicion that clothes that we give out to charities often finds its way into the market in some form or other. This book confirms that view - apparently people give away so many clothes in the US that there aren't enough takers, so it finds its way back into Africa.

In India, I believe, you cannot import used clothing, but I guess some resale happens within the country itself. Not necessarily all from charities, remember the steel for clothes (called bhandiwala in Mumbai - they took used clothes and gave you steel vessels in return) barter? Also, remember those people who mysteriously materialized whenever there was a solar eclipse ( many people believe in donating used clothes post an eclipse), yet wore the same tattered clothes? Perhaps even from the various natural disaster relief camps too. There are a thousand sources and there are markets in everything (a trademark of MR) in India.

But whatever be the route, it all lands up in some of these markets. Shirts for 25 rupees, Trousers for 50, negotiable.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The view

...can sometimes be an electric transmission tower, especially when you try to view the magnificent Jog falls from another side.

Somebody must have built the tower right there so that you could say, "Right behind the tower, behind the heavenly mist are the three falls." so that you dont miss them by any chance...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sub prime crisis: What is it?

Click the title for a primer from The Hindu Businessline.

Food quality at tourist spots

Continuing on the theme on tourist/pilgrimage spots, travel, have you wondered by food quality at all of these places (I dont count local railway stations - they are also bad) is almost always bad. Why?

Because there are no repeat customers. Yes, at every one of these spots there will be a few repeat customers, but they by their experience know what to buy and from where, but the overwhelming majority are one time customers who can be fleeced. They wont have a choice - it is almost always a "take-it-or-leave-it" proposition.

Unless, you are a brand that is present in multiple locations. Like there is a Ram Krishna in Lonavla which is present in multiple locations - and serves some amazing food. Or you are a brand which cares about how you are perceived - like some of the bigger brands like McDonalds.

So, next time you are caught unawares by abysmal food quality, think of this...

Friday, August 17, 2007

Neethus kitchen perhaps one of the food courts (or only food court) at Tiruchirapalli railway station. When our train reached there at about 8 pm, there were no food options available, save a few vendors from Neethus kitchen. Aha, not the regular stuff, so, when these guys were selling their stuff, I thought, perhaps the railways have bought in a new vendor - quality must be good.

For those of you who have ever tried railway stuff, the food is rarely good - all that romanticism of good railway food can be safely tossed away as belonging to another day and age. So, usually in these kind of stations, you would get decent curd rice, puliyogare rice or lemon rice which was half edible, but predictable, but now, it looks like all those options are gone. "Anything liquid is always diluted, anything solid is always half cooked" - railway food in a nutshell.

All hopes of good quality went for a toss. The dosa was as thick as a frisbee and as oily as a head before an oil bath. The Sambar was mostly filtered (so, no solid vegetable) coloured water. The chapati could have been used to decapitate any unsuspecting robber - it could be used for destructive testing of teeth too. The Kurma was mostly water with a few beans floating for survival. The biryani was coloured rice mixed badly. Neethu, if this is your kitchen, I hope you have a dispensary by the side which sells a lot of Gelusil.

But coming to the point, you can give these lucrative contracts to any vendor. How do you ensure that they dont serve trash quality? As it often happens in tourist spots, pilgrimage destinations and trains - most customers are not repeat customers - so wooing the customer gets them only brownie points - whereas milking unsuspecting customers is good money.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The true picture

The prime minister (or President or chief minister or equivalent) is visiting a road/locality/area. Suddenly the cleaners are out in full swing, laying roads, marking lanes, planting trees and the administration works overtime to ensure that everything looks good and spruced up. As soon as he is gone, it is all back to Chalta hai.

Cut to the organisation. "The boss is visiting the factory today." or "There is an audit." Suddenly everything is spruced up, machines are oiled, safety signs are put up, books are reconciled and everything looks hunky dory. Caterers serve good food for a day, air conditioners work and there are smiles all over.

Once the boss is gone, things slowly (usually, rapid speed) get back to square one (zero). Isn't this deluding the boss? And doesn't the boss know it; after all he came through the ranks did he not? Those who do, take up surprise visits. Those who dont, go back with a rosy picture in their mind and wonder why there is dissatisfaction all around.

How many of us can present the true picture to our bosses? If you are a boss, pay a surprise visit to get the true picture. You will be surprised either way.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

60 years in 60 words

Inspired by this: A Briefer history of time. I thought I had read a similar one on India, but couldnt locate it (let me know if there is one) - Acorn had something similar a while back.

Freedom. Exhilaration. Kashmir Incursion. Integration. Republic formation. Linguistic division. Industrialization. IIT formation. Growth stagnation. Chinese aggression. Aksai Chin occupation. Green Revolution. LOC creation. Corruption. Emergency declaration. Democracy restoration. World cup acquisition. Punjab terrorization. Sensex popularization. Mandal commission. Reservation. Liberalization. Communal conflagration. Nuclear detonation. Kargil invasion. Media revolution. Y2K resolution. Outsourcing nation. Investment destination. Terrorism explosion. Leadership Inaction. 60 years completion.

Not sure if I got this entirely correctly, but wish you all a happy Independence day.

(Cross posted on The Indian Economy Blog and Desicritics)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ethical Hotels India inc.

Having visited quite a few pilgrimage centers in the recent past, I have come across a common theme in most places. The only exception is, perhaps, Tirupati - where things are organized. I am convinced that there is a strong business case for decent comforts at most, if not all, pilgrimage spaces.

I like to visit places of pilgrimage, especially ones with historical or traditional importance. So, in the past 2 odd years, I have visited Sun Temple Konark, Puri Jagannath, Tirupati, Guruvayoor, Vaikom, Sravanabelagola, Belur, Habelid, Raghavendra Swami ashram at Mantralayam among others. Recently I visited Chidambaram (a story in itself), Thirukadaiyur (and in the process that Tamil Nadu has, perhaps millions of historically significant temples - and made a note to visit them at some point in time of my life) and a couple of others en route. For one, without a vehicle, it is almost impossible to cover the whole series of temples in TN and even then there are so many temples there that it is a whole tour in itself. I am surprised that TN does not seem to want to popularize these - it does not do it actively in any case.

Coming to the business case, with Ginger, we have a nice not-over-the-top business hotel. I wish someone extended this concept to pilgrimage centers in India - value for money hotels. I am confident, they will mint money.

What is expected is very simple. Clean rooms, clean loos, clean sheets. Just a basic room - no TV either- ditch those carpeted floors, just basic mosaic will do like Tirupatis simple cottages - you can add an Airconditioned option in some of the hotter places. Food that is edible - perhaps local, perhaps with a vegetarian dominant theme, perhaps very simple hygienic food. Does this sound reasonable? Yes. Is it easy to get this at all (okay, even the ones I have named) pilgrimage spots in India? No. Quality is food is abysmal. Getting a decent room without being fleeced is next to impossible. Overcharging is a norm. And, many devotees endure this torture because they take it as if "god" intended that for them, which is stupid. If you can tie it together in a tourist circuit by having a hotel in a hub and offer conducted tours/visits, better.

What are the downsides? Well, real estate could be a problem, but many of these are located in reasonably far off places. There is a business case out there for this, if you can market the history, spirituality, architecture and then some with the whole story of Incredible India.

Please press 9

Call up any customer service line and they run you through a maze of options of language, billing etc etc etc. There is about 20 minutes of monotone buzzing in your ears about a thousand products that you dont want to buy. Interspersed are options that enable you to enter a 16 digit code and another secret code and check your balance or whatever.

Then they say, "At any time during this call, press 9 to speak to a customer representative". Isn't that why customers call service in the first place? Why not put this right at the outset? If you have a problemwith our service, press 9 or 3 or #, up front?

Waiting to speak to a customer representative is probably the worst of the "moments of truth" when you hear ads extolling the very product you have had a less than satisfactory experience, piped music and wait for the representative to appear.

Companies, please can you "cut the crap" like advertisements, self promotions and get to the representative within 3 rings?? I am pretty sure that an analysis of calls would show that very few if any, use any other menu option except speaking to the executive directly and believe me, it is more effective in creating a better customer experience.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Backpack Bangalore

Just saw an ad for Jansport on a BMTC Volvo. The backpack is a peculiar symbol of office life in Bangalore. When I first came here, a few years back, from Mumbai, I carried with me, an office bag - a soft bag, more like the briefcase of yore, except that it was contemporary. You could sling it on your shoulder or carry it like a regular briefcase. But, very soon, I realised that I was among the few chaps who carried a bag like that into the office. The rest of them all carried backpacks. That looked odd to me. Men and women, young and old, formally dressed lugging backpacks? And I thought that backpacks were for collegians; here I saw oldies and youth alike, with snazzy backpacks.

Back then laptops were not so commonplace, so there was hardly anybody who carried a bag like mine. Even this was a brief comeback - now the laptop backpack holds sway. And with the laptops and notebooks getting ever smaller, it looks like it will rule.

Go to any other Indian city and the backpack is not a common sight in the business district. In Bangalore where IT rules the CBD is an exception. Bombay is a place where you would get to see few bags if any - and surely no backpacks - considering the dense commute and how a backpack is really a pickpocketers dream come true. In the financial district, a backpack is a no no. Chennai, Hyderabad have no "one" business district to speak of, but the backpack rules in the parts of India with an IT culture. At other places, backpacks are strictly for collegians.

This is another piece of culture that we have imported in Bangalore along with the IT work - where geeks carry backpacks and not office bags. While on backpacks, check out Jansport and apna very own Wildcraft.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Doomsday prediction # 239

Is the party over for Indian outsourcers, asks Businessweek. (Reproduced by rediff too.)
I should have blogged about this earlier; the rupee rose by a few percent against the dollar - for no fault of it and the imminent demise of the IT industry was all over the press. Some said that people will now have to work weekends - what if it goes up a little more - do they work 7 days a week - absurd don't you think?

The party has not even begun yet, people, but like I have said earlier, the easiest way to get something printed is to have a doomsday stamp all over it, like a marauding elephant. So, if you were looking for a business case on how to write doomsday prediction for the IT industry, it is here.

First up, is the caste system. Even though private business cast it away a long time back, journalists haven't or perhaps they don't want to.

But while India lacks a formal innovation culture, one would never know from the assumed superiority over foreign rivals. Indian firms are simply unable, culturally, to absorb a Western company. Industry analysts say Indian companies such as Infosys are hierarchical, and have an elitist view of their business and suffer from "conceptual Brahmanism," referring to the group at the upper echelon of the Indian caste system.

I have not met a conceptual Brahmin yet - will let you know when I meet one.

While the companies all employ Indians and some foreigners from across economic and social lines, the top rungs of both Infosys and Tata Consultancy are dominated by upper-caste South Indians. Satyam has a big contingent of employees from the company's native state of Andhra Pradesh. Integrating a Western firm into that closed culture could be problematic.

There is only some truth in that the top rungs of the IT companies are dominated by South Indians. The domination happens not because they are South Indians or upper caste but because they have proved themselves at their jobs. Also, these companies were founded and HQed in the South. Please, please check out the companies founded in Gurgaon (Hero Honda et al) /Mumbai (Patni, Kanbay, LTIT) and then let us talk. Ask those 1.2 million odd employed in the industry, if they were ever asked their caste? So, why bring the mention of the caste system in this except to score points?

Next up, is the talent shortage.

India is in the throes of a severe talent shortage in sectors from tech to retail to research. Part of the problem is the emergence of new businesses such as retail and telecom in which India has no prior expertise. But a significant part is the country's creaking education infrastructure, which isn't producing enough qualified engineering candidates who can be productive employees immediately.

Sure there exists a talent shortage, but I don't hear Infosys and Wipro and TCS and Satyam complain when they recruit by the hordes - why is that so? Neither do Google and Yahoo and Microsoft when they recruit selectively? Because the former have invested in training which others dont want to do and the latter hire the cream, which in any case is not going to be in millions.

Two other points mentioned - the visa cap; well its a problem, but with so many employees already abroad, with hiring abroad, its a problem that has answers. Protectionism - having just read the history of the textile industry in the US via "The travels of a T-shirt in the global economy", it is unlikely that doors will be shut on this industry.

The one point that I agree with -

To get there, Indian companies must get over their "25% margin fixation," says Ashish Thadani of Gilford Securities, who covers Indian tech companies listed in New York. "Those continuing high margins mean you are probably underinvesting for the future."

And that means, competing in the home market as well...

So, for those who believe in this industry. How much will a rising rupee hurt these companies? Sure, it will in the short term and if it continues to go up much longer, companies will lose their 25% margin - but this business has long since ceased to be one of pure labour arbitrage.

Ah, will employees have to work weekends? Well, heres my answer. Most projects in this industry are fixed price projects - so getting someone to work longer will barely be the answer - the price is awarded for a particular work to be executed regardless of the time taken - unless your company tries to make you work on 4 projects at a time - which as you would know is almost pointless. As for T&M, they are billed to time anyway, so no prizes for working weekends. So, expect companies to be ruthless on managing bench, managing slack capacity down to an hour etc.

But in the long run, I expect companies to get over it. How? Some of it involves moving up the value chain which these companies are doing actively, some of it means getting billed in the foreign currency and keeping it there, some of it involves moving to a basket of currencies and so on. By becoming more productive (and that doesnt mean only working longer hours - who said working longer hours meant you are more productive?), by automating processes, reducing operating costs, finding lower cost locations and innovating their way out of troubles like this.


...from Atanu Dey's excellent blog, these precious words written in IHT

“If you take all the pieces of Bollywood out of our lives – the celebrities on the billboards, the songs in the nightclubs, the stars on Page 3 – Indians would find their lives to be completely empty,” said Shuchi Pandya, a jewelry merchandiser in Mumbai. “It’s subconscious. Even if you don’t enjoy Bollywood movies, it becomes a part of your life.”

Not sure if you should laugh at IHTs falling standards or "Shuchi Pandyas" IQ or at someone's writing or editing skills or sheer ignorance...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Assembled or branded

I scanned through my posts and found, amazingly, that I had never written about computers. Of course, I had written about Xenitis a long long time ago, but somehow I never wrote about the dynamics of this market.

I happened to read a post on how Taiwan is slowly discovering India - which is a good thing. About time we courted Japan too, but thats for later. One thing led to another and I was thinking about why branded PC sales are still lower (slightly dated) than assembled PCs. The great debate continues...and I saw a report today from Business-standard on how the assembled industry survives in the face of competition from the branded industry.

So, heres why the assembled computers still sell well in India. If I were a branded computer maker, I would try and attack these.

People dont like to hear tiered costs. The branded chap puts out an ad in the papers. PC's cost Rs. 25000 and you find out there that, really, all he is offering is a CRT. If you want to make it usable, you have to add something to it and the price naturally, goes up. By contrast, the assembled chap asks you over phone, what you want and gives you a complete price, more or less. So, those in the branded market, heres a tip. In your ad, quote the highest price for the fully loaded version first and reduce as the customer makes his choices. Try this!

Service. You got a problem, you call him up. He will come usually on the same day and fix it for you. (The flipside is also that the assembled chaps are notoriously difficult to get when it comes to servicing - many people do not realize this. Also, the branded chap is also not easy when it comes to servicing - he will give you a date 3 days later and not turn up too. So, servicing is an issue all over.) There is no better way here than, obvious, better customer service.

The assembled guy can reduce the cost still further by using used components or altered components. Some of them will tell you that, others wont. But, they are able to give assembled boxes at lower price points using these. So, for the organized chaps, create a seconds market here. With the upgrades of the affluent, you can sell more boxes downstream.

You want to upgrade? Feel free to exchange your old HDD for a new one and get a discount on the new one too. You got something you want to add- either do it yourself (the geek way) or call him. Make it easy folks. Let people upgrade whatever they want and help them do it, for a fee if you wish.

Now thats what appeals to families. If I were a geek, I want a free hand to do whatever I want with my machine. The assembled chap will not crib if you grow branches on your machine. Our first computer was operated upon almost daily and upgraded every few weeks till we were satisfied. So, that market is pretty much closed.

The other side of this, not written about, is piracy. Though today, the bigger assembled players do not offer you software as they used to earlier, they can, with a nudge and a wink give you any software you want, for free. Or he will point you to a place in a shady bazaar where you can buy all the software you want for the price of one DVD.

This is one market, where there is a really deep bottom of the pyramid to tap and nobody has tried it yet. Yes, it is messy, but who said it was easy.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Stenographers express to Jet airways

Stenographers express. This was the name that the Jayanti Janatha express that plied between Trivandrum (later, Kanyakumari) and Mumbai and perhaps other Chennai trains used to have. South Indians arrived in Mumbai by the train loads, leading to many a tension. As a second generation Tam from Mumbai, I can claim to have seen some of it.

It was a standard pattern. My dad (uncle/brother/grandfather) hopped onto a train from Alwaye (or any destination on the above train routes) to reach a relative (uncle/brother/grandfather) who found him a job - later moved into a PG/shared accomodation in Mulund (Chembur, Matunga, Bhandup and later Thane, Dombivli, Antop Hill) - and then went on to own a house in one of these suburbs. Multiply by a few millions. They built temples nearby that looked exactly like the temples in their villages. They built temples honouring their every god.

And that was how the suburbs of Mumbai had entire ecosystems transplanted straight out of any South Indian town - probably better. There were a thousand Murugan flower sellers, idli sellers, coffee shop owners, murukku shops and then some. Summer meant tender mango pickles, karuvadam, thayir molagai and a visit to the "native places" for the chariot festival or just like that. That in turn meant an overnight stay at VT to be first in line for a ticket two months down the line, or else you had to travel on an RAC ticket. There were a thousand Ganapathiyan temples, Murugan temples, Shastapreethis and Bhagavatisevais. There were avani avittam gatherings and entire suburbs woke up to the Suprabhatam. Coffee stores mushroomed and the local Gujarati traders learnt Tamil et al to serve their customers better. I can write and write about this (and perhaps will...)

As time went by, stenography as a job lost its prestige (remember that in those days, a stenographer was a fairly well educated chap and the fastest way to get a job) and the South Indians, always at the top in education moved onto Company Secretaryship, Engineering, Chartered Accountancy, Medicine, Professorgiri and so on as time progressed. Then, the reservation thing happened and very soon, it was as easy to take a flight to the US as it was to take a train to Mumbai and soon was the land of slums rather than opportunity.

Thats what this study found out.

India growth: Another survey

This time it is an Ernst and Young study, (via Indian Express) that has glad tidings (or bad depending on which side you are). India to overtake US, Japan in growth.

"The seven new global powers by 2050 will comprise the so-called BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) together with Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey," says the Ernst and Young European Attractiveness Survey 2007.

It will not happen, if we sit on our laurels though

...but whether India can develop its infrastructure at pace with that of global investment remains to be seen, the survey added.

The developing economies will outdo the G7 if it manages to mend the loopholes regarding transparency, fairness and infrastructure development.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Micro monopoly

See around you and you will see this everywhere. The micro monopoly. Call it cartel if you like. Start from the chap who supplies you your milk or newspaper or cable for television. Almost any non corporate entity who services you at your apartment - as in where they have to "deliver" stuff to you - is a cartel. If your milk delivery guy is pissed off for some reason, you can say goodbye to milk delivery. Ditto for the newspaper or cable. And if he is pissed off, nobody else will offer you that service. Thats their agreement - their cartel.

There are cable wars fought for this turf with examples of cable wires being burnt down as are milk delivery being blocked. Much of this cartelization is informal, yet it is very effective. And many of the service providers get away with inferior service as well.

The only real way to break it is for you to get out of your house and get your newspaper or milk yourself - they have no control over where you go to - only where they come and deliver stuff. For the cable chap the only option is a satellite dish, as of now.

There are other mini cartels in operation - right from a place for street beggars to a place on the auto stand at the end of a street. An auto from "another" stand cannot pick up passengers from "this" stand. He has to drive back empty or collect "return" fare too - thus pushing up the cost of the service. Sometimes, the entire establishment is a cartel - Chennai auto fares is a perfect example - or an entire vegetable market. How do you, as a customer, get out of this?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Ticket insurance

...used to be a feature in some parts of Mumbai, not as common as this columnist (via Marginal Revolution) would like to have us believe. It is like the old "land of snakes and tigers" - most of them are extinct, for good or for bad. In the Mumbai local trains, ticket checking is quite frequent - especially at the stations. In fact, there is a whole battalion of women ticket checkers to check in "ladies" compartments. Indeed, I have not come across a single "ticket insurance" guy ever, though I have heard that there used to a couple at Thane.

And in response, the railways upped the ante with their ticket checkers, doubling and tripling fines, as regular travellers will attest. But in any case, it is a smart market, as it is with the used bus pass market in Bangalore.

Five lies... economist told me, is the title of this piece. (Hat Tip - Manoj). And these are the five lies...

* High productivity and low unemployment make us all better off
* It’s hard to grow without good banks and private property
* Capital must always be let free to flow
* The euro will never work
* Japan—no wait, China—is going to take over the world economy

Interesting reading, though the piece does not convince you entirely that they are lies. I think points 1 and 3 hold (as in, they are not lies). We have seen it in India. Point 2 may be valid, but only in an isolationist sense - when it is not connected to anything else, so there. Point 4, I dont know much about. Point 5, to me, makes sense.

Marginal revolution confirms it is junk, almost...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Jan Shatabdi

Recently, had the pleasure of travelling in a Jan Shatabdi train on the Bangalore Hubli route.

The Jan Shatabdi is a perfect example of dilution of a brand. The Shatabdi was the 'millenium series' of trains - centered around (relatively, in an Indian context) reliable, quick intercity transport with minimum halts. All trains start with the same objective but as times wears on, the ministry changes and political bigwigs ensure the maximum halts at various places, making the Indian railways what they are today.

The Jan Shatabdi takes the Jan more seriously than the Shatabdi brand. Result, a train that arrives half an hour late, stops in between stations, has its share of "unreserved" passengers. Saving grace, the stuff sold inside is not pricey, just normal railway rates.

Dampeners: The seats and the aisle are too, too narrow. One coffee chap with his hot container and you need a flyover in the middle. And even if the railways doesnt tell you, if you have a kid, buy an extra ticket. Otherwise, you will trouble yourselves and your co-travellers no end.

There are no handles on the sides - so as to maximise space. Your regular 2nd sleeper class bogie seats 5 astride as does the original Shatabdi, this one does six thanks to "ideas"like this one.

Please, can this not be a 3-2 arrangement with wider aisles and wider seats? Does it have to be like poultry?

The airplane style seats, are just that, airplane style and amazingly rugged. The food table, is made of steel and quite sturdy. Only problem, with constant usage, one of them will fall on someones feet and that will be fun...

And, we have never mastered the art of travelling light on the railways. The overhead rack was packed even though there were empty seats and the passengers who arrived late had a tough time.

If they railways dont pay enough attention to this brand, it will soon be jun(k) Shatabdi...