Does Not Compute

February 5, 2008

(Cannot… resist… virgin… joke)

Mint comes up with a perplexing paragraph:

While this will be the first time Tata Teleservices will be partnering with a brand such as Virgin, Branson has already formed two similar alliances globally.

(emphasis mine)

So, it’s not Virgin’s first time, but it is Tata Teleservices’? I’m confused.

Innovation in the Third World

January 21, 2008

This Boston Globe oped (free registration might be required) is astonishing. The author, somebody named Jeremy Kahn, has violated the Sominism-cheat-sheet and Neelakantan’s guide to writing about India left, right, and centre. He appears to have actually understood the nuances of what he’s writing about! And he doesn’t mention caste, growing inequality, pollution, or elephants on the road even once!

OK, that’s the sarcasm out of the way. Seriously, the oped is a very good read. It’s about how Third World conditions are forcing cellphone companies, banks, and Tata Motors to innovate and come up with low-cost technology, and how this means that design and innovation is now splitting up and being driven by two different things: luxury in the First World, and productivity and low costs in the Third World. In the bargain, First World and Third World innovation are both leading to high technology, and the Third World is now actually in a position to export technology to the First World.


This might seem like a classic example of the Third World struggling to catch up with the First. After all, people in the United States and Europe have been using ATM cards and the Internet for years to perform the simple banking tasks Das is only now able to do. But look again: The technology used to bring slum-dwellers like Das their first bank accounts is so advanced that it isn’t available to even the most tech-savvy Americans – at least not yet.

This represents a stunning reversal of the traditional flow of innovation. Until recently, consumers in the Third World also had to tolerate third-rate technology. Africa, India, and Latin America were dumping grounds for antiquated products and services. In a market in which some people still rode camels, a 50-year-old car engine was good enough. Innovation remained the exclusive domain of the developed world. Everyone else got hand-me-downs.

And as they do, companies are confronting the unique challenge of making high-tech products cheaply enough to make a profit. In some cases, this means shifting jobs for talented designers and engineers to the developing world – not just to save labor costs, but in order to better understand the markets they are now trying to reach.

“Developing markets offer the best opportunity for global firms to discover what is likely to be ‘next practice,’ as contrasted with today’s best practice,” Prahalad has written. “The low end is a new source of innovation.”

In a globalized world, people in emerging markets want first-class products – but at prices they can afford. Meeting that demand, particularly in countries where basic infrastructure is weak, requires more creativity than designing a product for a more advanced, affluent market.

Read, read. It’s worth the two-minutes it takes to register.

Airtel EDGE

October 17, 2007

Does anybody actually use EDGE on Airtel? If so,

  • what do you actually do with it?
  • what kind of speed do you get?
  • how do you activate it?

Your answers will help me form a decision about whether I should break the habit of four years and buy a high-end phone.

(Specifically, is it feasible to use it to Twitter and blog on WordPress? You know the sort of posts I write, so keep that in mind, please.)

mChek Goes Live?

September 19, 2007

The much-hyped, long-in-development mChek seems to have gotten a little closer to mainstream commercialisation.

Okay, it’s much hyped only if you follow the telecom sector and read BusinessWorld every week, but within that set of people, it’s hyped enough. mChek is basically this company/ product which allows you to use your mobile phone as either a credit card or a card swipe machine.

So if you’re the guy paying, mChek theoretically allows you to stop carrying five credit cards in your wallet and just use your mobile phone. And if you’re a merchant, mChek lets you skip the pain of installing EDCs with dedicated phone lines, and just use the mobile phone you already have. (That’s the theory – I’ve never seen it in practice.)

Anyway, why I’m saying that it got a little closer to mainstream commercialisation today is that Airtel spammed me and told me that I could now pay my Airtel bill with mChek. Which is the first case I’ve ever seen of a merchant announcing that they would take mChek payments.

The only thing is that I won’t actually be using mChek, since I’ve already set up ECS payment on my credit card. Even if I hadn’t, I probably couldn’t, since mChek seems to be set up only for VISA, and both my cards are Mastercard.

Some thoughts on mChek in general:

  1. mChek actually brings together two of my favourite things: telecom and finance. I approve heartily, because as I’ve pointed out, they’re mostly the same thing.
  2. I think the reason mChek is set up on credit cards rather than on debit cards/ bank accounts is because of RBI regulations which don’t allow bank account transactions on anything other than chequebooks and debit cards. I’m not sure about the details – I’d have to mail some people to check. This is quite a tragedy, because something like this could demolish the costs of transacation banking for banks, and actually spread banking far faster than the FinMin’s diktat to provide no-frills banking accounts.
  3. Since I am a geek when it comes to stuff like this, I’ll go ahead and say it: this doesn’t go far enough. I’m dreaming of the day when your mobile phone credit limit and your credit card limit are the same. Instead of linking your phone to your card, your phone becomes your card. You shop with your phone, and your purchases are included in your mobile bill, whose credit limit is underwritten by your card company.
  4. I wonder what their sales strategy is for bringing merchants on to the system. Their own website admits that this sort of system works best for people like taxi drivers and auto drivers. But how is a startup going to sell to a massively fragmented and unorganised market like this? It’s easier for them to target corporates like Airtel, but for an Airtel, an extra payment system doesn’t have that much value. Or are they planning to piggybank on their partners? The website mentions SBI and ICICI Bank as partners – is this going to show up as a cross-sell target for ICICI’s EDC division? This promises to be interesting.

(And now I regret unsubscribing MobilePundit from my feedreader some months ago. Need to head over there and find out what Veer Chand Bothra’s been saying about mChek now.)

I Spoke Too Soon

January 17, 2007

Three months ago, I blogged about Airtel not coming up with anything new, and wondered if they’d been left behind in the innovation race. Very embarassing, considering all that they’ve been doing the past month.

First up, there’s the Songcatcher service. The technology was invented in Europe a year or two ago, if I recall correctly. At that time, the application being talked about was to identify a song on the radio you liked. The service would identify it and send you an SMS with the names of the song and the artist. Not really a great business model.

But along comes Airtel, and uses it to selll ringback tones, allowing customers to skip all that painful SMSing or navigating through menus. Bam! You’ve got a commercially viable business model, and the technology finally meets the publilc. Awesome. And Airtel is so good at this- looking for existing technology. adapting it to the local environment, and bringing it to market.

Next, there’s this Business Standard report about Airtel tying up with SBI to turn mobile phones into virtual Kisaan Credit Cards. Lovely again. They’ve had a tieup with ICICI bank to implement credit card on/ through mobile for some time now, but that has just been a test project in Mumbai and Delhi. This takes it to the next level. Of course, it would really explode if the RBI regulation that restricts mobiles from being used as debit cards was removed.

And finally, today’s Business Standard article has more on the payments front. Airtel’s entered a global alliance to develop a platform for remittances over mobile phones.

The (mobile) payments business is so exciting these days that it deserves a blogpost to itself. Heck, I’d love to make a presentation on it the next time there’s a BarCamp in South India. But until then, this will have to do.

Has Airtel Dropped the Innovation Ball?

October 9, 2006

Although I’m a diehard Airtel loyalist- back in my Patiala days, I was a beneficiary of the price war dividend- I criticised them a few months ago for not doing what a tyro like Spice was doing. Now, I’m going to ask if they’ve dropped the innovation ball altogether.

Their last major new VAS was the portfolio tracker they launched ast May. Since then, all they’ve done is expanded the range of smartphones Blackberry is available on and introduced GSM based Fixed Wireless. Considering Blackberry is shortly ending its exclusive tieup with Airtel, and that Reliance and Tata Indicom have had fixed wireless for donkey’s years, that’s not very impressive. Even in pricing, the lifetime prepaid offer was really a reaction to Tata Indicom.

In the meanwhile, Hutch has come up with a stunning funda: Fun Cards, with which you can install ringtones and ringback tones the way you do a prepaid recharge. That’s a customer delighting product for sure- just buy and scratch a card, instead of going through a long list, or navigating IVRS menus, or paying for premium SMSs.

You could argue about whether the product actually makes business sense. Hutch has been facing a retailer boycott since it slashed retailer margins on prepaid recharge cards. Fun card margins are probably higher, but there’s no guarantee that they won’t erode either, or that this will mollify pissed-off retailers who get most existing business through recharges. Not only that, if Hutch miscalculates the popularity of a particular Fun Card, it’s got a lot of dead inventory sitting in it’s supply chain- not really a problem when your distribution model for ringtones is purely electronic.

Of course, the possible weakness of Fun Cards as a product doesn’t justify Airtel failing to innovate anywhere else.

The Risk Industry

October 7, 2006

Three months ago, I pointed out that telecom is a bad poster child for reform because it has an unfair advantage- the network effect. I wrote about how retail is a better poster child, and also sidetracked into services retailing, but left one question unanswered: is there another industry which could benefit as much from the network effect as telecom has? Well, it’s time to answer that question.

The answer is: Yes. The financial services industry (which is actually several industries together: banking, insurance, wealth management, brokerage, capital markets, consumer lending, project finance, and probably half a dozen more).

Financial services benefit from the network effect because the fundamental product that all these sectors deal with is not equity shares, or bonds, or currency. It’s not even money. It’s risk. And every person plugged into the organised finance system is a producer and a consumer of risk.

This is similar to how the telecom industry’s fundamental product isn’t phone calls or SMSs or IP packets, but information. And everybody plugged into a telecom network produces and consumes information. The important thing is that they trade it with each other, not with the phone company- which is why the network effect kicks in.

Similarly, in the financial system, the important thing is not that a particular company takes on risk. The important thing is that all customers produce some sort of risk, which they sell to some financial intermediary- whether a bank, an insurance company, or to investors directly- which then repackages or restructures it, and sells it back to other customers. The more consumers of financial products there are, the more valuable the financial system is.

Of course, there are complications which the telecom sector doesn’t face. A voice call or an SMS goes through pretty much as it is, intermediated only by machines, but risk has to be broken down into its components and repackaged by human beings before you can sell it on further. This means that there’s more intermediation, and less transparency between intermediaries. Transaction costs are higher. But the model is the same.

What all this means is that the Indian financial services industry could take off as fast as the Indian telecom industry. It would have to overcome a bunch of hurdles first: regulatory, technological, environmental, and organisational- but the potential is there.

(Disclosure: I work in the financial services industry myself, so I may not be entirely objective.)

Customisable Ringback Tones

August 5, 2006

Caller ringback tones are not being utilised to their greatest possible extent. Their true value will be unlocked only when they become customisable.

Right now, everyone who calls you hears there same ringback tone. For unmitigated fun, the tone would change depending on who was calling.

Smita would call Ravi, for example and hear ‘Humein Tumse Pyaar Kitna’. But when Scahin calls Ravi he would hear ‘Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Todenge’. Of course, if Ravi’s mother called she would get to hear ‘Om Jai Jagdish Hare’.

When Ravi called Smita back, he would hear ‘Bhaiyya more’, but that’s part of life, no?

St. Valentine is a Fraud

July 25, 2006

Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Bharti Mittal have done more for lovers than he ever did.

Spice Telecom on the Right Track

March 3, 2006

Spice, the also-ran cellular operator in Karnataka has been trying to rebrand itself over the past few months. It doesn’t have the muscle or subscriber base of an Airtel or a Hutch, so it’s been fighting where it can: innovation in VAS.

I’m not sure how much of a market some of their stuff would have- things like keeping your organiser on a server and accessing it by SMS: the sort of people who would need a calendar regularly could probably afford a PDA anyway. Then, stuff like video ringtones is nothing really differentiated.

When I was out shopping yesterday, though, I noticed something much more interesting: the ‘2gether’ plans. (Links: 99 rupee postpaid, 250 rupee prepaid)

This is a regular potspaid plan. You get to call one other number at discounted rates, which is nothing new. What is new is that they throw in a little bit extra: the two numbers are next to each other. Spice is pitching this as a plan for young couples. The advertising is all big red hearts and cupids.

Again, this might not actually work. I don’t know how many young couples in Bangalore, leave alone the rest of Karnataka would actually want to advertise their relationship status. When Samanth calls up his mother to tell her that his number has changed, so that he can now be one number before Shilpa, sparks will fly.

Leaving that aside, Spice is still on the right track, even if this particular plan might not work. Selling connections to all the people who call each other together is a much better idea than selling to individual customers, who might use it only to receive incoming calls from landlines for all you know. This way, you’re definitely getting most of the call volume for yourself.

In fact, I’m shocked that Airtel or Reliance haven’t come up with something like this for families. Both have their own number series (99 for Airtel and 93 for Reliance) so it’s not like they have a constraint on available adjacent numbers. American cellphone operators have been doing this for years now, and in fact go a little bit extra by putting all the numbers together on one single bill. It’s not as if they have to come up with a completely new model, they just have to imitate whatever Verizon and AT&T are doing. And Airtel is usually quick to pick up whatever works overseas: they saw the Easy Charge system in the Philippines and installed it in India practically overnight.

Hmm. So maybe they’re already doing it. I think the next six months might just see one of the big three private players aggressively marketing adjacent numbers and a unified bill for families. Let’s see.