Jag Venugopal's Blog

September 29, 2010

The coming shakeout in eReaders and eBookstores

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 12:10 am
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The eReader market is a tough one to be in. For one, each vendor has to compete with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Apple. While eReaders are dedicated devices, Apple’s device is more general-purpose. The iPad is more expensive than eReaders, and is heavier. Nevertheless, for an occasional reader, a general-purpose device is all they need to read eBooks. Additionally, the iPad provides something that is not available from anyone else: the ability to purchase from multiple stores (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iBooks).

A dedicated eReader makes sense to bookworms, who read much more frequently than the average reader, and who prefer a light, dedicated device without the bells and whistles. Being less expensive than an iPad, it is also likely to appeal to the price-conscious reader. The problem with this niche is that it is hyper-competitive with Amazon and B&N duking it out. Right now, Amazon has won significant points with Kindle 3. B&N’s response remains to be seen. Another difficulty in this space is the rapidly evolving technology… it seems to change every six months or so. At the very least, a vendor has to sell enough in a six month time frame to recover their costs. An analysis by iSuppli of the previous generation of Kindle revealed that it cost around $185 to build. Assuming manufacturing efficiencies, etc. we can surmise that Amazon is selling the $139 Kindle 3 (Wi-Fi only) for close to its cost of manufacturing.

A third factor making the eBook market a tough one is the immense competition in eBook pricing. While publishers have tried to form a quasi-cartel, like all cartels it will eventually fall apart. Amazon is the big kahuna in the eBook marketplace with its ability to push pricing lower and lower. Amazon has made no secret of its desire to see eBook prices go below $9.99, and is willing to offer better terms to authors and publishers who agree.

In this scenario, my reaction to Kobo’s new book reader (with Wi-Fi, priced on par with Amazon) was “why do they even bother?” The Kobo reader has no features that would put it over the Kindle — none whatsoever; it costs the same,  in fact, as pointed out by Wired, it is missing a feature essential to buying books online: a keyboard. Why would anyone pay $139 for a Kobo reader, when better functionality can be had from Amazon for the same price? Both Kobo and its American partner, Borders need to answer this question in a satisfactory way before their eReader finds significant adoption.

Pay close attention to Apple and Amazon (and perhaps B&N). They are the only two (or three) likely to survive the eReader wars.

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September 28, 2010

IT contract hiring is harder in a down economy

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 1:00 am

 A friend  who wishes to remain anonymous shared his difficulties in hiring contract programmers in a down economy (and you thought there should be plenty of them!) I’ll let him speak in his own words:

 “We’re looking for a contract programmer to enhance a decade-old system that runs on a potpourri of Microsoft technologies. We need someone who can work with C#, WCF, ASPX.NET, and AJAX to help us produce the next version of the system, and to fix any defects discovered along the way. We’re a fairly easy-going firm, and are willing to pay the asking price for contract programmers. Our department has excellent working conditions, and the jobs are as close to 9-5 as you can get.

 One would assume that in this economy, we’re in a buyer’s market and would be able to get the cream of the crop. However, reality is harshly different. Finding the right person is immensely difficult — perhaps more so than if unemployment was in the 4-5% range.

 Our first problem is that for Microsoft .NET programmers, there’s one resume. Yes, no matter which contract programmer’s resume we come across, they are virtually identical. My guess is that in a bad economy, contractors are desperate to get hired, and to get the best chance, they gold-plate their resume with every development technology Microsoft has ever invented.  It doesn’t matter if the candidate has never actually coded in the technology ; current practice seems to dictate that if he has read a book or MSDN article on the technology, it is included in the resume. To the person performing the hiring, resumes have completely lost their relevance, because they don’t state the truth. The hiring manager has to make a decision call on whether to interview a candidate or not, based on a very subjective “gut-feel”.

 A close second problem we face with resume embellishment is that most candidates do not restrict themselves to stating what they did on their projects. Instead, the resume turns into an eight-page monstrosity that tediously enumerates every feature of every application they worked on, and then goes on to describe every technology implemented on each project, regardless of whether the candidate actually used the technology or not. Often, candidates for contracting positions, especially if they’re foreign, work through multiple levels of body shops (the hiring company talks to Body Shop 1, which subcontracts to Body Shop 2, that actually does the visa paperwork and the hiring). With all these levels of body shops, each recruiter feels the need to embellish the resume with changes they think will make their horse win the race. Thus, a candidate with one year’s experience in technology suddenly has a couple years’ experience after Body Shop 2 has edited his resume. Those two years then get incremented to somewhere between three and four after Body Shop 1’s recruiter has had his say in the matter. By the time it reaches the hiring manager, four or more years’ experience is stated, while the reality is that the candidate is a novice in the technology.

 Assuming that we’ve moved past the resume review page and gone on to a phone screen, further gotchas await us:  the helper, Google, and the prepared speech. Often, we can discern the presence of a “helper” in the interview room together with the candidate. The helper assists the candidate in reciting answers to technical questions. The dead giveaway to the presence of a helper is a 2-5 second time lag between questions and answers. A candidate who is honest about his knowledge can immediately respond to questions about technologies on his resume. Those with a helper in the room need to give the helper time to understand the question and furiously scratch out the response on paper or a white board. Sometimes the helper is a human being, and at other times the candidate himself is furiously googling away for the answer. One interesting candidate neither googled nor did he have a helper. What he had was a prepared speech. No matter what the question was, he insisted on reading his complete sermon out to us.

 Our recruiting woes are not at an end even when we have found the right person, and we have found them to be honest at the interview. In a job market in flux, candidates are desperate for a job. They often end up accepting positions where they don’t quite like the project, or the commute is long, just so they can tide things over until they get a more suitable position. Thus, they accept a six-month contract in bad faith, fully intending to bail out within three months, or as soon as a better gig becomes available.  While I don’t grudge them the desire to make a living, it plays havoc with us. Our system is complex enough that it takes close to a three-month ramp-up period before a contractor becomes productive. When a contractor leaves after a few months on the job, we’ve lost the money, time and opportunity invested in the person, and are forced to start the cycle all over again.

 As a result, each resume review and interview becomes an adversarial process. We’ve been burned so many times that we start out assuming a person is guilty of all the above sins until proven innocent. Not the best way to start a relationship where we entrust mission critical applications to someone, but that’s the reality.”

September 27, 2010

Outsourcing libraries

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 9:09 pm

The New York Times reports on “anger as a private company takes over libraries“. It is understandable if people who’ve been employed by cities and towns in libraries, and have enjoyed a secure, stable job without especially difficult work, are upset at the move.

However, in a larger sense, the anger is misplaced; libraries do not exist to provide secure employment. They exist to lend books and associated media to patrons. And, if a private company can better manage a library to reduce cost, and improve the availability of material, that is a change to be welcomed by the general population. Libraries cost money: in space, books and staff. A private company that manages multiple libraries will be better placed to achieve a balance between lending paper books, and lending electronically, so people can read on their iPads or laptops. With their broader expertise, for-profit companies can make library content more relevant — less books on repairing valve radios dating back from the 1920’s and more books on self-education and how to find a job in today’s market.

With increasing digitization of books. the libraries of the future will vastly expand their collections, without increasing the number of books they own. They can make the latest books available to readers, while charging towns and cities a “per-view” fee, rather than the full cost of acquiring the book, maintaining it through its lifetime and then disposing of it. And best of all, in this scenario, there is no need for chasing down deadbeat borrowers. Once a borrowing period has expired, the book can be easily deleted from the borrower’s eReader.

Does Education Pay?

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 12:46 am

Reposting something I saw at Michael Roberto’s blog: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_UEphf7kbgb0/TJ5rXHk6pDI/AAAAAAAAAC8/mRVUbOEw08M/s1600/EducationPays.JPG

September 24, 2010

Chinese eReader comes with preloaded books

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 12:20 am

A Chinese company has advertised eReader technology that is likely to be light years ahead of the current state of the art in eReaders. Contrast is supposedly even better than the Kindle. Power consumption is reported to be much lower; it is required only when the page is rendered, and almost never thereafter unless ambient lighting is poor. The screen technology is reportedly more environmentally friendly than eInk, and available both in color and monochrome versions. Additionally, the DRM technology has been improved to such an extent that removing the protections and putting the book on the Internet is a fairly difficult exercise and increases depending upon the amount of content. For those that have large collections, the company has guaranteed that durability is better than any eReader out there. The technology is robust enough to withstand occasional drops from 3ft heights. Hardware costs are expected to be significantly less than the Kindle. While the technological base is Chinese, the company states that it can transfer the IP associated with the eReader to most industrialized countries. Further, they assure potential buyers that patent issues have all been sorted out. Large publishers and booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders are reported to have made heavy investments in this eReader technology. While wireless networking is not (yet) available on the eReaders, it is much less of an issue, because each eReader comes pre-loaded with a title from a large list of available titles.

I’m under a non-disclosure agreement to not reveal more specifics but if you email me, I will be able to give you some more details of who’s going to carry it, price, etc.

September 23, 2010

An imminent superpower hosts the Commonwealth games

Filed under: India — Jag @ 1:06 am

I read in the Times of India that a “US Report” considers India to be the world’s third most powerful country. Yes, that’s right fellow desis, we’re one big powerful nation, ranking right up there with the US and China. We’ve long since surpassed the geriatric democracies of Western Europe. Our former colonial masters are now a mere footnote in history. And, Japan and Korea are countries that write in funny script and eat noodles all the time.

But wait a minute, are we talking about the same country that is attempting to “host” the Commonwealth games? You know those games where the Athlete’s village had apartments with excrement in them when they were handed over to the “guests”? The same country that could not get a single venue ready and cleaned up before the games? The same country in whose capital there are pools of standing water and garbage days prior to the start of the games? The same country where a footbridge and a roof collapsed two days before the games? The same country where the stink of corruption from the Commonwealth Games organizers reaches much further than the fetid odor of slums which cover a good half of many major cities? The same country in whose capital dengue fever is running rampant? The same country that could not ensure sufficient security, and allowed two terrorists to shoot foreign tourists and escape so close to the games?

No, we cannot compare ourselves to China. We’re not even in the same league. We make a big deal of our democracy versus their dictatorship. Its the same democracy that allows two robber-baron ministers to have free run of all the iron ore reserves in Karnataka, and for another minister who thrashed a fellow-driver because said driver had the temerity to overtake his “official” car.

Folks, as someone settled in the US, I will surely appear to be an Uncle Tom, preaching to the poor cousins back home. But I think that if you well and truly love someone, you have a duty to speak the truth (and doesn’t our national motto say as much?). The truth is that India is so far from being a power of any sort. Each time we proclaim our exalted status, we make a laughingstock of ourselves before the world. A proud civilization with a history of 5,000 years goes into raptures whenever any non-entity in the west mouths some platitude or other about our supposed greatness. Let’s be honest with ourselves. We know who we are. We know where we stand. And we’re nowhere ready to sup at the table of the high and mighty.

I’ll offer a simple manifesto for India. One that won’t take it to great power status any time soon but one which will delight its citizens. For the next decade, let the country focus on the luxuries of life such as a sufficient supply of clean water, clean air, electricity being available 24×7, education for our children, adequate public transportation, and garbage-free roads in our cities. Let our democracy be true — without a fifth of MP’s having criminal convictions. Let our police forces protect the people, rather than being the private army of whoever happens to be in power. Let our public services  actually serve the public — without the need for bribes, influence and grovelling before the smallest of civil servants. Let us have a polity where people don’t vote for whoever belongs to their caste, based on the logic of “he might be a scoundrel, but he’s our scoundrel”, but actually value competence and honesty. Let us hold our elected officials accountable, and stop the plunder of natural resources that they acquiesce in. Let’s get rid of slums — not by token slum demolitions but by actually coming up with sufficient affordable housing for our poor.

A clean country with a well-educated populace can do a lot more for us in the eyes of the rest of the world than any misplaced megalomania.   Let’s leave superpower ambitions to our larger eastern neighbor.

September 22, 2010

Barnes and Noble: The long, hard road to irrelevance

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 1:00 am

When I was new to the USA, one of my favorite destinations was the large Barnes and Noble in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. They used to have an entire wall lined up with the latest books in computer programming, and I could get lost among them for many hours. I would spend a lot more on (nearly) full-price purchases from them than my meager student income justified. I’d take the train to Kenmore Square just so I could spend time at the BU bookstore (which was also owned by B&N).

Alas, today, Barnes and Noble stands out as an example of a company that could not manage the Internet wave, and has had its business model swept out from underneath. The company first came under assault in the mid-nineties from Amazon’s then-new Internet based bookstore. Eventually, B&N managed to cobble together its own bookstore, but it was too little, too late. I remember trying to access their bookstore around 1997, and found it woefully slow compared to Amazon. Besides, Amazon had made the best use of its first mover advantage, and had already become the go-to place to read book reviews. B&N continued with their practice of full-priced book sales at large bookstores, while Amazon’s discounting, free shipping and Amazon Prime initiatives continued to steal customers. Target and Wal-Mart continue to undercut B&N in the books-and-mortar world with huge discounts on the most popular bestsellers.

The company could have stolen a march over Amazon on eReaders, having introduced its first version in the early 2000’s. However even that was not to be. Amazon came on the market and quickly moved through two generations of the market, again locking in customers, while B&N struggled to bring an eReader to market. When they finally did so, it was again a case of too little, too late. Amazon had beaten them out the starting gate by a couple years. When finally, B&N tried to shake things up with a huge price cut on eReaders, Amazon responded within hours, with an even larger price cut and a next-generation device that left the Nook out in the cold.

B&N is now grasping at the straws for relevance, with cockamamie ideas like providing free eReading in its bookstore locations for owners of its Nook eReader. Well hello, the appeal of the eReader is that people don’t need to go into a store to buy books. Why would they waste their time driving to B&N? And once there, what would B&N try to sell them other than coffee and scones? If fewer people buy books at stores, it is not clear how B&N can continue to pay for pricey real estate in strip malls, or how it can continue to carry large inventories.

So, bear with me while I shed a tear for an old friend, and turn the page on my Kindle.

September 21, 2010

Now, buy a scratch card to upgrade your Intel CPU

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 2:29 am
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Some Intel CPUs now come with upgradeability built in to them. If you don’t like your CPU’s performance, buy an upgrade card at your local Best Buy, scratch to reveal a unique code, enter the code into your computer and you’re off and running.

I can almost visualize the collective apoplexy of the Internet in the coming few weeks, but I view it as a net plus. For one, the benefit to Intel is that it can produce fewer lines of processors, thereby reducing costs. It doesn’t have to manufacture a low-end and a high-end processor. It can manufacture just the high-end version and license its capabilities on a piecemeal basis. The cost of producing a more powerful processor is not much more than the cost of producing a less-capable one, especially in large quantities.

As a second benefit, Intel can sell processors at lower cost, and then reap incremental revenue from the upgraders. In this manner, Intel does not lose the low end of the market, by just producing high-end processors. But does not leave any money on the table either by selling only low-end ones. PC manufacturers will love it because they will get to share upgrade revenue with Intel, advertise lower prices for their computers and yet claim high end performance with a strategically placed asterisked disclaimer.

As for me? I’ definitely not saying that I’ll wait until someone on the Internet hacks the CPU firmware to enable the upgrade for free. That’s bad. And illegal. And perhaps a contravention of the DMCA. I’ll buy my upgrades like a good boy.

Let Kashmir go

Filed under: India — Jag @ 1:41 am

I read the New York Times article on India’s struggling to contain the unrest in the Kashmir valley. A parliamentary delegation recently visited the area in a desperate search for a solution. Doubtless in the next few days, we’ll hear more bromides about Kashmir’s tolerant version of Islam, the need for a healing touch, how the Army is rough-handling the Kashmiris, etc. Much more money will be added to the huge amounts already being doled out to Kashmir, by a poor government that cannot ensure health, sanitation and water for a majority of its other citizens.

I’ll offer a simple reason for the continuing unrest in Kashmir: They don’t want to be part of India. Inducements of money can buy temporary peace; however as with drug addiction, each new injection requires higher and higher amounts of the drug for the same high.

The Kashmiris aren’t necessarily bad people. Neither are the rest of India. They just don’t want us. Its time we realized, and cut the cord. Jammu and Leh, which never had a problem integrating with India should be their own state, which would complete its integration with the nation, without the need for any special constitutional provisions. Further, Kashmir should be given outright independence, without the need for any plebiscite or negotiations. Given that Kashmiris want nothing to do with India, the rest of India should reciprocate as well. There is no need for negotiation, peace dialogues, trade, commerce, nonsensical initiatives like “Aman Ki Asha” etc. Just a straightforward excision with no further relationship with India. If the Kashmiris want access to ports, electricity, trade, commerce, markets, etc, India can definitely provide that on terms advantageous to it. “Want port access? Sure, here’s the toll we want. Want access to our markets? Certainly. Here’s our list of tariffs.” And to prevent further infiltration from rebels trained and funded from across the Pakistani or Kashmiri borders, Kashmir should be cut off from India using the same fence that now runs along the border areas with Pakistan.

As a responsible and mature democracy, India has to put a stop to the daily battles in Kashmir. Indian troops should risk their lives only for areas where they are wanted and appreciated, and where the risk to their lives is worth taking. The values of a billion people should be strong enough to survive a mere three million or so that want to leave. The money being poured into the valley can be better put to use in India’s cities and villages, where the millions will appreciate the luxuries of Indian life such as clean water, sanitation and a semblance of health care.

It is likely that Kashmir will merge with Pakistan in a short period of time, but that ought to be a matter between the Kashmiris and the Pakistanis. The Kashmiris ought to be careful of what they wish for… they might just get it; but for India’s sake, let go of Kashmir.

September 17, 2010

iPad fan tries the new Kindle

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 12:01 am
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I never realized how much I’d use my iPad. It is my constant companion, whether to play a racing game, watch Netflix, browse the web, read email or play Osmos. I love Zinio on the iPad for its affordable prices on scores of magazines, including India Today. Finally, PDFs can be read on the device without reflowing, thus preserving all original formatting.

Notwithstanding this love affair with the iPad, I decided to give the latest Kindle a try. I wanted a simple, cheap book reader to lug around in places where the iPad would be too bulky. For example, the local YMCA while waiting for my kids to finish their activities, the local mechanic’s, when I was having my car repaired, etc. Sure I could take my iPad with me, but it was a little bulkier and a lot more expensive than I felt comfortable carrying in such places.

It appears that I’ve found a new paramour in the Kindle, while not letting go of my old flame. The Kindle is everything that the iPad is not: a focused device performing just one function, extremely light, and relatively inexpensive. The device is lighter than most paperbacks out there. You can comfortably hold it in either hand and flip pages. Contrast on this new version is excellent, and the speed of the device is significantly improved over older generations of eReaders such as the Sony Pocket Reader. The device admirably meets the vision of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — after a while it just disappears. You forget you’re using an eBook reader, and instead focus all your attention on the content.

For anyone looking for a take everywhere ebook reader with excellent battery life, and which is eminently suitable for most text-oriented books, look no further than the Kindle. Occasional readers, those who read highly graphical books, or those who want to buy only one of the two devices are still better served by the more versatile and general-purpose iPad.

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