Jag Venugopal's Blog

December 27, 2011

Indian justice system rides to the rescue

Filed under: India — Jag @ 10:48 am

Judges in India have finally thought it fit to come to the rescue of the hapless Indian. What might they have thrown the lawbook at?

  • Corrupt politicians?
  • Lawlessness?
  • Poor governance?
  • Sub-saharan Infrastructure?
  • Inflation?
  • Lack of economic reforms?
  • Governmental ineptitude  in handling terrorism?

No, silly. The greatest threat to the Republic of India (estd. 1947) comes from dirty pictures on Facebook and Google. Justices of India, borrowing a leaf from from China, that other great font of Democracy and Freedom, have summoned various online companies to answer for all the dirty content on their web sites. Of course, the great and farsighted politician, Kapil Sibal (he of the subsidized $35 tablet fame) also thought it fit to summon all these companies to complain about the naughty stuff online.

In any free society, norms of decency cannot be legislated. Society must decide what is acceptable and what is not. Surely, if one does not care much for dirty pictures or content, all one has to do is to not browse it. I have not heard any reports of Facebook or Google execs waylaying innocent Indians and thrusting all manner of pornography in their face.

And by the way, who gave these worthies (whether Kapil Sibal or the Indian judiciary) the right to sit in moral judgment over what’s obscene? Denying freedoms to the Indian citizen is a slippery slope. Today its alleged dirty content on the Internet. Tomorrow, it could be youngsters in jeans who are considered obscene. Oh wait, that’s happened already. And the day after, anything that’s determined obscene by the ruler of the day will be. Welcome to the Indian version of Saudi Arabia.


December 24, 2011

Does capitalism hurt or help the downtrodden in India?

Filed under: India — Jag @ 6:48 am

The old dogma, perpetuated by politicians of every hue in India is how a market economy and capitalism exploit the poor and underprivileged.

The new reality is that capitalism helps uplift those on the lowest rung of society… the people we would derogatorily refer not too long ago as “shudras”, or the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy. Read this article and look at the smile on the face of the mother… she has probably endured discrimination and insults her entire life. Her joy is palpable.

December 23, 2011

How brick and mortar retailers can win in an online world

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 6:34 am

Amazon’s price comparison app has stireed up a hornet’s nest among brick and mortar retailers. Though I haven’t used this particular app, similar apps on my mobile phone allow me to scan a barcode and search for the product online.

Understandably, brick and mortar retailers are very worried about becoming mere showrooms for online stores. Their concern is that a shopper will visit the store, examine the product and then order it online for a lower price. They have come up with various strategies to prevent this from happening… asking people caught barcode scanning to leave, removing barcodes from merchandise, and borrowing from the mattress industry, coming up with exclusive lines for each retail chain to thwart direct comparison.

These steps are ineffective. Customers can still type in the product name into their smartphones, if BestBuy decides to remove barcodes. Asking potential customers to leave the store is terrible business practice, barcode or no barcode. And while exclusive lines work for mattresses, where the decision is very subjective, it will hardly work for electronics where innumerable online forums offer comparisons between even the slightest brand variants.

A better approach would be for brick and mortar retailers to leverage their strengths… they have the customer physically present in store, and have an opportunity to build a deeper face-to-face relationship. How about store associates that are actually knowledgeable? And how about offering in-store warranty service? If I do not have to mail my malfunctioning electronics halfway across the continent to have it repaired but instead have my local BestBuy turn around a repair within a week, would I buy from there? Absolutely! This would be especially useful in gadgets with high failure rates, for example, laptops.

And for a revolutionary idea, how about letting the prospective customer “borrow” a demonstrator for a few days? The customer can try the product in the privacy of their own home, and if they don’t like it they can turn it back in, no questions asked. A fee can be charged, which would be waived upon in-store purchase of the product. Would I like to try this with a cell phone or a camera? You bet! I’d happily pay 50 bucks to have one for a couple days so I make the right decision on a 500 dollar purchase.

For people like my parents, who find newfangled gadgets difficult to use, how about in-store classes on how to use their newly purchased camera/smartphone/other gadget? It doesn’t have to be free.

A commentator on a newspaper’s website put it best: Amazon does not complain about an unfair playing field… the brick and mortar retailer has the customer in store, can talk to them and sell them on goods, and the customer is holding the product in their hand. Amazon is at least 24 hours removed from having the product in the customer’s hand and they never get to see the buyer, much less talk to him. Amazon’s not complaining. Why should retailers?

December 22, 2011

Lesson in how to head off a crisis before it snowballs

Filed under: Business — Jag @ 6:09 am

A good example of proper crisis handling, and getting ahead of the story before it becomes a huge PR disaster.

A FedEx customer posted video to YouTube of the delivery man throwing the customer’s monitor over a fence. As it turns out the customer’s surveillance camera caught the entire episode.

FedEx handled this potential crisis with a straightforward and frank apology. And they did not issue a PR release. They had one of their Senior VPs (note, not a low-level PR flunkey) go on YouTube and issue it on video. They conveyed their response through the same medium that the original complaint was raised. And what’s more important, they did not hide behind weasel words or legalese. It was direct.

December 20, 2011

AT&T should have been allowed to buy T-Mobile

Filed under: Business — Jag @ 6:43 am

AT&T has thrown in the towel on its attempt to buy T-Mobile, the fourth largest wireless provider in the US. The US Government (DOJ and FCC) opposed this merger citing concerns that the merged entity will reduce competition. Their theory was that T-Mobile was an upstart that often undercut the majors on wireless pricing. Without T-Mobile, wireless pricing would go up.

If only it were that simple. If only AT&T were merging with T-Mobile only to remove a competitor from the marketplace.

The wireless business is extremely capital intensive. There are two kinds of capital investments that go into this business — firstly the towers, and all the physical paraphernalia. These are the least of AT&T’s problems. The second kind of huge investment that goes into the business is wireless spectrum. AT&T had too little of it and wanted to buy T-Mobile to get access to its spectrum.

In the smartphone world, data speeds, and data and call quality are everything. With everyone and his brother-in-law buying an iPhone or an Android device, tremendous demand is generated for data. The problem is that data is transmitted through the electromagnetic spectrum… think of it as invisible wires. Each invisible wire can only carry so much of data, and AT&T has run out of invisible wires in major markets such as NYC and San Francisco. This probably accounts for a lot of people’s dissatisfaction with AT&T even though it has offered the iPhone for the longest time and in general, its rates are lower than Verizon’s.

The T-Mobile merger was a Hail Mary pass on the part of AT&T to land the spectrum it desperately needed in order to stay competitive with the other behemoth in the wireless market — Verizon. Without this spectrum, the prospects of improved service from AT&T are significantly diminished. The prospects that AT&T can scale up its network to meet future demand are similarly dealt a blow.

T-Mobile is also similary hurt by the merger’s failure. They’ve been hemorrhaging customers over the past couple years, lacking the money and the spectrum to provide 4G wireless service that is competitive with Verizon. Their corporate parent, Deutsche Telekom, does not want to invest more money in the US. Without significant investment, T-Mobile will be relegated to an also-ran, offering cut rate plans without any of the new features that customers demand. Who would want to buy an expensive smartphone and be saddled with a 2-year contract on a poky network?

By disallowing the merger, the US Government has strengthened Verizon’s hand while leaving two of its competitors significantly weakened. The third one (Sprint) was weak anyway, thus leaving Verizon Wireless with a de facto monopoly in the 4th generation wireless market. As a result, prices for 4G wireless will not diminish, and will probably increase.

December 17, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson on heroes

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 9:38 pm

Here’s what Neil deGrasse Tyson has to say about picking a person to admire:

“You should chose your heroes a-la carte. Picking and choosing from one and then another, thereby assembling a kind of composite hero. That way when you discover something reprehensible about any one of them it matters nothing to you because that’s not the part of them that piqued your interest.”

From reddit.com.

December 16, 2011

Americans returning gadgets in record numbers

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 10:42 pm

This, according to the Chicago Tribune, quoting a report by Accenture. Return rates for electronics are between 11-20%, and increasing.

For anyone that has purchased electronics recently, this should come as no surprise. I count myself among the geekiest of gadget users, but need to refer to the manual sometimes. And in two expensive purchases I’ve made in recent days, there was no manual included.

When I bought the Sony HX9V camera in summer, there was some “online help” built into the camera. There was a web-based manual readable on Sony’s web site that was accessible with some searching. Even that was not very helpful. To date, I’ve not understood how to get the still 3-D feature to work. The rest of the camera has been so good as to prevent me from returning it, but I can imagine that someone less of a gadget freak than I am would get frustrated within minutes of their purchase.

I recently bought a Motorola Droid Razr mobile phone. As phones go, its considered rather upscale, and with a two year contract, I am laying out big bucks for its acquisition. Yet, the “manual” was a teeny tiny booklet with hardly any information that could be considered useful. A novice user would have significant difficulty understanding the myriad settings and apps that go along with the phone.

If electronics manufacturers are really serious about reducing returns, how about having a 24×7 hotline with trained (please not outsourced) representatives who actually have a clue about the product, that can help a user set it up? And how about a DVD which shows the use of the product? The purchaser could pop it into their DVD player and practice along as the major features are explained.

The general public would benefit greatly from experienced sales staff who were sincere about customer satisfaction. When was the last time anyone at Best Buy or (horrors) Wal-Mart knew and cared enough to explain anything to you? Every time I’ve shopped at Best Buy, I’ve noticed some twenty-something employees hanging out with co-workers of the opposite sex. They seem to appear out of nowhere when it comes time to ring up the sale, or tack on various unnecessary accessories, yet are never on hand to explain or show anything.

In my opinion, increasing returns are not evidence that the customer is buying the product in bad faith, intending to use it for a few days and then return it. I’d be surprised if Joe Public could figure out most new electronic hardware within the return period. Instead, returns should be seen as evidence that manufacturers and retailers are not educating the consumer sufficiently on how their product is properly put to use. Until they take this part of the purchase experience seriously, returns will continue to increase.

December 13, 2011

Thomas Sowell’s Three Questions

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 6:30 am

My political leanings are more libertarian, and I don’t always agree with Thomas Sowell. But he’s a great writer and always provides food for thought. I especially love his three questions, reproduced below.

“Much of the self-righteous nonsense that abounds on so many subjects cannot stand up to three questions: (1) Compared to what? (2) At what cost? and (3) What are the hard facts?”

December 12, 2011

Motorola Xyboard with 2 year contract @$30/month? No thanks!

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 10:46 pm

I was browsing the Verizon Wireless kiosk in the mall the other day and came upon a couple new tablets that looked very nice; they were thin (IIRC, thinner than the first-generation iPad and possibly as thin as the second), and fast. They might have made a nice replacement for my trusty iPad when the time came. But alas, they are me-too products priced at stratospheric levels.

The least expensive Droid tablet retails for $530, with a two-year contract for data at $30/month. Assuming that Verizon paid a subsidy of some 300 dollars, the cost of a tablet half the size of an iPad is about 300 dollars more than it! And while it may be elegant, there is nothing this tablet can do that the iPad cannot. Neither is the iPad an ugly duckling.

The pricing on Verizon’s tablets is senseless. Who in their right mind would own a smartphone on a $30 data plan and two-year contract, and on top of that, own a tablet with another $30 data plan and two year contract? For that matter, it would be cheaper to just activate the smartphone hotspot and buy a Wi-Fi only tablet. But this version of Motorola’s Xyboard does not have a wi-fi only option.

Its one thing to buy a nice gadget, even paying mucho dinero. Its another to get ripped off month after month for 24 months, for services that have a cheap substitute (Wi-Fi) pretty much everywhere the tablet will be used.


Who needs Pakistan as an enemy state…

Filed under: India — Jag @ 6:46 am

When we can do grave damage to ourselves without any assistance from them?

I’m not talking about the embarassment of the Commonwealth Games or the 2G Telephony scam that followed, which ought to cause every Indian to hang his head in shame. What I am talking about is a few excellent self-goals that India has scored in the past few weeks.

The first was when the government proposed to allow foreign retailers (e.g. Wal-mart) to open shop in India, with up to 51% ownership. If the government really acted on behalf of all Indians (and not a vocal minority of middlemen and traders), it would have rolled out the red carpet for Wal-Mart and Target. Much of India’s supply chain is in tatters. By one reckoning, 40% of produce rots without it ever reaching store shelves, because of the sorry state of infrastructure. The government buys copious quantities of wheat, and lets it rot in the open, for lack of storage space. Much retail trade has to travel through many hands from producer to consumer, with each one taking a cut. As a result, the Indian consumer pays unconscionably high prices, while the poor farmer receives a pittance for the same produce.

When the government rolled back its decision to allow foreign investment in retailing, it did so based on the outcry from the opposition. The prime opposition party, the BJP counts the banias, the small-scale middlemen and traders who stand to lose most from this disintermediation. The government’s own allies, such as the Trinamul Congress, see evil in any form of market economy; they were the ones that caused Tata to relocate its Nano factory away from impoverished Bengal. Thus, we had the spectacle of the opposition rightists, leftists and centrists all protesting vociferously against something that would have brought much of the now-rotting produce to market and driven down inflation.

The second act of hara-kiri is just unfolding. As it turns out, a few mobile telephony operators got together and hammered out a pact to provide seamless nationwide roaming to their subscribers. In any other country, this would be welcome news, not the least because the market worked to provide what consumers wanted. The government however, thought it fit to question this providers on their audacity to make a deal among themselves without involving the government. Presumably, the bureaucrats and politicians are upset that they did not get a cut of the proceeds, as is de rigueur in such situations.

I feel sad that every time it appears India will break out of the socialist-Nehruvian mold of statist economic thinking that has held it back for sixty years, something comes right along to push it back into the morass that it has struggled in all these years.

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