Open Source Politics – Making sense of the AAP phenomenon

The open source movement in the technology world has had significant impact on almost every aspect in the field – the Linux operating system and, more recently, the Android operating system being two leading examples. The open source approach involves sharing of the basic design or code in a collaborative environment where anyone can participate and contribute. Subsequent improvements and features help the development community push the technology further and ultimately benefit end-users. This approach attracts anyone and everyone who loves to get to involved, learn and try new things, and get recognized by their peers in the community.

While working within the community, the individuals involved might benefit by dreaming up new ideas built on these open source solutions or pick up consulting opportunities, teaching gigs, etc. But ultimately, it’s a community of developers that work together to progress technology in an open and transparent way. In short, it creates a fertile ground for new ideas, innovation, and out of the box thinking, unencumbered by commercial interests for the most part. In the process, it inspires an environment of healthy competition and somewhat selfless commitment to a cause.

Click here to read the rest of the article at the Economic Times website.

Politically Inspired Technology – The AAP’s platform

Very often, you find new technologies in search of a market. But in other instances, it is the reverse; new technology solutions are developed to address a specific need and then it turns out to be a winner. The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has created some interesting opportunities for its young and technology savvy members to channelize their skills to solve pressing campaign problems. One of the primary goals of any political party involved in a campaign is to get access to data or information about its voters, its supporters, its members, its donors, etc. These “users” are scattered out across the globe and their identities are buried in various email systems, social networks and other Internet platforms. People from all over the world using a plethora of devices such as computers, phones, tablets, etc., to access and consume information, unwittingly leaving traces of their identity at most places. Then, in the physical world we have the age old technique of pen and paper based registration, hand written cheques, etc.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

Time for some cell phone etiquette

There is no question that cell phones have had dramatic positive effects on people’s lives in India. The ability to get access to anyone and everyone and having access to all the information on the planet on your phone is surely an unparalleled example of people empowerment.

Unfortunately, like everything else in life, cell phone usage has a bad side – the sheer annoyance factor is one, the safety issue is another, the constant distraction being a third, among a long list of negatives. When communication was hard in the past, phones were used very selectively. For example, if you were going to meet some friends for dinner at a restaurant, there would be a land line call or two to firm up the plan. Today, it’s an entirely different story. Recently, when I was going out to dinner with a bunch of youngsters (in their 20s), I noticed that they called each other back and forth to give a literal commentary on the way to the restaurant: “I am this junction, there is too much traffic. Not sure how long it will take.” Then the friend has an idea and calls back. “Hey, why don’t you take this road instead? You might get there sooner.” A few minutes later, the friend calls back, “Hey, the traffic is better now. I should be there soon.” In short, at least a handful of calls and maybe a bunch of text messages had been exchanged for the most inane reasons.

Next, the issue of safety on roads. It’s good to see that, in many cities, the police are pretty strict with the use of cell phones while driving. Nevertheless, cell phone usage is rampant in cars and even two wheelers, and an increasing cause of accidents. Among the negatives, this is easily the most dangerous and needs to be dealt with urgently.

As for the annoyance factor, there is no end to the number of examples one can think of. There are everyday occurrences that stare at you in the face at almost every instant during the day (or maybe, I am just too sensitive to this!). I was at once at the office of large retail chain. There was a common waiting area and then a long stretch of cubicles and conference rooms. Youngsters, mostly in their twenties, frequently stepped aside from their cubicles to the common waiting area to answer personal cell phone calls. Many rushed down the elevator when the calls were “very private” in nature. The common waiting area was hence always crowded with youngsters chattering away on their cell phones during regular office hours. Interestingly, some even carried multiple cell phones!

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

Internet, Social Media Jai Ho

It was a weekday evening. The TV serials were on in full swing. During the commercial break, my mother turned the TV off. A few minutes later, she tried to turn it back on and, lo and behold, it would not turn on. The red light at the bottom of the TV monitor turned to blue like it always does, but the TV did not seem to come alive like it normally does! In desperation, she gave up on the remote and tried the TV’s switch instead. Still no luck. She was distraught, as you can imagine, given the strangle-hold the TV serials have on our people, especially the aged. Promptly, the family queued up to salvage the crisis. Everything from turning off the main switch to slapping the TV on its back was tried, but to no avail. I am sure she had that sinking feeling at the thought of missing “all the serials” of the evening. It’s moments like this that stir people to action. In my mother’s case, she used a rare combination of “shaming” and “challenging” when she said to me, “You studied Electrical Engineering from IIT, don’t you know how to fix this?” Yikes! The first part was certainly true but the second was not, unfortunately. But it was my “izzat ka saval hai” moment. So I promptly fell back on most people’s modern-day be-all and end-all of solutions — Google search!

A few quick searches took me to the manufacturer’s website. As usual, you find all the information that is available except the one you are looking for. A fresh search on Google took me to some discussion groups where I found others who had similar issues. But alas, no solution to the problem. That’s when my better half decided to search for video solutions to the problem on YouTube. And guess what? A fellow TV owner who had the exact same issue had gone to great lengths to describe and demonstrate the solution to this problem! The problem was that two “diodes” on a particular circuit board were busted and needed to be replaced. It’s been years since I had touched a circuit board, let alone replaced a part on it. It was at this juncture that my wife decided that she had more than done her part. “You are the Electrical Engineer, you should know how to do this,” she said, rubbing it in.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

Amazon opens Fire on the tablet market

After several weeks of rumors, Amazon formally plunged into the tablet market by announcing the Kindle Fire tablet device and a few cheaper models of its Kindle e-Reader. With the iPad, Apple virtually invented the Tablet market and pitch-forked it into the mainstream, despite a fairly high price tag. The iPad at its current price point, is viewed by many as an alternative to a laptop or a PC. A typical buyer of an iPad is one who might have otherwise purchased a PC. The drop in sales of PCs to some extent is a confirmation of this trend.

In an attempt to counter the phenomenal success of the iPad, Google launched the mobile OS, Android, as an open source product. Attracted by the success of the iPad, several manufacturers jumped on the tablet bandwagon with Android-based tablets. Unfortunately, Android tablets from the likes of Motorola, Samsung, and Asus were way too highly priced. While they were “somewhat” comparable in usability to the iPad, they are simply way behind on the number of available applications, and just marginally cheaper than an iPad. So they have barely made a dent on Apple’s lead in the tablet market.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

Steve Jobs, Tussi Great Ho!

The dramatic rise of Apple during the reign of Steve Jobs, which unfortunately ended recently, is truly commendable. I remember seeing a Mac for the first time when I was in graduate school. At that stage, the Mac was used mostly by the Administrative staff at the University. Later, when I joined the workforce, I realized that Macs were used by the Administrative staff, the Technical Publications groups, and the Marketing and Sales teams within most organizations, while everyone else used PCs or Unix machines.

At this point, Steve Jobs was CEO of two private companies, NeXT Computer and Pixar, while Apple was struggling under various CEOs. While Apple experimented with management changes at the top, it lost its edge in the marketplace as PCs dropped in price and gained traction. Slowly, many corporations stopped buying Macs altogether. IT departments preferred to stick with one platform as far as possible, and that was Microsoft Windows on PCs.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

Google plays catchup with Google Plus

I have been a very active user of many Google products and services over the years and I must caution you that it’s a lot like being on drugs. It grows on you. The more you have, the more you want. Some form of a Google fix several times each day is now part of my everyday routine. The good news for Google is that there are many millions around the globe like me. Yet, Google is threatened by a business started by a college kid who supposedly created a service to help “nerds pick-up chicks” — Facebook.

To read the rest of this article please click here.

Android Smartphones: Cool, but still nerdy

The Android phones have been in the news of late for their rapid increase in sales. The web is replete with speculation of a replay of the Mac vs PC like battle in the mobile space between the iPhone and Android phones.  Its hard to argue with this comparison because there are great similarities. The iPhone is closely guarded by Apple while the Android platform is more “open” though largely Google centric. As someone who has used the iPod touch and the Android here are my personal experiences/views.

Gmail, Google Apps, Sync-ing etc.

It appears as though life becomes easier on the Android platform if you have a Gmail address. This is understandable given that its ultimately Google’s mobile platform.  It is possible that there is a way around it (i.e., not having a Gmail account), but it is likely to come with its associated baggage. (remember the time when Paypal required a paypal account?) I have a Gmail address but was pretty disappointed to find that the integration with Google Apps was far from smooth.  If you have a Gmail account and a Google Apps account and chose to keep these independent, getting your Google Apps calendar, contacts etc.  on to your phone is a challenge in itself. Certainly do-able as a found out later, but a challenge nevertheless that requires you to draw upon your nerdy instincts!

Dreadful Battery Life

The downside of a high powered Android smartphone phone is that its a an “incredible” battery hog. There are scores of techniques to reduce the battery usage. But the very fact that you as the end user have to “muck” with these is annoying to say the least. It is clearly a reflection of the fact that the platform as whole is still maturing. If you plan to use your phone extensively especially for browsing, email etc. be prepared to charge it a minimum of once a day and possibly more often.

Beware of Data Roaming Charges

This is one feature that is going to really hurt Android users if you travel overseas. So beware! By default, the Android phones connect to the net unless you specifically turn off Internet access.  This means that when you are traveling (outside of the US for instance, assuming that you have a US data plan), you are going to be quickly hit by a hefty bill without your knowledge. The phone does not bother to flag you that you are going to be incurring data roaming charges. To make matters worse the rates are ridiculously high  — something like $20 per MB! (depending on which country you are traveling in). When you hit $100, Verizon sends you a text message. Thank God for small mercies! If you happen to check that text message, good for you, else be prepared for a nasty surprise when your monthly statement arrives.

Android Phones are still very nerdy

After having used the HTC Incredible for a couple of months and the iPod Touch for close to eight months, my personal view is that the Android phone in its present incarnation clearly falls in the nerd camp. If you are not a nerd or don’t even possess the odd nerd streak my recommendation would be to stay away from Android phones for now. The platform on the whole is extremely powerful and there are plenty of really cool features provided you are good at figuring things out for yourself.

Based on my experience with the iPod touch I suspect that iPhones are far more easy to setup, navigate and use (though the upgrade to iOS 4.0 wasn’t exactly smooth). Unfortunately, iPhones imply AT &T service and what good is a user-friendly phone without a reliable service provider?

Final Thoughts

From an end-user perspective the Android platform is still evolving and is far from “idiot proof”. Having said that I really think that its only a matter of time before it improves and becomes relatively easy to use because the overall difference in user experience isn’t as stark as the Mac vs the PC.  In fact, there are a number of likable UI features on the Android phones. Besides, the market dynamics of an open platform (backed by Google) appears to be in its favor.

Bottom line, if you are in the market for a smartphone your choices are between a battery hogging, nerds-delite or a cool, user-friendly phone with an unreliable service (assuming for now that Blackberries are too boring and too corporate).

Unknowingly, I have managed to strike a decent balance. I use my iPod for most things as long as I have access to a wi-fi network. I use my smartphone firstly for making calls (!!) and avail of the data features on an as needed basis when I can’t use my iPod. Its kind of sad because my guarded use of the data facility defeats the purpose of a smartphone. Unfortunately, I can’t risk using my phone for Internet access (and other pursuits) only to see it run out of battery when I need to make/take an important call.

Most international airports around the world offer free wi-fi unlike most airports in the US. Most coffee shops offer wi-fi too. So this balance seems to work for me. The downside is that I am armed with two devices most of the time and I don’t see that changing until AT&T improves its reliability or the Android platform its battery life.

VOIP and The Promise of Free Calls

Over the last several years I have been an active user of internet based phone services. Skype, Google Voice, Voice chat through Yahoo IM etc.  are the ones I have been using most frequently. There is no doubt that the ability to make calls over the Internet (free or at a low cost) has far reaching, powerful implications but these services (like most new technologies) have their share of challenges.  Here are some of my experiences with these services over the years.

The Good News

These services are great simply because they are free. They give you an opportunity to talk to people who you normally don’t speak to as often. They give you a chance to make and receive calls in places where regular phone calls can be very expensive. With increase in Internet access and computers around the globe these services serve as a terrific means of communication and will undoubtedly play a significant role in communication in the years to come. The learning curve in using these technologies is minimal. A five minute demo is sufficient even for the most novice users.

The Bad News

The free or low cost services can be unreliable. If you make a call using one of these services be prepared for random changes in voice quality, sudden dropped lines etc. If you are considering these services for business use, think again.  Its great to be able to make a phone call from your computer without having to change your headset etc. but its embarrassing to explain that its the phone connection and not the “wind” that the person at the other end is hearing. (Once I was forced to quip, “I hope its not President Obama’s plane!”) While it might be ok to be interrupted during a personal call to friends and family, the same is not true for business calls.

Paid VOIP services like Lingo, Vonage etc. are definitely far more reliable. The old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true for these services. These services do come with their share of headaches. Lingo for instance recommends that the cable modem (at home) feeds into the Lingo box. If you use a router this means that the Lingo box feeds into the Router rather than the other way around. The big downside to this is that if Lingo goes down for some reason, your internet access will go down as well. Its possible to set up the network such that the cable modem feeds into the router as opposed to the Lingo box. But this is no simple task even for the reasonably tech savvy.

What’s the best free service?

All the free services are equally good/bad in the sense they have their strengths and weaknesses. Skype has been around the longest and so one would imagine that it has probably ironed out many of the technology and service challenges. On the flip side it probably has more traffic to deal with than the other providers. Calls to India on Skype from the US in the mornings are almost always of poor quality. On the other hand, the calls at night are very reliable.

Google Voice is very, very high on the “coolness” factor. It has some very powerful features. If you like the Gmail interface you’ll love Google Voice. Where it falls flat is the idea of having a new number to act as a clearing house for all your calls. It might sound great in theory but in practice it doesn’t exactly work well because most people don’t want to change their phone number as far as possible. Besides, explaining to people (about a new number!) who ask you for your cell phone number is an arduous task in itself!

I find myself using Skype more often simply because it is always accessible on my desktop. Besides, Skype was the first to introduce Skype number and the ability to forward calls from Skype to other phone numbers. The ability to forward calls from Skype to a cell phone number is a handy feature especially when you are traveling. Among these services Skype is the only service (other than probably Google Voice) that I am aware off that works on Linux. If you are used to working on different operating systems, Skype becomes an automatic choice.

Google Voice requires no local install (which is great!) but it requires you to login to Google Voice when making calls from the computer. Google Voice loses out because of this extra step. Yahoo on the other hand loses out because I mostly use Meebo for IM. I don’t think there is way to call from within Meebo using Yahoo! voice (or maybe there is and I haven’t figured it out as yet).  In short, its hard to say which one is the best. It depends on a host of factors ranging from personal preference to OS to familiarity to UI etc.

p.s: There is a service dedicated to free conference calls ( or “Talk to Everyone”) that is also available for those who might be interested. The above mentioned services also support conference calls though I have only used the conference call facility in Skype.