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Monday Morning Rant: Motorola reveals Android update plans, kinda disappoints users in India

23 Aug

We have been asking Motorola ourselves about their plans to update their Android wares to the latest OS version and they had been non-committal so far. However, it seems we were not the only ones and after being overwhelmed by similar requests, Motorola’s software team has released a tentative plan that outlines when users in specific countries can expect Android OS updates on certain phones. To say the least, the list seems highly partial to the US and we are not pleased to see no confirmed plans for any updates for users in India. The only thing the sheet mentions for users in Asia (excluding Korea) is that update plans are currently ‘under evaluation.’

I have loved all the three Android phones that Motorola has launched in India so far – the Milestone, the Backflip and the XT720. As you might have read in my Backflip review, it is the most innovative product out there but its dated OS undoes whatever Motorola has gained with its industrial design. What’s more, I test all Android apps on a Milestone. (Disclosure: We have loaned the unit from the company.)

Considering that these smartphones are not cheap by any means and most people buy Android thinking that it is an ‘open OS’ and will get regular updates. However, that is seldom the case. It is not just Motorola but look at any handset vendor selling Android smartphones and none of them have any clarity whether they will provide OS updates or not. For the serious consumer out there, buying a new Android smartphone is a gamble – either wait for the latest phone that runs of the latest OS version (and burn a big hole in your pocket) or buy the phone you can afford and pray that it gets updated to the latest version.

I won’t spare handset vendors and give them the benefit of doubt (after all, if they update their old phones to the latest version then who will buy their new, expensive phones), but I would also pin the blame on Google for not coming out in the open and clarifying what is the criteria of phones getting updates. Many product managers from handset manufacturers have, off the record, told me that Google likes to roll out Android updates regionally and not globally. (No points for guessing which country/region gets the updates first.)

So what’s the deal? Why is it that phones like the Motorola Milestone and the Samsung Galaxy S are getting updated to Android 2.2 in Europe while the same OS update is under evaluation in India and other countries in the region? After all, isn’t it the same hardware?

Six amazing features of the T-Mobile G2

19 Aug

T-Mobile’s teaser site for the HSPA+ capable G2 does not reveal much but if you read between the lines, you can easily guess some of the specifications of the upcoming superphone. The biggest advantage of the G2 will be its ability to surf the Internet at lightning fast speeds (T-Mobile claims up to 14.4 Mbps). And most of the specifications of the G2 will be laid down according to what a user can do with such great speeds. Here’s my take on the six features the G2 is likely to have:

1. A 4.3-inch display: HTC has already done the Evo 4G for Sprint. The G2 would be its equivalent on T-Mobile and nothing less than a 4.3-inch display will do. Remember, T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network would be best utilised for video streaming and hence a big display.

2. An 8.0 MP camera with HD video recording: Let’s face it, this device will be expensive. T-Mobile would like to show off how you can shoot an HD video (720p) and stream it live or upload it in matter of seconds to YouTube. Of course, it would have an HDMI out slot to connect directly to an HDTV.

3. Snapdragon Onboard: HTC has been using the Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset for a while now and it is a given that the G2 too will run on one. However, what remains to be seen is whether it uses the standard 1 GHz configuration or the upcoming 1.3/1.5 GHz. T-Mobile and HTC will create a major upset if they are able to ship the faster version by September.

4. At least 8 GB of internal memory: HTC does not really have a reputation of offering large internal storage memory but I’m willing to go out on a limb here that the G2 will have at least 8 GB of internal memory.

5. Video calling camera: T-Mobile would like to go all out with its HSPA+ network and what better way to do it than giving a video calling camera? I reckon the G2 will have a 1.3 MP front-facing camera with an option to shift to the higher resolution back camera during a video call. Something similar to FaceTime on the iPhone 4.

6. Wi-Fi sharing: Android 2.2 aka Froyo already has a feature that allows users to create a Wi-Fi hotspot from their phone’s data service and share it with up to five devices. However, many carriers block this service. The G2 will have it and T-Mobile won’t block it.

The changing face of Indian cellphone market

16 Aug

A couple of years ago, we used to share a joke – “soon every convenience store would have their own brand of cellphones.” It was the time when companies like Micromax were trying to set up base in the market and we were busy dismissing them and other like them as mere fly-by-night operators. Of course, we were proven wrong.

Two years down the line and our joke might be on the verge of coming true. It is only a matter of time before gadget store chains like Chroma, Future Group and Reliance among other would launch cellphones under their own brand. Chroma, for instance, already retails self-branded digital photo frames and even PCs. Future Group, meanwhile, has tied up with Tata DoCoMo to launch T24, a GSM connection that gives users loyalty points either when they shop at Future Group’s outlets or talk using the co-branded connection.

The ease with which one can launch a cellphone brand, I’m actually surprised why it has not happened yet. I have a feeling it won’t be long before we start seeing ‘Big Bazaar’ cellphones in the market.

Weekend Reading: Made in China, Made for India

31 Jul

Last week someone asked me how many cellphone models are available in India. After putting some thought, I realised I’m not even sure of the number of cellphone brands present in India, leave aside the number of models. I discussed this with a couple of analyst friends, who pegged the number of brands in the range of 70-100, with at least one new phone brand getting launched every fortnight. Well, that’s just the brand launches we come to know about, I’m sure there would be more brands selling their wares out there in the market.

But how do these brands make money? And most importantly, how do they compete with global giants? Here’s my two cents on this ‘homegrown cellphone brand’ phenomenon.

I will take the latter question first, how do they compete with global giants? After all, the likes of the Nokias and Samsungs of the world have much deeper pockets that translates into marketing muscle, they have been around for many more years and have become household names. So how is it that someone like a Micromax or a Karbonn is able to eat into their market share?

The answer lies in making phones that address the local population’s requirements rather than making phones for a global audience – something that a Nokia might not be able to do. Analyse the features that a typical ‘Made for India’ phone has – dual-SIM, louder speakers, flashlight and higher capacity batteries. Some of them might even offer a front facing camera, when clearly you cannot make a video call on a phone that does not support 3G or a TV receiver that picks up most Doordarshan channels. Would a Nokia provide such features? Never. (In fact, Nokia’s idea of Mobile TV was DVB-H, which would have provided it with an alternative revenue stream.)

But consumers, especially in smaller towns and villages love such ‘gimmicky’ features. It gives them bragging rights over users of ‘global phones’ that provide only regular features, while a ‘Made for India’ phone provides much more features at a fraction of the price. Yes, the durability of these phones is a big question mark, but youngsters who buy these phones rarely keep them for more than a year.

So how do these brands make money? This can be answered in four words – by keeping costs down. These companies do not have a battery of engineers, designers or developers that conceptualise devices. Neither do they have any sort of R&D facilities or manufacturing plants. All that they have is an efficient supply and distribution management system that minimises warehouse storage expenses.

Phones are imported in minimum numbers and are distributed through a network of micro-distributors (usually at district level) rather than having one national distributor who then sends it to sub-distributors from whom it eventually reaches the dealer. This reduces at least one middleman, which translates into a higher margin for the handset brand.

As phones are imported according to demand, these brands usually revamp their entire product portfolio once every quarter, which is much quicker than the industry norm of about nine months. This enables these brands to react more quickly to price variations as well as new feature requirements.

I believe that these handset brands are not just a lash in the pan and are here to stay, simply because it would be close to impossible for global brands to compete with them on their terms. It is not surprising that most of these brands now want to replicate their success in India in other countries, especially those in Easter Europe, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. And there is a fairly high chance of them succeeding there as well.

Android Market close to getting operator-based billing

26 Jul

It seems that Android Market might finally get carrier billing as an option to support paid-for apps. Google has changed a couple of terms and conditions in the Android Market Developer Distribution Agreement to provide new payment options to developers. One of the terms (Section 13.1) adds ‘authorised carriers’ as an indemnified party.

Till now, users can only buy paid-for apps from Android Market using Google Checkout, a service that is not available in many countries, including India. Having an option to pay for those apps along with your monthly subscription bill would be the ideal thing.

However, it won’t be easy for Google to implement carrier billing in a country like India, where carriers do not sell phones. Moreover, most carriers have their own application stores where they get as high as 70 per cent of the revenues generated and pass on just 30 per cent to the developer. Hence, they might not have any incentive to provide the billing infrastructure for someone else’s app store and just get 20 per cent of the revenue.

Nokia is a good example of how Indian carriers are averse to becoming just a billing gateway for others in the ecosystem. Nokia enjoys over 50 per cent market share in India and yet, it could not secure a carrier billing partnership with any carrier in the country for its Ovi Store.

Google needs to become a bit more flexible when it comes to paid applications and should enable users to pay for them via credit cards, just like other players in the business. Yes, it won’t bring in as many users as carrier-based billing, yet it would at least ensure that people get an option to buy Android apps rather than having to wait till Google launches Checkout in their country.

Image Courtesy: Android Developers Blog

Weekend reading: Why Apple needs to loosen its death grip over Antenna Gate

25 Jul

iPhone 4 death gripFirst they denied it. Then they accepted it. And now they are on a mission to prove everyone suffers from it. The headline and the picture are indications enough of what it is all about – the iPhone 4’s ‘Antenna Gate’ and how Apple is reacting to it.

Initially, Apple turned a blind eye to reports that indicated the iPhone 4 might have a faulty antenna design which leads to it dropping calls when held in a particular way (when held in the left hand and the skin covers the lower left edge of the phone – also called as the death grip). Last week, Steve Jobs addressed the media and accepted that there was a problem that affected less than a per cent of iPhone 4 owners and offered free cases to all owners as a peace offering. (The case covers the antenna and eliminates the death grip.)

Everything would have been fine had Jobs & Co. left it at that. But no, like sore losers they won’t accept that they screwed up and have now embarked on a mission to prove that every cellphone out there suffers from attenuation (the loss of signal when the antenna is obstructed by skin when held). Precisely for that Apple has put online a website on which it uploads videos of how death grip can be applied to phones from competing brands.

I admire Jobs and products that Apple comes out with and it saddens me to see how they are unable to come to terms with a bad design decision with your most popular product. While Apple can put the death grip on any phone under the sun, the point they are missing is that people don’t hold phones the way they are holding to demonstrate attenuation on other phones. Apple even shows the iPhone 3GS suffering from attenuation but no one has really complained about it before simply because they do not hold their iPhone 3GS that way!

While Apple’s videos were entertaining initially, now they are becoming irritating and have started putting me off. What will they come up with next week? Probably how to put a death grip on the Samsung Galaxy S? I won’t be surprised.

My point of this entire rant is to just tell Apple to pucker up and face the reality. Rather than telling us that others are bad too, just work things out and give us a solution. We love your phones and are willing to use them with a case if need be. We won’t complain, promise. Just grow up!

Inside Apple's antenna testing lab

17 Jul

For the first time, Apple has released information about its antenna design and testing labs, thanks to the whole “antennagate” debate. Complete with photographs and a video, Apple explains how it tests the antenna performance of its products before they are given a go-ahead for mass production. Every thing, from cellular signals to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and even GPS signals are simulated in this lab that has the capability to create real-life conditions. Apple engineers use 17 different antenna characterisation chambers (anechoic chambers) in the lab that measure the device’s wireless and antenna performances. Apple claims that the iPhone 4 had been tested across the world with different carriers running their networks on different equipment in different conditions. Hell, Apple even uses artificial hands and heads that mimic human tissue, apart from real people, to test how it affects the antenna performance.

Then how did Apple not come across the ‘death grip’? That was revealed today during Steve Jobs’ candid talk. They came across the signal drop but it wasn’t that bad as some people out there are facing. Probably, that happened when the test phones were in significantly good network coverage and the signal drop wasn’t alarming to drop a call.

Whatever may have happened, the way Jobs tackled the situation demonstrates why Apple has such devoted customers. Some might call it fanboy-ism but it is not a one-way street as Nokia might be able to tell you when its devoted followers are abandoning ship and embracing Android.

Talking about Nokia, it could learn a thing or two from how things have changed in the past 24 hours for Apple. Consumers do not like to wait till you announce your next product if you cannot bring out a quality product in the first place. And if you keep bringing out kickass products, they are willing to compromise when you stumble. The key is to accept when you have let your customers down, lay out bare facts and take measures immediately to resolve the crisis.