Thank You, Mukesh Bhai

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On September 1, 2016 the largest Indian company by market cap – Reliance, entered the telecom market…again. In 2002, Reliance launched its first mobile network and brought the per minute call rates down. This time around Mukesh Ambani launched Reliance Jio at the annual shareholders meeting and vowed to bring down the data prices.

I remember last year calling Vodafone to get a better 4G data package and they were offering plans with 2GB, 4GB and some with 8GB of data. And my cable TV provider Hathway was offering monthly plans for 60GB and 80GB of high-speed internet at 50Mbps. Mukesh bhai was not kidding about bringing down the prices. Today, Vodafone is offering me around 7GB a month and Hathway is now offering 200GB a month at the same price I was paying. I’m sure I can negotiate and get better pricing but I’ll wait and see.

When Jio was launched they gave it away for free so everyone could experience high speed internet, which was a brilliant move. It was a hugh gamble by Mukesh and team and I think it has paid off. Because, once you get a taste of high speed internet, you are hooked and it’s really tough to go back to 2G (edge) or 3G speeds.

Although Jio has many pricing plans, I think it’s all noise. They are focused on only 1 plan – the Rs. 303 monthly plan. For Rs. 303 you get unlimited voice calling across India and 28GB of data. 28GB of data per month is a hugh disruption not only for the Indian telecom scene but around the world. AT&T Wireless in the US recently announced their “unlimited” data plan that is capped at 22GB per month.

So why did Jio pick Rs. 303 as the price point that they wanted to focus on? Currently, the average mobile phone user in India spends about Rs. 141 per month, what the industry calls ARPU – average revenue per user. I think Jio is betting that the average Indian user will double their spend to over Rs. 300 a month but only if they find value in it. And from the looks of it, they are finding value in the service. Everywhere I look, people are glued to their phones and streaming content such as movies, music and TV shows. Jio has over 100 million free users and as of March 31, 2017 over 72 million people have applied for the Rs. 99 Jio Prime yearly program.

As I mentioned because of Jio the other telecom providers have dropped their prices as well. Below is a quick comparison:
Jio – Rs. 303, unlimited voice calls, 28GB
Vodafone – Rs. 346, virtually unlimited voice calls, 28GB
Airtel – Rs. 349, unlimited voice calls, 28GB

And just for fun, let’s compare how these plans stack up against the US wireless carriers:
Sprint – Rs. 3888 ($60), unlimited calling, 23GB
T-Mobile – Rs. 4536 ($70), unlimited calling, 28GB
Verizon – Rs. 5184 ($80), unlimited calling, 22GB
AT&T Wireless – Rs. 5832 ($90), unlimited calling, 22GB

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you Mukesh Bhai for changing the telecom game in India not once but twice. I run by your house almost everyday and think of two things as I pass, just how fat is your internet pipe and why do your Z level security agents not like when I try to run on your sidewalk. Or is your fiber optic cabling located under the sidewalk?

The Future of Payments

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Earlier this month I had a chance to be on a panel discussing User Experience (UX) for payments. The panel was part of the Fintegrate Zone 2017 event located at the BSE Building in Bombay hosted by the Zone Startups.

The panel was moderated by Harsimran Julka @HarsimranJulka an editor for the Economic Times. The panel included:
Anurag Sinha, Co-Founder, Walnut App
Deepak Agarwal, CDO, Barclays Wealth
Sohini Rajola, @RajolaSohini, RVP, Western Union
Tina Singh, @tinasinghj, CDO, Mahindra Finance
Malcolm Anthony, Head of User Experience Design, PayPal
Nitin Vyakaranam, @vnitinb Founder & CEO, ArthaYantra

As with any recent discussion involving the Indian financial markets half the time was devoted to talking about Modi’s demonetization. It was more about who benefited from it and who struggled with it, as a whole most fintech startups all benefited from it.

Although we touched on the overall user experience of payments and had much to debate about, I still feel most of the world is struggling with a seamless payment experience. Part of the issue is that people are used to physical cash and it’s been around for ages. People are familiar with it and how to use it, kids from a very young age are taught about physical money and many have piggy banks with some of that loot! Basically, cash is convenient, intuitive and effortless.

But as with everything else, we need to move forward and electronic payments are the future and most governments are behind it as a way to tackle the black money and counterfeit money. Credit/debit cards are a hybrid instrument, although the card is physical in nature it connects to an electronic platform to authorize, clear and settle the payments. Credit cards are prone to fraud since someone can steal your card, go to an online store and enter your card details and buy stuff.

This is where a whole new generation of solutions are entering the marketplace under the banner of mobile proximity payments (MPP), this includes near field communications (NFC) and quick response (QR) codes. NFC is the technology behind Apply Pay, Google Pay, Visa payWave and MasterCard contactless,  it’s a communications protocol that works with devices that are within inches of each other. With Apple Pay when you are ready to checkout, the retailers point of sale (POS) system will “talk” to your phone and then you use Touch ID to authenticate and enable the payment. That really is the way to do it. The problem with NFC is that the phone has to have an NFC chip and so does the retailers POS system. I don’t see this gaining much traction in India as many of the phones are fairly inexpensive and won’t include an NFC chip for years.

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Surprisingly, because of India’s demonetization the use of QR codes has gone from a niche type of application to full mainstream usage. Demonetization was a stroke of luck for Paytm and they turned it into gold. Overnight people needed to send money and many people quickly downloaded the Paytm app and started to transact.

A couple weeks ago, I used the QR code functionality to pay for parking at Phoenix Mills and it was pretty seamless. Since all smartphones have a camera they can scan this QR code and submit a payment to an individual or retailer. I really see this taking off and becoming the standard in India, it’s a low tech solution but sometimes that’s required to get high (mass) adoption in India.

BharatQR, Another Payment Option?

It’s another day and yet another payment option/technology was launched in India. The newest one to the party is called BharatQR, it’s being launched by the Government of India. BharatQR is like Paytm except instead of using e-wallets, you just need a bank account. It’s pretty clear the Indian government is hell bent on getting most people to transact online. With the explosive growth of Paytm, I’m guessing the government decided it needed it’s own QR-code offering.

I think this is a great move but I think the average user will be even more confused now. Below is a list of electronic payment options that I have compiled in alphabetical order:

  1. Aadhar Enabled Payment Service (AEPS)
  2. BharatQR
  3. BHIM
  4. Apple Pay and Android Pay (coming soon…)
  5. Credit/debit card
  6. E-wallets – Paytm, Mobikwik, etc…
  7. IMPS
  8. NEFT
  9. RTGS
  10. RuPay
  11. UPI

Yeah, even the most tech savvy person would get confused. I think the government should just wrap AEPS, BharatQR and BHIM into a single app and make that the defacto standard.

Modi Marches On

We live in an era of limited attention span, super short news cycles and the upcoming President of the US who uses Twitter and it’s 140 characters to talk. When PM Modi announced on November 8th that all Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes would stop being legal tender as of midnight that day, it was like an earthquake and here we are almost 46 days later still talking about it.

The demonetization topic has come up at almost every party or business meeting I have attended and it’s been great to hear the pros and cons of PM Modi’s actions. First, I think we Indians can adapt to any damn thing and this exercise clearly shows that. People that had stacks and stacks of black money figured out ways to deposit their money into the banks. It remains to be seen if they will be able to get their money back or how much of a penalty they will have to pay. On the other hand, the middle class waited patiently to deposit their money and waited even more patiently to get the new currency notes.

The poor ended up being pawns in a political game where the opposition party said the poor were suffering the most. Actually, the poor have been suffering long before demonetization. The per capita income in India is about $1,500…not per week or month that’s per year. The Chief Minister (think Governor of a US State) of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee, was one of the harshest critics of the policy and was on TV almost every night to highlight how much the poor are suffering. Because of the lines that people had to stand in line to get cash their own cash. Uhhh, we Indians are used to lines. Go to VT or Churchgate train station at 6:30pm and tell me what you see. Come to Nariman Point at 6pm to catch a bus and tell me what you see. I’ve seen these lines in Nariman Point for the past 10 years and that hasn’t changed.

The opposition party even played some of their classic hits like ex-PM Manmohan Singh. Manmohan Singh is like a one-hit wonder, he might have been the chief architect of India’s entry into the global economy in 1991 but he also was the PM during one of the most corrupt periods in recent times and was absolutely silent about it. (The joke is when he visited the dentist, the dentist said “at least open your mouth in my office”.)

I hope Modi doubles down on his drive to make the country a digital currency nation. When people say, how can you expect a poor man to buy a smart phone to take part in this new digital economy I just lose it. Have the politicians scammed this country for so many years that they have not been able to lift people out of poverty? That’s the real tragedy, not demonetization.

Google Takes A Run At The iPhone

667Over the past several weeks it was widely reported that Google would be launching a new phone, the images and specs were leaked online. However, when the Pixel and Pixel XL were launched this week many people stood up and took notice.

Why? Because the Pixel phones are the first serious attempt to dethrone the iPhone. Back in 2007, when Android and iOS were announced to the world both companies took a very different path in how they would market the operating system. Google decided to focus on the Android software and left the hardware to the contract manufacturers in China. As is typical of Apple, they wanted to control and own the entire experience of software and hardware. Here we are 9 years later and it looks like Google has also started to drink the same kool-aid that Apple has been drinking.

In 2010, Google launched the Nexus line of phones and tablets but that product line is very different from the Pixel. The Nexus phones were running stock Android and Google gave the contract manufacturers some guidelines on the technical specifications but were very hands off. The Pixel line takes a page from the Apple playbook and Google has complete control of both hardware and software. Based on the technical specs the Pixel is a worthy competitor to the iPhone 7 and both are priced identically. The Pixel 32GB and the iPhone 7 32GB are both priced at $649…very ballsy of Google if you ask me.

Apple may have the hardware and software integration down to a science but Google has a couple more tricks up its sleeve. The Pixel line has 4 things it can tightly integrate:

  1. Hardware
  2. Software
  3. Project Fi – Google’s own wireless carrier. (technically it’s a mobile virtual network operator – MVNO)
  4. Cloud services like Gmail, Photos, Drive, Maps, etc…

Over the next 6 months, we’ll see how the Pixel performs and if Google can finally get their hardware story in order. Because so far it has been a complete disaster with fragmented products, no clear vision and group in-fighting. Which means it didn’t have time to innovate or release product quickly enough.

Below is a list of the hardware they sell and there is NO single website that lists everything that Google sells which just seems stupid to me. But, that just shows how fragmented the various hardware groups are within Google.

  • Chromebooks – laptops that run Google Chrome as the operating system
  • Chromecast – device to stream content to your TV or speakers
  • Google Daydream – virtual reality viewer (announced this week)
  • Google Home – voice-activated assistant, similar to Amazon Echo and Apple’s Siri (announced this week)
  • Google Wifi – wireless mesh network routers (announced this week)
  • OnHub – a router made by Asus and TP-Link
  • Nest – thermostat, smoke alarm, indoor camera (Dropcam) and outdoor camera
  • Nexus – a line of phones and tablets
  • Pixel Phone (announced this week)

The good news is that six months ago they hired Rick Osterloh away from Motorola/Lenovo. At Google he is the goto guy for anything related to hardware and supposed to get their hardware house in order. I believe the Pixel phone might be a turning point for Google and potentially turn them into a hardware powerhouse as well.

I've Been Designing Apps All Wrong

ola-luxFor the past several years I’ve been advising many startups on their technology vision and strategy. Invariably, I would get pulled into their design meetings for their apps and would happily give my thoughts on the interface, flow and usability of the app. I would spend countless hours with the team on the consumer facing app and then I had an incident with an Ola driver and realized I was going about it all wrong.

A month ago I got into an Ola cab and when the driver tried to start the trip he couldn’t. Apparently, the language on the app had changed from English to Marathi and he couldn’t proceed further. The Ola driver handed me his phone to see if I could fix the language setting and I couldn’t. Instead, I some how started the trip and ended the trip in a span of two minutes.

The driver called Ola customer service for assistance but the guy on the other end was very rude to the driver. I took the phone and said it was not the drivers fault as the language setting had changed and there was no way to get to the menu option he was talking about. The call center agent was very nice to me and told me to hand the phone back to the driver. Again, the call center agent got very angry with the driver and asked him why he hit the buttons and instead should have called customer service first.

I’ve seen this scenario played out so many times and I’m not sure why I didn’t pick up on it earlier. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain about the Flipkart and Snapdeal seller panel. While their consumer facing website and apps are fine, the sellers that spend the most time on their websites are left using a sub-par product. On the other hand, I’ve heard rave reviews of Amazon’s seller panel which is expected since they have had 20 years of experience to perfect it.

Before my Ola experience I would rank in the order of importance the interfaces as 1. Consumer 2. field services agent (cleaner, driver, delivery person, beauticians, etc…) 3. call center agent. Now, I’ve completely flipped my thinking and reversed the order.

That Ola interaction made me realize that a lot of time is spent on the consumer facing app and very little time or thought on the call center agent interface or the field services app. Of course, the customer is king but if you don’t empower your employees and make their lives easier it makes it very tough for them to deliver the customer delight and 5 star rating that everyone is chasing.

India's Love Affair with Licenses

10362Have you heard the saying one step forward, two steps back? That’s how I feel when it comes to public policy in India. One day they release a new policy that seems to be a game changer and positively impacts certain industries. Then the next day they release another set of policies that totally kills or curtails other industries. It’s like the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing, in the end it’s just masturbating.

A year ago, the one step forward was the concept paper around electronic payments. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) introduced the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) which would connect all the banks and make it very simple for people to send money to others and generally make e-commerce much easier. The good news is that last month it was launched and it’s gaining traction as more and more banks integrate to the UPI platform. UPI is really just like a Paytm wallet, so instead of having a Paytm wallet you would get a “Payment Address” issued by your bank and then make payments or receive money directly into the bank account.

UPI is not completely new, it’s an advanced version of the Immediate Payment Service (IMPS). The basic flow is that when you visit the checkout screen of an e-commerce company you would enter in a unique “Payment Address” such as 9820012345@AxisBank. This would then route this transaction to the National Payments Corporation of India (NCPI) and it would automagically go to the correct bank. If the bank is Axis Bank, you would open the Axis Bank app and then authorize the transaction in the app. There would be no need for a one time password (OTP) as the Axis app would required a MPIN (mobile PIN) or potentially your fingerprint scan from your Aadhaar enrollment. Magic.

If you are interested in the technical features of UPI, I suggest you download and read the UPI specification document. When you start to read it, you quickly realize how this technology could leap-frog the e-payment systems that are currently in use in the US and Europe.

If UPI was the one step forward, then the newly introduced draft bill called the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, (the Geospatial Bill) is two steps back. The Geospatial Bill was released by the Ministry of Home Affairs and when you read it, you realize it’s more like two thousand steps back. Take for example, if on a map you accidentally misrepresent the borders of India, it can be punishable with a fine ranging from Rs. 10 lacs (USD $15k) to Rs. 100 CR (USD $15 million) and even crazier is the potential imprisonment of up to seven years.

Oh, but there is much more. You have to apply for a license via the Security Vetting Authority (SVA), which sounds fucking ominous like something the US Government would have created after 9/11. So who or what is the SVA? According to the draft bill:

The Security Vetting Authority shall consist of an officer of the rank of Joint Secretary to the Government of India or above as Chairman and two members, one, a technical expert and the other, a national security expert.

That just sounds like code for – be prepared to pony up some cash so we can “move your file” through the process. This licensing process is a throwback to the good old days of the License Raj in India. And, don’t get me started on how this will effect EVERY phone app that asks for your location or shows you a map. As I said, one step forward and two thousand steps back.

UPDATE:
Some sensible people have come together to rally against the current form of the Geospatial Bill, please visit SaveTheMap.