Software defined phones

There was a time when people’s “cool” factor was measured by how small their phones were. Innovations in hardware and manufacturing segments allowed phone makers to pack more transistors into the same form factor and as a result, phones got better and smaller.

There is now a reversal of trend of making bigger phones – mostly to offer the convenience of longer battery life and larger display. Early innovators such as Blackberry, Palm and Compaq are completely out of the game, and the current market is dominated by the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung, LG etc..People wonder, I certainly do, what smart phones will look like few years from now.

When Google initially announced their Android OS, it was intended to be completely open-source, hardware-agnostic and implicitly that it is free. Google would make the OS and control the data of the user, while phone makers could just get better at making the devices and take advantage of free software.

As it turned out, Google changed its stance significantly (though not obvious) and got into the thick of the smartphone game. At the same time, instead of being the open-source, free OS everyone could benefit from, it started playing an active role in the fiercely competitive smartphone market.

Software-defined everything

Elsewhere in the computer industry, we are seeing the early days of software defined computing or software defined datacenters. Why can’t we have software-defined phones? As much as buying, changing, upgrading, swapping and switching phones have become easier, we still deal with a small microchip called the SIM card. It is ugly, it is not elegant and it is the only reason people are not able to login to any phone with their credentials and make it theirs.

Imagine this – if you lost/ broke/ misplaced your phone, how about you borrowing/ buying another phone, login using your ID and password and all of a sudden that phone becomes yours? You can almost do this today, except your phone number wouldn’t move. You would have to get the so-called SIM card from your original phone (or if you lost it, you have to order another SIM from your carrier).

What if the phone number also moved along with everything else?

The SIM card

There are SIMs, micro SIMs and nano SIMs, but at its core all of them are the exact same thing – except the unused piece of plastic around the actual chip is cut off to give 3 different sizes.

In today’s context, a SIM card when bought of a store is a useless piece of plastic. It gains life when the carrier “activates” it against your cell phone number. If you get another SIM for your phone and activate it, the older SIM is automatically “deactivated”. In other words, the SIM card is a chip intended for one time use.

What if, instead of the carriers controlling, the device manufacturers embedded this circuitry into the phone itself and SIMs are re-designed to be multiple use? Your phone number would be attached to your user account and would move with you to whatever phone you choose to login to, in a given day. There are multiple advantages to the phone makers, the carriers and most importantly, the users.

There are many commercial considerations to this type of an idea – most importantly, phone prices and their subsidy can no longer be used as a trick to keep customer’s loyalty. Phones will become, like it is in many countries already, a retail item that has to be purchased at retail prices all the time.

But more than commercial aspects, the “rules of the game” should change. Phone providers should agree on a common technology, common identity framework etc..

This is the way the industry should go.

Google started paving the way to this innovation through Google Voice, but either the industry doesn’t want it, or there are genuine technical challenges or both.


U Shrinivas

The death of musician and mandolin player U Shrinivas is subtly exposing the “small minds” of people.

The death of U Shrinivas was followed by headlines such as –

Ananthapur mourns…

Andhra Pradesh mourns…

Music lovers in Vijayawada shocked by Shrinivas’s death

Musicians are truly global citizens – they do not care about divisions of country/ state/ city/ religion/ caste/ ideologies etc. The only category they belong to is music. You connect with a musician in a musical way, not because he hails from the same town/ caste or anything else for that matter.

On similar lines, I also see headlines such as –

Music died

Mandolin lost a string

Mandolin falls silent

The art or institution of music is bigger than anyone that is contributing to it or even the sum of all the individual contributions. Guitarist John McLaughlin says “Shakti will never find a replacement for Shrinivas”. Why is this the case? Shakti existed before Shrinivas and, John-willing, Shakti can exist after Shrinivas. Or may be there is no future for Shakti, but it doesn’t matter. Of course, John must be deeply saddened by the loss, but saying such things comes across as ridiculous hyberbole.

PS: I don’t mean any disrespect for U Shrinivas. He practically got me into listening to Carnatic music, for which the musical part of my brain is completely devoted. He plays more frequently on my iPod than on most people who have written superficial eulogies.

America, Behavioral Economics, Funny Bone, Technology

Waiting for the cable guy costs us $38 billion

Or so says CNN. But the study ignores the fact that $38 billion includes many hours, whose worthiness is defined very loosely, often assuming that the people that wait don’t do anything worthy during that time. Most salaried people continue to get paid, in several industries, it is possible to be productive while working from home.

On the other hand, when I waged a war with my cable company, when they give me a ridiculously long window and didn’t show up anyways, I basically said “my time is worth $100 per hour….therefore you owe me $400 for your no-show”. They politely said, “your being a customer to us is worth $30 bucks a month….we are happy to have you leave us or we can pay $1 for the mistake we did”.

Economy, India, Politics

Bank account for everyone. What?

Modi is on news for one thing or the other. The latest one is what the media has dubbed as a step towards “financial inclusion”.

By some report, he has enabled the opening of 15 million bank accounts. He is proposing each household to have at least 2 accounts and incentivizing people handsomely (line of credit, interest rates, debit cards, overdraft) to take up on the offer.

Why is this news? He is not giving free rice or TV like some other politicians. After all, he is not putting money in the accounts. Why would he insist that people have bank accounts?

I suspect after all, this is really an effort to narrow the shadow economy, reduce black money, increase the so-called “organized labor” sector and increase tax revenues for the state and for the central government. For exactly that reason, I will be very surprised if state governments put any speed breaker for this initiative.

In the first few weeks of his taking the PM position, he tried to clamp down on the “unaccounted” money stored in Swiss banks by several Indian nationals. There seems to be a pattern and he seems to be seriously focused on reducing financial leakage.

I suspect this move, if successful, will be the first of the steps taken to increase % of people who pay income-taxes, reduce cash transactions, reduce black money/ shadow economy, increase revenues to the exchequer. If all these initiatives are successful, it will help boost the output of the company, without doing much about unemployment or education or public health or any real reform. This is not to say reforms wont happen, but will help add to the GDP.

Lifestyle, Technology

Smart phones – What matters?

Time is so right; it is criminal to not write about phones. Every time there is news of Apple coming up with a new phone, there is also news of competition coming up with their latest, right around the same time. For every feature Apple comes up with, competition comes up with at least two. Competition claims to do more, Apple claims to do them right and do them simple and intuitive. At the end, I truly believe phones have reached a point where it is kind of pointless to put them side to side and compare features. This is for two reasons (a) the features roughly are the same (b) the real comparison is not the phones, but the people that use it. This post is about the second part – you.

I am not what you call the sophisticated user. But there are plenty of features I use. Not from the perspective of “hey, I know it works”, but truly depend on the features to work for my everyday life to function. Without the phone, my everyday life will still function, but the phone helps me do things faster, efficiently, and in most cases, without having to need my laptop.

Sometimes I feel like the phone is our command center – here you can connect with people, manage utilities, manage finances (that is a broad category including bank accounts, credit card accounts, brokerage accounts and so many others), of course manage my work and personal emails, my work and personal calendars, make travel arrangements (hotels, rental cars, airfare), retail shopping (loyalty cards, store credit cards) and entertainment. No, I am not talking about what you CAN do, but I am referring to what I DO do, and in most case almost exclusively (meaning, I can’t remember the last time I accessed my bank account from a PC).

I still have lot of friends who have the swankiest smart phones, but haven’t changed their “methods” since the time cell phones were mostly candy phones.

So I figure what good is the greatest smart phone if the owner doesn’t use it for much more than phone calls?

America, Business, Technology

Coin – Dead on Arrival?

only-coinSometime last year, I heard this news about Coin, a new concept, a single card that has potential to replace (almost) every card in your obese wallet. Thanks to the new trend of backing, Coin got funding for converting their ideas from their drawing board to shipping boxes, from the very people that will use it.

At heart, Coin is a simple, novel concept. It has an active-passive role. What I mean by that is that the card itself is “active” – meaning it is a powered device, it has circuitry and intelligence built into it. But the role it plays is “passive” – meaning it doesn’t have an identity of its own. It takes the form of whatever real world credit card you want it to be. (This is in sharp contrast with Google Wallet Card – which has a passive-active role).

Unfortunately, I believe Coin’s first version will be short-lived. Earlier when Coin was first opened up for pre-orders, EMV was a non-issue. Even as of announced release date, EMV will be a relatively unheard concept in the US, which is where Coin will initially be supported.

EMV is the next-generation of credit cards, deploying new standards of how we use credit cards in our day-to-day lives, and utilizing a completely new hardware specification, as compared to the current-day credit cards. The description “next-generation” is bit of a misnomer because usage of EMV credit cards are as high as 90% in certain parts of Western Europe, with countries like France adopting EMV almost 2 decades back.

US has stayed away from EMV primarily because it is a large country, with millions of terminals and billions of credit cards (by some source, America averages 8 payment cards per individual). The cost of converting to such a system is just too prohibitive, compared to the write-offs/ bad debts associated with credit card frauds. With the financial institutions facing the huge cost of replacing credit cards and ATMs, and with merchants facing the huge cost of replacing the terminals, EMV was conveniently ignored for a long time. Not anymore.

There is this implementation strategy called Liability Shift. Earlier, it was both the banks and the merchants opposing it. Now the banks have realized they have no choice but to convert, because a large part of the rest of the world have converted – and it presents lot of challenges with their American consumers traveling abroad and foreign consumers using their EMV-enabled cards inside the US. Hence they are shifting the pain of moving to EMV, to the merchants. How?

Starting October 2015, they will implement a Liability Shift, which basically means merchants will be responsible for any credit card fraud resulting from a non-EMV transaction. Put simply, Oct 2015 is the beginning of a transition period to EMV, which may take few months to few years. Going by a few articles I read (sample), 2017 looks to be a plausible deadline.

What does this have to with Coin?

Bottomline, Coin is not EMV compatible. You may think you still have almost 3 years before Coin v1 is rendered useless – but with the increasing adoption, you will resort to EMV-enabled credit cards and start leaving the Coin home sooner than you think. Sure Coin will come up with a v2. Sure it will support EMV. Sure many of us will buy it. With many people buying a new phone every year, a $100 wallet-slimming gadget every 2 years doesn’t seem like much – but if you have not yet “backed” the Coin v1, may be you can wait for another couple of years.

Music, Timepass

Composer’s Breath

I reviewed a song in grueling detail many months ago. It was a magnum opus of sorts, with a heavy mix of western style orchestration and Indian ragas, by none other than Ilayaraja, which brought memories of several of his early-career hits.

There is lots of news about IR making music for his 1000th movie. I wonder beyond the 4500-5000 songs he has composed, how much he has left for us and the future generations in background music. A movie lasts between 90 and 180 mins, sometimes longer. Even if we discount the silent moments, returning motifs, minimalist moments and so on, we have probably got about 1000 hours of music in sound tracks alone.

When I listen to his songs, or of any music director for that matter, there is one question that always want to ask. Beyond setting the tune and may be making the big ticket choices of instruments, what goes in their mind in terms of choosing the sounds? What makes them choose a mridangam as opposed to a tabla? What makes them choose a congas or a djembe as opposed to drums? Or a veena against a flute? A mandolin against a guitar? Or as is the case in the song I am about to review, what makes them choose 4 percussion instruments, when they could have gone with 1? The song has not been made. No one knows what it sounds like. Not even the MD himself. Does the MD perceive the sound prior to it being made? Are there cookie-cutter approaches to determine what instruments should go with certain types of songs? Or are the choices pragmatic, based on which instrumentalist is available to record?

Here’s another song worth reviewing at that level of granularity.