Facebook Free Basics: A ‘Mark’ to ‘Market’ Advance

Sudhir Raikar , IIFL | Mumbai | October 31, 2015 12:01 IST

The ‘Free’ of FaceBook’s Basics carries an indiscernible ‘Fee’ – in the form of a closed internet of constricted choices where scheming providers act as despotic custodians of a delectably gullible user community. We must do what we can to prevent these obligatory gatekeepers from becoming overbearing gang lords.

Courtesy: http://www.indiainfoline.com/article/editorial-perspectives-technology/facebook-free-basics-a-mark-to-market-advance-115103100023_1.html

Mark Zuckerberg seems all too keen to conquer the Bottom of Pyramid goldmine called India, in exchange of some first-rate rhetoric smacking of synthetic allegiance. His 'Giving Pledge' track record, the Steve Jobs-inspired ‘temple run’ saga, rich accolades to Taj Mahal or the melodramatic tale of Soybean farmer Aasif Mujawar, he reckoned, were solid material to mesmerize the billion people known for their pastoral roots and rustic ways besides elephants and snake charmers. But a few mutinies, of the million that Naipaul has immortalized in book form, stand in his way, more steadfastly than what he presumed earlier. Unlike Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia and Bangladesh, India, although a much bigger, spongier cake, is no cakewalk after all. At least, a theatrical run around India Gate won't make Facebook the new Gateway of India.

At least to those who don’t pretend to be asleep, it was never difficult to discern the prohibitive price of the Facebook-led affordable access, the backend machination behind the front-end magnanimity, the plan of transforming the third-world internet into a new-look ZuckNet, the deplorable doublespeak of supporting net neutrality on the one hand and building a ‘cartel of a portal’ on the other, and the disdainful audacity in playing philanthropist and predator in the same breath. No wonder, several Indian entities – from publishing houses, television channels to travel portals – have distanced themselves from the FaceBook club.

Zuckerberg is trying his level best to package his monopoly drive, in conjunction with select partners, as a key enabler of Digital India’s inclusive agenda. That explains the carefully articulated stories of how new dads among poor Indian farmers, courtesy FaceBook, are accessing invaluable child care information online for free, or how Facebook is providing ‘some access’ to democratize the internet which is way better than ‘no access’. But what about compromised user privacy, the strictly Facebook-guided access and new traffic rules seeking to split the information highway into discriminating routes – high speed lanes for club members and bullock cart pathways for non-members? Zuckerberg wants us to accept these as lesser evils of ‘some access.’ As it is, the Facebook brand offers little credibility, given its rich history of playing with the common user’s privacy by default while allowing the founder sister’s to impart designer lessons on digital etiquette and human decency.

Zuckerberg is himself aware of the futility of covering his naked ambition. That explains the about-turns at regular intervals: initially harping on charity and then repurposing it as a commercial endeavor of cost-effective rates, citing a clumsy quick-fix to downplay the glaring HTTPS security issue, declaring his portal open to all developers following allegations of controlled access and restricted use choice and renaming the rather elusive ‘internet.org’ as the more comprehensible ‘Free basics’ to sanctify the undertaking while subtly hinting at the possibilities of “advanced commercials” …the more he’s forced to contemplate in hindsight, the more desperate his foresight appears. Yet, some of his willful supporters have tried hard to put his case into perspective – that he hardly makes any money from India despite the humongous user base and that his inroads into India’s vast hinterland could create potent value chains rooted in a thriving market. Like Colgate was the synonym for toothpaste in India for several years (so was Sintex for water tank and Bisleri for mineral water) and photocopy is still called Xerox, internet for the deprived populace of India would bear the name of FaceBook. But unlike the other cases, this rechristening won't be the result of any demand-side affinity - whether induced by good quality, astute marketing or phenomenal reach - but purely on the foundation of unfair advantage. God forbid, if the Indian government subscribes to this contrived prognosis, it would amount to one of its biggest blunders sooner than what most would expect. Close on the heels of Facebook are a dozen moguls waiting for their share of the ‘inclusive’ pie. Digital India would then become one of the world’s most lucrative outsourcing deals where India would not be the vendor for a change.

There’s no denying the fact that Net Neutrality, to a large extent, is a utopian concept given the fact that the bigwigs of the global online world have always been blessed with unbelievable access to our sensitive information through hand-in-glove arrangements with ISPs and proprietary algorithms of dubious motives, infallible beyond our wildest imagination. But even as vulnerable end-users of the largely veritable internet, we must do what we can to prevent obligatory gatekeepers from becoming its overbearing Gang lords.

Inventor of the World Wide Web, the revered computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee has put it best, “In the particular case of somebody who's offering ... something which is branded internet, it's not internet, then you just say no. No it isn't free, no it isn't in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something ... (only) giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think, is a step backwards."

Twitter Moments: Momentous or Momentary?

IIFL | Mumbai | October 09, 2015 14:21 IST
The new feature, apparently a knee-jerk innovation seeking to reverse the dwindling user base, seems strong enough to steer a Twitter renaissance. The velocity of its evolution and the veracity of its value proposition will decide whether it rocks Wall Street or hits the wall.

Courtesy: http://www.indiainfoline.com/article/editorial-perspectives-technology/twitter-moments-momentous-or-momentary-115100900393_1.html

Moments is Twitter’s gargantuan hope to make it more compelling to the world at large, more to the significant non-user community than the loyalists who have stuck with it amidst the chaos and controversy of recent times. Believed to be a progression of an in-house initiative called Project Lightning steered by former CEO Dick Costolo, Moments, launched only for US users as of now, is essentially a tab represented by a lightning icon, a tap on which takes you to a ‘Today’ view which is a directory of each day’s key happenings as perceived by Twitter’s editorial team in the form of cherry picked tweets – a blend of text, images and videos. The Moments diet would be comprised of content from Twitter and Twitter-owned buckets as also feeds from third party providers.

What’s seen as a marked departure from legacy is the ability to add a moment of choice to one’s timeline which stays put only till the topic is topical – only while the moment is reckoned as a moment on Twitter. This would mean a lot to the fatigued Twitter user who wouldn’t need to ‘unfollow’ it unlike what one needs to do with normal feeds. Apart from the Today view, there would be sliders for fairly self-explanatory categories viz. News, Entertainment, Sports and Fun. With Moments, Twitter gives you its curated choice which you can narrow down further based on your own choice. Add forthcoming value-adds like user-curated content and it sounds like a phenomenal transformation in principle but much would depend on the speed and quality of the Moments evolution. To begin with, wish they had named it something else given the fact that Facebook has its own Moments. Agreed that one is a different species – a photo sharing app – but mindless comparison is inevitable – especially by non-users who, in any case, don’t feel the need to know better when it comes to Twitter. Sad but true!

Can Twitter manage to make Moments the smartest web-n-mobile news navigator? Today’s nomadic user is spoilt for choice when it comes to news congregation but the supply-side abundance doesn’t necessary create demand-side value. Print is down, if not out, for obvious reasons including its thinning credibility and inconsistent digital initiatives. Of course, there’s no dearth of search engines, networking platforms, and messaging and photo sharing applications vying for market share, yet there’s no clear winner as yet to guide the user on ‘what to see’ before he/she zeroes in on ‘what to read’. Twitter could deliver this value prop if it plays its cards well. It already has a fertile playground for stories in the form of worldwide tweets; Moments can help cleanse it by obliquely quarantining the litter of the hashtag heap. But much would depend on the credibility of Moments in ensuring a steady stream of impartial and factual news. It’s but obvious that Twitter’s traffic boost drive would be linked to revenue generation sometime very soon. Once advertising comes into the picture, the bland commotion of brand promotion could prove to be an eye sore in ‘Momentsphere’. Twitter must somehow find a way to work around this tousled issue since, ironically enough; advertising would remain a key nutrient in lending momentum to Moments.

Maybe Twitter can urge brands to get more creative in presenting some advertisements as plausible stories. Maybe Twitter can nurture a parallel channel on Moments for neutral posts by content curators who are neither from Twitter, nor from value partners. There’s a lot to do since there’s a lot at stake. For long, Twitter has failed to measure its humongous potential, choosing to remain a miniscule bonsai of the magnificent tree it could have become, through its ridiculously insular focus on 140 characters. Whether 140, 1000 or 1400, limits will prove only limiting if Twitter doesn’t build character. ‘Moments’ is one way it could. If it does, the surname Dorsey might just become synonymous with Jobs, else we would be left comparing 'apples' and oranges with Jack back to ‘square’ one. (No pun intended!)

Astu (So be it): Elephant in the room

As these thoughts passed through his mind, he met an Elephant and came close to hold a conversation with him – Aesop Fables

‘Astu’ (meaning So be it in Sanskrit) is an incisive attempt to probe deep into how a progressive disorder like Alzheimer’s, more than disrupting normal life, makes a dent into the very fabric of familial equations. When elusive conflicts arising from the disorder bring a host of latent differences to the fore, relationships become more fragile and distant than what they seemed before.

Before moving to the bigoted endeavor of film reviews, one must unconditionally acknowledge the highly laudable effort of the producers to sponsor such a sensitive subject which can serve as a stimulating case study in coping with the brutal twists and turns of the ruthless disease. Hats off to Sumitra Bhave for her inventive take on a highly intricate subject as also for the pertinent title.

Retired Sanskrit professor Chakrapani Shastri (Dr. Mohan Agashe) goes from bad to worse even as the irreversibly degenerative ailment plays havoc in different ways. Once revered for his first-rate memory and way with words, he comes face to face with a precariously progressive fag-end reality that begins with words failing him and gradually moves towards more ghastly developments – growing forgetfulness, recurring mood swings and even physical advances arguably redolent of sexual overtures that threaten to bypass the sanctity of relationships. At a time when the family – primarily his elder daughter Ira (Irawati Harshe) - is trying hard to cope with the enormity of the tragedy, the ageing scholar loses his way, this time literally, in the scorching heat of a fateful day, lured by the sight of an elephant on a busy, bustling street. Baffled by the professor’s outrageous request for a ride atop the majestic mammal, the Mahout reluctantly obliges after much contemplation but to his dismay, the old man has even more preposterous plans – he’s resolute to become the fifth member of his family – of self, wife, kid and the elephant.

This is also the time when the professor’s disorder has taken socially embarrassing turns – incessant weeping, pronounced difficulty in communication and loss of bladder control – that call for more intimate, full-time personal care. The Mahout’s wife assumes the responsibility with unconditional, self-springing resolve. Her innate, rustic acceptance of the fact - that the seemingly long-lost, learned man is now her adopted son - is in sharp contrast to the conundrum faced by the professor’s immediate family, despite their highbrow status, in coming to terms with the tragedy. While the elephant woman has become a willing mother to the professor, his kith and kin have knowingly or unknowingly chosen to overlook the elephant in the room.

The makers have attempted to subtly highlight this paradox, made lethal by the longevity of life in an era of advanced medical care and cure, through the wonderful motif of an elephant that’s known to endorse a string of supposedly human-like qualities – and better than what most humans practice - sharp memory, stoic calm and empathy for the clan among others. No wonder, the professor seemingly finds inner peace in the company of the gentle giant, in the reassuring feel of its grey skin, in the tranquility of its somber eyes, in the leading light of its plodding gait...

The ingenuity of the script notwithstanding, the glaring incoherence of the motion picture mars the desired impact. Many loose ends clamor for a tighter grip and prevent the players from hitting a crescendo on a few decisive notes. Astu is off-mark in crucial aspects, which is surprising on two counts - given the veritable credence of its makers – the duo of Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar - easily one of India’s best from the regional stable (with such gems as Vastupurush – a classic of sorts) and given the sheer brilliance of Bhave’s script that was inherently ripe with 24-carat cinematic possibilities. The run time of 2 hours and 10 minutes is marked with umpteen fractured images, consistently flashed back for effect. At best, they serve as poignant postcards galvanizing the viewer’s mind to suspend every form of judgment in conceding to the larger cause. On the flip side, they fail to put the old man's tragedy into perspective. Their earlier film ‘Devrai’ depicted the trials and tribulations of a schizophrenic’s fight back led by his dogged sister with far more restraint and in commendably convincing frames of lucid progression. Interestingly, Dr. Agashe played a wonderful cameo in Devrai, of a psychiatrist articulating the crucial role played by caregivers in precise words.

A proficient psychiatrist and competent actor, Agashe no doubt leaves his indelible mark on his character but the mechanics of the back-and-forth leaps in time don’t make suitable provision for subtly tracing Shastri’s marked deterioration over time. Barring few stimulating scenes – like the one in which he springs forth to enjoy a hearty meal in a supremely jovial mood only to be reprimanded by the family for the thoughtless encore or another where he fakes a memory lapse to abort conversation with a chatterbox acquaintance – most of his outbursts - mood swings, unremitting bawling et al - lack the zing, in the absence of a suitable preface that could have best come through a wholesome dissection by the family friend Dr. Prabhu (given that the actor Shekhar Kulkarni seemed capable of delivering the goods). Knowing Dr. Agashe’s forthright views on umpteen universal issues like the limitations of clinical diagnosis, orchestrated corporatization of the medical profession and the significance of the patient’s mental makeup and socio-economic situation in palliative care, there was ample scope for voicing these concerns through the film – most fittingly through Dr. Prabhu (probably at the point when he refutes the daughter’s suspicion that her father’s forgetfulness is more garb than genuine.)

As for the elder daughter Ira’s predicament (the principal protagonist played by Irawati Harshe), the character’s initial appearances, save for the fact that she’s invariably busy in attending to the family’s diverse demands, neither reveal her deep-rooted bond with the father (and her supposed fluency in Sanskrit - a crucial factor that binds father-daughter together) nor her reservations about his ruthless regimen that has apparently distanced him from his wife (which we come to know about only through the mother’s death-bed soliloquy). Ira appears as detached as the others are. In fact the husband appears more concerned in most emergency situations. (Milind Soman is surprisingly convincing, never mind his queer Marathi accent)

That’s precisely why the confrontation between the two sisters claiming each other to be the professor’s favorite child, towards the end, barely scratches at the surface. There is no sufficient build up to even remotely suggest Ira's suppressed rage of many years - emanating from what she reckons as an unfair trial, that the responsibility of the father has been thrust on her while the younger sister has coolly shrugged off every burden with clinical precision rooted in cold logic. The sibling squabble hence seems covertly planted if not overtly put on. This is tragic since this is where Harshe finally seems to get real unlike the prior scenes where she is noticeably theatrical. Characters like Mrs. Gupte (Ila Bhate with her quintessential mannerisms) and the younger sister Rahi (Renuka Daftardar, a Bhave-Sukhtankar regular) add little to the film’s cause. Worse, Mrs. Gupte’s story adds a touch of cliché - wife suspecting husband’s rapport with his colleague, daughter affirming it in surprisingly unthinking fashion and predictably enough, Gupte spilling the beans towards the end to underline the professor’s devotion to his life work. The haziness of the character makes Gupte rather ill-equipped to elucidate the larger significance of the professor’s pet phrase “Astu Astu” for the benefit of the audience.

Cut to the Mahout’s family and the players disappoint to glory. Nachiket Purnapatre, though outwardly convincing as the elephant guy, clearly lacks depth in portraying the larger-than-life quandary when the professor accidentally steps into his life. Whether his inability to read the professor’s mind, perplexment over his bizarre ways or the persistent fear of the police, all come as perfunctory pronouncements. He could have done better in hinting at the figurative role of a ‘Mahamatra’. His wife Chenamma (Amruta Subhash, given her marked propensity for gaudy portrayals) makes all the crucial revelations, forming the film’s moot point, sound like overbearing sermons. Her Kannada accentuation and the contrived Marathi interpretation (more of a directorial flaw actually) are nauseatingly embellished.

Given the duo's obsession with the visual imagery of detached collages, most of the wrap-up scenes are flashed in a hurry with a few smacking of artifice – like the police interrogation en route the elephant hunt and the mahout's interaction with the priest - while others are scantily reeled – like Dr. Prabhu’s observations. All the elephant scenes stand out, thanks only to the astutely handheld camerawork that has amazingly captured emblematic scenes like the mammal’s bathing dip and afternoon siesta. The minimal music by Saket Kanetkar and Dhananjay Khawandikar is another redeeming highlight of the film, a delightfully non-intrusive undertone to the underlying theme.

To the film’s credit, it can play a vital role in helping doctors and care givers make priceless discoveries about patient traits and characteristics, far more effectively than what today’s Virtual Reality simulations claim, to discern the elusive day-to-day challenges of a degenerative disorder. Beyond doubt, no symposium lecture, academic paper or celebrity endorsement can ever hope to match the sanctity of the film’s earnest appeal to empathize with the subject matter devoid of any black and white inferences and thereby transcend the boundaries of scholastic knowledge which does little more than proclaim Alzheimer’s as a type of dementia.

Bamberg to Goa via Reigate: Web development turns idyllic

IIFL | Mumbai | October 01, 2015 10:38 IST
For the three founder-musketeers of Sapnagroup - Nilesh Nayak, Jonny Hübner and Anurag Jain - innovation is the new norm. Their dream venture defies all convention with matter-of-fact precision and yet doesn’t dislodge the beauty of tradition in any way. Sudhir Raikar spoke to co-founder Nilesh Nayak on the past, present and future of the remarkable Anglo-Indian firm.

Courtesy: http://www.indiainfoline.com/article/editorial-perspectives-technology/bamberg-to-goa-via-reigate-web-development-turns-the-idyllic-way-115100100447_1.html

The tourist haven of Goa, we all know, is the ultimate destination for a dream vacation. That it can also turn out to be the perfect location for a dream vocation would surely be considered unusual, thanks to the conformist image of the idyllic place. But then, for the three founder-musketeers of Sapnagroup – badminton enthusiast Nilesh Nayak, Marathon aficionado Jonny Hübner and professional photographer Anurag Jain - innovation is the new norm. Their web development venture defies all convention – whether by virtue of its offbeat name or its distinctive modus operandi - and yet doesn’t dislodge the beauty of tradition in any way. Their fascinating software development story will make even hard-core skeptics agree profusely.

Sapnagroup’s genesis dates back to an IT outsourcing company that Nayak, a BTech from IIT Madras and MBA from XLRI, Jamshedpur, incepted in his hometown of Goa. Jain, a B E from PCCE, Goa, joined him soon after. In due course, their firm grew in scope, if not immediately in size, and they began taking on overseas projects. In the course of their exploration to source more business, an ad on freelancers.net caught their attention. It was posted by Hübner, then employed with a UK firm called Orbit24-7, who was scouting for someone to replace one of his programmers who had vanished into thin air without notice. Though he was looking for a UK-based resource, Nayak proposed the outsourcing route. It took loads of hard sell besides a free pilot project to convince Hübner of the merits of the offshore development model and the initial reservations soon made way for an enduring relationship although Orbit24-7 wound up in a mere three months post the contract. When Hübner decided to set up his venture, he offered his new-found Indian comrades exclusive charge of the development team. The duo from Goa obliged and over a period of time, the brand was rechristened Sapnagroup. Sapna, the name of Nayak’s daughter, means Dream which amply symbolizes the group’s aspiration, so felt the trio in unison.

But how did the geographical presence span three idyllic of India, UK and Germany respectively – viz. Goa, Reigate and Bamberg? Explains Nayak, “I was born and brought up in Goa, and Anurag is based here too. So it made sense to give back something to the home state. Jonny hails from Bamberg, Germany, so he moved back to his roots. It also saved him the astronomical costs of operating from London, which proved a burden when we started. He now commutes to the UK once in a month and has a base in Reigate, the historic Surrey town. It was a question of convenience.”

In the process, Sapnagroup more than proved that you don’t necessarily have to be based in Bangalore, Noida or Pune or even Silicon Valley for doing world-class software development. The group currently serves markets in Europe, Middle East and South Africa. The bulk of their clients are in UK and Germany, primarily because Jonny is based there and does the sales. They also serve a few customers in Austria and US apart from those in Middle East and South Africa. Among the group’s sterling website management and maintenance case studies are www.myfamilycare.co.uk, one of UK's largest childcare companies, www.verbatim.com, a Mitsubishi company having intricate, multi-lingual European and American websites and www.weltkulturerbelauf.de, a Bamberg marathon which happens once in two years, and causes sudden spurt in website users when registrations are opened. What about India? “Till date, they haven't undertaken any major project in India but are looking forward to startup opportunities in India now”, informs Nayak.

Picture courtesy: http://www.sapnagroup.com/

The company’s web development service spectrum includes LAMP development, SEO/SEM, server administration and mobile App development. Typically, how are the group’s client engagements - do they end up providing all stack services for a client or are the projects singular in nature? Nayak elucidates, “There is no thumb rule. Our server hosting and SEO originated because our existing clients needed these services. Most of our client sites are hosted by us. Many of our SEO clients become our programming clients. Typically, we get most of our projects through word of mouth referrals, or led by expansion of our existing clients and in some cases, on the recommendation of an ex-employee of one of our clients to his/her new employer.”

Does the choice of LAMP emanate from the founders' prior competence on based on an inherent belief in open source development? “We started in PHP by default, possibly also because it was free compared to equivalent Microsoft technology which was paid. But as we went along, the open source nature also helped us and today we endorse it very strongly. We have done some work in Perl and Python too and are definitely open to any other variants. In fact, we have started doing app development for IOS and Android.” Nayak reveals.

Sapnagroup has built a team of over 40 people in India who ensure that clients across the globe are happy with the service. What’s the approach to training and development of developers? “We make all freshers undergo on the job training which effectively means we put them on small tasks. We have a small training system also developed to help them learn things which are specific to professional programming as also terminologies relevant to UK and Germany. Most of our code is customized and hence we have developed our own frameworks. We do use frameworks like Yii when clients insist. We are already working on JSON and JS MVC frameworks. Some of my colleagues have such a good understanding of technology that they can put European programmers to shame. And mind you, all of them are from Goa, from local colleges like Xavier's, Dhempe, GEC, PCCE and the like.”

Picture courtesy: http://www.sapnagroup.com/

Why has the company consciously kept away from design and consulting as also the enterprise space? Are they open to the SAAS route given their penchant for tools? “Design is something we tried with an in-house designer in Europe but it didn’t work out. We have strategic tie ups with agencies in Europe for specific design work. As of now, we have no plans to get into design as most of the core promoters are not from that area and unlike programming, design is a more subjective area. Yes, we are open to consulting should there be an opportunity. SAAS model is a little risky hence we have stayed away from it but maybe we could look at it as we grow.”

Among the most notable features of Sapnagroup is its genuinely democratic and lightweight setup – the team is virtually free of hierarchy and you won’t find the customary support heads for HR, Marketing and Corp Communication here. Nayak contends with a staple matter-of-fact tonality, “We are too small for these departments. Jonny handles the sales and client interaction; I am the chief architect of the development team Anurag is the Chief Technology Officer, head of server team and key security consultant. I personally look after HR, so in theory we do have an HR department (with home-grown HR software to handle leave and payroll). Marketing is Jonny’s baby but given our model, we don't unduly depend on it. As we expand further, we will definitely need to strengthen that front. We span three offices in Goa already and as and when we grow further, more formal systems will need to be put in place. Right now, we are able to manage everything within our internal resources and some bank borrowings but if we get a very fast growth trajectory, we may need to look at other sources of funding”

Nestled in the lap of Goa, Sapnagroup is doing world-class open source web development with the help of native talent for a growing universe of global clients, in an indigenous fashion that lends meaning and substance to the clarion call of “Make in India”, and without staking a claim to that effect. Nayak's insights surely put him in a different league of visionary entrepreneurs. Consider this heart-felt plea that speaks volumes of his sterling conviction: "We are trying to build something substantial here. I would request you not to look at this company as a run of the mill IT shop.A software company in Goa gives the impression of a small time unit doing websites or VB applications for local industries. We need to get out of this stereotype. The internet makes it possible to develop world-class software from anywhere on the globe. Fifteen years back, a US citizen would have viewed an IT company in India with the same stereotype; today he/she views an Indian as a czar of the IT world (though I personally don't believe Indians have become more intelligent in 15 years)"

The group is open to collaboration with like-minded entities – whether ad agencies, individual consultants and even companies. Should you want to know more or wish to check out their in-house tools for Design Match and Encrypted Transfer, do visit http://www.sapnagroup.com/ Whether you engage with it or not, you will find the idyllic route of Bamberg to Goa via Reigate undoubtedly engaging.