Thursday, February 28, 2008

China in US

If you walk across the aisle of any store in the US, it is China all over. Indeed, perhaps it is so in all parts of the world. Most things in the world ranging from electronics to toys to idols are made in China.

But this is about a lesser talked and known thing. In existence for a long time, this is the bus service operated by some local Chinese in US, mostly to NYC from a couple of places on the East coast. One is the Fung-Wah bus service that operates from Chinatown Boston to Chinatown NYC. There is a similar one from Albany to NYC. The buses are as good as the US bus services like Greyhound or Peterpan give or take a few. The difference is that the Chinese buses operate with low overheads - they have no bus stations and pretty much pick up and drop passengers on the street. Buses run ruthlessly full, there are no seat numbers and if you are going as a twosome, you can potentially get a seat at each end of the bus. There is a fixed schedule though it is mostly an on-demand service - as in they run as many buses as they sell tickets. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, it is worth stepping out of Bostons railway station to see the number of buses Fung Wah manages to send to NYC. At its price it is about half the price of competitive bus services.

Does it serve its purpose? Absolutely. Many weekend trippers prefer this "barebones" bus service over the others. It can be argued that Fung Wah does not have the overhead and hence runs these buses so cheap, but having said that, it is an innovation. Noticeably, it is tough to find anything that is barebones in the US - except perhaps domestic airlines.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Indian Premier League

The IPL has generated some heat and dust over the last few weeks starting from the auction of the teams to the players to debates on farmers (our usual barometer for comparing everything). Two articles which I found very good were one by Swapan Dasgupta in TOI and one by Ramesh Ramanathan in Mint.

Swapan writes a very good piece, but it is the ending that really takes the cake - What matters is that cricket now belongs to India. He couldnt have said it better. Cricket now belongs to India - cricketing superpower - regardless of how our national team performs (give or take a few) - if you want to come to the pinnacle of cricketing frenzy, come to India. It was apparent a few years back itself when Kingfisher sponsored the West Indies cricket tour, when a manufacturer got nearly the entire Australian team to endorse a product (perhaps cheaper than some star endorsers in the Indian team itself). Also, apparent is how the stadia are usually plastered with ads from India in almost any series. It is good for cricket, very good. Wait till you see the jerseys, the caps, the other thousands of licensed products that come in the market on the back of IPL. Chartered tours for the IPL season - why not?

The effect on other sports is debatable and we can debate on this till the cows come home. PHL - the hockey league - is another areas where we can make the sport belong to India - and perhaps we will - but with the IPL shining so brightly, it will be tough to create another sun. I hope that PHL does better in a small way atleast, for the sake of hockey.

IPL I believe has the ability to be better than the English football league or even the basketball leagues in India. Surely in India, IPL is going to be big, really big. IPL will unleash something that Ranji was never able to do - and the crucial difference? Marketing. Ranji matches typically are played only to dozing security guards, crows and a few bored fans. But in any case, IPL will add bling to domestic cricket - I only hope it does not marginalize Ranji further - perhaps a shake up and a marketing blitz is in order for Ranji too.

The other piece is by Ramesh Ramanathan in Mint - where he asks a great question. Why cant Sharad Pawar, the big daddy of BCCI, do for agriculture that he did for IPL. Splendid.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On Speed and Governors

There is a move afoot to get transporters to install speed governors on vehicles. This move, in my mind, is a flawed one. For one, it shifts the onus of speed regulation onto an electronic device - which can usually be tampered with (for a fee). This is an acknowledgment that police or highway patrol who should be manning the highway with a speed gun and catching people who exceed the speed limit are not doing their job.

The second thing is that accidents are not caused only by speed or overspeeding. It is because people do not follow regulations. If accidents were caused only by high speeds expressways around the world would be the worst - but they are not. Indeed, our slow painful roads are among the worst.

Why? Bad enforcement of rules. Overloading, old vehicles, drunken drivers, rash driving (it can be done at any speed - watch rickshaws), underage drivers, poorly trained drivers, signal jumping, overtaking from any direction, not following signages, coming in the opposite direction (this is a big big thing - it happens on all major highways - without warning). Can the speed governor reduce these things? No. And then again, speed governors are only for commercial vehicles - not private vehicles so people will continue to overspeed. Plus it will make transport movement - as it is transport moves at a pretty pathetic speed - slower and costlier. And also, more corruption.

What we need is better enforcement of rules. Why does Mumbai have relatively better traffic sense? Simple - the cops there do their job (bribe or fine - it works), unlike the ones here.

Karnataka terror

The unfolding continues unabated. As the terror investigation picks up various threads, an interesting angle is emerging. Gods own country at this rate could very well become terrors own country - that is one troubling, though not entirely unanticipated aspect. Here, we have one chap, who was from Kerala, working at an MNC here and stole data and set up a company in Dubai using that.

His resume reads like a good resume for any IT hire: passed out of NIT Calicut, worked for Tata Infotech (now TCS) and GE - until this blot. Scary for recruiters.

It inks a gory tapestry. The recent arrests were from medical colleges, people working in respectable occupations - like IT and there is no saying where it will end. Whatever it does, it does immense damage to reputations - industry and communities alike.

The scare around data theft is very real. It could well become a bigger issue than it already is while outsourcing work to India (or any other place for that matter). Companies already do background investigations of many people they hire, now a police investigation may become mandatory. The police have already sounded out colleges, the next will be companies.

More than talent shortage, terror is a bigger threat to the industry. (On the flip side, there seems to be no "talent" shortage in the terror industry.)

Garib Rath?

In an age of Jet Airways, Garib Rath? Somebody has to come out of their socialist mindset - or atleast give it a better name.

Air conditioned trains for the hoi polloi named Garib Rath with space for mobile phone chargers and packaged meals named Garib Rath? Surely you are joking Mr. Lalu (with apologies to Richard Feynman)

UAE, tech hub?

Wishful thinking Steve Hamm (read the comments in that post), if you ask me.

Why? Too expensive, limited talent pool, lack of local expertise, discrimination and lack of religious freedom (dont go by the link title).

(Update: I wrote this without a search on the web. A couple of clicks, got me the links above.)

This is pretty much similar to why I also think Indian IT companies opening centers in Malaysia is a bad idea.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Government Software Systems Ltd.

Back in the 80s, the state wanted to do everything for us. We were being led up the socialist garden path, you see, thats why. There were state owned everything starting from factories to retail shops to hotels to trading corporations and tyre companies. As a logical progression of this, there was a rash of state owned Television manufacturing companies. We had ECIL - the Electronics Corporation of India Limited as the central electronics corporation. There was also Keltron (wiki), Meltron, Uptron, Konark (aha, Kerala, Maharashtra, UP and Orissa). There were perhaps others, but these come to mind right away.

If it were not for the liberalization, we would have had a state owned car manufacturing unit at almost every state. Imagine that. Actually it is not too difficult to imagine. Maharashtra had a Maharashtra Scooters, Kerala had (has) Kerala Automobiles Limited, there is a company by the name Scooters India Limited (Vijai super) (hilarity here). (A history of the Indian lambretta is here.)

So, heres how Indias IT industry would look like today. (Honestly, it wouldnt exist, but just for fun and since I was running out of creative ideas, please bear with me).

We could have had a Jai Maharashtra Software Solutions company (all documentation in Marathi only with periodic retrenchment of North Indians), Kerala State Software development company (where code is banned in HTML), a Tamil Nadu Software development company (where periodically they would hate Hindi and English) and of course, we can create many more...this can become a separate post in itself.

There would be periodic fights between the mainframe department and the newly formed upstart Java department as they fight to take control of government projects. The government in turn, would give work to both these departments since jobs could not be lost. That evaluation would be random in nature leading to a lot of acrimony for the end users, but since they would not have choice they would be ignored.

Then thanks to an enterprising project manager projects would be shown as mainframe or java for billing purposes and they would be created on the right applications. An audit would have brought this up as an anomaly and this project manager would find himself transferred to the "Java training in Oriya" department located in Dandakaranya. A similar fate would befall all those who attempted to implement robust people management systems in place with scorecards on charges of discrimination.

Jobs would be available through the local employment exchange (or the payment of bribe which would be accepted at the pan shop across the road of the head office). Computers at these ventures would be built only by the respective state owned computer hardware assembly units to a one time specification that was received in 1979 and it would be the government mandate that all computers be of this and no other specification.

They would go on strike periodically demanding parity between coders and architects, coders and gardeners and peons and vice presidents. Overtime allocation would be rampant and on paper everybody would work for 16 hours a day leading to resentment in post offices and banks since these guys get paid for two days for every day they worked. This would lead to a series of strikes at banks and other services because the software companies were too pampered and demanding wage parity. (In any case banks and post offices would not work for the large part since they would be dependent on software made by these companies.)

Reservation rules would be applicable for every project and based on a quota, employees would need to be hired. This rule would be built into a resource allocation mechanism built to go upto to five levels of Religion, Caste, Sub caste, Sect, Tribe and Clan. No skill detail would be available here as a matter of egalitarianism.

Onsite opportunities would be given only to the seniormost employees while there would be a lot of dissatisfaction at the junior level, leading to periodic lock outs, crashes and keyboard down strikes.

What would the software look like?
Projects developed for the administration would have the option of "Never", "Waiting for file" and "lose file forever" option. Software would be uniformly slow and useless and every clerk would have the option of disabling the system each time they went for a chai break.

The all pervasiveness of Microsoft Office would prompt the government to launch Maharashtra Shabd, Kerala Varta for example.

Maharashtra Shabd would have Marathi only instructions with translation banned into any other language. Karnataka would offer subsidies for any development in Kannada provided it is done within Karnataka and bringing any other software through the states borders would be faced with 224% tax - leading to an immediate increase in netbased downloads and an immediate cap on downloads greater than 99 MB which in turn would generate more downloads of file splitters leading to a ban on file spliltters leading to a spurt in imported memory drives as the most smuggled item in Karnataka... Tamil Nadus equivalent would save every document a 100 times each time you pressed the save button. Every file opened would open with a rapid cartwheel motion. Kerala clipart would have moustaches for all men and the maximum number of clipart would be available for hammer, sickles and the like apart from a free printer with special banner creation option for any strike.

Indeed Kerala Strike would be launched as a stand alone software - a software that would compete with Powerpoint and in Kerala they would have a complete monopoly on all strike posters and banners.

The software company would have company owned and operated townships in some of the more remote locations of India and they would be given projects by their own state departments since they would not be able to take on external work (nor would anybody give them external work). Periodically some noise would be generated about takeovers of these companies by the upstart private companies and of course they would be rapidly shot down by the IT minister of that state. Pay parity between both these types of firms would be an issue and ultimately a legislation calling for a pay cap for private employees would be passed. Politically motivated projects would be the order of the day and each budget would allocate more and more money to these floundering giants. Telephone bandwidth would be limited and for every extra bandwidth you would have to get into the long end of a queue with waiting periods of upto to 3 months, which can be circumvented by a bribe of about 50 rupees.

I could go on and on, but you see the picture...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

On Schools

Talk to any parent who has a child about the school going age and it will ensure an instant connect. Why? Because choosing a school for the child is a complicated affair or atleast is made out to be so.

It was uncomplicated at one point and perhaps earlier. Back when I was of admission seeking age, my parents looked at two schools and picked one which was closer to our home - also the added advantage was that many children from our building (back then it was never apartment) went to that school and they were all good students. "All teachers are good" they said, which mean, they were strict and ensured that students learnt what they were taught. There were about 3-4 schools in the locality and each of them got a sizeable number of students. They all followed the Maharashtra Board and life was simple. Atleast school was. College admissions had become a maddening affair by the time we reached college, but thats for a later date.

Cut to today. There are schools and there are schools. Make that, there are schools and there are international schools. For the first three years of education you can choose the Montessori system (btw, this system is about a 100 years old and there is nothing modern about it) and there is the "other" system. Curiously, there is no newer method in use today - none that I know of, pardon my ignorance.

Then, the decision is on which board to follow. There is a State board, there is the CBSE and there is the ICSE. There is also an International Baccalaureate which, presumably, is a passport to education abroad - and not surprisingly comes at a premium. Some states have more boards - notably Tamil Nadus Matriculation board comes to mind. Opinions abound in which board to board and how one board might board careers vis-a-vis the other. At one point CBSE was reputed to be tough, so tough that they got 5 marks over state board students in Maharashtra while looking at college admissions. But now it seems evened out, but many parents want CBSE, ICSE because when they studied it was perceived to be tough, not necessarily for what it is today. Interestingly not too many people want local boards (atleast in Bangalore).

The board is only part of the decision. Then you look at schools itself. Some schools have an airconditioned campus, indeed airconditioned buses too. Others teach you useful skills like horse riding - essential in todays traffic conditions. Others teach you, quite unwittingly, patience, by virtue of a long drive to the school itself. Some of them teach you western classical music (when did I last hear that as a skillset?) and others can teach you ball dancing. A few of them emphasize traditional Indian values (and these are quite difficult to find, hidden as they are). Some schools have a subtle religious orientation while others have a clear cut religious orientation built into them and this, rather surprisingly for a so called secular society, is a big basis of school selection. All of these are good since it lets you pick and choose. You want your child to learn the piano as opposed to the mrudangam, great. You want your child to be rooted in Western culture, great. The only problem is that it adds to the confusion that already exists and many of these orientations are latent.

Ultimately the kindergarten you go to, the school you go to will only help so much - though undeniably there is an influence. Also, undeniably teachers have the capability to be a great influence on students, but not too many Radhakrishnans come to mind today - nor "all teachers there are good"is a story that you often hear. Also, neither education systems nor schools allow the influence to be sustained - over your education there are so many teachers that the bad influences cancel out the good influences and ultimately you see very little value. Then there is so much that the child gets from his or her peer group, the zeitgeist of an era, the parents and home environs and way of living (and why is that not prized?) that the ultimate career or success has very little to do with the school or schooling.

Ultimately parents choose the school (or schools choose the parents) option in a manner that is most convenient for them - which school will do as much as possible with as least risk as possible and that is a perfectly rational decision, however irrationally you may arrive at it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Recession, will IT be hit

Steve Hamm views it as "not a great effect" and I think I agree with him.

In the short to medium term, companies here will actually get more work since companies there will try to cut more costs. And who will they turn to than these service providers? And unlike in 2000 odd, by now they have a decent reputation built up, so you could actually see their work increase. Whether their margins increase is a matter of debate and I dont think they will, but topline can surely go up. Also, if these companies can really help these companies cut costs, they would have built a great relationship which will help them grow with them once the economy is back on track (read - growing). Unfortunately many IT companies do not see beyond their nose on the immediate work - so that needs to change.

Over a longer term, though, when consumer spending drops, companies "shrink", make lesser money and hence over the longer term growth of the companies (and hence their tech spending) will be affected. So, if this trend continues, Indian IT will be affected pretty badly, but in the short and medium term, theres work to be done and money to be made.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Buy it in pieces

The i-pod and other mp3 players are becoming the new music systems or, rather, their drivers. Imagine a music system driven by a small mp3 player. Imagine the music industry driven by an mp3 player. This has been happening for a few years now, but now it seems to be "the" direction (and I seem to have got it only now).

As I strolled by a shop yesterday, I noticed that there were very few of those old huge music systems on sale. Sure, they were, but in a forgotten corner. The new trend is that of mp3 powered music systems. The music system of today can be composed of a number of small pieces. Start off with an mp3 player, add on speakers (or a dock kind of thing). Need a radio? Add a radio adapter if your player does not have one. The music system in the car seems destined to head in a similar direction. The mp3 player will drive it more than anything else. So, what happens to radios and radio stations?

Whoever could have imagined that the ipod could spawn such an ecosystem around it? Now as the ipod and the phone converge as they have, is that another intersection? The phone and ipod are as personalized as they can get.

Now that music systems have disintegrated, how long before TVs become passe. No, I dont mean televisions, but television networks.

Tata Nano and the butterfly effect

Wired has a report on it, via TPWS.

I dont know what to say. Some people are still crying out from their rooftops about the so called bad effects of the Nano. Surely, there are tonnes of good effects of Hummers and SUV's. The solution is to replace the Hummers with Nanos and not replace Nanos with 'no"things.

And in India, what else could theoretically be available at a price point of a lakh. Second hand vehicles. Exactly what the world recommends for us! Fortunately, partly due to regulations, however old and partly due to our driving on the left side of the road we still do not import tons of fuel guzzling second hand vehicles.

For all those who are crying out ho(a)rse, the Nano is an idea whose time has come, so please do not spend your time and thoughts cranking out thoughts like this.

Unrelated thought: I saw a picture of Mr. Pachauri presenting a solar lantern to the PM recently. The solar lantern will take a few generations to offset the emissions that were created in the process of its journey to the PM, surely.

To use an old Bambaiya term, "tera khoon khoon, apna khoon paani?"

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Putting a saddle on a donkey

does not make it a horse. Likewise, putting a tie on a software developer does not make him a consultant. Yet, this is an approach that is commonly taken by IT companies. Let us first make him look like a consultant.

Many companies here have a dress code in operation. Once or twice a week employees have to come dressed in formals - including a tie and for some unlucky folks, a blazer. You know how great that can be in Indian weather.

The main logic is that at client facing sites, employees are often found sartorially challenged - this should be a good way to get the dress sense into them. The corollary to that logic is that companies start off with a loosely defined dress code and then people slowly start breaching them - a sneaker here, a slipper there and before you realize it, the whole office resembles a beach, make that Indian beach. And further corollaries are, if you dress formally, you will think like a professional. (Whatever that is supposed to mean.)

The point is that there is multiple issues to be tackled. On the one hand issuing a dress code diktat will only take you so far. Even with this diktat, you need to teach employees a thing or two about sartorial elegance - otherwise you will find red socks, parrot green ties and jazzy shiny shirts or a combination of them. I know of a company in Hyderabad which had a "once a month blazer code" in place. Employees bought that blazer wrapped in a poly bag in a bus and just outside the gate, shook it with all their might, wore it and came in. Crumpled blazers were allowed, coming without one invited a fine. So just enforcing a dress code will do only so much. You want employees to follow a dress code and look good, get an etiquette course in place for newcomers and place a premium on looking good - whatever that can achieve for you is debatable. Ultimately thoughts and work matter more than looks and attire.

The other thing about people being casual about their dress code - this is more of an enforcement issue (whether it is needed at all is debatable) - so people taking the dress code less than serious and therefore we need a stricter dress code is about as great an idea as putting speed governors on some vehicles.

And there is no surely no correlation between casual dressing and casual thinking. Some of the newly minted start ups have no dress code and the best ideas never came while dressed in a tie and blazer (remember Archimedes?)

I need to get an idea. Let me wear a tie and see if it has any effect. Sounds corny doesn't it? In the same way, if you want consultants, you got to groom them. That means freeing up knowledge, recruiting some smart guys, paying them well and then some, but thats for another post...

Terror in Karnataka

Meanwhile there is a big terror investigation on in Karnataka. Two people, picked up as vehicle lifters turned out to be nothing less than sleeper cells and perhaps a lot more thanks to the alertness of a police officer (this appeared in todays newspaper, no link yet).

The investigation has thrown up camps in forest areas in Karnataka, led to the arrest of a few others. Everybody is surprised or atleast acts so. How long before we discover more in each of our other states?

Social service can be lucrative

More lucrative than sports, films or running companies. Mayawatis annual income jumps to 60 crores.

She is ranked a few notches below Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan in the advance tax list. Not only is Mayawati's income more than that of any politician, she ranks higher than the Ambani brothers, Birlas, Bachchans, Ratan Tata and Infosys' Nandan Nilekani.
Kumaramangalam Birla trails the Dalit leader, at 57th place, while the richest cricketer, 'Master Blaster' Tendulkar is a distant 85th. Aamir Khan is placed even farther, at a not-so-impressive 123rd.

Impressive, eh?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Peoples car, peoples bus

Tatas Nano recently stole all the thunder from larger rivals at the Delhi Auto show. The game plan of the Nano is to change the way people move in this country (and perhaps in the world). Which is why, the current big mover of people, Bajaj, the company which makes auto rickshaws is worried. And they launched their own small car initiative because if the Tata Nano really picks up, it has the potential to hit their rickshaws business straight on. And that is considering it is a business model as of today. If people put their brains together and come up with self driven vehicles or a vehicle pool or some such other community initiative, it has the potential to turn urban transportation on its head. But while the focus has really been on the Nano, Tata has done some similar work in another segment.

And with some success actually. The Tata Ace, an 800 cc beast of a truck has had amazing success in the market. There is nothing quite like it until some competitors woke up and came up with a me-too version. What did it displace, rather target? The 3 wheeled truck - the worst thing on Indian roads - in my opinion. The Ace is doing well to upstage it.

Another of the Aces versions - the Magic is actually targeting those Vikrams and the smoke belching 10 seater 3 wheelers that wreck havoc on many inner roads in the country. The Magic to me, has the potential to get the roads rid of this stupefying contraption and perhaps improve public transport in the hinterland as well.

Taking it all together, Tata has done nothing short of targeting the entire way that the population moves. Add the Starbus and the Winger and you have more transport solutions than India ever really had.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Joint family 2.0

Some years back at a none too distant point in time, the joint family was supposed to be the source of all our ills. The nuclear family was heralded as the next best thing in the world since communism and everybody set out on their own. It had none of the ills of the joint family - which included parasitic family members, lazy family members. It also brought questions like who will cook and who will eat and what will they cook and when will they eat and who will wash the vessels into a manageable level - not necessarily to be resolved across 14 members.

But look around you today and you will see that the joint family is there, thankfully, as many will say. Regardless of what the social pundits may say, it will be around for a long time. It has evolved into something different from what it was. So, from a tightly controlled federal government style joint family, now it is a loose confederacy held together by certain basic canons.

Why did this happen? For one, no nuclear family can survive on their own without help. Imagine a working husband and working wife and two kids. No aged parents can survive without help. Imagine an empty nest with nobody to help - not just physically, but even emotionally. So, it was inevitable, given "Indias grand tradition" (whether you call it helping the elders or helping yourself or depending on your kids or helping your kids).

But there is a change. The change is that instead of all these people living under one roof, they live very near each other in a simple ecosystem. So, instead of living in one big house, they live across the street or in the same building next to each other so that they can support each other. And the joint family has expanded in definition. In this case it is usually two families including their offspring, their spouses, spouses family creating a big ecosystem. Add in more relatives and friends and it is quite a decent working model. More and people are living with their parents or to put it correctly more and more parents are living with their kids - migrating from their land into the cities (including abroad). In either case the broad trend is live closer to each other rather than far away, thus creating a loose joint family where each one has their own space, financial freedom, culinary freedom, TV shows yet bound together by "relationship".

Whether it is a great idea or not is an immaterial point to discuss, it is more of a trend for marketeers and sociologists alike. What bubbles up in this manner is not an externally imposed order, but a way of convenience, so it exists regardless of the debate.

(PS: This is not a new trend, except that I got around to writing it now.)

It has interesting implications for gadget manufacturers (the DVD player and the vaccum cleaner among other things may be shared) and for real estate (how about selling a whole floor to a family with a common space) or even small items of furniture (I want it to be a desk when the little comes in after school).

Friday, February 01, 2008

On shopping 2

There are two types of shops and shopkeepers.

Type 1 is where they will show you two items and expect you to pick up one of them. Every second they will ask you, "did you like this?" or "shall I pack this" or "shall I keep this aside", until at some point, you as a customer decide that you dont want anything.

Type 2 is where they never talk of a sale. They will patiently show you everything in the shop and then some. They will go to their "godown", get stuff from their neighbouring shop. All through, they just say, "No charges for browsing around" and all through, they never talk about closing the sale.

At the end, guess from where you will end up buying stuff?

Echoes in your market?