Vickram’s View: Mobile Monday in Mumbai

October 17th, 2006 |
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Last Monday, Veer Bothra (seen here on the left) asked me to join in the monthly mixer he organises, called Mobile Monday. It’s loosely tied in with an eponymous event held around the world, an opportunity for mobile platform stakeholders to meet and talk about change … and more of the same.

Veer wanted me to talk about podcasting, not the nuts and bolts, but where it’s at and its relevance to the radio paradigm. That’s a juicy opportunity, I thought to myself, and so found myself making the difficult journey to North Mumbai (needs planning and a sort of instinctive feel for which combination of segments and modes of transport make it the least painful overall).

Actually, the Kohinoor Continental Hotel in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb can hardly be considered north, that’s a historical peculiarity of this city’s, but geographically it is more like halfway between the southernmost and northernmost tips of this linear city. A lack of proper maps and more importantly, good up-to-date information on where congestion is happening, makes traveling in Mumbai an exercise in imagination.

The mixer was scheduled for 6:30 pm, which in Mumbai usually means something like 7, maybe later. And though I tried my darnedest to get there at 6:30, I also walked in around ten minutes late, to find not one familiar face, and fortunately no tension about starting on time. There was a gaggle around the registration desk, so I slipped past and found the washroom, to remove a few kilos of grime from the hour-long journey (about 10 km, one hour, could have been worse).

Anyhow, when I emerged, lighter and fresher, I found Rajesh Jain and Atul Chitnis right across from me, so I made my way over to them, and we chatted about what this kind of evening achieves. Veer works for Rajesh’s company Netcore, but Mobile Monday is something he has made happen on his own, with a little help from Krishna Kumar (KK) of portal Rediff (99 percent Veer, said KK later, but most people chimed that it is KK’s more than one percent that makes the difference between happening and not).

There must have been about 50 people present, mostly from the software industry, with a handful of mainstream telecom and music industry executives. An amazing amount of development around the traditional mobile business (cellular telephony), with managed services, on-demand delivery of ringtones, games, videos, and new things that redefine the devices themselves, is happening all the time, and a lot of it right here in Mumbai.

The theme of this evening was Visual Radio from Nokia, developed around service provider Hutch Telecom’s recently launched offering in Mumbai and Delhi, working with FM provider Radio Mirchi (98.3FM in both cities), with technology from HP. The idea is a sort of multimedia delivery of radio to users, with audio content from Mirchi supported by visuals from photos, graphics, videos and urls (and could advertising be far behind? I think not) sent over GPRS to enthusiastic subscribers who use Nokia GSM devices with built-in FM tuners.

For some reason, neither the Mirchi or the Hutch executives could find their way to the venue, so we missed out getting their viewpoints on the service and what it portends. However, there was a pretty merry discussion (their ears must be burning) on the subject anyway, once Veer had filled us in on what it is supposed to be, and achieve.

KK came up with some interesting figures on cellphone usage in India. Seems the maximum usage of ringtones (which cost Rs 10 per download, that’s a little over two bits, compared to around Rs 2 per minute voice usage) is in the rural and small town areas, and contributes something like 50 percent of total revenues for the cellular providers. He opines that the most logical reason is the dearth of rural audio entertainment channels, so cellphone instruments currently provide an alternative. Expensive, but reeking of status in smaller markets, and delivered in digestible bites. Ringtone costs are bound to be driven down soon, and more authentic entertainment options are bound to open up, and this will sound the knell for such ersatz top-down driven innovations.

India is one of the world’s biggest markets for cellular, with two major technologies, GSM and CDMA, a huge user base that still only accounts for a tiny percentage of households, and growing by leaps and bounds (one million per month). A news release on Sunday 15 October 2006, from some unnamed source claims that usage will grow to 300 million by 2011, up from 125 million now – this number is itself suspect, my gut feeling is that it totals all landline and cellular connections. Liberalisation of the telecom world has actually shifted statistics to a paid service. Why anyone would even bother to predict 5 years ahead in a market like this is beyond me.

It bothers me. For an industry (information and communications) that is so clearly based on change, technology innovations flooding in like manna from heaven or a tsunami, depending on the viewpoint, the markers that the pundits love to refer to are often bizarrely unreal.

The point is, these are the numbers they want, and they are the ones who bring in the real money that drives innovation by getting it to the market, in today’s world. So I guess they can look at whatever they please. Still, something Atul said in his presentation on the convergence of content on the mobile platform made me smile: Billboard now also looks at the way fans vote with their mouseclicks on the Net for their ratings of popular music content, and isn’t staying stuck with music shops and [increasingly irrelevant] media formats from a handful of music labels. Some kinds of alternate music is getting mainstream attention. That’s a significant pointer to the acceptance of revolutionary change. If the turtles in the music industry can see it, then the shellbacks in the telecom industry can’t be too far behind.

Pity it isn’t that easy to figure out how to put money on the *next* new, new thing! And I can say that confidently, even in a week when Youtube ballooned to Google down 1.65 really big big ones. Question is, do all the other people who move money to make things happen, see it? Another major happening this week is the Nobel Peace Prize for Mohammed Yunus, former professor from Bangladesh who turned globally famous banker by mainstreaming micro-credit.

That’s quite ironic, micro-credit jostling for eyeballs in the media against US$1.65 billion worth of acquisition for a single company. I notice that one of the YouTube founders prefers academia to the hustle-bustle of the market, just what Yunus was forced to plunge into. Of course, he was driven by the appalling lack of sensitivity of the banking industry to the market potential of 4 billion people, defined as poor from the viewpoint of conventional wisdom.

The gaps in conventional wisdom are just the thing that events like Mobile Monday try to bridge, for industrypersons to get together, not only to listen to views from the ‘other side’ (represented this month by FOSS and Internet radio advocate Atul, and me the microradio evangelist), but to debate outcomes. I pulled out the pocket gadgetry I use to create podcasts now, comparing it with the tables of equipment I needed to do radio broadcasting thirty years ago.

I also described my own aha! experience – finding that my iPod Shuffle is just like an asynchronous radio, playing randomised playlists that I can carry anywhere, sounding no different to me than the radio stations of my younger days, but immensely more satisfying in that I can choose to populate them with my personal selections of spoken voice and music. I have no idea whether this is something Jonathon Ive and his team at Apple thought of originally, but that’s the way I see it now, and perception is the real important point. To me, microradio is the next best thing, giving small communities the vital power to communicate with convenience, in a world where crushingly large corporations are competing (and colluding) with governments to control the spread of information. Mind you, it’s also a lot cheaper.

Somewhat to my surprise, although I hadn’t prepared a formal eye candy slide presentation, the audience seemed quite pleased, and our little discourses were followed by an excited round of smaller discussions. I found game makers and news aggregators, all focused on the mobile platform, eager to explore how to build on the ease of digital delivery, present in existing GSM and CDMA, and promised from emerging WiFi, data networks and devices. I was also asked to comment on 3G, but that’s like being asked to comment on wooden ships. Nice.

Later this week, I move to Dharamsala in north India, for the AirJaldi and WSFII Summit conference. It will be the world’s largest gathering of wireless mesh networking enthusiasts, focused on cutting edge solutions to the last mile (and then a few) problem in rural connectivity. The potential is enormous, the task even more so, but hearteningly, there are hundreds of people out there looking for ways and means to beat the bottleneck inherent to traditional methods of datacom. I plan to bring some of their voices to you over the next few days.

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