Friday, April 4, 2014

Sri Sri, Kejriwal, Modi - aur aap, the voter

The political climate in India has been highly charged in the past few months, to say the least.

There are different types of camps: of people who staunchly support one of the three top bigwigs/parties (Modi of BJP, Rahul of Congress and Kerjriwal of AAP); of those who are taking a party-specific approach irrespective of candidates--and vice versa; and those who are pulling their hair out on whom to choose for the coming elections.

The debates are fierce, the arguments and counter-arguments vehement and the tripartite mud-slinging distasteful--on social, anti-social, local, global and all types of wobbly media.

I was watching all this uproar, trying to make up my own mind as a voter (as a journalist I'm avowed not to side with any party), when I came across an eloquently written piece by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of The Art of Living in Hindustan Times.

Before I go on, a disclaimer is in order: I have undergone the basic course of AOL and do Sudarshan Kriya regularly and have personally benefited from it in physical and mental well-being. But I have heard contradictory accounts of Sri Sri and AOL (not unlike what you hear of politicians) and I neither support nor denounce them blindly.

Like my new-found interest in politics and spirituality, I'm exploring the options. But then, I digress...

In his opinion article, which is provocatively titled "AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal has left the country choiceless," Ravi Shankar relates how AAP and Kejriwal started with the noble mission of rooting out corruption and giving voice to millions of Indians who are sick and tired of corrupt and criminally tainted politicians. And how they subsequently got consumed with political ambitions of their own and are no longer proving to be different from the political class they seek to dethrone.

He also writes that "While Gujarat may not be 100% corruption-free, I have no hesitation in saying that it is much better than what it used to be. Instead of being honest with facts, Kejriwal has chosen to put down BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi on flimsy grounds," referring to Kerjriwal's high-octane four-day visit to Gujarat in which he hurled criticism at Modi at the slightest opportunity.

Talking about his own visits to the state in the 1990s and comparing them to the situation now, Ravi Shankar says the situation in the Modi-ruled state has improved visibly in infrastructure and economic terms.

Coming from someone of the stature of Sri Sri, the assessment is sure to lend credibility and godspeed to Modi's campaign and promise of taking the governance experiment in Gujarat to the national level (if he becomes PM, of course).

Personally, I have also heard contradictory views on to what extent Modi has been able to make a difference to the infrastructure as well as the people of the state in his three terms as chief minister.

All the same, I'm astonished at the apocalyptic statements issuing forth from the mouths of a whole battery of politicians, religious groups and others on what will happen if Modi does become the prime mover of a country of 1.3 billion people. They depict an inferno-like situation, riots, wholesale destruction, and what not.

It is arguable that Modi's conscience should prick more (than to the extent it has) at the loss of innocent lives in riots that happened in the aftermath of the train-burning incident in Gujarat. Court cases have gone on for long and disputes about Modi/administration's role in handling the situation are still arising. But on Modi becoming PM, to say things like "Aag lag jayegi"?!

Crazy.

When the Aam Aadmi Party initially entered the scene (following its split from the Anna Hazare anti-corruption/Lokpal movement which itself was an amazing sight to watch, though it peaked in a whimper), I could feel a sense of rejuvenation in the electorate, especially the youth and white-collar workers. To its credit, AAP and Kejriwal brought corruption to the forefront as a political issue and impressed a whole swathe of Indians with their candor, nimble thinking and swift mobilisation.

But when the ticket-giving for seats began, many of the candidates have been found to be of dubious record or get-elected-quick types who just want to ride the AAP wave.

So again, what we have is a mish-mash of (mostly) bad apples to choose from--be it AAP, BJP or Congress.

So, in a way, Ravi Shankar is right in saying that the initial promise of better choice exhibited by AAP is dissolving into a haze of disillusionment and hunger for power.

I think a lot of people will make their choice thus: since there are no best or even good choices, they might try opting for the "least bad" as per their perception, media projection and past experience or record.

If the prevalent view is that Congress has ruled the country for the maximum number of years (first without and then with alliances) AND India is a messier country than it was 60 years back, most people would certainly vote against the party.

Many would not vote at all or caste their vote for nobody (not sure if the ballot allows that option).

Unfortunately, a huge mass of Indian humanity would just choose whoever was in their good books on election eve (gifts, liquor, freebies, etc.)

"Choiceless," did Sri Sri say?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Time for India to Take a Close, Hard Look at e-Waste

My first recollection of waste recycling is that of disheveled kids roaming the streets of Delhi. They have large plastic bags and whenever they spot a discarded but “valuable” item—a plastic bottle, a rusted iron rod or the like—they toss it into the bag and move forward in search for more.

At that time I was amused by what I saw (I knew they would sell their stuff to the local kabadiwala, the scrap dealer, for a paltry sum.)

Now, several years later, amusement about a curious aspect of waste collection has turned into a loathing for how the entire “waste situation” looks. As I came to know about the trash piling up in landfills, about chemicals from discarded objects leaching into soil and water (often winding their way into the bloodstream of humans and other animals, with toxic effects), and about the devastatingly fast-growing proportion of e-waste in the overall junk, my disgust only intensified.

An estimated 40-50 million tons of all kinds of electronic waste (from computers and phones to TVs and washing machines) is generated globally each year. In India, it is around 1 million tons, but growing faster than many developed countries.

What is more appalling is that much of this e-waste—a whopping 85-90%—is either dumped or handled hazardously. And while advanced economies such as the U.S. regularly consume and discard the bulk of electronics, the trash ends up in third-world countries of Asia and Africa.

But there is a glimmer of hope. A growing awareness and sense of responsibility at government, corporate and individual levels is driving home the need to deal with all that e-waste in an environmentally friendly manner.

In India a right step in that direction was taken in 2011 in the shape of the e-Waste Management and Handling Act. A key part of this regulation is the EPR (extended producer responsibility) clause, which puts the onus of responsibly warehousing or disposing of the e-waste on manufacturers.

Another green development is that several watchdogs, recyclers and e-waste services firms are cropping up in the country.

However, all this is still a small start to a very large and complex problem. For one, recycling should not be equated with passing on the collected e-waste to the unorganized sector (which often employs women and children to retrieve metals and components from the devices through burning or manual dismantling).

In addition, both the government and the corporate sectors should make efforts to grow awareness about the regulation and product take-back programs—and there should be a proper mechanism to monitor such programs and provision for punitive measures, if necessary.

Managing e-waste well is more than a matter of health for all those directly affected by toxicity of the materials: it is a big question mark over the survival of the whole planet.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Facebook - Wacebook, WhatsApp - ShotsApp...

Who is *the stupid* in the biggest deal of its kind in social networking?

Just when people thought that the days of sky high valuations and companies with little or no revenue streams being bought for astronomical sums are long over, the indigestible figure of NINETEEN BILLION DOLLARS comes out of nowhere and stares them in the face in bold, upper case letters.

Apart from the heartburn the figure may have caused among the other new age startups not yet bought for lavish amounts, Facebook's acquisition of smartphone messaging provider WhatsApp is seeing industry insiders, pundits, analysts and their cats see red, throw tantrums, blow whistles and begin the next step: an elaborate dissection of the deal and what it means for different stakeholders.

First, let's get some big picture perspective. According a report on Reuters.com, “Facebook is paying more than double its annual revenue for a chat program that has little revenue. The purchase price is slightly more than the market value of Sony Corp.”

There are several conjectures about WhatsApp's existing revenues. In one, Henry Blodget (one of the chief “conjecturists” of the dot-com bubble era; Google him for more info) writes on BusinessInsider.com: “Even for Facebook, that's a staggering amount to pay for a company with estimated 2013 revenue of only $20 million. It represents almost 10% of Facebook's overall value.” Nevertheless, he goes on to assert that the move isn't stupid, but very, very bold.

In stupendous deals like this, however, there are many “stupids”—there have to be (as we have seen in many cycles of boom and bust, offline and on).

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has already proved with his chutzpah and billions in banks, stock and possibly hidden in the social network's billion users' monetizable worth that he ain't no stupid. Neither are WhatsApp's two co-founders, Ukrainian Jan Koum and American Brian Acton. (A slight stupidity charge may be deposited on their former employer, Yahoo, perhaps for letting them go and make their billions elsewhere!)

And most certainly, stupid isn't a term you would use with the VC firm that backed WhatsApp with $60 million for a stake that is now said to be worth $3 billion in the deal, according to a report on the website of The Wall Street Journal. (The firm is the famed Sequoia Capital, which over the years has invested in such companies as Apple, Google, Oracle, Cisco, Yahoo, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn, among others.)

That makes two categories of people who may turn out to be playing the role of stupid here: one, the downstream investors who will keep on investing in these and other social startups in the hope that stock prices/valuations will keep getting jacked up further and further—and that they will be able to reap huge benefits by exiting their investments just in time. (Except that “just in time” comes with an expiry date that is never given).

The second category may be that of the users of these combined services. I have a feeling that the reported 1.2 billion of FB users and 450 million of WhatsApp, when combined, will turn out to be much lower than what most people expect. There is likely to be a lot of overlap, in addition to bogus accounts, at least on Facebook.

The users may also feel a bit insecure, manipulated or both in the medium to short term—though, for the moment, Koum has assured us otherwise. (It may be mentioned that WhatsApp seems to have a better reputation than Facebook in giving its users a simple, fast, clutter-free experience.)

In his blog post announcing the deal, Koum has written in this context: “Here’s what will change for you, our users: nothing.”

As of now, WhatsApp usage is free for the first year, after which an annual fee of less than one dollar is charged (the fee itself is disputed as to how many users actually pay up).

But given that WhatsApp is growing by 1 million users a day and Facebook has shelled out top dollar in the hope of monetizing the app's soon-to-be 1 billion users, things for the users might change for worse. Higher price, lots of ads and sponsored messages or all of 'em.

The Journal report mentions that Zuckerberg said in a conference call that “he doesn't think ads are the right way to monetize messaging systems.”

But monetize he will, we understand. And he might change his mind on what constitutes the right way. Why shouldn't he, or why wouldn't anyone who has made such a huge investment?

It remains to be seen how the coming together of two of the most powerful social platforms in the world ever, unfolds in the next few months. But this joining of forces itself raises the highly relevant question of monopoly—and raises the specter of restrictive trade practices that go invariably with any monopoly (even if the stated mission is not to be evil.)

Now, how many of the users will jump onto the next big platform in social to spread their choices, and whether we will have any such platform in the foreseeable future, is another thing that remains to be seen.

For all we know, users may just feel plain bored with all this social media thingy. Or with the big daddies of social at least. Already, there are reports of people, especially the younger generation, fleeing the likes of Facebook in droves in search for other, cooler platforms.

Unfortunately for them, FB ends up buying many of them!

Okay, let's tweet this for the moment...

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Future of Work

Technologies such as cloud, mobility and social media are changing the way we work

One of my favorite ad slogans is from the satellite communication firm Iridium: Geography is history.

I am reminded of this as I key in thoughts on the futuristic dimensions of white-collar work. Will the physical office and fixed seats be history? How about the 9 to 5 rule or working fixed hours? What kinds of work will get most dramatically impacted?

Reams have been written on the subject and extensive studies conducted, so I will not go into the statistics of a growing remote workforce, home opportunities and the like. Instead, let me focus on how technology is making an impact on the way we work.

One of the biggest changes comes from the increasing interplay of personal and enterprise technologies. CIOs are now talking about consumerization of technology, the movement toward, say, user-centric, friendly apps rather than dense lines of code or cumbersome interfaces to configure resources. BYOD (bring your own device) is already a growing phenomenon and people are frequently switching screens from Facebook and LinkedIn to the intranet and CRM.

Given this growing mix, I think certain companies will need to look at the “work output” as a performance measure rather than hours spent in the office or logged into the system.

Another big change: more workers are going to be empowered down the line than ever possible before. Through the Web and the tools it provides, through user-driven business intelligence and through other means, people at various levels will need to take more decisions more quickly—for the collective enterprise to be competitive.

Social sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are also making an impact on assessment and hiring. Not just in jobs that require social media skills but generally in “judging” the future hires and their abilities through posts, usage patterns and circle of friends and followers.

In my own sphere of journalism, for instance, tech is making a big impact by connecting writers and readers in multiple ways; by bringing the whole blogosphere into the picture; by making it easy for us to find “material” through Google and Bing (and others I'm forgetting) yet difficult to escape the barrage of criticism if we slip; by making the whole writing-reading process quick, transparent, conversational...

On a more futuristic leap of imagination, in keeping with the vendors' fondness for “personalization,” shall we see a day when companies come knocking on your smartphones and say: “Hi there, if we were to offer you the job of the CIO, which of the following amenities will suit you? Please select as many as you like and we will come back with a personalized offer.”

Now, now, I didn't say that job search will be history!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Google @15

Fifteen years is a tiny speck in the context of corporate stalwarts (the likes of IBM, GE and P&G were founded over 100 years ago). Yet, when it comes to a poster child of the Web such as Google, it is a long period.

Curiously, when I searched as to when exactly the search giant turned 15—on Google, of course—the results were a mixed bag, not unlike the results Google throws up when you look for something online. A report on Mashable says Google has celebrated its birthday on different dates over the years (the date this year being Sept. 27).

But let us not make a kerfuffle here. Regardless of the exact birth-date, Google has given us enough reasons to celebrate its existence: Gmail, online office apps, maps, YouTube and Android, to name a few.

Not that Google was the first to make breakthroughs, nor did it develop everything on its own (it has made over 100 acquisitions). But whenever it lent its cute name and rigorous technical patronage to anything under the sun, the gesture met with raves and whistles. The brickbats were few and far between, as founders Page and Brin walked the corporate tightrope as skillfully as high-wire wizard Philippe Petit to stay true to their mantra: Don't be evil.

Google has tried its hand at several things but it is search that has kept it on top of its game. Growing amazingly fast, Google has rendered names like AltaVista, Lycos and Excite either a thing of the past or boring to netizens and investors. Even the software king Microsoft is struggling to make a dent with its re-launched search offering, Bing.

Google has been so relentlessly focused on “organizing the world's information” that it has spent lavishly on acquiring anything that could help its search business (advertising, driven by search, still accounts for over 95% of revenue). So it bought Motorola for a huge sum—not for the devices but primarily for patents related to Android. It is another matter that industry pundits are still scratching their heads over the true returns from the acquisition.

However, given that Android now dominates the smartphone pie with over 79% share, it is but obvious that Google's search grip continues on mobiles as well. And while its other projects often failed to take off, Google has rarely let that grip slacken.

I am mostly happy for Google. But as this brat enters mid-teens and grows in size and sheer dominance, it does look scary to find everything through this single funnel. Because, good intentions apart, consumers must have choices—even in where to look for those choices. Not sure if I'm feeling lucky.