WearFin – India in the path of innovation

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There was a time when Indian technology industry was thriving with software services based companies and BPOs. The likes of Infosys, Wipro Technologies and TCS were major players in both these sectors earning a name amongst the world leaders as delivering the best of services in the software world. In this race to be the best, what got left out was innovation. While the facebooks and the googles and the twitters emerged as the giants in the technology world, India seemed to be content with providing those valuable services in the backdrop. The blame cannot be entirely attributed to the Indian industry alone. There is that faction of Indians who flew across the sevens seas to a land known as the silicon valley to set up shop and be recognized as the entrepreneurs of the west. Some statistics, aptly pointed out by Neesha Bapat in her article in Forbes state that, in 2012, more that 14% of the startups in the Silicon Valley were started by Indians, an astounding rise from around 7% in 1998. When Satya Nadella was appointed as the CEO of Microsoft, amongst the myriad of newspaper articles heaping praises and pointing out success stories, one article caught my eye. I was initially drawn to it through its title – Nadella as Microsoft CEO, a slap in the face of Indian System . Although I must admit that a lot of what is stated in the article can be counter argued through some of the successes that Indians have had in Indian soil, those examples are certainly far and few.

Then came the revolution. One which Shashi Tharoor, a renowned author and columnist, puts as “soft power” started to emerge. The penetration of cell phones, and the emergence of smartphones along with the “phablets” made information a commodity. Internet started to be seen as a regular household utility just like electricity and water. And with it came the thought for innovation.

Back in April 2012, Sijo Kurivila George and Kris Gopalakrishnan, the co-founder of Infosys, started a venture known as The Startup Village with a goal to keep the innovators back in India. The aim was to successfully launch 1000 companies in India by the year 2022. Add on the outbreak of crowd funding through the likes of Wishberry and Ignite Intent , the stage was set. And the play began…

In the recent CES 2014 hardware battlefield, there was one such startup from a small town in India, Kochi. This in particular aroused my curiosity, having personally spent a significant part of my life till date in this metropolitan town by the backwaters, surrounded by a wall of greenery. Fin as the founders called it, was a prototype that captured the wildest of my imaginations. The final version of this product looks even slicker, in the form of a ring worn around the thumb – a gadget that can be used to control anything that can connect via bluetooth by the flick of a finger. It was available to preorder for $99, a couple of days back in their website. The link has mysteriously disappeared now. The prospects are infinite. A little exaggerated, I know. But I always get excited when a new gadget comes into the world, as much as I meet it with a pinch of skepticism.

But what makes me even more excited is the fact that this now has opened doors to many more of those innovators in India to stay back and plant the seeds of their dream startup in those pockets of technology, those silicons valleys that are scattered across the peninsula – along the backwaters down south to the land of fortresses in the north. The future looks hazy today, but it definitely seems bright from where I look!

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Influence of Crowd funding – CES 2014

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When most of the top consumer product manufacturers where burning the midnight oil to solve the smartwatch mystery, that has been a growing trend over the last few years, one company quietly sneeked in a product in 2013 that took the world by surprise. Rather unheard off in every way, Pebble started off as a dream in an upcoming crowdfunding organization called Kickstarter . When traditional venture capitalists failed them, Pebble looked towards crowd funding in April 2012. And soon it turned into a cult raising around 10 million from around 70,000 users around the world, becoming one of the highest crowd funded projects till date. It wasn’t long before they started mass production with a release date of January 2013. With around 200,000 units sold by the end of 2013, Pebble announced their second iteration of the smartwatch – The Pebble Steel at CES 2014 in Las Vegas.

But we are not here to talk to Pebble and its growing success, when companies like Apple and Samsung are still struggling to enter this market of watches. Rather I wanted to focus on what made Pebble possible – Crowd Funding. At least 4 of the gadgets that won the CES 2014 Awards were crowdfunded, with Oculus Rift “Crystal Cove” , the most notable amongst them. Reports suggest that Eureka Park at CES, the launchpad for startups, saw an increase of around 40% in the number of startups with exhibits. And what more, there was even an Indiegogo Zone at the venue with hoards of hardware startups flaunting their jaw-dropping ventures.

Starting a company has traditionally been expensive, when it involves hardware manufacturing. Finding an investor has been even more arduous if you just have a concept or a dream. Most investors for a manufacturing venture require a well chartered business plan stating the plan of action. This has kept a lot of startups stale for long periods of time. Crowd funding has changed all that. Through certain incentives to the crowd that funds the project, these startups have now found a way to bring their dreams to reality. Statistics show that Kickstarter has 128,244 projects registered with around $940 million pledged by close to 5 million users across the globe and around 55,000 projects among them have successfully taken off. Although Indiegogo have not published their statistics yet, I’m sure they have started to see heavy investments from users all around.

A little bit of trivia while I leave you to mull over the next venture you plan to start, CES 2014 took crowd funding rather seriously. So much that even their live streaming was crowd funded!

Smartwatches pile in at CES 2014

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I don’t always sound negative when it comes to gadgets and technology, esp. when the potential is huge! For that same reason, when I look at the list of wearable technologies at CES 2014 , I’m excited, but disappointed at the same time. Wearable technologies seem to be the fashion of the era. Google Glass and the hype about smart watches started early in 2013 with Pebble and Sony leading the way. However even after a year has passed, things haven’t grown enough for me to justify moving from my ipod nano-watch strap combo to one of those myriad of new ones in the market. For one, I wear a few things around my two wrists – a watch (typically a traditional one and sometimes an ipod nano on a strap.) and a fitbit, which tracks my activity and sleep. What I would also like to have on it is a heart rate monitor and a GPS and a bluetooth connection to my phone to let me know who is calling.

Here is a quick list of some of the more prominent ones that will be on display at CES 2014 . Let me throw in a disclaimer before I begin. The assessment is purely based on the specifications mentioned in the websites and can change drastically once they are out in exhibit halls tomorrow.

Cookoo

Pros:
Apart from the basic feature of time keeping and synching up with the iphone or android devices, what makes it unique is the fact that it also lets you know when your phone is out of range. Very useful when you are a person who keeps forgetting where you left your phone.
I also liked the remote photo taking capability, something that is missing in an iphone today.

Cons:
It comes with a CR2032 battery, similar to the ones in a traditional watch. Although it says the battery life is long, I’m not sure if traditional batteries can actually handle the multitude of additional connectivity requirements. I would still prefer a battery that can be charged every week.
The design looks more childish, although the case diameter looks big enough.

This seems more like a traditional watch with the chronograph replaced with the modern email,phone,sms trio.

Neptune Pine

Pros:
Standalone. From the looks of it, this watch runs the Android Jelly bean OS, and has a built in antenna supporting upto GSM/GPRS/EDGE 850, 900, 1800, 1900 .
Fitness app that tracks your activity
Heart rate monitor that straps on to your finger tips.
Google now

Cons:
Querty keyboard on a small display. How much of an overkill is that?
Do I really need something standalone. Would I much rather have a watch that supplements my smartphone? It cannot replace a smartphone for sure. So do I really need something this feature rich, esp. at $335?

Sonostar

Pros:
Curved display and touch screen. Perhaps the first of its kind.
Kindle-like display for sunlight readability
Fitness tracker that syncs with Sono Sports app

Cons:
Monochrome
No heart rate monitor

Burg Smart Watch

Pros:
Variety. It comes in multiple styles from Burg 12 through Burg 18 , with varying feature sets catering to different user groups.
Micros SD capability upto 32GB

Cons:
The website seems to have limited information to really assess this watch.

My Kronoz

Pros:
Slick design, esp the ZeBracelet
Device out of range alert for phones that are synced to this.

Cons:
Monochrome display
Light on features, with no fitness tracking and heart rate monitor.
Not very friendly with Android (not that I want this badly :-) )

Many more seasoned vendors have decided to venture into this market as well, notable ones such as Qualcom Toq and Sony. Then there is Pebble and the giant Samsung Galaxy Gear. And one might just start to wonder, why is it taking Apple and Google this long ….

Is google’s obsession with bringing out half baked products good?

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Albeit being an Apple fanatic, I must admit, Google has been a pioneer in bringing out some of the best innovations. Starting with the search, gmail, the glass, driverless cars, online word processing, chromecast all followed suit. But in every one of these, you cannot help but notice a similarity (wonderfully pointed out in the book Dogfight by Fred Vogelstein as well). All of them were released to the masses (or scheduled to be released in the case of Google Glass), half baked. As the book says, it is the nature of how Google was in the past that is taking a toll on its new market – the art of product manufacturing. Google inherently has been a web based company, with its search engines and its gmails thriving primarily on the fact that users have an operating system and an internet connection to connect to their services. What that entailed was, Google could easily make changes and add on new features on the fly, without actually disrupting the users ability to work with them while doing so. Having said that, I still maintain the fact that gmail being left in its “beta” form was partially due to someone forgetting to take it out of beta!

As Google started to expand its horizons to consumer products, this trend of “beta” releases seemed to drag along as well. If Android in itself was not a good example, Chromecast was more appropriate. I would rate chromecast as perhaps one of their better releases, for the price and the potential. Having a “flash drive” like product capable of “airplaying” videos and presentations out of a smartphone or a tablet is groundbreaking. But the fact that it was released with just Netflix and Youtube, brings out the “service” based mentality. Agreed chromecast did break a lot of expectations through its sales especially during the holiday season , with me personally buying a few of those as gifts. But to me, it looked like an unfinished beta, at the time of the release.

The beta model works perfectly for a software only solution/product. Releasing a product such as gmail to the masses as beta works wonders, when users do not need to purchase anything. But when it comes to hardware, this rule breaks down. Common man would resist purchasing a beta, unless you are a gadget freak, especially when you have to pay money to buy a product.

Having said all those, Google certainly took a different stance with the Glass, through its Explorer Program (a glorified name for beta testing). It accomplished two things – one, the fact that they have an exhaustive beta testing phase on the hardware itself with a small subset of “gadget fanatics” and two, the anticipation levels of the consumer community grew exponentially.

The book, Dogfight, describes this perfectly. It says that Google is still learning the art of hardware product industry. But it is learning fast. And soon a lot of industries and their incumbent organizations will need to hit the panic button. Google Fiber will revolutionize the cable industry; Google Glass will change the way people live; Google cars will shake up the car and transport industry, albeit the myriad of hurdles it still needs to hop through. And a day will come when “Don’t be Evil” will be on the banner boards across the globe, as Google completes its world domination!

Let me know your thoughts…

What’s in your wallet?

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Ever since its inception back in the 1920s, with oil companies and hotel chains, credit cards have been a victim of constant identity thefts. Easy as the payments were, equally easy was to lose it, stolen or left behind in a bar/restaurant. I had written sometime back about Digital Identity . While the idea then was about a digital wallet on your smartphones using NFC or Near Field Communications, Coin decided to take it a step further. NFC still in its infant stages, mainly due to the security concerns associated with it, Coin might just be an answer to a fat wallet! In short, coin makes a digital copy of all your credit cards and lets you swipe “the coin” in place of them. And what’s more, it constantly communicates with your smartphone via bluetooth. This ensures that you always have the coin right next to the phone for it to function, with an alert triggered every time it leaves the phone behind by around 7 meters. It then deactivates itself – a simple solution for a lost of stolen card. Sounds wonderful on paper.

Two reasons why adopting such a technology would make me a little skeptical, although I must admit I’m usually always the first to pounce on any new gadget. For one, this is a financial gadget literally having access to every single credit card that you choose to store in there, much like a financial management tool, which gets to have all your financial data. And, although it was announced back in November, this year. The shipments will not start until “summer” of 2014 and you are charged as soon as you preorder. Now the company has a very diplomatic answer to this, stating that this is a way they can help aid, financially, the manufacturing process. I’m sure this is all very credible, with its all expanding media hype and the number of preorders.

Julianne Pepitone, from CNN Money, puts it very nicely on 3 big problems with Coin . I would say, one of the primary problems (in fact two in her article), makes me nervous – its acceptance amongst the retailers and credit card companies. Consumers will accept this readily as long as the usability is widened. It would be harsh if you enter a shop and the retailer does not accept your “coin”. Common man does not usually take security as a huge threat unless there is a gaping hole. If not several of those startups such as mint.com, paypal, or even facebook, wouldn’t have taken off.

Having said all those, I still think Coin has a lot of potential. For one, the concept in itself is interesting. Not having to carry all my credit cards in my wallet just reduced the significance of my traditional wallet entirely. And the card looks great in its design.

So while we wait on its shipments and the user reviews, I’m still on the fence regarding the preorder… Let me leave you with an interesting concept video in the meantime.

Nymi and Galaxy Gear

This week will perhaps see the release of two gadgets that have the potential to change the ways of life. Wearable as they are, both are worn on wrists. While one is released by a major player in the gadget market, the other comes from a new comer. While one of them has an aura of excitement in its launch, the other will be taken with a bit of skepticism. I’m talking about the Samsung Galaxy Gear set to be announced on Wednesday, Sept. 4th in Berlin and Nymi , soon to be out for sale by a company called bionym

Let me start by talking about Samsung Galaxy Gear. Samsung has started to become rather secretive about their product launches, building up the expectations and the curiosity. So there isn’t a definitive Galaxy Gear snapped yet. While the early pictures show something rather bulky, as the choices in the market seem to still be scanty and since Apple has been amazingly slow in bringing its much hyped iWatch to market (gone are the days when Apple launches were considered to revolutionize markets!), there is hope for those with smaller wrists, such as me.

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With a Wifi Radio and 4MP camera , that would perhaps require an awkwardly held hand to take a snap, the “gear” seems to run Android in its core, giving it a better potential than the Newton of the PDA world!

Then came Nymi, from the Toronto based startup called Bionym, taking biometrics to the next level. While the rest of the world is still playing with the fingerprint recognition at the same time fantasizing about the biometrics of the retina glorified by the heist movies over the years, Bionym, realized that hidden amongst the Electro Cardio Gram (ECG) pattern is what is known as a HeartID , unique to every individual. And using this, the wristband can now help unlock your phones, laptops and potentially even your car!

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SecurID News has a rather extensive review of the technology, going on to explain the out-of-box authentication methods and how secure it can prove to be. Karl Martin, the CEO of this highly optimistic startup, goes on to explain that this is a first generation product. More needs to be seen on how the market responds.

My first take, as I have always been extremely excited about new gadget, will obviously be biased. There is potential, if channeled the right way. At the same time, it takes a lot to make a common man accept such a security tool, given the high caution thrown on identity thefts these days.

Nevertheless, exciting times are ahead!

iCrowd – Unraveling the power of crowd in the web world

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I must begin with a confession. I am a terrible Apple fanatic. So any resemblance in the title here is not a mere coincidence. But I assure you, the resemblance stops here. This is a concept – one that can perhaps be described as a concoction of a multitude of concepts that have already been floating around. Through the posts that follow, you will find me elaborating more on every one of those concepts to unearth a common theme across them – the crowd. Over the past five years, as social media and networking have started to mushroom around the web world, with smartphones and tablets becoming a common man’s gadget, several companies have started to make use of the data that is updated by users around the globe. And indeed many of the entrepreneurs and thinkers of this era have started to find correlations amongst these efforts. And along came several concepts, those which have gradually started to become an everyday term. Among them, Collaborative Consumption coined by Rachel Botsman , Crowd Sourcing coined by Jeff Howe of the Wired Magazine and Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky have grown significantly, in parallel.

While each of these talk about the influence of crowd in the functioning of the today’s world, analyzing and categorizing companies and organizations among various buckets, each have their own distinction. They portray a very specific aspect of the crowd and collectively they can encompass the iCrowd, in its entirety. Collaborative consumption talks about the idea of sharing what you have with a stranger, through a common platform for sharing, that is built upon trust. The product that is shared can vary with an organization that lay forth the platform. Airbnb, Taskbunny, A Spare to Share are all examples of this sharing. Rachel Botsman through her ground breaking talk at TED and her book What’s mine is yours , laid the foundation to this categorization of sharing, into buckets based on services .

Crowd Sourcing, coined back in 2005, talks about the idea of converting user input data into useful information, in the form of trend or recommendations or even just a single point of data depicting the state based on the data gathered from the “crowd”. I have spoken extensively about Crowd Sourcing and have tried to classify them into some reasonable buckets. SkyMotion, Waze, Minutely are all applications that have presented information from a large repository of user input data. There are then the amazon recommendations providing you with a list of products that “other customers” looked at, after viewing a particular product, in which case the input is user data collected passively. We will look into both these situations and how they play a part in the information transfer.

Cognitive Surplus is a more recent term, yet to be defined exhaustively. Clay Shirky describes it as a form of constructively making use of an individual’s free time towards a particular goal. Add in the crowd dimension and you now have an “organization without an organization”. Wikipedia is perhaps the best example of this “revolution”. Although Wikipedia has been around for quite sometime, identifying the concept that made it a huge online encyclopedia was as recent as 2009. As more and more efforts start getting categorized under this umbrella, cognitive surplus can be yet another powerful concept making use of the power of crowd.

In the coming weeks, I will hoop through each of them in more detail, pointing out examples that illustrate the common link and the distinctions.