I love gadgets but here’s why I’m immune to the temptations of new devices

Despite my love for new technology, I’ve become averse to adopting it right away. This may be a reflection of having conservative parents who worked as retailers in the tech industry. Even though my dad had access to the latest gadgets, he hardly ever switched to using them everyday. When advising clients, he made it clear which devices actually offered value for money. Most of the time the newest device wasn’t on that list.

Even when I had enough money of my own to spend, my aversion for new tech remained. It was clear to me that future-generation devices are always much better than the first-generation ones. After removing the inevitable kinks and adding the much-needed features that the first device missed, the second device does the job significantly better.

Another reason for not wanting to upgrade to a new device is the result of a wider trend, and it has only become more obvious to me in recent years. The new devices on offer won’t make my life that much easier. My first smartphone was a touchscreen Pocket PC device, and it was tonnes better than any Nokia phone on offer at the time. I could look at full-sized images, browse the internet on Wi-Fi, manage a planner and use Google Sync.

Then I bought a Blackberry 8320, which seemed like a step in the past. But it wasn’t. Although I missed the touchscreen, the ease of using a full keyboard was quite something. Finally came the iPhone 4S, which changed my life in more ways than any phone had.

Now we have the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Sadly, they are nothing but the same old iPhone with a bigger screen. Apart from tiny upgrades in the operating system, which is available on older devices, there is nothing about the new iPhones that is attractive to those not part of the cult. There are Android phones which offer a lot more, but none of those features are enough to change my mind.

The Apple Watch may be gorgeous, but I won’t be buying a first generation device. Mostly, though, a smartwatch seems to be nothing more than an additional layer of distraction right now. This is true of Google Glass, too.

There is hardly a profession where reading and replying to every text message, email, Facebook or Twitter notification as soon as you can is important. Most things can wait, and they must if we are to do anything productive in life. The suggestion here is not to become a Luddite, but, when a screen is only a wrist-flick away or in your eye, the temptation is too high.

The only reason I may end up buying a new internet-enabled device is if I am forced to. This could happen either because the device stops working, gets destroyed or doesn’t perform as I need it to. My nearly three-year-old iPhone 4S runs iOS7 and I have no complaints whatsoever (I won’t be upgrading to iOS8, because that would be suicide. Reviews suggest that the user experience becomes choppier.) My nearly four-year-old iPad2 runs iOS7 and works perfectly well. My four-year-old MacBook Pro 17″ runs Mac OSX Mavericks and runs like a leopard. My four-year-old Kindle 3G does everything I need it to.

I love you, gadget-makers, but to get me to actually buy something new you will have to do a lot more.

Response to comments on the Aakash Op-Ed

On March 29th I wrote an Op-Ed in The Hindu, a national newspaper in India, on the Indian government’s plans to hand out $35  tablets to poor students. It attracted a number of comments and emails. I’m writing this post as a response to some of the common points that they raise.

1. Are test scores the best way to evaluate student’s learning?

The studies I quote (references to which can be found here) also took into consideration other factors. For instance, the Peru study looked at behaviour of the students: enrolment, attendance, study at home, and reading habits. While even this is not perfect a way to evaluate students, but I believe it enough to draw conclusion about the success or failure of this large scheme.

2. India already has plans in place to take care of malnourished children. There are mid-day meal programs and healthcare program like the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM). Isn’t it ok for the Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry to work on other issues?

This is true. But consider the fact that NHRM was started in 1975. In nearly 40 years it has not been able to cut down the number of malnourished children. More than 40% still suffer from stunted growth, which means that they don’t reach their proper physical or mental potential. Read detailed report here. These are serious worries, and despite government’s efforts little has happened. One of the reasons may be that it is not just the lack of food that is causing malnutrition. Read this excellent article to find out more.

3. Many schools don’t have access to books beyond their curricula. Aakash will enable them to get that access without added expenditure. Isn’t that good?

I’d accept the first argument about scalability But one needs to weigh the utility of gaining more knowledge while most of those who will get it may not even have the basic knowledge to approach the idea gaining more knowledge.

4. The infrastructure requirement for 3G is minimal when compared to building schools and it has a profit component which invites private expenditure. Even if it’s not profit-based, it’s easier for the govt. to deal with huge mobile companies than with different contractors working in every village.

The physical infrastructure needed for Aakash might be less, but the software and educational material that will be needed for it is by no means a small project. It is scalable as it can be deployed on all tablets at once, but the implementation of that material will need teachers on the ground. So I don’t think it’s as easy as that.

5. This is only the beginning. The trickle down effect of this initiative will be large.

This particular comment can be made about pretty much every initiative of the Indian government. See the NHRM example in answer 2 above.

6. Your complaint of poor hardware is justified, but if that is overcome then content will reach more people. The content is there, look at Khan Academy

It’s nice to hope that content that worked for the west will also work for India. See answer 4.

Some notable comments below:

It also seems that the government has taken pre-orders for the device. From an email:

I’ve made an advance payment of Rs. 2999 for the much publicized Aakash Tablet by GOI in Feb 2012. Now even after a year, Datawind has not delivered it. My reminders are answered with a reply stating that the delivery is under process.

On The Hindu’s website:

From Himanshu:

The middle ages had Tughlaq and his leather currency .. we have Sibal and Akash.

From AAKASHHULK:

ITS JUST A POLITICAL TRICK TO GRAB A FEW VOTES.

From Saurabh Sharma:

I got a SIM Card buy just showing my Aadhar card. The pleasure was immeasurable. For once I felt I was a decent human being and not a punching bag of government rules. Aadhar is another favourite punching bag of pessimists and armchair critics.

From S Nandakumar:

Whatever said and done even in the age of e-learning and Computer Based Training there is nothing like effective classroom interaction between students & teachers

This tablet is not the magic pill

The Indian government needs to open its eyes and realise that the technological utopia it envisions in the low-cost tablet is no cure for poor education, poverty or inequality

The last few days have brought the Aakash tablet back into the media limelight. Last Friday, Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister M.M. Pallam Raju said that troubles with the manufacturer could doom the project. But the next day, former HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who started the project, denied Mr. Raju’s comments. He further added: “I want public services to be delivered through Aakash. I want Aakash to be a platform for 1.2 billion people.”

Before Mr. Sibal sets more ridiculous targets and spends taxpayers’ money on them, he needs to be stopped. His fanciful ideas are wrong. First, there is no evidence that a tablet can solve any of the problems that he claims it can. Second, it is not clear how the Indian government will ever be able to produce (or procure) a tablet that costs less than $35.

Root of the idea

The idea for the Aakash tablet and troubles that the project brings with it have both been inherited from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OLPC’s hope was that empowering children in the developing world with computers connected to the internet will help them learn faster, develop better skills and reach their full potential.

But there were problems with the idea right from the start. First, it hadn’t been tested on a large enough population to make a reasonable cost-benefit analysis. Second, the project claimed that scaling up production will reduce the cost of each laptop below Rs.5,400 ($100), though they weren’t sure how. Third, OLPC thought better education was the panacea to all problems irrespective of a country’s needs.

Despite these issues, OLPC received backing from the United Nations Development Programme in 2006. With this stamp of approval, its large-scale implementation began. About eight years after its launch, the results are in and OLPC hasn’t done so well.

Tested in Peru

Peru was the site of the largest experiment. More than 8,50,000 laptops were given out at a cost of Rs.1080 crore ($200 million). In treatment schools where the number of laptops per child was increased from 0.12 to 1.18, a report by the Inter-American Development Bank found that OLPC failed in its goals. Test scores in languages and maths remain dismal. Enrolment isn’t higher than what it was before.

A 2010 study in Romania, another middle-income country, found that those children who were given laptops were, not surprisingly, more proficient in its use. But they did not score anymore in exams than those who didn’t have computers. Even in a low-income country like Nepal, a small-scale study produced the same results. Furthermore, the price of each laptop, up until 2010, remained at more than Rs.10,000 ($200).

More than 20 lakh laptops have been handed out so far. Berk Ozler, senior economist at the World Bank, argues that OLPC is a mess. A report by Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames of the University of California Irvine, says: “Unlike Negroponte’s approach of simply handing computers to children and walking away, there needs to be integrated education improvement efforts.” It is not clear how governments all around the world fell for the scheme that is backed by little evidence.

OLPC’s latest victim is India, even though Aakash is not a laptop. Mr. Sibal, like Negroponte, considers Aakash to be the panacea to all problems. It’s not just that. Mr. Sibal also wants Aakash to be the cheapest tablet. This has proved to be a major hurdle. Datawind, a Canadian company, won the tender to provide tablets at a cost of less than $35. Its first version failed miserably because of poor hardware. The newer version seemed more promising, but it looks like Datawind will default on its promise to deliver 1,00,000 units by March 31.

Even if the government somehow, however difficult it may seem, is able to get access to cheap tablets, they are not going to help achieve its aims. Can a laptop overcome the negative impact of a bad teacher or poor school? Can it make children smarter despite the lack of electricity, water, toilets or playgrounds? Can it overcome the limitations of stunted growth among the malnourished? Can Aakash increase productivity of the workforce to counterbalance the money invested in it?

There is no evidence that it can do any of these things. And yet, the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology “strongly hinges around a low-cost device through which the content created can reach the learner.” This adoption of OLPC’s main idea is fraught with problems. Warschauer and Ames rightly argue that handing out laptops, or in India’s case, tablets, ignores the local context and thus avoids solving any of the targeted problems.

Right now when government officials are themselves confused over the future of Aakash, it is important to step back and analyse the reasons for pressing forward with a hopeless idea. Without concrete evidence, it would be foolish to continue.

This is a referenced version of an Op-Ed that was first published in The Hindu.
Image credit: The Hindu

Rethinking the information revolution


Written with Alex Flint

Beyond all the needs that it fulfils, all technological innovation is underpinned by a common driving force: how to make information flow more efficiently. From when the first modern humans walked the earth, we’ve assumed that it was their survival instinct that drove innovation. It certainly has, but we forget that without the ability to efficiently pass on information from one generation to the next, our ancestors would’ve had to reinvent the most basic things every time they needed it.

From the beginning of human civilisation till today, our aim has been to increase, what can be termed, brain to brain bandwidth. The idea encompasses not just flow of information from one person to the other but also how effectively it is transmitted, that is how well it is understood or used by the person receiving it.

We’ve come to associate the last 50 years with the period when the information revolution took place. But that is because the industrial revolution that preceded it made life easy enough for us to focus primarily on information and its transmission. Is the information revolution slowing down though? Certainly not.

The machine of the dreamers

The personal computer was expected to make its way into every home well before the 1990s. But its limitations with speed and memory did not let that happen. Its main users for many years were technology geeks, nerds and hackers.

While no one doubted the achievement of Apple I from a purely technical standpoint, giants of the field like IBM did not believe in the dream of the PC-enthusiasts. In 1976 it was hard to imagine how exactly an abstruse gadget in a wood-casing with the title “Apple I” scrawled over the headpiece would have a large impact on ordinary life. But should it have been so difficult? The fundamental role of information in our lives seemed to have been underplayed.

By the time the personal computer, as we know it*, was first built, it had already been over a decade since Gordon Moore’s prediction that the number of components on an integrated circuit would double every two years^.

A general purpose information processing device was going to be in demand and would become cheap enough for many to afford. But it still took a genius and a rebel like Steve Jobs to force the incumbents to accept that the PC age had begun.

The byproduct of science

The next innovation after the PC that had a comparable impact on humanity’s brain to brain bandwidth was the internet. What the PC made possible was a better way to access and manipulate information. The advent of the internet brought things a step further by enabling us to connect such information with relative ease.

However, like the PC before it, mass adoption took time. After being invented as a means of transferring data between physicists, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s idea took off in the mid-90’s. Since then the internet has disrupted not just information transfer mechanisms but many other markets. From the postal system to the education system, anything that has information transfer at its heart has been changed by the internet.

The rise of social

While many might dispute social media as the next big innovation, there is little doubt that adding a personal touch to information flow has made a huge difference. Defined as a website that allows you to make a profile page, connect with friends and view your friends’ connections, the first social networking website was SixDegrees.com launched in 1997.

Since then, of course, social networking sites like MySpace, Orkut, Facebook, Twitter and, most recently, Google+ have drawn hundreds of millions of users. Even though Facebook is not quite worth $100 billion just yet, the sheer number of users of Facebook has helped it create a parallel world of its own on the internet. Just a little less than half the world’s internet users have Facebook accounts. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter though. Social news sites like Reddit, Digg and StumbleUpon draw large crowds too.

But innovation in this sector is reaching a plateau. All social networking websites have essentially the same features: profiles, news feed, data-sharing (photos, links, documents, etc.) and many ways of bringing users together in groups or by direct communication. We’ve reached a point today when people are spending less time on social networks than before.

Virtually face to face

The next innovation needed in increasing our brain to brain bandwidth are being touted to come from wearable computing, be it smartwatches or products like Google Glass. But these seem like an incremental development rather than one that is paradigm-shifting.

What we really need is a virtual way to replicate the water-cooler effect. The effect is named after the phenomenon that colleagues in an office meet at a water-cooler, which leads to serendipitous exchange of ideas. It is thought that the internet has led to the decline of these chance events happening, and thus slowed down the pace of innovation.

It was this that formed the core of a recent note from Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, that asked Yahoo employees to stop working from home. Many decried Mayer’s note, calling her out of touch with reality. But she has a point because there is a lot of value in face to face communication. No innovation yet has come close to solving that problem.

A solution to this problem will truly impact the world. Economists have found out that the easiest way to double world GDP is to get rid of international borders. Which, of course, is a politically implausible proposition. But if technological development could allow virtual presence of a person to be nearly as good as real presence, this dividend would not remain an unrealised one.

And perhaps Yahoo workers could start working from home again.

* Many will dispute which exactly was the first personal computer. Perhaps it was GENIAC built in 1955. The Apple II built in 1977 was the first mass-produced PC. But the first PC with a graphic user interface, that we have become so accustomed to, was Lisa built in 1983.

^ The often-quoted period of 18 months was a modification by David House, of Intel, who said the growth in computing power will come not just from more transistors but also from faster ones

First published on medium.com. Image from here.

Solving India’s bus problem

India is a country of hustlers. And yet, Bangalore, which is the rightful startup capital of the country, hasn’t proven its potential as the next Silicon Valley. That promise was born in the 1990s when it attracted entrepreneurs and investors to what was already home to India’s IT giants: Infosys and Wipro. But success stories from the startup hub have been slow to emerge. A recent example is Flipkart, dubbed as India’s Amazon. The latest addition to the list is RedBus, an online service for bus tickets, which has pulled off a trick that few thought possible.

One startup has attempted to solve India’s bus problem,  Quartz, 26 Feb 2013.

Image credit: Quartz

A nebulous future

Before Apple launched iCloud in 2011, Steve Jobs allegedly offered to buy Dropbox, a file-sharing service founded in 2007, for $800m. When Dropbox declined, Apple’s late boss disparaged it as a feature, not a company. Soon after, Dropbox raised $250m, putting its value at over $4 billion. Earlier in December Dropbox concluded a promotional campaign that, in just a few weeks, added 2m new users, bringing the total to over 100m, roughly double the number when Jobs made his comment. Consumers, it seems, can’t get enough of the feature.

Dropbox dominates online file-sharing. It boast three times as many users as its closest direct rival, YouSendIt. (Its dominance is even more pronounced when it comes to the volume of data stored.) It eats up 20% of all bandwidth consumed globally by browser-based file-sharing services, against 1% for YouSendIt. Dropbox users save more than 1 billion files every day.

Most of them use the free version of the service. The company makes money by charging for extra storage. Around 4% of users plump for the premium version, though the proportion is growing, according to Arash Ferdowsi, one of the Dropbox’s co-founders. The recent campaign, called Space Race, gave away free space to university students in return for getting their peers to sign up to the service. The hope is that when access to this extra storage runs out after two years, the students, by then freshly-minted professionals, will pay to keep using it.

Dropbox relies on individuals and small firms, for whom its rudimentary security features are good enough; bigger businesses with sensitive information prefer more secure services like Box.net. The advent of competitors in the nebulous form of iCloud, Google’s Drive and Microsoft’s Skydrive, which come pre-installed on their respective makers’ gadgets, does not seem to have dampened enthusiasm for Dropbox. Unlike iCloud, which boasted 190m users by October thanks to its deep integration with Apple’s mobile devices, the service is “platform neutral”—ie, works across different devices and operating systems—and allows easy file-sharing, both useful traits in an increasingly connected world where few people hew devoutly to a single device-maker.

Google and Microsoft clouds emulate Dropbox in these respects. But at a little over 10m users each, they do not yet benefit from from the incumbent’s powerful network effect. If you are sharing files with a dozen other people on Dropbox, a move to Google or Microsoft would require all 12 to move with you.

Dropbox is also striving to make itself the default choice for smartphone users. In 2011 it struck a deal with HTC, a Taiwanese phonemaker, to preinstall Dropbox on its Android devices. In return it gives HTC users 5GB of space for free. HTC has been struggling of late, but Mr Ferdowsi says that his company is in talks with other manufacturers, hoping for similar arrangements.

A bigger long-term worry is the plummeting price of digital storage. With its vast scale, Amazon has driven down costs substantially for the likes of Dropbox, which leases server space from the e-commerce giant. But Google Drive already offers 100GB for $5 a month, half what Dropbox charges for the same amount of storage. And Google can advertise its cloud across its myriad online offerings. Dropbox’s margins are only likely to get wispier in the future.

First published on economist.com.

Image credit: Dropbox