Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Net Neutratily and India's Digital Evolution

I have observed digital evolution for a couple of decades. The success of ideas, ecosystems and services cannot be attributed to a single innovation alone, but rather a whole evolved environment that supports and fosters it. Without Napster there would be no iPod. Without the iPod, there would be no iPhone, no iOS and no mobile apps. Today we are on the cusp of another digital evolution. The revolutions that it would bring forth are yet unknown, but the world has seen the potential of digital data on the go. At the crux of fostering digital evolution are policies and regulations. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is facing one such key decision on a policy that can slam the brakes on India's rapid Mobile Commerce growth.

We are talking about the impending threats to "Net Neutrality", or if I may put it in a non-euphemistic way, ushering in "Digital Racism". Quoting Wikipedia, Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. Last December, Airtel tried to classify VOIP calls as second class digital citizens by making users pay up to 16 times the cost of data charges for using apps like Skype or Viber. Airtel cracked under consumer pressure, but the telcos have not surrendered yet.

Telecom dinosaurs have enjoyed ruling the earth for a while now. Today, agile mammals are threatening their turf. Profits made through SMS, roaming and international calling are dwindling, thanks to ubiquitous high-speed data networks that we now know as 3G and 4G (LTE). Mobile data, coupled with affordable smartphones and innovative apps, is ushering the new digital revolution for India. That revolution is "M-Commerce".

M-Commerce isn't about payments through your mobile phone, or checking your bank balances online. I look at M-Commerce differently - a business or an enterprise that is solely enabled by mobile networks. We all know how mobile phones have enabled and empowered several millions across the nation. Carpenters, electricians, corner grocery store-wallahs, couriers, online retail, travel agents, food caterers, the list goes on. Snack stall menus are sent over WhatsApp and orders booked through a single reply. A customer sending photos of fabric patterns she likes directly to her supplier. Missed-call-marketing. Creative minds in India have figured out several ways of using mobile services to grow their businesses. This is the true growth of a nation - an enterprising and evolving middle class.

Let us step back a few years and look at the evolution that enabled M-Commerce. The first step was the STD-ISD-PCO revolution in the early 90s. The Government allowed operators to run public call offices (PCO). A corner grocer with a telephone line can install a call metering and billing machine and provide long distance and international calling services to anyone who walks up to the store. STD-PCOs mushroomed around the whole country and an entire nation started talking. It hasn't shut up since! The key enabler here? A wisely thought policy move that did away with old license-raj regulations and simply allowed people to create their own opportunities. As the usage grew, prices fell, and commerce took off. A supplier in Ahmedabad wouldn't think twice in calling up a customer in Mumbai to ensure satisfactory delivery.

The second milestone came during the early days of mobile telephone networks, a little after the turn of the millennium. TRAI's wise decision to make all incoming calls and SMS free was the single most important catalyst in the rapid growth of mobile telephony in India. Prepaid telephony plans, affordable and sturdy handsets and nation-wide network penetration set the stage for an explosive growth.

Fortunately, the Indian mobile operators have played wisely so far. We did not suffer growth limiting decisions like other developed nations. In the US, phones were tied to mobile network carriers. You had to enter into a 2 year lock-in contract. Steve Jobs had to pander to the mobile network operators to allow his iPhone to be packaged and sold with their plans. A basic prepaid SIM card with a 1GB monthly data plan in Canada costs C$60 which translates to Rs 3000! The same package in India is available for less than Rs. 500, SIM card included. Had Indian mobile operators emulated North American pricing and packaging, we would not even have half the e-commerce that we have today. An entire economy would have been removed from the country.

Today, India has all the evolutionary factors in place for a third round of explosive growth. World class smart phones are available at a sub Rs. 10,000 price point. The population is well versed in the use of apps and mobile services. Innovators are hard at work bringing new ideas and services to life. For the first time, India is poised to define its own place on the information superhighway. The nation can define how it wants to use the Internet and create services, information networks and large digital economies specially suited for India. Countries like China and Japan have their own Internet services to such an extent that even giants like Facebook and Google are eclipsed by QQ, Baidu and WeChat. The big players have seen this. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, all want to woo the Indian digital citizen.

To me, "Make In India" isn't just restricted to large industries. Innovation in India happens at all levels and many times, the smallest of innovations makes a huge difference. Innovation needs adoption. And adoption shall pave the way to large digital markets - all "made in India". The attempt by mobile telcos to segregate Internet traffic based and apply differential pricing is a huge deterrent to growth. It may mean short term profits for the dinosaurs, but in the end it will restrict an entire nation's needs. The ball is in TRAI's court. It has to decide whether the needs of a few outweigh the needs of many.

Saumil Shah

The author is a hacker and an entrepreneur, running a successful information security services company based in Ahmedabad, India.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Five Best Netbooks

Lifehacker's survey on the Five Best Netbooks just concluded, and the results are in. The winners are:
The EeePC was the one that kicked off the whole netbook revolution. I personally own an Acer Aspire One, simply because it has the best wireless chipset today. My friends are huge fans of the Dell Mini, because it is the best netbook to run a "hackintosh" Mac OS X, although I am not sure the Dell Mini 10 runs OS X as well as Mini 9 does.

Read the article for further details.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My second computer is a Netbook

They're compact, they're sleek and they're cute. They are netbooks and they are setting a new trend, especially amongst the Net Generation. The iPhone was the icon of 2008 and the netbook is the icon of 2009. So what are netbooks? Simply put, they are portable computers - smaller than laptops and larger than smart phones, about the size of an old video cassette. Netbooks are essentially laptops without a DVD drive and a small 10 inch wide-format screen. And they pack a lot of computing power. My netbook has a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB memory, a 160GB hard drive, a webcam, WiFi, Ethernet, USB and a memory card reader. Newer netbooks have 16 to 64GB of flash memory instead of a hard disk, which makes for faster startup and low power consumption. Netbooks come pre-loaded with a user-friendly version of Linux, or Windows XP.

The term netbook implies that they're best suited for Internet use. The netbook is the ideal portable machine. Add wireless Internet and a web browser and you've got the ability to email, chat, watch YouTube videos, upload your digital photos to Flickr and more. Netbooks have many advantages. Carry them to coffee shops, work on documents on cramped aircraft, play music at a party, take them on holidays to process photos and videos, and look good while doing all that! Did I mention that netbooks are cute?

Ironically, size is also the netbook's greatest disadvantage. Netbooks will never replace laptops or desktops as your primary computer. The screen is small and gets cluttered. The keyboard is small for human hands. I suffer from repetitive stress injuries and typing for more than an hour on a netbook really hurts.

Should you go out and buy a netbook? Netbooks are almost the same price as a mid-range desktop PC. Think of a netbook as a second vehicle - something you use occasionally. If your portable computing needs aren't very demanding, the netbook can be an ideal companion to your desktop. If you think of using a netbook as your main computer, get ready for degraded vision and wrist surgery.

Netbooks may have their downside, but no one can pass up their good looks. Most PC manufacturers know this, and have a netbook to sell you. Everyone netbook owner I know bought it simply because "it looks cute!". So did I.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Read a (net)Book!

Netbooks can make reading e-books very easy and natural. EeeRotate is an innovative program that rotates the Netbook display screen by 90 degrees, allowing you to open and hold your Netbook like a novel!

EeeRotate can be activated on the fly, by pressing Ctrl-Alt and the arrow keys (up, down, left, right). It is free and easy to use.

If you own a Netbook, give EeeRotate a shot! Although I'm not a fan of e-books, reading an e-book in this manner works better than the normal horizontal screen format.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Netbooks - Reviews, comparisons, hacks and hints

Netbooks are here to stay. These tiny computers are the rage amongst the Net Generation. Perhaps the first Netbook on the scene was the Sony VAIO Picturebook that came out in mid 2000. The Sony Picturebook was ahead of its time. Sure it had a small 1024x600 10" screen, built in webcam, no DVD drive, reasonable battery life (2 hours which dwindled down to 10 minutes after a year) and extremely tiny and portable. However, the necessary "environmental factors" weren't in place yet. And oh, it cost 6 times as much as a Netbook does now.

In 2000, there was very little WiFi. WiFi wasn't built into every system. One had to use ugly plugin cards to enable WiFi. There was also very little WiFi service around the world. The only place you could use WiFi was either at home or the office. Storage size and RAM was also low on the Picturebook - 128MB RAM and a 4GB hard disk. And there was no broadband Internet to the home.

Netbooks now have a lot of computing power, and yes, some can even run Mac OS X! (links later down the article for how to run OS X on your netbook). And all the environmental factors are in place for netbooks to thrive - WiFi, fast broadband Internet, cheap digital cameras, music on MP3s, YouTube, GMail, Flickr, Facebook and what not. The netbook has arrived.

First, some reviews:

What is a Netbook?

How Cheap Little Laptops Hit The Big Time (Wired)

Some comparisons and reviews:

The Top 10 Netbooks

Wikipedia's comparision of Netbooks, at a glance

And here's how to turbocharge your Netbook into running Mac OS X, making it the coolest Apple machine!

First, ensure that your netbook is "Mac compatible".

Next, follow Gizmodo's easy tutorial on running Mac OS X on the Dell Mini.

But all's not rosy for Netbooks. They are a pain to use - especially a pain on the eyes because the screen is too small and a pain in the wrists, because typing on tiny keyboards will ruin your carpal tunnel nerves.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

USB Pen Drives - a growing carrier of viruses

USB pen drives are the floppy disks of the new millennium. A 4GB pen drive costs Rs. 600. Everyone uses them - carrying data from home to work, exchanging digital photos, taking documents to print shops and even for backups. However, USB pen drives have become the carrier of choice for viruses and worms.

You've returned from a vacation and want to print your digital photos. You take your photos on a pen drive and to the photo shop. The operator plugs in your device, copies the photos on the shop's computer and returns the device. Publicly used computers, like those in photo or print shops or cybercafes are rife with "cyber diseases". As you return home, a worm is riding along on your pen drive. Plugging in the pen drive on your computer gives the worm a new home. Your computer has now become another source of infection for other pen drives plugged into it. I shall refrain from making any real-life analogies here.

How do worms travel on pen drives? The answer lies in Windows' AutoPlay mechanism. Whenever you insert a CD or a pen drive in your computer, Windows displays a default pop up to choose if you want to open the folder, run a slideshow, play music, etc. Developers can create customized launch programs by creating a special "Autorun.inf" file. Whenever you insert a storage device, Windows automatically looks for the presence of Autorun.inf and on finding one, executes the programs listed in it. This "feature" is a blessing for worms. An infected computer will create an Autorun.inf file on every device it encounters and copy the worm program on it. The worms disguise themselves as folders, with the same yellow folder icons. If Autorun.inf doesn't get you, inadvertently clicking on what may seem to be a folder will.

AutoPlay is a classic example of "convenience turned into a nuisance". Older pen drives were manufactured with a write-protect switch, just like floppies. Sadly, newer ones have no protection - we have to resort to disabling AutoPlay. The easiest way is by using Microsoft's TweakUI power toy, saving you the hassle of editing the registry. Here are some easy instructions for disabling AutoPlay. And avoid exchanging pen drives with unknown computers. There is no digital latex.

Disabling Windows' AutoPlay

Windows' AutoPlay and AutoRun is more of a nuisance than a feature. This "feature" has been best utilized by worm and virus writers for automatically triggering malware when a USB device is plugged in.

A few years ago, USB pen drives came with a little switch - flipping it would enable write-protect, allowing the user to only read data off the drives, much like the floppy disks of the past. However, newer USB pen drives have no write protect mechanism on them.

I highly recommend disabling Windows' AutoPlay and AutoRun for every computer. It is an entirely useless feature that Microsoft should have never created in the first place. The best way of disabling AutoPlay is through Microsoft's TweakUI Power Toy.

First, download TweakUI.

Run it and expand "My Computer" and "AutoPlay" from the tree on the left hand side. Select "Drives" and uncheck all drive letters from the view on the right hand side as shown in the screenshot below. Click on the image for a larger view:

Next, click on the "Types" setting on the left hand side, and uncheck Autoplay options for both CD/DVD drives and removable devices. The screenshot below shows how. Click on the image for a larger view:

That's it. To ensure everything is set, reboot the computer. I know, it's 2009, but Windows is still primitive in certain ways.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Need for Speed

Broadband Internet service has become the norm for every connected home today. We expect high speed Internet service, with web pages loading in an instant and live videos playing without a hiccup. But are you getting what you are paying for? Every ISP labels its service as "high speed", be it a DSL connection, or a cable connection or a wireless "air card".

Your overall Internet experience actually depends on throughput and not just speed. A higher speed does not necessarily mean a better Internet connection. The quality of the connection matters equally, if not more. When evaluating an Internet service, one has to pay attention to three factors - speed, error rate and latency.

Speed refers to the amount of data that can be transmitted per second - measured in Kilobits or Megabits per second. A high speed connection in my view should provide a minimum of 256 Kbps speed, for decent performance.

Error rate refers to the percentage of messages lost during data transfer. This term is also referred to as "packet loss". Data networks are not perfect, and from time to time messages get dropped. Fortunately, the networking software in our computers will automatically re-transmit the messages if no confirmation of delivery is received. Error rates should be minimal. Anything above 1% is not acceptable. The performance of a 64 Kbps connection with a 0.5% error rate is way better than a 512 Kbps line with a 2% error rate.

Latency is the time it takes for data to travel from your computer to its destination, measured in milliseconds. It is analogous to the delay we perceive in an overseas phone conversation. A higher latency implies that your quality will suffer more under errors. An average latency of 300 milliseconds is acceptable. Anything higher than that will severely impact throughput during errors.

It is easy for us to evaluate the quality of an Internet connection. The Broadband Speed Test website measures the latency, upload and download speeds of your Internet connection. Before you purchase a new Internet service, ask for a demonstration and check out the performance yourself.

More details on how to use the Broadband Speed Test can be found here on the Cyberwatch blog along with a comparison between popular Internet services available in India.

Speed Test your Broadband Internet Connection

This article explores some quick and easy ways to determine the overall performance of your broadband Internet connection. There are three factors that affect the performance, or throughput of your Internet connection.

Line Speed: The speed of your Internet connection is the most advertised factor when selling you the service. We measure the line speed in kilobits per second (Kbps) or megabits per second (Mbps). The line speed tells us how fast can signals travel across the wire. A 256 Kbps speed implies 2,56,000 bits can be transmitted or received in one second. However, speed is not the only factor that boosts your throughput.

Error Rate: Errors hamper data communication. When a transmission error occurs, the data packet being transmitted is lost, and has to be re-transmitted. If your Internet connection suffers from a high error rate, your throughput will be miserable. This is because most of the time is spent in re-transmission of packets in the event of errors. Data packets travelling on the Internet travel like cars on a highway. If you are driving and see an obstacle on the highway, you would naturally apply the brakes and slow down the car. Now, once you clear the obstacle, you would accelerate slowly until you reach the desired speed limit. The time spent in braking and accelerating again is analogous to what happens when a data packet needs to be retransmitted. Now, even if your car can travel at 100 kms per hour, if you have to brake and accelerate repeatedly, your average speed will be less than half of the maximum speed. The maximum tolerable error rate should not exceed 1%. You may be able to tolerate one out of every hundred data packets being dropped. Any more and your throughput is drastically degraded.

Latency: Latency is the time it takes for data to travel from your computer to its destination, measured in milliseconds. It is often referred to as the "round trip time" or RTT for short. Latency is the time it takes for your computer to establish the initial connection with the destination computer on the Internet. A higher latency implies that your throughput will suffer more under errors. For every error that occurs, your computer has to re-establish the connection with its destination. The longer it takes to re-establish the connection, the slower is your performance. Another factor that is based on latency is "jitter".

Jitter is the variation in latency for every data packet sent. If the time taken for every packet varies greatly, it implies a higher jitter. Jitter impacts real-time services such as Voice over IP or watching videos directly from the Internet. Low jitter means a more steady throughput.

With these concepts introduced, let us look at a few quick methods to test how your Internet connection really performs. The Broadband Speed Test website can test your Internet connection's performance in a matter of minutes, without you requiring to install any software. The Broadband Speed Test requires you to select a testing server, to measure how fast the connection is between your computer and the test server. For the first set of tests, choose a server nearest to your location. This will determine how fast the connection is between your computer and your ISP. For the second set of tests, choose a server far away, like in the United States or Europe or Asia Pacific. Most overseas Internet connections from India land in Europe or the US. Testing with a European or a US server will determine the overall speed you can hope to get with servers all over the Internet.

At the end of the test, your results will be displayed as follows:

Tata Indicom (VSNL) - Testing between Ahmedabad and Mumbai

Tata Indicom (VSNL) - Testing between Ahmedabad and San Jose

I conducted tests with three broadband connections - BSNL's 2 Mbps Business Data plan, Tata Indicom (VSNL)'s 2 Mbps Unlimited Data plan and Iqara's 256 Kbps cable connection.

Here is a summary of the tests.

ISPTest ServerLatency (ms)Download Speed (Kbps)Upload Speed (Kbps)Comments
BSNLMumbai, IN751436173Very high latency, and not enough speed for a 2 Mbps connection
BSNLSan Jose, CA382426516An aberration. Usually upload speeds are slower than download speeds.
Tata IndicomMumbai, IN871113496Fast and steady throughput.
Tata IndicomSan Jose, CA323955491Not much difference between Mumbai and San Jose. This indicates a high quality connection. The only difference is the latency.
IqaraMumbai, IN45238240Good enough for a 256 Kbps connection. Low latency and speeds approaching 256 Kbps.
IqaraSan Jose, CA287249187Not much variation in speed between Mumbai and San Jose. Upload speed is reduced, but the download speed is increased.