Open Toolbox – Blogging etc.

tools that I use since my move to the Mac. At that time there were some requests to write about blogging tools. Since I know many of my readers have their own blog, or at least often think about starting one, this post will be about blogging tools.

I use WordPress hosted on Siteground. This is different from the website. If you are starting out, I would strongly recommend going with or a similar service. When I got my son Naren started out with his blog I opted for the free version of When I started blogging in 2005, I opted for typepad’s similar service.

But I soon started hitting roadblocks. It wouldn’t let me do this or that. Completely understandable for a multi-tenant SaaS business model, but it didn’t work for me. So I moved my blog and all its content to a self-installed, self-managed WordPress implementation. At that time WordPress wasn’t as evolved as it is today and on a day to day basis I had to muck around with filezilla a lot. I don’t miss that at all.

I am on WordPress 3.x now. I can’t recommend WordPress enough. It manages to be feature rich, extensible and rock solid at the same time. I have also run my company website on WordPress where it played a combined blog-cum-CMS role and it did quite well.

Yesterday, I cut over to a new WP Theme. It is the official theme from WordPress itself called Twenty Ten. It is clean, elegant and works for me. I like stuff to be simple. Fancy features that get in the way, don’t last too long with me (although, I am a sucker for trying them out!).

I know how to make changes to the CSS and templates and have done so extensively to my older themes. But in general, you don’t want to go overboard there. Customizations to software take time and effort to make and maintain. Plus they make the website unstable. So far I have made just one CSS change to Twenty Ten. I hope I can keep it down low for a long time.

The header image, by the way, is of a sunrise at Mendocino, California. The photo credit is in the footer.

Plugins are what make WordPress extensible. I use several. And there are many more that I have used, but don’t anymore.

To control comment spam I use both Akismet and Bad Behavior. Even then, a lot of it gets through. Recently, I have started seeing comments that are clearly being written by a human being. I believe these services are being offered out of India. Comments with link backs are supposed to raise the Google rank of the websites they are promoting. I guess its a legitimate business. I just wish the comments made more sense. I just delete them.

I use plugins for Archives (Smart Archives), Google Analytics (Google Analyticator), Feedburner (Feedburner Feedsmith) and Sharing (Share This). Since most of my readers read my blog in an RSS Reader, I tinker around with Feedburner a bit too.

For Twitter, which I have started in earnest only recently, I found a pretty good plugin (or set of plugins) called Twitter Tools. Every blog post automatically goes out as a Tweet. Also, on a weekly basis, the week’s Tweets are posted to my blog. My Twitter handle btw is @basabp

For my Contact Form, I used the plugin Contact Form ][ for a while and it works fine. But I love Wufoo for forms of every kind. So my current Contact Me form is from Wufoo. It is not a plugin it needs to be embedded into the page.

I used Intense Debate for comments for a long time. I haven’t been happy with it. But the theme I was using till yesterday did not support nested comments. Yesterday, I retired Intense Debate after moving to my new theme. The social networking aspect of Intense Debate is bunkum. Nobody cares if your comments are aggregated across the blogosphere. Plus they seem to have lost on market share to Disqus anyway.

I used Gravatars for a while too, separately, and then because it was built into Intense Debate. But my readers are not the types to have gravatars. So instead of having empty boxes all over the comments section, I just discarded it.

Another thing that went away yesterday was the related posts that you saw at the end of every post. These related posts were generated automatically by a plugin called Yet Another Related Posts Plugin. It worked well. But I don’t know if people noticed it or found the suggestions useful. At times, the suggestions degraded to where they were just visual noise. I might bring it back, but for right now its inactive.

I tend to write long essay-like blog posts, sometimes over multiple sittings. I could do that in WordPress – the Admin panel is pretty easy to use and auto saves. Actually, it is worth mentioning that the WordPress Admin is one of the best designed pieces of complex software that I have used. Thanks to Happy Cog.

Anyway, I got into the habit of writing up my blog posts in Evernote before I bring them over to WordPress. Evernote takes care of the auto save, and the archival to the cloud, in case something were to happen to my WordPress database.

I use images frequently, for which I use Skitch – free image manipulation software for the Mac.

Would love to hear from other bloggers out there who run their own blog.

Android India

For the last two quarters Android has outsold iPhones in the US. It has real momentum behind it. All carriers in the US offer multiple Android smartphones and the rate at which new ones are being introduced can be only described as a frenzy.

I think Android can conquer the Indian smartphone market. There are many, many things going in its favor. Android is supported by Google but is open source and free. India is a price sensitive market. Apple’s options are fairly limited with the price of an iPhone being what it is. You’ll find corporate bigwigs and finance types carrying an iPhone but really, with a $500+ price tag without a contract, it is just too expensive. So unless Apple introduces an “emerging market” iPhone model it has no hope.

And I don’t think that will happen. They’ll be too concerned about reverse flow of cheap, unlocked iPhones back into developed markets. In any case, Apple is used to being the BMW/Mercedes of consumer tech. They can’t play the emerging markets game. Also, they have no or little support infrastructure in India.

The only potential problem I can foresee is if the hardware spec for running Android becomes too expensive. As an OS matures it gathers features and bloats. But Google seems to have thought of that. Froyo, which is the latest version, is supposed to be highly performance-tuned and could even run on the first generation G1 hardware (I am considering it for my G1). Spice announced their Android phone range today. The entry level Mi 300 is priced at Rs. 10,000. That is a very nice starting point. Expect prices to go down from there.

So if you have a mobile apps strategy in India, better start thinking Android. And Nokia should see the writing on the wall and go Android.

Day One, Chennai

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I come to India many times a year. Yet the moment I set foot here, the mind starts racing with ideas, thoughts and sometimes rants. It is either because one is bombarded with new stimuli, or its the jet lag (today up at 330am. Groan…)

The day before I left the US, I called T-Mobile to see if I could activate data roaming. I have a prepaid Airtel number for phone calls in India. When I go to India, I just use data on my Blackberry or Android – using the phone within India for calls is not practical. They informed me that they could not since I had what is called a FlexPay account (which is anything but flexible. Don’t you just love the guys in Marketing). I have a FlexPay account because apparently my credit isn’t good enough. Go figure. And since I have what is essentially a prepaid account, I couldn’t have data roaming. I was hopping mad but in retrospect they did me a favor.

The thought of being without data on my phone was making me desperate. I posted a question on Facebook and sure enough, got the answer within minutes – get an Airtel GPRS monthly prepaid plan. So that’s what I set out to do on the morning of Aug 5th.

By 830 pm, well after closing time at the Airtel store, the Airtel CSR and I finally, through a series of random changes to the settings, were able to get data access on the phone activated. Neither of us will be able to reproduce the steps that led to success. Which means that I will have the privilege of repeating this exercise on my next trip.

It took me 3 hours at the Airtel store over two sessions to get it to work. While it was very frustrating, the irony is that over that period of time, the half a dozen Airtel reps I spoke to were all helpful and polite (although they would frequently lapse into Tamil when it got complicated.) The problem wasn’t that they didn’t know how to solve my problem. They didn’t know how to access that knowledge. Not knowing is OK. They probably don’t see too many Android phones looking for prepaid data plans. But not having access to a knowledge base or an expert is just not good business. They spent three hours, not including the time of the rep on the phone from their Mumbai office for what is a Rs. 98 per month plan! Yes, it is just Rs. 98 or about $2 for 2GB of data for a month.

I started thinking about this. In India today you have this confluence of high growth, low prices, low wages and low automation. High growth means that the number of transactions of any kind is growing rapidly, so the system is always stressed. Prices need to be low to compete and keep growing at that breakneck pace. Nowhere is this more evident than in telecom. But other sectors like banking and retail are similar. Low prices further fuel growth while reducing the ability of companies to invest in improving the quality or throughput of the transactions. Now, the conventional wisdom would be to use large doses of technology to automate stuff. Technology reduces human transactions, reduces errors, enables better exception handling and most of all helps a business scale. And I’m not even looking at other benefits like better customer sat etc. which aren’t germane to our current discussion. But the problem is that the cost of implementing and supporting technology is high and lumpy and the wages are low enough that most businesses (the one’s that aren’t that smart) will try and solve the problem of scaling by throwing more people at it.

I think India is a great future market for technology both software and services. But right now it is stuck in low gear because the cost of technology, which comes largely from developed economies and is priced to their benchmarks, and because of the low wages which make the productivity based RoI bar too high.

In the afternoon, I met a couple of analysts from a sell-side firm who cover IT Services. It was a delightful meeting with the conversation flowing. The two were not just well informed they had cogent viewpoints on the future of the industry. It was like a jam session. Thanks guys!

I walked around quite a bit yesterday in Shastri Nagar where I am camped with my in-laws. An important adjustment that you need to make quickly when you come to India and decide to walk the streets is to not assume that oncoming traffic will stop for a pedestrian. Or even slow down. Yesterday, I guess I took the adjusting process seriously. Towards the evening, my father-in-law who is 75 and has an artificial knee was taking my hand to guide me across the street.

You Are the Technology Choices You Make

I finally dumped my HTC Hero on Sprint. I just couldn’t take it anymore – missing calls and the “click lag” on the HTC Hero. In the bargain, I learnt a few things:

Tech reviewers are biased. If they were truly honest in their reviews they would end up trashing the odd deserving candidate. Which would cut off their access to deliberately leaked official rumours and pre-release device units. So their praise is fulsome and the tear downs are gentle to non-existent. The HTC Hero was praised to high heavens. And I got taken in.

The best way to decide on buying a new product is to trial the product or ask a friend who has similar proclivities when it comes to personal technology. Someone I know, strongly recommended the T-mobile G1 to me just about when I was in the market for a new phone – I should have at least given it a try. But no, I had to reach out for the new, shiny object.

I like physical keyboards. I used a blackberry for ever, before I got the touch screen only HTC Hero. It’s possible that a touch screen that performs better, like the iPhone’s, might have been a better experience, but I doubt that I would prefer it to something with a physical keyboard. I can touch type on a computer keyboard. I don’t know if that contributes to it, or its the way I am, but I just can’t stand typing on a touch screen. After just two days with the G1 I am already typing longer emails than I ever did with the Hero.

I like Google’s sense of design. The G1 is not a very good looking phone compared to the eyecandy you see out there nowadays. But it has everything I need, and very little that I don’t. For Google, functionality and performance trumps every thing else. But when it doesn’t get in the way, they do pay attention to the aesthetics. Which is very different from the idea of HTC Sense, which sits on top of Android and now T-mobile itself is adding on an additional layer. Blah! who needs all that crud.

I consider myself to be an early adopter of technology. Not bleeding edge, but definitely by the time version 2 rolls around (yes, that would still make me an early adopter, maybe not compared to you dear reader, but compared to the rest of humanity that includes my Dad).

Early adoption of technology involves two big sacrifices – switching costs of learning something new and the risk that all the pieces may not be working as well as they should. For me learning something new is not an investment – it is learning and even entertainment – a plus rather than a minus. But I would rather wait than take the frustration of something that has rickety performance. For a less important app, like say a utility for taking screen shots, its OK to have a few features missing. But if its your cell phone you don’t want to mess with it (although, I did). I expect, in this regard, I am not very different from a lot of folks who read this blog.

Like everyone else, I like a good deal. So I bought my G1 on eBay and got a no contract deal with T-mobile. Soon the Pradhan family will be moving over to T-mobile as well and we will save something like $100 a month.

The only problem – T-mobile wouldn’t give me a post-paid contract – it seems my credit isn’t good enough. Which left me scratching my head because there is no problem with my credit (I checked). I concluded that this must be because we don’t carry any debt, so we don’t have enough credit history. It is a sign of the times that you need to be indebted first to get more debt.

Which wouldn’t make any difference, except that for some reason Google Voice voice mail integration does not work with pre-paid T-mobile. Oh well, nothing’s perfect!

Tablets and Netbooks

TechCrunch reports that Forrester Research has new research out that predicts that tablet computers will overtake netbook sales by 2012 and desktop computer sales by 2013. Only laptop computers will sell more than tablets.

At the height of the netbook fever I had commented on a post on Ajay Shah’s blog:

In reading his posts and yours, I wonder if we aren’t conflating two distinct properties of netbooks – small and cheap. From what we seek in India – deeper penetration of computers – “small” is no good, unless it in fact is the cause of “cheap”. A small keyboard and screen, in fact will prove to be a hindrance to adoption if this is going to be the first computer for people.

I never believed that netbooks were a different game-changing kind of computer. It was just a cheaper one. That tablets will overtake them is not a big stretch. But for tablets to become the largest selling personal computing device after laptops, that’s something.

I’ll confess, I don’t own an iPad. I’ve played around it at the nearby Best Buy. It has sex appeal, no doubt. But I find it difficult to imagine it as a serious computing device. Data input is always going to be challenging compared to a laptop. I just can’t see people buying an iPad as their only computer for personal use. It will probably have to be their second or third one.

It also can’t take the replacement market for computers at home for the same reason. So you’re looking at a market comprising of people who have enough disposable income for the tablet and the wireless data plan as a discretionary second or third computer for personal use. Essentially, it is a luxury good. I think its sales curve will also behave like that – quick uptake from early tech adopters but no hockey stick like the iPod or iPhone.

What this doesn’t factor in is the use of tablets in business. There is much in the air about tablet computers in healthcare. It does sound plausible that they will find a market in some industries. Another trend that could be favourable for it, but one that I am not seeing so far, is if people use a tablet with a docked station as their primary computer. I use a docked laptop at home but most people find it too cumbersome. I don’t think that will be a significant factor.

All that said, my hunches are shaped by my experiences. Unlike a lot of people, I find it painful to type on a screen. After years of using a blackberry, I tried out the HTC Hero. My experience has been so poor that I am now moving to an old Android phone, the G1, that has a keyboard. So clearly, you have to take what I think about touch screen devices with a large pinch of salt.

No Google Voice on iPhone – Competition or Corporate Spite

David Pogue writes about Line2 in the NYT. Line2 is a service that gives you a separate phone number from which you can make calls, receive calls, get voice mail etc. etc. on your iPhone over cellular or WiFi. Everything that my Google Voice does today – with one important exception. Google Voice is not available on the iPhone as an app.

Pogue himself points this out

…Apple rejected the Google Voice app because, as Apple explained to the Federal Communications Commission, it works “by replacing the iPhone’s core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls.” That is exactly what Line2 does. Oh well—the Jobs works in mysterious ways.

From out here I can see no rational reason why Apple banned GV from its App Store. In what way does it serve their purpose? If there are any users out there who use Google Voice as their primary number, they are unlikely to be iPhone customers. I would probably have plumped for an iPhone instead of the Android phone I have now.

So you’re losing customers. Maybe not too many, but still, and this is important, you are leaving the door open for a competitor. Android phones are the only real competitor to the iPhone today aside from Blackberry in the US market. Palm Pre is history and Nokia was never a player. Blackberry, by the way, allows the GV app on its platform.

The GV ban can’t be about protecting AT&T either. Why then would they allow Line2?

I don’t think there are any reasons linked to strategy or competition for the GV ban. It is just spite. Apple is now in the “We don’t like Google anymore” phase. And now that you have the patent lawsuits that Apple has filed against
HTC, it’s only going to get worse.

I love both companies’ products. I think a lot of people do. For the most part they don’t compete with each other. It’s a shame that the Android-iPhone fight has to spill over into other things. I wish they’d behave like adults about this.

Online Education is Coming, And Fast

An in depth piece in the New York Times magazine looks at an effort to improve teacher quality through training. While this particular initiative may be better than the hundreds of other such initiatives, I find myself wondering if teacher training is indeed that big systemic change that the school education needs. Is it just tinkering with the edges when what we need is seismic shifts?

There are a whole host of problems facing the school education system in the US. Teacher training is just one of them.

The sheer number of teachers required and the low pay almost ensures that the average school teacher will not be anywhere near the best that American colleges turn out. If you think about it, isn’t a school teacher’s job, in whose hands we leave our children’s education, much more valuable to society than a lawyer’s or a banker’s. Unfortunately, society puts a really low price on it.


Kindle Doesn’t Quite Work for Non-Fiction

Felix Salmon writes

I’ve come to the clear conclusion that it simply isn’t suited for reading the vast majority of non-fiction. You might not even notice it when you’re doing it, but when you read a non-fiction work like this one, you tend to flick backwards and forwards a lot, skim past the bits you already know about, re-read earlier passages in light of later ones, that sort of thing. And that’s prohibitively difficult with the kindle, which is designed primarily for reading narratives where you start at the beginning and make your way steadily to the end. Truly narrative non-fiction a la Krakauer is fine, but “learn about the crisis” nonfiction just doesn’t lend itself to being read on the kindle at any price. If you’re the kind of person who reads footnotes, you will get very annoyed very quickly with the kindle whenever they start appearing.

I have come to the same conclusion and have started ordering dead tree books when they are non-fiction. Any book where illustrations are important gives you a suboptimal experience on the Kindle. And as Salmon says, skipping chapters or going back and forth is just very difficult in a Kindle.

But this is not inherently a problem with an e-book. It’s just that Kindle hasn’t addressed the issues involved. One is about laying out a book specifically for the Kindle. Today it is laid out for the actual book and that is essentially sucked in for the Kindle. No doubt the variable font settings on the Kindle make this challenging, but the problem can be solved. And with color e-ink displays coming, there shouldn’t be the wide gap between the layout of non-fiction books and their e-book counterparts.

The other issue is with usability. The big question that I don’t have an answer to (but somebody does) is – can an e-ink display have touch capabilities? If it can, the Kindle reader can easily flip back and forth within a book. The experience might be different from a real book, but much better than today’s Kindle.

An Unsmart Phone and an iPad

My relationship with my phone is at a nadir. As I explained in an earlier post I had to get an Android phone because I use Google Voice which Apple refuses to allow into the iPhone app store.

I got an HTC Hero on Sprint. It looked good and had great reviews. But it is in general underwhelming. And as a phone its close to a disaster.

When someone calls me, they call me on my Google Voice number. Google then routes the call to my cellphone. For some reason, there is a big delay between when someone calling me starts hearing the phone ring at their end, and when it actually starts ringing on my cellphone. This delay is negligible when GV is forwarded to my land line. If I forward it to my wife’s Verizon phone, the delay is a bit longer but still OK. On Sprint the delay is so long that my phone rings for only 10 seconds before it goes into voice mail. Sprint technical support can’t solve the problem. So basically I miss calls when the phone is anywhere but in my pocket and even then, I have to be quick.

Anyway, sorry I subjected you to my tale of woe. I am hoping someone from Sprint or Google will pick up on this and do something about it. I may be locked into a two year contract but I still have my free speech!

That’s not the only problem with the phone. It is seriously underpowered. Performance is like molasses. The calendar sucks and I’m not willing to get one from the Android marketplace unless it is great and doesn’t require me giving my Google credentials to a third party. And there are dozens of UI problems.

Plus there are a set of problems which are problems with the whole smart phone category. I regularly hit the wrong keys on the phone dialer. I still haven’t gotten used to typing out emails or messages on the keyboard. And while I like the fact that my Google Reader goes with me wherever I go, the font is just too small to read for any length of time.

So, as I was thinking hateful thoughts about my phone today a thought occurred to me. What I really need is a regular, unsmart phone and an iPad. Move all the intelligence to the iPad and have a sturdy, single purpose, idiot proof phone that is small, cheap and works great.

Something to think about. Just for a moment, before I go back to hating my HTC Hero on Sprint.

Paper Problems

I have been dealing with a lot of paperwork lately. It’s amazing how paper centric things still are. Almost all dealings with the public agencies like the school and school district are on paper. There is some email but no formal communication – forms and stuff – is online. Teachers, by and large, avoid email so they won’t be pestered by parents (I can’t see any other reason).

Doctors and other service providers who bill on time, never use email. Understandably, since that breaks the $/hr model which personal visits and phone calls support. All forms, bills, health insurance claims – it is all paper, if the doctor doesn’t bill the insurance company directly.

Bill presentment is moving online, but most companies, including companies like Comcast, PG&E and local utilities do it poorly. Which leads to frustration online or you revert back to paper bills.

Anyway, there’s a lot of paper. I’m not very good with filing and such like. And the fax machine at home is temperamental. So I decided to up my Evernote subscription to paid and started scanning paper docs into it. That way I can tag it multiple ways, instead of filing it (single tag). Evernote also makes the pdf searchable so finding it when I need it will be easier.

Pretty soon I was doing a lot of scanning. I have a flat bed scanner. And with a flat bed scanner, scanning multi page docs is a huge pain. First, you have to go back and forth between the scanner and the computer for each page. After all that, I was getting as many pdf docs and there were pages.

To get a combined pdf, the easy solution was to install the HP software that came with the printer-scanner. But then that is a mammoth 300 MB installed and just on principle I wasn’t going to do that. I have not understood why HP thinks that just because they have sold me a printer they have the right to install all kinds of junk on my computer that I don’t need or want. And they make it so difficult to install just the piece that you want, including threats like “We would strongly advise you to install the entire software”. After installing, the software will force itself into the Mac quick launch tray and the menu up top, without so much as a by your leave.

So as you can see, I don’t like HP very much and I wasn’t going to install their monstrosity just for combining pdfs. Happily, there is this Mac automator script which achieves that very readily.

That leaves the problem of the scanner itself. Why are sheet feed scanners so expensive? I can’t believe that the cost of production is higher. It has to be that manufacturers believe that a sheet feed scanner is generally required by a business not by consumers and so it can take a higher price. Or because a specialized scanner has no annuity printer ink revenue. I can’t see any other reason.