Content repackaging gateways

Displaying a website on the mobile has always been tricky. The small form factor, the profusion of models and operating systems – SymbianAndroidMaemoBadaJavaWeb OS and their ever-changing versions have developers scrambling to provide a streamlined experience for users – apart from tackling issues like click and touch interfaces. While Opera Mini is the preferred browser for mobiles, applications that repackage the web page on the fly are exploring unchartered territory.

While browsers align HTML code to display better on 2 inch – 4-inch screens, apps like Pulse and Flipboard are redefining the fundamental basis of website identity. Facebook on Flipboard is completely unlike Facebook on the PC. Newser is a pointer to how websites are aggregated on the net but Pulse changes the look and feel of websites in a way that makes it a breeze to consume on the mobile and tablet. The designers of these websites have very little to do with the way their sites look on these devices.

In essence, these applications are content repackaging gateways. They allow you to experience the most popular websites in the same unified way, without having to navigate from site to site. I think we are seeing the first mutation of how small screen form is defining a function. And another shift in power.


The Bengal sari network

They walk around the city with a huge cloth bundle slung over their shoulders. It’s their mobile showroom.They live with their competitors in seedy hotels and carry a small diary that lists every single one of their customers. From their villages in West Bengal’s interiors, they make the difficult journey to the borders of Bangladesh twice or thrice a year where they procure the famous ‘Dhaka Cotton’ saris. It’s not an easy life. What’s interesting is that they have been practicing ‘Customer get Customer’ for years.

It’s like Facebook  – selling only within a friend’s network. They get introductions, phone numbers and are gently persistent about their wares. All customers are ‘didi’s’ (elder sisters). They fix up appointments, land up at the house and get at least a few friends and neighbours from around to ‘see’ the saris. Their effort is not just to sell but to expand the network. A single sales call lasts as long as a couple of hours and they probably are the only people who understand women very well.

Well attuned to the prices their customers can afford, they sell expensive saris on instalments. No bills, or receipts. Just a promise to pay within a certain number of months. And they know how to pace their visits. Calling only once or twice a year – never aggressive, always chipping away with perseverance. And building a trust network that keeps them and their families going for decades.


Design Teachers who inspire

Seth Godin pointed me to BA Magazine( Before & After) helmed by a quiet, introspective designer called John McWade. It concentrates on the nuances – something that evolves only after years of experience. In the primary years, most designers are too busy looking different, wanting to blaze a new trail, try out colours and typefaces that leap out and strangle the viewer or reader. They design for themselves, not the person who needs to be communicated to.

Then, there is a period of floating through the mist of designer edginess before the realisation hits home. Classics stand the test of time. They don’t look jaded just because a few centuries have passed. Books have easy to read typefaces because they are full of words. Magazines have huge pictures alternating with words. Newspapers have words and pictures packed densely into columns and spaces. To combine movies and words, a different grammar evolved. And web pages now integrate text, pictures, audio, and video. The best ones do them well. But most people go through life without ever having realised that several talented people have grappled with it. Not that they ever need to. If designers have done their job, they will not have any problem in flitting seamlessly between media

It’s people like McWade who bring out the magic. Just spend five minutes on this video. Like Steve Jobs, it may open a window in your mind.


Those who never change ringtones

Which camp do you belong to – the one that changes ringtones every month, or the one that doesn’t bother to change the one that came straight out of the box? Listening to phones going off in restaurants, malls, and cinemas, Nokia’s default tone is the one that I hear most often. I suspect navigation is the factor people find daunting. Experimentation, for the vast majority, is unnecessary.

For some, it is a problem to make out that the phone is ringing when they hear a film song. Phones should sound like phones, otherwise, they may be mistaken for the radio. That’s why one of the default ringtones is the shrill ‘old phone’.’ No doubts about that one. It’s the young who go through the bother of setting different ringtones for their close friends. Or the ones who want to know the boss is calling even before they look at the screen. Callback tones are a giveaway as to the musical preferences of the user. I’ve seen finance professionals who have the hideous ‘baby laugh’ ringtone. It’s great to have wacky ringtones in college for a laugh but having it go off in the middle of a conference is almost like farting in public.

If you are interested in experimenting, Zedge is a good place to start. Everything from blues to reggae to pop to instrumental is available for downloads, for free. The choice is astounding – and this is just on one site. The other surprising fact is the money generated by selling tones – According to some estimates a declining market of over $500 million, from a peak of $4 billion in 2004.. That’s a lot for an innovation that merely changes the sound of your phone ringing.

Me? I have a ringtown downloaded from Zedge. All I want is to know that it’s my phone ringing. Not several people going for their pockets at the same time.


2011 Another Day. Another Year

Gyrating wildly but completely out of synch with the music were several frenzied partygoers. It didn’t matter because, in the haze of created smoke and laser lights, everyone was having a ball. It was a funny experience raising lighted candles and singing ‘auld lang syne‘ with strangers, just before the countdown clock kicked in. A familiar tune but an unfamiliar song. And coming as it did after the current anthems ‘Sheila Ki Jawaani‘ and ‘Munni Badnaam Hui‘, it took on a dreamy ballad atmosphere more conducive to reunions rather than the passing of a year.

The streets were quiet on the way back home. The policing has been effective with unruly elements reined in. There were the occasional shouts and drunk greeting but nothing to upset the tone and tenor of the recently born year. When we lived next to the beach, it was irritating with drunken elements using greetings as an excuse to paw women – putting us permanently out of favour of going out on New Year’s eve. There’s nothing to dampen the new year spirit as the alcoholic breath and the slurred salutation.

It’s been a big year. There are enough New Year lists on other sites for me to add any of my own, including the top ad campaigns of the year. Does it really make sense to have the best of, the most powerful and the most influential lists? Apart from helping to sell magazines and make for idle cocktail chatter, these are laughable, especially when viewed a few years later. Today’s movers and shakers are tomorrow’s loners and losers.


Making public transport attractive

The distance between the new airport in Hyderabad and the city has created problems and opportunities. The old airport was plumb in the middle of the city and it was like getting off a bus and joining the mainstream. This is a good 20 km’s away. The taxis are priced at the normal rate, but the buses, air-conditioned and comfortable, called Aeroexpress, are convenient and cheap – about 40% of the taxi fare.

They have thought out the little additions as well. One way to the city is Rs.175/- and a round trip is Rs. 275/- just Rs.100 more. And the ticket is valid for 10 days. It is a good way to ensure that this becomes a habit. The drop-off points are distinctive, differentiated from the regular bus stops by oval structures. Bare but functional.

The attendants at the stop also know when the next bus is going to arrive and the buses are punctual – while I was there, I saw at least 5 other people come and book tickets for trips 3-4 hours away. People have no problem with using public transport. It just needs someone to think things through and then run it well.


Sparrows at Hyderabad

Landing on a cold and foggy morning at Hyderabad airport, I was astonished to see some sprightly sparrows hopping and chirping about. They haven’t taken well to the urban spread. In apartment blocks, pigeons nest and liberally spray dung over parked cars, but sparrows are a rare sight. They don’t have the natural aggression of crows and the smarts of the pigeons and they are probably partial to more open spaces.

So much of what was taken for granted in childhood is gone. I remember waking up to the chirping of sparrows in our house in Bangalore. They would be impervious to their hosts in the house, probably a bit like Englishmen. They deigned to visit, but could not be expected to stay or respond to human advances. In time one got used to them and took the fact that they came close, investigated and then flew away as a natural routine. They were a part of our life, without ever being in a cage or being fed.

So what struck me about this modern glass and stainless edifice – the airport, was not so much the architecture as the feeling that the design was friendly not just to the flying machines made of metal but the real feathered ones as well.


Designing for different screen sizes

Ever since getting an Android phone, I have started downloading a lot more applications, using it to check mail and updating to-do lists. It never happened with my earlier phones. There is a comfort that touch screens provide. Zooming in and out of web pages means that you can increase type sizes to legible levels and scroll. However, I would never be comfortable reading a book on the screen space of the phone. I also notice that scrolling horizontally across phones is easy but on the PC with a mouse, vertical is the only comfortable way.

That makes it a lot more difficult for designers who have to ensure consistency in design across media. It was easier when media was classified into clearly divided containers – press, TV, radio and so on. To assemble text, pictures, video, and audio on the same page poses considerable challenges. Television screens, especially the current flat ones have a movie aspect ratio. It looks bad when a web page is squeezed vertically. Pictures scrunch up, lines and columns look wayward.

However, there are people doing notable work in resolving the issues that come up. I found The Mag+ concept  from a design firm called Berg revealing. The insight of using a horizontal river of content as opposed to a stack in the case of a book underlines the fundamental difference between designing for the virtual space and the real one. Another post by Craig Mod on how ebooks and tablets will define the reading experience provides simple clarity.

This is what designers should be reading rather than putting the same elements together as they have been for years.


Paunchy Mannequins

Driving past an upmarket marriage clothes store for men – Manyavar, I did a double take. I’ve seen mannequins in all kinds of shapes and poses, but this one had a slight paunch! It is obviously deliberate. The brand managers have seen that their customers are not sculpted gods and are out to make them comfortable. I can imagine prospectives grooms squirming when they don the same sherwani in the trial room and don’t end up looking as smart as the clotheshorse. It may be a dealbreaker.

This leads to an interesting question. Should the image in the store be about what people are or what they want to be? The mannequins in Reebok and Adidas stores don’t have an ounce of fat. It’s six packs all the way because the brands are built on fitness aspirations. Show people the body they want to be in and sell more sneakers.

However, when it comes to marriages, Manyavar has tracked its customers and seen that they are generous around the middle. Then the question is whether to project an aspiration or accept that their major customers are not going to make the extra affort to cut down on the fat. Then match the image to the expectations. I haven’t seen fat mannequins yet, but I suspect they are  around the corner, given the way the next generation of Indians is shaping up.


Are superstars worth the money?

An article in the New York Times explains how superstars tend to dominate the markets they cater to. Starting with sports legends like Pele, who earned $150,000 when he was at his peak, there now athletes, actors, TV anchors and bankers who earn the lion’s share of the cake. While this works wonderfully for the persons getting it, it tends to squeeze all those down the line. Take the cost of a Tamil film – one in which a superstar or any top draw actor is involved. The economics of that film take on risk proportions far greater than those involving lesser actors. Look at the production costs as well. The greatest slice in that budget is the superstar’s pay, not any of the other aspects involved.

Take the IPL auction where the top 10 players get amounts far greater than any of the other. The other 80 players get a better deal but nothing close to what the ones on top command. Is the difference in ability substantial? Is original talent not valuable? That capitalism rewards inequalities is common knowledge. What is lesser known is the way it skews markets towards those who dominate it. So is communism any better? I hardly think so. One just has to look at China where communism fuses with capitalism. And those who dominate the system are those at the top. So there’s no point in blaming the political system

Anyone who controls a resource will set up the rules to benefit themselves. Whether it is political parties, game administrators or bankers. They hold the lifelines and the paths to power. Until someone creates a new resource. Or a new market. Then the new status quo will kick in and stay as long as it benefits the leader.