Lullabies and walled gardens

There’s still a bit of walled gardens going on in the device and voice control space. About two years ago, in London, we acquired an Amazon Echo, and found that Alexa voice assistant could be used to play songs through either Spotify or Amazon Music, but not through Apple Music, which we then used.

And so, we got rid of Apple Music and took a subscription to Spotify. And among the things we would make Alexa do was to play the daughter’s lullabies on Spotify. And that is how, at the age of two, Berry spoke her first complete sentence, “Alexa, use Spotify to play Iron Man by Black Sabbath”.

We don’t have that Echo any more, and as a household are in a complete “apple ecosystem” as far as devices are concerned. Two Macs, two iPhones, an iPad and now a pair of AirPods. However, we had quite got used to Spotify and its playlists and its machine learning, and even though the India catalogue is nowhere as good as the one in the UK, we continued our subscription.

However, bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden are critical for us, not least because their songs are part of the daughter’s sleeping portfolio. So we need something other than Spotify. And then we discovered that in India, Amazon Prime Music comes bundled with the Amazon Prime membership. And so we created the daughter’s sleeping playlist there, and started using it for bands not available on Spotify.

It was an uncomfortable arrangement, not least because Amazon Music is a terrible software product. Since family subscriptions are still not a thing with Spotify India, during periods of deep work the wife and I would fight over who would get Spotify and who had to make do with Amazon Music.

And then there is voice. Being in a complete Apple EcoSystem now, we found that Siri couldn’t control Spotify or Amazon Music, and for seamless voice experience (especially given I use it in car, using Apple Carplay) we needed Apple Music. And given how painful Amazon Music is to use, I thought spending ?149 a month on Apple Music Family Subscription is worth it, and took the subscription yesterday.

Since then I’ve been happily using it using voice control on all devices. Except until an hour back when I was putting the daughter to sleep. She requested for “baby has he”, which is her way of saying she wants Iron Man by Rockabye Baby (rather than by Black Sabbath). And so I held down the home button of the iPad and barked “play lullaby renditions of Black Sabbath”.

I don’t know what Siri interpreted (this is a standard command I’d been giving it back in the day when I used to exclusively use Apple Music), but rather than playing Lullaby Renditions of Black Sabbath, it played some “holy lullabies”, basically lullaby versions of some Christian songs. I tried changing but the daughter insisted that I let it be.

And so she kept twisting and turning in her bed, not going to sleep. I soon lost patience. Abandoning voice, I opened the iPad and switched from Apple Music to Spotify, where I knew the Rockabye Baby album was open (from last night – we hardly use the iPad otherwise nowadays), and started playing that.

Before Iron Man was halfway through, the daughter was fast asleep.

Margaret Atwood doesn’t escape my fate

My book released exactly two years ago (if you haven’t read it yet, you can buy it here). Rather, it was supposed to release two years ago, on 6th of September 2017. As it happened, people who had pre-ordered the book got deliveries a few days early. Amazon had messed up with the release date.

I remember getting in touch with Amazon Customer Care. They didn’t seem to care. I spoke to friends and relatives who worked there, and they suggested a “Jeff B escalation” (an email sent to Jeff Bezos – apparently he reads them). There was no response to that either. And so my book came out in a trickle, being sent to people as they ordered them, rather than with a bang.

I’m possibly feeling a sense of schadenfreude that it’s not just first-time authors like me who got screwed over like this by Amazon in terms of early release of the book. I am in illustrious company – Canadian author Margaret Atwood suffered the same fate this week.

Amazon, the biggest book vendor in the United States, recently started shipping preorders of Margaret Atwood’s book Testaments. The problem, notably, is that Atwood’s book is not supposed to launch until Tuesday, September 10. Amazon is violating the embargo that all sellers of the book have agreed to. And its indie bookselling rivals are pissed.

In my case, Amazon had exclusive sales on the book – thanks to using a small first-time publisher, we didn’t have the network to go wider and get the book into more stores. In that sense, apart from me, there was possibly nobody pissed off at the early release of the book.

Then again, this early release of pre-ordered books was an endemic problem to Amazon, and a high-profile leak such as this one was bound to happen some time or the other. Hopefully this will lead to the retailer to put enough measures in place to prevent this kind of thing from happening again (mainstream publishers have strong relationships with bookshops, so they are likely to put pressure on Amazon).

In any case, I’m glad to have such good company!

PS: If you haven’t listened to Atwood’s conversation with Tyler Cowen, you should do so soon. It’s fantastic (and I say this as someone who hasn’t read any of her works)

Taking Intelligence For Granted

There was a point in time when the use of artificial intelligence or machine learning or any other kind of intelligence in a product was a source of competitive advantage and differentiation. Nowadays, however, many people have got so spoiled by the use of intelligence in many products they use that it has become more of a hygiene factor.

Take this morning’s post, for example. One way to look at it is that Spotify with its customisation algorithms and recommendations has spoiled me so much that I find Amazon’s pushing of Indian music irritating (Amazon’s approach can be called as “naive customisation”, where they push Indian music to me only because I’m based in India, and not learn further based on my preferences).

Had I not been exposed to the more intelligent customisation that Spotify offers, I might have found Amazon’s naive customisation interesting. However, Spotify’s degree of customisation has spoilt me so much that Amazon is simply inadequate.

This expectation of intelligence goes beyond product and service classes. When we get used to Spotify recommending music we like based on our preferences, we hold Netflix’s recommendation algorithm to a higher standard. We question why the Flipkart homepage is not customised to us based on our previous shopping. Or why Google Maps doesn’t learn that some of us don’t like driving through small roads when we can help it.

That customers take intelligence for granted nowadays means that businesses have to invest more in offering this intelligence. Easy-to-use data analysis and machine learning packages mean that at least some part of an industry uses intelligence in at least some form (even if they might do it badly in case they fail to throw human intelligence into the mix!).

So if you are in the business of selling to end customers, keep in mind that they are used to seeing intelligence everywhere around them, and whether they state it or not, they expect it from you.

Amazon and Sony Liv

Amazon is pretty bad at design of products they’re not pioneers in. They’ve built a great shopping engine (25 years ago) and a great cloud service (15 years ago), but these were both things they were pioneers in.

Amazon being Amazon, however, they have a compulsive need to be in pretty much every industry, and so they’ve launched clones of lots of other businesses. However, their product design in these is far from optimal, and the user experience is generally very underwhelming.

Prime Video has a worse user experience than Netflix. The search function is much worse. The machine learning (for recommendations) isn’t great. The X-ray is good, but overall I don’t have as pleasant a time watching Prime as I do with Netflix.

However, the degree to which Prime Video is worse than Netflix is far far smaller than the degree to which Amazon Music is worse than Spotify. The only thing going for Amazon Music (which I only use because it comes free with my prime delivery membership in India) is that they have inventory.

Spotify in India has been unable to secure rights to a lot of classic rock and metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Dream Theater. And these form a heavy part of my routine listening. And so I’m forced to use Amazon Music (Apple Music has these bands as well, but I have to pay extra for that).

The product (Amazon Music) is atrocious. The learning is next to nothing. After five months of using the service to exclusively listen to Classic Rock and Heavy Metal, and zero Indian music, the home page still recommends to me Bollywood, Punjabi and Tamil stuff! History is not properly maintained. Getting to the album or playlist (the less said about playlists on Amazon, the better) I want takes way too much more effort than it does on Spotify.

In other words, the only thing that keeps Amazon going in businesses they’re not pioneers in is inventory – Prime Video works because it has movies and shows other streaming services don’t have. Amazon Music is used because it has music that Spotify doesn’t.

I figured it is a similar case with Sony Liv, Sony’s streaming service in India. They sit on a bunch of lucrative monopolies, such as rights to broadcasting Test cricket in a lot of countries (all three Test series being played right now are on Sony, for example), Champions League football and so on. Beyond that it’s an atrocity to watch them.

I remember missing a goal in the Liverpool-Porto Champions League quarterfinal because of a temporary power cut. There was no way in the broadcast to go back and see the goal. If I by mistake pause for a couple of seconds, I’m forever behind “live” (unless I refresh). Yesterday during the classic Ashes Test, the app simply gave up when I tried to load the game.

The product is atrocious (actually more atrocious than Amazon Music), but people are forced to use it only because they have a monopoly on content. And in that way, it is similar to Amazon, which can get away with atrocious products only because they have the inventory!

I’m glad the Premier League is on Hotstar, which is mostly a pleasure to watch! (actually back in the day when I had cable TV, the star sports bouquet had significantly superior production values to the sony-zee-ten bouquet)

Housewife Careers

This is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a very long time, but have kept putting it off. The ultimate trigger for writing this is this article about women with children in Amazon asking for backup child care at work. Since this hits rather close home, this is a good enough trigger to write.

Quoting the article:

“Everyone wants to act really tough and pretend they don’t have human needs,” says Kristi Coulter, who worked in various roles at Amazon for almost 12 years and observed that many senior executives had stay-at-home wives.

(emphasis mine)

While this might be true of Amazon (though not necessarily for other large tech companies), it is true for other careers as well. The nature of the job means that it is impossible to function if you even have partial child-care responsibilities. And that implies that the only way you can do this job is if you have a spouse whose full time job is bringing up the kids.

Without loss of generality (considering that in most cases it’s the women who give up their careers for child-rearing), we can call these jobs “housewife jobs”.

Housewife jobs are jobs where you can do a good job if an only if you have a spouse who spends all her time taking care of the kids. 

The main feature (I would say it is a bug, but whatever) of such a job is usually long work hours that require you to “overlap both ways” – both leave home early in the morning and return late every night, implying that even if you have to drop your kid to day care, it is your spouse who has to do so. And as I’ve found from personal experience, it is simply not possible to work profitably when you have both child-dropping and child-picking-up duties on a single day (unless you have zero commute, like I’ve had for the last eight months).

Housewife jobs also involve lots of travel. Whether it is overnight or not doesn’t matter, since you are likely to be away early mornings and late evenings at least, and this means (once again) that the spouse has to pick up the slack.

Housewife jobs also involve a lot of pressure, which means that even when you are done with work and want to relax with the kids, you are unable to take your mind off work. So it turns out to be rather unprofitable time with the kids – so you might as well spend that working. Which again means the spouse picks up the slack.

Sometimes a job may not be inherently stressful or require long hours, but might be housewife because the company is led by a bunch of people with housewives (the article linked above claims this about Amazon). What this means is that when there is a sufficient number of (mostly) men in senior management who have housewives taking care of kids, their way of working percolates through the culture of the organisation.

These organisations are more likely to demand “facetime” (not the Apple variety). They are more likely to value input more than output (thus privileging fighter work?). And soon people without housewives get crowded out of such organisations, making it even more housewife organisations.

Finally, you may argue that I’ve used UK-style nurseries as the dominant child care mechanism in my post (these usually run 8-6), and that it might be possible to hedge the situations completely with 24/7 nannies or Singapore-style “helpers”. Now, even with full time child care, there are some emergencies that occur from time to time which require the presence of at least one parent. And it can’t be the same parent providing that presence all the time. So if one of the parents is in a “housewife job”, things don’t really work out.

I guess it is not hard to work out a list of jobs or sectors which are inherently “housewife”. Look at where people quit once they have kids. Look at where people quit once they get married. Look at jobs that are staffed by rolling legions of fresh graduates (if you don’t have a kid, you don’t need a housewife).

The scary realisation I’m coming to is that most jobs are housewife jobs, and it is really not easy being a DI(>=1)K household.

Ticking all the boxes

Last month my Kindle gave up. It refused to take charge, only heating up the  charging cable (and possibly destroying an Android charger) in the process. This wasn’t the first time this was happening.

In 2012, my first Kindle had given up a few months after I started using it, with its home button refusing to work. Amazon had sent me a new one then (I’d been amazed at the no-questions-asked customer-centric replacement process). My second Kindle (the replacement) developed problems in 2016, which I made worse by trying to pry it open with a knife. After I had sufficiently damaged it, there was no way I could ask Amazon to do anything about it.

Over the last year, I’ve discovered that I read much faster on my Kindle than in print – possibly because it allows me to read in the dark, it’s easy to hold, I can read without distractions (unlike phone/iPad) and it’s easy on the eye. I possibly take half the time to read on a Kindle what I take to read in print. Moreover, I find the note-taking and highlighting feature invaluable (I never made a habit of taking notes on physical books).

So when the kindle stopped working I started wondering if I might have to go back to print books (there was no way I would invest in a new Kindle). Customer care confirmed that my Kindle was out of warranty, and after putting me on hold for a long time, gave me two options. I could either take a voucher that would give me 15% off on a new Kindle, or the customer care executive could “talk to the software engineers” to see if they could send me a replacement (but there was no guarantee).

Since I had no plans of buying a new Kindle, I decided to take a chance. The customer care executive told me he would get back to me “within 24 hours”. It took barely an hour for him to call me back, and a replacement was in my hands in 2 days.

It got me wondering what “software engineers” had to do with the decision to give me a replacement (refurbished) Kindle. Shortly I realised that Amazon possibly has an algorithm to determine whether to give a replacement Kindle for those that have gone kaput out of warranty. I started  trying to guess what such an algorithm might look like.

The interesting thing is that among all the factors that I could list out based on which Amazon might make a decision to send me a new Kindle, there was not one that would suggest that I shouldn’t be given a replacement. In no particular order:

  • I have been an Amazon Prime customer for three years now
  • I buy a lot of books on the Kindle store. I suspect I’ve purchased books worth more than the cost of the Kindle in the last year.
  • I read heavily on the Kindle
  • I don’t read Kindle books on other apps (phone / iPad / computer)
  • I haven’t bought too many print books from Amazon. Most of the print books I’ve bought have been gifts (I’ve got them wrapped)
  • My Goodreads activity suggests that I don’t read much outside of what I’ve bought from the Kindle store

In hindsight, I guess I made the correct decision of letting the “software engineers” determine whether I qualify for a new Kindle. I guess Amazon figured that had they not sent me a new Kindle, there was a significant amount of low-marginal-cost sales that they were going to lose!

I duly rewarded them with two book purchases on the Kindle store in the course of the following week!

Patanjali going online

Mint has a piece on Baba Ramdev-led FMCG company Patanjali going online to further its sales.

Some may have seen the irony in Patanjali Ayurved Ltd tying up with foreign-owned/funded e-commerce companies, even as it swears to end the reign of foreign-owned consumer brands in the market.

Patanjali is only being pragmatic in doing what’s good for its own business, of being available where the consumers are. Its decision is one more pointer to the growing importance of e-commerce as a distribution channel for packaged consumer goods.

I have an entire chapter in my book dedicated to this – about the internet has revolutionised distribution and retail. In that I talk about Dollar Shave Club, pickle sellers from Sringeri and mobile manufacturers such as Xiaomi who have pioneered the “flash sale” concept. In another part of the book, I’ve written about how Amazon has revolutionised bookselling, first by selling online and then by pioneering e-books.

Whenever a new consumer goods company wants to set up shop, one of the hardest tasks is in establishing a distribution network. Conventional distribution networks are typically several layers deep, and in order to get to the customer, each layer of the distribution network needs to be adequately compensated.

Apart from the monetary cost, there is also the transaction cost of convincing each layer that it is worthwhile carrying the new seller’s goods. The other factor to be considered is that distributors at various levels are in a sense loyal to incumbent sellers (since they are responsible for a large portion of the current business), making it harder for new seller to break through.

The advantage with online retailers is that they compress the supply chain, with one entity replacing a whole network of distributors. This may not necessarily be cost-effective from the money perspective, since the online retailers will seek to capture all the value that all the layers of the current distribution chain are capturing. However, in terms of transaction costs it is significantly easier since there is only one layer to get past, and online retailers seldom have loyalty or exclusive relationships.

In fact, the size and bargaining power of online retailers (vis-a-vis offline distributors) means that if there is an exclusive relationship, it is the retailer who holds the exclusive rights and not the seller.

In Patanjali’s case, they have already established a wide offline network with exclusive stores and partnerships, but my sense is that they seem to be hitting the limits of distribution. Thanks to Baba Ramdev’s popularity as a yoga guru, Patanjali enjoys strong brand recall, and it appears as if their distribution is unable to keep pace with their brand.

From this perspective, going online (through Amazon/Flipkart) is a rational strategy for them since with one deal they get significantly higher distribution power. Moreover, being a new brand, they don’t have legacy distributors who might get pissed off if they go online (this is a problem that the Unilevers of the world face).

So it is indeed a pragmatic decision by Patanjali to take the online route. And after all, in the end, sheer commerce can trump nationalist tendencies and xenophobia.

Book Release

So my book Between the buyer and the seller is now available on Amazon, in both print and kindle versions. You can go here to buy. Thanks to Amazon’s print on demand service, it’s available worldwide.

It’s been a long time coming. I completed the first draft way back in April 2016. Writing it was no easy task, but was definitely helped by the presence of one awesome coffee shop close to where I was staying in Barcelona.

Having written one draft, I went around finding publishers. It wasn’t a trivial process. In the process, I found out enough about the publishing industry to get a new prologue for the book (I guess that should be part of the Kindle sample).

And then in the course of the backs and forths with the publishers I found a lot of what I’d written to be absolute shit, and so revised the book two times. Then in December last year, the Takshashila Institution decided to publish it.

And then they sent it to some experts for expert opinion. Said opinion came back positive but with some suggestions. So I revised the book yet another time and implemented these suggestions. Then there was the copy editing process and yet another revision. Then the book design (if not anything, doesn’t it at least look good?) and typesetting and stuff. And formatting.

In the meantime, Shashi Tharoor and Bibek Debroy wrote some nice blurbs for the book – they’re printed at the back of the book now. And then some more hoops and procedures and printing and publishing and fighting with Amazon and the book is now out! For you to purchase.

I want to put out a special word of thanks to Anupam Manur, who has effectively “produced” the book, managing the entire process on Takshashila’s behalf. He’s been patient with my periodic abuses, and diligently got work done. The night before his wedding, he was up fixing some stuff on Amazon for the book.

Anyway, enough of my story. Now go buy the book and read it. Let me, and others, know what you think of the book. And spread the word!

Oh, and I want to thank all of you, my patient blog readers, for the encouragement through the last 13 years. It’s your collective effort and support that has made me a better writer, and resulted in this book coming out!

 

The Economics of Shakespeare and Company

During my vacation, I finished reading Salil Tripathi’s Detours, an enhanced collection of his columns in Mint Lounge of the same name. I quite liked the book. In fact, I liked it much more than his columns in Mint Lounge. I think the lack of word limit constraints meant he could add depth when necessary making it a steady and pleasing read (read Sarah Farooqui’s formal review of the book here).

In one of the chapters, he describes Paris in the way Hemingway saw it (literature and art are constant figures in this book, and the fact that I could connect to it (the book) despite my general lack of interest in these topics speaks volumes about the quality of the book). More specifically, this is about the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris where Hemingway occasionally lived, and wrote his books.

George Whitman, a US army veteran who settled down in Paris after the Second World War, bought the store and ran it until his death. During these years, he hosted writers who wanted to visit Paris in an upstairs room, allowing them to basically live in the store as they wrote. There were frequent readings organised in the store where writers could connect with their readers, and writers and other regular patrons were frequently allowed to use the bookshop as a library – to simply read rather than buy books.

There was an occasion when Whitman’s store license ran out and he got into a dispute with the municipal authorities who refused to renew it, to which he responded by stopping the sale of books and running the shop as a library until the license was ultimately renewed.

While Salil describes this as a measure of Whitman’s commitment to good literature and helping authors, it was hard for me to read this chapter without wondering about Whitman’s finances, for none of the above is cheap. One of the biggest costs to running a bookshop is the cost of real estate, and if Whitman had an upstairs room for writers to live and write in, and could redeploy his shop as a library, it came at a significant cost of real estate. While readings might help sell additional books (most readers who attend buy at least a copy of the book that is being discussed), it can disrupt the regular flow of business in the store, and affect sales. The question that I couldn’t escape while reading the book was about the store’s finances and how Whitman managed all these activities.

One hypothesis is that he had alternate sources of funding (patrons of literature’s contributions, or family funds, for example) that allowed him to spend in writer welfare. The other is that margins from the book selling business were fat enough to allow Whitman to spend on writer welfare, and this spending paid him back by way of improving overall sales from his store. Back in the day when you could only buy books from shops, shops that curated well or stocked rare books could afford to charge a premium, and make significant margins which could go into activities such as writer promotion and welfare.

If this hypothesis is correct, it could explain why the traditional literature industry, including authors, are so incensed by Amazon’s rise, even if it leads to significantly better revenues. What Amazon allowed, by its initial print book mailing model, was for readers to access the “long tail” of books which they could purchase at a reasonable cost (they weren’t beholden to curator-bookseller any more). While the more passionate readers remained loyal to their curator-bookseller, the mass moved to the cheaper option.

While this created value for readers (in terms of lower prices for their books), it had the effect of cutting retail margins for books by a significant amount. Several bookshops became unprofitable under this new regime, and with the new margins not compensating for increasing real estate costs, many of them (including chains such as Borders) closed down. Writers weren’t directly affected economically – for readers who would have earlier purchased in such shops could now simply purchase the same books at Amazon for a lower price, but the dropping profitability of conventional bookstores affected them in other ways.

As Salil’s chapter on Shakespeare & Co illustrates, independent bookshops performed a social function far higher than curating and selling books – they provided an author a platform to connect with readers and enabled authors to meet and exchange ideas. They organised events for authors which raised their profile, and helped sell more books.

Their replacement by low-cost retailing models has cut out this additional social function they performed (without direct rewards). Without independent bookshops organising readings and offering writing spaces, writers have lost something they had access to earlier (though they’ve been monetarily compensated for this by means of higher sales driven by lower prices on Amazon). Hence it’s no surprise that writers have taken sides with their publishers in the battle against Amazon, online retailing and e-books.

In this context, this old piece by Matthew Yglesias in Vox is worth reading, where it talks about why Amazon is performing a socially useful function by curtailing the book publishing industry. Yglesias writes:

My best guess is that this is too pessimistic about the financial logic behind giving advances. It is not, after all, just a loan that you may or may not pay back. An advance is bundled with a royalty agreement in which a majority of the sales revenue is allocated to someone other than the author of the book. In its role as venture capitalist, the publisher is effectively issuing what’s called convertible debt in corporate finance circles — a risky loan that becomes an ownership stake in the project if it succeeds.

 

Shorts

So I’ve been trying to overcome my self-imposed taboos on online shopping, and trying to buy things online, especially brands and sizes that I already know and items that offline shops don’t stock much of.

As the title of this post might suggest to you I’m trying to buy shorts. I’ve had to decommission several pairs over the last couple of years for a number of reasons – some became too loose, some too tight, others wore out, more are fading away. And the lack of inventory of shorts in my wardrobe means that I end up wearing this one red pair pretty much everywhere.

While the beauty of online shopping is supposed to be that you get massive variety, and the long tail can get served, the problem is that the way sites are designed makes it hard to discover them. Here are two images, one each from Amazon and Jabong.

So I have two basic problems with the shorts that are available for sale online, based on these two sites.

  1. Too long: Check out the Jabong picture here. First of all, Jabong groups shorts and “3/4ths” (when did those abominations even become a thing) in the same category. But they are nice and allow you to specify length. I said “thigh length” and this is what they show me:
    Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 6.25.31 AM
    I mean, shorts by definition are supposed to be short right? I grew up in an era when Pete Sampras was bossing Wimbledon and shorts of this length were classified as “bermudas”. If you look at the image above, save a couple of “sports shorts” (it’s sad that Jabong doesn’t even allow me to filter those out, since I’m not looking for them), they’re all knee length! Which is too long for a pair of shorts!
  2. Too narrow: Jabong refuses to admit that there is something called “relaxed fit” (even for cargos). Amazon has no fit filters for shorts. And the shorts all look like they’re just truncated pants rather than shorts. The difference between shorts and pants (apart from the extent of leg they cover of course) is that while the latter are narrow, shorts are more relaxed, and shouldn’t stick to your leg! And this is what Amazon shows me (while Amazon has a separate sportswear section, it continues to show sports shorts along with the regular shorts. They even showed boxers. There is no option to specify I want the button-zip-belt kind of “casual wear” shorts):

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 6.36.03 AM

All of them are way too narrow! Of the radius where they get stuck to the thigh when you sit down leaving you with the potential embarrassment of pulling them down when you get up.

I had ranted during an earlier attempt to buy online about the difficulty of sorting through inventories so I won’t go into that here.

All I have to say here is that it seems like “shorts” don’t mean what they used to, and I’m extremely unhappy about it.