FaceTime Baby

My nephew Samvit, born in 2011, doesn’t talk much on the phone. It’s possibly because he didn’t talk much on the phone as a baby, but I’ve never been able to have a decent phone conversation with him (we get along really well when we meet, though). He talks a couple of lines and hands over the phone to his mother and runs off. If it’s a video call, he appears, says hi and disappears.

Berry (born in 2016), on the other hand, seems to have in a way “leapfrogged” the phone. We moved to London when she was five and a half months old, and since then we’ve kept in touch with my in-laws and other relatives primarily through video chat (FaceTime etc.). And so Berry has gotten used to seeing all these people on video, and has become extremely comfortable with the medium.

For example, when we were returning from our last Bangalore trip in December, we were worried that Berry would miss her grandparents tremendously. As it turned out, we landed in London and video called my in-laws, and Berry was babbling away as if there was no change in scene!

Berry has gotten so used to video calling that she doesn’t seem to get the “normal” voice call. Sure enough, she loves picking up the phone and holding it against her ear and saying “hello” and making pretend conversations (apparently she learnt this at her day care). But give her a phone and ask her to talk, and she goes quiet unless there’s another person appearing on screen.

Like there’s this one aunt of mine who is so tech-phobic that she doesn’t use video calls. And every time I call her she wants to hear Berry speak, except that Berry won’t speak because there is nobody on the screen! I’m now trying to figure out how to get this aunt to get comfortable with video calling just so that Berry can talk to her!

 

In that sense, Berry is a “video call” native. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that she’ll find it really hard to get comfortable with audio calls later on in life.

I’ll turn into one uncle now and say “kids nowadays… “

Evaluating WhatsApp groups

Over time I’ve come to become a member of several WhatsApp groups. Some of them are temporary, designed to simply coordinate on a particular one-off event. Others are more permanent, existing over a long term, but with no particular agenda.

Over this time I’ve also exited several WhatsApp groups, especially those that have gotten a bit annoying. I remember this day last year when I stepped in and out of a meeting, and I found a hundred messages on a family WhatsApp group, most of them being random forwards, and a few of them being over a page long. I quickly exited that group.

Not everyone quickly exits groups they don’t like, though. There is social pressure to remain, since anyone’s exit gets publicly broadcast in the group. Being a member of a WhatsApp group is the latest measure of conformity, and irrespective of how annoying some groups are, one is forced to endure.

Not all WhatsApp groups are annoying, though. Some groups I’m a member of are an absolute joy. There are times when I explicitly choose to initiate a conversation within the group, than bilaterally, so that others in the group can pitch in. And this taking of the conversation to the group is usually not minded by the intended counterparty as well.

Thinking about good and bad WhatsApp groups, I was wondering if there is a good and clean metric to determine how “good” or “useful” a WhatsApp group might be. Based on my experience, I have one idea. Do let me know if you know a better way to characterise whether a WhatsApp group is going to be good or bad.

When you have a WhatsApp group with N people, you are essentially bringing together N * (N-1)/2 pairs of people. Now, some of these pairs might get along fantastically well. Other pairs might loath each other. And yet others are indifferent to each other.

My hypothesis is that the more the number of pairs in a group that like to talk to each other, the better the group functions (yes it’s a rather simple metric).

Now, this hypothesis is rather simplistic – for example, you can have threesomes of people whose mutual relationship is very different from that of any pair taken together. So this ignores a higher order correlation term, but improves simplicity. It’s like that benzene ring, where six carbon atoms bond together in a way no two of them as a pair can (forget the scientific term for such bonding)!

Yet, what we have here is a good measure of cohesion within the group. It also explains why sometimes the addition of a single member can lead to the destruction of the group – for it can increase the proportion of people who don’t like to talk to each other!

The model is incomplete, though. For now, it doesn’t differentiate between “don’t care conditions” (people in the group who are indifferent to each other) and “don’t get alongs”. If we can incorporate that without making the formula more complex, I think we might be up to something.

Maybe we should form a WhatsApp group to discuss what a good formula might look like!

Intellectual discussions

So this afternoon a friend came home and we had a nice long discussion on a lot of things. And then it was time for him to leave. But by then, I was in the frame of mind where I was craving intellectual discussions, but there were no avenues for me to execute!

I remember this time five years or so ago, when each day when I would come back home from work, I would open Google Talk and initiate five or six conversations with friends who were online. Some would be stillborn, as the counterparty wouldn’t reply, but my carpet bombing would work and there would be 2-3 conversations that would fructify, and I would have a nice time talking!

Unfortunately, with the decline of Google Talk, there are no avenues for such discussions now. In fact, what killed it was the move to mobile – the original point of Google Talk was that you could signal that you were available by logging on. And so when you signalled thus, someone would ping you, and you would have a conversation.

By moving Google Talk to the mobile phone, where you were online by default, it meant that you were shown online even when you weren’t in a mood to chat. People would occasionally ping you, but then give up. It was like the case of the shepherd boy crying “wolf”. So a green button next to someone’s name on Google Talk means nothing now, in terms of their availability to chat!

Other chatting mechanisms, such as WhatsApp are no better, being “mobile first” and thus “always logged in”. You don’t know who is available when, and who you can possibly ping to have a good conversation.

And then five years back, I stopped logging on to Google Talk and initiating five different conversations. I started logging on to Twitter, instead, and making conversation with people on my timeline . Unfortunately, twitter has been ruined, too. It is so full of outrage, and some of such outrage conducted by otherwise smart people, that I’ve radically cut down on the number of people I follow.

As the world solves some problems, it un-solves others, and creates yet others. And there was a time when I would blog, and visit other blogs, to have intellectual discussions. And now people have stopped commenting on blogs, also!

LinkedIn, WhatsApp and Freaky Contact Lists

So one of the things I do when I’m bored is to open the “new conversation” (plus sign) thing on my WhatsApp and check which of my contacts are there in my WhatsApp social network. I do this periodically, without any particular reason. On the upside, I see people who I haven’t spoken to for a long time, and this results in a conversation. On the downside, this is freaky.

The problem with WhatsApp is that it automatically assumes that everyone in your phone book is someone you want to keep in touch with. And more likely than not, people make their WhatsApp profile pictures visible to all. And sometimes these profile pictures have to do with something personal, rather than a simple mugshot. Some people have pictures of their homes, of their kids, and of better halves. And suddenly, everyone who has their number on their phone book gets a peek into the part of their lives they’ve chosen to make public by way of their WhatsApp profile pictures!

Some examples of people on my phone book into whose lives I’ve thus got a peek includes a guy who repairs suitcases, a guy who once repaired my refrigerator, a real estate broker whose services I’d engaged five years back to rent out my house, and so forth. And then there are business clients – purely professional contacts, but who have chosen to expose through their WhatsApp profile pictures aspects of their personal lives! Thus, through the picture function (of course you can choose to not make your picture public), you end up knowing much more about random contacts in your phone book than you need to!

The next level of freakiness comes from people who have moved on from the numbers that they shared with you. So you see in the photo associated with an old friend someone who looks very very different and who is definitely not that friend! And thanks to their having put pictures on WhatsApp, you now get an insight into their personal lives (again I tell you that people put intensely personal pictures as their WhatsApp profile pictures). I haven’t tried messaging one of these assuming they are still the person who is my friend and used to once own their number!

Then there are friends who live abroad who gave you the numbers of close relatives when they were in town so that you could get in touch with them. These numbers have now duly passed back on to the said relatives (usually a parent or a sibling) of your overseas friends, and thanks to the pictures that they put on WhatsApp, you now get an insight into their lives! Then you start wondering why you still have these contacts in your phonebook, but then it’s so unintuitive to delete contacts that you just let it be.

The thing with Android is that it collects your contacts from all social media and puts them into your phone book – especially Facebook and LinkedIn. On Facebook people are unlikely to give out their phone numbers, and everyone on my facebook friends list is my friend anyway (today I began a purge to weed out unknown people from my friends list) it’s not freaky to see them on your whatsapp. But then thanks to the Android integration, you have your LinkedIn contacts popping up in your address books, and consequently whatsapp!

Again, LInkedIn has a lot of people who are known to you, though you have no reason to get to know their personal lives via the photos they put on WhatsApp. But on LinkedIn you also tend to accept connection requests from people you don’t really know but think might benefit from associating with them at a later date. And thanks to integration with WhatsApp, and profile pics, you now get an insight into the lives of your headhunters! It’s all bizarre.

So yes, you can conclude that I might be jobless enough to go through my full WhatsApp contacts list periodically. Guilty as charged. The problem, though, is that people don’t realise that their WhatsApp profile pictures are seen by just about anyone who has their number, irrespective of the kind of relationship. And thus people continue to put deeply personal pictures as their WhatsApp profile pictures, and thus bit by bit give themselves away to the world!

The solution is simple – put a mugshot or a “neutral” photo as your WhatsApp profile picture. You don’t know how many people can see that!

Chatting and messengers

So the wife has just moved abroad and I haven’t even bothered getting international calling enabled on my mobile phone. It’s not that I’m not concerned about keeping in touch with her – it’s more to do with the plethora of options to keep in touch with her than a normal phone call.

Firstly there’s whatsapp, which I’ve used for the last two years (the trigger to join whatsapp was the limit in the number of text messages one could send per day which was introduced in 2012 as a “rumour prevention mechanism”). A large number of people on my contacts list use WhatsApp, which means that it is extremely rare that i use normal text messaging to connect to them.

And earlier today, while she was waiting for a connection at Frankfurt airport, the wife asked me to install Viber, saying it allows us to talk without any international dialing cost. I just had a brief conversation with her and the quality was extraordinary (especially given i’m on a weak BSNL broadband here and she was in a car there). Then I looked at my contacts who are on viber, and the number of my contacts who are using Viber is insanely high! Almost makes me seem foolish for not joining in so far.

And then earlier today I spoke to someone in Singapore using Skype. Call quality wasn’t that great – we dropped a couple of times – but it was still pretty good. And then there is google hangouts. And then there is apple’s facetime (perhaps the main reason the iPad fell my side when we were dividing our assets prior to the wife’s move is that I could have an Apple device with me so that we can FaceTime!).

The number of options for messaging is so large that I wonder how long the whole calling and messaging model will continue. I had shown in a recent blog post (on my public policy blog) that the number of SMSs sent per user in India peaked three years ago and has then been on a secular decline. And now there is news that the telecoms regulator in India is thinking of instituting a fee on providers such as WhatsApp and Viber because of the revenue losses they are causing to the mobile phone service providers in India (like Airtel, Vodafone, etc.).

The question therefore is what the future of telecom will look like given the large number of internet based reliable communication providers who are springing up. My prediction is that the phone call is not going to die – what sets apart a phone call from a Voice over IP connection (such as Skype or Viber) is that it is “online” (i forget the technical term for it – ok got it it’s “network switching” as opposed to “packet switching” which is how the internet works).

To explain that in English, when I talk to you over the phone (normal phone call) there is a dedicated line that goes out from me to you. Basically your telecom provider and mine and the network interchange come together so that a virtual line is drawn from me to you, and this is exclusive for us as we talk (call dropping on mobile phones happens when we try to move from one “cell” to another and get lost in between).

The internet doesn’t work that way. When I send you a “voice message” over the internet, it goes one hop at a time. There is no dedicated line from me to you. The reason we are now able to voice chat online reliably is that the bandwidth available is so much that packets usually get connected quickly enough (think of a bus network so dense that you can change buses instantly to get to your destination – it virtually simulates a “direct bus”). When the network is busy or the bandwidth clogged, however, there might be some delays (while a phone call once connected remains connected).

Given this distinction the phone call offers a level of reliability that packet switching based voice messengers can never reach. And there will always be a market for extremely high reliability. Hence the phone call is not going anywhere.

The SMS, on the other hand, is again packet switched, and a mechanism in which carriers could extract large amounts of money. The SMS will soon die a natural death – kept alive only by means of government mandated services such as two factor authentication of credit card transactions.

While the fees on carriers such as Viber might become a reality in a place like India they are unlikely to sustain as international norms become uniform. What we are likely to see instead is mobile carriers coming to terms with existence of such providers, and some interesting internet pricing plans.

Currently, to use Viber for a fair bit you need a fairly high FUP (fair usage policy) limit on your phone (carrying voice digitally takes a lot of bandwidth). Carriers might introduce some kind of a graded payment structure such that they can partly recover (through higher internet charges) the lost revenues thanks to lost call charges.

If any mobile phone operator is reading this and needs help on devising such pricing mechanisms, feel free to use my consulting services. Among other things in the past I’ve done revenue management for airline ticketing and cargo (the holy grail of revenue management) while working for Sabre – the pioneer in revenue management.

The WhatsApp Effect

On the national data site (data.gov.in) the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has put out some data on GSM telephony in the last five years. This has aggregate all-India data, and one of the data points available is “Outgoing SMS per subscriber per month”. The following graph plots this data over time:

sms1

 

Notice how the number of SMSs per user which rose sharply till mid 2011 then started suddenly dropping off! There seems to be a minor revival between March and June 2012, but apart from that it seems to be a secular decline. I can’t think of any reason apart from the profusion of smartphones and messaging apps on such phones such as WhatsApp, WeChat, etc. for this decline.

The total number of GSM subscribers also shows an interesting pattern,  going by the TRAI data. There is massive increase in the number of subscribers till 2012, and then the graph flatlines!

telsubscrib

 

The only reason  I can think of for this is that there might have been some sort of a subscriber clean up in 2012. If you remember, when telcos introduced “unlimited subscription” plans for prepaid mobiles back in 2006, these so-called “unlimited plans” expired sometime in 2012. This was on account of re-auction of telecom spectrum that year. It is possible that users who were “active” only because of possession of unlimited plans were weeded out after 2012, and hence the flatline. Otherwise, the above trajectory is hard to believe.

Finally, what about the telecom tariffs? The supplied data set has information on the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) per month, and the number of outgoing minutes of usage per subscriber. Assuming SMSs don’t cost anything (wrong assumption – since they do), we can calculate the telecom tariffs (in Rs. per minute). The following graph shows that:

teltariffs

 

Back in 2009, tariffs were close to a rupee a minute. However, between 2009 and 2010, tariffs dropped sharply, to the range of about 60 paisa per minute, which comes down to a paisa a second! Interestingly, tariffs have remained constant ever since.