Change again! The only constant in life!

While I now sit at the  international terminal of the Mumbai Airport awaiting the boarding announcement for our flight to Brussels, I cannot help but think of it as déjà vu –  25 months back at the same airport heading to France for an MBA at HEC Paris.

This is a new chapter though. Having spent the past two years in Europe we ( my wife, daughter and me) believe we know what to expect. Some added preparations, additional research before going in are the lessons learnt from last time.
The biggest change would be a change in lifestyle from being a student to being a working professional. It will be a transition to a much desired routine that will be accompanied with a lot of new opportunities to learn, to interact and to create an impact. Look forward to making the best of it.

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Xolo Q700i – A bad buy or bad luck?

Xolo Q700i

In the previous post, I mentioned that in the hunt for an affordable value-for-money Smartphone, I had settled for a Xolo Q700i. It has been about two months since I have am using it. Now it is time for a review and verdict about the phone in particular and the company in general.

For those who would like one-liners on evaluation metrics, here’s the brief below.

  • Experience with Brand Xolo: Not Happy at all
  • Product Specification: Good. At par (and above) some competing products
  • Product Performance: Could have been way better. Audio & GPS give issues
  • Service Network: Coverage in terms of number of cities is bad
  • Service Experience: Dissatisfied – Xolo Care doesn’t care

Overall verdict: Will look out for other brands before trying a Xolo again!

To start with why did I choose the Xolo Q700i? I had spoken to a couple of friends before I made a purchase decision – to be fair they hadn’t encountered any problem with their handset. The specifications present online are encouraging given the price point – A Smartphone at Rs.10000/- with 1GB RAM, 1.2GHz Quad-Core (albeit a Mediatek), 2GB internal memory, 8MP camera (this wasn’t critical for me) and lastly a USB OTG ( I can connect a USB memory stick directly to the phone!).

Why did my initial excitement with this brand get killed?

I’d say upfront: if you intend to use the GPS Navigation on this rule it out! I also had trouble with an elementary function – the in-call speaker stops working at its will & I guess its a manufacturing defect. These few aspects have done serious damage to my perception of Xolo. Here’s a more detailed description.

  • Audio: This has been a biggest let down. Imagine buying a smartphone that works well and in two weeks the speaker (used for normal phone calls) stops working! Not so smart any more. Though I can still check my email, read about technology developments in the world through the browser BUT when a friend calls me – I can’t hear him on the phone! The engineer in me (and I also worked on mobile handset software in my pre-MBA days) wouldn’t recede. Looking for an Engineering Mode for Xolo, I altered an audio setting in the software which seemed to resolve the problem. But alas, after about three weeks again the problem relapsed. Now here, I must thank my four year old daughter – she accidentally dropped the phone and voila the speaker started working! (And we used to joke about mechanical systems – give it a slap and it starts to work). I believe it is a manufacturing defect – a loose connection within the board causing the speaker to work on and off! Slap it and its on, slap it again and its off!
  • GPS Navigation – Where are the satellites? This is yet another horrendous experience. The receiver on the phone would just not latch on to the GPS satellites. Again, an online research of similar problems seemed to indicate issues with GPS services with MediaTek chipsets! My fault – didn’t do my research well before I bought the handset! All these posts had a variety of suggestions about the possible cause. A few said the antenna connections are not strong enough to do the job well (which would be real bad news for me). Some suggested that GPS configuration settings on the handsets by Disabled by default, hence download (some) EPO setting files and alter a few more config parameters to ease this. Having tried all this, after much pain I could get the phone to latch on the GPS satellites. But imagine driving on a fast and busy Indian road, you’re expecting to take the next turn and bam! the GPS latch is gone – its is again “Searching for GPS”! The use of GPS in India might be questioned, but my experience with GPS on other high-end phones in India (like the iPhone) has been extremely great – so that rules out a problem with those billion dollar satellites up in the heavens. Its my cheap phone that is struggling to stay put! (I could get it to improve after I followed steps here). Posts like these (1 and 2) show how prevalent GPS Navigation problems are on Mediatek chipsets. Why doesn’t the Xolo software take care of these initially?
  • Phone restarts / Software Reset: For some unknown reason, after a few weeks of use (which includes installations of certified software, frequent browsing and email checking) the phone would just restart at almost every touch. I get an alert – touch – reset. Again touch to clear alerts – reset. Launch an App – reset! Finally I did a Factory Reset to see if it is fixed – fortunately yes. But I have had to do this almost three times till now. Imagine with all the data and apps we install on a heavy usage phone – the amount of time is takes and productivity it kills! 

Now, the not-so-dark-side of this purchase.

  • Display: The 4.5 inch bright display is impressive, especially in bright outdoor conditions. The ambient light sensing ability also works well giving the user clarity in the display. The colors are bright and the pixel density is good value for money.
  • UI & Touch Responsiveness: For an Android phone at about Rs.10000 it is quite responsive. I haven’t seen any lag in animations & applications launch instantly. The user-interface is non-cluttered. I had tried the Samsung Galaxy Duos and even the S4 (which is far more powerful), but my first reaction was ‘why is the UI so cluttered’. A bunch of icons spread across the multiple screens along with the alerts wasn’t much to my liking. The Xolo on the other hand is quite clutter-free. Ease of access to the application shortcuts, widgets and menu items is something I value.
  • Smart Features: There are a few useful ‘smart’ features. I know a few people who diligently switch off their Smartphone at night and switch it on in the morning – yes everyone has their reasons. The Q700i has a neat ‘Scheduled Power On-Off’ feature – you set the shutdown and power-on time & days of week, and the phone does the rest. You needn’t worry about switching it on in time. Especially useful when you are in a bus or train journey at night – the roaming network-searches eat up the battery before you reach the destination or if you’ve forgotten to use the airplane mode. The Xolo Power Management app has a few cool features: toggle your data connection at regular intervals of 5, 10, 15 … minutes when the screen is off! This saves some battery life & data consumption otherwise eaten up by the auto-sync options. A ‘Night Mode’ disables mobile-data mode during the set time-window. These are small but well thought features. Add these to the 2400 mAh, it can push up the battery life.
  • CameraHonestly haven’t tried much of this as I am not a major mobile-phone camera fan. But yes it works.

That’s it. All done and dusted. Now, one would say why I didn’t go back to the store to replace the piece? (Unfortunately) I had bought it online from a faraway state – so that is out of the window. 

Then, why didn’t I approach the customer care? Xolo has an interesting app – “Xolo Care” installed on the handset – it has the ability to send the IMEI number by SMS and has pointers to call & email the customer care – they will get back to you! I was impressed at first but am now disillusioned by its presence. I have sent SMSs multiple times but have had no response. The call-center – well like the online reviews speak about Xolo’s customer care(noteworthy ones are this & here as well; you would however find scores of such reviews online) – they basically read out the address of the nearest service center I would have to visit. For reasons of my own, I really do not want to undergo the ordeal of waiting for months and speaking to the same customer-care executive (who’s just doing his job) about a problem he cannot solve and await a possible solution!

For  me, there are three possible solutions. First – give me my money back. Second – give me a new piece with these issues resolved (They should be the ones doing engineering right in the first place and not me spending time on forums to find solutions). Third, spread the word and let the future probable customers know on what to expect!

If Lava International Ltd. Director & Co-founder Mr. Vishal Sehgal and Business Head (Xolo) Mr. Sunil Raina are serious about taking this brand to the next level (even closer to MicroMax), they have to make the product team work harder, make operations team work on service issues better and ensure good-quality end-products out of the assembly line! Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool in the current scheme of things! A cluttered marketplace with similar handsets need more than just a bright display and 8MP of camera. Delivering on promised parameters and a good service proposition will help ensure customer stickiness.

So much for now – maybe I will go back to the better-known brands after all. As I wrap this up, I still wonder was this a bad buy or bad luck?

Smartphone Industry in India – Spoilt for choices

Before I left for France in Jan 2012, the Indian Smartphone market was dominated by Nokia, Samsung, RIM & Sony. As per data (from a report) back in 2011 Nokia was a market leader in the Smartphone industry with ~45% market share, Samsung & RIM (now Blackberry) together at 36%. Apart from this five Indian Smartphone makers including a (then) obscure handset maker – Micromax made up 19% of the shipments.

Fast forward to 2014 – I am in India for a short span and am looking at buying a new Smartphone. While the Samsung Galaxy is pervasive here, the realization dawned that I was spoilt for choices in brands (see stats also for early 2013late 2013) – even those that I never knew existed.

Are their signs that the industry “matured”? Is there no more room for product innovation?

My observation lately has been that not a day has passed when I do not come across a fresh article in the press about – increased Smartphone adoption, rising mobile-internet penetration and changing market dynamics in India. While I wondered about how purchase patterns have changed, I put some thought into the current state of the industry and the possible direction it may take.

The Smartphone Industry in India – Today

  • India has 68 (!) Brands of Smartphone vendors…

…Only 30% of which are global brands (Src: EconomicTimes). In addition to Samsung & Sony, there are a host of players here. Samsung overtook Nokia in overall phone shipments recently but had already gained a dominance in the smartphone space a while back. Now, the tables are turned and domestic Smartphone maker Micromax poses a serious threat to Samsung in India. Apple hasn’t gained much traction due to its premium price point. Others like Lava, Celkon, iBall, Intex (yes these are the Indian players) have been raising the ante. Panasonic, HP & Dell are (re)introducing a vast range of products at competitive prices to get a seat at this table.

  • Free OS platform & cheap chipsets cater to rising demand

Chipset makers Qualcomm, nVidia, Broadcomm are dominant suppliers to the bigger mobile players. Mediatek is a major supplier for budget Smartphone makers (or say tier-II mobile makers). Mobile display makers provide differing yet interesting options like (O)LED, IPS displays. Google’s Android has for now leveled the playing field by opening the OS platform for mobile makers (Any Smartphone maker can customize & use the software for free). A host of ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) also provide a variety of applications for these handsets.

  • Brand agnostic Indian consumer & commoditized Smartphone

The Indian customer looking out for a bargain deal is a tough one to please. Availability of innumerable options has created pricing pressures. Dealers have resorted to selling a Smartphone by the inbuilt specifications rather than by the brand name driven by an onslaught from Asian OEMs. This is quite like the PC-industry where we’d care more about the processor, RAM, hard-disk space et al. In a cluttered product space, the seller talks just about the phone specifications – display, RAM, CPU, Memory etc. (Albeit the WinTel owners enjoyed a large portion of the profit pool, the same isn’t true for the Smartphone industry).

  • eCommerce & social media improved distribution & reach

Distribution channel has seen rapid evolution in the recent years. Increased penetration of Smartphone is fueling the growth of mobile-internet in India and thereby increasing the overall internet-data usage across the spectrum of users. This has led to a flourishing e-Commerce industry which has been expanding (50% growth in 5 years – Src: E&Y) and is set for unprecedented growth (Reach 38M transactions in 2014 at a CAGR of 36% – Src: E&Y). Online retailers are in a race to offer deep discounts to make consumers get the best deal – in purchasing a Smartphone as well. If a phone maker worries about increasing its point-of-sales, online-retailers can compensate the lack of a large distribution network.

Online presence through social media & use of tools like targeted online advertising has improved the returns of advertising campaigns. The marketing team gets greater returns against its advertising spend generating greater brand awareness and increasing topline.

So, where are we headed?

Can the tier-II vendors win over market share?

The rapid pace of innovation in technology industry & ease of imitation has ensured falling prices for existing technologies. Tier-II vendors find it easy to match up (if not exceed) the product specifications to that of the big-boys. But developing consumer confidence will be crucial. Vendors will have to find innovative avenues to serve the customer – be it improved after-sales service network & quality, provide interesting financing offerings & exchange offers (a step already being acted upon by Samsung & Apple in India). Investment in developing a strong service network is essential. There is potential for innovation to achieve economies-of-scale in deploying an efficient & effective after-sales service network. Will multiple tier-II vendors partner to provide joint after-sales? Will a new entrant cater to this need independently?

This has to be complimented with a focus on simplicity in design and usability. Leveraging the open OS platform, tier II vendors have the ability to pre-install several features peculiar to the Indian Smartphone user – which emerge through investment in consumer research.

Other stakeholders in the value-chain, especially the telecom operators are also experimenting with other revenue sources and alternate business models. India presents immense opportunities in areas of education, healthcare & payments. Telcos are investing in these to find more profitable revenue sources. Partnering with these will help tier-II vendors get off the beaten track of price-competition and develop a sustainable brand recall in the broader in Indian consumer’s mindset.

Will big players like Samsung sustain their lead?

Product innovation is critical to maintain brand stickiness. Yet another differentiating factor is ‘Service Innovation’. A robust balance sheet helps the big names leverage geographic reach to deliver strong service. While the internet is a greater leveler in improving distribution, brick-and-mortar stores instill confidence among customers seeking after-sales service. While tier-II vendors focus on pricing for a commoditized product range, the biggies must strongly communicate their ability to ‘serve’!

In conclusion, while I would say the industry has reached that of a mature stage, I believe that service innovation is crucial to avoid receding into a decline phase. Someone will reinvent the Smartphone – again!

Touching once again on the aspect of being spoilt for choices – finally, with a desire to try a local vendor with cheap yet powerful (enough) offering. With some word-of-mouth and a basic research of specifications – I settled for a Xolo Q700i. How did it pan out for me? You’ll know soon. (Update: And here it is!)


Photo credit: Prepayasyougo via photopin cc