Today smartphones have proliferated in use across the world. Along with them, there has been an explosion in the number of apps that are developed for smartphones. Each of these apps performs a specific function. Getting directions, booking movies, deciding where to eat out, editing photos etc. Because most of these apps perform one (or few) targeted functions, users normally have quite a few installed on their mobiles at any point of time. This can lead to a lot of clutter and space utilisation on their phones. Although storage is getting cheaper day by day, having a lot of apps also results in them asking for unnecessary permissions. This poses a security threat as well as a battery drain, what with every app running in the background now and then to try and reach the mother ship.

Elsewhere on the blog, I had written about how disposable apps could be one way to reduce the clutter on the mobile phone. I talked about how single-use mobile apps could be downloaded, used and automatically deleted once the user is done with it. This would ensure that users get the UI/UX of a mobile app while keeping their mobile free of clutter. You could think of this as Rent-An-App model. Of course, there are two prerequisites for that. One, such apps need to be small in size. Second, Internet speeds need to be fast enough. However app developers would not like the flexibility that this model gives the user. Any point in time, their app could be replaced by other apps that are giving better deals at that time.

But there is yet another way to reduce the clutter on the mobile phone where an average an app is used occasionally. And there is one obvious medium that can take care of this seamlessly. Which category of apps does the average smartphone use the most? For 8 out of 10 users, it has got to be messaging. Although traditionally the messaging apps have been used purely for that, lately some messaging apps have expanded their scope to include various other services – hail a cab for example, or order in at restaurants, or even shop online. Amazon had long ago introduced ordering through Twitter. But private messaging apps seem to be more preferable in terms of ordering more personal stuff online. This integration of messaging apps and various services can be called SAAM (Service as a message). In various messaging apps, this is possible currently through bots, that can perform basic functions.

It is a highly potent concept, still in its infancy. There are lots of issues to take care of – good enough natural language recognition, payment methods, etc. But this is something that can be resolved rapidly in the near future. After all, the newer generations are going to be more and more addicted to smartphones, and even more on messaging apps.

Who knows, in the future you may just be type in the following in your favourite messaging app. “Book me two movie tickets for tonight at the nearest theatre for that new movie starring Ryan Reynolds, and an Uber to pick us up.”

Or better still, use Siri to speak to it.

In the recently concluded WWDC 2015, Apple introduced a brand new subscription based music service across many countries. Apple Music started on the 30th of June and has already received rave reviews from many quarters.

Compared to the likes of Pandora, Spotify and others, Apple was a late entrant in streaming music. Even the fact that Apple decided to enter subscription based music is surprising, considering that Steve Jobs was totally against such a model. Instead, Apple offered downloadable music through the iTunes platform, and later started iTunes radio. But as times changed, and with the spread of broadband networks across the world, people were more receptive to subscribing to media databases online than to buy them à la carte. Spotify and Netflix are just two examples of this changing trend.

Apple has traditionally resisted following popular trends. In the era of Steve Jobs, Apple was definitely a bit close-ended in terms of adopting feedback from outside. But over the years, Apple has become much more flexible. And that is a very good thing. This New Apple, as I would refer to it, has brought in many good changes which can give it a wider appeal, especially in developing countries.

In terms of features, Apple Music is similar to other subscription music streaming services. No ads, downloadable music, curated playlists. I have still not had a chance to review the app and its interface. But what I want to talk about here is something unique in terms of the subscription pricing itself.

Apple has done is to keep difference subscription prices worldwide. In the US, the individual subscription plan comes at a price of $9.99 per month, whereas in other countries, it is much cheaper. In India, the corresponding plan comes at Rs120 per month (which is effectively around $2). This is a dirt cheap option for most people, even without the lack of good alternatives for English music. Of course, varied pricing across countries is common. A part of it is due to fluctuating currency rates as well. But this is something much more than that. This is an aggressive move by Apple to push itself into countries where pricing is a delicate subject.

And this is where the new Apple shines. The old Apple would have probably kept the same (or similar) pricing for various countries, regardless of the market saturation and purchasing power. Even in India, only recently has Apple accepted the fact that price is one of the most important factors for us to consider one product over another. And that applies just as much to a pair of shoes as it does to a Mercedes Benz. Apple has reduced the prices of their smartphones in order to make them more palatable to the nitpicking value-conscious Indian consumer. Sadly, this insight was ignored by Blackberry worldwide, and look at where it stands now.

Now I’m not particularly an Apple fanboy. I thrive on the Android ecosystem, and still maintain that Android provides a more flexible platform for power users. But what Apple has done with its music streaming (and to a certain extent, with its reduced phone prices) is to open up themselves to the Indian consumer. And by that I don’t mean just the rich or the privileged, but the burgeoning middle class who will dictate the spending trends of the country in the next decade. And by understanding the psyche of the crowds, Apple can find itself court-side seats in the whole game.

Apple is also planning to introduce its music service even to Android, an exciting step that would probably have been blasphemous during Steve Job’s tenure as the captain.

What is even more exciting is that both these events have the potential to set the trend for other streaming media subscription based services. Netflix is already planning to open shop in India. It will only be a matter of time before Spotify, Google Music and others do the same. And if the price points are something similar to what Apple has set, there are going to be definitely some “Achhe Din”  for the connected Indians.

 

Update: Apple has also introduced lower priced app tiers for people in countries like India. Just an example, the premium version of Camscanner is priced at Rs 10. This is brilliant and can definitely increase appstore purchases by consumers in India.

 

 

Once every few years, a movie comes which re-defines the sci-fi genre. Years ago, the Matrix trilogies did that. Inception was another movie which pushed the imagination and the idea of a future where the mind itself could be controlled by others.

Recently, I saw a movie Ex Machina which explores yet another frontier in technology – artificial intelligence. Is it really possible to build an artificially intelligent robot which has consciousness? Ex Machina is a movie which asks this question along with other relevant questions in today’s world. Hollywood has explored the theme of robotics and artificial intelligence. But many of them have glossed over the philosophy and have turned into mindless sci-fi action flicks. Ex Machina brings a fresh approach to this, as it depicts the current progress in the field of artificial intelligence (at least in private research) and online privacy, or the lack thereof.

Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, is a genius at coding and has built the world’s most popular search engine. At a secret research facility, he has also built an artificially intelligent robot. He organizes a contest to invite the winner to conduct a Turing Test on his creation. For those out of the loop, a Turing Test was devised by Alan Turing to judge whether a computer can be called artificially intelligent. Read more about the Turing Test here, and a good if not great movie on Alan Turing himself).

From the first scene that he features in, Nathan looks distant, cold and calculating. IMHO, this is probably how the biggest software moguls today would behave, at least when they are out of the public eye. Think the founders of Google and Facebook. Curiously, the company which Nathan runs is named Blue Book.

The winner of the contest, Caleb, is an employee in Nathan’s company. Once Caleb is flies down to the secret research facility, he is introduced to Ava, the robot which Nathan has created. Alicia Vikander is mesmerizing as Ava, the curious yet intelligent AI robot who tries her best to learn more about Caleb and the situation she is in. The interactions between Caleb and Ava, and between Nathan and Caleb, form the majority of the movie.

Although I won’t reveal the entire plot of the movie, below could be some spoilers on what the movie is about. Read it at your own risk.

Ex Machina touches various aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence which are relevant in the future. There are a few points which I would found particularly interesting.

1) The topic of sexuality in robotics – There is a point in the movie where Caleb questions Nathan on the importance of an AI needing a gender. Why can’t the AI simply be a gray box? Nathan counters the question by asking why would one gray box want to interact with another gray box? Thus the concept of form, gender, and body language is as important as the actual brain of the AI. It provides the motivation for one AI to interact with another. But the answer is much simpler. One of the most wide uses of artificial intelligence would be in interactions with humans, and not with each other. For humans to be comfortable with AI robots, they need to have a form which they can relate to. This may, or may not, cause them to put down their guard. But in order to encourage a smooth and natural communication, all the senses will have to be developed, rather than having a screen on a dull gray box. No doubt, the sex/porn industry is one of the areas where artificial intelligence will find much use. And Nathan hints at this as well in the movie, when he mentions that, Ava, is indeed equipped with sensors at the “right” places to ensure that she too enjoys sex. But even out of the sex/porn industry, the presence of a human form, complete with gender and skin preferences would be required for humans to feel comfortable with AI robots.

2) Can robots kill? This is one of the most controversial concepts in the field of robotics. Can artificially intelligent beings kill? Or rather, should they be allowed to? Here the words “artificially intelligent” is very important. This is what differentiates machines from robots. This concept was made quite popular by Isaac Asimov through his Laws of Robotics. Of course whether a particular robot has the laws of robotics ingrained in it is decided by its creator. This is where things can start getting scary, and precisely why scientists such as Stephen Hawking and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are worried about the rapid growth of what AI can and cannot do.

This problem is compounded if we generalize the phrase, “Can robots kill?” to the more believable, “Can robots act against humans?” Granted that in the future, your household robot may not pick up the kitchen knife and stab you in the back while you sleep, but can it act against the general interest of you and your family, if programmed by its creators? The question, “What if Skynet becomes self-aware?” should be on our minds as we progress through more frontiers in AI technology.

3) Is your data really yours? This point is also touched upon in the movie. Nathan, being the head of the world’s most popular search engine, mentions nonchalantly how he has hacked each and every cell phone in the world to build a database of face gestures, speech patterns, etc. which he used to program his AI. He mentions that a lot of phone manufacturers did the same through their hardware as well. If you think that this far-fetched, think again. Even today, hundreds of websites track each and every move of yours on the internet. And some of the most notorious sites are the popular search engines and the social networks of the world. According to some reports, they can do so even when you’re logged out of your account. Searches, Photos, Likes, Check-Ins, Interests, Favorites, etc. can be used to build a personal preference profile which is currently used to target relevant ads to individuals. But the same information can be used for much more nefarious purposes.

This “leak” of data is even more rampant on mobile devices, where apps can read your identity, list others apps running on your devices, and monitor your browsing preferences with little to no control in your hands. Although it is easier to restrict such tracking on the computer, it is much more difficult to restrict what gets tracked through a hand-held device, such as a mobile or a tablet.

From what is available in the public domain (or commercially), one can surmise that artificial intelligence still needs to go a long way before it can achieve what is shown in the movie. Companies, in private, are already clearing the next hurdle with regard to technology and artificial intelligence. For now, we probably need not worry about what AI can and cannot do. But coupled with the kind of data which is being captured today, the AI of tomorrow will already have a lot of information about how you will react to situations in daily life (and in emergencies). So imagine, you know nothing about the AI, while the AI knows everything about you. That would, as Ava says, be one dimensional. And that is not how friendship is created.

In closing, the famous Oppenheimer quote is quite apt as far as AI is concerned. After all, artificial intelligence is no less damaging than the atomic bomb if it falls in the wrong hands. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” 

Photographs at birthday parties today are quite a different affair from what they were a couple of decades ago. And one major driver for this change is the advent of digital photography, and the shrinking of a full-fledged camera into a 5 inch device with a quality sufficient for day-to-day usage.

Earlier, during birthday parties, there was only one camera. This was usually in the hand of a professional photographer who was hired for the party. Else, the father or any other member of the household was entrusted with the camera and the responsbility of taking pictures of the occassion. People smiled together and looked in the same direction in each picture, all because there was a single camera.

Fast forward to the present day when everyone and their driver has a smartphone. This means that the lines between being a guest and a photographer in parties have blurred. Everyone wants to capture a moment or two from the event and thus almost every one has their smartphone in hand, ready to snap a picture at a moment’s notice. Hey, let’s take pictures using this phone, it has “more” megapixels. No but mine is an iPhone, it has more “clearity”.

The end result of this? In the quest of being the next Steve Curry, each photo will have at least three or four people in the background holding up their own smartphones to capture the action from the other side. To add to that, the flash lights from the other cameras brighten up your own photo like floodlights at the Wankhede.

Recently, I saw a birthday celebration in a restaurant where there were four people taking photographs from their respective smartphone cameras, from four different directions. The person blowing out the candle clearly was struggling to give equal attention to all the four “photographers”.

But the funniest aspect of this is whenever a group photo is to be taken. Since everyone wants to capture that particular memory on their own phones, each of the couple who is part of the group photo hands over their camera to someone else. The outcome? In almost every photo, you see only about half of the people smiling. Each couple smiles only during that instant when a photo is being taken on their smartphone. Also people look in vaguely different directions, each one staring and smiling towards their own smartphone. Rather than what should be a perfect snap of a happy memory, what comes out looks more like a police line up.

So what is the solution? Or is there even one? Definitely, you cannot ask people to deposit their smartphones until the party is over. Nor can you force them to keep it in their pockets. As a host, maybe you can promise them to send across the pictures as soon as possible and thus ask them to refrain from using their individual cameras. “I’ll whatsapp you the pictures.” Or maybe you can ask a single person to take group pictures, if required, from multiple cameras one after the other. Or maybe you can just stop inviting such people to your birthday parties 🙂

The advent of digital cameras and cameras in smartphones has changed the way people photograph for ever. One one side it has made photography accessible to a vast percentage of the population, but on the other gone are the days when photographers are valued the way they once were. Who needs to call the photographer when they have their smartphones in their hands. After all, people’s smartphones now have “more” megapixels than some of the DSLRs these days. Right?

According to one recent article in Wired magazine, mobile Web browsing was reducing in comparison to mobile app usage. This has led to mobile app users getting a preferential treatment to mobile Web users. It also explains the rich apps that many sites provide compared to their mobile sites which are often rife with errors and formatting issues. Those websites which manage to recreate a faithful mobile experience still prod users to download their app instead for a more immersive experience. Some examples of sites in the Indian ecosphere which have beautiful and functional apps are Zomato and Flipkart.

But one problem this approach can bring about is that these apps tend to take up space and memory on the mobile. I may not need to use some of these apps frequently enough to warrant them a permanent space on the mobile. For a service like a restaurant and menu lookup like Zomato, I may use it a couple of times a week but wouldn’t need it daily.

What are the alternatives?

On-demand Apps.

This is the term I use to describe a model where apps are downloaded from the website (or store) only when needed. With better Internet speeds and increasing data usage limits, these apps can be downloaded when someone visits their website and are deleted as soon as the user exits the app. This approach has two clear benefits:-

1) Storage space capacity – Apps need not hog space permanently in the mobile especially if your usage of that app is not very frequent. Even though mobile storage and processor capacities are increasing, the storage space can also be put to better purposes. Moreover, not everyone would have the means to buy the fastest and the biggest mobile required to store the plethora of apps for each specific purpose.

2) Updates – Apps can be continuously updated by developers and websites in the background so whenever an app is downloaded, it is always the current version. This means less support woes for the developer as well for multiple versions of the app.

This approach wouldn’t work for certain apps like games which have a big footprint to be able to downloaded instantaneously, but it would definitely reduce the clutter for apps which provide a specific functionality like:-

  1. Internet speed tests
  2. Restaurant finder
  3. Shopping sites
  4. Magazine apps
  5. Banking transactions
  6. Social media

The problem statement

As e-commerce spreads in India,more and more people will switch to online to buy books, magazines and various other products online. With time, more and more transactions will be made online, including a majority through credit cards. Today in the name of making your online experience easier and faster, each e-commerce site or payment gateway stores your payment details in their databases. This, they claim prevents you from having to remember multiple cards or to have the card handy while buying something. This is done by all major sites including Amazon, Apple, Google etc. Of course, the convenience part is just a smoke-screen. It is psychologically beneficial for these sites to not let the customer have second thoughts when he reaches for the wallet to remember the credit card number and the various other related bits of information.

What are the consequences?

Security

There are two consequences of allowing a site to do store this information online. One is, of course, the security risk. In case someone hacks the site’s database, you run the risk of exposing your credit card details to thousands of unscrupulous hackers. But the safety aspect of this has been written countless number of times elsewhere.

Auto-renewals

What I want to explain is one more consequence of storing your payment information online – the problem of auto-renewals.

Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Google Music, Zinio, Magzter – all of these are changing the consumption model in today’s world. Moving from paying for a physical CD, to downloading single mp3s, to a streaming model, the online world is moving towards a subscription model – be it magazines, movies, TV shows, music subscriptions.

I subscribe to many digital magazines as it is more of an eco-friendly option. No doubt it is cheaper than the paper edition. Many sites like Magzter and Zinio come up with offers upto 75-90% off on various magazines, which is a steal in my opinion.

But my experience on some of these sites has been far from ideal. Let’s say I bought a one-year subscription for a magazine which was being offered at a 90% discount. The site stores my payment information by default (in the name of convenience). At one of these websites, surprisingly I had no way of accessing this payment information which was stored in their database. When the subscription expired, the site auto renewed my subscription and charged me the full price of the magazine. When I wrote to them about cancelling my renewal, they simply said that cancellations are not part of their policy. This was indeed a shocking revelation. Not providing the user the option to change or remove their own payment details is a major bug/lack of feature. Not only this, I did not have any option to turn off auto renewals on any of my magazines through their website.

Even when I had gifted someone a one year subscription to a magazine, this site went ahead and renewed their subscription once it expired! The “giftee” in essence would get a life time subscription of magazines until and unless I decide to block that particular card. In the end, I did manage to get them to cancel auto-renewals on all my magazines.

So what are the solutions?

This problem comes up with sites who are not yet established players in the e-commerce field (and by that I mean, anyone who is not Amazon, Apple or Google) and by extension, not trust-worthy to keep my credit card information stored in their databases.

So what is the solution then? Look for alternate payment options, if possible:-

1) Cash on Delivery (COD) – This is for the most paranoid. If the site offers a COD option, go for it. The money stays safe under your mattress until the product is delivered. And once the subscription ends, the delivery man can not practically enter your home to take some more of your money to renew that subscription.

2) Cheque – A cheque is still a very popular and safe way of payment. The only problem is the time it takes to getting a cheque cleared and the subscription to start. Especially in terms of e-magazines and e-books, it would be foolish to wait for a cheque to clear to be able to download something to your devices.

3) Net banking – This is also a very safe option, especially when coupled with a one time password (OTP) sent on your mobile number. This would stop unauthorized auto-renewals in their tracks.

4) Gift cards/Coupons – By buying gift cards or coupons first, and then using these to buy your subscriptions can prevent reuse once the subscription expires.

5) Disposable cards – Out of all the above, this one is what seems the most convenient and flexible. The above three options may not necessarily work especially in international sites or for payment in currencies other than rupees. Some sites may not even have payment through the above options, instead demanding only international credit cards. This is where disposable cards can be a powerful tool in your arsenal. Many banks (HDFC Bank Netsafe, Kotak Mahindra Bank, Citibank) now offer the facility of generating a one-time disposable card. This card can be generated using the netbanking site provided by the bank. This card not only has different details than your original card, but also you can limit the maximum amount of transaction on the card. This is an added layer of protection.

Once the card is used up, it doesn’t matter which site stores this information because the card is automatically disabled after first usage. Whenever you need to renew your subscription, you can always generate a new card and use that at the time of renewal. Since most magazine subscriptions would take place yearly, it is only once a year that you would have to undergo such a procedure (of course you will have to batch your magazine shopping in one go)

So in closing, if given an option, do not store your credit card information online. It takes hardly a minute to whip out your card every time you need to make a transaction. And it is a million times safer as well. In case you suspect that site will discreetly store your payment information without telling you so, generate a temporary credit card from your bank’s website and use that to make the payment. Lastly,  use non-CC based approaches if you have an option to do so. These may be a little less convenient but safer in terms of keeping your money with you.

#GOSFIndia

#BigBillionDay

If you’re aware of the above buzzwords, rest assured you are already part of the new e-commerce wave that is sweeping across India in recent years. Home grown sites like Flipkart.com, Snapdeal.com compete shoulder to shoulder well established international biggies like Amazon and Ebay (Both of them now have an India specific domain) with seemingly infinite pockets.

To buy a product, today a consumer can go online, compare the prices across a few sites, select the best deal and get the product delivered to his home in record time. This was, however, not always the case. I remember a time when online shopping was a very disorganized affair. Even if you managed to plod along the entire transaction completely, you had to twiddle your thumbs for days as you waited for the product to get delivered.

This experience was a remnant of the dotcom era. Just when the world was waking up to the new millennium, sites had cropped up by the dozens. Even in India there were countless dotcoms each trying to capture some niche market and trying to build a loyal customer base. A considerable part of these sites were e-commerce sites. But most of them failed to take off. Although there were many reasons why the dotcom bubble eventually burst, India in itself wasn’t ready completely for the online revolution. Given below are a few reasons why the revolution failed to take off in its first avatar:-

1) New mode of buying/Alien concept – For a country used to seeing the products in front of them before buying, and invariably bargaining before doing so, online shopping was an alien concept. Most of us would hesitate to buy products based only on a picture. Not having the product in front, and not being able to touch it was a deterrent to most from shelling out their hard earned money.

2) Not enough disposable income – India in the early 2000s was going through the IT revolution, with the IT field definitely one of the favourite areas to work in. But the amount of disposable incomes available to families was much lesser than the present day and age. Hence the target market to whom these online shopping websites could pitch to was limited.

3) Limited Internet access – If you remember, the early 2000s were still an era of dial-up connections and slow network speeds. People struggled with reliable connections back then, and it was improbable if not impossible for people to browse through e-commerce sites, compare products, expect online payments to go through reliably and then ultimately be able to track the order online. Logistics was also an ordinary affair at best, with products taking weeks to deliver in major cities, leave alone smaller towns.

4) Lack of security in online payments – Even for people who fit in the right demographic, who had a reliable internet connection and had enough money to spare, there was a limited and fragile infrastructure for online payments. Till today, the elders in the family are bound to discourage online payments due to the apparent lack of safety in buying online.

All of these reasons contributed to the boiling hot cauldron shrinking into a simmering stove. For a few years after the dotcom bubble burst, some e-tailers continued to provide strictly ordinary online shopping options (Some of these, rediff.com, indiatimes.com  and homeshop18.com are now but fringe players in today’s e-commerce boom.)

Cue forward to the present day, where consumer facing e-commerce is almost a $10 billion market. In the last five years, this industry is said to have grown at an astounding 50% annually. What are the factor that have contributed to this growth? Some of them are:-

1) Change in the demographic set up – In recent years, there has been a change in the demographic profile which has given rise to many more youngsters having disposable incomes. This group of people are also savvy with technology, including mobile and smartphones. This combination of discretionary spending plus staying connected always for that latest deal has proved to be a major boost for e-commerce.

2) Better connectivity – With broadband Internet spreading across office and homes in the country, people are more willing to transact online. Being able to buy from the comfort of their seats with reliable transactions is a major attraction. The spread of Internet in towns and villages will only increase the user base who goes online to shop for their favourite products.

3) Supporting infrastructure – With the improvements of supporting infrastructure like roads, warehousing facilities and transport services, online retailers have become more confident in providing next day deliveries to loyal buyers. This reduced TAT in getting  delivery of a product bought online has also increased the number of people turning to online shopping. The fact that online retailers generally quote lower prices is an added advantage.

4) Proactive regulator – The Reserve Bank of India (which in my opinion is one of the best central banks in the world) has set up strict guidelines for online payment systems and continues to be an active advocate of secure and dependable payment systems, especially for the end consumer. This focus by the RBI has played an equally important, if not greater, role in spreading the comfort with which Indians now transact online.

Of course, there are still teething problems that e-commerce v2 in India continues to face. India always has and will always face in the future a problem of undercapacity. Be it Google’s servers getting overwhelmed during last year’s GOSFIndia sale or Flipkart’s site going down during its recent Big Billion Day Sale. Also, with the increasing shift in the e-retailers business model towards an online marketplace (with independent vendors), there is also the problem of quality, reliability and spurious products. With the deep discounts and continuous sales, they are also not helping their bottomline in any way. Most of the VC-backed dotcoms continue to be in the red. But that was also the case with Amazon for years.

Judging from the popularity of both the events mentioned at the beginning, and the rate at which online retailers are pumping/increasing investments in India, this time around, India seems to be better prepared for the e-commerce boom. Warehouses are filled to the brim, delivery trucks are in transit and courier companies are on standby for the last mile delivery. But most important of all, the credit card limits of the consumers show no signs of maxing out anytime soon.

I’ve written in the past about unwanted email forwards and how they are more hilarious than irritating. Recently I received an email about ‘Do not open this mail, it contains a dangerous virus.’ The one thing that comes to my mind is that people who actually need such instructions would have already opened such mails and downloaded the virus, and people who do not need such warnings would be well off even without the forwards.

The surprising thing about email forwards is that no one is immune to sending them, even if the person has decades of experience in an IT company. Indeed most of the forwards are sent by techies having nothing better to do than to keep checking their inbox every 10 minutes. If only they would be so proactive in their coding.

The logic used by the people who chain-forward is that it is better to be safe than sorry, or why take chances when it is free of cost. Agreed, that forwarding an email doesn’t cost a dime, but no one keeps track of the time wasted on forwards and checking such emails. But the problem is that people (at least here in India) are gullible about most things on the Internet and most of them fail to do a simple background check before clicking that Forward button and spamming contacts with unwanted emails. Combine that by inserting a religious theme – Lord Ganesha will be furious, or Shani maharaj will do unwanted stuff to you in the future etc. and you have all the elements of a blockbuster chain email. I have yet to see what the situation is in more ‘developed’ countries. Still I’ve seen such chain messages even in YouTube comments so I’m not too confident about the situation being otherwise there too.

I divide email forwards into three categories:-

1) Totally useless/harmful – These are the kind of mails which do not provide any value add whatsoever. Most of them include a scary warning about relatives dying, or god cursing the receiver of the email if he or she doesn’t forward the email to 25 people in the next 4 hours or so.

2) Well intentioned but inaccurate – Out of the three types, these seem to be the largest group of email forwards which make the rounds. They consist of a seemingly useful piece of information which has been twisted, turned, exaggerated to make it seem more dangerous and urgent to act upon. Most of the time, it is all the handiwork of an idle person. These would include the rumours of plastics in Kurkure (read the clarification here), or the Coke-mentos story. Probably the Kurkure email was started by some over enthusiastic parent wanting to dissuade children from eating junk food. One of the most famous series of this category is the ones where Microsoft or Yahoo claims to donate 1$ every time a particular email is forwarded. Agreed, Bill Gates is philantrophic but if he decides to donate his money based on chain emails, his net worth would plummet to zero before you can say sub-prime.

3) Useful forwards – These are the very rare emails which pop up in your inbox once in a blue moon. One such example I saw was the ICE campaign where people were encouraged to store a particular contact number under the universal name ICE (In Case of Emergency). If nothing else, this could prove useful at times. Another types would include email forwards exhorting people to vote etc. But such forwards are very rare and you would consider yourself lucky if your contacts send you forwards of this category more than others.

I’ve purposely excluded spam mails from this classification because they are sent directly by the spammers and to a certain extent you can block them from sending such mails again. Email forwards on the other hand are sent by people in your contact books and there is no foolproof way to block such emails from them without affecting the flow of normal mails (if they send any)

All in all, chain mails are a source of humour for me and a quick test of the sender’s intelligence and common sense. Previously I used to reply to such mails and indirectly let the sender know that all he is doing is clogging other people’s inbox. But I realized that this won’t stop people from sending chain mails anyway, so why try. Now I just smile and delete such emails while praying for the sender to get some more self-control in sending such mails.

PS. Forward this link to 25 people in the next 30 minutes or else the following will happen:-

1) The ghost of the sub-prime crisis will haunt you forever

2) Your gmail account will be deleted as Google’s servers are getting very slow

3) There will be an attack of aliens from outerspace who will get into your brain and eat all your grey matter (if they find any left).

4) North Korea will attack South Korea which will prove to be the precursor to WW III.

Useful links