Friday, 29 August 2008

Show and Tell

ComexSingapore hosts 4 consumer electronics events a year; the IT Show (March), PC Show (June), COMEX (August) and SITEX (November).

This week it's COMEX and as for all the shows, it runs Thursday through Sunday. I usually try to go on opening day to avoid the crowds. It works to some extent or maybe you just end up attending with the other people who can choose to avoid the Saturday and Sunday crush.

I've been to all of them now and they are all the same. Same 3 floors of Suntec, same escalator madness, same Sony stand on level 3, same big names on level 4 and same smaller companies on level 6.

This time I was in the market for a big hard disk drive. At the PC Show in June, the best deal was a 3 interface (USB, Firewire, eSATA) 1TB for S$349 (£134). At COMEX, the same item is S$249 (£96), and you could get the same drive in a USB 2.0-only enclosure for S$199 (£76). I whipped out the plastic NETS card.

It's analagous to Moore's Law, which strictly relates to number of transistors on a chip doubling every 24 months but is nowadays quoted for many measures of technical advance including the effective price-per-megabyte of disk storage. In this case, the 29% drop in 2 months is because the manufacturer is likely clearing stock ahead of the next product cycle.

I only go to the shows because the retailers hold back stock specifically to have show sales. Some Sim Lim stores ran dry of drives ahead of the PC Show. After the show, many of the advertised deals are achievable with regular bargaining but the shows work mostly on sticker pricing so it may be less work.

Otherwise I wouldn't bother. Too crowded. Too much tat being hawked as quality gear. There was one stand, I don't know what they were selling, international dialing cards perhaps, that stuck me a having a uniquely simple sales pitch. They had two ridiculously pretty booth girls in micro-skirts handing out leaflets (not answering questions, just leaflets) under a sign reading "Sign up today, get free stuff".

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Jamaica Takes the Biscuit

O-RingsApparently, the 2008 Beijing games are over. The only reason I know is that the the Today paper is reporting on a Chinese psychologist who believes the home country's sports fans are suffering "feelings of loss, worrying about work and generally feeling sluggish", also "feeling lost and prone to whining".

I hear the whining alright. "Xinhua did not provide any figures for the extent of the problem." Oh Okay, a make it up as you go along story that allows them to invent "Olympic Syndrome".

All of which is a shame as actually the mathematics of the games is more interesting. Freakonomics calculates that Jamaica tops the medal table based on its 2.2 gold medals per million inhabitants. Second place on this table is Bahrain with Rashid Ramzi’s victory in the 1,500-meter race giving them both their first-ever gold medal and a per capita rate of 1.4 gold medals per million. Which puts Singapore's one silver for 4.5m people into perspective.

Singapore is now struggling with the aftermath of their medal win. There's a local scandal about how one of the coaches was summarily sacked by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (the President is my MP). The association claims the decision was made before the games, but others claim it was because one of the team was left to play a match un-coached.

The dash to cash continues with the Singapore Sailing Association saying it needs $10m to $12m to prepare for the next games while others point out that if table tennis suits the Asian physique, then why not put tables in every void deck. Perhaps they need some mathematicians to calculate their odds against how many tables are already in China right now. You'd be better off putting the money into a prize fund to attract top-ranked players willing to take Singaporean nationality.

So there you have it. Mass depression, statistics and money. And I thought the Olympics was about individual achievement.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Groucho wouldn't buy an iPhone

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerIt appears I am more rational than my fellow Singaporeans. We are at Day-2 of iPhone availability from SingTel and I'm thinking it's not a club I want to join.

The latest e-mail from SingTel avoided previous faux pas and was text, not an enormous graphic. It was also spam trapped so I didn't even see it for 24 hours. It briefly describes the pricing plans and tariffs that we already know and invites me to book an appointment. This morning, SingTel's website carries the following advice:

Please come on and not before your allocated time. You must have an appointment to pick up your iPhone 3G. Only people with appointments will be able to collect an iPhone. You must be the account holder to collect your iPhone. Please bring with you your ID and your confirmation receipts/emails. Please be prepared for a 2 to 4 hour wait.

So let me get this straight. I have to book an appointment, and I must keep the appointment, but then SingTel will keep me waiting for 2 - 4 hours? At least the queue seems to be real customers. The Polish iPhone launch by Orange has been caught out hiring actors to create fake queues in front of 20 stores to generate a marketing buzz. At least in Singapore, the queue seemed to be genuine with the first buyer waiting 24 hours in line in the tent erected in front of CommCenter.

What continues to puzzle me is the ridiculously low data caps. It's a "3G" iPhone. Its main claim to fame is the increased speed of data download, otherwise it's essentially the same as the 2G (Ok, they did add GPS). If I chose the basic iFlexi tariff, I get 1GB of bundled data. SingTel don't give the overage charge on their website, so I called Customer Services on 1626 and after a hugely irritating message about iPhone delays, repeated in Mandarin, and 3 voice prompts later, I was queued then quickly talking to an efficient and well spoken Indian man.

The overage charge (the amount I pay for data beyond the 1GB) is 0.5 cents per kilo byte. So if I use 2GB of data in a month, I have to pay for the extra 1GB: (0.005 * 1024 * 1024 ) = S$5,242 (£2,011). It's no wonder there is already an online petition about the niggardly data caps.

To his credit, the CSO pointed that for "people who want to use a lot of data", they are better off choosing one of the normal SingTel tariffs and adding a 50GB mobile data plan on (on offer for 30% off). Funny, they don't mention that in the FAQ.

Just wait until you see the fine print. Calling Line Id is free (footnote: for 3 months only). Auto roaming is free (footnote: for 3 months only). Voice mail is free (footnote: for 12 months only). Incoming calls are free (footnote: until Dec 2010 only). Am I the only one who thinks this is borderline bait'n'switch?

You may be wondering are there any phones out there as good as the iPhone? The Samsung Omnia i900 is often mentioned. I tried one at the CommunicAsia show a few months back. Don't bother, it's rubbish. Sure it looks nice but it runs on Windows Mobile with some custom applications so it's schizophrenic, switching between an iPhone-esque touch interface and the underlying Windows madness. I was left dazed after trying to use it for 5 minutes.

I guess my problem is that I don't do Hype. The iPhone is nice and I'm willing to pay for one, but I hate the bullying marketing antics of mobile operators, the oppressive lock in contracts and the scary small print. I reckon StarHub and M1 will have better data tariffs later this year. And perhaps the final realisation is that I no longer want to be associated with the people who are buying iPhones. Groucho Marx would understand.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

iPhone Kills Baby Seals

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerSingTel have stopped sending me e-mails about the iPhone launch; actually it turns out that they are initially targeting existing SingTel customers and I don't have any accounts with them. So only 2 days from the first sale, I have to read in the newspaper about the state of the promotion; only sales to pre-registered buyers for at least the first few days.

So I hot foot over to the SingTel website. Nada. You click around in an increasingly desperate search for any news or even mention of the device. In a sure sign of insanity, you even click on links you've already checked in the forlorn hope the result will be different. It turns out you need to go to the iPhone page, which finally shows the price plans.

SingTel have created special iPhone plans called iFlexi (yes, 2 'i's) plans, all 2 year contracts, assuming the 16GB model:

iFlexi Value: S$508 down, then S$56pm, 200 minutes, 500 SMS, 1GB data.
Total = $1852 (£704) over 2yrs

iFlexi Plus: S$208 down, then S$95pm, 500 minutes, 500 SMS, 2GB data.
Total = $2488 (£984) over 2yrs

iFlexi Premium: S$0 down, then S$205pm, 1500 minutes, 1500 SMS, 3GB data.
Total = $4920 (£1871) over 2yrs

Actually, it's more complicated than that, and there is a very detailed FAQ page just for the iPhone. But still, my immediate reaction is No Way.

First, anyone who spends £900 a year on a phone is mad. Secondly, the data caps are pathetically ungenerous; my M1 3G broadband account is S$22pm (£8.30) with no data cap; None; Unlimited. SingTel do the same deal but with a 50GB data cap. To put this in perspective, my domestic broadband usage is about 15GB per month (~14GB downstream and 1GB upstream). So a phone with a 1GB data cap is only 2 days of my normal broadband use. Clearly, this is no substitute for a home broadband connection (even if Apple would allow tethering, which they don't). So I'll have to keep my M1 mobile broadband account as well.

I have a couple of days to decide. I make few calls (probably less than 15mins a month) because I tend to use landlines for outgoing calls. I do use SMS, increasingly so. It's a convenient way to have a conversation in slow-time. Maybe they are in a meeting, or I am. I use it like e-mail for short, non-urgent discussions. But I still only send maybe 30 or 40 a month, tops.

So out of these choices, I'd take the first one (where I effectively buy the phone at cost) and then keep my monthly subscriptions from bankrupting me over the next 2 years.

Or I might wait it out and see what StarHub and M1 offer at the end of the year. I've already waited over a year for the 3G version. Another couple of months won't make any difference. It bemuses me that most buyers of the phone will not make such a calculated or patient purchase decision, which is one reason why Apple's market capitalisation has just past Google's

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Singlish WOTD: Boleh

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Boleh

Defn: Can do, it's possible

From Malay.

Monday, 18 August 2008

No Silver Lining

O-RingsThe country of Singapore won a silver medal in the team table-tennis event and thus ended the perceived 48 year drought of Olympic plaudits. They lost 3-0 to China in the final.

The Prime Minister postponed the English language version of the annual national day speech to Monday apparently to adjust the timing with respect to Olympic broadcasts. You can just imagine the nationalistic, flag-wrapping frenzy that the medal win has caused. The team's future is assured and there are already talks of using the success as a springboard to further focused effort into development of top sports stars.

I was around someone's house last Thursday and when dinner was served, they turned the TV on and arranged the salad so as not to obstruct the view. It was the first Olympic TV I'd seen and the news was Federer losing. I was just surprised that lawn tennis was even an Olympic sport.

One wrinkle is that the 3 winning (losing?) team members are naturalised Singaporeans; all were born in China. The long history of passport athletes (Zola Budd anyone?) is now an accepted practise but it goes to the heart of what I dislike about the modern Olympics. It's right up there with medal league tables sorted by country, commercial sponsorship and ridiculous, equipment-based sports.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

F1 Circus

Checkered FlagSingapore hosts a round of the 2008 F1 GP Championship on the 26th September. The backstory is that Malaysia built a new F1 circuit, Sepang F1, a few miles north of K.L. and hosted its first F1 race in 1999. Its one claim to fame is that is the only circuit with the protected trademark "F1" in the name. Sepang is the place name (of the former swamp).

Singapore is never out-gunned within its local region and as a matter of prestige and income, decided to have an F1 race. The crushing lack of land space forced it to be a street circuit (like Monaco and Montreal) around the Marina Bay roads. Singapore last ran an F1 race back in 1973; this 61-lap race is one of only three anti-clockwise circuits on the current tour and uniquely, the first F1 race run at night under floodlights.

The circuit is downtown and actually runs underneath the bay grandstand that hosted the NDP-08 show. The cheapest ticket for the Bay Grandstand was S$248 (£93), although this prime location is sold out. The official website is showing 92% of tickets sold at the beginning of June and 93% sold at the current time.

The initial flurry of activity (and perhaps enthusiasm) have waned somewhat. The inevitable feeding frenzy and blatant profiteering of hotels with over-looking rooms has settled a little and overall, the Times ran a piece in June about the continued availability of rooms for the event. SingTel quickly snapped up the prime sponsorship prize and have their own fancy website including a competition to select the grid girls.

I've attended a GP race, actually at the Sepang circuit, and while it was an interesting and memorable experience, I have no desire to repeat it. First, you medically require ear plugs to avoid hearing damage. Second, a static track-side view is the worst as you see each car for 4secs out of every 50secs. You need a portable TV to get the live overview or at least a radio with headphones. Malaysia in August was also Hot, +35degC and despite a hat and even a sarong as sunscreen, I was sunburnt through the material. It was also crowded with congested roads and amateur arm-wavers hired for the day to impose leadership on tired and irritable visitors.

So I have to balance nationalistic oneupmanship, greedy hoteliers, girl-next-door beauty pageants, deafening noise, the £100 a head cost and the inevitable overcrowding against seeing that Hamilton chap do amazing things. Hmmm, nah, I'll catch the result the following day on the RSS news feeds thankyouverymuch.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Singapore Does God

Creation of AdamUnlike Tony Blair's press secretary who cut famously short a questioner who asked if the Prime Minister's (Catholic) religion influenced his political decisions, Singapore does do God, in increasing numbers.

In 2000, 14.6% of Singaporeans claimed to be Christians, up from 12.7% a decade before. Taoist numbers are falling fast. In 1980, 30% of Singaporeans said they were Taoists, by 1990 it down to 22.4% and just 8.5% in 2000.

In terms of apostasy, Buddhists are holding strong with more than 80% who were born Buddhist staying Buddhist. The survey also claimed it is the fastest growing religion, although I don't immediately see the data for that claim. It does say Buddhism is the top choice among those in search of spirituality, gaining converts among those seeking "time out" from stressed lives. I can believe this: practical life management rather than preachy moral guidance.

If we assume the Muslim population of Singapore is stable (they take a very dim view of apostasy indeed), and Indians similarly, then all this religious chair hopping is going on in the Chinese community.

"There's a leakage from traditional Chinese religions, which don't seem to have the same appeal to younger people,"

according to National University of Singapore sociologist Alexius Pereira.

"Three-quarters of those queried who abandoned Taoism said they felt disconnected to the religion or perceived a "lack of meaning" in following it".

A strong, evangelical Christian attitude is often encountered with Chinese Singaporeans. It's not oppressive, but it has the heart-felt fervour of someone who decided their faith rather than inherited it by default so caution is required. Whether it's invites to parties (that turn out to be Church events), conversations on stock market investments (prayers to lift a sagging stock price), talking about illnesses (group prayer is offered with follow-up offers to join a bible study group), changing jobs (prayers for guidance) or anything sexual (where the good old standbys of gays & lesbians are dangerous topics).

Catholics and Protestants are split 1 third / 2 thirds. There's a Christian (Mormon) seminary near Novena MRT and you often see neat, polite and earnest young men wearing the uniform black trousers, white shirt and sensible tie on their way back to the dormitories at Woodlands. Mostly Americans with a refreshingly unabashed attitude to speaking to strangers on the train, something locals never, ever, ever do.

My favourite God conversation so far was with a near neighbour (Chinese) who declared she was "Catholic. Not Christian, Catholic.". It's somehow reassuring that in adopting Christian beliefs, locals have digested the full-fat version complete with inter-denominational prejudice and two millennia of schism.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Broadband Hustle

M1 LogoWhen it comes to marketing broadband services, there is no such thing as coincidence. Singapore has a few mobile phone carriers (SingTel, M1, StarHub) and broadband carriers (SingNet, StarHub, Pacific Internet). Now M1 is moving into fixed broadband by re-selling service based on StarHub's cable network.

It's an arrangement familiar in England where BT's OpenReach wholesales aDSL service to many ISPs, including themselves. StarHub will charge $35.71 (£13.27) a month to M1 who will then sell broadband service for up to S$88.50 pm (£32.89).

The wider story is that StarHub and M1 are in one of the two consortiums bidding for the NGNBN (new national fiber network) that is due to be announced any time, although an insider has already tipped it will go to the SingTel consortium.

The non-coincidence is that out of the blue, the Merlion household was cold-called by our existing broadband supplier, StarHub. We have been with them since we arrived 22months ago and have been contract free since the end of the first year. We pay S$59.80 (£22) for an 8Mbps/256kbps service that is Okay.

Given the choice, I'd change to SingNet on aDSL because Starhub do traffic shaping at busy hours. Trying to download (not watch, just download) YouTube videos on a Sunday night just fails, and slows to a crawl during evenings generally. SingNet have a better backend network and indeed use it to stream realtime video for their Mio (said Mee Oh) video on demand (VOD) service.

So when StarHub call and offer 25% off for a 2 year lock-in, I declined faster than a scalded cat. I hate lock-ins and, as is common with most of these deals, the cost to breakout of the deal is to pay the entire outstanding balance up to the end of the lock-in contract.

I haven't moved to SingNet for exactly the same reason. Only their entry level 512kbps aDSL has a 1 year contract term. All the faster plans are 2 years with the usual full penalty breakout. No deal.

The problem is freebies. If I commit to 30months with StarHub, I could get a 'free' laptop. Two years with SingNet gets me mobile discounts or whatever the offer is this month. I can't get a freebie-less deal without the term lock-in because the local market is saturated and stopping subscribers jumping ship at the first whiff of a better deal elsewhere is the main preoccupation of the marketing departments.

This also explains the horrible websites of these providers, especially SingTel [Ed: just re-vamped so looks nice but functionally similar] that, as you may now realise, are not there to inform, but to sell. I go looking for facts and get gypsy carnival style bait'n'switch showmanship. Just read the tiny footnotes if you doubt me.

Singaporeans are mercenary consumers who consider it a statutory obligation to change suppliers to get a better deal and publicly congratulate themselves on their savvy. Most change mobiles every 12 months. In my case, I stay with StarHub not because I'm locked in but because I am not. Lacking clarity of my tenure here in Singapore, I just sit on a contract-free, traffic-shaped StarHub line, paying a little more each month. As they say, Freedom isn't Free.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Singapore gets the iPhone

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerHaving complained only days ago of e-mails from SingTel that consist solely of a single graphic image with no text, I can now report they have been listening. Yesterday's update e-mail, reporting that the iPhone will be on sale in Singapore on the 22nd August contains neither text nor graphics.

Unburdened by such e-mail trivialities as a message body, I can reproduce it here in its full and glorious terseness:

Subject: It's coming on 22 August 2008!
Date: 12 August 2008 17:44:58 SST
To: [redacted]

The popular & technical press have more coverage but still no indication of pricing although the word is that it will be subsidised so cheaper at the start, but more $ per month.

The other carriers (M1, Starhub) claim they will be offering the gadget before year end so SingTel had better think hard before trying to gouge the early-birds. I'll just pass and buy an unlocked phone in Hong Kong if they get greedy.