Amazon Echo Plus in India – first impressions


Got my first smart speaker, the Amazon Echo Plus yesterday and it seems to be nicely Indianised. It seems to be using the Raveena voice based on Indian English or a variant thereof from Amazon Polly (AWS’s text to speech service). The Alexa app itself is also pleasantly adapted for India with the appropriate command suggestions and services available.

Some of the India specific commands to try

I had pre-ordered the device and it was delivered within a day of the dispatch. The setup process was quite smooth and once done, I promptly went about installing a bunch of skills ranging from the utilitarian to the time pass ones.
As a music player, the sound quality is decent but nothing spectacular as many reviewers have noted. As for the music catalog, it seems to be using Saavn exclusively though it does Amazon music as one of the options in the app. Saavn itself has a decent catalog and Alexa has again been Indianised sufficiently to understand some Hindi song names. I  tried “Play the song ek main aur ek turn” and it actually started playing the song from Saavn though it did pronounce “main” the English way.

Alexa understands Hindi!

The flash briefing skill is quite handy to get a quick bulletin of your areas of interest once you have set it up with your desired sources. It can also give you cricket score updates without any skill installation as I tried out during today’s India – New Zealand match.


I installed the Uber and Ola skills to check the overall utility factor. While Alexa seems to be able to book an Uber including picking up your location, the payment mode defaults to cash which is a dealbreaker for me. Then there’s the Zomato skill I installed and tested. It seems to know your last 3-4 orders and you can reorder as well but didn’t go beyond browsing for the moment.

The alarms and timers work pretty well too and I conveniently set a sleep timer to stop playing the music while going to bed.

Then of course there’s the whole reason why I got the plus instead of the regular model which is the smart home hub built into the device. A solo Philips hue bulb is what I ordered next and setup today. It was again a pretty simple process with the Echo detecting the bulb in a few seconds. Controlling the bulb by voice is also quite easy right from switching it on and off to changing the colour and brightness. The app however has just the on/off switch and brightness control at the moment and as many reviewers have noted, the functionality of the smart devices using just the Echo Plus is considerably limited when compared to using the devices with their respective hubs. This is definitely one area of improvement and given the kind of coverage you see for smart homes on the Amazon Alexa pages, it should improve sooner rather than later.


Apart from all this you can also use the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker and pairing it with my iPhone was quite simple. That said, all the sounds from the phone start getting carried over to the speaker and this interrupts any song or speech playing on it directly. Due to this, I ended up keeping the phone disconnected unless I wanted to play something from my phone.

One thing I couldn’t find is the voice profiles option that lets Alexa identify the person speaking and customising the responses accordingly. Possibly a feature not yet rolled out to the Indian market as it seems to depend on the Amazon app that didn’t seem to have this option in my case.

A smart speaker is a family device but my wife is not very enthused by the idea while my 4 year old daughter would like to play with Alexa but hasn’t yet gotten out of her initial shyness phase to begin talking freely to her. It didn’t help that Alexa couldn’t answer many of her queries and also the fact that she was trying to get Alexa to identify the colours of the crayons she was holding in front of the device – a perfect case for Google Lens and Assistant.

This is of course just what I’ve been able to check out in the first 24 hours with the Echo Plus and I’m sure there’s lots more already available and also coming in the near future.

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What a commuter wants…

… is a reliable means of transport to get them from point A to point B. Of course, it helps if the commute is pocket friendly, comfortable and fast. While taxis & autos in Mumbai adhere to the fare meters (unlike certain other metros), refusal is a universal problem shared by all commuters irrespective of the availability. The first generation of private cab services like Meru, TabCab, EasyCab did try to sort out this problem to an extent, but never managed to have enough cabs available or offer fares competitive with kaali-peelis or autos (AC notwithstanding).

Ola also jumped into this space following in Meru’s footsteps before significantly restructuring their pricing model upon Uber’s entry. These 2 taxi service aggregators reached near kaali peeli fare levels and offered a much more reliable (read disincentivised refusals) and more readily available service. In fact, Ola even tried to get kaali peelis on their app, but the effort seems to have fizzled out after a promising start.

The rest of the script is also playing out just like in the rest of the world and even a city like Mumbai, the so called commercial capital of India, has witnessed 2 taxi strikes within a couple of months. While the first strike was accompanied by Mumbai commuters discovering the basic Economics concept of supply and demand thanks to the Uber surge pricing, the second one has shown how disabling surge pricing makes life difficult and reduces the availability of cabs. Either way, the commuter has gotten the wrong end of the stick.

I just hope that we find a better solution than the other countries to this whole standoff between the incumbents and upstarts. Too bad the kaali peelis and autos don’t think of adopting a no refusal policy – something that’d get Ola and Uber in real trouble.

Reality catches up with Uber – Mumbai taxi fares re-revisited

Uber Mumbai has just announced a big hike on the Black and SUV services, pretty much bringing them on par with the Ola Prime SUV service. So here’s the latest fare chart (older versions here – v1, v2):

Approx. taxi fares in Mumbai as on 13 July 2015
Approx. taxi fares in Mumbai as on 13 July 2015

Note on the calculation methodology:

  • Travel time calculated assuming 3 min per km (Uber, Ola, TFS)
  • Waiting time taken as 1/2 min per km (kaali peeli & Meru\TabCab)

Revisiting the taxi fares in Mumbai

Ola announced a series of price cuts to their Mini and Sedan services to better compete with Uber and also added the Taxi for Sure hatchbacks to their app in the last few days. This calls for an update to the fare chart that I had made for the various taxi services in Mumbai ranging from the traditional kaali peeli and Meru\Tab cab to the new entrants like Ola and Uber. So here it is:

Taxi fares in Mumbai
Taxi fares in Mumbai

The equation hasn’t changed drastically, but the Ola Mini service is now pretty much comparable to UberX, while UberGo remains unchallenged. Ola Sedan also becomes significantly cheaper than the Merus and Tab Cabs while the newly added Taxi for Sure service (for the Ola app) slots in between these two. TFS seems ripe for a round of price revisions as the  cars are effectively equivalent of the Minis, i.e., hatchbacks.

The recommendations are quite simple:

  • For short distances (<10 km), kaali peelis are the most economical
  • Beyond 10 km, UberGo reigns supreme. In fact, unless you are doing very short distances (sub 5 km), they are the best option. They’re definitely not sustainable for Uber and that possibly explains their relatively limited availability. However, for taxi commuters like me they’re the perfect kaali peeli replacement.
  • Since you are unlikely to get an UberGo, your next best bet is to settle for an UberX or an Ola Mini. For that matter you could go with any of the other options barring the SUVs or Uber Black for distances around 10-15 km without too much fare difference.
  • For distances longer than 15 km, the newer lot comprising of UberX and Ola Mini & Sedan pull away from the Rs 20/km crowd of Meru, Mega, Tab Cab etc.

Either way, this is a good time for the commuter though the rates are unlikely to be sustainable in the long run. So, enjoy for the time being and hope that the day of pleading with taxi drivers and autos never returns.

How Uber’s shaken up the pricing structure in India

I’ve been using Uber quite frequently over the last couple of months and today’s Mumbai taxi strike to protest such services ironically forced me to opt for Uber at a 1.8x surge price. While I’ve had my share of ups & downs with Uber, the flexible pricing model has been one aspect that I’ve been impressed with compared to the competition like Ola.

Uber managed to create quite a buzz offering single digit per km rates which was almost half the rate others were offering at that time, but the pricing model which included a per minute charge on the trip ensured that the overall fare was not unsustainably low. This has also allowed them to go after the local taxi & auto services in the different cities and they also end up being cheaper for medium to long distances.

The Uber pricing in India is typically a low per km rate coupled with another per trip minute rate on top of a fixed base fare, with the overall fare subject to a minimum amount and of course the surge factor. Putting it simply:

Fare = Surge factor x (Distance x Rate per km + Trip time in minutes x Rate per minute)

Ola which had started off in India with a conventional pricing model of rate per km and a waiting time rate has pretty much overhauled their pricing to mimic the Uber model. They have in fact abandoned their initial method of applying a fixed peak time price during 2 slots on weekdays in favour of a surge factor. The other taxi services like Meru, Tab Cab, Easy Cab etc. have thus far stuck to the traditional model, though they’re trying to stay relevant through special offers.

I also did a simplistic analysis of how the different services compare in terms of the trip fare in a city like Mumbai (Google Sheet here). I’ve assumed a trip time of 3 minutes per km and waiting time of 1 minute for every 4 km, so the results are going to be quite different in heavy traffic.

Approx fare comparison
Approx fare comparison (corrected)

For short distances, the local kaali peelis are of course the cheapest, but for distances above 10 km, UberGO ends up being a better deal. The next cheapest is the Ola mini which starts getting pretty competitive with kaali peelis after the 20 km mark. This is of course disregarding the non-AC nature of the kaali peelis. [Update] Ola Mini and UberX are pretty competitive till the 10 km range, but separate pretty quickly after that as the near 30% higher charge per km for Ola starts making a mark.

The older generation of Meru, Tab Cab etc manage to remain competitive with the newer lot, matching the next best Ola Sedan UberX and Ola up to the 10 km mark, but the higher cost per km quickly multiplies beyond that point. And then we have UberBLACK and UberSUV which have the same rates but different capacities. They can actually offer a better deal than Meru and the likes for long distances over 25 km. Of course if you have 5-6 people travelling, then these 6 seaters are the way to go. Lastly, we have Ola’s version of the SUV with its Prime service that’s the costliest of the lot. Again, if you are in a group of 5-6 people, this can actually be cheaper than the taking two 4-seater vehicles, unless of course you manage to get a couple of UberGOs.

I haven’t considered the surge pricing in the above comparison, and that is a scenario where the older lot turns out to be cheaper. However, such scenarios are rare as Merus and the likes can be pretty hard to find for immediate travel. The interesting thing to see now will be the role that regulators play in toying around with these pricing models.

Update (16 Jun 2015): Found a major miscalculation in the trip time. I have corrected the graph and updated the text accordingly.

A few seconds

This post would’ve been titled “Uber-ing around in the City of Joy” had it not been for an incident that changed my life. Recall those accidents in movies where people get run over or smashed up by speeding cars? Well, I just got a front seat experience complete with the glass fragments. Here’s how things transpired.

I had gone for a trip to Kolkata with my family last month and we touched down in Mumbai on time thanks to Indigo last Sunday. Being the last Sunday of May, the airport was busting at the seams with all the families returning from vacations and there was the usual shortage of trolleys. The luggage also took its own time to come around as expected. This also meant that the taxi booking counters were stacked with long lines and vehicles were in short supply. Since we’d been using Uber quite extensively in Kolkata, I decided to book one for the airport pickup as there was no surge pricing on.

I had the regular location and pickup time exchange with the driver and we finally managed to step out towards the pickup point. I informed the driver that we had reached the point and he came over to pick us up. The place was packed with cars and we tried to get to the car and load our luggage as quickly as possible since there’s a 5 minute cap on the time allowed. As luck would have it, the security at the exit point stopped us and demanded Rs 110 as we had apparently exceeded the allotted time by a minute. There was a heated exchange with the driver, and I finally gave up and paid the amount so that we could head home in peace. Little did we know that these few seconds would have such a large impact.

The driver was in a bad mood, and we entered the Western Expressway from the airport. The road was quite clear and he hit the gas and we were speeding along towards home. And then it happened. An old man with a packet in hand was running across the road just before one of the numerous flyovers, and our driver going at 70-80 kmph tried his best to avoid the man, but all too late. He hit the old man head on and he was flung onto the windshield, his head shattering the glass in front of me and finally ending up in a small pool of blood behind us.

The driver managed to stop and a large crowd gathered around us. The driver and I got down while my wife, 2 year old daughter and her nanny stayed inside. Our first task was to try and get the people to attend to the old man, lying unconscious on the road. Some of the people in the crowd got the man to the roadside and managed to get him to a hospital in some vehicle as the car was not in a fit state to be driven, and this was the most critical thing to do. Next was to attend to my family as we were all covered with glass fragments. My wife was in a state of shock, while my daughter was too young to really understand all that was happening. I also discovered minor scratches on my arms from the glass fragments with blood trickling out. We got the driver to pull the car over to the roadside while the people directed the traffic.

I managed to convey to the crowd that I was not driving and it was not my vehicle but just a taxi that we had taken for an airport pickup. I didn’t mention Uber to the people as this might have had a bad effect given the current state of affairs. The crowd was quite cooperative and even managed to get us a regular kaali peeli taxi and I promptly asked my family to switch vehicles as I transferred the luggage. Once I was sure that the old man had been attended to and there was not much for me to do, I boarded the kaali peeli and headed home with my family. I left the driver to attend to the aftermath and the people in the crowd to take care of things. Had this happened in Kolkata, it is very likely that the outcome would have been very different.

Aftermath

We managed to reach home safely though our kaali peeli driver also seemed to be pretty keen on causing another accident the way he was driving. I also checked out the Uber app, cancelled the trip and got hit with a Rs 100 cancellation fee. I went ahead and reported the accident on the trip feedback section. We also discovered quite a lot of glass fragments on our person and clothes and had to do quite a bit of cleanup to ensure the safety of our daughter. Later in the afternoon I got a call from the apparent owner of the car who seemed to be trying to understand what had happened. He tried to tell me that the old man was allegedly drunk. We were not in a state to really dig around the matter which was probably what he wanted to check.

I got a reply from Uber in the evening for my feedback, but no refund. So, decided to reply with a bit more of detail, making it a point to ask them to check up on the victim. That prompted another reply from their Hyderabad support centre the next morning followed by a phone call to ensure that things were ok. They finally refunded the trip charges, but I haven’t heard anything about the victim so far.

It’s time Uber added a speeding control in their fleet a la Meru and their audible warnings. They can surely do this through the GPS tracking built into their app. And of course, self driving cars can’t come soon enough.

A week on, I’m still haunted by images of the shattered windshield, the semi-conscious old man lying in a pool of blood and his packet of spices strewn on the road.

Update (8 Jun 15): Received a mail from Uber Mumbai that should hopefully put some of the lingering images to rest:

Our investigation has revealed that after the victim receive some first aid help, he was able to walk and make his own way, possibly to his home. Unfortunately though, he was allegedly inebriated and did not leave any contact details and did not go to the hospital. The first aid seemed to have sufficed.

We have not been able to find any further details. That said, if we do, I will ensure that you’re kept informed.