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July 29, 1999
Making Connections, By A New Way
International communication will not be the same again, if the promises of Navin.com launched on July 4 this year, are anything to go by. Particularly attractive to regular overseas callers, this messaging service complements realtime telephone calls. And best of all, you can save on telephone bills and still keep your family happy, claims Vishwas Godbole, CEO of Navin.com.
So what's the deal?
The subscriber in the US pays $ 10 a month and nominates any number of his friends and relatives in India to make use of the service. Callers in India can leave or receive a message at no cost to them. They do not need an STD/ISD connection. They don't even need a phone connection at home for that matter, since Navin.com is designed with the public telephone-user in mind. Each nominee will need to call a local number and punch in their individual pin numbers which will give them access to the service. Then all they need to do is dial the subscriber's number and leave a message.
A brainchild of electrical engineer-turned-entrepreneur Godbole, the idea came from a personal need to communicate with his septuagenarian mother in Bombay who was a reluctant caller considering prohibitive international calling rates. Despite assurances that he would pay for it, he couldn't convince his mother to call him.
"Quite frankly, the idea in its exact format occurred to me one day but evolved during the course of a week," he recalls.
"I was impressed by the success of (Sabeer) Bhatia's Hotmail and thought it was a great way to provide Internet access. But what about people who don't have access to Internet? I realized the phone was the answer and it had to be as uncomplicated as possible with just a local call with directions given in the local language,'' he explains
Godbole, then an executive vice-president of engineering for Hybrid Networks, a San Jose company, quit it to become CEO of his own venture, Navin.com in Saratoga, California.
While in its early stage the idea caught the attention of Suhas Patil, founder and Chairman Emeritus of Cirrus Logic, and a highly respected entrepreneur in Silicon Valley who is credited with funding several successful ventures.
"I found tremendous potential in the idea right away,'' says Patil. "It has enormous relevance as it is a gift of communication throughout the world. It fills the need to stay in touch despite different time zones. And it is complementary to other forms of communication. It especially fills the need of people who have no access to Internet or do not understand English. Grandmothers can communicate with their grandchildren in their local dialect. It's a people's voicemail service, and that is the beauty of it.''
The nominees can use the message service within India too, to communicate with other nominees. Imagine all your aunts, for instance, in constant touch with each other. That's just one possibility.
"Now just imagine if my nominees know your nominees they could use the service the same way,'' says Godbole elaborating on the network.
"The architecture for it was developed in tandem with a friend in Pune (who wishes to remain anonymous). Coordinating our work between Pune and San Jose, we got the prototype ready,'' he says.
"I had planned to make it into a franchise but luckily for me Suhas Patil stepped in and persuaded me against it," he continues.
Though it started with the Indian user in mind, the goal is to make it a world-wide service.
"Our challenge now is to make it even more user friendly keeping in mind the Indian user who may not be voicemail savvy, and to make it effective in different locations across India," Godbole says.
The technical team at Navin.com is at work finding solutions like the quickest way to redirect messages to a subscriber who may be travelling.
The roaming facility is currently in operation, although with a slight delay. Message notification is another feature they wish to improve upon.
"Currently we have a system where the subscriber can select a time window during which his/her phone will ring once every hour to indicate a message is waiting," he explains. "The logic behind the single ring is to differentiate it from regular calls that continue ringing."
The $ 10 fee covers a limit of hundred messages a month, each message of one-and-a-half minutes duration. If the caller wishes to leave a longer message all he needs to do is press a key to go to the next message and record the remaining message there.
The most challenging thing, however, has been languages. With instructions in ten languages already recorded and another six to be done shortly, subscribers can soon reach any part of India and be able to leave a message in a language of their choice. The receiver in turn can leave a message with help provided in the local language.
"I was attracted by the one month free trial and decided to try it,'' says Girish Tivare, a telecommunications engineer based in Atlanta, Georgia who is a subscriber.
"I made a couple of mistakes initially till I got the hang of it,'' he admits. "But I am very impressed because it fills a peculiar need. My parents in Bombay often need to communicate with me but get put off by instructions in an American accent which they cannot comprehend. They were further inconvenienced by having to step out of the house late in the night to get to an ISD booth, because of the time difference."
"The very first message I got from them was of relief,'' recalls Tivare.
"They also got their instructions in Marathi from a Navin.com representative so I think that's rather good service. Right now, I am not sure how long it takes for my messages to reach them and vice versa but the effectiveness of a service like this will depend a lot on that factor.''
The creators of Navin.com have realized the need for customer service especially in India.
"We are constantly developing the service in keeping with the experiences of our users. For the users in India we even have representatives who go on a house visit and explain it to the user. In India there is the additional challenge of extended power failures. So we need constant supervision to make sure phone lines going into servers are up and running,'' says Godbole.
While the service is up and running in seven Indian cities, plans to add another 25 cities are being worked upon. After which plans are afoot to move to districts like Vijayawada, Vishakapatnam.
"We have learnt through our users that a sizeable chunk of software programmers in the US belong to these districts. Right now their relatives need to make an STD call to get the messages but soon we'll set up local call number for them,'' he reveals.
Once the Indian version is in full swing, plans are also on to introduce these services in the Gulf countries which have a large number of Indian expatriates. Then on to London, Toronto and Vancouver.
Internationally, countries with similar problems to India like inaccessibility of Internet, different time zones and enormous costs of communication would be the first places where the services would be introduced. For example, Iran, the Philippines, Vietnam and Mexico.
What is not quite obvious to people yet, according to Godbole, is the fact that if you have a sound card attachment you can receive your messages online so even without a local server you could still use this service.
What about governmental regulations in India on introducing such a service which eventually cuts down even STD phone bills?
"We are not targeting real time services,'' explains Godbole. "Our service is complementary to it and is not aimed at replacing it. Our service is more of a lifestyle. In any case it is not a regulation issue in India. We have checked it out."
The immediate goal of Navin.com is to provide more features to the service, and design a package for business users. Three months of trial service helped them with finetuning, and now it's up and running.
"We are offering one month free trial to get the word out. We have received a tremendous response, and the future...? Well, if we reach a target of one million subscribers this year it will be a milestone,'' says Godbole.
And what about plans to sell it one day, a la Hotmail?
"That's a loaded question'', he says, laughing. "We never say never. Right now we are filling a social need.''
International communication at a steal may well become another success story in Silicon Valley but the people really celebrating will be, in all likelihood, the grandmothers and grandfathers in India for whom their children and grandchildren in the US will be just a local call away.
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