The UK has always been full of people with bright ideas, but in many cases we’ve been let down by an inability to commercialise them. While it is wonderful to be known as a nation of inventors, it would be even better for the economy to translate this potential into strong companies, exporting around the world and employing skilled staff at home.
Turning this innovation into viable businesses requires focus, bringing together universities, companies and engineers to work together around certain areas and specialisms. Cambridge is the perfect example of a series of clusters (embedded, biotech, computer games, natural language processing), where participants feed off each other to move a particular industry forward. It is essentially an unofficial version of Germany’s Fraunhofer centres, which have played a large part in driving German innovation.
The good news is that the UK government has seen the potential of clusters and, thanks to a report from Hermann Hauser, set up the Catapult programme. This has established seven centres across the UK focused on high value manufacturing, cell therapies, offshore renewable energy, satellite applications, the connected digital economy, future cities and transport systems. The Satellite Applications Catapult has just been launched at Harwell, outside Oxford, on the same campus as a new technical centre for the European Space Agency. All seven centres will be operational in 2013, as part of the £440m the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is investing in innovation this year.
This is great news, as is a recognition of the growth of unofficial clusters (such as security in Worcestershire) and support for them. But there are two areas that need to be addressed if clusters are to achieve their potential. Firstly, as a report from the Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation pointed out in January, the programme must be scaled up. Seven centres is a start point, but more are needed and those that exist require greater resources if they are to match other countries. Simply relying on British ingenuity to sidestep budgetary concerns is not going to work.
Secondly, Catapults have never been designed to launch commercial products – they are simply a stepping stone on the journey, providing the early stage support and specialist facilities to get an idea moving. My fear is that this innovation won’t necessarily produce another generation of ARMs or CSRs, but fledgling companies that are snapped up by international players. A huge number of small and midsize businesses find themselves unable to make the leap to the big league and opt for acquisition rather than pushing on to the next level. There needs to be a focus on why these UK innovators aren’t achieving their potential independently and help provided to ensure they make the jump to stable, quoted companies. That’s going to take greater investment and access to a wider pool of skills (such as marketing, sales and business development) to accelerate growth. We need a Rocket programme alongside our Catapults if UK ideas are going to achieve their full potential.
The PC market has obviously been having a tough time of it recently, with sales plummeting 14 per cent in the first quarter of 2013, according to analysts IDC. The combination of the rise of tablets and smartphones, the global recession and the resurgence of Mac sales at the top end have all put a dent in sales figures. And this has obviously hurt the divisions of Microsoft that make most of their money from PCs, particularly the Windows operating system.
At the same time Microsoft has realised that it needed to up its game in the faster growing smartphone and tablet market to compete with the likes of Apple and Android. But then someone somewhere decided that solving these problems required a single solution. The result? Windows 8, a new universal operating system that would work across PCs, tablets and smartphones, giving the same look and feel whatever device was being used.
Unsurprisingly for something that tries to appeal to everyone, Windows 8 is dreadful. Its completely new, tile based interface may work well on tablets and smartphones – though given Microsoft has sold less than a million of its Surface tablets (compared to 19.5 million iPads) it is difficult to make valid comparisons. But it has flummoxed traditional PC users who have to learn a completely new interface that seems very much focused on consumer needs, with fast links to music and videos, rather than business requirements. No wonder that companies are putting off PC purchases in the current climate – why splash out on something that will require a lot of training when Windows 7 works perfectly well.
The talk is now of a redesign for Windows 8, but my concern is how it has got to this stage. Microsoft has never really had a company-wide culture of innovation – from the original Windows it has tended to improve upon what is out there and deliver it well. Yes, it has areas of innovative research (the Cambridge office responsible for the Kinect for example), but (business) people buy Microsoft because it is the safe option.
Instead of following that path this time, it has thrown out everything that has come before and decided to re-invent the user interface. Not just on one device, but across three – PCs, tablets and smartphones. Neither Apple nor Android have attempted that, because there are significant differences between small screen size mobile devices and PCs/laptops. Given that lots of people (including myself) still moan about the changes made in the last version of Microsoft Office, this has resulted in perplexed users and falling sales.
Microsoft can still fix Windows 8, but what it really needs to address are the issues that led to its development direction. People (and their devices) aren’t ready for a universal operating system and the fall in PC sales mean that Microsoft isn’t in the position of power it occupied five years ago. No-one seemed to realise that, hence trying to force feed the PC market with a completely new concept that seemed doomed from the start. Everyone wants to be Apple the stylish innovator, but Microsoft needs to take step back and come to terms with its role as the boring bloke in the suit that makes things tick. After all, there’s nothing worse than Bill Gates trying to look cool…………
It used to be that failing in business was a potentially catastrophic black mark in the UK – essentially the end of your career. But over the last decade attitudes have changed, driven by a more American view that it is better to have tried and not succeeded than to not to have bothered at all. There are a thousand and one reasons that a venture might fail, many outside your control, and as long as you learn lessons you can bounce back stronger.
This more relaxed attitude to failure is reflected in the growth of startups in the UK. Rather than leave university and go and work in corporate Britain, setting up on your own is a viable choice – if it doesn’t work you can always try the 9 to 5 in a few years time. And as the Seth Godin quote goes, “If failure isn’t an option, neither is success.”
But if the stigma of failure has been removed it brings another big question – when do you give up on your idea/business? Do you shut up shop at the first signs of trouble or soldier on when all chances of success are gone? That was the topic of an entertaining discussion at last week’s Pitch and Mix in Cambridge, which got me thinking about the whole topic.
It is easy to look at businesses or individuals where it would have been easy to give up when they hit the first roadblock. Harvard made Mark Zuckerberg take down the first version of Facebook and nearly expelled him – but he learnt from the experience and moved on. In Cambridge, ARM was essentially created within Acorn as Intel wouldn’t sell the computer manufacturer the chips they needed. The business pivoted and is now a multi-billion dollar world leader.
What came out from the discussion were two main ways of helping you to know when you’ve really failed and it is time to give up.
Firstly, set realistic objectives and goals for your company/project, with a timeframe attached. It shouldn’t be a hundred page business plan that controls your life but an idea of what success looks like and the time it should take to get there. Whether as simple as “we need to have made our first sale in 18 months” or more complex, use it as a guide to when to stop. If you get to 18 months and there’s no sign of a customer then you should probably give up, but if you’re negotiating with a couple, then extend your timeframe. Build a plan to get to your objectives – what needs to happen for you to make that sale/launch the project within your timeframe.
Secondly, get independent advice. Everyone involved in startups must have passion – if you aren’t enthusiastic about the idea you won’t put in the hours to make it work. However perspective is more difficult – you are simply too close to the coalface to provide an objective view of reality. So find yourself an independent mentor, who understands your business and what you are trying to do and give you advice and perspective on the way forward.
More businesses fail than succeed, but don’t take it personally, learn and move on. And marry passion with perspective to work out when to throw in the towel and start again.
Like a lot of people I’ve given up on wearing a watch during the working day, replacing it with glancing at my phone, tablet or computer. So all the current noise about mooted smart watches from Apple (immediately dubbed the iWatch), Google, Samsung and now Microsoft puzzled me. Why would anyone try and replicate the features of a smart phone on a tiny screen on their wrist – particularly when they were probably carrying their phone in their pocket?
Take the Pebble watch. It essentially syncs with your smartphone and reminds you about your latest tweets, emails and phone calls – a cute accessory but hardly game changing for most people.
But a bit more thinking unlocks why the tech titans think there’s a market out there. The only time I actually wear a watch (except on the few occasions I want to appear smart) is when I go for a run and I use GPS to measure where I’ve gone and exactly how slowly. Essentially I’ve got a wearable sensor around my wrist, rather than a time keeping device.
That’s where the interest will be, not as a smaller second screen for your iPhone, but providing a way of measuring where you are, what you are doing and your vital signs. After all a watch has the benefit of being intimately connected to your person – few people are going to hold their phone to their wrist to measure their pulse. With an aging population, and increasing desire to manage our health, this is where the mass market will be. Add in the Internet of Things and you can see a connected web of wearable sensors managing our lives.
Thinking of the smart watch I’ve come up with five applications where it could be used – from the basic to the far fetched.
- Patient monitoring – both in hospitals and more importantly at home, the watch can send back vital statistics to doctors and monitoring services, raising the alarm if issues occur
- A smart wallet – why get your wallet or Oyster card out when you need to buy something? The watch automatically debits your account as you pass through ticket barriers or pick up that latte.
- Obesity control – measuring calories burned is standard on sports watches, so combine this with a camera and an electric shock buzzer. Not burnt enough calories and reaching for a doughnut? Cue a mild electric shock to remind the wearer of their diet
- Getting your dinner on the table. The watch senses when you’re half an hour from home and sends a signal to your oven to switch it on. Get stuck in traffic and it changes the heat so your dinner isn’t burnt to a crisp
- Surveillance. Very 1984 but just imagine if every smart watch could be tracked by governments – not only allowing them to see where you are but your state of health and everyday activities. Obviously the most far fetched application of all (we all hope)…..
Video games are big business. Whether you measure it on the £1 billion contribution to UK GDP of the industry, or the amount of time my children spend playing Angry Birds, the impact is enormous. In Cambridge alone companies such as Jagex and Frontier Developments employ hundreds of staff, an estimated 10% of the UK’s games developers.
But the era of the blockbuster console game is coming to an end. Despite the recent announcement of the Sony PlayStation 4, more and more games are now played casually on smartphones, tablets or simply online. As the current furore about the in-app charges
run up on iPhones and iPads demonstrates, all of these small payments add up to a big (and ongoing) windfall for developers. Rovio, the creator of Angry Birds, and king of the casual game companies, is allegedly worth as much as fellow Finnish tech company Nokia.
Handheld consoles have suffered – now analysts predict it could be the turn of the big budget gaming devices such as the Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo Wii. Ouya, a new Android-based console is now shipping at the knockdown price of $99 following an $8m Kickstarter funding round. As any gamer/parent will know, it isn’t just cost of the console, but the price of the games that adds up. And the Ouya’s games are expected to be low cost apps as seen on Android devices but beefed up to use the power of the console. Ouya’s not alone, with UK-based PlayJam launching its own portable GameStick Android device.
But there’s a big marketing challenge for these low cost consoles. Casual gamers with a tablet or smartphone need persuading that they should shell out for a separate device, as well as investing in new games, particularly as many already have a PC. Serious gamers will look at the quality of the games available compared to the blockbusters available on big brand consoles while children (a key market for games) want to be able to play the same games as their friends. Additionally the likes of Microsoft and Sony have been working to turn their consoles into home entertainment hubs, acting as the bridge between the living room TV and the internet to try and cement their position in the market. Essentially it is chicken and egg – people won’t buy a console until they know there’s sufficient games available, while serious developers won’t invest until there’s a big enough target market.
I can see two ways for the likes of Ouya to get round this dilemma – and it’ll take bravery and a bit of radical thinking. Firstly, adopt the same business model as casual games themselves – give away the hardware and charge for anything beyond the basic, either as a one off or on a subscriber basis. Risky, but it gets consoles into people’s houses and if they then take 30-40% of each £1.99 spent on a game they will build a subscriber base and some revenues. The second way is to partner with companies with a big brand to bring the hardware prices down to under a tenner. Whether it is a telecoms company (Sky, BT or Virgin Media), a retailer (Amazon, Tesco) or actually an Angry Birds-badged console it would widen the audience beyond the early adopter. The worry here is that as we move to a cloud-based future traditional console makers will go down the same route and already have major brand recognition.
However the gaming wars play out, the old market of monolithic consoles is under serious pressure – now is the time for new business models and smart use of subscription and cloud-based ideas if new comers are going to emulate Rovio, rather than follow the likes of Atari into bankruptcy.
Since time immemorial accurate maps have been crucial to attaining and keeping power. Navigational maps helped first the Portuguese and Spanish, then the English to reach (and annex) new territories across the globe. Later colonialism literally redrew the map of Africa, creating countries where there were none before. Maps are critical in battle and to take stock of your resources and population.
So control of maps brings control over your subjects. As we move into a mobile device dominated future this explains the enormous battle to command mapping in your pocket, using the power of GPS and network connections to find out where you are. Nokia spent $7.7 billion on NAVTEQ, while Google StreetView has seen the search giant survey the world at a granular level. It explains why Apple ditched Google and launched its own ill-fated Maps app on the latest iPhone – the company simply didn’t want to give up control of such vital data to a third party.
Essentially knowing where you are enables companies to better understand your behaviour and target offers that fit your location and background. And that’s the positive news – it now only takes four location data points to identify a mobile user according to new research. Something that law enforcement agencies (and criminals) are no doubt very interested in.
But for all its benefits GPS isn’t as accurate as mapping companies (and advertisers) would like. Particularly in large buildings, such as shopping centres, it doesn’t give pinpoint positioning. Which is why Apple has just paid a reputed $20m for indoor mapping specialist Wifislam, which uses ambient wifi signals to offer maps accurate to 2.5m. With this level of data clever marketers could target you with an offer for Costa as you walk into Starbucks while the police could place you (or at least your phone) at the scene of a crime in a crowded city.
Apple isn’t alone in looking at indoor mapping – Google now features 10,000 floor plans submitted by businesses while Nokia’s Destination Maps product has more than 4,000 locations in 38 countries.
I often bang on about privacy and how marketers need to tread a fine line between providing targeted offers and respecting personal space. And the move to indoor mapping, combined with ways of interacting such as QR codes, augmented reality apps such as Aurasma and Near Field Communications (NFC) mean that the possibilities of tracking, understanding user behaviour and tailoring marketing could become ubiquitous. Except in the countryside, where poor mobile coverage means that if you are lucky it tells you what village you’re actually in.
The future is hyperlocal and mobile – marketers need to embrace this, but make sure that they’re getting buy-in from customers or they risk a privacy backlash from both individuals and regulators.
Everyone knows that the publishing landscape has changed forever thanks to the internet. The rise of blogs and free blogging software has radically brought down the cost of getting your opinions onto the internet and many blog based sites (such as the Huffington Post) have made lots of money out of the move.
But there’s a big fear that the Government’s new press regulations could potentially threaten small blogs by including them in the legislation. If they don’t sign up to the new regulator they risk high fines if sued by libel by an aggrieved reader. The key test is if it is ‘a relevant publisher’, generating news material where there is an editorial structure giving some control over publication. So by that token, this blog is irrelevant when posted to my own site (though you probably knew that anyway). Except that when it is republished on the Cabume website there is then some editorial control so it suddenly becomes relevant. Essentially if I libel someone Cabume carries the can.
Obviously a small blog wittering on about startups, PR and technology is unlikely to be sued, no matter how relevant it is. But for other smaller, blog-based sites, particularly political ones this opens up a stark choice – sign up to the regulator and face an arbitration system that is focused on protecting individuals who complain or risk crippling fines. It is the same for local newspapers, already suffering due to the rise of the internet. Given the work they do in uncovering local political, public sector and business corruption their trade body The Newspaper Society believes the regulations would ‘inhibit freedom of speech and the freedom to publish’.
My own opinion is that the internet cannot be beyond the law. In the same way that the Lord McAlpine Twitter libel case showed that you can’t repeat false allegations and expect to get away with it, neither should you be able to libel someone on your blog with impunity. But the new regulations throw up a number of questions – what happens if your content is on a US server? Why are student publications exempt? Will journalists set themselves up as one man/woman band blogs to get round regulation? There has to be a more flexible way of regulating online content in the internet age – my relevant/irrelevant fear is that lawyers will be the chief beneficiaries of the new regulations rather than either press freedom or genuine victims of press intrusion.