Revolutionary Measures

JerkTech – the unacceptable face of technology?

It seems to be turning into a bad week for those that believe technology is solely a force for good. Firstly, the UK government has rushed through new legislation that means that ISPs and telecoms companies have to store metadata on email and phone communications (though not their actual content). The aim of the new law is to fight crime and protect the country against terrorism, according to the Prime Minister.

"Technology has exceeded our humanity"

“Technology has exceeded our humanity” (Photo credit: Toban B.)

And over in the US, there’s a growing backlash against so-called JerkTech applications. For those that have missed the debate, these are applications that let people sell on resources at above the market rate that they’ve paid. For example, Monkey Parking enables drivers who are parked in public streets to auction off their space, while ReservationHop makes reservations at hard to book restaurants under false names and then sells them on.

The key point about these apps, and those like them, is that they corner the market in publically available resources (whether parking spaces or restaurant tables) and then charge people for the privilege of using them. While this is neat in economic terms – you are taking something that is underpriced and selling it at the market rate, they remove the ability for anyone to chance upon a parking space or get that hot table. And the actual provider of the resource (City council or restaurateur) doesn’t get any benefit at all. Indeed, if ReservationHop fails to sell a booking the restaurant will have an empty table that it could have filled in other ways. Hence, the JerkTech name, as coined by Josh Constine of Tech Crunch.

The best technology is disruptive – but that does come with risks and potentially even responsibilities. In the same way that scientists and medical researchers are governed by ethical standards, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. This particularly applies to ways of using technology to manipulate people (without their consent). There’s been a huge furore about a Facebook experiment where users were served a preponderance of either happy or sad content in their newsfeed – the result of this manipulation was that they posted either more positively or negatively themselves.

We live at an exciting time for technology. We’re moving beyond the original web, to a more mobile, wearable and all-encompassing version, with the Internet of Things allowing previously dumb machines to communicate in real-time in order to improve our lives. The danger is that the sheer pace of change will overwhelm everyone except for early adopters, and consequently new innovation will either be banned or will simply not be used by those that it could benefit. Genuine advances (and I don’t mean parking apps or social networks) will be lost, and there is a potential that geeks will join bankers in the category of ‘most hated profession’.

I think everyone in the tech community needs to think about four questions before they launch (or market) new innovations if they want them to flourish.

  1. Is there a genuine need behind your software, hardware or app? No, we don’t need yet another social network.
  2. What are the positive and negative consequences of your disruption? I don’t mean that a big business will be inconvenienced or will lose market share, but will it hit those that genuinely have no other source of income or add to the load on the public purse? If so, how can you spread the benefits to them, such as by creating a social enterprise or partnership.
  3. Is it ethical and responsible? In the absence of any existing code, maybe the best way to check this is to explain it to a senior citizen – do they find it fair?
  4. And finally, is it secure? Is there any danger that personal data could be hacked or lost, or confidentiality breached?

It may seem odd for tech start-ups and developers to look beyond the coolness of their technology (or the possibility of selling it for millions later in its development). However, in a world dominated by social media, the consequences of being a jerk can be fatal to your company’s success, no matter how innovative your product. So think first – and run it past a senior citizen just to be sure.

July 16, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pi at the Palace

The Raspberry Pi is a quintessentially British invention. It was originally created because the University of Cambridge Computing Department felt that new students hadn’t a high enough level of programming experience when they began their studies. So a cheap, accessible machine was designed, using off-the-shelf components and plugging into available devices such as USB keyboards, SD cards and TVs. Like the webcam, another Computing Department invention (it was trained on the filter coffee machine at the other end of the building to avoid wasted journeys if the jug was empty), it combines technology with quirkiness and the British love of tinkering.

raspberry pi

From these humble beginnings over 3 million have now been sold. To put this in context it is double the number of sales of the BBC Micro, the original government-backed home computer of the 1980s, and not far off the 5 million Sinclair ZX Spectrum machines that spawned a generation of programmers back then. It has even been shown to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, with founder Eben Upton ticked off by the Duke of Edinburgh for not wearing a tie.

However, the impact of the Pi has gone far beyond sales figures. It has created an ecosystem that spans everything from desktop arcade machines to funky cases. It is also being used within a whole range of other projects, from weather balloons to creating a pirate radio station. You can even run Spectrum games on it, linking back to the 1980s. And all of this from a non-profit company, that is now manufacturing in the UK.

And I’d argue that it has actually had a major hand in putting programming back at the heart of UK education. From September all primary school pupils will be taught programming, as opposed to how to use word processing applications. This will introduce a whole new generation to writing their own programs.

Even if just 5% go on to forge a career in technology, it will deliver a vast new workforce to the sector in the UK – as well as giving the other 95% some basic skills that will help them thrive in a world run by software. The availability of the Pi means it will be central to delivering these lessons, and the community has already created a huge volume of materials for teachers.

Once lessons start I’d expect many more parents to invest in a Pi (either driven by pester power or because they want to help their children succeed) – and at 20 quid for the most basic version it is within the majority of families’ budgets, at less than the price of a new PlayStation or Xbox game.

So I’d argue that the Pi’s rise to prominence hasn’t even really started yet. The combination of its community support, simplicity and the growth of programming means it will go from strength to strength. If you’ll excuse the pun, the Pi really is the limit…………..

June 18, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Silicon Valley, Europe

San Jose Skyline Silicon Valley

Governments across Europe are always obsessing about creating their own Silicon Valleys, rivals to California that will catapult their country/city to international tech prominence, create jobs and make them cool by association. As I’ve said before, this is partly because such talk is cheap – bung a few million pounds/euros into some accelerators, set up a co-working space near a university and you can make some tub-thumping speeches about investing in innovation.

Obviously there’s a lot more to creating a new Silicon Valley than that. So I was interested to read a recent EU survey of European ICT Hubs, which ranks activity across the region. It doesn’t just analyse start-up activity, but also factors such as university strength, external links and business growth. While Munich, East London and Paris top the table, (with Cambridge at the top of tier 2), what is interesting is the sheer number of hubs and their relative strengths, despite many being quite close to each other.

There is a European obsession with a single hub to take on Silicon Valley, but as Paul Stasse points out in this piece on Tech.EU, if you zoom out and centre your ‘hub’ on Brussels, a 400km radius will bring in the majority of the EU’s ICT hubs. So consequently you need to go beyond individual cities or regions to move to a larger scale view. After all, Silicon Valley itself is not a single place, but a collection of cities and towns, that spreads from San Francisco through the Santa Clara Valley. So, while the Santa Clara Valley is geographically 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, the actual area of ‘Silicon Valley’ itself is much bigger.

In that case, why can’t Europe create its own Silicon Valley encompassing multiple hubs? Or even Valleys within countries – it is around 60 miles from London to Cambridge, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to build the M11 Valley (though with a catchier name).

The trouble is, California has some pretty big advantages that have helped Silicon Valley grow. While entrepreneurs and programmers flock there from all around the world there’s one business language (English), one legal system and one predominant culture. Being part of the US gives immediate access to over 300 million people in a single market. Europe’s diversity is both a strength and a weakness – you can’t simply up sticks and move your company from, say, France to Belgium, with the same ease as from San Jose to Palo Alto.

In my opinion what is needed are three things:

1              Be more open
I’m as guilty as the next person, but individual hubs need to look outward more, rather than believing that success ends at the ring road. Only by encouraging conversation between hubs and idea sharing will innovation flourish.

2              Make movement easier
You are never going to change cultures, but the EU has a role to play in standardising the playing field when it comes to creating companies, harmonising legal systems and generally helping create a single market. That way entrepreneurs and companies can move more easily and collaborate, without having to duplicate bureaucracy or red tape.

3          Celebrate what we have
It is time to end the obsession with creating the new Silicon Valley. It isn’t going to happen. Instead, celebrate the ability Europe has to build multiple, interlinked hubs that play to our strengths, rather than bemoan our inability to spawn the next Facebook.

Silicon Valley, Europe may not happen but by supporting existing, successful clusters and hubs we can build a technology industry that can drive innovation, growth and jobs.

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May 21, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Virtual Reality – the new mobile?

Oculus Rift

Acquisitions by large companies can be a bit of a mystery, forcing people to ponder why they are spending their money on unrelated markets or technologies. Is it a stroke of brilliant foresight, PR by association or just bailing out a mate with an interesting idea?

Facebook’s purchase of virtual reality company Oculus VR is the latest purchase that has led to a lot of head scratching. How does the company’s immersive headset for video gaming fit into Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of the social media giant? Will every Facebook user be issued with a headset so that they can see their friends and ‘like’ things in a virtual world?

Zuckerberg himself has said that he sees virtual reality as the next stage of computing, after mobile, and the company is planning to expand the use of Oculus technologies to include “communications, media and entertainment, education and other areas”. Some of the original KickStarter backers of Oculus, which initially raised £1.5m on the crowd funding site, are unhappy that they won’t see any of the $2bn purchase price, but their reaction seems to ignore the basic site premise of providing funding for zero equity.

Having been to a demonstration of virtual and augmented reality technology a few months ago, I think there are three main reasons that Facebook has shelled out for Oculus VR.

Firstly, bear in mind they are actually ‘only’ paying $400m in cash (the rest is in Facebook shares), so they are not betting the farm. And as an internet company that started with essentially one product, they have been diversifying rapidly into neighbouring markets, with the purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram. This mitigates the risk of having all your eggs in one basket and provides the chance to diversify and sell other things to your enormous user base. The perfect case in point is Google. While it began in search it now offers everything from mobile and desktop operating systems, robotic cars, smart thermostats and cloud-based office applications.  And that’s the stuff we know about. In an industry as fast-moving as the internet, clever companies realise that they can’t stand still – better to take a punt on a variety of new technologies, see what works and learn as you go.

In my opinion, the second reason is based more on a desire to be taken seriously. Google has Glass, Microsoft has Kinect and Amazon wants to deliver your parcels through drones. All bold statements that lift the company from being about mundane bits and bytes to being part of the real world. Facebook has a shedload of money and is essentially aiming to compete with its older, more established neighbours.

But the third reason, is that Zuckerberg might just be right and VR could be the next wave of computing. The fact is that companies, brands and marketers are continually trying to get closer to consumers, and bridge the gap between the digital world (where everything can be measured) and the messy, chaotic real world. From Google Glass headsets to augmented reality and even QR codes, companies want us to use our mobile devices to interact with brands. The businesses that manage to own this intersection will be extremely powerful gatekeepers, in the same way that Google is the start point for the vast majority of internet browsing or searches.

Time will tell whether Oculus becomes central to Facebook or withers away in a corner of the campus. It does mark a step change in Facebook’s growth, since, while the product is about virtual reality, the headset is a physical device, rather than an app or social media network. What it does show is that the Facebook of 10 years time will be radically different to the network we see today.

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April 9, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Campus vs College – creating the best environment for ideas

Everyone understands that the bigger a company gets, the more difficult it is to create and nurture ideas. There are a number of reasons. The sheer size of the organisation mitigates against change – it is incredibly difficult to get everyone to understand a game-changing idea and align themselves behind it. You get a fragmented approach and the whole thing can get mired down in bureaucracy and finger-pointing.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Large organisations are inherently conservative, with people not wanting to rock the boat, while there is fierce rivalry between different divisions/departments which can lead to ideas being squashed if they seem to tread on someone else’s turf. There’s also a fine line between a strong company culture and having too inward looking a focus. Even successful companies such as Facebook have been accused of a lack of perspective – because they solely use (and love) their own products they assume they everyone else believes they are equally awesome. Step outside the organisation and your obsession is just a minor part of the lives of your customers.

The good news is that the majority of organisations do understand the need for a stream of fresh ideas. After all, the world today is dominated by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that either didn’t exist twenty years ago, or were considerably smaller. Competition in every market is increasing and no-one wants to go the way of Nokia or Woolworths.

So how do you align your company to create the best forum to create ongoing ideas? I’m no management consultant, but I’ve seen a few attempts over the last twenty years and it boils down to three broad types:

1              Innovation silos
In many industries (such as pharmaceuticals), where innovation relies on expensive capital equipment it makes sense to create separate, concentrated, research labs. These have the intellectual muscle and resources but can suffer from their sheer size and distance from the business. They can then hit the same problems as any other big organisation, with divisional rivalry and static corporate culture. Alternatively businesses have focused innovation in standalone business units – either skunkworks operations that are locked away from the rest of the organisation, incubators that support promising ideas at arms length or even smaller companies that have been bought and are run as ideas factories. All of these can work, provided management stay true to their word not to meddle or demand fast results, but there’s still no connection with the wider business and its needs.

2              The campus
You break up your monolithic organisation into a campus style environment, with different divisions occupying their own buildings, but close together. Splitting into smaller teams is good for creativity, and you get the economies of scale of having everyone on a single, but large, site. However the ability to cross-pollenate between groups can be limited – unless you happen to bump into someone over lunch you might be completely in the dark about what other sections of the company are working on.

3              The college
What I think is really interesting about the campus model is that it deliberately mimics the university campus structure. While this makes for a good working environment, it doesn’t help spread ideas. So I think companies need to look at a more collegiate model, similar to that of universities like Cambridge. You have two allegiances/bases – your division (essentially your college) and your actual project (your faculty). So you get the chance to mix with people from other divisions and collaborate on joint projects. Some people may find it disorienting, but if projects are scheduled to last 2-3 years the goal is never that far away.

Innovation is vital in every industry, and the size and structure depends on the sector and the market each company operates in. But I think it is time for more organisations to look at the college structure if they want to nurture and develop a stream of ideas that take their business forward over the long term.

 

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March 19, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not the Internet of Fridges

There’s nothing as embarrassing as a politician trying to explain complex technology and completely missing the point. And as IT is increasingly seen as ‘cool’ and therefore something they want to be associated with, you can see a growing number of our elected leaders showing their ignorance in public. Following George Osborne’s cringeworthy appearance in the Year of Code video, and David Cameron’s attempted hijacking of Silicon Roundabout, the PM is at it again.

Defunct refrigerators on curb with decorations...

Speaking at CeBIT in Germany this week Cameron started off well, lauding the potential of the Internet of Things, praising the innovation of UK companies such as ARM and Neul, talking about Anglo-German co-operation and doubling funding for the area. But then what example did he trot out to show what it means to the general public? That our fridges can talk to each other, and order a pint of milk when we’re running low. Hardly a New Industrial Revolution.

The internet enabled fridge has been around as long as I’ve been in PR (nearly 20 years) and despite regular press appearances (and some actual products), it has failed to take off. Primarily because it is a stupid idea. Most of us (apart from one of my old housemates), can see when they are running low on food/milk and visit the shops accordingly. If not, are supermarkets expected to drop everything and rush you a single pint of semi-skimmed because your fridge told them to? Hardly economically viable. And what happens if you bought something and didn’t like it – will your fridge keep ordering more until your house is full of Dairylea cheese triangles? How will privacy be managed? Will the device send your eating habits direct to FMCG companies, like a giant ClubCard? What about security?

Poking fun at ill-advised politicians is easy, but the danger with the fridge fixation is it masks the real benefits of the Internet of Things and paints the wrong picture to the general population. We are talking about the ability to monitor our health, reduce the need for hospital stays as patients can be treated in their own homes, better manage our energy use, save us money and create smart cities that share information to make our travel and lives easier and more fulfilling. It is probably true to say that the real innovations of the Internet of Things haven’t even been thought of yet – but will develop on the platform once it becomes prevalent.

Due to the combination of the UK’s existing strengths in low power chip design, Bluetooth, availability of radio spectrum and the efforts of pioneers in the smart home space, there is a real chance that the country (and Cambridge) can become a major player in the Internet of Things. And given that the sector is expected to be worth £8.7 trillion globally when it hits maturity (according to Cisco), it is definitely the right market to target.

To succeed, UK companies need support, a well-defined technology plan that maximises investment in the right areas and a long term vision, rather than lazy examples of machines that no-one wants that will put people off the entire concept, raise potential privacy concerns and stifle acceptance. Install an internet-enabled fridge in Number 10 by all means, but do a better job of explaining the bigger benefits to the wider population if you want the Internet of Things to really take off.

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March 12, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Startup | 1 Comment

Generating a network effect – why WhatsApp is worth $19 billion

As I’ve said before, the technical side of creating a new social network is relatively easy – and nowadays with cloud computing you have fast, cost-effective access to the resources you need to scale it in line with demand.

Diagram showing the network effect in a few si...

But how do you create the demand – for your social network or any other service in today’s complex and fast-moving world? Essentially you rely on the network effect – the fact that the more people use a service, the more valuable it becomes to each user. A classic example is the telephone. If one person is connected, it is worthless, but add more users and the positive effects increase dramatically – you actually have someone to call. It can also drive lock-in – if 80% of businesses use Microsoft Office there are compatibility issues for those that don’t, but who want to share documents with them.

Social networks are a classic example of the network effect in action – the bigger Facebook gets, the more people are on it who you know and supposedly want to communicate with. WhatsApp is another. It has built a base of 450 million users – 70% of whom are active on a daily basis. And as it allows free texts to be sent between users (and doesn’t cost to join for the first year), why wouldn’t you sign up to message your friends? No wonder it is predicted to hit the billion user mark in the relatively near future.

So how do you create the network effect and catapult your startup into the $19 billion bracket? There are six things I think are necessary

1              Word of Mouth
Obviously people have to know about your network or service, but traditional PR and marketing can only take you so far. What you need is people to recommend it to their friends, so start by researching and targeting the nodes of networks (i.e. those with lots of connections). If they join then their followers will as well. Approach these people and maybe even make them brand ambassadors to get them onside.

2              It has to be different
In open markets there is no point trying to simply copy what is already out there – if people are already using a service, the alternative has to be different or substantially better, if they are going to join. What issues/problems do people have that you can solve? In the case of WhatsApp it is removing the cost of sending text messages, so there is a clear advantage of moving to the service.

3              Make it easy to use (and free)
An obvious one, but if people log on and have to navigate through a maze of functions when they join, they are going to be put off. From registration to ongoing use, make things simple for people. And you have to understand and appeal to a mainstream audience – test it out on real people, rather than early adopters and fellow geeks. An intuitive user experience and comprehensive online support, including video and how to guides are a must if you are to grow. Put it where people will use it – on their mobile devices as well as PCs. And the basic package has to be free if you want to recruit major numbers of people.

4              Make it compelling
Just getting people to join is the easy part – network effect relies on them actively using the service. LinkedIn had this problem a few years back. Everyone had joined, but no-one was logging on, unless they were actively looking for a job. It changed this by adding in compelling content that aims to drive you back to the site – from the thoughts of business leaders to seeing what your peers are doing. You need to create reasons that drive people back to your site on a daily or even more frequent basis if you are going to build a solid user base. 

5              Think global from the start
When it comes to tech and the web, you need to think global. Does your proposition work in Delhi as well as Derby? The wider the target market, the bigger the potential user base, provided you make it appealing to a worldwide audience. Even if your site is initially just in English, the user experience has to be understandable by non-native speakers. As things grow you should quickly add other languages, dependent on demand.

6              Keep evolving
Nothing stands still – since its acquisition, CEO Jan Koum has announced that WhatsApp will offer voice calls on its platform, putting it in direct competition with Skype and traditional telecoms companies. You need to add new services and functions to both keep momentum going, ensure users return regularly and to recruit new ones.

The success of WhatsApp demonstrates it is less about the technology, and more about generating network effect if you want to attract a lucrative exit. Is it worth $19 billion? If it can continue its growth, introduce new paying services and bolster Facebook’s own platform it might just be.

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February 26, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Year of Code – switch it off and on again

I’m a passionate believer in getting more people to learn to code. Like a lot of those my age I grew up with a ZX Spectrum and learned basic programming on a BBC Computer at school. Not only did it reap benefits then (my horse racing game was a triumph, albeit not a financial one), but it gave me an idea of how computers worked that removed any fear of them when I went into the workplace.

English: Sinclair 48K ZX Spectrum computer (19...

And, as my career in PR has progressed, more and more of what I do has a technical element to it – whether that is getting a WordPress site up and running or stitching together data from different tools to measure the impact of campaigns. Not understanding technology or being unable to use it would significantly impact my productivity and my overall job prospects.

When I look back, comparing my childhood to now, the world has changed dramatically. On the plus side we’re now in an era where geekiness is cool and entrepreneurs are celebrated for their ideas. But the opportunities we have to code have been lessened – rather than ZX Spectrums we have gaming consoles that cannot be programmed, except by studios with multi-million pound budgets. Yes, we have the iOS and Android ecosystems where anyone can create an app, but the majority of us are consumers, not programmers.

Clearly there’s a need for change, and initiatives such as the Raspberry Pi and the inclusion of coding in the National Curriculum from September are helping accelerate this. However the fiasco that is the government-backed Year of Code project is an unwelcome bump in the road to the future. For those that haven’t heard of it, the Year of Code is supposed to be an umbrella organisation to encourage everyone to learn to code in 2014.

Unfortunately so far it appears to be a PR-led initiative to muscle in on the work that is already being done. Backed by venture capitalists, and the TechCity community, its main claim to fame is the ill-fated appearance of its executive director Lottie Dexter on Newsnight, where she earned the ire of Jeremy Paxman by admitting that she didn’t actually know how to code. More importantly it appears to have alienated many people who have been working in the space for years by simply not recognising what has already been done.

And, judging by its website, apart from a promotional film (warning – contains footage of George Osborne) and a commitment to “banging the drum for all the fantastic coding initiatives taking place over the course of year and helping many more people engage with technology and access important training opportunities,” it isn’t actually going to do much that is concrete. Essentially it is PR spin on a serious subject, trying to take the lead in the same way as the government has decreed that TechCity is the only viable tech cluster in the UK. It is jumping on a bandwagon and trying to take the reins from those that know what they are doing.

Coding is essential to our competiveness and the future of our children – it is simply too important to be left to a slick marketing machine that is imposed from the top down. Time for the Year of Code to be switched off and then on again to remove the bugs from the system.

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February 19, 2014 Posted by | PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The end of work?

The world of work has changed immeasurably over the last ten years, not just in the UK but across all developed countries. Repetitive, process driven jobs have been automated, with technology replacing paper-based workflows. In many cases this has led to a hollowing out of sectors and companies, with the remaining workforce split between menial roles and higher level management.

English: Watt's steam engine at the lobby of t...

And these changes are accelerating. A report in The Economist points to new technological disruption in the workplace, driven by computers getting cleverer and becoming self-learning. Lightweight sensors, more powerful cameras, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, big data and advances in processing power are all contributing to helping computers do brain work. Innovations such as driverless cars and household robots don’t require human intervention to operate, and can do more than traditional machines.

Research from Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated within the next 20 years. Many of these roles are in previously ‘safe’ middle class professions such as accountancy, the law and even journalism.

So, this begs two questions. What skills do people need if they are going to thrive in this new world – and are we teaching them to children quickly enough?

The employees of the future will require skills that complement machine intelligence, rather than mirror it. Empathy, the ability to motivate, and being able to think outside the box will all be needed. Essentially soft skills, backed up by specialist knowledge that is based on experience that cannot be replicated by machines. Professions such as therapists, dentists, personal trainers and the clergy are all seen as being relatively safe from replacement by robots. Interestingly entrepreneurs often possess these talents, so expect them to thrive as they use technology such as the cloud to bring their innovations to market quickly.

As a knock on effect, the will be a change in the size of companies people work for. Before the Industrial Revolution most people worked either for themselves or in small organisations (the village carpenter and his apprentice for example). Industrialisation required scale, so vast mega companies grew up. These won’t disappear, but the number of people working for them will shrink dramatically as intelligent machines take over. We’ll move to a larger proportion of the population being self-employed, providing their services on a personal basis. 

Looking at education, schools will also need to change. Pupils need to understand the world around them, so they have to be taught a certain number of facts and dates, but rote learning of what made the British Empire great is going to be useless for a large proportion of people’s careers. What is needed is to teach skills for learning and adapting, thinking for yourself and how to motivate and show empathy to others. Essentially, children starting school today will be going into careers that may not even exist yet – so lifelong learning and flexibility are critical.

The predictions of the havoc that technology will cause to the world of work may be overstated – just because something is technically possible, it doesn’t mean it will quickly become mass market. And governments, worried about massive social change, are likely to step in to mitigate the worst impact through legislation. But changes are coming, and we need to think more like entrepreneurs and less like machines if we’re going to thrive. 

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January 22, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Google, Nest and the opportunity for startups

In many ways the news that Google has bought smart home company Nest Labs shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been talking to the company for some time and apparently lots of Google employees had installed the company’s sensor based thermostat in their own homes.

Google 貼牌冰箱(Google Refrigerator)

More to the point I think it fits in with Google’s overall objectives. As analysts have pointed out, Google isn’t a search engine company (and hasn’t been for some time), but is about data – collecting it (analysing search results, Google Glass, StreetView) and then using it to either sell you things (through adverts) or make your life better in some way.

With billions of sensors embedded in previously dumb objects that will be communicating in real-time, the Internet of Things promises to create a tidal wave of data. Each piece will be tiny, but if you can bring it together and analyse it you can get an even deeper view of the world around us, and the people in it. Nest’s products are much more than thermostats, and provide Google with the sensor/Internet of Things expertise it needs to add to its product portfolio. It already has Android-based smartphones/tablets to act as controllers, the mapping technology to show where sensors are located and the technology to analyse billions of events in real-time. And with Google Fiber rolling out in several US cities, it has a network to send the data through as well.

A simple example – your Nest thermostat notifies you that your boiler has gone wrong via your smartphone while you are at work. And suggests a registered tradesman that can fix it by trawling the web and any recommendations in your Google+ circles. Or alternatively gives you the address of the nearest clothing shop, so you can stock up on thick jumpers.

Many people (myself included) would find this a bit creepy, but it is potentially possible if you can knit all the technology together. What I think is interesting is how utilities will respond to the future entry of Google into the market. After all, as publishers and others have found, Googlification can squeeze out incumbents through sheer scale and by engaging more closely with customers. Utilities have to decide whether they want to partner with the likes of Google, risk losing the customer relationship and become commodity suppliers of gas and electricity or take a stand and build stronger engagement with customers. In current circumstances that’ll be difficult – people are at best ambivalent about their utility supplier, and in an era of rising prices and poor customer service many actively dislike them.

So there’s a big opportunity here – and something that Cambridge’s cluster of smart home/green tech companies could exploit. For example, AlertMe already has a partnership with British Gas, while Sentec is working with metering companies to make their products smarter. If energy companies don’t want to work with Google then they have two choices – do it themselves (teaming up with smaller tech companies), or partner with larger industrial tech companies, such as Siemens or Bosch. And these industrial giants will need the specialist expertise that smart home companies can provide.

The utility market doesn’t move fast, so don’t expect to see Google running your home in the next year, but the Nest acquisition should actually spur the whole sector on, attracting both interest and investment. The world just got more interested in smart homes, which is good news for relevant startups in Cambridge and beyond.

 

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January 15, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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