Revolutionary Measures

Beacons – the next big thing or a blinking nuisance?

I’ve talked before about the new ways marketers are trying to engage with consumers. This ranges from QR codes to augmented reality and relies on using the one device we always have with us – the smartphone. Being able to pinpoint exactly where someone is, for example the specific aisle of a shop, means they can serve up relevant marketing material that could turn a browser into a buyer. It is no wonder that the likes of Apple and Google are investing in technology that can help make indoor mapping more granular and detailed.

nerd candy. some iBeacons have arrived

The latest technology to be touted to drive engagement is the beacon. Essentially a small, low cost, Bluetooth-enabled box that can be quickly fitted inside a building, it enables companies to send messages to suitably equipped smartphones in the near vicinity. As beacon technology is built into the latest Apple products, there are already over 200 million iOS devices out there that can act as both receivers and transmitters.

The possibilities are getting marketers, particularly in the US, extremely excited. Companies can automatically send relevant offers if you are in particular areas of a shop, such as in front of their products (or, if you’re being sneaky, in front of your rivals’ products). Airports or train stations could send automatic updates on delays or gate/platforms changes. Beacons can be used to measure dwell time in specific areas and provide offers of help. William Hill is planning to use beacons to send in-app betting messages at the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival, while outdoor advertising companies are looking at how it can drive engagement with adverts. Mobile phone networks EE, O2 and Vodafone have invested to create a joint ventureWeve, to target the space, with Eat trialling their technology. The reason for the interest is that essentially beacons promise the same digital tracking possibilities as online, but in the physical world.

However there are a still a couple of elephants in the room when it comes to mass market adoption. Consumers need to switch on Bluetooth, download an app, enable location services for the app and opt-in to receive notifications. So, even though iPhones now come with Bluetooth on as standard you still need to jump through a lot of hoops to be beacon ready.

And then there’s privacy. Perhaps you don’t want marketers to know whereabouts in the shop you were loitering or what you are buying at a detailed level. As the success of social media and loyalty cards have shown, people are willing to give up some of their privacy in return for a better experience and targeted offers, but none of these are as instant and real-world as beacons zapping a message straight onto your screen in real-time. At the moment all the advantages seem to be skewed towards retailers, with very little concrete benefit for consumers that will make them want to go through the rigmarole of making their phones ‘beaconable’.

At a time when consumers are just about getting their heads round paying for things by swiping cards rather than laboriously typing their PIN, I think beacons have a big job ahead to accelerate consumer adoption. The whole process needs to be made seamless and simple, with a focus on the benefits, rather than looking like another way to invade privacy and sell you more stuff. Only then will beacons deliver the insight that marketers and businesses are looking for.

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March 5, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paranoid Android

This is not a good time for the paranoid to be on the internet. In the wake of the first set of revelations from Edward Snowden, more is emerging about the extent of online eavesdropping by the security services on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Snowden British intelligence agency GCHQ showed off the ability to monitor YouTube video views, Facebook ‘likes’ and Blogger visits in real-time to its US colleagues back in 2012. The programme, named Squeaky Dolphin, even had its own logo (though looking at the design, I don’t think the spies should give up their day jobs quite yet).

Angry Birds

Even worse, spooks have been accessing smartphone data while people play Angry Birds, enabling them to get hold of user’s personal information. Presumably the game was picked due to its global popularity, rather than being a cunning ruse by GCHQ and the NSA to enable staffs to play it during work time.

And in an unrelated story, a security company has found an internet-enabled fridge that has been hacked and is now sending spam. This is particularly worrying given the rise of the Internet of Things, with more and more devices and appliances around us connected to the web. Essentially each of these is a small, but powerful computer, often without the same level of security and protection than you see on a PC or tablet. Being able to hijack a fridge is one thing, but as the Internet of Things spreads, more sinister opportunities arise – remotely controlling smart cars or switching on and off hundreds of air conditioners to bring down a power grid are all possibilities.

Taking these stories together leads to two concerns in my mind. Firstly, internet privacy. I think most people understand the need to collect information on identified threats to public safety, provided due legal process has been followed. What Snowden seems to have uncovered is technological spying that has gone mad – exactly what you’d expect if you put a large bunch of very intelligent geeks in a room, give them all the resources they need and exonerate them from any qualms of conscience by saying it is in the national interest. So what happens to information that is found online that is not linked to terrorism but minor, non-criminal misdemeanours? GPS data that shows an MP was with his mistress when he should have been elsewhere or evidence of unsavoury (but not illegal) internet activities for example. The nature of technology means this information is unlikely to disappear, but will sit on servers somewhere, with no guarantee that it won’t be pulled out in the future.

Secondly, security concerns have the ability to derail the Internet of Things. As Google’s recent purchase of Nest shows, market momentum is increasing. But if people add the worry of security issues to privacy concerns they are less likely to embrace the opportunities that the Internet of Things offers when it comes to increased efficiency and energy saving. After all, I don’t want GCHQ to know what’s in my fridge – or burglars to know when I’m away on holiday.

There’s been a lot of talk from politicians about reining in the security services and that needs to be formalised to reassure the law-abiding – instead of enabling spying, the tech industry should be focusing its intelligence on improving the actual security of the devices and applications that control our lives.

 

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January 29, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, 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

Nokia and Microsoft – two drunks at the end of the party?

This week’s takeover of Nokia’s handset division by Microsoft is easy to see as a marriage of desperation, or as Robert Peston put it, “two drunks supporting each other at the end of the party.”

English: Nokia N900 communicator/internet tabl...

Wind the clock back 10 years and the picture was very different. Nokia was dominant in the phone market and Microsoft held a similar position in the desktop/laptop market. The first Windows-powered smartphones were being released, but they were incredibly complex (I know, I had an Orange SPV), essentially transferring the desktop Windows experience to the mobile world. There were a whole raft of other mobile handset providers that have since disappeared or lost their independence – Motorola (now owned by Google), Ericsson, and Siemens.

Two things changed all this – Apple came along and made smartphones easy to use without losing their power and in a linked move, the world embraced mobile with the growth of 3G and wifi. As the existing market titans, with enormous user bases, Microsoft and Nokia couldn’t evolve fast enough to change their business models. The same process happened in previous waves of computing as the world moved from mainframes to mini computers and then PCs; few CEOs have the guts to bin their existing cash cow and launch a radically different business.

So could either of them have done things differently? I’ve talked before about Microsoft’s disastrous attempt to innovate with Windows 8 but you can argue that it didn’t invest enough in mobile early on. If it had combined ease of use and access to compelling content with the power of the SPV (which was heavily subsidised) and made it less ugly it could have had a chance of pre-empting Apple’s rise. But it never seemed to be a priority. And Nokia again seemed to view smartphones as a niche market until very late in the day, focusing on the Communicator which was a high end business tool rather than a consumer-friendly device.

All this means the combined unit has a tough job on its hands and is going to have to focus heavily on innovation and marketing to succeed. Ironically given Apple’s perceived lack of innovation and BlackBerry’s woes there is chance to seize the challenger position and become the quirky, cool alternative to Samsung and the iPhone. This does mean being brave and creating something radical that shakes up the market. Microsoft couldn’t do it with Windows 8 – so can an injection of Finnish thinking make the difference?

 

September 4, 2013 Posted by | Marketing | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How much is your personal data worth?

privacy.JPG

At a time when governments snooping on communications data is top of the news agenda it is time for people to realise exactly how much of their private information is out there on the internet. From the websites you’ve visited to the people you are friendly with on Facebook all of this data is used to try and sell you goods and services in increasingly clever ways. Essentially it is the price of free – sites like Facebook don’t charge you to join, and providing an infrastructure for billions of users doesn’t come cheap.

And generally consumers value convenience over security. Hence the increase in sites that let you sign in with your Facebook, Twitter or Google IDs, adding to the data being held about you, tracking your online movements. Of course people have the option to register separately for these sites, but the upfront cost in time of filling in more forms puts most of us off.

Adding in mobile, location-based data adds an extra dimension as companies can see broadly where you were when you looked at a particular page. So marketers know that you were standing outside Starbucks when you checked where the nearest Costa was.

So how much is this data worth to businesses? Hundreds of pounds? Err, no. According to the Financial Times, the average person’s data retails for less than a dollar. Having filled in its nifty online calculator I didn’t even make 50 cents – but then I’m not about to give birth, get married or have a long term (lucrative) health condition. Try the test for yourself on the FT website.

As the PRISM scandal has shown, it isn’t just businesses that want to track your online behaviour. Nine internet companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google were pinpointed as revealing user data to the National Security Agency.

In the wake of the scandal and renewed interest by consumers in protecting their privacy, the internet industry needs to look at how it gains permission, collects information and shares personal data. Social networks and the internet itself are now mass market – they have crossed the chasm and are no longer populated solely by early adopters and teenagers with a relaxed attitude to sharing their personal information (even if it lands them in hot water down the line). Default settings need to be for stronger privacy settings (rather than the minimum), nudging people into being more secure with their data if companies are to regain trust. Of course, we’re not going to stop using Facebook and Google – but it would be a smart move (and a potential differentiator) for these companies to take a stand and make it simpler for us to protect our privacy online. Even if our data is only worth 38 cents.

June 19, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Taxing times for tech companies

English: Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector) oi...

Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.

Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.

Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.

Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.

Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Microsoft the innovator?

Windows 8 launch

 

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…………

 

May 8, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Watch out!

A Casio Databank calculator watch.

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)…..
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April 17, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mapping the world

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.

Old military map, in German

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.

 

 

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March 27, 2013 Posted by | Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Withering on the Vine?

Vine

Can’t string together 140 characters? Help is at hand with Twitter’s launch of Vine, its new video sharing service. Essentially Vine lets you take 6 second videos and post them automatically via your Twitter feed. Launched last week, it provides another option for Twitter’s 500 million users to share their lives with their followers and friends.

On the face of it Vine is a nice idea as it capitalises on the power of video and opens up another front in Twitter’s battle to increase usage ahead of its predicted future flotation. And another revenue stream – I can see Twitter using Vine to encourage brands to interact with customers by sharing video content, solving simple customer service queries with how to films and even introducing a paid for service that gives greater control over the length of clips.

But there’s a number of issues that I believe will hold back Vine’s growth. Firstly, it isn’t integrated into Twitter itself but is a separate app, currently only available for Apple devices. This adds a level of complexity to the process – there’s nothing to stop other video services providing competition. And not launching an Android app at the same time as Apple removes a significant part of the market – while Twitter says Android is on its way, it looks slack not to have both issued at once.

Secondly, each clip may be 6 seconds, but it is on a constant loop (like an overlong animated GIF) which can be pretty tedious to watch, even if the content itself is interesting. Think of it as a moving picture, not a YouTube video.

And finally there’s what’s on Vine clips. Twitter boss Dick Costolo launched the service with a film of himself making steak tartare, but given that porn drives most internet innovation, it didn’t take long for more explicit content to arrive. The initial lack of filtering meant that X-rated videos began to fill Vine, culminating in one being chosen as ‘editor’s pick’ on the home screen of the app. All rather embarrassing for Twitter, but surely something that could have been predicted if they’d thought things through. Had they not looked at ChatRoulette?

To be fair to Twitter it has now banned searches for explicit content and deleted some porn, but automatically identifying and filtering pornography is notoriously difficult so it will be kept busy moderating clips for some time to come.

So, will Vine wither or grow? At the moment the jury’s out – it doesn’t have the safeguards to encourage mass market adoption (or the reach with just an iOS app) but if Twitter prunes away the porn it may yet create a new way for consumers and brands to share engaging content.

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January 30, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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