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.
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 venture – Weve, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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…………..
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…………
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)…..
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.