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.
The High Street at Christmas is a loud and particularly garish place. With fewer and fewer physical shoppers retailers have to shout at the tops of their voices to attract attention. Which is probably why I’ve not really noticed the rather catastrophic rebrand of EE (previously Everything Everywhere), the owner of Orange and T-Mobile.
Everything Everywhere was quite obviously an appalling name – although it did give rise to the wonderful FT headline Everything Everywhere disappoints analystswhich pretty much summed up the performance of the telecoms conglomerate. But as a holding company it was fine – you had two strongish brands, Orange and T-Mobile with defined markets so why confuse matters with a third umbrella brand? In a similar way when BA and Iberia merged the new holding company was called International Airlines Group (IAG) – not fancy, not competing with its existing well-established brands, but just providing a name, a website and a name for the stock market.
But EE has decided in its infinite wisdom to essentially bin the Orange and T-Mobile brands. I switch on my phone and it says EE, even though my contract is with Orange and the previously recognisable high street storefronts are now a drab blue grey that looks like it has come from the Farrow and Ball catalogue (my money is on Hague Blue). Given that Orange became successful by being a new, interesting and involving brand that people wanted to be part of and that T-Mobile screamed value to countless students it seems ludicrous to write off that amount of goodwill in a stroke. As Nils Pratley points out in The Guardian it looks more like a dull but worthy European quango than a leading edge telco.
But does it matter? Many people in the technology industry don’t really bother about branding, focusing on building advanced products and services and giving them involved names made up of lots of numbers and Zs and Xs. However while that may work for deeply technical audiences if you want to get mass market appeal you need an appealing and non-threatening brand that is clear and easy to understand. Apple is the obvious example, but looking around the tech industry you can see plenty of others. Even in the telecoms world there has been a lot of effort put into building global brands – from the clever (O2) to the limited (3) and the mundane (Vodafone).
Ironically at a time when it has the UK’s only 4G network, rather than talking about technology advancement, EE seems to be embracing the safe and boring. It may claim that rebranding has ‘re-energised the organisation’, but in a crowded market it looks more like a retreat than a step forward. Apple, Raspberry Pi, Banana Republic – EE should have stuck to fruit………….
In the past design has often been the poor relation when companies are creating innovative new products. At best it has been something that is done at the last minute and treated as packaging, and at worst seen as unimportant. After all the product is so amazing it doesn’t matter what it looks like or if the build quality is poor – people will buy it anyway.
I’ve seen this attitude a lot in Cambridge, which makes this month’s Design Icons exhibition an extremely welcome demonstration of the power of good product design in the city. Held at the Ruskin Gallery, Anglia Ruskin University until February 23rd it showcases 20 key products that have been designed in the area. Ranging from obvious high tech examples such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer to much more consumer focused products from international companies, including the Evian action water bottle and Sureflap catflap they show how intelligent product design can help differentiate innovative products in the market.
Take the gold Sinclair calculator or Lecson amplifier. Despite being designed nearly 40 years ago, with minimal reworking they would still cause a stir now. Paint the Lecson white and replace the dials with a screen and you’ve got an Apple amplifier.
Obviously the exhibition and surrounding events have got a serious purpose – to show what Cambridge design can do for products of all types and to encourage companies in Cambridge and beyond to embrace good product design. The aim should be to continue this education, so it would be good to see ways of keeping momentum going beyond the timescale of the exhibition. At the very least creating guides to how product design can deliver benefits, how to work with designers and when to involve them would provide a starting point for companies, particularly those that haven’t used product designers before.
To find out more on the exhibition go to http://www.camdesignicons.co.uk/ and pop along to Anglia Ruskin to see the products for yourself.