Revolutionary Measures

Smartphones will eat the world

Commentators are full of predictions that software will eat the world, with jobs, industries and traditional means to doing things swept away by the rise of technology. From automated journalism to connected cars, the claim is that we’re undergoing a transformation in how we work, live and play.

While Apple has not listened to my complaints ...

Software is revolutionising the world around us, but I’d contend that there’s a much more disruptive factor impacting our lives – the smartphone. It essentially provides an always-on, easy to use, ubiquitous interface with all of the software around us. Without it we wouldn’t be able to access the power of technology. So, rather than software eating the world, I’d pinpoint 9 ways that smartphones are making a meal of it:

1. Health
Smartphones have the ability to monitor our vital signs and transmit information to doctors and medical staff in real-time. Whether it is using in-built or external, Bluetooth equipped sensors, smartphones will disrupt the health industry. Apple’s new focus on building a health ecosystem is just part of this trend, which can either be seen as a force for good or as allowing intrusive snooping on our most private moments. On the plus side patients can be monitored remotely, allowing them to remain at home rather than going into hospital for certain conditions, but confidentiality of data remains a worry. What if your insurance company could access your health data and amend your premiums accordingly?

2. Taxis and transport
Companies such as Uber and Lyft are radically changing the taxi market by removing the overhead (justified or otherwise) of traditional operators. Anyone can become a taxi driver – all they need is a car and a smartphone (which can also serve as your GPS, so you don’t need the Knowledge to direct you to the right place). This does raise potential issues about safety, vetting and insurance, hence the bitter battles being fought between traditional cab drivers and the new upstarts.

3. Marketing
At no point in human history has so much data been available about individuals. The combination of ‘free’ services such as Google and Facebook that hoover up our personal information and preferences, with the geolocation data from a smartphone mean that companies have the ability to understand more about their consumers than ever before. The challenge for marketers is twofold – they need to ensure that they have real, informed consent from consumers when handling their private data, but at the same time have to evolve the skills to sift through this big data to deliver personalised marketing that drives engagement. The traditional model of campaigns that take months to plan and implement is rapidly going out of the window – if marketers can’t adapt they risk being sidelined by ever cleverer algorithms.

4. Payments
There is something impressive about a pile of cash – even if it is just one pence pieces. But carrying it around is another story. Replacing pounds and pence with the ability to tap to pay even the smallest amount with your phone promises to turn us into a cashless society. And it also removes the need for a wallet full of credit, debit or loyalty cards. All you’ll need to do is select how you want to pay on your phone and the software will handle the transfer. Could we see traditional banks and financial services companies replaced by Apple Money – or even currencies swept aside by electronic dosh? It is certainly possible, hence Apple’s move into the sector with the iPhone 6.

5. Telephones
It may be difficult to remember, but when they began, mobile phones were for making phone calls or sending text messages (and playing Snake if you had a Nokia). Now the number of calls made and received is a fraction of before, as people move to messaging, email and free voice over IP services such as Skype. Many of us already pay more for our smartphone data plans than for calls and texts – meaning that mobile phone (and landline) operators will need to evolve new services if they are to be part of the smartphone future.

6. Toys
Growing up in an analogue world, toys and games were very straightforward. Now traditional toys are evolving to embrace both full on mobile gaming (think Angry Birds) and half way houses where the physical meets the virtual. Software such as Skylanders combines playing pieces containing electronic chips with fully fledged games to give a radically new experience. And this is just the beginning. As immersive technologies such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift gain traction we’ll find it difficult to tell reality and gaming apart. How long before people embed chips in themselves to become part of the latest smartphone game?

7. Utilities
Buying power is a necessary evil – and the battery life of smartphones does mean we’ll always need electricity to recharge them. Mobile devices, combined with sensors and the Internet of Things provide the ability to monitor and adjust how we use power. From turning smart thermostats up or down, to only switching on lights when the smartphone user is in the vicinity, they can change energy use. Taken a step further, consumers could cut out the energy company and use their smartphone to buy power directly from smaller producers, adding flexibility and potentially bringing down prices.

8. Insurance
The problem with insurance premiums is that they are based on averages, rather than knowledge of your individual circumstances. The data within a smartphone, either directly monitoring your movements, or linked to a sensor in your car, provides a deeper context around your behaviour and habits. Used properly this can help better judge the risks of insuring individuals – but again used incorrectly it will cause a privacy backlash.

9. Pub quizzes
As a Trivial Pursuit expert (and part of the reigning village quiz team champions) there’s nothing I like better than the chance to show off my knowledge. But how can pub quizzes survive in an era when Wikipedia can be accessed from your smartphone in milliseconds? Short of holding quizzes in exam conditions, with no toilet breaks where people can sneak off to check answers on the internet, cheating is going to become rife, making my carefully assembled general knowledge useless.

Research shows that the majority of us access the internet more through mobile devices than traditional PCs. And 20 per cent of young American adults admit to using their smartphones during sex. We look at our phones constantly, panic if they are out of sight for a minute and feel bereaved if they are lost or stolen. If it is true that software is eating the world, the smartphone is the knife, fork and plate responsible for the repast.

September 24, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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

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.

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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

Hubs, bridges and the discovery of America

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There can be a tendency in Cambridge to think that innovation ends at the city limits, and particularly that we’ve got the monopoly on tech startups in East Anglia.

Proof positive that this isn’t the case was on show last week at SyncNorwich, where more than 300 entrepreneurs, developers and members of the Norwich tech cluster talked about their diverse successes. This included market leaders such as FXhome, which produces special effects software for both Hollywood blockbusters and amateur filmmakers, Liftshare.com, the world’s most popular car sharing site and mobile interaction/payment firm Proxama. A whole host of newer startups, such as targeted mobile advertising company Kuoob, music community site SupaPass and educational software provider Wordwides (set up by a 16 year old) also talked about what they could offer.

There’s obviously been lots of activity in Norwich for quite a while (FXhome has been going for 10 years and Liftshare.com for 15), but what the evening did was give outside endorsement to the cluster. Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch came along and it gave everyone present belief that they were on the right road and that they should be shouting about it. In the days since, I’ve seen emails offering co-working spaces and there’s even a cluster name (Silicon Broads) being bandied about, along with a startup map.

Norwich isn’t the only cluster rising to prominence across Europe – the growth of cloud-based technologies, new agile development methodologies and a focus on entrepreneurship mean they are springing up everywhere. Some people see this as a bad thing – they point to the size of Silicon Valley and wonder how hundreds of disparate European cities can compete or scale. But as Butcher pointed out, the Valley has a 60 year head start and what is needed is to build bridges between the different hubs – after all takes 2 hours to drive from London to Norwich (or Cambridge), the same time to get from one end of Silicon Valley to the other.

What Europe needs to do is to use the nimbleness of having multiple centres to its advantage and turn disparateness into diversity. I’m reminded of the story of the ‘discovery’ of America. At the same time as Christopher Columbus was touting his plans around the courts of Europe, the Chinese Emperor was assembling a great fleet to explore the same area. Given the scale and backing put into the expedition it would have been likely that the first non-native settlers in the present day United States would have been Chinese, not European. However the Emperor died and his plans died with him – there was no alternative power that could take them on. In contrast Columbus, originally Genoese, travelled round Europe for years until he found a backer in the Spanish monarchy. The result? The world we know today.

So it is time that European startups (and political leaders) stopped dreaming of a single super hub that on its own can rival Silicon Valley. It’ll never happen and what we need to do is build bridges between the enormous variety of hubs across Europe. Making everyone aware of what is going on up the road (or further afield) is crucial to driving collaboration, unlocking opportunities and building a successful pan-European tech ecosystem that can break down barriers and silo working and deliver jobs and growth.

December 4, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The power of PR

English: A Syrian soldier aims an AK-47 assaul...

The current civil war and use of chemical weapons in Syria is destroying the lives of millions in that country. With deaths from the conflict estimated at over 100,000 and an estimated 7 million people in need of aid, it is a humanitarian disaster across the region.

But alongside the actual fighting there is an equally hard fought war going on for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world, including voters, MPs, senators and governments. Western citizens and legislators are worried about being dragged into the worsening situation in Syria through military action, despite widespread abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons on civilians and children, leading to indecision on next steps.

This has triggered a media offensive, with all sides using the power of public relations to jockey for position:

Whatever your views on culpability, the winners from this PR battle have been the Syrian regime and the Russian government. By coming up with an alternative proposal to military action (dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons), Vladimir Putin has moved the debate on and surprised the US government’s PR machine. Using the global media cleverly he’s been able to exploit widespread worries about the consequences of war and change the direction of discussions. A combination of message and media has essentially delivered the PR success that has met his objectives.

If diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means, then PR is demonstrating that it is a vital general in the ranks – whether you believe it is used for the right or wrong reasons.

 

September 18, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taxing times for tech companies

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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

California Dreaming

Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There have been innumerable attempts to understand and replicate how Silicon Valley has become the centre of the tech industry – with Tech City being the latest one in the UK. What is the secret sauce that makes California in particular and the US in general such a fertile breeding ground for innovation? 

It’s something I’ve often wondered about, so it was great to hear a first hand account of a learning journey to Silicon Valley. Speaking last week at CamCreative, Liz Weston of Weston Marketing talked about what she’d learnt on an organised trip that saw her visit the likes of Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com and Stanford University. She shared four big lessons from the tour:

1              The difference between an opportunity and an idea
Everyone has a different take on what makes an idea viable, from an addressable market to a strong founding team, but the big difference between the UK and US is the willingness to have a go, fail and come back stronger. If we can change attitudes in the UK to say it is better to try and then fail rather than fail to try at all, it will radically shift how companies operate for the better. 

2              Four key opportunities for business development
Execs in Silicon Valley outlined the environment, security, human health and digital/infrastructure as key markets for growth. Anything that reduces complexity in these areas and makes people’s lives easier has potential. Probably not a surprise to most people but worth bearing in mind when pitching any business ideas to investors. 

3              Look at the relationship between the customer and your product/services
It isn’t about the technology per se, but finding an emotional trigger with your customers. Serve a purpose and do it in a way that delights your customers and turns them into your advocates. So, in the same way that when Orange launched in the UK it positioned itself as the cool brand you wanted to be part of, LinkedIn offers the chance to be part of a cloud of intelligence, rather than simply positioning itself as a jobs site. 

4              The importance of innovation
Next year’s revenue won’t come from this year’s cash cow. So everyone in the business needs to be innovating – which can involve changing people’s mindsets. Encourage ideas and capture them – while they may not be immediately useful, they could be in the future. 

I’m sure most people have either heard or tried to put into action some of the lessons above. For me, the main takeaway (and potentially the big difference between the US and UK) is always be open, always be learning and don’t be afraid to take risks. This may not be Silicon Valley’s secret sauce but it is a better way to run a business.

 

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April 2, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Growing some bulls

There’s a continual complaint that the UK simply doesn’t produce the numbers of heavyweight tech companies that the US spawns. And looking around, the pattern seems to be true – for every ARM, Sage or CSR in the UK, you could name a dozen similar size companies in the US.

While some of this is gap is obviously down to relative population sizes are there any other factors holding back UK entrepreneurs? This was one of the issues discussed at last week’s Enterprise Tuesday event in Cambridge by an entertaining group of speakers, including company founders and Cambridge Angels, Sherry Coutu, Andy Richards, Robert Sansom and David Gill, managing director of the St John’s Innovation Centre.

The key factor is the ability to scale – the UK creates exactly the same number of startups, per capita, as the US – but only half of them successfully scale up compared to their US rivals. There are plenty of reasons for this – from an inbuilt British fear of change to an inability to cross the chasm

Vayikra (parsha)

Image via Wikipedia

and appeal to the mass market. It seems that for too many UK companies the choice between scaling themselves or selling out is weighted towards the exit option. While this releases investment capital back into the system and gives entrepreneurs the chance to begin again, it has created (in the words of a US VC quoted by Andy Richards) an industrial veal farm in Cambridge, with prized startups nurtured and pampered ready for the inevitable early death/exit.

The UK in general, and Cambridge in particular, has shown that it can grow dominant tech companies, so now is the time for the government and tech ecosystem to encourage entrepreneurs to take a step back, aim higher than an early exit and build businesses that can scale. Given the UK has the ideas we need to move from farming veal calves to growing some bulls……….

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February 27, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Don’t believe the e-reader hype

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

There’s currently a press frenzy about the death of the printed book, driven by the rise of the tablet/iPad and Amazon’s recent announcement that it is selling more e-books than paperbacks. Commentators are beginning to prophesise rampant e-book piracy and publishers going the way of the record industry in the brave new digital world.

But if you take a closer look you’ll see we’re nowhere near a digital tipping point, particularly in the UK. While Amazon is selling more e-books on the Kindle in the US than paperbacks, the margin is not that great (105 e-books vs 100 print books). However as pointed out in PaidContent, in the UK we’re nowhere near that yet. Amazon is selling more e-books than hardbacks (by a factor of 2 to 1), but not paperbacks.

Add in that the revenue for each e-book is much lower, and you’ll see that while e-books are having an impact, digital isn’t yet reaching market dominance. The PR behind this reminds me of Amazon’s claim that more people bought e-books last Christmas Day than hard copy books – eye catching as a headline, but hardly surprising as new Kindle owners added content to their toys. How many book lovers spend Christmas buying physical items that won’t be delivered for a week at least?

I’ll admit I’m biased but I think there’s a way to go before e-books take over. Screen technology needs to improve further and usability has to take into account the mass market, rather than early adopters that are happy to fiddle with technology. So don’t believe the hype – the physical book will be alive and well for years to come.

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May 20, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winning the (news) War on Terror

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Image by thisisbossi via Flickr

Last week’s US raid and subsequent death of Osama Bin Laden demonstrates both the power and the pitfalls of creating and reporting news in the internet world. If the advent of 24 hour rolling news channels sped up reporting, social media makes it even faster, simpler and consequently more difficult to control. We’ve all seen rumours that have gone from raw unsubstantiated tweets to reporting as actual news due to the lack of editorial filters in an open network world.

Given one of the first reports of Bin Laden’s death was via Twitter you’d think the US Government had seen and understood the double edged sword that is social media. But not really – in their anxiety to get the news out they claimed various details (Bin Laden’s wife was killed, he was armed) that later proved to be untrue. And that’s not getting into the whole issue of whether they should release the photo of his body or not.

It seems to me that there is a key lesson to be learnt – have a communications plan. Obviously a military operation like this has been meticulously planned, but the same doesn’t seem to be true of how the information was released. In a world where words are deeds, PR is a key part of the mix and one of the ways that success is judged. Release what you can, don’t make assumptions until you know the facts and consequently control the story rather than be forced into restating it multiple times. Only then will the US and its allies start to win the PR battle in the War on Terror.

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May 6, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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