Revolutionary Measures

How smart can a smartphone get?

If you needed evidence of the growth of the smartphone market and its move into every part of our lives, then this week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) provides it. It wasn’t that long ago that the event was dominated by network infrastructure companies, but now it is essentially a consumer electronics show in all but name. And one that looks far beyond the handset itself. Ford launched an electric bike, Ikea announced furniture that charged your smartphone and a crowdfunded startup showed a suitcase that knows where it is and how much it weighs.

English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

Five years ago none of these companies would have even thought of attending MWC – and it is all down to the rise of the smartphone. It is difficult to comprehend that the first iPhone was only launched in 2007, at a time when Apple was a niche technology player. It is now worth more than any other company in the world and 2 billion people globally have an internet-connected smartphone. By 2020 analysts predict that 80% of the world’s adults will own a smartphone.

As any honest iPhone owner will freely admit, they may be sleek, but they are actually rubbish for making and receiving calls. What they do provide is two things – a truly personal computer that fits in your pocket, and access to a global network of cloud-based apps. It is the mixture of the personal and the industrial that make smartphones central to our lives. We can monitor our own vital signs, and the environment around us through fitness and health trackers and mapping apps, and at the same time access any piece of information in the world and monitor and control devices hundreds or thousands of miles away. Provided you have a signal……….

Essentially the smartphone is a universal platform that companies can build on – whether it is a disruptive taxi business (Uber) or completely new ways of dating such as Tinder and Grindr.

So, based on what is on show at MWC, what are the next steps for the smartphone? So far it seems to split into two strands – virtual reality and the Internet of Things. HTC launched a new virtual reality headset, joining the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Samsung and Oculus Rift, promising a more immersive experience. Sensors to measure (and control) everything from bikes and cars to tennis racquets are also on show. The sole common denominator is that they rely on a smartphone and its connectivity to get information in and out quickly.

It is easy to look at some of the more outlandish predictions for connected technology and write them off as unlikely to make it into the mainstream. But then, back in 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, there were plenty of people who thought it would never take off. The smartphone revolution will continue to take over our lives – though I’m not looking forward to navigating streets full of people wearing virtual reality headsets who think they are on the beach, rather than on their way to work…………

March 4, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Education, education and skills

This week the election campaign has been focusing on education, with the Conservative Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, promising that every child leaving primary school must know their times tables up to 12 and be able to use correct punctuation, spelling and grammar. It follows her predecessor, Michael Gove, revamping the history curriculum to ensure that pupils know about key dates in British history – a move that some saw as a return to Victorian rote learning of facts.

English: British school children in London, En...

English: British school children in London, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morgan complains that Britain has slumped in international education league tables, and has vowed to move the country up in rankings for maths and English. But ignoring the fact that children are already tested on times tables, I think she’s missing the point about modern education and the skills it teaches. Of course, children should know their times tables, and be able to read and write. These are basic skills that everyone should have.

But we are in an era of enormous change, and the skills that the workforce of tomorrow requires will be very different to those of today. Increased globalisation, the advent of the knowledge economy and greater technology are impacting on all jobs. Previously safe, middle income management occupations will be broken into smaller chunks and either computerised or outsourced, hollowing out the workforce so that what remains are high end, knowledge-based roles or more menial tasks.

What we need to do is prepare our children for this world by helping them to develop the skills that they require to work in this brave new world. A large proportion of today’s pupils will end up working in jobs that don’t currently exist, so you need to focus on three areas:

1. Learning to learn
Rather than simply teaching facts and tables, you need to instil in children the skills they need to keep learning. These range from problem solving, resilience and working as a team, to ensuring they have inquiring minds and are always pushing themselves.

2. Lifelong learning
Alongside learning to learn, everyone needs to understand that education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university. Whatever field you are in, you’ll need new skills as your career evolves, so it has to be seen as natural to keep learning. The days of working for the same company for ever are long gone, and the days of working in the same role throughout your career are going the same way. So, people will have to make radical moves into new industries and careers, and that will require ongoing investment in learning new skills.

3. Technology
The UK government has re-introduced coding to the school curriculum, which is a major step forward in ensuring that everyone has the basic skills needed to understand and work with technology. While most jobs have required IT for a while, the spread of software into every corner of our lives means that those who understand and program computers will have a big advantage over those that just use them to type emails or surf the net. I’d like to see more government investment in coding for all, alongside schools, so that everyone learns the skills they need.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a laudable aim that every child should leave primary school knowing that 12×12 is 144 and how to use an apostrophe. But we need to be teaching our children a lot more than that if we want to nurture a workforce of self-starting, motivated and problem solving adults that can drive innovation and wealth for the country and wider society.

February 4, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a tech cluster – the five key ingredients

Countries and cities across the world are busily trying to build tech clusters. Partly this is due to the sexiness of tech (expect the UK election to feature plenty of photo opportunities of candidates with startups), partly down to the fact that it seems easy to do, and a lot to do with the benefits it delivers to a local economy. In an era where technology is radically changing how we work, play and live, high value tech companies are always going to be prized.

English: Cambridge Science Park Trinity Centre...

But how do you build a tech cluster? It may seem easy to do on the outside – set up some co-working spaces, provide some money and sit back and wait for the ideas to flourish, but it is actually incredibly difficult. This is demonstrated by the diverging fortunes of the locations of England’s oldest universities – Oxford and Cambridge. As a recent piece in The Economist explains, over the last few years Cambridge has added more well-paid jobs, highly educated residents and workers in general than its rival. This prompted a visit last October to the city from an Oxford delegation, with the leader of Oxford City Council admitting that “Cambridge is at least 20 years ahead of us.”

Given the longstanding competition between the two cities, it is easy for people in Cambridge to sit back smugly, pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves on a job well done. However, a better course of action is to take a look at what is behind Cambridge’s success, and see what can be done to improve things. After all, there are startup and tech clusters around the world – competition is global – so there’s nothing to stop entrepreneurs setting up in Silicon Valley, Munich, Paris or London rather than Cambridge.

I see five factors underpinning the success of any tech cluster:

1. Ideas and skills
The first thing you need to build any business is obviously a good idea. Universities, particularly those involved in scientific research such as Oxford and Cambridge have plenty of these. But you need a specific type of person to be involved with the research – with a mindset that goes beyond academia and understands how a breakthrough idea can be turned into a viable business. You then need to be able to access the right skills to develop the idea technically, whether through commercial research or programming.

2. Support infrastructure
This is where Cambridge scores highly in being able to commercialise discoveries, through a long-established support infrastructure. The Cambridge Science Park opened in the 1970s, while the University has put in place teams to help researchers turn their ideas into businesses. Research-led consultancies, such as Cambridge Consultants, provide another outlet to develop ideas, as well as helping to keep bright graduates in the city. There is also a full range of experienced lawyers, PR people, accountants and other key support businesses to help companies form and grow.

3. Money
Obviously without money no idea is going to make it off the drawing board. Cambridge has attracted investment from local and international venture capital, and has a thriving group of angel investors, who can share their experiences as well as their funding. Due to the length of time Silicon Fen has been operating, investment has been recycled, with successful exits fuelling new startups that then have the opportunity to grow.

4. Space to expand
Cambridge is a small city, and the combination of its green belt, lack of post-industrial brownfield sites and an historic centre owned by colleges, puts a huge pressure on housing stocks. As anyone that lives in Cambridge knows, house prices are not far shy of London – but spare a thought for Oxford residents. In 2014 an Oxford home costs 11.3 times average local earnings, nearly double the British norm of 5.8 times. Additionally, as The Economist points out, there is space outside the Cambridge greenbelt for people to build on, with South Cambridgeshire Council, which surrounds the city, understanding the importance of helping the local economy. In contrast, Oxford has four different district councils, and a powerful lobby of wealthy residents who want to keep their countryside pristine, hampering housing development. That’s not to say that Cambridge is perfect, far from it. More can be done to improve transport links to reduce commuting time and to spread the benefits of Cambridge’s economic success.

5. Champions
Ultimately tech clusters are judged by the success of the companies they produce. And Cambridge, partly due to the longevity of the cluster, has created multiple billion dollar businesses, from ARM to Cambridge Silicon Radio. This not only puts the area on the map for investors, but attracts entrepreneurs who want to tap into talent and spawns new businesses as staff move on and set up on their own. You therefore see sub-clusters in particular areas of tech develop as specialists use their knowledge to solve different problems. This then further strengthens the ecosystem.

Tech clusters are slow to build and can’t be simply willed into existence by governments opening their wallets. They need patience, a full range of skills and co-operation across the ecosystem if they are to grow and flourish – as the relative fortunes of Cambridge and Oxford show.

January 28, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Will Facebook at Work work?

Last week, Facebook launched Facebook At Work, its latest attempt to bring the social network into the enterprise business mainstream. Cue lots of commentators prophesying doom for the likes of LinkedIn as the social networking behemoth pushed into the world of work.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

On a closer look, LinkedIn shouldn’t be too worried, as Facebook At Work is more about collaboration and sharing inside an organisation, rather than looking for new jobs outside the office. In fact it is more of a rival for the likes of Yammer and Huddle.

The other point to note is that this isn’t the first time that Facebook has tried to embrace the enterprise. Back in January 2011, Mark Zuckerberg launched BranchOut, then touted as a rival for LinkedIn. This built a network on top of your Facebook contacts and aimed to find and match you with job opportunities. BranchOut seems to be still going, but is now billed as “letting people capture and share everyday moments in the workplace through photos, news and updates.” While it claims 30 million users, compare that to the 300m+ who have profiles on LinkedIn.

The other factor to bear in mind is the notorious difficulty of getting mainstream workers to adopt collaboration tools, no matter how compelling the user interface or functionality. I remember trying to introduce an intranet into a relatively small organisation and just giving up as no-one wanted to use it, despite the benefits it brought.

So why is Facebook trying again? I can see three benefits for the company – though at least one of them has nothing to do with work……….

1. Add more subscribers
Facebook claims over 24 million active daily users in the UK. This sounds impressive, but that is less than half the population. Obviously some of these holdouts are children, but I’d guess that a fair number are actually the very workers that Facebook At Work is aimed at. While you can keep your Work and personal Facebook accounts separate, I’m sure the company is hoping that a fair proportion of those using the platform in the office will be seduced into setting up a profile for out of hours use. So the social network will get an influx of new members, with the corresponding demographic data and potential revenues that this adds.

2. Easy to use interface
As I’ve said getting workers to use collaboration tools can be like pulling hen’s teeth. But for those already on Facebook I wager that the new At Work interface won’t be very different, encouraging its adoption. This, rather than functionality, will probably be the strongest selling point, when Facebook starts encouraging business use.

3. Spoiling for a fight
While LinkedIn has been successful in many areas, there’s still a huge opportunity in the market. LinkedIn members at present tend to be in professional roles, with a large part of the world of work un-networked. The company itself realises this and is adding a wider range of job ads for roles such as checkout operators and delivery drivers, often directly linked from employer’s websites. Coming from the personal social network space, Facebook believes it can also fill this gap, with the first step being to get within the enterprise and cosy up to HR people through bridgehead initiatives such as At Work.

The benefits for Facebook are clear, but with the network effect being less important for businesses, I’m not sure what the advantages are for the enterprise. Worries about the confidentiality of documents have already been raised, and it would take some strong policing to avoid people slacking off and reading their personal Facebook timelines rather than collaborating internally. Watch this space to see if Facebook can move into the enterprise at its second attempt.

January 21, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving back to a medieval economy?

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum.

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My very first blog post, four and a half years ago, talked about how social media had parallels with how people worked in medieval times. Essentially as a worker you attracted business through personal recommendation – do a good job and you’d get more work. Do a bad job for the Lord of the Manor, and you could well be clapped in irons. The industrial age changed all that, with companies mass producing goods or services and the personal link disappearing from many professions. No-one knew if you’d done a good job in your cubicle –the chance to express your individuality was simply not there in a lot of sectors.

In the same way that social media is changing how we interact with companies and how they market to us, the internet is also changing how we work. As a recent piece in The Economist pointed out, we’re increasingly becoming a freelance-based economy, with skilled workers now available on tap to complete specific tasks, with no need to employ them full time. Figures from the Freelancers Union claim that 1 in 3 members of the American workforce do some freelance work.

The internet and smartphone apps mean a business can now find someone to do everything from research a new product to provide legal advice or consulting. Many routine tasks, even in knowledge-based businesses, can either be outsourced or digitised, so why go to the trouble and expense of employing someone to do it? And for those businesses that worry about quality, the platforms that deliver these people will have vetted them and you can read reviews from previous customers.

This is going back to the medieval model – with skilled artisans and craftspeople available to work directly for their end customers, rather than toiling in a factory or office for a regular salary. On the plus side, it delivers freedom and flexibility to those with the right skills. On the other hand, the vast majority of the medieval working population were itinerant labourers, turning up where there might be a job and hoping they’d get picked. Essentially, not much different to a modern zero hours contract, which is the flipside of the freelance economy.

There’s also multiple other challenges to address, both for freelancers themselves and the wider country. I know that as a freelance it is up to me to market myself, provide for my own retirement, sort out my work financial affairs and keep my skills up to date. If I don’t work, through illness or holiday, I don’t get paid. All of these are things that previously my employer would have provided for me as part of the contract between us. For me, that’s not too much of an issue, but for others (thinking again of zero hours contracts), what happens when they reach retirement age without private pension provision? The state will need to provide, where previously an employer did. Education will have to teach people to think in new ways, so that they can pick up skills throughout their working life, rather than training them to do the same thing for their whole career.

The other challenge is that the freelance economy needs corporate businesses in order to survive. Firstly, it is where it recruits many of its members, who’ve got their training within a large organisation and then decided to strike out on their own. Working for a large company not only provides a positive endorsement of quality on a CV but also gives access to an ecosystem of potential assignments within the company and its peers.

Secondly, freelances need larger companies (and those that work for them) as a market. Whether it is selling to organisations that have a specific skills gap or providing on-demand services to the salaried (in the US you can get everything from food, to taxis (Uber) and home cleaning at the touch of a smartphone screen).

Take away this infrastructure and you remove the market and the skills – in fact, essentially moving back to the medieval model. The main difference is now, with the internet, you don’t just have access to your village carpenter, but potentially millions of them all over the world. Like any change there will be winners and losers, but it is important to look at the negatives as well as the benefits before we fully embrace the on-demand world.

January 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The perils of celebrity endorsement

English: Stephen Hawking giving a lecture for ...

English: Stephen Hawking giving a lecture for NASA’s 50th anniversary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Intel must have thought it was onto a winner. Invest in building a new system to help Professor Stephen Hawking to speak, and not only does it get lots of media coverage (to help a good cause of course), but it also put one over on arch rival ARM by linking itself with Cambridge’s most famous living scientist.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite turned out like that. Headlines are dominated by Professor Hawking airing his worries that mankind will be threatened by the rise of artificial intelligence, with the machines (which Intel obviously makes the chips for) posing a threat to our very existence.

It isn’t the first time a big brand has been caught out by its chosen celebrity undermining its carefully thought out plans. Here’s another five that a quick Google search turned up:

1. Samsung and LeBron James
American basketball player LeBron James was unveiled as the face of the Samsung Galaxy Note III phone amid much fa

nfare. All was going well until he tweeted to his 12 million followers that his phone had just erased all his data and rebooted itself – hardly the message of reliability that Samsung was looking for.

2. Motorola and David Beckham
Another classic issue is a celebrity being caught using a competitor’s product. Sticking with sports stars, footballer Ronaldinho signed a lucrative deal with Coke – and was then caught on camera sipping from a can of Pepsi at a press conference. Not to be outdone, David Beckham lent his celebrity status to Motorola’s £14,000 Aura mobile phone, only to be snapped by paparazzi with an iPhone in his hand. He later claimed he’d been ‘holding it for a friend’.

3. Microsoft and Oprah Winfrey
At least Becks had an attempt at an excuse, unlike Oprah Winfrey. Paid to endorse Microsoft’s Surface tablet, she sent out a tweet extolling its virtues. Trouble was every tweet has the program and platform it was sent from automatically added on the bottom. So “Gotta say love that SURFACE!” was appended by the unfortunate words “sent via Twitter for iPad.”

4. Bacardi and Vinnie Jones
Ex-footballer and professional hardman Vinnie Jones was always a risky choice for an alcohol brand, as Bacardi found out to its cost. After using him as the face of the rum, he had to be hastily removed after he was convicted of a drunken assault on a flight from Heathrow to Tokyo. On a similar, but less dramatic note, car insurer Churchill dropped actor Martin Clunes after he lost his driving licence for speeding. Clunes may have complained, but he should have done his homework – previous star of the ads Vic Reeves was sacked after losing his licence for drink driving.

5. Yardley and Helena Bonham Carter
Perhaps the best example of a brand not doing its homework (and for sheer star insouciance) comes from actress Helena Bonham Carter. Chosen as the face of Yardley cosmetics she admitted in an interview that she rarely wore makeup and couldn’t understand why the brand had chosen her. The deal ended soon after.

All of this puts Professor Hawking (and Intel) in rather exalted company – demonstrating the perils of the celebrity endorsement, no matter how highbrow the name involved actually is.

December 3, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

UKIP – the biggest threat to the Cambridge tech industry

I’ve always tried to keep my blog apolitical, criticising politicians from all parties equally. But, given the seriousness of the rise of UKIP, I’m suspending my impartiality for a week. Why? Put simply, I believe that Nigel Farage’s party is the biggest threat to face the UK (and in particular Cambridge) tech sector for many years.

The UKIP caravan parked up in Wroxall, Isle of...

First off, I don’t seriously believe that UKIP will garner enough MPs in the 2015 election to be part of a coalition. But what it has done is to shift the debate sharply to the right in two key areas (immigration and the EU), causing the Tories to talk about curbs on the free movement of workers and set a date for an in/out EU referendum. And given that the Tories are likely to be a central part of a future coalition that is potentially very damaging.

Aside from the general business problems that limiting immigration and leaving the EU would bring, it would hit Cambridge and the startup tech scene in four distinct ways:

1. Education
Many of the highly skilled individuals currently working at or building tech companies originally came from overseas to study in Cambridge. It is already more difficult to get a student visa, and making it harder will simply put off the brightest and the best, who will head elsewhere. And every clever student who goes elsewhere diminishes the wider Cambridge academic population and impacts its reputation and attractiveness to new students.

2. Skills
Pretty much every Cambridge startup I’ve worked with has an incredibly diverse workforce, with employees from every corner of the world. They’ve chosen to come here, or have remained after study, and helped build amazing success stories with their skills. These are incredibly sought after and mobile people – limiting entry for them to the UK will mean they simply go elsewhere.

3. Entrepreneurs
Charles Wang, the founder of US software company Computer Associates once had a policy of only employing first or second generation immigrants in management roles. Wang himself was born in Shanghai and moved to New York when he was 8 years old. His reasoning was that immigrants had drive, entrepreneurialism and a desire to make something of themselves. Given they often arrived with nothing, they had no safety net, unlike established citizens who had never faced the dangers of real failure. Wang’s view is limited – I know plenty of driven, successful entrepreneurs from stable British families, but he has a point. Limiting immigration removes these potential entrepreneurs and the benefits they bring to their adopted country when it comes to jobs, taxes and the wider economy.

4. Ideas
A tech cluster like Cambridge isn’t about individuals, no matter how skilled they are. It is about how they interact together and share and develop ideas, based on their own knowledge and experience. Diversity is key – if you bring together a group of people with similar backgrounds and experience you’re unlikely to get the range of ideas that comes from a wider group. Ideas play off each other and grow – take away diversity and you severely weaken the idea gene pool.

In answering my points, critics may well make one of two arguments. Firstly, that we’ll still let in the best, most skilled people – it is the jobless benefit seekers that we want to turn away. That may be true but will they want to come to a country that appears so unfriendly to outsiders? And, how do you spot the entrepreneur or Nobel Prize winning physicist to be? They could be the yet-to-be-born child of immigrants that initially came over here to work in agriculture or to escape persecution in their home country.

Secondly, people will point to the US, which has restrictive immigration policies, yet the biggest tech/entrepreneur sector in the world. The difference is that the US is a country built on immigration, with a culture that rewards risk-taking and encourages people to try again after failure. We still don’t have that attitude in the UK, and we need free radicals to act as a catalyst to help change things.

The last 20 years have seen a huge expansion in the Cambridge tech scene, driven by the combination of ideas, skills and experience of people from many different backgrounds. Cutting off or limiting the flow of entrepreneurs, workers, students and researchers from outside the UK would completely change this energy and dynamism. It would still survive, but would be weaker, more insular and less exciting. That’s why it is important to tell politicians of all parties that we want to encourage responsible immigration and EU membership to build a successful Cambridge tech sector that benefits us all.

October 29, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does Apple Pay spell the end for banks?

There aren’t many people that actively like their bank. In the wake of the credit crunch and subsequent bail-out, bankers became the focus of people’s anger, being accused of recklessness at best, and outright fraud at worst.English: ATM Bank Albilad, Riyadh Saudi Arabia...

At the same time the rise of technology has eroded the central position retail banks have in people’s lives. The majority of us do most of our banking online, with the main physical interaction happening through the screen of an ATM. We don’t know who our bank manager is – and they probably don’t have any leeway to get us a better deal on our mortgage.

So, it is unsurprising that new entrants have been looking at the sector. PayPal has grown to be the de facto way of paying for goods on eBay, and has now spread to lots of other sites. Its smartphone app now makes it easy for people to pay for goods on the high street as well. Bitcoin goes further, not just marginalising banks but the entire idea of a national currency.

However the real threat to banks is from brands coming into the market and pushing them into the background. The launch of Apple Pay in the US this week is a prime example of what might happen. By using your iPhone 6 (or Apple Watch) and Near Field Communications (NFC) you can simply pay by waving your device close to the payment reader. The built-in fingerprint sensor in the iPhone provides security (unlike traditional contactless cards), and the money is automatically debited from your bank account.

Of course, the money paying for the things you buy still comes from your traditional bank account. But in an era of low interest rates, essentially it turns the bank into a safety deposit box which stores your money, with the front-end, customer facing activity controlled and branded by Apple. That is partially down to the stringent regulations you need to meet to become a bank, and also down to where the highest margins are within the transaction.

So what can banks do to out-innovate the likes of Apple? And can they change a culture still built on retail, branch-based banking to reflect a modern, mobile-first lifestyle? Barclays has launched a service called Pingit which lets you send money to friends or family and pay bills, even if you are not a customer of the bank. Since launch in 2012 the Pingit app has been downloaded 2.5 million times and £350m has been sent through the service. But this is small change in the overall scheme of things.

Apple’s biggest competition may well come from Zapp, a service run by payments processor VocaLink that uses your existing mobile phone banking app and account for payments. Scheduled for launch in 2015 it has two big advantages over Apple and Pingit – it runs on all smartphones (unlike Apple Pay) and is seen as independent from an individual bank, although it is not yet supported by all of them.

The battle to control payments and the front end to banking promises to be fascinating. Will Apple’s brand triumph, despite (or even because of) its exclusivity or will Zapp’s wider approach succeed? How can both companies market themselves to overcome security fears and gain traction with a wider market beyond early adopters. Add to this that Google is rumoured to be buying PayPal to give it a foothold in the market, as well as other innovations yet to launch, and 2015 promises to be a busy year in the battle to replace your wallet.

 

October 15, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The news – written by robots

The march of technology has radically changed many jobs. Factory work has become increasingly automated and roles that involved processing documents have been swept away. And as the cost of processing power falls, artificial intelligence improves dramatically and more and more information is available online, machines are becoming cleverer. From delivering online learning to scanning legal documents for relevant information or automated trading of shares, computer-based algorithms are increasingly capable of replacing people in more traditionally white collar roles.

Partial front page of the Los Angeles Times fo...

Partial front page of the Los Angeles Times for Monday, April 24, 1922, displaying coverage of a Ku Klux Klan raid in an L.A. suburb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Judging by recent stories, the next profession under attack is professional journalism. Already hit hard by the free model of the internet and the rise of citizen reporting, journalists now have to fight off robots with their eyes on their jobs. AP has just announced that it will use software from Automated Insights to produce 4,440 robot-written corporate earnings reports every quarter. The company argues that by letting the software write basic stories that essentially cover the financial details of the earnings announcement it frees up human reporters to write more detailed analysis pieces – and also ensures it can cover more companies without expanding its staff.

AP is not alone. An increasing number of news outlets are using software to write up reports of matches in minor sports which aren’t popular enough to justify the attention of a ‘real’ reporter. And in California, the LA Times uses a program to analyse data from the US Geological Survey to provide a first report on earthquakes. It is also using separate software to analyse incoming lists of arrests from the police to flag those that look newsworthy to reporters. This essentially works by thinking like a journalist and looking for potential signs of interest, such as particular names or occupations and high bail amounts that can then be followed up.

So, should journalists (and by extension, other writers such as PR people), be worried? There may be a lot of hand wringing about these developments, but I think there are three reasons that the human hack will survive, and even thrive.

1          Robot journalism is all about the facts
At present software is very good at searching for information, collating it and presenting it in a way that can be easily read. If you look at the AP or LA Times pieces they are never going to win any prizes for journalism, as they are basic stories that journalists would knock out because they had to, without really getting out of second gear. Software can do it much faster, freeing up their time for more interesting pieces.

2          Opinion and context is key to retain readers
We are bombarded by facts. What we crave are journalists who can put the facts in context, create a logical narrative, and most importantly add experience and opinion. While, technically, software could try and mimic this by analysing the complete works of Caitlin Moran and regurgitating it, it can’t get across personality in the same way. So real opinion will always beat computer journalism that stitches together opposing quotes when it comes to engaging the eyeballs of readers.

3          Investigative journalism is alive and well
Reporters continue to work tirelessly to expose scandals, often with very little official data to work with. Whether it is uncovering irregularities with the expenses of MPs or child abuse in care homes, a large number of nationally and internationally important stories have only been published because of long term research and work by journalists or newspapers. Computers may well have been used to help in analysis and getting to the truth, but they did not lead the investigation.

So, before reporters worry too much about R2D2 stealing their jobs, it is worth understanding what readers actually value in an article. Yes, they want the facts, but more to the point they want opinions, colour and context, especially if it is personal and random – and at the moment, this is beyond the scope of software.

September 17, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sting, Simon and Sex – 20 years of the Smartphone

It seems like 1994 was a busy year – not only did it see the first ecommerce transaction (a foolish purchase of an overpriced and overrated Sting album), but also the launch of the very first smartphone. And interestingly it wasn’t produced by a traditional handset vendor, but created by IBM, thus adding to the long list of inventions, such as the PC, that it pioneered but then failed to commercialise.

English: The first smartphone "The Simon&...

English: The first smartphone “The Simon” by IBM and Bellsouth (AT&T) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The oddly named Simon went on sale to the US public on 16 August 1994, and had a calendar, could take notes and send emails and messages as well as make and receive calls. Aimed at the busy executive it could be linked to a fax machine in order to handle all your communication needs. However it failed to take off, only selling 50,000 units. As curator of the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery, Charlotte Connelly, drily puts its “It only had an hour’s battery, it was $899 and there was no mobile internet at the time. So it wasn’t very successful.” Personally I’m not convinced the name helped either – “Sent from my Simon” doesn’t have the same kudos as “Sent from my iPhone” at the bottom of an email.

We’re now seeing mobile and ecommerce (as opposed to Sting and Simon) converging, and driving innovation in technology. As this nifty but messy Google Public Data graphic shows, the majority of us now use smartphones as our primary method of internet access, and, aside from reading this blog, watching cute kittens and moaning on Facebook, one of our primary occupations is buying stuff. According to Goldman Sachs, global mobile commerce will hit $638 billion by 2018 – the same amount spent via PCs in 2013. While the majority will be on tablets, smartphones are an integral part of the customer journey and will make up a direct $20-30 billion of the total.

The smartphone has changed how we interact, shop and spend our free time. We are no longer ever idle – why gaze into space at the bus stop and notice the world around you when you can play Candy Crush instead? In many ways mobile technology has outstripped our capacity to adapt, leaving humans scrambling to change their behaviour to fit in with their apps, rather than the other way around. 20 per cent of young American adults (and 10 per cent of the total population) use smartphones during sex, though mercifully the research doesn’t go into any more detail than that.

So, what does this mean for startups and marketers? The smartphone is essentially our most relied upon device, and the one we keep closest to us at all times. You can link it to sensors, watches and the world around us, through Bluetooth and technology such as beacons. It really does provide a window into our lives, which has both a positive and negative impact. Speaking personally spam text messages or calls annoy me more on my mobile than their equivalents on landline or email. It is a delicate balancing act, with the consequences for misjudging privacy or security potentially extremely damaging. But get it right with your app and you can generate big profits or deliver your message right to the heart of your target markets.

The last twenty years has seen the smartphone change the world – as well as the wider device market. It has shrunk from the 500g brick sized Simon to thinner, more pocket sized smartphones (though ironically the trend is now for larger and larger devices), with increased usability and a wider range of apps aimed at consumers as well as businesses. One thing hasn’t changed though – the Simon’s battery lasted an hour, and while I get a bit longer from my iPhone, it still can’t survive a busy day without needing a recharge……..

August 20, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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