I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to launch a startup in the UK. The public profile of the tech industry is incredibly high, and those that create businesses are more likely to be seen as visionary entrepreneurs than cranks who couldn’t get a job in a proper company. Indeed, for those leaving university, setting up your own startup is a valid (if not as initially lucrative) alternative to becoming an accountant, banker or lawyer. I’m sure startups would complain that it is still difficult to raise money, or scale up their businesses, but it feels that there is now wide public and political acceptance of the importance of creating a culture that encourages startups.
Read the press and politicians’ speeches and there seems to be a relentless search to find the ‘European Google’ or ‘British Facebook’, multibillion dollar global companies that can become standard bearers for the industry. Alternatively, other European companies essentially mimic what is being done in the US, taking their business models, localising them and then hoping that first mover advantage will let them create viable businesses before the original enters the market.
The people that run startups are smart, as are the venture capital funds that back them. But are they looking in the right areas when it comes to creating new businesses – as an article by Liam Boogar in Rude Baguette recently asked “Where are the European startups to solve Europe’s biggest problems?” Leaving aside the question of whether Europe is cohesive enough that the same problems apply to life in Edinburgh, Athens and Bucharest, it is a valid point. What issues can be solved, first in Europe, and then expanded globally, to create thriving companies that benefit us all?
The article focuses on the need to shake-up the savings market, and with interest rates in many countries close to (or even below) 0% I can see the opportunity to transform the sector, such as through peer-to-peer lending.
However, what other areas would enable European startups to build global businesses? Thinking about the particular problems Europe faces, here are four that come to mind:
Across Europe, people are living longer and birth rates are falling. Longer lifespans increase pressure on health and social care services, as the elderly battle chronic diseases and poor health. While this isn’t just a European problem, it is one that startups can focus on, particularly given the public money currently being spent on healthcare research. Areas such as wearable monitors and the Internet of Things can potentially help improve the quality of care, even allowing people to remain in their own homes, rather than be treated in hospital.
From driverless cars to drones, technology is revolutionising transport. With its combination of major car and aeroplane makers, Europe is well-positioned to lead the way, but it needs an injection of startup energy and fresh thinking to succeed. Whether it is new ways of charging electric vehicles as they wait at traffic lights or smarter cities where you are automatically guided to the nearest parking space, there is plenty of scope for innovation, along with the chance to scale up to export the technology across the globe.
More than 6 million jobs were lost in the recession between 2008-13, and youth unemployment in many countries remains high. Many of the roles that were made redundant are simply not coming back as they have either been offshored to lower wage economies or replaced by technology. What are needed are ways to reskill European jobseekers so that they can compete in the global market. Much of this should be the responsibility of governments, but technology can help with new ways of training, new opportunities for collaboration and the encouragement of remote working to combat rural depopulation.
4. Cutting bureaucracy
All governments, of whatever political persuasion, seem to delight in creating red tape that tangles up citizens and businesses alike. And, despite the European Union, there is still a range of different measures that need to be met. Many countries have begun to put their services online, but more can be done, and in many cases nimble startups can get things done quicker than lumbering government departments.
I’m sure there are plenty more European problems that need solving, from the environment to education. These don’t just benefit society, but are potentially extremely lucrative as well. So the challenge for startups and entrepreneurs is to try and solve them – and at the same time we might create the European Googles that politicians are so keen on.
The announcement that Chris Evans has been signed to headline the new Top Gear is a rare good news story for the BBC. Following the furore over Jeremy Clarkson’s suspension and subsequent non-renewal of contract after punching a producer there was a real danger that one of its prized assets could be under permanent threat.
This was a big issue for two reasons. Not only does Top Gear make a lot of money for the BBC in terms of overseas sales, but it is also one of the most popular programmes on TV, particularly (but not exclusively) with middle-aged men such as myself. At a time when charter renewal is looming, showing that the BBC provides something for everyone is crucial to successful negotiations, especially as many see it as a bastion of a left-leaning metropolitan elite, rather than an organisation that is in touch with the rest of the UK. Not a viewpoint I personally subscribe to, but one that can be seen regularly in newspaper coverage of the corporation.
So setting out a plan for the future of Top Gear was about more than simply replacing a presenter. And the whole negotiations with both Evans and the outgoing presenting duo of James May and Richard Hammond seem to have been handled confidentially, respectfully and without any of the noted HR cock-ups that the BBC has made in the past. With Evans on board, the BBC has recruited a noted car nut who is a familiar face to the UK audience, with a wide appeal and a similar sense of humour to the old Top Gear team. He’s also been through the public wringer in the past, rising to stardom with The Big Breakfast and the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, before becoming a staple story in the tabloids for his drinking and bad behaviour. He’s obviously learnt from his mistakes – and what drove him to them – something that Clarkson never really seemed to do.
So, now there is a one host in place for Top Gear, the rumour mill is in full swing about who else will present it with him. Rather than follow the bookmakers favourites (the likes of Jodie Kidd and Guy Martin), here are some other potentials:
1. Ed Miliband
Currently at a bit of a loose end, he’d be perfect as the earnest one to replace James May. Rather than endlessly explaining about internal combustion engines he could bore the audience with his views on the redistribution of wealth, and why Labour’s electoral defeat was not to do with carving promises into pieces of stone. Counting against him is what seems to be a complete lack of interest in cars, but I’d tune in to see him attempt to lap the track while eating a bacon sandwich.
2. Prince Philip
A direct replacement for Clarkson with his views on foreigners, and a chance to increase viewers in the pensioner category. Well known for owning a London taxi that he drives around the city, so has an interest in cars, alongside carriage racing. Possibly not up for driving long distances in Top Gear specials, but presumably could get a chauffeur to do this for him.
3. Alexis Tsipras
Another Greek, and one who may be looking for a new role depending on how well current negotiations with his country’s creditors go. Unlike his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who is a noted biker, his transport preferences are unknown. However as someone that has driven in Athens (and survived), I know that all residents of the Greek capital have nerves of steel on the road, coupled with a wanton disregard for indicators, making him a perfect role model on the track.
4. Mary Berry
There have been rumours of Great British Bake Off host Sue Perkins joining the team, prompting death threats from assorted morons on Twitter, but why not go for the real star – the fragrant Mary Berry. She’d not take any nonsense from anyone and, I suspect, would be a demon behind the wheel. I’d like to see her challenge the other presenters to make fairy cakes while lapping the Nurburgring in under 7 minutes.
5. Bradley Wiggins
Another coming to the end of his first sporting career, and potentially looking for a new challenge post-Rio 2016. While not as much of a car nut as his fellow Olympian Chris Hoy, he’d bring plenty of irreverence to the programme if he swapped two wheels for four. Main stumbling block could be the previous hostility between Top Gear presenters and cyclists, but the perfect opportunity for the show to bring the two groups together and benefit from the rise of the MAMIL.
I’ve just moved house and am still recovering from the experience. Having last moved 11 years ago I expected that technology would have changed things in the interim, but it seems that the process is still paper-based, slow and (as far as I can see) incredibly inefficient. If you ever wondered who still uses a fax machine, look no further than solicitors………
It starts so well. The front-end of house buying is now pretty much web-based. So there’s no more peering through the windows of estate agents as you can set your criteria and instantly bring up potential properties that you are interested in. In fact there could be too much information available – we took the virtual tour of our house off our details as we worried that people could be making up their minds based on that, rather than coming for a viewing. The technology used to gather these details is also pretty high tech – with drone cameras taking aerial photos for example.
However once you’ve had your offer accepted, the back office processes revert to paper – based on my experiences, here are five areas that seem ripe for digitisation:
1 Paper-based forms
Some documents, such as Land Registry files and searches, are now all online, making it much quicker to access them. But a lot more aren’t – the fixtures and fittings form is still paper-based for example, meaning it has to be posted and scanned at the other end. By mandating that all communication is electronic, the whole process could be much quicker, more environmentally friendly and less stressful.
2 Real-time communications
We wondered why we always got emails sent on behalf of our solicitor just after 4pm. Then we realised – he’d dictated them to his PA in time to get them in the post, but rather than appearing as a letter it had just been turned into an email. While this saves some time it doesn’t deliver real-time answers that people demand (and which could dramatically speed up the process).
3 Getting a mortgage
Criteria for mortgage applications have been tightened following the easy lending that preceded the banking crash. That’s understandable, but there’s no common sense in the process now. It took weeks to get a telephone appointment with our bank to go through our personal details and outgoings – and then when the mortgage rate changed we had to do the whole thing again in order to get a better deal. And we had to talk to the same advisor (who was on holiday), adding more time to the process. Being able to re-use answers you’ve already provided, within a reasonable timeframe, would be more efficient for the bank as well as avoiding customer frustration.
4 Money transfer
On completion day, it takes forever for the purchases to take place. The money from the purchaser at the bottom of the chain goes to the solicitor for the house they are buying, who then pays the next person and so on. This is all logical but is incredibly slow – in an era of online banking where you can transfer money instantly, this is another area that needs addressing as it is inefficient and time-consuming. Our buyer’s removal van was waiting outside our (old) house for the money to go through – it then took another hour to complete on our purchase.
5 Changing address
After you’ve moved you then need to update your details with everyone from your bank to HMRC. What amazes me is how difficult some people make this. In an online world you’d imagine it would be straightforward to change the address a magazine subscription is delivered to – but in many cases I’ve had to email to get details changed rather than just amending my address online. A central portal to change all your official details might sound a bit Big Brother to some people but I would prefer it to having to wade through hundreds of sites, remembering seldom-used passwords in order to tell companies I’ve moved.
As you can probably tell, the whole moving process has left me frustrated at the missed opportunities to speed things up and make it more efficient for everyone. I don’t think it is on any party manifesto, but reforming house buying would surely be a vote winner given the stresses and traumas it creates. And having moved into our lovely new house, I won’t be leaving in a hurry…………..
50 years ago, engineer Gordon Moore wrote an article that has become the bedrock of computing. Moore’s Law, as first described in the article, states that the number of elements that could be fitted onto the same size piece of silicon doubles every year. It was then revised to every two years, and elements changed to transistors, but has basically held true for five decades. Essentially it means that computing power doubles every two years – and consequently gets considerably cheaper over time.
What is interesting is to look back over the last 50 years and see how completely different the IT landscape is today. Pretty much all companies that were active in the market when Moore’s Law was penned have disappeared (with IBM being a notable exception and HP staggering on). Even Intel, the company Moore co-founded, didn’t get started until after he’d written the original article. At the same time IT has moved from a centralised mainframe world, with users interacting through dumb terminals to a more distributed model of a powerful PC on every desk. Arguably, it is now is heading back to an environment where the Cloud provides the processing power and we use PCs, tablets or phones that, while powerful, cannot come close to the speed of Cloud-based servers. This centralised model works well when you have fast connectivity but doesn’t function at all when your internet connection is down, leaving you twiddling your thumbs.
Looking around and comparing a 1960’s mainframe and today’s smartphone you can see Moore’s Law in action, but how long will it continue to work for? The law’s demise has been predicted for some time, and as chips become ever smaller the processes and fabs needed to make them become more complex and therefore more expensive. This means that the costs have to be passed on somehow – at the moment high end smartphone users are happy to pay a premium for the latest, fastest model, but it is difficult to see this lasting for ever, particularly as the whizzier the processor the quicker batteries drain. The Internet of Things (IoT) will require chips with everything, but size and power constraints, and the fact that the majority of IoT sensors will not need huge processing power means that Moore’s Law isn’t necessary to build the smart environments of the future.
Desktop and laptop PCs used to be the biggest users of chips, and the largest beneficiaries of Moore’s Law, becoming increasingly powerful without the form factor having to be changed. But sales are slowing, as people turn to a combination of tablets/phones and the processing power of the Cloud. Devices such as Google Chromebooks can use lower spec chips as it uses the Cloud for the heavy lifting, thus making it cheaper. At the same time, the servers within the datacentres that are running these Cloud services aren’t as space constrained, so miniaturisation is less of a priority.
Taken together these factors probably mean that while Moore’s Law could theoretically carry on for a long time, the economics of a changing IT landscape could finish it off within the next 10 years. However, its death has been predicted many times before, so it would take a brave person to write its epitaph just yet.
After announcements last year, this week saw the launch of the first Apple Watches, although they won’t go on sale until 24 April. The cutely named Spring Forward event saw the tech giant reveal all 38 models, which will range in price from £299 (for the sport model) to £8,000+, depending on screen size, design and whether you want it in 18 carat gold.
More importantly Apple showed a selection of the apps that it expects to drive demand for the device. You can make touchless payments, receive phone calls, open a compatible hotel room door (rather than using a keycard), and remotely open an internet-connected garage door (no, I don’t have one of those either). However for a large number of functions, such as messaging, GPS tracking and making phone calls you’ll need an iPhone 5 to run alongside your new watch.
Apple is not a stupid company and has grown to be the biggest quoted business in the world by revenues through reinventing the music and smartphone markets. It hired former Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts to head up its online and physical stores, partly to help its move from technology into fashion with watches. I remember loudly proclaiming that the iPad would never catch on due its innate pointlessness, and now I rely on it every day. But I still see some serious challenges to the Apple Watch attaining critical mass. Here are four of them:
The cost of the Sport model begins at £299, with prices for the mid-tier Watch version starting at £479. To me, this is a lot of money to spend on a watch, even one that looks as sleek as the
Apple device. And for £900+ you can buy a low-end TAG Heuer, that you know will last for a long time without needing to be upgraded as software advances. Yes, millions of people have iPhones, but the vast majority got them on subsidised deals that meant they didn’t have to fork out close to the real sales price. A better comparison is the similarly priced iPad, which has seen sales slow as the market becomes saturated over time. Therefore predictions of sales of 60 million seem excessive, with the market much more limited than that.
2. Does it do anything different?
Anyone of a certain age who saw or read Dick Tracy loves the idea of using their watch to make a call, even if it is to the office rather than for police back up. But Dick Tracy didn’t have a smartphone, which can do pretty much everything a watch can do – and more besides. And as Apple has said, you’ll need to retain your iPhone to provide many of the functions that can’t be squeezed into the watch. Admittedly the iPhone is getting bigger, making it more difficult to use for things such as contactless payments, but equally the watch could be seen as too small for many other activities.
3. A whole new market
Apple has always been known for its design excellence, and the Watch appears to be equally stunning, admittedly with a bulkier face than a traditional wristwatch. Hiring Ahrendts also points to a desire to bring in luxury marketing nous to help it move into a different sector, where factors outside technology excellence and cool apps could be more important. Can it become the fashion accessory that everyone wants? In the ultra-competitive watch market it will be difficult, though expect Apple to try to jump the chasm from geek to cool.
4. Battery life
Watch batteries traditionally last for years. In contrast iPhones provide just hours of charge, depending on how much Candy Crush you are actually playing. So the news that the Apple Watch will keep going for 18 hours is disappointing to say the least (although the company says that it will continue to show the time for up to 72 hours after that). Essentially consumers will need to charge the watch every night, plugging it in alongside their iPhone ready for the morning. It just reinforces that this is a technology product, rather than something you wear, and is bound to put some people off.
I could be as wrong about the Apple Watch as I was about the iPad, but to me, despite the hype, it won’t move beyond being a niche product for fanboys and girls who want to pair it with their latest iPhones. For me, if I had the spare cash I’d buy a TAG instead and leave technology to my phone……….
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.
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……….
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…………
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.
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.
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.
The internet has radically changed how we bank, removing the need to physically visit and turning a thousand and one redundant branches into All Bar Ones and Wetherspoons. But the actual mechanics of transferring money around haven’t really changed. Through a combination of regulation and the sheer complexity of the financial world most of us still entrust our money to a bank and use their systems to move it around. There are some notable new entrants, such as PayPal, and smaller banks, like Metro Bank, have been launched, but the majority of transactions still go through the same channels as before. The only change being that we do the work ourselves online rather than queuing up for hours in a draughty branch behind the man from the arcade paying in his weekly takings one penny at a time.
But most people recognise that the banking system doesn’t deliver the flexibility or mobility that technology can underpin. So how do you do banking without the banks? One way would be to make it simple to transfer money from person to person using a web-based platform that the majority of the world is a member of. Step forward Facebook, which has applied to the regulator in Ireland to launch e-money across Europe. This would allow people to transfer money to others on the social network as well as to buy things online. The combination of Facebook’s reach and brand could provide stiff competition to the likes of Western Union. However those worried about privacy may baulk at giving Facebook access to their bank details in any way, shape or form.
A second way is to change the currency altogether and allow payments and transfers through new forms of money, such as Bitcoin. However, the danger of an unregulated market has come back to haunt Bitcoin, with exchanges mysteriously emptied of money and government concern that the currency is used to pay for drugs, arms and sundry Bad Things.
Now the banking industry itself has come up with a third way. Paym, has been created by umbrella body the Payments Council and enables money to be transferred by simply typing in the phone number of the recipient, provided they are also registered on the service. Fast, direct and no need to give out your bank details to other people through insecure channels such as email. However it looks like the banks themselves are unconvinced by the possibility of doing themselves out of a job. 20 million account holders of RBS (and its subsidiaries NatWest, Ulster Bank, Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks), as well as First Direct, won’t be able to use the scheme until later in the year, while Nationwide’s five million customers will have to wait until 2015. RBS says it is prioritising getting its IT systems straight, after several high profile meltdowns, before joining.
With more and more of our money transferred online to friends and relatives who are further and further away from us, we need options that make it easy to transfer money simply, and quickly. But given our previous bad experiences with banks, will it be Facebook that steals a march and becomes the new financial hub for the internet age? Either way, consumers should benefit through genuine choice and hopefully better service, whoever they pick.