Revolutionary Measures

Google, Nest and the opportunity for startups

In many ways the news that Google has bought smart home company Nest Labs shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been talking to the company for some time and apparently lots of Google employees had installed the company’s sensor based thermostat in their own homes.

Google 貼牌冰箱(Google Refrigerator)

More to the point I think it fits in with Google’s overall objectives. As analysts have pointed out, Google isn’t a search engine company (and hasn’t been for some time), but is about data – collecting it (analysing search results, Google Glass, StreetView) and then using it to either sell you things (through adverts) or make your life better in some way.

With billions of sensors embedded in previously dumb objects that will be communicating in real-time, the Internet of Things promises to create a tidal wave of data. Each piece will be tiny, but if you can bring it together and analyse it you can get an even deeper view of the world around us, and the people in it. Nest’s products are much more than thermostats, and provide Google with the sensor/Internet of Things expertise it needs to add to its product portfolio. It already has Android-based smartphones/tablets to act as controllers, the mapping technology to show where sensors are located and the technology to analyse billions of events in real-time. And with Google Fiber rolling out in several US cities, it has a network to send the data through as well.

A simple example – your Nest thermostat notifies you that your boiler has gone wrong via your smartphone while you are at work. And suggests a registered tradesman that can fix it by trawling the web and any recommendations in your Google+ circles. Or alternatively gives you the address of the nearest clothing shop, so you can stock up on thick jumpers.

Many people (myself included) would find this a bit creepy, but it is potentially possible if you can knit all the technology together. What I think is interesting is how utilities will respond to the future entry of Google into the market. After all, as publishers and others have found, Googlification can squeeze out incumbents through sheer scale and by engaging more closely with customers. Utilities have to decide whether they want to partner with the likes of Google, risk losing the customer relationship and become commodity suppliers of gas and electricity or take a stand and build stronger engagement with customers. In current circumstances that’ll be difficult – people are at best ambivalent about their utility supplier, and in an era of rising prices and poor customer service many actively dislike them.

So there’s a big opportunity here – and something that Cambridge’s cluster of smart home/green tech companies could exploit. For example, AlertMe already has a partnership with British Gas, while Sentec is working with metering companies to make their products smarter. If energy companies don’t want to work with Google then they have two choices – do it themselves (teaming up with smaller tech companies), or partner with larger industrial tech companies, such as Siemens or Bosch. And these industrial giants will need the specialist expertise that smart home companies can provide.

The utility market doesn’t move fast, so don’t expect to see Google running your home in the next year, but the Nest acquisition should actually spur the whole sector on, attracting both interest and investment. The world just got more interested in smart homes, which is good news for relevant startups in Cambridge and beyond.


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January 15, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Which profession is losing the PR war?

Gas Flame

Jobs wax and wane in popularity and, while quite a lot of this is down to salaries or how interesting they are, their public image also has a big input. For example, mention you’re an accountant to someone and a mental picture of a grey man/woman in a grey suit pops immediately into many people’s minds.

So, taking this to its logical conclusion, which profession has the worst public image in the UK – essentially who is most loathed by the country as a whole? I’m taking out politicians as that’s too easy a target, but looking at what’s left, they seem to fall into two groups. There are those professions that are belittled for not doing their job properly, where the Daily Mail (and politicians) use the failings of a few to tar a whole group with the same brush. I’m thinking of social workers, doctors, nurses and teachers, where, often for political reasons, they are paraded as uncaring or uncommitted when nothing could be further from the truth.

The second group, which more people can agree on, is those that are accused of fleecing the Great British Public. So bankers, overpaid businessmen/women, footballers, bureaucrats (especially of the ‘meddling Brussels’ variety) and highly paid lawyers fit into this category. What’s interesting is that none of these people make physical things – vilified businesspeople tend to be fat cats presiding over service industries/shutting down manufacturing plants while increasing their pensions rather than the likes of James Dyson.

After the financial meltdown, I’d say that bankers topped the polls of the most loathed. Not only had they brought the world to the edge of financial ruin but weren’t contrite in any way. They still seemed to be rolling in enormous bonuses, while the rest of us were scraping by without pay rises in Austerity Britain.

But the last couple of weeks has seen a new target overtake even bankers – management at utilities companies. The combination of enormous, above inflation, rises in gas and electricity bills coupled with dire warnings about potential future power cuts have made them public enemy number one. Never a group to look a gift horse in the mouth, politicians have levelled their guns on the sector. From Ed Milliband threatening a price freeze to (of all people) John Major calling for a windfall tax on utility profits, it is open season on the industry. With a growing percentage of household incomes spent on utility costs, it isn’t surprising they are a target – even though the companies claim that a large chunk of bills goes either to the government in terms of green levies or is swallowed up by global price rises in the cost of oil, gas and coal.

But utilities aren’t helping themselves. British Gas decided to run a Twitter Q&A session on the day of its recent price rises – unsurprisingly it got more abuse than intelligent feedback. And Scottish Power has been fined £8.5m for misleading customers between 2009 and 2011. No wonder the whole industry has been summoned to appear before MPs shortly to explain themselves.

So, putting my PR hat back on, what can utility companies to improve their public image? They can’t reverse the price rises, but need to show that they genuinely care. That means no pay rises for senior management, closer work with charities that help those who can’t pay their bills and a commitment to providing better service to the rest of us. And this needs to be a long term move – not a quick PR stunt that ends after a couple of months. Only then will they be able to step away from the public eye and let others (probably bankers) take over the mantle of most loathed profession – at least until the 2015 election….

October 23, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment