Paul Wallbank

Paul Wallbank is a speaker and writer charting how technology is changing society and business. Paul has four regular technology advice radio programs on ABC, a weekly column on the smartcompany.com.au website and has published seven books.

Aug 292015
 
president-obama-makers-faire

The Obama Administration teams with Apple, HP, Boeing and others to develop a Silicon Valley based wearable tech hub with $170 million in funding reports Venture Beat.

Over $17o million will be invested by the US government and its private sector partners in hybrid flexible electronics manufacturing research that may well underpin the next generation of wearable and embeddable devices.

For the US, its success in the electronics industry is based upon its strong research sector. Making the investments today will help the nation compete as the technology landscape evolves.

Aug 282015
 
Air New Zealand Boeing 777-300

Possibly the holy grail of business is to find a product that your customers will pay almost anything for.

In flight Wi-Fi service provider GoGo may be close to achieving that with a product that business customers depend upon. The New York Times describes how the company has found it can use dynamic pricing to customise its prices for each flight.

One of the limitations GoGo faces is the connections between the aircraft and the ground stations is narrow so a plane full of bandwidth hungry travellers will quickly bring everyone’s service to a crawl.

To overcome this – and to make more money – the service has developed algorithms to anticipate the demand on each flight and then customise the charges to suit.

In many respects what we’re seeing with GoGo is similar to services like Uber where fast, intelligent systems can analyse traffic patterns and use the predicted demand to set prices. It’s the ultimate demand driven economy.

Over time, this model is going to flow out across many industries – the airline industry leads the way in pricing around demand management – and consumers need to get used to the idea of a fixed price tag being a quaint memory.

 

Aug 272015
 
fax-machine

If you’re in the ABC Canberra area at 4.05pm, I’ll be talking about this with Adam Shirley. Listen live here.

One of the most frustrating statements in modern business is “you’ll have to send a fax.”

Facsimile machines, once the pinnacle of 1980s business communications although they were first invented in 1843, started to die once the internet became common and email became the dominant messaging system.

Once dial up modems started becoming standard on computers, receiving faxes electronically became feasible and for while businesses struggled with the notoriously unreliable software to receive facsimile messages without the hassle of paper.

Eventually however they passed away as most business found there was no need for faxes and anything requiring a signature could be electronically signed or a scan of the original document sent.

Some industries and sectors – particularly the legal world and some government agencies – still hold out the need to send an ‘original’ by fax, party under the fallacy a facsimile copy is more secure, reliable and legally more valid than an email or electronically lodged document.

During the ABC Canberra program one listener pointed out the medical industry is dependent upon the older technologies, “we couldn’t operate without them” she told the producers. In a time of connected medical equipment and electronic data interchange, the medical industry has little justification in using outdated manual methods but habits die hard in a very conservative industry.

None of the myths around the reliability of fax are true and the reality is details sent by fax are just as easily intercepted by nefarious employees or third parties as emails. In many respects a fax is less secure than electronically interchanged data.

If you do have the need to send or receive a fax though all is not lost, services like eFax will still send or receive messages and then, ironically, email them onto you.

However there is a downside with these services, as one harried PA whose organisation still receives faxes due to its dealings with the legal profession described, the vast bulk of messages they receive are junk messages mainly offering cheap deals on office supplies.

The fax machine is another example of a transition effect where a stop gap product was effective for a short period as businesses adapted to new technologies, the SMS is going through a similar process now. Neither will be the last example of this.

Aug 262015
 
v8-supercars-launceston-truck-fleet

One of the least understood, but most important factors in modern industry is the logistics of moving supplies to manufacturers and goods to market.

Mastery of the supply chain is one of the key advantages Chinese manufacturers have says PCH Industries’ CEO Liam Casey in an interview with Fortune Magazine.

Fortune describes how Casey has become the ‘go-to’ man for companies wanting to outsource their manufacturing to China, a process that can be steep learning curve for an inexperienced startup team.

Since first travelling to China twenty years ago, Casey has been studying how the country’s manufacturers operate and he believes they are “light-years ahead when it comes to the supply chain.” 

That strength is something that shouldn’t be underestimated by China’s competitors and western countries hoping to rekindle their manufacturing industries as Chinese costs increase, getting goods to market is as much an value add as making the products.

Aug 252015
 
commonwealth-bank-in-lockart-nsw

One of the things that strikes you when wandering around London’s Docklands district is the sheer amount of advertising for financial technology companies.

That London has established this position should surprise no-one, its civic and national leaders have been aggressive in maintaining the city’s position as technology has swept through the banking sector.

One of the notable things when interviewing the Chief Executive of London and Partners, Gordon Innes, two years ago was how engaged both the city’s business and political leaders were in the development of the town’s technology sector and the financial industry was a natural focus.

An example Innes gave of that engagement was the co-operation between the offices of the Prime Minister and the London Mayor where staffers meet on a monthly basis to agree on business and technology policy, which is then put into action by Westminster and the UK Parliament.

Poaching the Aussies

The benefits of that co-ordination and focus are global, with the London fintech sector attracting startups from as far as Australia.

Australia’s experience, or lack of it, in the fintech sector is notable. As the story linked above mentions, the UK Trade and Investment agency actively scouts out promising businesses while the local state and Federal equivalents sit on the sidelines (disclaimer: I worked for the New South Wales government on its digital economy strategy).

For Australia, the late entry into fintech doesn’t bode well. The country’s financial sector is overwhelmingly weighted towards domestic property speculation – a structural weakness seen as a strength by most Australians – and the country’s high costs make it tough for startups.

Defining a competitive advantage

High costs in themselves aren’t a barrier to a city’s success – London, New York and San Francisco themselves would be among the highest cost places to do business on the planet.

To justify those costs a city needs a competitive advantage and there’s little to suggest Sydney or Melbourne have anything compelling as a financial centre beyond a bloated domestic banking industry fixated on residential property.

Two of the arguments used to support Australia’s claims are it is on the doorstep of Asia and it is in the same timezone as the growing East Asian powerhouses.

Timezone myths

If timezones do matter in modern business, the sad truth for the Aussies is the powerhouses themselves – specifically Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore – are in roughly the same longitudes so any time differentials aren’t great.

Being on the doorstep of Asia is probably one of the greatest Australian myths of all – it’s actually quicker to fly from Beijing to London than it is to Sydney. London might be on the edge of Europe – one US entrepreneur once told me how they can get Spanish developers into the UK in an afternoon – and New York is the gateway to the United States however there’s little reason to go Down Under for any other reason than to visit Australia.

The power of history and focus

Comparing London to Sydney is useful though as it shows the power of history and trade routes. London became a global financial centre because it was the financial centre of a global empire just as New York is today and possibly Shanghai in the not too distant future.

For the Aussies, the trade routes aren’t so encouraging in indicating the country has a future as a financial sector. Even ignoring history, the commitments of governments and local corporations are at best half-hearted compared to their global competitors – as we see with London poaching Australian businesses.

One of the strengths in those global centres is a constant re-invention and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances – how China adapts to a rebalanced economy will define whether it remains a global economic power – and in the UK the government is looking at the next big things in biotech and the Internet of Things, two areas where it has strengths and can attract global investment and skills.

For countries and regions aspiring to be global players, they need not just to be playing to their own strengths but also to where the future lies and not be late entrants into the current investment fad.

Aug 242015
 
Accountants and bookkeeping ledger

The accounting and professional services industries are uniquely positioned as the economy goes digital, while their own sectors are undergoing radical change so too are their clients.

Given the changes facing the accounting industry, the invitation to host last week’s CPA Australia Technology Accounting Forum‘s second day in Sydney was a good opportunity to see how the profession and its clients are dealing with major shifts in their industry.

The accounting profession has been one of the big winners of the Twentieth Century’s shift to a services economy. Last week’s story on how the workforce has been changing illustrates this with a chart showing how the occupation has grown over the past 140 years.

accountants-employed-the-uk

In many respects accountants should be well placed to benefit in a data driven economy given the training and skills they posses. The big challenge for existing practitioners is to shift with the times.

The transition from what’s been lucrative work in the past will be a challenge for some in the profession. Many of the manual tasks accountants previously did are now being automated with direct data links increasingly seeing operations like reconciliations and filing financial returns being done in real time without the need for any human intervention.

In private practice, the shift to cloud computing and direct APIs has stripped out more revenues with useful earners like selling boxed software petering away as services like Xero and Saasu arrived and established players like Intuit, Sage and MYOB moved to online models.

Shifting to the cloud

That shift has already happened with the presenter in one breakout session asking the audience how many practitioners used exclusively desktop software, purely cloud service or a hybrid of the two. Of the twenty in the room, the vast majority were using a combination with three being purely online and one sole operator still stuck with a desktop system.

For accountants the message from all of the sessions was clear; the future is online and businesses based around paper based models are doomed. The question though for them is how will they make the transition to being professional advisers.

Strangely, the big challenge for accountants in private practice may be their clients. A number of panel participants pointed out small business owners are slow to adopt new technologies and this holds both them and their service providers back. Divorcing tardy customers may be one of the more difficult tasks facing professional advisors.

The Technology, Accounting and Finance Forum showed the potential for accountants and professional services providers to be the trusted advisors in an online world, the task now is for practitioners and their clients to learn and understand those tools.

Aug 232015
 
businesses paying bills and invoices

Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz has a nifty sixteen point guide to evaluating a tech startup’s performance.

This is a handy checklist when looking at the claims of any business – big or small, tech startup or something more conventional.

Pre-booking of contract revenues in particular is one of my favourites and it’s something we’re going to see more of as the subscription economy becomes more widespread.