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 website and has published seven books.

Dec 192014

Earlier this week BlackBerry released its Classic handset – the device the company hopes will rekindle its fortunes in the smartphone market in appealing to the thousands of loyal corporate users still wedded to their old devices.

For BlackBerry the stakes are high with the handset business still being worth over half the company’s earnings last financial year, although hardware revenue dropped 43% to $3.8 billion over that period.

“Handsets are still an important part of our business in terms of revenues,” BlackBerry’s President of Global Enterprise Services, John Sims told Decoding the New Economy in an interview last month.

The main market for the Classic are the corporate users still sitting on their old handsets, “there are tens of millions of BlackBerry users who are still sitting on their old handsets.” Sims said. “The classic, when it comes along is targeted at that market. We know people are waiting.”

“When you get on a plane people start taking out their devices I can guarantee you’ll see BlackBerry Bolds with almost every person in business and first class. They may have another device too – a Samsung or something as well.”

Sims’ belief was that bringing back the shortcuts and keyboard of the older devices would encourage users wedded to their old devices to buy the new smartphone.

The first response to the new BlackBerry Classic hasn’t been enthusiastic with Larry Dignan in the Canadian Globe and Mail describing it as “a curmudgeonly phone” – a worrying description coming from the home team. Dignan goes further in questioning BlackBerry’s hope the Classic will attract the users it needs.

BlackBerry remains convinced that its hardcore enterprise users are crying out for the unique set of features only it can offer. But after using it for several days I don’t think the Classic is old fashioned enough to please traditionalists, and its callbacks to a dead era of smartphone mobility are more than enough to cripple the device for new users.

For BlackBerry, the success or otherwise of its handsets is going to be critical in the company’s transition to a security, software and internet of things business. The early indications are that the company has a struggle ahead.

Dec 182014
How can we save costs using cloud computing and online tools

One forecast about 2015 that’s very easy to make is businesses with high costs are in for a tough time.

As competition steps up, global forces puts pressure on prices and technological change allows new competitors into marketplaces, the companies that aren’t flexible and keeping an eye on where they are spending money are going to find 2015 will not be a happy year.

For the tech industry the predictions for next year are easy – there will be more security beaches, governments will want more powers to access our data while proving they can’t be trusted with what they already have, a new hot social media network will appear, well known brands will collapse, the net will get faster, more devices will be connected to Internet of Things and prices will continue to fall.

It’s the falling prices that will be what defines business in 2015 as we enter deflationary times; not the economists’ nightmare of prices falling in the face of collapsed demand – although that’s not out of the question – but in the more positive sense of business inputs being cheaper.

Things are going to get cheaper

A few weeks ago I wrote of futurist and academic Andrew McAfee speaking about the accelerated rate of change in business at the Gartner Gold Coast Conference. One of the immediate effects of that changing world McAfee describes is that a lot of thing are going to get cheaper.

Part of this is driven by newer cheaper sources of energy and labour, other driving factors are increased automation in fields where wages have historically been the biggest cost and  manufacturing processes are putting pressure on prices for most goods. The commodities prices collapse may also be a key factor in 2015.

For some industries, such as the IT industry, falling prices aren’t a new concept. Any computer superstore or local PC repairer who holds inventory gets a nasty reminder of the sector’s economics every time they do a stocktake. However many businesses operate on the assumption prices will always rise overtime, a not unfair assumption given the inflation we’ve seen over the last fifty years.

Getting costs down

With falling prices, it means businesses have to be more aggressive in cutting costs; whether it’s telephone or power bills through to professional services or banking fees, the onus is now on managers to squeeze as much value for the dollar as they can.

In the technology field the targets are obvious; are your old computer preventing you from using new software? Do cloud services offer a better deal than your old server based systems? Are your service providers charging too much?

For the wider business looking at how newer technologies affect your workflow could well prove rewarding, it may well there’s whole range of areas your company can become more efficient through adopting new systems.

A good candidate for slashing costs and improving flexibility is transport where too many companies are still paying Cabcharge’s overpriced fees when apps like Ingogo or Uber are cheaper and better. Why have company vehicles when car sharing services like GoGet can offer more value. Do you still need an expensive Yellow Pages listing when a free Google My Business entry will get you in front of more potential customers, particularly on the all important mobile platforms?

Then there’s the whole outsourcing question where it’s becoming easier to hire knowledge workers on an as needed basis through the various online platforms like O-Desk and Freelancer.

Over the break, it’s worthwhile reviewing your operations and seeing where you can use technology to cut costs and become more flexible in face of a rapidly changing marketplace. One prediction is certain; those with bloated costs and inflexible management are in for a tough 2015.

Dec 172014
how are we using data in our business

Automation is the greatest change we’re going to see in business over the next decade as companies increasingly rely upon computers to make day to day decisions.

Giving control to algorithms however comes with a set of risks which managers and business owners have to prepare for.

Earlier this week the risks in relying on algorithms were shown when car service Uber’s management was slow to react to a situation where its formulas risked a PR disaster.

Uber’s misstep in Sydney shows the weaknesses in the automated business model as its algorithm detected people clamouring for rides out of the city and applied ‘surge pricing’.

Surge pricing is applied when Uber’s system sees high demand – typically around events like New Year’s Eve – although the company has previously been criticised for alleged profiteering during emergencies like Hurricane Sandy in New York.

In the light of previous criticism, it’s surprising that Uber stumbled in Sydney during the hostage crisis. Shortly after criticism of the surge pricing arose on the internet, the company’s Sydney social media manager sent out a standard defence of surge pricing.

That message was consistent with both Uber’s business model and how the algorithm that determines the company’s fares works; however it was a potential disaster for the business’ already battered reputation.

An hour later the company’s management had realised their mistake and announced that rides out of Sydney’s Central Business District would be free.

User’s mistake is a classic example of the dangers of relying solely on an algorithm to determine business decisions; while things will work fine during the normal course of business, there will always be edge cases that create perverse results.

While machines are efficient; they lack context, judgement and compassion which exposes those who rely solely upon them to unforeseen risks.

As the Internet of Things rolls out, systems will be deployed where responses will be based upon the rules of predetermined formulas.

Businesses with overly strict rules and no provision for management intervention in extreme circumstances will find themselves, like Uber, at the mercy of their machines. Staking everything on those machines could turn out to be the riskiest strategy of all.

Dec 162014

Earlier this year Decoding The New Economy interviewed SurveyMonkey’s  CEO Dave Goldberg on his vision for the business and how the company’s services are helping people understand the context of the data pouring into their organisations.

Yesterday SurveyMonkey announced it had raised 250 million dollars through an equity round that values the business at $1.3 billion, an amount only a little more than what the company has raised since being founded in 1999.

The additional funds are earmarked for privately held SurveyMonkey to acquire more companies and “provide meaningful liquidity to our employees and investors” with participants in the new funding round including CEO Goldberg and Google Ventures increasing their existing stakes.

In his interview with Decoding The New Economy last February, Goldberg described how he sees mobile technologies changing both SurveyMonkey and business in general along with the challenge for companies in understanding the data pouring into business.

It’s not hard to image many of the acquisitions SurveyMonkey makes with its latest fundraising will be in the mobile and analytics sectors.

Dec 152014
Sony display at CEDIA conference

For the last week the gossip and tech industry websites have been full of revelations gleaned from a massive hack into the network of entertainment company Sony.

Sadly it isn’t surprising that Sony that targeted in that hack, 2011 was described by this site as the ‘year of the hack’ and at the time I wondered when corporate managers would start taking IT security seriously.

As the most recent security breach shows, Sony’s managers certainly weren’t taking their information security seriously as alleged North Korean hackers gleefully disabled systems and downloaded confidential documents.

While Sony’s woes are deeply damaging to the company, not least for the executives caught out gossiping about movie stars, the stakes are far higher for other companies.

In Turkey its alleged a 2008 oil pipeline explosion was caused by Russian hackers while in the US, Palestinian sympathisers are accused of causing massive damage to the IT systems of the Sands Casino group.

Sony may be one of the most digitally incompetent business in history – at least in respect to IT security – but it’s important for every business to making sure their information systems and critical business systems are hardened against attacks.

Dec 142014

One of the longest running large scale 3D printing projects is based at the UK’s Loughborough University where since 2007 researchers have been working on developing the technology’s applications to the construction industry.

Loughborough’s technology, named Freeform, offers faster and more flexible ways of casting concrete and building structures using a computer controlled concrete pouring system. For property developers the attraction is cheaper buildings while for architects the technologies offer more innovative structures.

In late November the team announced a venture with Swedish building company Skanska SA to develop the world’s first commercial concrete printing robot.

The venture, which will include collaborations with companies including iconic UK architects Foster and Partners, Buchan Concrete, Scandinavian contracting giant ABB and Lafarge Tarmac, aims to have the first commercially available robot printer available by mid 2016.

Competing with the European venture is Chinese company WinSun who earlier this year showcased its 3D printer capable of producing ten houses every 24 hours. An interesting aspect of WinSun’s project is that the printing rig was build out of existing parts and controlled by an off the shelf Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing software system.

While the Chinese results are relatively crude, they show the potential for the technology. The economics of the WinSun project are enhanced by using waste building site material for the concrete which only increases the attraction of these machines to cost conscious property developers.

The Chinese and British are not just the only countries working on these technologies, in the Netherlands the 3D Print Canal House shows how techniques and materials are being developed while in the United States the University of Southern California’s Contour Crafting project is looking at how to use large scale 3D printing in a range of construction scenarios including building space colonies.

While using moon dust to build structures in space is some way off, both Freeform and WinSun show what will become commonplace on building sites in the near future.

These technologies promise to radically change architecture and the building industry with ramifications for jobs and the economics of building structures.  3D printing buildings is another example of how industries and employment will be very different by the middle of this century.

For businesses, it’s another example of how managers have to prepare for very different marketplaces.

Builder image courtesy of thesaint through

Dec 132014
how can crowds help with outsourcing business processes

Recode’s Walt Mossberg looks at the mobile phone industry with the observation that while Google’s Android system is dominating the market, all is not what it seems.

While Android’s market share is impressive, Apple still has the profitable high end of the market and Google’s is increasingly finding that low end smartphone manufacturers are prepared to run with the slimmed down Android Open system rather than submit to Google’s licensing requirements.

Just as Apple can be fairly relaxed about Google’s position in the smartphone market, Twitter’s Ev Williams dismissed concerns around his service after the news Instagram had passed the 300 million user mark.

Fortune’s Erin Griffith reported Williams’ feisty response: “If you think about the impact Twitter has on the world versus Instagram, it’s pretty significant. It’s at least apples to oranges. Twitter is what we wanted it to be. It’s this realtime information network where everything in the world that happens on Twitter—important stuff breaks on Twitter and world leaders have conversations on Twitter. If that’s happening, I frankly don’t give a shit if Instagram has more people looking at pretty pictures.”

As Griffith observes Wall Street doesn’t share Williams’ view and that’s an increasing problem for the company, but both Apple’s and Twitter’s view to their market position illustrates how sheer numbers don’t necessarily matter.