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.

Apr 262015
 
Raven_II_medical_robot

Security experts have hacked a teleoperated surgical robot Security experts hack medical robot.

In a recently published paper, a group of academics showed how they had been able to change the instruction sequences, override commands or even take full control of the Raven II medical robot.

That such a lack of security isn’t in the least bit surprising is a sad commentary on the world of connected devices and the Internet of Things.

At the root of this problem is the software running this equipment has security added, at best, as an afterthought given the designers work from the assumption operators are in the room with the equipment,

If we’re going to connect these devices to the public internet then security has to be built into them from the beginning.

Whether we’re discussing remote medical equipment, driverless cars or the smart home, hardening and securing IoT devices is going to be of today’s industrial challenges.

Apr 252015
 
Courtesy of Wikipedia

can Wellington become a global tech hub? raised an interesting question, how big does a city need to be in order to be successful in the new economy?

Does a compact city with a few hundred thousand people have an advantage over several million inhabitants sprawling across a huge metropolis?

The romantic view is the smaller cities should prevail but history, particularly given the wide sprawl of Silicon Valley, indicates the opposite.

While Silicon Valley, and most of the other Twentieth Century industrial hubs like Detroit, were sprawling conurbations it may be this era’s centres are more compact with towns being walkable.

Certainly this is what we’re seeing with the tech industry’s shift into San Francisco as workers find they’d rather walk or cycle to work than spend hours on freeways each day.

So it may be the newer breed of businesses and industries that don’t need massive infrastructure also don’t need to sprawl.

If that turns out to be true then cities like Wellington could do well.

Apr 252015
 
wellington-new-zealand-city-view

It bills itself as ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ however something is going on in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, as its technology sector takes off.

Last week I was in Wellington, partly to attend the Open Source, Open Society conference and also to have a look at how the city is doing so well as one of the leading startup cities.

While I’ll have a number of posts about the city, startup scene and conference over the next couple of weeks, it’s worthwhile noting some basic impressions that came from the visit.

The size of the city, Wellington is a small town with a population of 200,000, brings both advantages and negatives for the business and startup communities.

Small is sweet

One of the advantages of being so small is the business community is relatively accessible, a number of entrepreneurs told me how easy it is for them to find the specialists they need given there’s usually two degrees or less separation between everyone.

Normally having a small business community means it gets insular, particularly in a capital city where the business of government can create a bubble effect. What’s notable about Wellington is most of the businesses are looking outward towards the US, Australia and East Asia.

The city’s intimate business environment also improves trust within the community as one Aussie expat told me, “if you rip off anyone in this town pretty well everyone knows about it by the end of the weekend. It keeps everyone honest.”

Being small, the city makes it easy to walk around which compounds the business networking opportunities. A businesswoman, who is also a lifelong Wellingtonian, observed how she allows an extra 15 minutes to walk anywhere as she finds herself stopping for conversations.

Three dominant businesses

Having three successful businesses in the city – TradeMe, Xero and Weta – has both its upsides and disadvantages with the bigger players tending to dominate the employment market and funding opportunities.

Of the three businesses, TradeMe is the most domestically focused while Xero is growing in the tech sector and Weta is the most diverse with its range of special effects and movie production services.

With Weta, the business is exposed to the vagaries of the global film industry as Statistic New Zealand survey of movie production shows.

The film industry is one of Wellington’s important employers with the sector supporting around two thousand businesses in the city, although I didn’t get time to explore how much of an overlap there is between the tech and film industries.

TradeMe is largely a domestic focused business that provides a steady work and skills base for the local workforce. While it’s the least internationally exposed business of the three, it’s probably also the most consistent.

Xero, like Weta, is a globally expanding business and its success is attracting investors and expats from North America and Australia. While its the smallest of the three it’s probably the business that has done the most raise Wellington’s profile in the tech industry.

Community spaces

What’s particularly notable are the number of coworking spaces in Wellington ranging from the straightforward Bizdojo and Creative HQ through to the quirky Enspiral.

The availability of shared spaces makes the city attractive to startups and adds to the vibrancy of the local tech community which links into hipster pursuits such as craft beer.

Communities like Enspiral also add another dimension to the local startup and creative industries environment by connecting entrepreneurs with their peers and service providers.

Partnerships with government

One aspect I didn’t get to explore while in Wellington was the relationship between the city’s educational institutions, particularly Victoria University, with the business community.

Similarly I didn’t get the opportunity to discover how much of a role local and national governments have had in the development of Wellington’s tech scene. It seems to be relatively hands off although some government agencies have supported Weta with co-investment funds.

Talking to some of the US and Australian expats it was clear that lifestyle combined with opportunity with lifestyle, as one Aussie emigre told me “I couldn’t get the water views, access to the city and be able to walk to work back home like I can here.”

While these are superficial thoughts that I’ll expand on over the next week as I decipher notes and listen to interviews, there’s no doubt that Wellington is carving a position as one of the global centres of the new economy. How big it becomes will depend on how many other businesses grow to the size of Xero or Weta.

Apr 232015
 
Salesforce-no-software-cloud-services

In Technology Spectator today I have a piece on cloud services and how the promise of high reliability threatens the IT manager and Chief Information Officer.

This shift is the same change that’s affected the IT support industry, as technology becomes more standardised and a commodity the need for specialist support and management becomes unnecessary.

In many respects this is similar to a hundred years ago where most factories had their own power plants providing electricity, steam or bel power to drive the machinery.

As mains power became common and reliable, businesses no longer needed specialist staff to ensure the power flowed.

While much of today’s commentary focuses on the CIO role evolving, it may well be the position is redundant.

Apr 222015
 
facebook-for-the-phone

Over the last few weeks much has been written about Google’s mobile search update that went live on Wednesday, some said it would be the death of small business on the internet while others claimed it would be the end of corporates online.

While all the focus has been on Google’s search changes Facebook quietly made a change that will probably be more vexing for many businesses.

Both Facebook and Google are struggling with making their services more useful for users, with the Google changes the intention is to make search on mobile devices more useful in giving preference to websites that work on smaller screens.

In a post on Google’s webmaster blog, Developer Programs Tech Lead Maile Ohye answered the basic questions about the search engine changes which dispelled much of the hysteria and myths about the update. The main point of Ohye’s post is that Google want to show users useful information.

Facebook have a similar problem, they have to balance the often competing interests of their users and advertisers with the main aim being keeping visitors on their site for as long as possible.

The objective of keeping users engaged is the reason for a series of tweaks Facebook announced this week that change the newsfeed visitors see.

The goal of News Feed is to show you the content that matters to you. This means we need to give you the right mix of updates from friends and public figures, publishers, businesses and community organizations you are connected to. This balance is different for everyone depending on what people are most interested in learning about every day. As more people and pages are sharing more content, we need to keep improving News Feed to get this balance right.

Facebook are putting their users priorities first in making sure the news feed is interesting and relevant, which the company believes will entice visitors to spend longer on the site and make advertising more attractive.

If it works then it’s a win for Facebook, their users and those who pay to advertise on the site. Again though, the losers are the companies and brands not advertising who thought they could get views by the quality of their content.

Unless the content is very good, those companies not paying Facebook are in for more disappointment as their reach collapses even further than its current pathetic rates.

Google’s change too is something that puts users first; rather than dumping mobile web surfers onto an unreadable page, they are making sure people get to sites that are useful.

In many ways Google is only encouraging what has been best practice for at least five years, that every site should work equally well on mobile devices as they do on desktop computers.

What Facebook and Google are showing us is the value of putting users’ needs first. If your guests are happy then your business model has a much better chance of succeeding, regardless of who the eventual customer is.

Making business more user friendly should be a priority for all companies in a competitive world.

Apr 212015
 
lenovo-tower-server-thinkserver-td350-front-1

One of the key factors in bringing the Personal Computer era of business to a close was the end of the upgrade cycle where users tended to buy new systems every three to five years.

For companies like Dell, Acer, IBM and Microsoft this cycle was an important and reliable income stream.

In the early 2000s though it stopped as customers decided that with most new innovations coming onto their computers through web browsers they didn’t need to buy new systems.

For the PC industry, particularly Microsoft, this presented a huge threat to their business models and all of them have been trying to find ways to refocus their businesses.

The ModernBiz Technology Make-Over

Late last year I was asked by Microsoft Australia to participate in their ModernBiz Technology Make-Over where a small business running Windows XP and Server 2003 was given a free tech upgrade to the latest equipment.

This was interesting as it was an opportunity to see how Microsoft and the market are adapting to a very changed industry.

As well I still carry the many scars – most psychological but some physical – from my years of running PC Rescue where upgrading companies’ old technology was a core part of the business.

Doing a tough job

The fallacy many managers and inexperienced companies fall for is that migration customers from old equipment to new systems is a simple matter of copying a few files. It is never that simple.

Upgrading company computers a tough field as every business is unique and in workplace where the technology has been in use for over a decade the learning curve onto new software is insanely steep for staff and management alike.

So watching the process from a relatively safe distance where I wasn’t worrying about losing customers’ data or trying to complete a complex task within a short deadline was quite attractive. Basically I wanted to see the other guys sweat.

Another attraction in participating was to see how Microsoft are managing the transition from supplying business servers to provisioning cloud services and how customers are managing that change in product offerings.

Dealing with a shifting market

For both Microsoft and their customers the shift from one off hardware and license purchases to cloud based monthly subscriptions is a major change in mindset, so seeing how small business users adapt to online services will be interesting.

Overall the technology makeover promises to be an interesting exercise on how the small business computer industry is changing.

For his participation in the Modern Biz Technology Makeover program, Microsoft gave Paul a Lenovo laptop which he hasn’t yet used.

Apr 202015
 
Local village

One of the tech buzzwords, or acronyms, a few years back was SoLoMo – Social Local Mobile. In reviewing the slides for the Future Proofing Your Business presentation next week, the term came up in one of the notes.

It’s interesting look at the fates of the three different concepts over the past few years; mobile has boomed and redefined computing and social has become big business with Facebook growing into a hundred billion dollar company.

Local though has struggled with Google, Facebook and a host of smaller and newer startups struggling while the Yellow Pages franchise dies. Despite the power of maps and geolocation, local just isn’t doing as well as the other two.

This could be down to the difficulty in harvesting the massive amounts of disparate data available to any service trying to draw an accurate picture of what’s in the neighbourhood.

Google Places tried to standardise that information for local businesses but the complexity of the service and its opaque, arbitrary rules meant adoption has been slow and merchants are reluctant to update details in case they fall foul of the rules.

Local services’ failure to take off has also had a consequence for the media as its in hyperlocal services that publishers have possibly their best opportunity to rebuild their fortunes.

That failure to properly harness mobile has also hurt merchants as many local operations are struggling to find useful places to advertise given Google Adwords and Facebook can be extremely expensive places to advertise.

So the mobile space is still ripe for a smart entrepreneur – a new Google or Facebook – to dominate.