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.

Mar 042015

As the annual Mobile World Congress begins to wind down in Barcelona, Kantar Worldpanel decides to stir things up with its quarterly report on the market share of mobile phones.

The news is mixed; Apple continues its rampage in the Chinese market with a quarter of phones sold in the PRC being iPhones while Android slips in Europe but picks up market share in the US.

At the top end of the market it’s clear Apple is beating Samsung and the other manufacturers are deciding to avoid entering the battle of the market at all, instead focusing on lower and midrange devices.

Competing at the price points which don’t interest Apple may not be easy though suggests Carolina Milanesi, ComTech’s Chief of Research & Head of US Business; “while mid-tier consumers might be more accessible than high-end ones, manufacturers will have to work harder than ever to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.”

Diversifying away from a tough smartphone market is one reason for the focus on watches at Mobile World Congress although even in that market Apple is about to launch a blitz around its upcoming product.

It remains to be seen if Apple win the watch market for the moment though they safely have the smartphone business firmly under control.

Mar 032015

Chinese luxury goods buyers are upset that their top end toilet seats aren’t manufactured in Japan reports the Wall Street Journal.

It turns out these technologically advanced toilet seats are largely made in China – like many other Japanese, and American, products.

Which creates a problem for those Chinese advocating a boycott of Japanese goods warns the China Youth Daily.

“Japanese goods have permeated every aspect of our lives. If you want to boycott everything, I’m afraid you’ll have to throw away your identification cards, cellphones, land-line phones, elevators, some of which have Japanese components.”

Such are the complexities of globalisation.

Mar 022015
technology brings the age of the motorcar to an end

Despite the current hype over wearables and smartphones at Mobile World Congress, the real battle in tech is increasingly in the automobile industry; it’s no accident that smartcars were the start turn at the Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of the year.

It may be however that the tech companies might take over the automobile industry as Timothy B. Lee in Vox suggests.

Lee’s argument rests mainly on the tech industry’s superior supply chain management – this is questionable as automotive manufacturing is several orders of magnitude in its complexity than PCs or smartphones – and the changing role of the motor car in modern society.

That latter aspect is probably the more crucial aspect, as car ownership falls and sharing vehicles becomes commonplace, design and manufacturing imperatives change along with the economics.

While it’s stating the obvious to say the incumbent automobile manufacturers currently have the advantage due to scale and experience, the same was said when Apple introduced their smartphone to compete against long established incumbents such as Nokia and Motorola.

Re-inventing the global automotive sector is a far bigger task than changing the smartphone or personal computer industry, although it certainly is going to happen. It may be though that Chinese or Indian groups end up dominating rather than Silicon Valley.

Mar 012015
The Australian wine industry has problems

The crowd is as smart as wine experts claims review app Vivino in a blog post comparing its users’ ratings of wines against the long established industry standards of Wine Spectator and Robert Parker.

Crowdsourcing’s advantage claims Vivino is “the experts can’t rate everything. But 8 million (and growing) Vivino users just about can. Will a 4.0 wine on Vivino be the new ’90 point wine’?”

Although Vivino are talking up their book on this, the message here is that the wisdom of crowds – or the Cult of the Amateur as author Andrew Keen described it in 2007 – is taking the place of all but the highest profile experts’ opinions.

Removing the informed commentator

This is true in almost every critical field from journalism to food and travel writing, if you don’t have, or a can build, a big following in your chosen niche then you’re just one of the crowd punching out a blog, Facebook posts or Instagram feed.

Wine writers and experts are in the same position, if the aggregated opinions of eight million users can give you an informed opinion about a vintage then why spend good money to consult someone who has spent years studying and working in the industry?

In some ways this is the downside of blogging; suddenly anybody with an internet connection can hold themselves out as being an informed critic. A case that stands out is an Australian food blogger who criticised a Sydney cafe for it’s ‘weird sushi sandwiches’ and strange Japanese fusion food without realising he was eating a Scandinavian open sandwich.

One of the effects of the web is that it’s both diffused and concentrated influence – a vast array of informations sources meaans small international group of high profile experts find their standing grows as they become more accessible while most of the industry is drowned out by forums, apps and social media sites.

The challenge for many of us is how are we going to stand out from the crowd.

Feb 282015

It’s tough being in export markets, particularly high tech ones were government supported industries are competing with each other with taxpayer funded and subsidies and guarantees.

A great example of this is the story of Australia’s Newsat, a company formed to launch the country’s first privately owned satellite.

The satellite business is tough industry with high costs, substantial risks and a number of state backed organisations competing for work.

So Newsat found willing partners – dare one call them distressed investors – who were prepared to put taxpayers’ money on the line to get a slice of the project. In Newsat’s case the US Exim bank and France’s Compagnie Française d’Assurance pour le Commerce Extérieur (COFACE).

Together the French and US agencies tipped in just short of four hundred million US Dollars, with Exim tipping in $280 million as a direct loan to support the company’s choice of American contractor Lockheed Martin to build the satellites.

Exim bank has featured on this website before in the discussion about the perverse result that US airlines get subsidies from European export agencies to buy Airbuses while European Airlines get support to buy Boeings. The result is a zero sum game where the big loser is the taxpayer.

Newsat shows again the flaws in this export model; despite early optimism, particularly around the provision of lucrative communications services to remote mines in regional Australia, the company has never really looked like delivering on its promise with the stock price bouncing around 15 Australian cents and valuing the entire company at just under a hundred million Aussie dollars.

While the big losers in this scheme appear to be Australian shareholders along with the US and French taxpayers – the Australian government had no interest in the project and Newsat was flatly rejected as the satellite provider by the country’s National Broadband Project – it turns out the executives will do quite well from the project.

Fairfax Media’s Business Day reports the Newsat project is mired in various legal and management problems not helped by the chief executive Adrian Ballintine and investor relations manager Kahina Koucha travelling the world in first class.

Koucha accompanied Ballantine and a handful of other NewSat executives on their 2013 and 2014 global sales missions. There is no doubt the NewSat team worked very hard drumming up support for Jabiru-1. But it also appears that Ballintine and his team used company funds to travel in opulent style.

Koucha’s Instagram snapshots of the NewSat trips to New York, Washington, Paris, Dubai and London look like the setting for a clichéd, blinged-out hip hop music video. There are the first class airline cabins, luxury hotels, French champagne, a Rolex watch and lavish dinners. The NewSat crew from Melbourne were clearly the coolest in the satellite sphere.

In the past two financial years, NewSat has spent almost $1 million on travel, according to its published accounts. As Koucha wrote on one of her Instagram posts of herself relaxing in an airline’s first class cabin while on a NewSat trip: “We travel in stylllleeee (sic)”.

When the US and French taxpayers are picking up the tabs, why not live like a gangsta?

Despite the hard work of Ballantine, Koucha and the rest Newstar’s executive team, the company continues to struggle in the search for customers for it’s already launched Jabiru-2 and the Jabiru-1 project is now in jeopardy due to missed payment deadlines.

At least somebody had some first class travel and good meals out of the venture and no doubt in the scheme of things, Newsat is small beer compared to many of the export projects being funded by the US and French taxpayers.

Feb 272015

Exactly what benefits does the Internet of Things offer businesses? A survey of Australian businesses by Microsoft claims there are benefits but few companies have deployed the IoT in their operations as managers struggle to understand the technologies.

In the survey “Cut through: How the Internet of Things is sharpening Australia’s competitive edge” carried out by research company Telsyte, Microsoft found two thirds of businesses that  deployed IoT technologies have achieved an average cost saving of 28 percent while half the businesses have improved efficiencies of around the same amount.

A poor take up rate

The devil however is in the details and most notable only a quarter of the 306 companies surveyed admitting to using IoT applications.

While the sample size is small, and the Australian business community has been relatively slow in adopting the IoT, the survey indicates managers see the value but are struggling to see how they can adopt the technologies in their organisations.

Although fewer than one in 20 organisations said they could not foresee any business benefit from IoT, an alarmingly high 48 per cent still have no plans to implement the technology.

This reluctance comes largely from a lack of resources and expertise with the top five reasons for not adopting the IoT being technology challenges, affordability, security concerns, lack of skills and no management support.

Lack of management support

Management’s lack of understanding and support for IoT solutions presents a risk for businesses as the next generation of industrial machinery  – from cars to tractors – will have some connectivity built into it. A failure to understand the technologies built into equipment opens a range of operational and security risks for an organisation.

Another aspect about the implementation of the IoT that comes from this survey is exactly what are we talking about? Microsoft’s emphasis in this report was clearly on the Big Data analytics, something else that might confuse the discussion with management.

What’s clear from the Microsoft’s survey is companies do realise there are benefits from the IoT but managements are struggling to understand the technologies and how to implement them into their operations. This is an opportunity for the savvy integrator or reseller.

Feb 262015
data guard

A few years ago Ransomware was a joke, malware would install a screen that would demand a ransom be paid to ‘unlock’ the computer. It was easy to get around and almost trivial to remove.

Then came Cryptolocker, a nasty piece of malware that would gleefully encrypt a victim’s hard drives, rendering them inaccessible unless a sizeable ransom was paid.

Ransomware suddenly became serious.

Cryptolocker eventually was unpicked with a cracking tool released and the ring’s alleged founder, Evgeniy Bogachev, now on the run from US authorities with a three million dollar reward for his arrest.

A better class of ransomware

Now the gangs running the ransomware scams are even more sophisticated and well resourced with Andrei Taflan of Romanian security company BitDefender describing how Bitcoin values are often tracking ransomware activity.

“When we see Bitcoin values surging we watch for increased ransomware activity. Someone is buying Bitcoins to unlock their data,” Taflan told me last week in an underground bar appropriately called The Rabbit Hole.

Taflan’s colleague Bogdan Botezatu describes how the ransomware problem is getting worse, not better, with Cryptowall patching the weaknesses that led to Bogachev’s downfall.

One of the fascinating aspects of Cryptowall is that it’s polymorpic – it changes shape to elude traditional signature based anti-virus programs. The malware also creates unique Bitcoin wallets to make tracking transaction harder.

Paying the ransom

Many businesses being infected by Cryptowall and having data locked away by an industrial grade encryption program makes it a no brainer to pay the demands. It’s a profitable business.

Faced this rather impressive piece of work, Botezatu raises a chilling prospect about ransomware in the Internet of Things; how long, he asks, will it take ransomware to target more sensitive devices we use, including cars and medical implants?

Botezatu’s concern illustrate why security with the Internet of Things is absolutely essential if industry and the public are to have any confidence in connected devices.