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.

Feb 102016

Having written about BlackBerry’s ambitions in the marketplace for The Australian last week, it wasn’t surprising to get an invite to the company’s Down Under launch of their Priv handset earlier today.

The event illustrated some brutal realities about mobile phone market and BlackBerry’s efforts to build on its strengths in the enterprise security space.

With management sitting on 2.7 billion dollars of cash, the company has seven years of breathing space at its current loss rates although it’s notable the stock market values the company at $3.5bn, implying investors value the business’ operations at a measly $800 million.

Given the collapse in BlackBerry’s handset business from twenty percent of the market at the beginning of the decade to an asterix today, that pessimism from investors isn’t surprising and underscores why the company is recasting itself as an enterprise security provider.

Five major acquisitions in the last 18 months have demonstrated how BlackBerry is attempting to recast its business; security services like Good Technology and Secusmart through to warning software like At Hoc have seen the company bolster its range of offerings.

Coupled with the recent acquisitions are its own longstanding messaging and secure communications services coupled with the QNX software arm that promises a far more reliable Internet of Things than many of the current operating systems being embedded into smart devices.

The poster child of risky software has to be the Android smartphone system which is bedevilled with dangerous apps running on outdated software and where BlackBerry hopes their PRIV handset can attract enterprise users conscious of the need to secure their employees’ devices.

For BlackBerry though, the PRIV being shipped with the Android operating system is a capitulation to the smartphone market’s stark reality where there is only demand for two products and outside players like BlackBerry or Windows are destined to wither away.

While the PRIV is a nice, albeit expensive, phone and the slide out physical keyboard is nice to use, the device seems to be a desperate attempt by the company to stay in the smartphone market.

As an outside observer it’s hard to see the justification for BlackBerry continuing as a phone manufacturer, there may be some intellectual property value from the development of the devices – although it should be noted the company only valued its IP assets at $906 million in November 2015.

While the PRIV is a perfectly good Android phone it will probably be the last smartphone BlackBerry makes, the challenge for the company’s management now is to tie together the software assets it has into a compelling suite of products for the enterprise sector.

In an age where devices of all types are going to be connected, the market for ensuring their security should be huge. Catering to that market should be BlackBerry’s greatest hope of survival.

Feb 092016

What happens when your Managing Director of five years standing announces he’s decided to move on?

This was something Xero’s senior management had to deal with when Chris Ridd, the company’s Managing Director for Australia, announced that after five years he had decided to move on.

In interviewing Chris and his successor, Trent Innes, last week for The Australian it was striking just how well the succession process had gone for Xero in dealing with the management change, “It has worked out well, it was our preference to go with an internal candidate,” the outgoing GM told me. “From my perspective it’s always good when you can do that but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Much of this comes down to Chris putting together a cohesive management team, something he’s quite proud of, “Xero has a huge bench, we have a really talented leadership team. I feel really good about leaving now given that the business has gone from six staff to 295 people, three and a half thousand customers to 265,000.”

“I achieved way more than what I thought I’d be able to do in that role and after five years it seemed like the right time frame to go into something else,” he continued.

Part of his confidence in moving on was his confidence in his successor, “Trent and I go back twelve years at Microsoft,” he told me.

The other part of his confidence was that the company has a clearly defined strategy and business plan that neither he or Trent see changing.

Many companies struggle with changing their senior management and much of that is because the board and executives are in denial that people – even those at the top – will move on to new ventures.

A stable management team, a solid business plan and a realistic view about leadership succession are the keys to successfully managing a change at the top, so far it looks like Xero have managed to pull off a change that many other struggle with.

Feb 082016

Who is responsible for the effect of renegade computer programs is going to become a serious legal topic as an increasing number of things become ‘intelligent” and connected to the internet.

Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is one of the first regulators to start looking at how companies’ algorithms. In their just released rules for wholesale traders, the FCA sets out the responsibilities for companies and their managers.

“We are determined to embed a culture of personal responsibility within the banking sector,” says the FCA’s Acting Chief Executive Tracey McDermott. “Clear individual accountability should focus minds, drive up standards, and make firms easier to run and to supervise. And if things go wrong, it will allow senior managers to be held to account for misconduct that falls within their area of responsibility.”

The definition of ‘misconduct’ when an algorithm goes awry will undoubtedly prove contentious, as will the idea of ‘personal responsibility’ in the banking sector.

While it’s too tempting to be dismissive of such move in the financial services industry, the FCA’s regulations are a pointer of what most industries are going to face over the next ten years as the more devices make decisions for themselves or communicate with other equipment over the Internet of Things.

In many areas the question of who is responsible for a rogue computer program will be left to the uncertainties of the legal system with no doubt many surprises, injustices, inconsistencies and unintended consequences so the earlier regulators develop a framework for dealing with mishaps the better.

Should the IoT start delivering on its promise of a connected world a poorly designed algorithm in even what should be relatively trivial devices or services may have the potential to cause massive disruption and damage. It’s hard not to imagine many other regulators in other industries are looking at how to attribute responsibilities, if not minimise risk, in a smart connected world.

Feb 072016

For listed tech companies 2016 has been a bloodbath to date however design company Autodesk seems to have bucked the trend.

The key to keeping investors happy seems to lie in announcing major layoffs, in Autodesk’s case ten percent of its workforce which equates to 950 workers.

Autodesk’s management are painting those layoffs as being due to the company’s transition to cloud services with online subscriptions making up over half the business’ revenue.

Regardless of how valid that reasoning is, the message to the tech workers is clear; more tough times are coming.

With investors ruthlessly expecting better profits, focused leadership and leaner workforces many managers are going to have to face some tough decisions in what’s looking like a difficult year.

Feb 062016
we need to treat chinese markets carefully

As the Chinese economy adjusts to new economic realities, some of the costs are beginning to be felt.

In China’s North-East where the economy is dominated by state owned enterprises in staid heavy industries, workers are moving to more promising regions and local leaders are worried.

However with the Chinese economy pivoting, things aren’t doing so well in the more laissez-faire South Eastern provinces either with workers giving up their precious New Year’s holidays to protest unpaid wages and unfair treatment.

For the Chinese government, this worker unrest is a serious problem. How the country’s leaders try to address the causes could well have global ramifications as the world’s economy faces the reality of massive economic overcapacity.

Out of the box thinking is needed, but it may not be enough to overcome the fears and needs of ordinary, angry workers. What is clear is that an economic pivot is never smooth.

Feb 042016

Criticise Tesla’s launch parties and your car order may be cancelled, reports The Guardian.

Stewart Alsop, an Californian venture capitalist, wrote an open letter to Tesla’s founder Elon Musk claiming the launch of the Tesla X was ‘a disgrace’.

Musk responded by cancelling Alsop’s Tesla order.

There’s a range of arguments about the customer always being correct, the customer’s right to criticise a product or the risks of making online comments but what it definitively shows is the power of being the seller of something people want.

I suspect Stewart Alsop will get his Tesla eventually, but the boss will make him squirm.