Nov 122015

Microsoft today opens the doors to its first flagship store outside of North America in Sydney, Australia. A look inside the project gives some insight into the company’s retail strategy.

Situated in Westfield’s Pitt Street Mall, the store promises “cutting-edge retail and experiential spaces that allow consumers to get hands on with products in an immersive way.” What’s immediately notable is the lack of obvious security with all the devices on display being available for customers to pick up and walk around the shop with.

Most of those devices showcase Microsoft’s various projects and alliances. Everything from XBoxes running Minecraft to Lumia phones are on display along with a range of laptops from partners such as Dell, Toshiba and Lenovo.

Looking across the shop floor

Looking across the shop floor

Notable among the devices is are the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 along with the Microsoft Band 2 taking place of pride in the displays. As with everything else, customers can slip the wriststaps on and walk around with them. Microsoft’s representatives were coy on how they will prevent the less honest walking out the store with them.

Microsoft Band 2 wearables on display

Microsoft Band 2 wearables on display

Acting as a store greeter, the Answer Desk is the hub of store where representatives direct traffic whether it’s technical support – which like the Apple Genius Bar is provided free – sales, or directions to events in the upstairs community theatre.

Welcome to the Microsoft Store Answers Desk

Welcome to the Microsoft Store Answers Desk

Community is a big theme in the store and the company announced $4.8 million in software and technology grants to 11 not-for-profit Australian organisations to coincide with the shop’s opening.

That emphasis on ‘community’ is reflected in this quote from the company’s press release;

“Our new flagship store is here to showcase the very best of Microsoft to the local community and we are delighted Sydney has been chosen as its home,” said Pip Marlow, managing director, Microsoft Australia. “This is a key part of our commitment to delivering a truly interactive retail experience that gives customers, partners and community organisations the opportunity to see, experience and do great things, all made possible by Microsoft technology.”

Pip Marlow sees the upstairs community room as being an opportunity to engage with various school, business and technology groups. The space itself is a little cramped, however it can be isolated from the store’s general hubbub, unlike the Apple Store’s equivalent space.

The community theatre

The community theatre

Overall the store is modernistic but somewhat cramped and should the store be successful congestion is going to be a real problem, particularly around the Answer Desk and the narrow stairwell which, like its Apple competitor two blocks away, features a translucent stairwell.

A narrow translucent staircase

A narrow translucent staircase

In comparison to both the nearby Apple and Telstra stores, the Microsoft Showcase is surprisingly low tech with its retail experience. While the assistants will have mobile Point Of Sale terminals there’s little in the way of location technologies and contactless payments.


Overall the Microsoft Store comes across as a touch crowded and, dare one say, a little old school retail. As a showcase for the company’s products, it’s probably no more impressive than those of the better retailers.

However if Pip Marlow’s aim of building a community around Microsoft’s products is successful, that could prove to be the long term winning strategy for the company.

Nov 092015
radio programs for techonology, web, social media, cloud computing and computer advice

For November’s Nightlife tech spot we’ll be asking if wearable technologies overhyped and looking at what is going on with Australia’s sudden discovery of startup businesses.

Wearable technologies have been the next big thing. Two years ago Google Glass was all the news and earlier this year the Apple Watch was released to great fanfare.

Now Google Glass has been wound back in the face of widespread indifference and Apple are discounting the new watch as market experts find that wearable technologies are just not interesting to customers.

So are wearable technologies overhyped? We’ll be discussing where having a computer on your wrist or in your glasses may be useful and taking your questions on them.

Australia’s startup goldrush

There’s been a shift in the Australian business community since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister and now tech startups have become the new black with a wave of corporate initiatives being launched to support fledgling companies hoping to be the next Facebook or at least Atlassian.

So why now all the interest and can Australia be the next Silicon Valley?

Some of the questions we’ll be answering include.

  • So where can we get a cheap Apple watch?
  • Have Apple done this sort of thing before?
  • What are the experts saying about wearable technologies?
  • Are there some industries they can be used in?
  • So why is Malcolm Turnbull so keen on startups?
  • What sort of things are governments doing to support the startup communities?
  • How many Australian tech industry successes have there been?
  • Can Australia be the next Silicon Valley?

Join us

Tune in on your local ABC radio station from 10pm Australian Eastern Summer time or listen online at

We’d love to hear your views so join the conversation with your on-air questions, ideas or comments; phone in on 1300 800 222 within Australia or +61 2 8333 1000 from outside Australia.

You can SMS Nightlife’s talkback on 19922702, or through twitter to@paulwallbank using the #abcnightlife hashtag or visit the Nightlife Facebook page.


Nov 042015
building sydney as a smart city

“I’m not sure what to do with this,” frowned the public service executive to a group of blank faced departmental staffers. “I’ll take it,” I said to break the silence.

With that, I was on a journey into exactly what Sydney’s startup and digital media communities looked like and learning why governments struggle to build technology hubs.

I’d been working for the state government for two months after a specularly unsuccessful exit from a business and in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis getting a public service job seemed like a good idea.

Vague ideas

The project being discussed by Bob, my then director, was a single line in the recommendations from the then Premier’s Jobs Summit which was convened in the panicky dark days of the 2008 global financial crisis – “A digital hub will be setup around the Australian Technology Park.”

Bob, and the management of the New South Wales Department of Trade and Investment had little idea of what a ‘digital hub’ was and my position of ‘Manager, Creative Industries” – with a staff of precisely zero – was vague given the state’s support to the creative industries was, and remains, based on throwing big buckets of money at the Hollywood movie studios.

So the Sydney Digital Hub was born and the quest to find out exactly was was needed, or at least would keep the Premier’s office happy, was on.

It immediately became apparent the Australian Technology Park wasn’t going to be the centre of anything as far as Sydney’s startup community was concerned. The complex was too far away from the city and too expensive for most of the businesses.

Replacing what’s existing

“We already have a digital hub,” was the other response. “It’s Surry Hills.” Which was a far call as a large part of the Sydney startup and digital media communities were based in the suburb on the edge of the city’s centre.

This actually worked well as the exact wording of the committee’s recommendation was “create a digital hub around the Australian Technology Park.” In this case, Surry Hills was ‘around’ the ATP.

Eventually the project became Digital Sydney and by the time it was launched, the state had gone through two Premiers, elected another party into government and I was long gone from the department, having lasted just 19 months.

Before leaving, I had managed to steer through a million dollars in funding for the project from the then Labor minister – since caught up on corruption charges surrounding coal mine leases – which, to their credit, was honoured by the incoming Liberal government that took power shortly after.

Dying a slow, unfunded death

That funding was renewed and the project died a slow death, which didn’t really matter as Sydney’s startup and digital media communities had developed despite of, not because of, any government policies. Indeed, the New South Wales’ government’s economic development policies were, and remain, focused on property development and coal mining.

Which brings us to the present day, where the Sydney startup community is upset at the Sydstart conference being poached by the Victorian government and moving to Melbourne on the promise of a million dollars in support as part of the state’s startup program.

The promoters of the now relocated and renamed conference are adamant it matters, but the truth is it doesn’t. In fact the biggest ticket item of NSW government support to the IT sector is the annual CeBIT conference that in truth has added little to the state’s technology industry and many similar initiatives in Victoria have had a similar lack success.

A lack of long term vision

Part of the reason for that lack of success is a lack of consistency and long term strategies, in fact the Australian Technology Park itself is under threat as the state government looks at selling the site to apartment developers despite the protests of the tech community.

Another aspect is state sponsored conferences, hubs and initiatives are not enough to create an industrial centre. There has to be an organic, or business, reason for a hub to develop.

For industry hubs, be they tech startups or anything else, the core need is a critical mass of investors and skilled workers with easy access to markets. For internet based businesses, the latter isn’t an issue which is why Wellington in New Zealand has done better than either Sydney or Melbourne in recent years.

Providing stable frameworks

The role of governments in this is to provide a stable framework for businesses to work within, something that hasn’t been a feature of state or Federal Australian politics in recent years with leadership instability and the increasing prevalence of policy by thought bubble, a good example being the latest scheme to create a new technology hub even further out of downtown Sydney on the site of disused power station.

While the talk of government sponsored initiatives is nice and keeps my former colleagues at the state government occupied writing ministerial briefings on pink paper, building the tech hubs of the future needs motivated entrepreneurs, investors and skilled workers. The best thing governments can do is make sure they encourage all three groups and leave the community building to the community.

Nov 032015

Watching from afar, the reaction to Malcolm Turnbull becoming Australia’s 29th Prime Minister has been remarkable as suddenly the nation seems to have collectively woken up to the fact they are fifteen years into a new century.

In a few short weeks Australian public servants have started engaging in hackathons and business leaders whose idea of an investment was a property plan disguised as a casino have started raising VC funds.

The question though for Australia is this too little and too late after three decades of concentrating on property speculation and betting on a never ending Chinese economic miracle?

New leadership

In Malcolm Turnbull – who only rejoined the Liberal Party in the early 2000s after careers as a journalist, barrister and banker – Australia for the first time in forty years doesn’t have a party apparatchik as Prime Minister.

While this wasn’t a problem during the 1970s and 80s under Fraser and Hawke, by the 1990s the shrinking membership base of Australian political parties meant increasingly the ‘talent’ coming up the ranks was lacking perspective outside the narrow factional groupings most of them were beholden to.

This became brutally apparent with the last three Prime Ministers who were fully hostage to their party factions. In Gillard and Abbott Australia had two party operatives who were no doubt talented in internal party manouvering but hopelessly out of their depths as government leaders – Abbott often seemed to be more interested in settling the battles of 1980s Sydney University student politics than governing the country.

Describing Prime Minister Rudd would take a thesis in political psychology which is way beyond the scope, or interest, of this writer.

The consequences of this were an Australian political leadership that was disinterested in the real economy beyond guaranteeing the social compact that property prices would double every decade and ensure their support in the key swing electorates of suburban Australia.

An insular business community

For the business community the insular focus of Australian society and its politicians worked well too. As the economy turned inwards in the 1990s under the Keating and Howard governments, so too did Australia’s conglomerates who realised clipping the ticket of a consumer economy was far easier than competing on global markets.

The best example of this were Australia’s banks which essentially gave up on lending to business unless it was guaranteed by property. This graph from Macrobusiness illustrates just how the nation’s banks focused on property speculation.

Australian bank lending, courtesy of Macrobusiness.

Australian bank lending, courtesy of Macrobusiness.

That focus on housing and consumer spending underpinned on rising property prices distorted the entire business sector and ingrained in the Australian psyche that the key to riches and prosperity was to get a relatively low skilled ‘safe job’ and borrow as much money as possible.

A good example of this are the regular stories of sweet twenty something wunderkinds who have built multi million dollar property portfolios while working in pizza shops or as administrative assistants.

Possibly the greatest damage Australia’s property obsession has been on the nation’s youth where the message has been ‘don’t gain a globally competitive skill set or education, just get an entry level job at the real estate agents and buy as much property as the bank will allow you.’

Turnbull’s challenge

Like Gough Whitlam, the last Prime Minister not a creature of their party factions, the reform challenge facing Turnbull is immense as 25 years of complacency have left Australia with an uncompetitive economy – as it had for the incoming Labor government of 1972 – with added complexity of having to maintain property prices to keep its economic miracle and social compact ticking over.

The similarities to Whitlam are also striking in the support Turnbull has from the population. One of the striking things on returning to Australia after spending most of the last three months in the United States has been the sense of relief that the inept horror movie of the Abbott government (Attack of the Clueless Zombies) is over and a realisation that Australia has actually entered the 21st Century and not regressing back into the 19th.

Agendas for reform

Entering the 21st Century won’t be easy though for Australia. Completing the reforms of the education sector, started half heartedly by Gillard and then trashed by Abbott in settling the scores of his student politics days, is one major challenge along with reforming tax and social security systems that focuses on asset hoarding and speculation over productive investment.

Possibly a greater challenge is to wean the Australia business sector off its ticket clipping mentality and rediscover its desire to compete globally. It may well be that encouraging the startup sector makes more sense in rebuilding the economy’s competitiveness as many of the nation’s insular conglomerates and their well fed executives are too used to milking the domestic consumer rather than taking on the world.

The end of kitchen renovations

The biggest challenge of all though will be to wean Australians off their property addiction, particularly those under 50 who have neglected their global skills as they focused on renovating their kitchens.

Given the scope of these reforms, such an agenda will require a clear mandate from an electorate that has been complacently accepting guaranteed good times as long as refugees are turned back, the terrorists among us imprisoned and gay couples prevented from marrying for the last 25 years. Making the argument for change is probably going to be Malcolm Turnbull’s greatest task.

For Australia the stakes are high. It’s not likely the 21st Century will be as kind to The Lucky Country as the Twentieth was.

Aug 252015

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 142015

Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised countries with the bulk of the nation’s population clustering in half a dozen centres mainly strung along the east coast of the continent.

The northernmost of Australia’s population centres is South East Queensland, a sprawling collection of suburbs extending from the upper class enclave of Noosa Heads down to the Gold Coast and the New South Wales state border.

Cisco believe this sprawling region of three million people can become a ‘Smart Region’ with the use of technologies such as intelligent lighting and parking, citizen applications, and smart power metering could add up to 30,000 jobs and $10 billion of value to the community over coming years.

“The residents of South East Queensland told us they want to experience greater convenience and integration of public transport, greater digital engagement and intimacy in their cities, more reliable local government services, and new digital ways to further reduce the cost of red tape,” said Cisco Australia & New Zealand Vice President Ken Boal in releasing the South East Queensland: A Smart Region report.

Local civic leaders in the cities making up the South East Queensland conurbation see this as an opportunity to grow their economies.  “The future of cities and regions and their ability to create enduring employment opportunities are entirely linked to their digital capabilities,” says Sunshine Coast Mayor Cr Mark Jamieson while Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale said Ipswich was already preparing for a strong future as a digital city.

“We have recognized that building and taking advantage of digital highways now will set Ipswich on a secure and successful path to capitalise on the ballooning digital economy,” said Cr Pisasale.

For South East Queensland, the challenge in creating new industries and jobs is becoming acute. The Australian miracle economy has left the region – like most of the nation – hopelessly uncompetitive and the bulk of employment is in domestically facing service industries underpinned by property prices.

In fact, the residential construction industry has been the mainstay of the SE Queensland economy and the region remains probably the most economically volatile of the Australian conurbations given its high dependence upon the building sector.

The digital economy does hold out hope for diversifying South East Queensland’s economy from building and domestic tourism, but the work is just beginning. Cisco’s smart region initiative is a first step, but there’s much more work to be done by business and civic leaders.

Brisbane image, “Brisbane CBDandSB” by Stuart Edwards. – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Jul 022015

Today Cisco launched their latest Internet of Everything Innovation Centre in Perth, Western Australia. The facility joins the seven existing centres around the globe which includes Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, Songdo, Berlin, Barcelona, Tokyo and London.

As a joint venture with resources company Woodside and Curtin University, the centre will initially focus on the gas industry and will include a state-of-the-art laboratory, a technological collaboration area, and a dedicated space to show the Internet of Things in action.

Oil and Gas is one of the key sectors for targeted by Cisco in their Internet of Everything push with Brad Bechtold, the company’s Energy Lead, telling Decoding the New Economy earlier this year how the IoT is expected to deliver an eleven percent reduction of costs for the $1.5 trillion dollar a year industry.

Bechtold believes remote sensing and operations will be the driver of many of the cost reductions along with detailed analytics enabling more efficient operations.

Many of these technologies will be tested as part of Woodside’s Plant of the Future gas project with CEO Peter Coleman saying the scheme will link company’s knowledge base with artificial intelligence, data analytics, and advanced sensors and control systems.

“We are taking a collaborative approach to enhancing our operations as part of our digital transformation journey. This partnership will create a globally competitive centre for excellence that could be leveraged in our LNG operations, as we progress our remote operations capabilities,” Coleman said.


The Perth centre intends to bring together start-up companies, industry experts, developers, researchers and academics in an open collaboration environment to create a “connected community” focused on cloud, analytics, cyber security and IoT network platforms.

The Australian Commonwealth Science, Innovation and Research Organisation (CSIRO) has also flagged it intend to join the hub as part of its Square Kilometer Array deep space mapping project.

Another branch of the Australian hub is expected to open in Sydney later this year.