Jan 292016

Microsoft released its quarterly financial results to general acclaim from the stock market which drove the shares seven percent higher after reporting slightly better than expected returns.

The market was applauding the continued shift to cloud services with income rising five percent in the company’s Intelligent Cloud division, however the decline in the company’s more traditional strengths of software licenses and devices saw earnings fall by eleven percent over the corresponding period last year.

More concerning for the company’s shareholders would be the profits that have fallen 23% which once again proves that cloud services are much less profitable than Microsoft’s traditional software business.

To make matters worse margins on cloud services are falling with returns from the division declining despite sales being up five percent. It’s not hard to see the effects of Amazon Web Services’ ruthless driving down of cloud service prices.

While Microsoft’s results are encouraging in that they show the company is continuing its evolution to a cloud services business, it’s clear the legacy products are still the key cash generators.

As of December 31, Microsoft has a 102 billion dollars in the bank so there’s little risk the company will be going broke soon however the company has to find a way to make better profits from its new business models.

Jan 142016

Ten years ago a joke going around was “what if Microsoft built cars?” The answer summed up the frustrations users had with personal computers and the differences in engineering standards between traditional industries and that of the IT sector.

As we enter the Internet of Things era, that tension between consumer devices and good engineering continues as shown by a software bug that rendered Nest thermostats useless.

That poor software would drain the battery without warning the user, illustrates how poorly designed many of these devices are.

Ironically Nest’s owners, Google, held a conference earlier this week where the company’s leaders flagged the importance of standards, security and privacy.

In a call to action for the IoT industry, Google’s lead advocate Vint Cerf, also known as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” warned that compatibility, security, and privacy could be obstacles to the IoT’s success.

Reliability is also important, particularly when talking about safety and security – Nest also make carbon monoxide detectors – where a device crashing or failing can have terrible consequences.

At present most of the Internet of Things is about the gimmick of connecting devices to the cloud and controlling them from your mobile phone. Consumers are not going to embrace IoT products if they add cost, complexity and risk to their lives.

Keeping it simple and safe are probably the most important things designers of IoT devices can do.

Nov 252015

Are we seeing a new digital divide develop between big and small businesses, particularly in areas like retail and hospitality?

This thought occurred to me during a radio spot earlier today where we were talking about Apple Pay’s Australian launch. Many small businesses don’t have the capital or expertise to implement many of these new technologies.

A number of factors contribute to this including the legacy systems installed in small businesses, the proprietors having a poor understanding of technology and, most importantly, the lack of either capital for reinvestment or cashflow to fund the monthly charges that are standard for cloud computing services.

The expensive cloud

One unstated factor with cloud computing services is how the cost of services add up. For example a Premium 10 Xero customer with Receiptbank attached is looking at a $100 a month in charges. It’s not hard to see how adding cloud based Point of Sale, rostering and customer service software could see a small business incurring $400 a month in fees, throw in Salesforce and you could be looking at a very expensive exercise.

No doubt for those companies that can afford these services this is money well spent but for many margin or low turnover businesses, the charges could be a deal breaker.

Spaghetti Junction

Another aspect to the cloud services is the myriad of different platforms that need to be stitched together in most businesses, one cloud service founder calls it “digital spaghetti.”

Managing this bowl of complexity isn’t easy and raises a number of business risks as different services apply varying policies and practices to the data they collect and store. A breach or service failure at one could cause a ripple effect through all business operations.

For many small business owners, particularly older proprietors, managing this complexity is intimidating if not downright scary.

It may well be there’s a number of opportunities for a canny service provider to offer an out of the box small business solution, but for many older small operators with limited capital and restricted cashflow affording such a product might also be difficult.

The risk though for those businesses is they will find themselves falling further behind as markets, consumer demands and the workforce’s expectations evolve. A business digital divide could be fatal for those caught on the wrong side of it.

Oct 272015

Opening the first official day of Oracle Open World, CEO Mark Hurd spoke with James Fowler, the Chief Information Officer of General Electric about the company’s digital transformation.

Fowler described how the company intends to be driving $15 billion in revenues from its digital operation in the face of stagnant industrial spending.

Earlier in the presentation Hurd had described the problem of stagnant spending facing all major industrial companies, whether they are enterprise software providers like Oracle or engineering organisations like GE, where companies are ‘sweating the assets’ ruthlessly.

For GE, making a compelling argument for companies to reinvest in new capital equipment is essential while Oracle is facing an industry wide decline in revenues and a structural shift to cloud technologies which Hurd described in stark tones.

Last year, he claims, the major tech companies saw a gross decline of $16.4 billion in revenues while cloud services only picked up by billion meaning the market shrank by fifteen billion dollars.

That decline would deeply worry a salesperson like Hurd given the declining market means smaller commissions and fewer sales so it’s unsurprising the company is pivoting as hard as it can into the cloud.

GE on the other hand is making a huge bet on the future of its market by proactively shifting onto digital and cloud services.

The challenge though for all these companies is making money from these new business models those who figure it out will be the industrial giants of the next century. There’s no guarantee any of today’s will be among them.

Oct 262015
business confidence is essential to the cloud

“The cardinal sin of the computing industry is the creation of complexity,” is quote attributed to Oracle founder Larry Ellison and often repeated at the company’s Open World forum which I’m attending at the moment in San Francisco.

For the computer industry that complexity has been a very profitable profitable business with everything from the local computer shop through to the big technology vendors and integrators.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of that complexity were the salespeople, big complex enterprise deals meant big commissions.

With the shift to cloud services and apps, those fat margins and commissions have evaporated, leaving the lucrative old models of business stranded. IBM are probably the greatest victim of this while Microsoft are, once again, showing the company’s ability to evolve in the face of a fundamental market change.

For the salespeople the days of fat commissions are over, with thinner margins it’s not possible to pay big lump sums for winning contracts.

The simplification of the computer industry is changing the fortunes of many IT businesses, but that change isn’t limited to the tech sector or their salespeople as those fundamental changes are rippling into other sectors.

A constant claim by Internet of Things evangelists is that the IoT will squeeze inefficiencies out of businesses and this is exactly what we’re seeing with cloud and mobile based services like Uber and AirBnB.

If you’re in a business that profits from market inefficiencies then it might be time to figure out how to survive in a low margin environment. The challenge facing companies like Oracle is one whole industries are now having to face.

Oct 142015
servers running business cloud computer applications

Last week at the AWS:Reinvent conference in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to interview the company’s Global Head of Enterprise Strategy, Stephen Orban about where he and Amazon see the direction of the cloud computing market and how business practices are being reinvented.

Among the things we discussed was Orban’s seven best practices for a company’s journey to the cloud, gleaned from his own experiences in his AWS role of advising clients on adopting and his previous experiences as a technology officer at Dow Jones and Bloomberg.

Orban laid out what he thinks are the keys to success in a company heading to the cloud in his own blog post and during our conversation he expanded on his ideas which also very much reflect the changing role of the CIO or IT manager.

Supporting the C-suite

The first point is the IT department has to understand the business and align technology with the organisation’s objectives.

“Somebody who understands technology who can merge technology with the business needs” will be better able to win the confidence of management says Orban.

Doing that is the key to winning support from the executive suite Orban believes. Once CIOs have that trust from senior management it gives their teams the space to experiment with new ways of delivering value to their companies.


“The second thing is to provide training and education,” Orban says. “People tend to get a bit anxious of what they don’t know, particularly when it affects their jobs.”

In Orban’s experience, having informed staff makes them more open to change within the business, “with the transformation I went through at Dow Jones, most of what we accomplished was because of the people who’d been there a long term. They had the institutional memory but they were very open minded.”

Foster a Culture of Experimentation

One of the great benefits of cloud computing is how it lowers the costs of experimentation and development, “gone are the days when it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, to try something.” Orban says.

Learning what works and fails is essential, he believes. But as long as there is executive support then a tolerance towards unsuccessful experiments will develop in the organisation.

Working with partners

Outside parties are essential to most organisation’s IT systems and Orban believes partner ecosystems have changed with the advent of cloud computing. “There’s a whole new breed of partners that have been going through this,” he says in citing ‘born in the cloud’ software developers and systems integrators who are changing how projects are being delivered.

Build a Center of Excellence

“Creating a center of excellence is, I think, one of the key practices any organisation should invest in. You want a body of people who can institutionalise best practice within an organisation,” observes Orban.

As cloud services take away the complexity of computer systems it becomes an opportunity for organizations to rethink boundaries between the IT department and business operations.

Move to the cloud

Given Orban’s employer it’s not surprising he sees cloud computing as key to a company’s transformation however he admits that few organisations will make the jump straight into cloud services.

“Hybrid will be a part of every enterprise’s journey. Any company who’s been doing IT for any period of time will have existing investments,” he says. “Our view is that we will make it as easy as possible to create that bridge.”

“We do believe in the long run that enterprises will find they become so much more effective over here (in the cloud) they will move in that direction.

A Cloud-First Policy

Once an organisation has its cloud strategy and experimentation culture in place then having a ‘cloud first’ policy, “it reverses the burden of proof away from ‘why would you use the cloud?’ to ‘why wouldn’t you?'”

While Orban is emphasising the Amazon Web Services view of the world where ultimately all business computing will be done on the cloud – preferably their cloud – his views illustrates the change facing businesses as they implement online technologies.

For most, the availability of easily accessible cloud computing services is an opportunity to rethink their business processes and how organisations can deliver the best products quickly to their customers.

Oct 112015
Personal computer Dell manufacturer

Two struggling tech giants are reportedly set to merge with persistent rumours that Dell is about make an offer for storage provider EMC.

Both companies have been hit by shifts in the computing industry with cloud computing undermining both businesses, Dell was also hit by the collapse of the Windows upgrade cycle which changed the buying patterns of computer purchasers.

A combined company offers some theoretical advantages in bringing together one of world’s biggest server companies with a storage business, however it’s difficult to see how the two businesses combined would slow the decline of the segments both are strong in.

Mergers can slow the decline of companies like EMC and Dell, but without innovating and finding new opportunities to exploit it’s unlikely they can recover lost ground.