Jun 172014

Today Amazon is expected to launch a smartphone which the New York Times suggests will tether consumers to the company.

With 240,0000 apps in its Kindle store, Amazon will be formidable competitor to Google Android devices and Apple. Like iTunes, Amazon also have a strength in already knowing the customer’s credit card details.

The question is can Amazon be trusted? As we see with the Hachette book publishers dispute, Amazon is a company that’s ruthless in bullying suppliers and has a mandate to do so from its shareholders.

With the smartphone becoming the centre of the connected lifestyle, the stakes are high as whoever controls the customer’s pocket controls the customer’s smarthome, smartcar, retail and health applications.

Of course whoever wins this battle, they’ll still have to pay Microsoft for patents.


Apr 182014

After four decades the smartphone comes of age,” proclaims Micheal Wolf in Forbes Magazine.

Wolf is right to a point but he misses the key reason why the smarthome, or the entire internet of things, has become accessible – the technology has simply become affordable.

It was possible to build a smarthome two decades ago, but it was fiendishly expensive and only a few rich people could afford the technology. Today that technology is cheap and easy to install.

This is the common factor with all aspect of the Internet of Things, connecting devices has been possible since before the internet became common but it was expensive and cumbersome so only the highest value equipment – such as oil rigs – was connected.

Now it’s inexpensive and simple to connect things, people are doing it more and that is why there’s a range of security and privacy issues which weren’t so pressing when it was only a few obscure industrial devices that were wired up.

We aren’t inventing the wheel with technologies like the internet of things or big data, they already existed – they are just more accessible and that’s what’s changing business.

Feb 112014

HTC’s announcement that the company going to focus on lower margin, mid market smartphones illustrates the maturing of the phone marketplace.

Smartphones have been a huge, and immensely profitable, business for cellphone manufacturers however the devices are now becoming a commodity as the high end western markets become saturated and cheaper devices start to enter the marketplace.

Having been comprehensively defeated in the high end marketplace by Samsung and Apple, Taiwanese manufacturer HTC hopes to make money in the lower end of the market.

For HTC it’s questionable how profitable these cheaper markets will be; rebates to telcos and distributor markups tend to eat up most the margin while pushing up retail costs.

The biggest factor of all though is the entry of newer Chinese businesses into the market, it’s going to be a tough for the Taiwanese manufacturer to compete with these suppliers.

Even Apple and Samsung are being affected by the slowing demand for high end smartphones.

HTC’s dilemma would be familiar to most electronic manufacturers; the high end of the market is a narrow niche – the premium smartphone market, like PCs, is dominated by Apple – while the other suppliers fight not to find themselves locked into the commodity end of the market.

For HTC the trap is not to fall into the commodity trap; although it’s hard to see how they’ll do this in a smartphone market that’s increasingly becoming a low margin, high volume game where, like the PC market, there is no middle ground.

Oct 072013

“If I’d asked my customers we’d have built a faster horse,” is a quotation often attributed, probably incorrectly, to Henry Ford.

The point of the quote is that asking today’s customers about tomorrow’s market is pretty pointless when new products change consumer behaviour.

Just as the farmer of 1906 had no inkling of how the motor car, truck and tractor would change their business, the cellphone user of 2006 had no idea of how the iPhone would change the way they used a phone and communicated with the world.

Which brings us to Nokia.

The Sami Consulting blog discusses how Nokia lost their lead in the cellphone business as the market migrated the Apple and later Android smartphones.

Nokia’s problem was they spoke to their customers about their existing mobile phone use rather than considered how the technology might evolve.

When the inventors of the touchscreen approached Nokia, the company carefully evaluated the technology, consulted their customers and decided it wouldn’t work for their products.

What does this story tell about foresight?  First, it shows that innovation creates futures that are fundamentally unpredictable. We do not have facts or data about things that do not exist yet.  When a mobile phone becomes an internet device with sensors, touch screens, and broadband access, it becomes a new thing.  If you ask your existing customers what they like, the answer will always be about incremental improvements.  When you ask about the future, the answer will always be about history.

In many ways Nokia were the beneficiaries of a transition effect, they took advantage of a brief period of technological change  and were caught flat footed when the technologies evolved further.

To be fair, it’s hard to see that change when you’re focused on incremental improvements.

The motor car turned out to define the Twentieth Century – even Henry Ford couldn’t have foreseen how the automobile would change society and the design of our communities.

Both the motor industry and smartphone industries are going through major change, particularly as the internet of everything sees the two technologies coming together.

One thing is for sure, how we use our phones and cars over the next fifty years will be very different to how we use them today.

Jul 252013

What do you do when paying customers tell you they would rather your product be different to what you were offering? This is the predicament that faced Jonathan Barouch when he discovered the real market for his Roamz service was in social media business intelligence.

How Jonathan dealt with this was the classic business pivot, where the original idea of Roamz evolved into Local Measure.

Originally Roamz was set up to consolidate social services like Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook. If you wanted to find a restaurant, bar or hotel in your neighbourhood, Roamz would pick the most relevant reviews from the various services to show you what was in your neighbourhood.

The idea for Roamz came from when Jonathan was looking for places to take his new baby, jugging several different location services to find local cafes, shops or playground is hard work when you have a little one to deal with.

A notable feature of Roamz was the use of geotags to determine relevance. Even if the social media user doesn’t mention the business, Roamz would use the attached location information to determine what outlet was being discussed.

Enter Local Measure

While Roamz was doing well it wasn’t making money and, in Jonathan’s words, it was a “slower burn, longer term play”. On the other hand businesses were telling him and his sales team that they would pay immediately to use the service to monitor what people were saying about them on social media.

“People said, ‘hey this is cool, we want to pay for this.” Jonathan said of the decision to pivot Roamz into Local Measure.

“I want to say it was a really difficult decision but it wasn’t because we had people saying ‘we want to pay you if you continue with this product.’”

Local Measure is built on the Roamz platform but instead of helping consumers find local venues, the service now gives businesses a tool to monitor what people are saying about them on social media services.

The difference with the larger social media monitoring tools like Radian6 is Local Measure gives an intimate view of individual posts and users. The idea being a business can directly monitor what people are saying are saying about a store or a product.

For dispersed companies, particularly franchise chains and service businesses, it gives local managers and franchisees the ability to know what’s happening with their outlet rather than having to rely on a social media team at head office.

The most immediate benefit of Local Measure is in identifying loyal users and influencers. Managers can see who is tweeting, checking in or updating their status in their store.

Armed with that intelligence, the local store owner, franchisee or manager can engage with the shop’s most enthusiastic customers.

Customer service is one of the big undervalued areas of social media and Jonathan believes Local Measure can help businesses improve how they help customers.

“It makes invisible customers visibile to management,” says Jonathan.

An example Jonathan gives is of a cinema where the concession’s frozen drink machine wasn’t set currently. While the staff were oblivious to the issue, customers were complaining on various social media channels. Once the theatre manager saw the feedback he was able to quickly fix the problem.

Employee behaviour online is also an important concern for modern managers, if employees are posting inappropriate material on social media then the risks to a business are substantial.

“From an operational point perspective we’ve picked up really weird and wonderful things that the business doesn’t know,” says Jonathon. “Staff putting things in the public domain that is really damaging to brands.”

“We’ve had two or three cases of behaviour that you shudder at. I’ve been presenting and it has popped up and the clients have said ‘delete that, we don’t want that up’ and I say ‘that’s the whole point – it’s out there.’”

That’s a lesson that Domino’s Pizza learned in the US when staff posted YouTube videos of each other putting toppings up their noses. Once unruly employees post these things, it’s hard work undoing the brand damage and for smaller businesses or franchise outlets the bad publicity could be fatal.

Local Measure is a good example of a business pivot, it’s also shows how concepts like Big Data, social media and geolocation come together to help businesses.

Being able to listen to customers also shows how marketing and customer service are merging in an age where the punters are no longer happy to be seen and not heard.

It’s the business who grab tools like Local Measure who are going to be the success stories of the next decade, the older businesses who ignore the changes in customer service, marketing and communications are going to be a memory.

Jun 132013

The news that ESPN is closing down its 3D sports channel is the beginning of the end for an innovation that nobody really wanted.

In the 1980s, telephone companies rolled out digital services under the name ISDN – Integrated Services Digital Networks – which were expensive and appealed to few businesses, gaving them the nickname Innovations Subscribers Don’t Need.

3D TV fits that description of an innovation which customers never wanted. While the technology was seen being the great hope of stimulating sales in a moribund consumer electronics market, consumers were never really convinced.

The 3D TV push of the last two years is typical of many technology products in that there isn’t an immediate need for them but manufacturers and retailers hope that they can hype a market into existence.

Usually that model fails, but not always.

Sometimes though, these technologies are subject to their own hype cycle and over time they come back in ways we don’t quite expect.

It’s difficult to see how 3D TVs can make a comeback but who knows? What we do know though is they were expensive toys for the few who bought the hype.

May 222013

“Anyone who says something is crazy these days is crazy themselves,” says Jonathan Lui, the founder of Sydney based startup Airtasker.

The crazy idea Jonathan shares with co-founder Tim Fung is to create a global marketplace for small tasks.

If you need someone to walk your dog, do some gardening or be an extra in elaborate marriage proposal then Airtasker is a site to find the right person.

Since launching last year Airtasker has advertised more than 54,000 tasks with users looking for everything from dog walkers to computer repairers and actors.

Tim and Jonathan came upon the idea of a site for small tasks when moving house with the various hassles of cleaning, moving and packing. Instead of relying on friends and relatives to help out, they saw the opportunity for connecting willing workers with small tasks.

The site turns around how traditional classified advertisements work by paying on results rather than advertising. Lui sees it as “de-centralised social commerce.”

It’s not just small household tasks either, Jonathan sees Airtasker helping out larger companies with tasks like market research, mystery shopping or even local council inspections of street signs.

Unlike many of the crowdsourcing sites, the Airtasker team want to keep away from commoditising labour, instead seeing their ‘runners’ providing valuable local services.

One of the interesting aspects about the internet is how two opposite forces are working against each other – while the internet creates globalised marketplaces it also gives people new channels to discover local services.

Jonathan sees Airtasker as being at the forefront of hyperlocal marketplaces, with a global website enabling small traders and microbusinesses to deliver services locally.

That may be a crazy idea – but we live in crazy times.