Jul 242017
 

One of the stark realities of the technology industry is there is no third place – if you aren’t the biggest or second biggest in a mature market then you need to get out.

With internet businesses it’s now appearing there may not even be room for second placed businesses as increasingly each market segment is dominated by one player.

For Silicon Valley’s leaders, having a monopoly is their nirvana. As PayPal founder Peter Thiel once wrote, competition is for losers, which is ironic given his fortune is based upon challenging the banking and payment oligopolies.

So with attitudes like Thiel’s, and the massive power of companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google, it’s not surprising there are now calls to break up the tech giants.

There are some compelling arguments for this, the splitting of Bell Labs in the 1950s spawned the birth of Silicon Valley and the breaking up of AT&T created the conditions for development of the internet and mobile network. Monopolies stifle genuine innovation.

For customers, the argument is moot. Very rarely does a monopoly result in anything but poorer service and higher prices.

Even for shareholders, there’s a good argument for breaking up monopolies. A company with massive market power is often over staffed and poorly managed and the splitting of Standard Oil in the 1911 gave rise to dozens of new oil companies who returned far more to investors than the staid giant ever would.

It’s hard though to see how companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon could be broken up. Unlike telephone networks, oil refineries and gas stations it’s difficult to separate assets or products. Breaking up Google, for example, may only result in more monopolies over smaller markets.

However in the tech industry, a monopoly may not be permanent thing. Forty years ago IBM was the untouchable incumbent and twenty years ago it was Microsoft. Both today are shadows of what they once were as markets overtook them.

So perhaps it’s too early to call for the breaking up of today’s tech giants because, like Microsoft and IBM, their success is based on a fleeting technological moment.

Jun 012017
 

As always Mary Meeker’s State of the Internet report hits us with mass of information, this year compressed onto a 355 slide Powerpoint presentation.

There’s a wealth of detail in the report but two big trends stood out – that global internet advertising spend will overtake TV ad revenues and music industry revenues have reversed a 16 year decline as subscription services gain market share.

Subscriptions becoming the main revenue source for music companies suggests ]new internet business models are slowly evolving although how that lessons can be applied to other industries remains to be seen.

In the world of advertising, that online is now attracting a greater spend than TV is a major milestone in the shifting marketplace. Although Facebook and Google’s dominance – Meeker estimates 85% of revenue growth is going to the two companies – will present challenge to advertisers and agencies.

Also notable is how mobile revenues and handset sales are slightly better than flat, indicating the biggest market of last decade is now mature.

There’s many other insights in this report so it’s worth spending a few hours on it to reflect on how some of these trends may affect your industry.

May 262017
 
Waiting for other people to help our business

“These three brands have one thing in common – they’ve all been destroyed by digital disruption,” says one business commentator in a recent presentation.

He cited three names; Kodak, Nokia and Blockbuster.

It’s a nice, and often repeated meme, which is only really true of Blockbuster which failed to adapt to a changing market and could be a perfect example of a transition effect although some don’t buy the digital disruption reason for the company’s demise.

Giving lie to the idea the company was a victim of Netflix’s rise, a former Blockbuster executive puts the chain’s bankruptcy down to management not understanding the company’s role in the market, and that it was in decline long before the streaming service’s arrival.

A more fundamental problem with the statement is both Nokia and Kodak are still in business too, the latter having come out Chapter 11 financial in late 2013.

Finland’s Nokia is somewhat more complex than Kodak or Blockbuster, having been founded as a paper pulp mill in 1865.

The company became a global brand thanks to being a leader in mobile phones prior to the iPhone disrupting the market but the name faded as the Apple and a new breed of East Asian manufacturers came to dominate the market.

Despite fading as a consumer brand, the company is still a major player in telecommunications – being a major supplier of cellular base stations – along with a range of other technologies.

Both Kodak and Nokia are still very much alive, albeit no longer being recognised by the average consumer.

There are major lessons from both companies for those studying the effects of technological disruption on brands and businesses. Even Blockbuster’s mistakes in the face of a changing and declining market has many lessons.

Citing them as examples of ‘digital extinction’ though is untrue and almost certainly unhelpful in understanding what management can do to respond to new technology or societal shifts.

May 102017
 
Kennedy Nixon Presidential Debate 1960

One of the notable things about the media’s collapsing business model is how television has suffered nowhere near the same downturn in advertising revenues as the other channels.

This has been baffling for many of us pundits so a series of interviews I’m doing with media executives on digital disruption was a good opportunity to discuss why television is holding the line where print has dismally failed.

While the executive has to remain anonymous at the moment, the series is for a private client, their view on why television has so far avoided the advertising abyss is simple – accountability.

We have something, as do my friends at other media companies, that YouTube and Facebook don’t have which is we create quality content. What will differentiate us is we have premium, locally produced content that is one hundred percent brand safe and one hundred percent viewable and, most importantly, is independently measured by third parties.

My view is that advertisers in that environment is a much more powerful experience than advertising in Facebook or YouTube

While many of us may laugh at Australian commercial TV being described as ‘quality’, it does appeal to audiences far bigger than the typical YouTube channel or Facebook Live stream.

The advertising industry’s established systems also, unsurprisingly, work for the television industry in giving the sector accountability that the online services lack in a world where ‘click fraud’ – software tricks to report false web impressions – is rampant.

Even more importantly for the new media giants is the ‘brand safe’ message being pushed by the incumbents. The advertising crisis for Google is real and the established players intend to exploit it.

While the TV executive is pushing their own product, it’s clear the fight for advertising and marketing dollars is far from over.

May 082017
 

“It’s like we lived through five minutes of innovation sunshine,” says Federal shadow treasurer Chris Bowen about the Australian government’s innovation policy.

Bowen was appearing at the Future of Innovation panel at Sydney’s Stone and Chalk fintech hub with his colleague Ed Husic where laid out the Labor Party’s platform for the tech industry and the changing workforce.

Both Husic and Bowen represent Western Sydney electorates which, along with outer suburban Melbourne, are key election battlegrounds and the districts dealing with most of Australia’s surging population growth.

Uneven spoils

As Bowen indicated in his speech, those regions haven’t shared in the country’s economic growth over the past ten years.

Some parts of the Australian economy are doing well.  Other parts are doing it tough.

Half of all the jobs created in Australia in the last decade have been created right where we are: in a two kilometre radius of the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs.

The economy feels good from this vantage point.

 

Not understanding the mismatch between different parts of the economy was one of the failures of the government’s 2015 Innovation Statement. The multi million dollar advertising campaign was full of fine buzzwords but none of the rhetoric resonated with the broader electorate, something not helped by the Prime Minister retreating from his policies at the first opportunity.

Spreading the gains

Bowen and Husic made a good case for their policies being focused on the wider population as a changing workforce is going to affect all parts of the economy.

So I spend a lot of time travelling to and talking to people in regional economies.  It doesn’t feel as good there.

Regional central and North Queensland. Tasmania. South Australia.

Here, unemployment and youth unemployment are high and show no signs of budging.

So Bowen’s commitment for his party to work on innovation, education and industry policies that help suburban and regional Australia – not just the leafy bits of upper middle class Sydney and Melbourne – is welcome and essential for the nation.

Refreshingly Bowen also acknowledged many of the jobs that currently exist in suburban and regional Australia are very likely to be automated and that education, reskilling and investment are all critical factors in dealing with employment shifts.

A familiar tale

However we have heard this before, the Rudd Labor government came in with high hopes when it was elected in 2007 which it quickly dispelled and then compounded its errors with cancelling the COMET commercialisation program and making a mess of employee option schemes.

Given this history of poorly conceived thought bubbles posing as policy, this writer asked (or rather begged) Bowen to consult with industry and the community before announcing major policy changes – something both parties have become notorious for.

In answer to the comment about consulting with the electorate before substantive policy changes, Bowen suggested a Shorten ALP government will be requiring senior public servants to be more engaged with industry.

Suggesting that senior public servants should engage with the community and industry is a good idea. That the idea is seen as revolutionary illustrates the problem found by former Digital Transformation Office boss Paul Shetler when he arrived in Australia with the country’s top bureaucrats being isolated and aloof from the citizens they deign to rule. This isolation is in itself a challenge facing Australian governments.

Memories of earlier oppositions

 

The Sydney tech community’s lauding Husic and Bowen bought back some memories. Fifteen years ago Australian technologists  were doing the same thing with another Labor shadow spokesperson, Kate Lundy. We ended up with factional warriors Stephen Conroy and Kim Carr when Labor finally won. While both were no doubt wonderful at delivering the numbers to party faction warlords their understanding of the changing economy was marginal at best.

While the Rudd government at least paid lip service to the Twenty-First Century, unlike the Howard government which was firmly focused on taking Australia back to the 1950s – with some degree of success it should be said, the Labor Party did little apart from getting the National Broadband Network underway.

In opposition, the Liberal Party too made similar noises however communications spokesperson Paul Fletcher, like Lundy, has been marginalised since winning power and Paul Keating’s description of Malcolm Turnbull as ‘Fizza’ has never seemed more apt since Malcolm became Prime Minister.

For Australians hoping some of the Lucky Country’s luck would be applied to the nation’s tech sector, government policies from both parties have been a succession of broken dreams.

Husic and Bowen are promising this time it will be different. Many of us hope it will be, it may be the last chance for Australia to have a fair economy fit for the 21st Century.

Apr 282017
 

How Australia’s incumbent telco, Telstra, deals with the industry’s commoditisation is the topic of my interview in Diginomica with the company’s Hong Kong based director of Global Platforms, Jim Fagan.

The need to diversify is pressing upon Telstra with the company’s income down 3.6% in its last financial report with mobile sales, by far their biggest revenue earner, down eight percent.

Across the developed world, telcos are seeing their markets slowing with global smartphones sales largely static, formerly big profit generators like SMS declining and broadband data rates collapsing.

In the US both formerly untouchable telcos are struggling which has seen them attempting to diversify with AT&T buying Time-Warner for $85 billion and Verizon buying Yahoo! despite its problems that saw a $250 million discount after the service’s hacking scandal.

With the pressures on the telco industry, it’s not surprising they are looking at alternative income streams and Telstra’s strategy seems to play more to their traditional strengths than a media play, which Telstra has tried previously and failed.

It could be though that Telstra, like all telcos, could be destined to become a utility service. While that might disappoint executives and shareholders who dream of glamour, excitement and high profits, that might not be a bad thing.

 

Apr 102017
 
business customer service is essential in the new economy

The call centre business is very much an example of an industry driven by technological change, having only coming into being over the last 50 years as telecommunications became ubiquitous and affordable before being one of the biggest offshored industries.

In an age of artificial intelligence, web based help pages and chatbots, it’s easy to think the call centre era may be coming to a close but Acticall Sitel Group’s Australian and New Zealand managers Steve Barker, the regional Chief Operating Officer, and Sally Holloway, Director of Business Operations, believe the industry has a long way to go yet.

Miami based Acticall Sitel Group operates call centres in 22 countries with 75,000 ‘associates’ providing services to over 200 major companies so their view on how the industry is evolving is worth hearing.

Technological shifts

Naturally technology is the driving force with the increasing availability of broadband meaning more ‘associates’ can work from home rather than in call centres while cloud services are reducing the cost and complexity of call centres.

The work from home aspect is proving popular with their clients as well as businesses see retaining skilled staff and the expense of real estate driving many organisations to extend their programs. An interesting observation given IBM’s and Yahoo!’s moves in restricting home office options in recent times.

Social media has also changed the type of interactions consumers are having with organisations while artificial intelligence and robots – chatbots – are automating many call centre functions.

A broader industry

Holloway though says she doesn’t see voice services going away, “some interactions still require the personal touch”, but technology is broadening the ways customers interact with businesses.

Interestingly, both Holloway and Barker believe that the commoditization of call centres is over as companies have realised the importance of good service in competitive markets although that varies between industries.

Added to that is the stripping out of costs in areas like customer service has largely run its course over the past few decades and in most organisations there is little fat left to cut from client facing functions.

Falling prices for technology, if not labour, does offer scope for smaller businesses to engage call centre providers that were once only available to larger corporates.

Like most industries, the relationship between workers and automation in call centres is playing out in complex ways as staff get to use more advanced skills and low value tasks are given to machines.

The evolution of the call centre may well be a pointer for other industries as we all grapple with the effects of automation.