Feb 232015

The last video store in my neighbourhood is closing down. A few years ago there were six in the suburb.

Last year the US Blockbuster chain closed down its disk rental business and now the same thing is happening in Australia as people move from playing DVDs to streaming or downloading from the internet.

In a generation the video rental industry went from nothing to boom to nothing again; a classic case of a transition effect.

The rise and fall of the video rental industry is a cautionary tale of how yesterday’s hot new industry can become a dinosaur within a couple of decades.

Feb 152015
Networks and computers connecting to the web

Tech journalist Kara Swisher has a twenty-five minute interview with President Obama on his relationship with the technology industry and Silicon Valley, it’s an interesting snapshot on how the United States sees its role as custodian of the internet.

In talking about European agencies’ efforts to reign in the power of companies like Google the President is dismissive; “we have owned the Internet. Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it, in ways they can’t compete. And oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is designed to carve out their commercial interests.”

Obama is absolutely correct to say the Internet currently belongs to the United States, it was the US that developed the technologies and built the initial infrastructure for the global network in a similar way it did for the GPS system.

The internet probably won’t remain the US’s sole domain as China, Indian, Russia and other powers find control of the global communication network resting with the US isn’t in their interests and develop work arounds or rival technologies.

Just as Spain and then the English once dominated the world’s shipping and communications, it may well be the US’s dominance of the Internet is not permanent.

Feb 082015
Personal computer Dell manufacturer

Personal Computers cost one thousandth of what they did in 1980 reports Aki Ito in Bloomberg Business.

For the computer industry that’s been both a blessing and curse; cheap systems have allowed computers to become pervasive but at the same time the collapsing prices have destroyed the business models of those who built their companies upon the industry economics on 1980 or 2000.

Software has fallen a similar amount with computer programs now costing 7/1000ths of what they did 35 years ago. Again this has dramatically changed the structure of the industry with Google and Amazon taking over from Microsoft and Adobe.

While the computer industry is the starkest example of the collapse in prices due to technological change, it’s not the only sector being affected – almost every industry is under similar pressures as margins get stripped away.

Anywhere where middlemen are exploiting market inefficiencies are opportunities for new technologies to destroy the existing business models, Uber are a good example of this with the taxi industry.

With technological change accelerating in all industries, no business or its managers can assume they are safe from shifting marketplaces or new, unexpected competitors.


Feb 072015

Microsoft founder Bill Gates suggests mobile banking can revolutionise developing nation’s economies says in a guest post for online magazine The Verge.

“People being able to participate on their phone, no matter where they live, even if they’re in a remote rural village in Tanzania or Kenya, they’ll be able to save small micro-payments,” Gates told The Verge during an interview in New York. “They can participate on the economy through their phone, but also in the fall when it’s time to pay the school fees, they’ve saved the money for the year. That’s transformative for their family.”

Gates’ piece appeared at the same time French telco Orange announced a partnership with Ecobank to provide mobile payments in several African countries.

Bringing banking to the masses through mobile phones is one example of how emerging markets can leapfrog the technological and institutional barriers that have given the western world a head start.

For poor and remote communities, a combination of cheap photovoltaic (PV) cells and cellular base stations mean it’s possible to connect into the global economy without the need of massive government or corporate investment.

As Gates points out, this has the potential to dramatically change the economies of many emerging markets.

Jan 282015
old farm equipment

Last week’s events in Canberra shows business can’t wait for the government to lead industry change. If you want to keep up with technology, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis many of my business clients were in trouble as banks tightened their lines of credit and consumers slammed their wallets shut. After a decade of running businesses, it was time to get a job.

The job I found was with the small business division of the New South Wales Government’s then Department of State and Regional Development where I quickly discovered how many companies and ‘entrepreneurs’ came looking to the government for money and leadership.

While there were some state government support programs available for exporting, high-tech and biotech businesses almost all of those approaching the Department were hopelessly unqualified for the assistance that was at best only involved marginal amounts of money.

The toughest part of my job was gently turning those people away without upsetting them too much. Often I failed and part of the reason for that was that many of those believed the government would take leadership in a changing digital world and fund ideas that would help the state’s and nation’s competitiveness.

I was reminded of my brief period as a public servant and the futile attempt for  with last week’s disasters for the Australian tech sector; the Prime Minister’s claim that social media is little more than digital graffiti and the still born announcement of a Chief Transformation Officer.

Last week’s announcement of Chief Transformation Officer who happens to have no budget – the UK office the local initiative is based upon received more than a hundred million dollars in the Brits’ last budget –  is probably the best indication of how far behind the ball Australian governments, particularly the Federal level, are in dealing with a changing economy.

A Chief Transformation, or Digital, Officer can be an important catalyst for change but to achieve that they have to have the support of the organisation’s leadership; if the CEO or minister isn’t on board then the CTO or CDO is doomed to irrelevance.

The Prime Minister’s blithe dismissal of social media as being digital graffiti over the weekend shows just how little support an office charged with managing the Australian government’s transition to digital services will get from the executive. The sad thing is none of the likely alternatives – on either side of politics – to the current Prime Minister seem to be any more across the changes facing governments in a connected century.

One good example of the profound changes we’re seeing is in agriculture; this feature on farming robots shows just how technology and automation is changing life on the land. These applications of robotics are going to affect every industry, including government.

As we’ve discussed before, if you want digital leadership then you’re going to have to provide it yourself . If you’re going to wait for the government, then times are going to overtake you. How are you facing the changes to your business and marketplace?

Jan 242015

“We’re crazy, not stupid” is how Jack Ma describes his Alibaba team in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, yesterday.

Much has been written about Jack Ma and the spectacular success of Alibaba and the WEF session with Charlie Rose is an opportunity for Ma to flesh out the story and destroy some of the myths.

One of the fascinating anecdotes Ma tells is how US cherry growers are preselling their harvests to Chinese customers through Alibaba and cites various other primary producers doing similar campaigns as how American small businesses can sell into the PRC market.

Ma’s interview is a fascinating snapshot of how global trade is going through a radical period of change, the shifting of China’s economy and where the future lies for many industries.

Jan 202015
managers and political censors are tempted to control information

Villages and small towns in Mexico have a rough deal, the privatisations of government monopolies during the 1990s meant most of them were cut off from the telecommunications networks rolled out at the turn of the century.

It’s taken a while for engineers to find a way to figure out an open source alternative to cellular base stations but now they have and it promises to change the model of economic development in poor regions.

Wired describes how community groups are bringing mobile communications to the poorer and more remote parts of Mexico.

The rollout of Open BSC is an example of how small scale operations can compliment the larger commercial networks – while major operators like Telemex can ignore smaller communities that offer little if any return, local groups can setup their own not for profit services which give villages connectivity.

A similar thing is developing with solar power, with PV cells becoming affordable communities which had little chance of being connected to their country’s national grid are now able  electricity.

That poor or remote areas can now be connected to power and communications without massive subsidies or infrastructure investment is a radical change from the Twentieth Century model of economic development, these advantages change the game on many levels.