Feb 162016
Cell phones in use

One of the Twentieth Century’s great rivers of gold was the telecommunications industry. As the world became connected, first by telegraph, then telephone and finally mobile networks, owning a telco licence became a path to riches.

Late in the century, the mobile phone was a spectacularly profitable device for telcos in the 1990s as consumers flocked to buy them and pay dearly for services, particularly SMS which was practically free to provide.

Just as the century was coming to a close things changed dramatically as the Internet became accessible to the general public and while data was still profitable, telco revenues started to fall dramatically. Then, early in the new century, the arrival of the smartphone disrupted the entire industry.

Becoming a dumb pipe

Twenty years later and the arrival of smartphones using data services has changed the economics of cellular networks, leaving the incumbents worried they are going to merely become ‘dumb pipes’ offering just a low margin utility.

Around the world incumbent telcos and mobile network operators have responded by moving up the value chain into managed services and cloud computing and one particularly interesting company in this respect is India’s Reliance Telecom.

Reliance has responded to the changes in its market, something made more problematic by India’s arcane and complex cellular licensing system, by strategically selling off various parts of its infrastructure and focusing on where it sees opportunity.

At a lunch in Sydney yesterday CEO Bill Barney of Reliance’s global network division was showcasing their cloud services for Australian customers and showed how the quest for profits is moving telcos into areas like data centres and managed services.

Emerging markets corridor

Barney argues that Reliance’s network, which spans South Asia, the Middle East and into Eastern Europe, gives the company a strong position in the “emerging markets corridor”. He also boasts the product the company offers allows easier development of smart services.

In this respect, the Reliance Global Cloud Exchange differs from similar plays like Telstra’s PacNet network across East Asia – which Barney previously headed – in that it offers services higher ‘up the stack’ making it easier for companies to deploy smart applications, something Barney sees as being particularly attractive to the media and financial industries.

While Reliance’s claims are yet to be tested in the market, the company’s shift to higher level services illustrates a struggle facing all telecommunications operators. To do this, Reliance and Telstra look to global networks and data services, Singapore’s Singtel tries its hand at media content in a similar way to Britain’s BT and Vodafone makes a strong Internet of Things play.

For each of these companies, diversifying into other fields makes sense however each strategy brings its own risks – in Reliance and Telstra’s cases this means competing with cloud services vendors like Amazon and Microsoft – that telcos haven’t been exposed to in their core markets.

Those core markets though are being disrupted and will never be as profitable as they were twenty years ago. For the world’s telecommunications companies it’s a matter of diversify or shrink.

Feb 032016
social media is about connecting with friends

It’s nice and comfortable living in an echo chamber and we’re all guilty of it one way or another. An example of how insular echo chambers can be are two surveys done by UK company Apollo Research on who UK and US tech writers follow on social media.

The answer was each other, with most tech writers following a common core of twenty in the UK and thirty in the US. Basically the groups are talking to each other which explains how technology stories tend to gain momentum as variations on the same stories feed through the network.

While technology journalists are bad for this, it could be argued their political colleagues are far more guilty of this group think as their working in close quarters makes them even more insular and inward looking. That explains much of the political reporting we see today which often seems divorced from the real world concerns of voters or challenges facing governments.

For all of us, not just journalists, it’s easy to become trapped in our own little echo chambers and find it harder to think outside the pack as the web and platforms like Facebook deliver us the information we and our friends find confirms our own biases.

Clearly, thinking with the pack creates a  lot of risks and for businesses also raises opportunities. At a time of fast moving technology and falling barriers to entry, thinking outside the prevailing group could even be a good survival strategy.

A good example of industry group think is the US motor industry of the 1970s where they dismissed Japanese competitors as being cheap and substandard – similar to how many think about China today – yet by the end of the decade Japan’s automakers had captured most of the world’s market.

On a national level, Australia is a good example of dangerous groupthink as up until three years ago the consensus among governments, public servants, economists and business leaders was the China resources boom would last indefinitely.

Today that consensus looks foolish, not that those within the echo chamber are admitting they made the wrong call, and now governments are struggling to find new revenue streams as the expected rivers of iron ore and coal royalties fail to arrive.

For Australian businesses, governments looking to raise revenues are another factor to plan for and getting one’s tax return and company paperwork in on time might be a good idea to avoid fines from overzealous public servants.

The bigger lesson for us all however is not to think like the group. While it may feel safe in the herd, we could well be galloping over a cliff.

One simple way to avoid groupthink, and that cliff, is not to copy the tech writers or the Australian economic experts who mis-called the China Boom. With the web and social media we can listen to what other voices are saying, most importantly those of our markets and customers.

A varied information diet is something we all need t0 understand what our markets, economies and communities are doing. It might be comfortable huddling down with the herd, but you’ll never stand out from the pack.

Feb 022016

Late last year Google announced it was restructuring and creating a new holding company called Alphabet, at the time I hoped it would bring more accountability into a business that’s becoming notable for easily distracted management and sprawling bureaucracy.

Yesterday the company released its latest quarterly reports and it appears far from improving transparency, the restructure has resulted in the operation of ‘moonshots’ – termed ‘Other Bets’ in the reports – becoming even more shrouded in mystery.

Other Bets, which includes Google Fiber, Ventures and Google X,  made a stonking $3.1 billion loss while 90% of revenues still comes from the advertising business.

Even within the advertising arm there’s little transparency as the division includes Apps, Android and YouTube along with the lucrative Search and Ads business. There’s little information of how these divisions are travelling on their own.

As Dennis Howlett at Diginomica points out, there will come a time when shareholders demand some accountability as the losses in the Other Bets are not trivial but it seems that time is some way off.

For Google, the biggest risk is being disrupted themselves. Their ‘river of gold’ is not dissimilar to that the newspaper industry floated along prior to the web – and Google – arriving.

Another aspect is that of culture where most parts of the business are free of accountability as the lucrative Ad division’s revenues allow disinterested management and needless bureaucracy to thrive.

While Alphabet’s revenues are impressive, this is a company dangerously reliant on one line of business. History has not treated such ventures well.

Jan 312016
Google places is an important service for small business

An ongoing frustrations of this blog is Google’s failure to execute in local business search despite the massive advantage it has in that field.

One notable aspect of Google’s failure is the locksmith problem where thousands of fake businesses have slipped into the company’s database. The result is thousands of consumers being ripped off and honest local businesses being overlooked in search results.

Spam in Google’s local business search is not a new problem, Search Engine Land reported it as being an ongoing issue in 2009 and the New York Times ran a feature on it two years later highlighting how genuine local businesses and consumers suffer.

Now, five years on, the New York Times has revisited the problem of Google business listings and finds the problem hasn’t changed a great deal with locksmiths and other local search engine results being hijacked by scammers filing false listings.

It’s hard not to conclude that the local listing service isn’t really a high priority to Google’s attention deficient managers and it isn’t surprising given maintaining databases is nowhere near as sexy as being involved in moonshots or as lucrative as the company’s core adwords business.

Google’s bureaucrats think so little of the service that they give the task of maintaining its integrity to an army of unpaid volunteers. The New York Times tells the tale of one of these ‘Mappers’, an unemployed truck driver named Dan Austin, who proved so good at the role he was ‘promoted’ – still unpaid of course – and then ‘sacked’ when he demonstrated how easy it was to plant a false listing.

That weakness in Google’s system shows how crowdsourced services can be subject to abuse and how volunteers themselves are abused by companies taking advantage of ‘free’ labour.

Another weakness illustrated in the Locksmith story is the collateral damage of the ‘fail-fast’ mentality where features are released without the developers really understanding the consequences. The cost of failure may be felt by innocent parties more than the company that’s ‘failed’, as Search Engine Land flagged in its 2009 article.

Google has continued to release features into local that are open to abuse. Google has used its release early and iterate tactic to gain market share at the expense of more circumspect competitors and on the fragile incomes of small businesses.

The continued failure of Google’s local business service remains frustrating for small businesses, having destroyed the Yellow Pages and local newspaper advertising models most neighbourhood services have few places to advertise. While Google and the other internet giants remain focused on other matters, local business search remains a great opportunity for a smart entrepreneur.

Jan 282016
e-commerce giant eBay head office

Just how mismatched PayPal and eBay were is now becoming apparent since the two companies separated last year.

Yesterday, PayPal beat the street with 23 percent growth in its payment figures along with an additional six million new users. The company’s stocks rose 17% following the news.

For eBay’s investors the news wasn’t so good with the company reporting no increase in US sales over the key Christmas buying quarter despite the National Retail Federation reporting a nine percent gain for the entire industry.

One of the main criticisms of eBay being part of PayPal was that there were no reasons for the two companies to be joined and so it is proving now they have gone back to separate entities.

For eBay, it’s hard not think that the opportunity has passed with the market moving on from the days of households selling their unwanted items to e-commerce now being a major industry dominated by traditional chains and, most menacingly, Amazon.

While PayPal is travelling better its business is still under great threat from other payment platforms, particularly while much of its revenue is still locked into desktop software. Shifting to more API and mobile based streams is going to be essential for the company wanting to compete in a very changed marketplace.

The failed PayPal-eBay venture will go down as one of the great missed opportunities of the first Dot Com wave as both companies were distracted from growing while the industry evolved over the last decade. No doubt some of today’s unicorns will suffer the same fate as they respond to a changing marketplace.

Jan 252016

For the developing world, broadband and mobile communications are helping

In Myanmar, the opening of the economy has meant accessible telecommunications for the nation’s farmers reports The Atlantic.

At the same time, Indian Railway’s Telecommunications arm RailTel is opening its fibre network to the public, starting with Wi-Fi at major stations.

What is notable in both cases is the role of Facebook. In India, Facebook’s project to offer free broadband access across the nation is meeting some resistance and it’s probably no coincidence Indian Railway’s WiFi project is being run as partnership with Google.

In Myanmar on the other hand, Facebook and Snapchat are the go to destination for rural communities, it will be interesting to watch how this plays out as farmers start to use the social media service for price discovery and finding new markets – as Tencent Chairman SY Lau last year claimed was happening with Chinese communities.

One of the promises of making the Internet available to the general public was that it would enable the world to become connected, thirty years later we may be seeing the results.

Jan 232016
Computer security is evolving in a time of social media

As one does on a weekend, I’m working my way through the 2016 Cisco Security Report.

There are plenty of insights on online security trends which I’ll cover in tomorrow’s blog post but one aspect that sticks out in the report is the case study on the Angler Exploit which takes advantage of hacked domain registrar accounts to create new domain names to serve phishing pages, ransomware sites and malicious advertisements.

Dealing with these sites is a major problem for network administrators and Cisco claims many of the domains registered haven’t yet been used by online criminals.

The Angler exploit shows just how complex internet security has become. The issue of trust is a complex thing and certainly no-one can trust every domain we see. That there are thousands of ‘disposable’ domains available to scammers only makes things more difficult for the average user.