Jul 302014
 
soldier pawns on a chess board

This week I’m in New York to attend the BlackBerry Security Summit, more of which I’ll write about later although this story for Technology Spectator covers much of the news from the day.

BlackBerry is struggling to find relevance after losing its way when Apple and Android smashed their business model of providing secure, reliable and email friendly phones.

Now in post Snowden world, BlackBerry under new CEO John Chen is looking to rebuild the company’s fortunes on its strengths in security.

One of the aspects Chen’s team is emphasising is the simplicity of their software. Dan Dodge, who heads BlackBerry’s QNX embedded devices division says their operating system has a 100,000 lines of code as opposed to hundreds of millions in Windows and Android.

That weakness in the established software packages is something illustrated in today’s story about a verification problem in Android due to reuse of old code from another older product.

Simplicity is strength is Dodge’s message and that idea could probably be applied to more than software.

In the complex times we live in, simplicity could be the key to success.

Jul 012014
 
Spreadsheets are a powerful but dangerous business tool

Journalists have had a tough time over the last twenty years and it’s about to get tougher.

The Associated Press today announced they will automate most of their business reporting. AP’s Business News Managing Editor, Lou Ferrara explained in a company blog how the service will pull information out of company announcements and format them into standard news reports.

instead of providing 300 stories manually, we can provide up to 4,400 automatically for companies throughout the United States each quarter

This isn’t the first time robots have replaced journalists, three years ago National Public Radio reported how algorighms were replacing sports reporters.

Ferrara admits AP has already automated much of its sports reporting;

Interestingly, we already have been automating a good chunk of AP’s sports agate report for several years. Data comes from STATS, the sports statistics company, and is automated and formatted into our systems for distribution. A majority of our agate is produced this way.

Reporting sports or financial results makes sense for computer programs; the reciting of facts within a flowing narrative is something basic – Manchester United led Arsenal 2-0  at half time, Exxon Mobil stock was up twenty cents in morning trading and the Japanese Yen was down three points at this afternoon’s close don’t take a super computer to write.

Cynics would say rewriting press releases, something many journalists are accused of doing, could be better done by a machine and increasingly this is exactly what happens.

The automation of commodity reporting isn’t just a threat to journeyman journalists though; any job, trade or profession that is based on regurgitating information already stored on a database can be processed the same way.

For lawyers, accountants and armies of form processing public servants the computers are already threatening jobs – like journalists things are about to get much worse in those fields.

It could well be that it’s managers who are the most vulnerable of all; when computers can monitor the workplace and prepare executive reports then there’s little reason for many middle management positions.

This is part of the reason why the middle classes are in trouble and the political forces this unleashes shouldn’t be underestimated.

Jun 262014
 
How do mobile phone users reduce costs

‘Digital natives’ has been the term to describe people born after 1990 who’ve had computers throughout their entire lives.

The theory is these folk have an innate understanding of digital technologies from being immersed in them from an early age.

It’s doubful how true that theory is; the generation born after 1960 were born into the television generation yet the vast majority of GenXers would have little idea on how to produce a sitcom or fix a TV set and the same could be said for the war generation and motor cars.

Digitally native businesses

For businesses, it may be the digital native concept is far more valid. Ventures being founded today are far more likely to be using productivity enhancing tools like social media, collaboration platforms and cloud computing services than their older competitors.

What’s striking about older businesses, particularly in the Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) sectors, is just how poorly they have adopted technology. The Australian Bureau of Statistics report into IT use by the nation’s businesses illustrates the sectors’ weak use of tech.

The most telling statistic is the number of businesses with a web presence; the SME sector lags way behind the corporate sector that has almost 100% penetration.

Australian_business_with_a_web_presence

Many of the zero to four business can be disregarded as most of them are sole trader consultants who’ve had to register a businesses for professional reason, although there is an argument even they would benefit from a cheap or free web presence to advertise their skills.

The ABS statistics show small business is lagging behind the corporates in social media and e-commerce adoption as well so the argument that local businesses are ignoring the web and using services like Facebook, LinkedIn or Google Places to advertise their services doesn’t hold water.

Old man’s business

Part of this reluctance to use digital tools is age; many SMEs were born either in the era when faxes were a novelty or when Windows computers were first appearing on small businesses desktops. They are creatures of another era.

In the current era cloud, social media and collaborative services are running business. The idea of buying a workstation for a new employee and waiting for the IT guy to set them up on the network is an antiquated memory; today’s workers have their own laptops, tablets and smartphones to do the work – all they need is a password.

Those services offer a different way of organising a business and this is the most worrying part of the statistics – large organisations are slowly, and not always successfully, adopting modern management practices while many small businesses are locked into a 1970s and 80s way of working.

For businesses being founded today, this isn’t a worry – they are the true digital natives and are reaping the benefits of more efficient ways of working. Something emphasised by Google’s updates to its Drive productivity services announced overnight.

That’s something that should focus the plans of established businesses of all sizes as they adapt to working in a connected society.

Apr 242014
 
executive-car-parking-spot

Earlier this month, Sydney video streaming company Viocorp changed leadership with founder Ian Gardiner stepping down as CEO.

For Gardiner, the decision was tough and in a blog post he described how the company was founded and grew and why it was time to step away. That decision though was not without some pain.

I have nurtured and loved this little startup as it has grown up like one of my children.

And like my children it can occasionally be frustrating, difficult and highly erratic and unpredictable. But most of the time it is fantastic and hugely rewarding. And I love it with a passion that is hard to describe.”

However children one day grow up and leave home. Viocorp is not a start-up any more. It is a serious business with massive potential. And I feel that my skills as a product innovator and fire-starter are not the ones that Viocorp needs for this next stage of our journey.

I spoke to Ian Gardiner in a noisy Sydney Cafe in February for the Decoding The New Economy YouTube channel shortly after he’d made the decision to step down as CEO where he elaborated on the reasons for the change.

“I ended up getting further and further away from the stuff I’m actually good at,” he said. “You end up as the founder and entrepreneur in a place that is not good for anyone.”

“As a result of that the business doesn’t go in the direction you want.”

The right manager for the job

Gardiner’s decision illustrates an important truth about business; different management skills are needed at different stages of development.

A good example of this was with the corporate slashers of the 1980s – CEOs like GE’s Jack Welsh and ‘Chainsaw Jack’ Dunlap here in Australia were the right men to shake moribund organisations. A decade later both were out of favour as the needs of the business world and their companies had moved on.

Similarly the skills that are needed to found and grow a startup are very different to those required to steer a more mature business. This is why Facebook’s experiment with retaining founder Mark Zuckerberg as CEO of a hundred billion dollar company is so fascinating.

With Viocorp, Ian Gardiner and his investors have made a very mature decision about where they see the future of the business, as the now retired CEO told me earlier this week: “The punchline is that I’m happy about it, and very excited about the future of Viocorp.

Apr 172014
 
despair

A 16 hour outage by hosting service Bluehost knocks the wind out of this site’s sails.

There’s much to say about customer engagement, engineering and management but it will have to wait for another day.

Apr 072014
 
trent-rolls-royce-jet-engine

Around the world manufacturers are wondering how they adapt to the rise of 3D printing nod the continued challenge of China’s low costs of production.

In Singapore, Reuters reports, the government is putting its hopes on new technology boosting the country’s manufacturing industry in one of the world’s highest cost centers.

“The future of manufacturing for us is about disruptive technologies, areas like 3D printing, automation and robotics,” EDB Managing Director Yeoh Keat Chuan told Reuters.

Britain too is experimenting with modern technologies as the BBC’s World of Business reports about how the country is reinventing its manufacturing industry.

Tim Chapman of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre describes how the economics of manufacturing changes in a high cost economy with an simple advance in machining rotor disks for Rolls-Royce Trent jet engines.

“These quite complex shaped grooves were taking 54 minutes of machining to make each of these slots. Rolls-Royce came to us and said can ‘can you improve the efficiency of this? Can you cut these slots faster.”

“We reduced the cutting time from 54 minutes to 90 seconds.”

“That’s the kind of process improvement that companies need to achieve to manufacture in the UK.”

Interestingly many of those British engineers interviewed by Peter Day in the BBC report focus on China’s cheap labor as being the driver for moving up the value chain and automating

Dismissing China as purely a low cost producer a risk as Chinese manufacturers are working hard to move up the value chain as their aging populating erodes their labor advantage.

The last word though for Britain’s engineering sector has to go to Hugh Facey, founder of wire tool company, Gripple.

“Are you a rich man?”
“No”
“Do you mind?”
“I’m from Yorkshire.”

Both Singapore and the UK are working on establishing their positions in the 21st Century economy; both business owners and individuals have to give some thought on where they want to be.

For manufacturing, the rollout of new technologies means the industry is going to look very different in the next decade. It won’t be the only industry radically changed.

Mar 162014
 
photo_zipcar_mazda3_2

Last year car rental giant AvisBudget acquired the vehicle sharing service Zipcar, at the time it looked like the established player was buying in the tech smarts of younger startup.

Citing ‘synergies’ at the time of a takeover is always a warning sign that a corporate acquisition may not go well and so it has proved with Avis’ efforts with Zipcar as travel news site Skift reports;

Speaking at the J.P. Morgan Gaming, Lodging, Restaurant & Leisure Management Access Forum in Las Vegas earlier this week, AvisBudget CEO Ron Nelson said fleet-sharing has turned out to be more complicated than the company thought because there’s a cost tied to moving the vehicles from one location to another.

That’s a strange statement as a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that if any organisation understood the costs of moving vehicles around it would be a car hire company.

Apparently that’s not the case and the ‘synergies’ from acquisition will be pushed back to 2015.

Synergies are elusive things and it may well prove that Ron Nelson would be better served by examining how Zipcar’s technology, algorithms and flat management structures can be applied to a more staid organisation like Avis.

The real value in companies like Zipcar and Uber is the way they are applying technology to moving physical goods around – it’s no surprise that Uber’s Travis Kalanick describes his ambition for the future of his company as being the Amazon for logistics.

For Avis, Zipcar’s opportunities lie in more that just enhancing the company’s fleet utilization; understanding the marketplace and predicting demand is where the real gains could be made.