Aug 302017

Industrial giant General Electric is finding software is hard, reports Business Insider.

The company, which former CEO Jeff Immelt declared was a ‘digital industrial company’ is finding its Predix software system and associated cloud services are far more complex and difficult to manage than expected.

Back in 2015, I toured the head office of GE Software outside of Silicon Valley and interviewed the division’s boss, Bill Ruh.

Ruh was upbeat about the internet of things – or Industrial Internet in GE’s terminology – with an estimate the IoT was worth $14 billion to the company as it found new efficiencies and markets.

Today that vision’s looking a little tarnished as the company struggles with a 25% share price drop and a self imposed ‘time out’ on Predix’s development.

GE’s IoT predicament illustrates just how complex the engineering and management challenges of the Internet of Things really are.

The software needs of a sensor in a train brake pad are very different to that of fuel pump in a jet engine or the blade controllers of wind turbine.

Added to that is the challenge of organising, storing and securing the information these devices collect. This is the main reason why GE is moving its data management services to AWS and Microsoft Azure.

That a company with the resources and top level commitment of GE is struggling with this underscores the complexity of the internet of things. That complexity is something every IoT advocate and connected device vendor fails to consider at their, and their customer’s, peril.

Aug 232017

Today Twitter celebrates the tenth anniversary of hashtags.

What’s notable about the story is how Twitter’s management thought hashtags were a ‘nerdy idea’

Twitter has been consistent in ignoring its user community despite every successful feature of the service coming from the platform’s grass roots.

It’s hard not to think Twitter’s greatest barrier to success is its leadership.


Jun 112017
Avis and Zipcar seem a good fit for hire and share cars

Starting a new job makes keeping the website up to date difficult but it is possible to get some reading done. Some of this week’s highlights included the auto industry’s changing business model, inside Microsoft’s Vista mistake and Apple’s memorial to a modern pharaoh.

A monument to a modern pharaoh

Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood says Wired’s Adam Rodgers. However his main point is Apple’s new five billion dollar new headquarters is really just a memorial to Steve Jobs and his ego.

Dissecting a dying business model

The car industry is one sector in a perfect storm of disruption and Australia’s General Motors Holden is slashing its dealer network to deal with declining demand and technological change.

Notably in the story is what happens to the dealers when their contract with GMH is cut with the franchisees having to hand over tools, signage and manuals. It shows just how the corporation controlled its franchisees.

Where Vista went wrong

This blog has long maintained that Microsoft’s release of the Vista operating system was not only the biggest mistake the company ever made but also gave an opening for Apple, Google and Amazon to seize the computer market.

So a post from developer Terry Crowley a former Microsoft developer is an insight into how the process went wrong. His view on internal cultures for companies facing market disruption is telling.

“In fact, the more power you hold, the more accountable you need to be to open yourself to honest challenge on either facts or logic. This is even more critical in times of rapid change because the facts and consequential logic might change. Accountability and transparency means you are able to reassess your conclusions and react quickly.”

The Life and times of Jerry Brown

An excellent interview between US political commentator David Axelrod and California governor Jerry Brown ranges over topics from Ronald Reagan’s rise, today’s hostility to government and his Asian travels while in the political wilderness. It’s worth a listen.

May 312017

With tech companies piling into the automotive industry – with varying results – it’s not surprising the established auto manufacturers are looking at making alliances with their potential Silicon Valley competitors.

Ford’s alliance with Google was one of the most promising in the sector, however it fell apart in a classic clash of cultures as Automotive News reports.

One of the key differences in the cultural crash was the priority of the two businesses – for Ford this is about the future of the company while for Google autonomous vehicles are just another moonshot.

Coupled with that, Ford are locked into their traditional products and have a sceptical Wall Street to keep happy as Automotive News describe when the two company’s CEO’s met.

In early December 2015, Fields came to Silicon Valley to discuss the deal with Google co-founder Sergey Brin. In a region where there are so many electric cars that office workers often argue over charging stations to plug in their Teslas and Nissan Leafs during the workday, Fields showed up at Google with an army of staffers in a fleet of Lincoln Navigators. Sources said Fields and his team were armed with a plan to make a big splash out of the partnership news, and much of the discussion centered around making an impression on Wall Street.

With Google being generally secretive about their ‘moonshot’ programs, it’s not surprising Sergey Brin and his team were perturbed by Ford planning to make a big announcement about the partnership. Had the auto maker done its due diligence, their delegation would have been a lot less ambitious and lot more circumspect.

Ford’s casting around for tech partners also illustrates the management didn’t understand the tech industry’s politics and dynamics, not only do they have a long standing agreement with Microsoft on their Sync product but they were also touting an alliance with Amazon to incorporate Alexa into their cars.

While there’s undoubtedly some revisionism in the Automotive News story – there’s always some airbrushing of history when a new CEO takes over – the tale does illustrate the difficulties facing business owners and managers when building alliances with others who don’t necessarily have the same objectives.

A clash of cultures is always tough to overcome and that’s often the biggest challenge facing industrial giants like Ford as they deal with a rapidly changing world.

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 252017

“The future isn’t pre-determined, technology doesn’t come from some outside force. It’s created by us. Some people have more power than others in that system, such as the big tech entrepreneurs, but at the end it’s people and organisations that have the power.”

Nicholas Davis, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Society and Innovation, was discussing at the recent Sydney CeBIT conference how we can take control of the digital economy and where workers fit into an increasingly automated world.

Technology and online platforms aren’t neutral system, Davis observes. “It’s not just about how we use them, but the values that are designed into the systems, technology is not just a neutral thing. During a conversation like this if I put my iPhone between us, it’s proven that reduces our memory of that discussion and our sense of connection.”

Politics and addiction

“The purpose of the technology, the design of it, affects us in different ways.” Davis says, “if we design technologies for addiction, if we design business models that involve us being sucked into systems at the expense of other things in our lives, then that is a value choice that companies make and that we as users are trading off in our lives.”

“In understanding that technology is not neutral then the question is how we, as revolutionaries have that political discussion? I don’t mean political like ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ but these are value decisions that we need to engage with.”

“The difficulties about having discussions about technology is not getting sucked into a left-right divide and letting one group of people own innovation, but to say what do we want, How do we get there and how do we avoid the mistakes of previous industrial revolutions where the environment suffered, kids suffered and vulnerable populations suffered.”

A change in thinking

“One of the biggest problems is we don’t have regulatory or even democratic institutions where we can make collective decisions about technologies,” says Davis.

“The average AI researcher, at the top of their game anywhere in the world, would only understand a small percentage of the AI space. So how do you expect a politician or a voter, to come to grips with it.”

One of the key discussions missing in the public sphere is around automation and concepts like the Universal Basic Income, Davis believes. “We should have a serious chat about giving everyone the space to build up their skills.”

In the development policy, Davis sees growing inequality and applying last century’s thinking to today’s challenges as among the biggest risks facing governments and communities.

Rippling beyond business

For business, the imperative is to recognise the effects of decisions on the wider community.

“The big thing for business is understanding the technology decisions you make have a ripple effect beyond your company, you need to look forward to new ways of value adding.”

Davis warns we are seeing a backlash against innovation and technology with concerns about privacy and security growing.

“So much of the world is build on their use of data. Most companies and organisations don’t have good data hygiene or ontology to classify their information. People say data is their greatest assets – some say it’s the new oil – but it’s also their greatest liability. So understanding information security at the board level is critical.”

The power of individuals

For individuals, Davis believes the power lies with us in the choices we make as consumers.

“Don’t underestimate your own power, but also don’t underestimate that more and more products around us are designed to influence our behaviour in ways we need to be aware of.”

“In most cases, if the product is free then you and your data are the product, understand that and on what terms is important.”

Conscious choices

“Understand the externalities of these services as well. Appreciate the effects it has on your family, your mental health, on the ability to connect is important. Being able to make conscious choices about these things.”

“Supporting open data standards and competition – not just accepting Android or Apple for instance – rather than allowing politicians and big business to fight over these things.”

So in Davis’ view being an ‘industrial revolutionary’ in the digital era is a matter of being an informed, and empowered, consumer. Will that be enough?

May 212017

Last week was an interesting time with an appearance before a Senate Committee and a trip to regional Victoria to talk about the media and social justice.

While busy, there was time to read some fascinating articles ranging from Elton’s John’s views on modern pop music, software lawsuits and early losses in the war on ‘fake news’ through to how the shiny new Apple campus boast almost everything for employees except a childcare centre.

Parents need not apply

Apple’s new 5 billion dollar campus is the realisation of Steve Jobs’ final vision. It boasts a hundred thousand square foot gym and an attention to detail that extends to the sand used to make the windows.

But it doesn’t have a day care centre, which gives a pretty clear message to aspiring employees – if you don’t have a stay at home spouse, something pretty rare in the hyper expensive Silicon Valley, then don’t bother applying.

Thanks a latte

Meanwhile in Australia, the government financed National Broadband Network is spending half a million dollars a year on maintaining its staff coffee machines.

While the money is small change in a project recent estimates put at costing $56 billion, it is emblematic of how far from its original purpose the vision has drifted.

Facebook Fails to Tackle ‘Fake News’

The social media’s attempts to tackle ‘Fake News’ are failing dismally reports The Guardian as reactionary groups gleefully reshare and publicise anything flagged as such.

While it’s early days, this isn’t a good start for Facebook although it also illustrates how powerful filter bubbles are and the lengths people will go to spread their ideologies.

The lawyers always win

Lasts week’s ransomware scares will trigger lawsuits says Reuters, quoting several legal experts.

Unsurprisingly, it won’t be Microsoft who’ll be the target given their almost bulletproof terms and conditions but businesses who didn’t patch their systems could be liable.

Fox News’ founder passes

Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News and one time Nixon adviser, passes a few months after being ousted from the network he created.

Ailes personified the tabloidisation of the media as Rupert Murdoch applied the model which had worked so well for him at The Sun in the UK to newspapers and television in the United States.

Many blame the internet for the click bait, sensational model of modern news reporting but the pattern was well established by the time the World Wide Web came along in the mid 1990s.

Tinny, vapid crap

Elton John weighs in on the state of pop music.