Apr 262016
 
group collaboration on a project

Offering free products to students and academics has long been a tactic used by software companies to build their market presence. The current fight for dominance in the cloud is seeing the same tactics being used.

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Amazon Web Services’ Glenn Gore about his company’s academic support program.

Part of that conversation ended up in a story for The Australian about how researchers are now using cloud computing services and it’s worthwhile looking at how AWS are using this program to cement their products’ market positions.

“We work with the majority of universities across Australia,” Gore said. “It’s part of an international focus around how we support the education sector in general.”

In some respects AWS’s behaviour isn’t new, for years Microsoft, Autodesk and Adobe have had programs offering free or deeply discounted products for academic or student use. The success of those schemes in becoming defacto industry standards is no small reason why these companies have dominated many sectors.

Microsoft themselves have the similar Bizspark program for tech startups and it’s easy to see how that initiative is helping push Azure’s adoption into a field that has been dominated by AWS.

One of the drawbacks though with cloud computing services is the risk of ‘sticker shock’ where customers end up with big bills. One of the universities I spoke to in researching the story recounted how 0ne of their faculties was presented with a huge AWS invoice because their engineers didn’t provision the services correctly.

This is where AWS’s team steps in with advice for researchers, “in the case of Koala Genome Project use the on-demand model, the standing pricing model for the cloud,” recounts Gore in pointing out the nature of their work could use spot-pricing to take advantage of cheaper prices in off-peak times. “As a result of making that one change they were able to do eighty percent more research.”

Getting more research time is always attractive for researchers and Dr Rebecca Johnson who leads the Australian Museum’s part of the koala consortium was particularly effusive about the support from AWS staff,

“What we have been able to access via this partnership with AWS is compute time and compute capacity that we just would not have had access too,” Dr Johnson said in a media release. “It would have cost us thousands and thousands of dollars to create and we just would not build such a computer system these days. You would not create your own computer infrastructure as we would only use a fraction of it anyway. So, it is great for us to piggy back off these already built systems.”

Being a relatively small institution, the Australian Museum is a good example of how cloud computing can work for those without the resources of big universities or corporations in the same way small businesses and startups can access resources formerly only available to enterprises.

Amazon’s programs though show the Microsoft model of getting students and startups onto their systems early pays dividends. It’s good for academic institutions but one wonders whether it’s also another form of vendor lock in.

Apr 052016
 
iKettle-internet-connected-kettle

With vendors shutting down connected devices and restricting data feeds, customers demanding open source software and open standards may be essential to safeguard against companies misusing their power over the IoT.

Last night I had dinner with a group of executives from US telco CenturyLink. During the the evening, conversation turned to the use of US and Chinese routers and the risks of government mandated backdoors in both countries’ equipment.

My thought during that conversation is concerns about software backdoors are a compelling argument for these devices to run open source software, making it harder – although not impossible – for hidden nasties harder to be built into systems.

Google Nest becomes evil

Overnight that argument for open source became stronger in my mind with the news Google Nest were to shut down the Revolv home automation hubs the company bought two years ago.

Google aren’t just stopping support for these devices, they are going to render them useless to their owners. It’s a remarkable move that undermines any confidence customers can have in Google’s hardware offerings.

While Revolv isn’t the first and will be far from the last Internet of Things device to be abandoned by its vendor, its fate indicates the importance of keeping as much of the ecosystem as open as possible – the less vendor lock there is, the less hostage you are to rapacious manufactures.

Locked out of the subscription economy

As we’ve seen with Amazon in the past, the ‘subscription economy opens users to the risk they can be locked out of their data or purchased apps. Now we’re seeing how vendors can lock users out of the products entirely.

With connected cars and homes now becoming common, this is something that should concern buyers. As we see everything from door locks to smoke detectors and kettles being connected to the Internet of Things, the risk of being at the mercy of an unreasonable vendor or malfunctioning software becomes greater.

At least with an open source model, it’s easier to build workarounds when faced with an uncooperative supplier and, in a world full of poorly designed IoT products, it’s possible for the community to review the software and understand its bugs.

The security aspect of open platforms is also critical for the IoT as we’re already seeing a plethora of unpatched devices where vendors have long lost interest in supporting the older products.

Open interoperation

More importantly, open platforms make it easier for devices to work together, something that is critical in connected buildings or industries. At the moment the IoT is a mish mash of competing standards and formats.

Over time it won’t be surprising to see the market demanding more open source applications and data feeds – indeed we’re seeing this happen with artificial intelligence platforms – the proprietary model brings in too many risks and makes the IoT far more complex.

While open source software won’t solve problems such as APIs and data feeds being closed or changed, it does give more power back to users and communities. It’s not hard to understand why vendors though would resist these moves.

Apr 012016
 
Raven_II_medical_robot

Despite the embarrassment of their foul mouthed racist bot, Microsoft are pressing on with a move into artificial intelligence.

Ahead of this week’s Launch event in San Francisco, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella laid out his vision for the company’s Artificial Intelligence efforts in describing a range of ‘bots’ that carry out small tasks.

Bloomberg tagged Nadella’s vision as ‘the spawn of clippy’, referring to the incredibly irritating help assistant Microsoft included with Office 97.

Tech site The Register parodied Clippy mercilessly in their short lived IT comedy program Salmon Days, as shown in this not safe for work trailer. While The Reg staff were brutal in their language and treatment of Clippy, most Microsoft Office users at the time shared their feelings.

While Clippy may be making a comeback at Microsoft, albeit in a less irritating form, other companies are moving ahead with AI in the workplace.

Robot manufacturer Fanuc showed off their self learning machine a few weeks ago which shows just how deeply AI is embedding itself in industry. Already there are many AI apps in software like Facebook’s algorithm and Google’s search functions with the search engine’s engineers acknowledging they aren’t quite sure what the robots are up to.

For organisations dealing with massive amounts of data, artificial intelligence based programs are going to be essential in dealing with unexpected or fast moving events. Those programs will also affect a lot of occupations we currently think are immune from workplace automation.

 

Mar 252016
 
us__en_us__ibm100__system_360__360genrl_color_800x682

Once dominant IBM is facing another major market transition, do they have the management skills the navigate that change?

Robert X. Cringely writes a depressing account of the company’s tactics in cutting its head count but the main thrust is how IBM are cobbling together a bunch of disparate products under umbrella brand names as a bloated, bureaucratic management puzzles with a marketplace change.

At the heart of everything is the question of what IBM’s customers really want, as Cringely points out.

The lesson in all this — a lesson certainly lost on Ginni Rometty and on Sam Palmisano before her — is that companies exist for customers, not Wall Street.  The customer buys products and services, not Wall Street.

While investors are important, businesses only exist if customers want to pay for their wares. If a company can’t convince people to buy their products, or find a way to subsidise it like the media industry did for most of the Twentieth Century, then there is no reason for the venture, or its industry, to exist.

For many technology companies this is the situation they are facing right now, many other industries aren’t far behind.

Mar 192016
 
google-larry-page-sergei-brin-driverless-car

A year after hackers demonstrated the risks of connected cars, the FBI and the US Department of Transportation have warned consumers of the risks in internet connected vehicles.

This warning comes as automobile manufacturers are pushing their new breed of motor cars as being software platforms rather than vehicles and calls into question how well security and safety are being designed into their products.

One of the recurrent features of these sort of warnings is how regulators, manufacturers and software designers try to push the risks back onto consumers rather than the companies designing these systems.

Officials said that while not all car hacking incidents result in safety risks, consumers should take the appropriate steps to minimize their own risks.

It’s hard to see what consumers can really do, as most of these systems are ‘black boxes’ protected by strict terms preventing users from seeing, let alone understanding, the software running the vehicles. Customers have to trust the manufacturers to do the right thing.

For the Internet of Things, and connected cars, to be successful they have to deliver value to consumers and have the confidence of the market. Right now many of these features seem to do neither.

 

Mar 122016
 
Networks and computers connecting to the web

The one company that has driven both the adoption of cloud computing and the current tech startup mania is Amazon Web Services.

Later this week AWS celebrates its tenth birthday and Werner Vogels, the company’s Chief Technical Officer, has listed the ten most important things he’s learned over the last decade.

The article is a useful roadmap for almost any business, not just a tech organisation, particularly in the importance of building systems that can evolve and understanding that things will inevitably break.

Importantly Vogels flags that encryption and security have to be built into technology, today they are key parts of a product and no longer features to be added later.

Most contentious though is Vogels’ view that “APIs are forever”, that breaking a data connection causes so much trouble for customers that it’s best to leave them alone.

Few companies are going to take that advice, particularly in a world where changing business needs mean APIs have to evolve.

There’s also the real risk for businesses that their vendors will depreciate or abandon APIs leaving key operational functions stranded, this could cause major problems for organisations in a world that’s increasingly automated.

Vogel’s commitment to maintaining APIs may well prove to be a competitive advantage for Amazon Web Services in their competition with Microsoft Azure, Google and an army of smaller vendors.

Werner Vogel’s lessons are worth a read by all c-level executives as well as startup founders looking to build a long term venture, in many ways they could define the new rules of business.

Feb 182016
 
radio programs for techonology, web, social media, cloud computing and computer advice

Pundits are saying 2016 will be the year Virtual Reality comes to the home, with Silicon Valley investors pouring money into the technology, the long awaited Oculus Rift due to be released this year and the heavily hyped Meta launching soon.

If you missed the show, you can hear it podcast through the Nightlife website.

Tonight on ABC Nightlife we’ll look at what VR, and its cousin Augmented Reality, are and what they mean to us ordinary people.  Some of the questions we’ll be looking at include;
  • Exactly what are Augmented and Virtual Reality?
  • Why all the hype now?
  • Why are investors putting so much money into the space?
  • Apart from games what can this tech be used for?
  • Do you always have to wear the funny glasses?
  • Does the headsets always need to be connected to a computer?
  • What are the devices and brands we should be watching out for?
  • Is it likely consumers will be able to afford this technology in the near future?
  • Will 2016 really be the year of virtual or augmented reality?

If we get time, we’ll also look at Apple’s fight with the FBI over encryption (security researcher Troy Hunt has an excellent run down of the issues at stake) and what happens if you change the date on your iPhone to 1970.

Join us

Tune in on your local ABC radio station from 10pm Australian Eastern Summer time or listen online at www.abc.net.au/nightlife.

We’d love to hear your views so join the conversation with your on-air questions, ideas or comments; phone in on 1300 800 222 within Australia or +61 2 8333 1000 from outside Australia.

You can SMS Nightlife’s talkback on 19922702, or through twitter to @paulwallbank using the #abcnightlife hashtag or visit the Nightlife Facebook page.