Jun 102016
business return on assets is falling away

Ride service Uber has raised the game for logistics and delivery services in opening a group of Application Program Interfaces for third party developers.

The four functions available in the Uber Rush package cover delivery tracking, quotes and history. They make starting a logistics service or adding functions to a business far easier.

While there is a downside in the risk of being locked into Uber’s service this move will give a lot of developers the opportunity to develop delivery tracking products, for incumbent postal and courier services, this API is bad news on a number of levels.

May 202016

Netsuite founder Evan Goldberg hopes the lessons he’s learned from building a software company can help researchers find new ways to treat cancers.

When Netsuite founder Evan Goldberg was contacted by his birth mother it was not all good news, she revealed to him she had one of the BRAC genetic markers, an hereditary trait that indicates a high risk of breast cancer.

A day before the official launch of the BRAC Foundation he has founded with a ten million dollar donation, Goldberg spoke to Decoding the New Economy at the Suiteworld conference in San Jose about how he believes he can help improve the treatement of cancers.

“How I think I can make a difference is applying some of the things we’ve learned at Netsuite,” he explained. “Netsuite has been all about breaking down silos, it’s not a system to run a department, it’s to run a business.”

“Much research and money is focused on a particular type of cancer – breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer but it turns out from what we’ve learned from genetic research that cancers can be more similar to each other across different cancer types than to those in the same organs.”

“So in the same way we’re trying to break down silos between parts of a business, trying to break down silos between researchers, different institutions has sort of been a theme of mine.”

“What’s really interesting this notion of looking at where the cancer started, which is what we’ve been doing for a hundred years, looking at what is the mechanism underneath it is kind of how we’ve looked at business at Netsuite.”

“We’re supporting research in the BRCA Foundation from numerous different institutions and researchers that are looking at all different types of cancer. So bringing them together and cutting through all sorts of silos, these sort of artificial silos – some of which still have value in some ways – but fostering collaboration where there wasn’t any before.”

“It’s not a perfect analogy,” Goldberg admits, “but I do think that this notion of looking at cancer across different dimensions is similar to how we’ve been looking at business.”

“It’s a totally different world, the world of medics, research institutions, hospitals and clinicians, it’s a very different world to the businesses I’m used to deal with. Although there are still similarities in the motivations and the barriers to success.”

One has to hope BRAC Foundation will be successful however Goldberg is the first to admit the bulk of the work lies with the scientists. “The real hard work is done by the researchers,” he says. “Hopefully we can help them.”

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

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

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

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

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.