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Why online means the end of IT as we know it

October 22, 2013 Leave a comment

If you work for any fast growing company these days it’s highly likely that enabling customers to access your products and services through online is a key plank in your company’s strategy and success.

Which, in an age of mass technology consumerism, probably also means that your company has a technology-enabled workforce to support your customers. And your Information Technology department has a dual focus of supporting the enterprise as well as an external focus in creating great digital customer experiences.

And what I’ve firmly come to believe is that this situation of having the most technologically-skilled part of your workforce getting it both ways is bad for your IT department and bad for your business.

If you look back this wasn’t the nature of IT departments when IT departments originated back in the  60s and 70s. Your original IT department was born out of the teams of skilled technicians who made the telephone network in your organisation work; kept the fax machines humming and were the team responsible for grappling with the implication of the 4004 microprocessor post 1971.

But because most companies weren’t technology-focused, IT weren’t part of the “business” as we’d recognise “the business” now. They were the electrical engineers who kept the lights on and spent their days ensuring the workforce could communicate and share information as efficiently as possible. They would never, or rarely, deal with the needs of external customers.

With the dawning of the internet and the growth of digital businesses in the 80s and 90s it suddenly occurred to businesses that these backroom guys were also the ones who were also able to code web pages; build servers and were suddenly essential to digitally enablement. IT’s role was now about building internet experiences and more for your external customers and also keeping the phones and fax machines running.

So the technology guys suddenly became absolutely key to business strategies and the customer experience. For technology companies founded in the 1970s like Apple, Microsoft the IT department was the business. To work for one of these companies you obviously needed to understand technology – but equally obviously your customer needs as well. These technology companies, so familiar now, changed the face of business and IT forever.

Amazon is a company founded in the mid 1980s and whose success is purely due to embracing the new paradigm from the get go. This was an IT department selling books to the world who then ended up selling IT to the world. Their CEO Jeff Bezos came from Wall Street but was, and is, intensely customer focused.

He once said: “I’ve always been at the intersection of computers and whatever they can revolutionize.
True to his words Bezos created a company that didn’t separate the IT department from the business, its IT department was its business.

And Amazon’s success should be a template for all companies worth their salt these days – and for most digital start-ups this is the case. The techies aren’t in the basement cooking up the medicine – they’re in customer-facing delivery teams working alongside the product and marketing teams.

The focus of an IT department should be not just on satisfying internal customers. They need to be part of the business (if not the business) that’s working to satisfy the customers who buy your products and services. Drag them out of the basement and get them in front of real customers.

In the companies I’ve worked for in the last 10 years (Orange; Telecom NZ and Kiwibank) I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum as the pendulum has swung between IT teams being integrated or not integrated into business units. In that time the most success I have seen is when IT hasn’t been IT, but been driving the business from the front. And that’s why many companies, including my own, are embracing Agile software development and delivery.

That’s great for external customers – and internal staff too:

Google CIO Ben Fried: “I see a lot of CIOs spending a lot of time — which is very important to do — on major business initiatives. But I often see an inadequate amount of time spent where the day-to-day, most frequent touchpoints are, which is with all the other ways the people in the company are their users. One of the big changes that has come with the mass consumerization of technology is that IT needs to flip that around a little and spend more time focusing on the overall employee experience.” There’s more from him here.

With online being a key strategy for all large businesses I believe the pendulum is now stuck and the era of large IT departments is over. IT is our business.

Triage – an app that lives up to its hype

April 24, 2013 Leave a comment

There are two possible explanations when the best thing of your week turned out to be the discovery of an email productivity app.

One is that it was a very bad week – and last week wouldn’t be collecting an award for the most stellar seven days of my life, not the worst – but definitely sitting middling to poor.

But the other explanation is that I actually discovered an app that lives up to its hype  – and that is no small thing.

It’s called Triage and it’s from Wellington innovation house Southgate Labs. It is awesome. Period.

Triage email app

Triage by Southgate Labs

Triage is so simple. Once you sign in with your Gmail, Yahoo, ICloud or any other IMAP email account it gives you a screen with your emails represented as cards with just enough information to be able to see what the email is about. The ones you want to keep you swipe up the ones you don’t want you swipe down. You can click on an email to read the full thing. And that’s it.

It’s not about engaging with the individual emails (although you can write brief replies if you want to) – it’s about organising your inbox so you are left with only the important emails. The aim is that you can then can go into your inbox later and suddenly it’s all sorted and relevant. The app is only available for IOS at the moment but judging by the international blogging and media attention it’s getting I would imagine Southgate Labs would be building on its success on other platforms.

Southgate Labs founder Rowan Simpson has written an engaging blog about the genesis of the idea – which is well worth a read for an insight into our innovation is born. The final spark came from his colleague Michael Koziarski (Koz) who asked:

“Imagine if there was an app that let me use a spare 5 minutes here and there to quickly filter out all of the emails which I can just read and delete, so that when I get back to my desk I only have to deal with the messages which require a bit more thought and attention”.

“Wouldn’t it be better if the inbox on your phone was just the new messages which have arrived since the last time you checked.”

“What I really need is something which forces me to do something with each message one at a time, rather than presenting an overwhelming list of unread messages, that I just end up scrolling back and forth through without ever really dealing to at all.”

Triage does that. It’s so simple it’s genius. Apply First Aid to you inbox now – get it here.

Pandora

February 17, 2013 2 comments

In a New York Times article in 2002 David Bowie famously predicted the end to copyright and that “music itself will become like running water or electricity”. I find that to be a truly futuristic and exciting vision for what the early days of the internet promised in terms democratisation and freedom of access.

And the fact that it came from a musician – albeit an already very wealthy one – but one who could see that greater openess for content still supported a business model.

The internet music radio services like Pandora, Spotify, Slacker, TunedIn, Sirius, are creating an absolute incarnation of Bowie’s vision while also showing how the internet can continue evolve into a semantic web Berners Lee envisioned.

I love Pandora for the reasons that everyone else does – it opens up the entirety of human music and curates it to your tastes. To quote Wikipedia: The service plays musical selections of a certain genre based on the user’s artist selection. The user then provides positive or negative feedback for songs chosen by the service, which are taken into account when Pandora selects future songs.

While the service has been offered in the US for 12 years it only reached Australia and New Zealand late last year. But it’s the same deal as US users get – free with ads or US$3.99 (NZ$4.85) per month without ads.

Pandora is accessed via web, 20+ car models and radios or smartphone – and it’s the latter that may be a real challenge to Pandora’s existence despite the fact it has  65 million active users.

The company’s business model is based primarily on ad revenue and its biggest cost is royalty payments. Each time Pandora streams a song, it pays a royalty fee to SoundExchange, a Washington-based trade group that collects royalties and distributes them to recording artists and music publishers. According to BusinessWeek the online music service paid 0.11¢ per song in 2012; that will rise to 0.14¢ in 2015. The royalty board has yet to reset rates for 2016 and beyond.

When Pandora launched it was consumed via desktop or laptop browsers but as in all other digital industries the mobile revolution has turned this on its head with millions of downloads of the Pandora app on iOS or Android. And for Pandora mobile revenues are much less than web. And with an increasing cost line, well you can see the issue. It’s a sobering position to be in as a business when the more customers you get (on mobile) the tighter your margin becomes and you can see where this may head for Pandora.

But there’s no shortage of competition for internet radio dollars. Spotify has 20 million active users

Slacker Radio has just relaunched in the US promising more music choice than Pandora. Slacker is more like traditional radio with human-curated stations, although you can establish your own as well and its revenues are based on advertising or subscriptions. It has 4 million active users with 500,000 being paid subscribers.

And don’t forget Apple, the great change agent in modern musical history. They are also eyeing this space.

And as with iTunes, which gave us easy and cheap access to our favourite music but also generated fair revenue for the artist – this is all great news for music lovers and musicians too. The impact on traditional radio is yet to be understood.

I could get Siri-ous about corporate Siri

January 11, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s fascinating watching the build up to CES being dominated by anticipation of what Apple (who famously aren’t at the show) may or may not do next.

Voice recognition was predicted to be a particular focus at the show – and CES hasn’t disappointed with voice controlled TVs, Intel unveiling Ultrabooks featuring voice in nine languages and possibly with real-time translation ability. You talk to your Ultrabook in Chinese and it responds in English.

Apple's Siri

The hype around voice recognition is driven from Apple’s Siri – the ‘intelligent personal assistant available on the iPhone 4s that helps you get things done just by asking’. While still in beta – and suffering a few teething issues – Siri has taken voice recognition from the ghetto of misunderstood commands and nonsensical responses to being a service people actually want to use on their phone.

Siri’s popularity is such that it seemed to catch Apple’s server farms slightly flat-footed at launch as demand for Siri to answer questions such as “What’s the meaning of life?”; “Where’s my nearest ATM” and “Close the pod doors” outstripped capacity, resulting in connection issues.

More telling was Google’s response from Eric Schmidt that the service was a threat to Google’s search business. A politic comment maybe, but you couldn’t ask for a better compliment from a competitor. Rumours of Siri being a key feature on Apple’s iTV has also quite obviously put the heat on current TV manufacturers – as evidenced from CES.

Siri may be hooked up to massive internet knowledge libraries but she is also unashamedly hungry to learn. Once out of the box she will pore through information from your contacts, music library, calendars, and reminders to better understand what you say. Siri also helps you by learning about the key people in your life. The first time you ask Siri to call your sister, it will ask you who your sister is. That information is stored in Contacts along with other relationship information like “mom,” “husband,” and “grandma.”

Siri on meaning of life

Siri shows she has a sense of humour - or at least her developer did

As has been noted by some users this eagerness to learn and improve can lead to embarrassing situations.  Mozilla Labs lead designer Kevin Fox found out the hard way that what happens in Siri doesn’t necessarily stay in Siri.

Siri is currently a personal assistant for non-business users. And being in beta is, as evidenced above, still in a rather childlike state in many regards. But she is powered by Wolfram Alpha –  a knowledge engine on steroids whose ultimate purpose is to unify the sum of all human knowledge.

Once Apple work through it’s teething problems Siri’s success as a personal application is assured. But imagine the potential as a business tool. What company wouldn’t have a spare virtual seat at the boardroom table for the quiet member who can provide the answers on absolutely everything under the sun –  from company reports; interest rate predictions; to the smallest detail on the company ledger?

How much would a company pay for a compliant director whose brain encompasses the sum of all human knowledge, who can be available 24/7 – and who also manages your entire internal knowledge base? An ultimate knowledge resource that for CEO or CSR is only a question away?

I find Siri rather fetching in her personal capacity, but she could be seriously hot once she hits corporate mode!

Steve Jobs: Connecting the dots

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005

Categories: Apple, Death, Steve Jobs