Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Apple Watch: cracks showing?

From this story and similar it's easy to interpret that the honeymoon period of the new product category is over. Apple cynics proven right? Or markets just being fickle? A bit of both.

I'm an Apple sceptic: love their stuff, but not the reality distortion and unnecessary product lock-ins that often accompany it. Overall, they are a healthy part of the technosphere, which is not easy for a behemoth.

Something is clearly wrong with their Apple Watch sales. So they are below expectations, but why not publish them anyway? Apple's profit margins are normally huge on anything they sell, so even if the volumes are lower than expected, it's not like they'll have failed financially, is it? I think the absence of information, in this case, could work against them not just in the markets, as it has already shown, but in consumer confidence. In this internet age, consumers like to to make informed decisions, so any perception of withheld information fuels lack of confidence, and, arguably, is just as easy to exploit by a canny competitor.

But they had to do it. For Apple not to have a watch in this still-embryonic but burgeoning wearables market could have been perceived by the markets as leaving money on the table. And this first offering is pretty decent: all the buttery smooth and shiny user experience features are there. It's just not essential or different enough from the iPhone. I doubt anyone in late 19th or early 20th century had a pocket watch and a wrist watch.

This is the first step on a product journey, a marker. Remember, the first iPhone didn't even have copy & paste. But then Apple defined the category and were so far ahead of the competition they could take their time perfecting the product. This time, the category is already quite crowded and despite their behemoth status they didn't own it. Do they have the agility to evolve faster than rivals?

If you compare the pace of innovation in iOS versus Android, you'll see that since about 2013 Android has outpaced Apple. Android in 2015 is a lot better than Android in 2012, whereas iOS is a bit better. This isn't about which OS is better, but about which OS is improving the fastest.

But Apple is a hardware company. And I think the reasons the Apple Watch is not a giant success are hardware-based, from the basic: battery life; to the sublime Dick Tracy fantasy: a camera. These limitations are understandable to geeks: the science simply isn't there yet. But the average Apple consumer thinks it's all magic anyway, so will expect Apple to crack these things in version 2 or 3. Can they? I can't think when they've ever had this much competitive pressure in hardware. This should get interesting.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Algorithmic Big Brother

There's a lot of FUD about internet companies harvesting personal data.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a privacy advocate: you should have the right to be as private as you like, and whatever data that is held about you by a third party should be disclosed to you, and accessible on request.

But let's not put the tin hats on every time we hear that Tech Firm X is harvesting your data. I'm sure they are, but ask yourself why. Google and Facebook aren't interested in my secrets. They are interested in

  1. Selling my profile info to advertisers
  2. Providing me a better service so that I keep coming back and they can satisfy (1).
You'll agree that point 2 is innocent/benign enough. If you have a fundamental problem with entities selling info to advertisers then stop buying things and stop using 'free' services. If you're not the paying customer, you're the product. Get used to it.

The issue, and where the media like to blur and sensationalise, is the definition of 'my profile info'. What info are they collating & selling, and what are they doing with it? This is where things get shady. The quick answer these firms all give, when asked, is a variant of point 2 above: that the data is used to offer better-targeted advertising and services to you the cust- consumer.

Right, but what data, exactly? And how are you packaging it up to the advertisers to whom you're selling it? The answer, in most cases, is that they are not selling the information like a secret service dossier - a big brown file on you. They are simply categorising you. The advertisers then say what categories they want to target, which could be broad (all females between 18 and 30) or very specific (chess players and sci fi fans in New York city under the age of 24). These firms then ensure you get hit by those adverts that match your category. They then track which ones you click and which you don't, and that gets reported back to the advertisers. In fact, in the case of social networks, these firms track every unsecured page that you browse and refine your categorisations accordingly.

Point is, the advertisers don't get the specific info about you. They get aggregated category data. Heineken don't know which beer I drink unless I tell them (by 'liking' or '+ing' a page of theirs); they just know that I'm in several of their key categories.

The categorising tech firms are as interested in me as a lawnmower is in grass. They don't have time/resources to compile a dossier on you or me. They have algorithms that profile us automatically and constantly, but primarily in order to meet the 2 commercial imperatives above.

So if you're worried about Google or Facebook or Apple prying into your private life, only the algorithms are watching.

Government agencies?  Different story: why would they be harvesting your data? Again, it's mostly algorithms, but there's no commercial imperative. So it's definitely personal and potentially nefarious. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

CIO: caretaker or gamechanger?

I saw this article ("The era of IT-as-a-roadblock must come to an end right now", TechRepublic) and thought it worth sharing, as it reflects something bothering me for years about the role of IT in businesses.

I've led IT teams and departments, and, as a CTO selling software and services to clients, meet IT heads quite often. Some of them running IT for well known brand companies. You can tell a lot about a company by its attitude to IT. Even the job title of the head of IT is still varied and indicative: VP ICT, or Head of IS, or CIO, or more recently Head of Digital. Some are on the board/exec team, some report to the CFO or COO.

Then there's the small talk: get any team in the company in a room together for a day (as we often do at my consulting firm) and see whether a) an IT topic comes up, and b) it's a negative comment. I'd give a 75% chance of both.

Traditionally, I'd put this down to the struggle of IT: what other department of a company has to deal with the turmoil of its industry effectively reinventing itself every 3-5 years? Take Finance: the CFO is probably the best accountant in the firm - certainly the most experienced. General Ledgers don't really evolve and GAAPs evolve as carefully as prudent accountants and auditors would allow. The CIO, on the other hand, has probably never used the technologies they are responsible for. Sure, they'll likely know the principles and implications, but they are fully dependent on the knowledge and skills of younger staff in deploying and maintaining new technologies. Furthermore, nobody outside of IT could keep up: why must I trade in my Blackberry for an iPhone? Why so many passwords? In this context, it's little wonder that IT departments would often be as fretful, self-absorbed and moody as a teenager. They effectively were teenagers.

Then it all changed with the arrival of mobile apps and app stores. How many training courses have you been on to learn a mobile app? Me neither. Suddenly everyone was configuring their own personal computing device in their own way. And demanding the same ease of use for other software. That contact management software at work started to feel really clunky.

Developers, be they desktop, web or app software, suddenly had to focus carefully on user experience (UX). If they didn't, the results were there for all to see: poor app reviews and few downloads.

The IT department was now having to contend with consumer devices and apps on the corporate network because the users found them more useful, were going to use them anyway, and, well, it's all technology, innit? Would they step out from their server rooms and support desks and embrace the mobiles, the apps, the clouds? Or would they bridle at the users' initiative, and chafe with disdain at the cloud? 

The results so far appear mixed. There are certainly many IT departments showing fear, usually in the form of disdain for technology initiatives coming from users, security concerns, or "hidden" costs. They've finally got what they always wanted: an engaged audience. We're finally over the hump and now technology illiteracy is not cool, nor even quaint. If you don't have a smart phone, or know how to use one, you're a dinosaur. The world has realised IT is about the information, not the technology (thank you Apple!). Unfortunately, many IT departments haven't yet.