Google cars – Sheer Driverless Pleasure?

Google driverless car operating on a testing path

Google driverless car operating on a testing path (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just a few years ago, the concept of a driverless car was nothing more than science fiction. Today, it is fast becoming reality with Google cars having already covered over 500,000 miles (800,000 km) without any accident while under “robot control.”

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds – the Google cars technology’s still very much in its infancy and the route the robot-controlled vehicle will follow has to first be mapped out with a human at the wheel. It also can’t, yet, cope with snow or heavy rain, while leaving a highway still needs human intervention, too.

However, with the rapid pace of technology development, it’s worth pausing to think about the impact of driverless vehicles – thanks to the revelation of Google cars, on our lives as it’s likely to be an everyday occurrence before we know it. We have the processor power and the sensor technology to make this feasible.

Robots don’t fall asleep, and their attention doesn’t wander. They don’t feel compelled to text while driving, or to show how good their driving is after a few drinks. This is sure to mean fewer accidents, so less people killed and injured. Apart from the human benefits from Google cars, this has to mean less call on emergency services and lower insurance premiums – welcome relief from the huge rises over the past decade.

Of course, the panel-beating, spare parts and steel industries might not welcome the decrease in fender-benders, but the rest of us will.

Going out for dinner will no longer mean taking a taxi home, unless you have a ‘Designated (non-drinking) Driver’ present – Google cars are capable of driving you back home. What will the impact on the taxi industry be (GPS mapping might need to be a little better, of course), and what will the impact be on valets when cars can park themselves while they wait for you?

Thinking further on this – what impact on those huge, expensive parking lots near city centres when your car can slowly drive around looking for something convenient and you can text it to come and find you in, say, 15 minutes? Would road building rates be able to be slowed, too, as robot-controlled vehicles can drive so much closer together, meaning more cars in any given space. Speeding tickets and parking tickets would also be a thing of the past – would anyone really shed a tear for traffic wardens?

But let’s move away from the Google cars concept for a moment. What about the trucking industry? Roads are clogged with heavy-duty vehicles delivering goods from manufacturer to wholesaler, to retailer and to the end-user. Imagine a time when you could have fleets of driverless trucks – owners would get far better utilisation from vehicles that don’t need drivers to rest or sleep, longer routes could be planned and busy roads could be navigated only in quiet times (3 am, for example) where necessary.

Of course, having a robot-controlled car is one thing – having a robot-controlled 50 ton, 18-wheeler is likely to spark a good deal more concern. An intermediate step may be to use remote drivers (‘drone technology’)  until the vehicle reaches the highway and meets up with other trucks, that can then travel in convoy under control of a single remote driver, or even a lead human driver controlling a number of trucks behind.

What is clear is that motor manufacturers will increasingly be moving away from “Sheer Driving Pleasure” as a strapline, and be looking to features such as entertainment, comfort and – for long journeys – even sleeping facilities, perhaps. Perhaps Google cars are by no doubt a forecast of how the future looks for the motor vehicle industry.

Perhaps sleeping in the car will become a status symbol…

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 8 Jul.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) – Productivity Gain or Problem in the Making?

English: A woman cuddling a pile of digital de...

Which Devices To Take To Work? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The incredible growth in sales of tablets and smartphones during the past few years is changing the landscape for business, leading to increased demands for knowledgeable business consultants that understand the dynamics of this rapid change and the opportunities and risks it presents. The Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) concept has also become popular over the past few years.

The latest statistics really emphasise the speed of this change:

  • Nearly 1 Billion smartphones will be shipped this year, overtaking basic mobile phones for the first time, according to IDC.
  • Tablets, such as the iPad, have already overtaken laptops – just 3 years after being introduced – with shipments of around 230 Million expected this year, pushing them 20% ahead of laptops. In fact, tablets are expected to pass sales of all PC form factors in 2015, reaching sales of around 330 Million.

Recognising the desire of employees to take advantage of the latest technology to make them more productive, companies are embracing the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) concept , with an iPass survey carried out in December & January showing that 81% of companies accommodate personal devices in the office, and 54% of them having formalised policies for this.

This is where the need for consultants becomes apparent – nearly half of the world’s companies don’t have formal policies that address this urgent issue, and the problem becomes more apparent when we realise that the top 2 sources of frustration in IT departments relate to onboarding and supporting personal devices (thus approving the BYOD practise) in the office. This even eclipses security concerns, although these, of course, become even more of an issue with such devices.

In fact, over half (55%) of companies surveyed reported some form of security issue in the past year, mainly in connection with lost or stolen phones. When you consider that in 2011, over 70 million smartphones were stolen (we don’t yet have the data for 2012), and only 7% of these were recovered, the size of the problem really becomes apparent. Even with laptops, companies can expect to lose one in ten during their lifetime (3-4 years).

When we then consider that, according to IDC, 70% of enterprise data now resides on mobile devices and yet three out of four companies lack comprehensive policies for managing and securing their mobile devices, while nearly 60% of lost smartphones were unprotected, the enormous scale of the costs to business become clear.

So, given this, why are companies embracing the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) concept?

Simply put, because allowing staff to choose and use their own devices increases employee satisfaction, improves productivity and reduces cost to the company. Over half of mobile workers report working more than 50 hours per week, and nearly one in five reports putting in over 60 hours each week.  The gains here are tangible, as are the cost reductions through companies not needing to invest so heavily in such devices themselves.

Companies need to take full advantage of the benefits of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), while minimising the risks through putting comprehensive policies, systems and procedures in place that will minimise the risks and costs inherent in the loss of such mobile devices. Doing so will improve their performance, competitiveness and bottom line. Failure to do so risks them being left behind.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 12 Jun.

The Changing Way we Work & Live – part 3

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid...

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first in this series of posts looked at how technology advances are enabling location independence for people at work, and the second looked at some of the socio-economic impacts of this move. In fact, the changes are potentially even more widespread further into the future, as a recent MindBullets post discussed.

Essentially, what this post suggests is that in the next decade or so, a combination of 3D printing – that technology is already available, albeit in a somewhat rudimentary form still – and cheap robotics will render manufacturing as we know it obsolete.

What’s more, this combination of technologies will make the production lines of old irrelevant as we move to true user choice in every product. We all remember the early days of the mass produced car, when Henry Ford suggested that customers could have the Model T in any colour they liked, so long as it was black. Contrast that with today where the buyer has, literally thousands of combinations of colour, internal and external finish, engine and accessories available to make a vehicle unique, or at least highly individualized. In the future, there will be no limit to the choices available as each product will be built/printed to your exact specification.

The impacts of this are, of course, dramatic – imagine the impact on China if its low-cost manufacturing prowess is no longer needed as it is faster and cheaper to make items at/near the customer. What will the effect be on the economies of countries like China, Mexico and others where a largely unskilled labour force has provided economic growth through mass manufacturing? And what will the consequent ripple effects around the world be as a result?

What, too, will be the impact on the logistics and transportation industries if there is no longer the need for transporting all the freshly-made products around the world? Shipping, air, road and rail transport, and warehousing will all undergo massive changes and many companies that are household names will have to adapt radically or disappear.

The Amazon of the future, for example, instead of having huge warehouses filled with a multiplicity of product and a logistics operation predicting demand and ensuring, so far as is possible, just-in-time delivery from its vast range of suppliers, will have a series of printing/manufacturing modules and will create products to order in a matter of minutes – and the only transport needed is to the consumer. As prices of 3D printers continue to fall, imagine a world where these are in every home, negating even this ‘last mile’ transportation.

There will, of course, still be the need for some level of transportation – the raw materials for the 3D printers and robotic manufacturing operations, but this will be much less onerous than the transportation of today.

There is, of course, still one area that 3D printing and robotic manufacturing has not solved – organic material. This means that food – fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, fish and so on – will still, for the foreseeable future at least, need to be transported from the farms to consumers in some way. Here, too, we’re seeing huge change today as increasing numbers of consumers buy this online, bypassing the need for physical supermarkets and shops, and we’ll look at the effects of all this online shopping in the next part of this series.

There’s no question that the current advances in 3D printing and robotics will dramatically change the way products are made and delivered and the effects of this on companies and countries will be massive. Technology is really causing the pace of change to accelerate more and more quickly – the future just gets more and more interesting.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 8 April.

The Changing Way We Work & Live – part 2

Urban Decay

Urban Decay (Photo credit: pmorgan)

The previous post showed how technology is enabling location independence for the workforce for the first time since the Industrial Revolution created the need for urbanisation.

Smart devices, such as smartphones and powerful tablets, are providing people with the ability to be fully productive at customer sites, from home or wherever else the demands of the role take them, with sales of these devices outstripping those of PCs for the first time in 2011.

Estimates vary widely, but it seems that at least 10% of the workforce today works from home rather than in an office, and estimates are that this could reach as much as 60% in a decade. What’s more, contrary to what many employers feared, it seems that working from home increases productivity noticeably – some 10-15%, in fact – due to people working longer with fewer breaks and having less interruption.

But this location independence has far wider implications, too:

  • Equipment purchases – concomitant with location independence, people want to have their own choice of devices: the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon.  Initially concerned about the security implications of people using their own devices, companies have realised that the cost savings more than compensate for the additional security/monitoring required, and the employee is happier, too. Of course, this has ripple effects on the supply chain as companies no longer need to buy large volumes of end-user equipment due to the users purchasing their own, normally from the retail channel. This is exacerbated by a move into the cloud and companies consequently no longer needing as many servers and storage systems as they simply use these “as a service” from the cloud providers – again impacting the supply chain for such equipment.
  • Pervasive communications – of course, for location independence to work, people need access to fast communications links wherever they are. This is continuing to drive the roll-out of faster, cheaper mobile and fixed-line communications throughout the country. This trend will continue – more bandwidth, cheaper, driving the need for even more as applications increasingly take advantage of whatever is available. Inexpensive, or even free, video conferencing is quite normal now – replacing meetings in offices – and the use of vide for demonstrations, sales tools and so on fuels an ongoing demand for even more.
  • Housing prices – one issue that’s seldom mentioned when talking about location independence is the impact on house prices. As people need to cluster less around major metropolitan areas to work, so this must impact prices in areas that were in very high demand for the reason of convenient access to work. Could this be the catalyst that finally bursts the London property bubble? Could it also cause prices to increase in more remote, cheaper areas as people opt for quieter spots? And then what about the impact on transport – less commuting means fewer passengers on the trains and tube. Not only might this mean people actually getting seats when commuting, but it may force the operating companies to reduce prices to try and attract people to use the services.  The socio-economic impact of this location independence could be huge.
  • Holidays / Leave – another interesting result of the increasing move to people working from home is the effect on holidays and leave. Not only is it increasingly difficult to monitor when people are “at work” or not, the lines are also blurring between work and leisure time. All of this creates headaches for companies when it comes to such things as people taking time off. A number of companies, particularly in the USA, are now moving away from formal leave allowances and the administration that goes with this, opting instead for employees being able to determine their own leave requirements, provided they get their work done. Not only does this further improve motivation and morale but improves company balance sheets as they no longer have to provide for paying out against untaken leave – and for large companies, these amount can be substantial.

Just as the Industrial Revolution led to urbanisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, could technology and location independence lead to the reduction of these large conurbations in the 21st century?

One thing’s certain – work will never be the same again.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 4 Mar.

The Changing Way We Work & Live – part 1

Laptop on beach


Laptop on beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a revolution under way that is gaining momentum, and yet doing so in a way that although we scarcely notice the changes from day-to-day, when we look back a few years we can see they’re enormous.

This revolution is in the way we work and live.

Ten years ago, working from 9 to 5 in an office was overwhelmingly the norm, and when we left the office at 5 we effectively switched off from work until we arrived back at our desks the next morning.

Today, this is very different and the lines between work and leisure are increasingly blurred, impacting almost every aspect of life from where we work, to how, when and even to our holidays, and yet we’re really still in the early stages of this revolution.

It all came together with the convergence of the Internet, smartphones and notebook PCs in the mid-late 90s – the Internet becoming increasingly pervasive once a user-friendly browser, Netscape, was released in 1994, the term “Smart Phone” first being used in 1997 and, of course, the increasing power and affordability of notebook PCs throughout the 90s.

By 2000, this convergence of technologies was enabling people to become properly location-independent – accessing email at any time, from anywhere, and moving from this to being able to run an increasingly wider list of applications on these portable devices: initially the notebook PCs, but increasingly on smart phones as the performance of these devices improved. For the first half of the decade, though, such location independence was still the preserve of the ‘early adopters’ as the technologies continued to evolve and the cost and availability of bandwidth improved, with such ‘early adopters’ being equipped by the companies for which they worked.

The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 brought about the next significant jump in working practice – or rather, the introduction of the Apple App Store a few months after the iPhone brought about this jump.  The iPhone and App Store enabled people to choose from a wide range of applications that enabled their smartphones to be so much more functional than had been the case to date.

Suddenly, Apple moved into the mainstream of intelligent device use, and people started demanding that they be allowed to use their own smartphone (the iPhone, in this case) rather than the company-supplied one, (most often a Blackberry at that time). People liked the new applications that were available, and wanted to use these at work as well as in their leisure time.

And then, in 2010, came the iPad…

This combined sufficient power and screen size to effectively run most business-level applications that people needed to access when on the move, with battery life than enable all-day working – a major limitation of notebook PCs that typically could only run for a few hours.

For the first time, people could work remotely from their offices all day without worrying about power source availability – true location-independence had become feasible.

Of course, things continue to evolve. PC makers, seeing massive market share being taken by these portable smart devices (phones and tablets), which outsold PCs for the first time in 2011, have countered with Ultrabooks – full-power notebooks that utilise solid state disks and great battery life to provide full PC performance with all-day power. Tablets, too, get more powerful and functional, while bandwidth continues to become more pervasive and cheaper.

The “Bring Your Own Device” movement is now taking off – users insisting on being able to work with their own choice of devices and companies recognising the cost savings, and motivational advantages of allowing this.

Today, it’s entirely commonplace for employees to have no real office address: their contact details show a mobile number alone, and they work from home, from client sites and from wherever else is most convenient. They come together over video conference calls from multiple places, and share knowledge using a multiplicity of internet-based tools.

And this trend will keep accelerating, with interesting social consequences likely to emerge as society increasingly reverses the location-dependence introduced with the Industrial Revolution.

I’ll explore some of these, together with the technology issues driving them, in future posts.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 11 Feb.

The Morality of Tax Avoidance

Tax

There’s an interesting scuffle about tax going on in the British media at the moment – and it seems that the Government is in danger of being responsible for companies contravening the Companies Act which was rewritten in 2006.

This scuffle started a few months ago with the ‘outing’ of various individuals who were apparently using legal tax avoidance schemes to reduce their tax burden. The newspapers – always looking for some dirt to dig up – leapt on this with joy and the resulting public furore caused a number of wealthy people to apologise publicly for avoiding tax, even though the schemes were legal, and in many cases volunteer to pay more tax.

Secure in the knowledge that a significant part of the British public supported this crackdown on the dastardly villains that were exercising their rights to legally reduce their tax bill, the next step was to take on corporations – and the multinationals were an obvious target: nasty foreign companies taking advantage of making huge profits through the sweat of the (implied: underpaid) British worker, but not paying tax on the proceeds. It’s easy for the press to whip up public support for calls that they pay more tax and for the politicians, ever ready to back a cause that would seem to be a vote-catcher, joined in. In essence, these multinationals were being blamed for cuts in welfare and other government services, completely ignoring the fact of profligate government over-spending for years, if not decades.

What has been completely overlooked in all of this self-righteous posturing (and let’s ignore the ongoing issues with MPs and their expenses) are a few important points:

  • First and foremost, every company’s directors have a fiduciary duty – as laid down in the Companies Act – to “promote the success of the company.” By volunteering to pay more tax than is legally required these boards would act in contravention of the Companies Act and, in fact, directors could therefore be disbarred from serving on boards. Even by the admission of the government, these companies are not engaged in tax evasion (that’s illegal) but are structuring their affairs to minimise tax paid, an activity that is not only legal but necessary in terms of the Companies Act. So the government is encouraging directors to act in contravention of its own laws.
  • E.U. legislation requires there be a single legal head-office for companies operating throughout the region, and companies will obviously look to put this in the country/city that makes the most financial sense overall – tax, employment, etc. So, countries that are competitive in these areas will derive most benefit, while those with higher operating/tax costs will not. That’s called free-market enterprise.
  • The UK tax system is now arguably the most complex of any, having more than doubled in size under Labour from under 5000 pages in 1997, to over 11500 pages in 2009. Such complexity will always result in loopholes being found – a simpler code means more tax, more fairly applied. What about simply imposing a flat tax system – this generally means more tax collected at a fraction of the cost?
  • Figures published early this year showed that some 52% of the working populace in the UK are employed by the State. This means that less than half the workforce is not only supporting those not working, but this massive and grossly inefficient (it must be at this ratio!) government machine, too. The issue, therefore, should not be more tax income, but less expenditure.

But, of course, common sense flies out of the window when it comes to politics.

Our revered “public servants” in the current government recognise that the wealthy, and the captains of industry are unlikely to switch their vote to Labour and by appealing to an increasingly vociferous “mob” they might garner enough votes to remain in power after the 2015 elections. Even if this means abandoning previously-held principles and, in fact, common sense, as by taking this tack they risk chasing even more companies and wealthy individuals to more favourable business climes.

Bear in mind that the top 1% of British earners pay almost 30% of all income tax (more than twice their proportion of earnings), and the top 10% pay almost 60% of all income tax. As these are typically the business owners / leaders – and therefore the employers – encouraging them to move will not only reduce the tax receipts from these critical contributors, but put overall employment at risk, too, threatening the health of the country as a whole.

It’s time for that most uncommon of things – common sense – to start playing a part in the UK; for people to realise that the government doesn’t have money and everyone needs to play their part in the economy and life of the country; for politicians to  stop trying to buy votes with short-term moves that will cost the country dearly in the longer term; and for the media to present a more balanced approach to matters and to actively seek to lift the country out of its current mess by encouraging everyone to work together for the good of all.

“Drowning in Data”

Data Center

Data Center (Photo credit: bandarji)

I’ve just read a fascinating article in The Times of 22nd October which starts out by saying, “The world is ‘drowning in data’ and computing companies are running out of space to store it…”

Some of the interesting numbers that came out of the article:

  • By 2016, the number of devices connected to the internet will be 3x the global population (so, well over 20 billion devices) – that’s up from 9 billion today, itself an eightfold increase in seven years, with the num

    ber expected to reach a staggering 50 billion by 2020.

  • Global IP traffic in 2016 will reach about 120 exabytes / month. That’s 120 million terabytes (or, if you prefer, 120 billion gigabytes) of data every month – and almost 10% is expected to be mobile data.
  • And, if you think YouTube has too much video on nowadays, by 2016 estimates are the 20 000 hours of video will cross the internet every second!

Already this year we’ve seen the explosion of tablets and smartphones – not just in numbers, but in data traffic, too, with the average tablet expected to handle some 4 gigabytes of data every month, up 8x from last year, and the average smartphone to be handling around 2.5 gigabytes of data a month, about 16x more than last year.

This pace of growth indicates both devices overtaking laptops for data traffic in the next year or so as laptops are ‘only’ handling around 7 gigabytes a month, little more than 3x up on last year.

So, we’re creating vast amounts of information but what are we doing with it all? Seemingly, it’s going into enormous storage pools as another recent article in Microscope (19th October) pointed to a significant skills gap when it came to the ability of companies to handle this level of information – ‘Big Data’ as it’s referred to.

Although the article points to research showing that almost 2/3rds of UK business understood the competitive advantages of being able to utilise this data (nearly twice the number of firms in 2010), less than a quarter believe they have the ability to analyse all the unstructured data streaming in.

So, not only do we have a growing issue with storing all this exponentially increasing data traffic, but we’re largely unable to do anything with it.

It’s going to be fascinating to see the business models that spring up to manage this in the next couple of years.