Category Archives: Lifestyle

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.

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.

Can the Olympics Boost British Business?

Olympic Judo London 2012 (2 of 98)

London 2012  (Photo credit: Martin Hesketh)

An interesting phenomenon has hit Britain over the past 2 weeks – the traditional British reserve has been replaced with enthusiasm and a sense of national pride I’ve not seen here before. What’s more – the normally omnipresent negativity about almost everything (not just the weather!) has been quietened to a large extent.

This gives me great hope. Can we draw on this new-found upbeat attitude and start to pull the country out of its recession?

After all, markets are driven at least as much by sentiment as anything else, and a positive sentiment among the people here will inevitably lead to a strong upturn.

So, what lessons have we learnt this month?

Firstly, and very importantly for the future, that competition is healthy after all. For far too long here, and in some other countries, governments have discouraged competition on the basis that it is unfair to those less able. Hence the ludicrous situation of school children, for example, progressing through school regardless of whether they pass or fail their exams, and exam pass marks being lowered, too – the reason we have such huge numbers of school leavers who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. And then wonder why they cannot find, or keep, a job.

Secondly, celebrate success. It seems to me that the news services focus on the negative, and ignore the positive. With the Olympics they were even starting to be accused of jingoism, such was the positive tone of the UK TV services! I realise that disasters sell more newspapers and TV viewship of news channels increases, but it really is not necessary to focus on the negative / bad news about everything all the time. Hopefully, the record viewership and readership during the Olympics will show that good news also sells… And there is good news on the business front – not just bad. There are many success stories, large and small, from Jaguar-LandRover’s expansion to over 300 000 new businesses starting this year – some of which will become the market-leaders of the future (there’s an interesting correlation with market-leaders having more often than not started in periods of recession/downturn).

Thirdly, sport is good for everyone. Britain is already one of the most obese nations on earth and the costs of this in both human and monetary terms are massive. By making sports compulsory for school children – a minimum of three afternoons a week would be good – they develop habits that will stand them in good stead throughout life. It not only reduces the issues associated with obesity, but encourages both team spirit and competition – two things that are critical for overall success in life.

Fourthly, a sense of national identity and community, and pride in this, is good – look at the great work done by the army of volunteers! It really is time for the “Great” to be put back into Britain in the minds of its people. It turns out that not only is Britain third overall in the medals table, but has the best ratio of the all-important Gold medals to GDP of any country (50% better than the next closest) and one of the best ratios in terms of population size, too.

We’ve a unique opportunity to take these lessons and move forward strongly. To move away from a grey society where competition is bad, winning isn’t important and there’s no pride as a consequence. The results will be not only good for business, but a stronger, healthier and happier society, too.

Apps – the next frontier

iPad is a Wi-Fi 64 GB version (another one beh...

Image via Wikipedia

One thing you can be sure about in the IT industry – change. Lots of it, fast and often in unexpected directions.

After 20 years of PCs in various forms increasingly ruling our lives, getting smaller, quicker, more capable software, and so on, suddenly there’s a change afoot that has the potential to eclipse the PC in terms of the effect on our lives.

I’m talking of course, about relatively small mobile devices and the apps that run on them.

Yes, people are buying ever-increasing quantities of tablets with new models coming out on a monthly basis. Smart-phones, of course, are the other half of the hardware equation, and rapidly becoming the dominant phone device in wealthier economies. But without a substantial body of applications – appropriately abbreviated to “apps” as they are relatively small and simple – these devices would be little more than curious ‘toys.’

For those of you that like statistics, how about these:

  • App market size (value) in 2012 – $17.5 Billion, according to GetJar. This is huge, but even more amazing when you consider how many apps are free.
  • App downloads – 4.5 Billion in 2010, 21.6 Billion in 2013, says Gartner. Huge growth, and really underscores the GetJar forecast for the market value.

Recognising  this opportunity, there are expected to be over 10 million app developers by 2016, and we can expect a bewildering choice of, perhaps, a million different apps on each of the major operating systems/platforms as soon as 2014.

Of course, today, the vast majority of apps are for entertainment purposes: games, music, video, etc. But as tablets and smart-phones become increasingly accepted by business, this will change. We can see this starting already – on the iPhone, fully 65% of the top 100 apps are games, whereas on the iPad, this is down to 45%, with business, news and productivity apps showing marked increase on the tablet.

And this is the key behind the phenomenon. Businesses are realising that by allowing users to utilise their own smart-phones and tablets on the company network they’re saving enormous sums of money, both directly (users buying their own equipment) and indirectly (the lifecycle of corporate IT assets can be longer as these smart, mobile devices take some of the load).

What’s more, apps are taking us back to basics. Away from the massive, resource-intensive applications we’ve become used to – full of features that we don’t use, but which helped justify the upgrade (or even initial purchase price) – and towards small, focused apps that just do one thing, but do it well. A sort of RISC approach to software, as we’ve seen on processors.

In the next few years, look for company-owned “App Stores” to become the norm, providing users with a variety of tools to increase productivity by accessing company systems from their mobile devices. Reducing costs for the company and increasing productivity.

Is your business looking at how to take advantage of this next frontier?

Early Birds Make the Best Decisions

Board Meeting.

Image via Wikipedia

A fascinating piece by John Tierney in the NY Times explored the concept of “Decision Fatigue,” concluding that people faced with making a number of decisions do so less well as the day wears on.

In studies with Roy Baumeister, a clear correlation was shown between the quality of decisions made at a point in time and the number/difficulty of decisions subjects had been required to make beforehand.

These studies explain the anomalies in, for example, parole being granted to prisoners by a parole board – those whose applications were heard at the start of the day, or immediately following a break for nourishment, were considerably more likely to succeed that those whose applications were heard at the end of a session, or just before a break.

Car salesmen were able to increase the value of the options taken with vehicles simply by altering the order in which the options were presented: once decision fatigue started to come into play, the buyers were more inclined to simply go with the recommended/default choice, even when it was more expensive and, potentially, less suitable for their needs.

Supermarkets have long had their ‘impulse racks’ at the checkout counters, but the real reasons these work has only recently been understood – shoppers are fatigued from all the decision-making during the shopping process and so are less able to rationally decide against a tempting treat when this is put in front of them.

What transpires from the studies is that the process of decision making depletes glucose levels in the brain and that this affects the way the brain works. In essence, some areas of the brain will work better for longer: the reward centre area continues to function well, while that controlling impulses weakens. So, our buyer who has been through a number of decisions in deciding on options for the new car will look at fewer and fewer factors in coming to a decision and be more prone to impulse – for example, “those leather seats look great.”

Interestingly, it was shown that replenishment of the glucose levels quickly restored decision-making ability, so if our buyer chewed on some sweets during the process he/she might well save some money. Of course, using sweet substances for instant glucose replenishment is just a temporary solution as the glucose derived from sugar is quickly used up – that from complex carbohydrates and proteins providing a steadier supply over time – but it certainly can help in tough situations.

If you need a decision from your boss, choose your time carefully, and maybe soften him/her up with a piece of chocolate at the start of the meeting so the glucose can be absorbed before asking for a decision, unless of course the decision you want is one that does not require change to an existing situation – in which case low glucose levels will favour the status quo.

The bottom line seems to be that you should make your biggest decisions at the start of the day (assuming you have breakfast, of course!) or after a healthy meal. In board and management meetings where there are many decisions to be taken, ensure the participants are suitably nourished and their glucose levels are maintained. As the article recommended – don’t make decisions on restructuring the business at 4pm…

 

Our Changing Lifestyle

London

Many of you will have come across the various forms of the “Did You Know?” or “Shift Happens” slide shows over the past decade or so – there are several versions on YouTube, of course.

Regardless of how accurate you believe the figures presented to be, the facts of the matter are that the nature of work is changing more fundamentally than many people yet believe – and is doing so more quickly than any major change that has gone before.

Urbanisation really came into its own with the Industrial Revolution: although towns/cities had existed almost from the dawn of civilisation, it took the centralising of manufacture to drive the majority of the workforce into conveniently situated accommodation near to their work.

Now, though, two major factors are driving the next big change in the way we live:

  • The increase of service industries – in the US and the UK, this already accounts for around 77% of GDP, v 22% for “traditional industry,” and even in China service industries are fast approaching parity with “traditional industry” in GDP terms (44% v 46%).  Such “knowledge” work is far less location-dependant than manufacturing lines and their like.
  •  The increase in digital communication technologies and speeds which free us up from location dependence even more, as we can talk, meet (over video links), email, and so on from virtually anywhere, any time.

These factors are, of course, spawning ever-more smaller businesses focused on different niche market areas. Big business in many service areas is inefficient as management overheads lead to cost issues when compared with smaller businesses, which are also generally more nimble and able to adapt more rapidly to changing market conditions.

While the higher cost of property in cities was offset by the lower commuting costs which kept the populations of the cities growing, as people need to commute less to central locations so the need to live in a city diminishes and people become freer to choose where to live. Couple this with the issues over living conditions in crowded cities (the recent riots in UK cities underscore some of this) and a somewhat more rural residential lifestyle becomes attractive – less expensive, less crowded, quieter and less potentially dangerous.

The impact this could have on cities is enormous – property prices would drop as supply of properties exceeds demand and infrastructure investment would move elsewhere, following the people. Conversely, large-scale migration to more rural areas will create its own set of problems – residents objecting to large-scale growth (although the shop-owners won’t mind the influx of customers too much), crowded roads and creaking infrastructure which will have to be upgraded to handle the increased loads, and so on. District councils will start to compete with each other to offer the best combination of space (there’s no point moving from one crowded area to another), infrastructure, affordability and general lifestyle.

As location independence grows, the same, of course, should then start to happen at a country level. Some countries – Malaysia, for example – are busy today trying to attract retirees on the basis of lifestyle and costs, and so boost their economies through a relatively high-spending population. Can we expect to see a scenario in the next 10 years where countries compete to attract people on the basis of infrastructure, cost of living and general lifestyle, regardless of where the companies themselves are located?

What would this do for country citizenship, for taxation bases, social security networks and the like? Have you thought about where you would, or wouldn’t, like to live if you were able to be truly location-independent? How does your current country measure up?