Category Archives: technology

The End of Cash?

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It’s interesting to see the number of recently introduced products coming to market which are designed to, in effect, remove the need for cash.

One that has garnered particular attention recently is, of course, Square. This comprises a small application that resides on your iPhone (or iPad, iPod Touch) or Android phone, together with a little reader that plugs straight into the audio input jack of the phone and turns it into a personal credit card payment machine that will allow the user to accept credit card payments from anyone for a small fee (typically 2.75% + 15c). With no costs for set-up, application or card reader this is sure to change the game for those tens of millions of small businesses, traders and professionals that have, until now, fallen outside the electronic payment net because they are too small for the card companies to serve cost-effectively.

But Square is not alone – Obopay allows anyone with a  mobile phone to set up an Obopay account and, for just 25-50c (plus 1.5% if you’re using a credit card to fund your account) send money – in other words, make a payment – to anyone else with a mobile phone, whether or not that person already has an Obopay account. Again, there are no setup costs.

And then there’s Intuit with its GoPayment service that also enables credit card payments from a mobile phone – this time with a Bluetooth reader – at a cost of 1.7% + 30c per transaction, although this service does have a monthly service cost of $12.95 attached to it (I wonder for how long, though, given the competition above).

Doubtless there are many others, too, either in stealth mode at present or on the drawing board.

What’s more, these systems allow you to build purchase histories by customers, offer loyalty programs and great levels of service more simply than the straightforward cash systems did – so even the smallest businesses can step up their marketing at little or no cost.

At present, all these products only work for you if you’re a US-resident/business, but it’s only a (hopefully short) matter of time before they go global and the way of transferring value changes forever from cash to electrons. No more looking for change, worrying about how the currency in a new country you’re visiting works, being concerned whether anybody’s watching as you withdraw a large amount of cash from an auto-teller…. And, of course, if you’re a small business, no more concerns about having the right change for those large notes that auto-tellers like to give, about the value sitting in your till, or being worried when taking your cash to deposit it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how society changes over the next generation as we move from cash altogether. Will the nationalistic bonds to a currency (and the resulting issues of payments from/to different countries and with travel) be removed, and could we find a common global currency?

And, of course, we’re seeing the continued drive for the mobile phone to be less a telephone and more a personal digital assistant in every way – clock, alarm, calendar, address book, diary, music player, radio, newspaper, camera, voice recorder and now, wallet. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how many of the Generation Ys don’t wear watches – their phones tell them the time. Has the watch industry got an answer to this, its potentially biggest threat?

We’re at a very interesting point in the 5000 year evolution of money as we know it. Will it disappear completely as a physical object in the next 20 years?

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Living Your Brand – do companies really care about their Brand?

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2010 certainly seems to be going down as the year when the proverbial corporate skeletons are coming out of the cupboard:

  • Toyota – which had built its brand on reliable, safe vehicles – recalls many millions of cars all around the world in an apparently ongoing saga, with new recalls being announced almost monthly;
  • Goldman Sachs – viewed by many as the pre-eminent merchant bank – being sued for fraud by the SEC and now under investigation by the UK regulators, too;
  • Many airlines – especially those using words like “Favourite” and “5 Star” in their advertising – simply refusing to abide by their legal obligations, in terms of Regulation 261/2004, to provide accommodation and refreshments for their stranded passengers during the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

And this is just a sample of the more recent headline-grabbing issues.

Are they really “Too big to fail” – or just too big to care?

I suspect they believe the latter, not recognising the truth in the old adage that “Pride comes before a fall.” Remember, almost none of the largest and then most successful companies in, say, 1900, are still in any position of strength today – in fact most have disappeared altogether.

These corporates need to get back to basics, to remember that it is their customers that pay their salaries and to start treating their customers as the company’s most precious resource, rather than as a necessary irritant. Simply repeating a marketing mantra branding themselves as the pre-eminent company in their field doesn’t make it true…

The fact is that branding is a lot more than just a logo with a catchy by-line – a company’s brand is everything to do with that company, and the logo is just something to recognise it by as we’re visual creatures. Branding is about customer service, branding is about the way customers interact with the company in all ways, branding’s about staff training, branding includes corporate governance and social responsibility, branding is about all the materials that company produces – from marketing through packaging to the products themselves – in fact, branding is about everything to do with a company.

And this is where so many companies are falling down: they’ve lost sight of everything but the short-term pursuit of the bottom line. And I use “short-term” advisedly – as without attention to all aspects of their corporate brand, those companies will lose customers and start to fail.

Just look at the consumer backlash against many banks that they perceive to have been complicit in the economic downturn. Imagine how consumers who have been poorly treated will feel about giving more of their hard-earned money to those airlines that left them high and dry. Will former Toyota buyers be as happy to buy another Toyota?

Companies need to start refocusing on their entire brand, they need to recognise the power of instant communication for their customers and embrace it to make a positive difference, and they need to once again really put their customers first instead of just saying they do.

What do you think – do companies no longer care about their brand in pursuit of profits? Have you joined the growing ranks of disgruntled consumers and, if so, which are the brands you love to hate?

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Twitter – The “Next Big Thing” for Business

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With Twitter set to pass the magic 100 Million user mark later this month, or early May, and the company having been valued at around a Billion Dollars last year, it’s moved from the realms of novelty. So, should business sit up and take note; is it the “Next Big Thing” as a business tool?

Speaking with business leaders and marketers, one gets mixed responses – the enthusiastic advocates on the one hand, and those that hope it will fade away as it can potentially damage their company, they believe, on the other.

There’s no question that any public forum can be used by people to disparage, or worse, a company, but is that a reason to abstain from that forum, or should one take the opportunity to embrace it and counter any adverse remarks? After all, unhappy customers that are turned around tend to become the most loyal advocates…

Others look at Twitter and ask whether 140 characters is really enough for any sort of meaningful dialogue with customers and dismiss it on this basis. But in our information-overloaded world, is brevity not a blessing?

Properly used, there is no question in my mind that Twitter really can become a significant business tool:

  • Customer service – probably the first Twitter application area to be embraced, companies like Southwest Airlines, Staples and Zappos have found it invaluable to track unhappy customers, respond quickly and show a great service ethos.
  • Sales leads – of course, great customer service leads to sales, but many more companies, like Dell, Sony and Starbucks are using Twitter to promote products; in fact an article last month reported Sony measuring over £1 Million in sales directly attributable to its Vaio Twitter account.
  • Promotions – an extension of the sales leads application is using Twitter for promoting special offers to followers. As the integration of GPS technology with phones increases, these could even be location and time specific, making them highly targeted.
  • Product feedback – companies are often accused of making products that customers don’t need, or of not including “obvious” features. Twitter can give a window for listening to the needs and views of a very wide customer base.
  • Order tracking – an area I’ve yet to see, but one I think is an obvious one: imagine being able to Direct Tweet to a courier company and get an automated response as to where your special delivery is in the system…

In fact, the possibilities are endless – limited only by imagination. With Twitter, companies have access to an incredible mass direct marketing tool without the dangers of being considered spammers – people would simply unfollow those they consider annoying – and one which can provide real-time, real-person feedback on an incredibly wide range of issues.

Twitter, I firmly believe, is poised to be the “Next Big Thing” for business, and companies that ignore it do so at their peril.

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Does “The Cloud” Make Sense for Business?

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The interest in Cloud Computing has grown exponentially in the past few months with a quick Google search on “The Cloud” and on “Cloud Computing” yielding over 25 million articles between the two phrases.

Suddenly, it seems, this is the panacea for all that ails in the technology space – or is it?

There is certainly a good deal of ongoing investment in giant data farms – although the cost of power required to run, and cool, these massive installations is now causing serious concern. I’ve seen estimates of up to 100MW for a giant server farm under development, with 50MW farms apparently not being unusual. Consequently we’re seeing imaginative schemes to overcome this in advanced stages of investigation – ranging from hydroelectric schemes in particularly cold countries with good water, like Iceland and Finland, to Scottish tidal power, to some companies even investigating building sea-platforms that use wave energy for power and sea water for cooling.

However, there is equally a slow but steady increase in governments wanting to monitor data traffic – apparently for security reasons, although I suspect there may be oversight by the fiscal authorities, too. Even Australia is talking about Internet filtering…

All of this is adding greatly to the conversation, of course, with equally strong lobbies on both sides of the debate – much around whether Cloud Computing is taking us back to the old “mainframe and dumb terminal” computing days or whether it’s taking us forward to an more secure, cost-effective era, albeit with the possibility of less flexibility with systems and information.

In my view, though, the issue of whether to adopt a Cloud architecture or not comes down to individual companies and applications – and for the purposes of this discussion, I mean a public Cloud architecture, rather than one owned by the end-user company.

To my mind, the companies that should strongly look at this approach are the SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises). The reasons here are straightforward economics – few will have the staff or the capital resources to have a fully secure IT infrastructure, complete with Disaster Recovery. This means multiple servers in multiple locations, interconnected by very high speed links and a significant IT team managing it all, with a strong security system. By adopting Cloud architecture for most applications – including that most critical one of all for most businesses, email – the issues of security, availability, backup and full disaster recovery are outsourced to the experts and the SME gets on with running its business. That’s not to say you dispense with PCs – they will still have a strong place in many areas, from detailed individual analysis of data to creative writing, design, etc.

For large corporates, though, the issue is different. They have large IT teams. They have multiple locations, many servers and, generally, already have high-speed connections between them all. Therefore, ensuring adequate levels of security and availability while having a proper backup regimen and a full set of disaster recovery plans for each location, should be routine and already in place. For these organisations, Cloud Computing makes little sense – except, perhaps, for some specialist applications that are not available in another form.

And, of course, if all the world’s large corporates had all their corporate systems in a few locations, what a tempting terrorist target that would make – SPECTRE, of James Bond fame, would seem tame by comparison with the havoc that could be wrought in such a scenario.

So, to answer the question about whether “The Cloud” makes sense for business, my view is that for most SMEs, certainly. For large corporates, probably not. What do you think?

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