Tag Archives: Business

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?

Advertisements

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…

 

The iPad as a Business Tool

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Some 6 months ago, I posted a discussion on LinkedIn to ask advice about how practical a tablet – specifically the iPad – would be for business use on the road and received enough advice to encourage me to take the plunge. As a now-avid user of the technology, I thought it would be useful to post my experiences and the tools I use to assist others.

Background

Like many people today, my work involves frequent travel to London as well as meetings within, normally, a two hour radius of my home-office.

My excellent notebook computer, as is normal, cannot run for a full day without recharging and this then means lugging around a heavy bag with power supply, cables, etc. – not at all comfortable – while my smartphone is simply too small to do “real work” on.

With a 10-hour battery life and a 10-inch screen, the iPad overcomes the shortcomings of both notebook and smartphone – the question was just how usable it would be in a Windows environment like mine.

My Hardware Environment

Taking advice from several people I opted for the WiFi version of the iPad, together with a 3G data package from “three” giving me 15Gb of data a month with a MiFi device and costing just £18.99 a month.

The money I saved on not buying the 3G version was spent on the extra memory – the 64GB model.

Having seen a few other people using their iPads, I went for three “must-have” accessories, too: screen protectors, a capacitive stylus (from Boxwave) and a leather case with built-in Bluetooth silicon keyboard from LuvMac.  The LuvMac case/keyboard is great – not only protecting the iPad but giving me a built-in keyboard for very little weight, so freeing up the whole of the screen space for viewing. With about 100 hours of use out of a charge, I only charge it once a week.

My Software Environment

This was the area that most concerned me. Fortunately iPad apps are fairly inexpensive in the main, so if you make a mistake and get the wrong app for your needs it’s not a huge problem.

The applications I now use all the time (after some experiments) are: Dropbox, DocsToGo Premium, iAnnotate PDF, zipThat and – to access my Home-Office PC – Wyse PocketCloud Pro. Word and Excel files work very well with DocsToGo, although PowerPoint is less successful unless your slides are very simple and have no background pictures, so there’s a great opportunity for somebody to develop a PowerPoint-compatible app. I use both the Kindle app and iBooks for e-books and have a great business modeling app called Business Model. I’m also experimenting with a few other apps for Mind Mapping, general notes/drawing, etc., but haven’t yet settled on anything in particular. Of course, I have a few newspaper and news (TV) apps, too.

Email and Contacts on the iPad are very basic – workable, but not something you would want as your primary system. An Outlook client for iPad would be first prize (especially as I link to multiple mailboxes on various devices, including my smartphone. Another great thing would be a Google Chrome or Firefox app as Safari on the iPad is pretty clunky.

Setting everything up for my home-office environment was extremely easy and the RDP (Remote Desktop) links to my Home-Office PC from within the house (and garden) are very fast. Getting past my Sky Router and my internet security system was more challenging but that’s also now working well and I can access my PC when on the road if I’ve forgotten to put something in my Dropbox folder.

Conclusion

For me, the iPad definitely paid for itself in just a couple of months. I not only use it on the road all the time for email, etc., but also find myself using to take notes in meetings and events instead of using paper – so notes are immediately searchable on my PC, too.

If you have specific comments or suggestions for apps, etc., I’d be happy to hear them and share them through this post.

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?

When Will Interest Rates Rise?

The Bank of England in Threadneedle Street, Lo...

Image via Wikipedia

With the Bank of England having revised the growth rate down to 2.7% this year (from a previous forecast of 2.9%) and inflation rate up to peak at 5% in the fourth quarter (previously 4.5%), expectations are again growing for an interest rate rise in the near-term.

Of course, the classic economic theory is that a rise in interest rates reduces inflation as spend decreases and so demand-driven price rises are no longer a factor.

However, we’re not living in classical times. This economic slowdown – it can’t be called a recession as we’ve not had a further 2 quarters of negative growth – is persisting and there’s no real expectation of a marked change to lacklustre growth rates throughout the developed world. So it’s not demand that’s driving inflation but rather a number of external forces, including climatic conditions and wars, that have pushed up commodity prices. These won’t respond to a rise in interest rates.

So, given this, let’s understand who benefits from the current scenario and what this means for interest rates.

The main beneficiaries of the sustained low bank rate are:

  • The banks themselves – don’t confuse low bank rates with low interest rates for borrowing money. Certainly, the rates are lower than they were before the crash, but not as low as they should be, given the drop in the bank rate. In fact, looking at interest rates charged to companies and individuals for borrowings, the bank’s margins are extremely high. A margin of 3% to 3.5% (the difference between bank rate and lending rate) is normal – today it’s running somewhere between 5% and 7%, depending on your financial profile. The banks are, quite literally, “coining it” – just look at the new bonus rounds for evidence of this.
  • The government – the massive government debt attracts interest costs (they have to borrow the money). Historically, governments borrow money at, or extremely close to, the bank rate, so by keeping this low, the government reduces the amount of its budget spent on interest to service its massive debts.

Yes, homeowners can benefit to a degree, too – but the advantages tend to be a lot smaller in real terms for most people due to the structure of mortgages and the costs associated with moving between fixed and tracker rates, together with the fact that many people can’t change to take advantage of lower rates due to not having enough equity in their properties following the decline in values. And don’t forget that homeowners repaid a record additional £24 Billion on their mortgages last year – getting their mortgage values down ahead of any possible rise to cushion the impact.

So who benefits from higher inflation?

  • In a word: government. It comes back to the massive government debts that have been rung up in the past 10 years. One way to reduce the effective value of them is to allow moderate inflation into the system – simplistically, 5% inflation over 5 years reduces the effective size of the debt by 25%. Couple this with the increased tax receipts that come with inflation and you have a model to get government debt down much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

So, given that inflation won’t respond to a rise in interest rates as this is not caused by high demand, and that the government and banks are the primary beneficiaries of having a slightly higher inflation rate and a sustained low bank rate, is it likely we’ll see an interest rate rise soon?

I think not – although I suspect the impact of a rise in bank rates may be felt less than generally expected. In fact, it might well lead to lending rates not going up at all as the banks would use this as a way to try to woo customers from each other, keeping lending rates where they were before – let’s face it, they have more than enough room in their margins to absorb a few modest rises in the bank rate.

Can Mergers & Acquisitions be More Successful?

Board meeting room

Image via Wikipedia

Why is it that although many companies, and almost all large ones, grow through mergers and acquisitions, most of these result in a decline in overall value, rather than the envisaged increase?

In the lead-up to such activity – the “engagement period” if you like – shareholders are shown clearly the benefits that the merger or acquisition will bring: lower overall costs, great (combined) market share, stronger sales teams, more experienced management in the combined entity, and so on. All of which is supposed to lead to greater overall value for the shareholders – a case of the proverbial 1+1 resulting in a good deal more than 2.

The reality is, far too often, startlingly different with 1+1 adding up to a good deal less than 2. In other words, significant shareholder value is lost in the process.

Naturally, there are many reasons for this decline in value – most commonly those resulting from a attempt to merge two very different corporate cultures and the consequent fall-out. And much of this happens in the board room.

I’ve seen many cases of incompatible cultures clashing in boardrooms, although I’m fortunate to have avoided this first-hand. Too often, the newly constituted board in an M&A situation will have directors drawn from the two companies proportionate to the value of each part in the transaction and so the acquirer will seek to dominate the acquiree, even when the reason for the acquisition (as is often the case) is that the latter has qualities the former believes is missing from its own company. The result is the departure of the very expertise being acquired and the consequent drop in overall value.

It seems to me that there is one reasonably simple way to increase the likelihood of success – and that is to increase the size of the overall board with the appointment of further Independent Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) when companies are undertaking mergers and acquisitions.

The Corporate Governance Code states “Except for smaller companies, at least half the Board, excluding the Chairman, should comprise Non-Executive Directors determined by the Board to be independent. A smaller company should have at least two independent Non-Executive Directors.”  But how many companies actually carry this through?

Should this strong recommendation not be even more strictly adhered to during the M&A process? Bringing a substantial body of independent, experienced NEDs to a board can reduce the level of infighting and help to ensure that the talent/expertise being acquired stays in the transaction.

As we see the global economy slowly recovering, we can expect to see a strong increase in M&A activity as companies seek to assure their future positions while values are still relatively low. This is the time for boards of companies – large and small alike – to become more independent.

Related Articles

Can Twitter Really Drive Investment Decisions?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

A group of hedge-fund managers are launching a multi-million dollar hedge fund next month, using Twitter as its market indicator to determine sentiment and to thereby make investment decisions.

This information came from a recent article on CNBC / Yahoo Finance which quoted Derwent Capital Markets – a London-based hedge fund – as saying it had successfully marketed the new venture, officially called the Derwent Absolute Return Fund, to high net-worth clients and had attracted over £25 million in investments.

The company is confident it can achieve returns of at least 15-20% per annum by analyzing information gathered from over 100 million tweets each day, which the firm brands as “The 4th Dimension.”

On the face of it, this may sound like a risky, or even crazy, venture – but is it?

Let’s face it, the concept of rational markets has been comprehensively debunked during the last few years of economic crisis, and the global growth in wealth came to a dramatic end largely through a change in general sentiment. We’ve also seen plenty of allegations – many apparently backed by evidence – of collusion between those in research and those in investment banking to pump stock prices of certain companies at various times. In fact, based on this and my own experience, it seems that relying on the “experts” to manage your investments is no greater guarantee of success than simply using a general market-tracking fund – and often provides worse returns.

Furthermore, most people agree that we won’t see real growth return this cycle until consumer confidence picks up. Isn’t that really just about general market sentiment?

So contrary to some of the views on this fund, I would argue that this is a smart bunch of people – what they’re doing is using current technology to gauge market sentiment and make investment decisions from there.  Instead of listening to a small group of people to try to understand what “the man in the street” is saying, they’re tapping into the collective feelings of millions.

I see this as the start of a whole new way of tapping into societal collective wisdom and sentiment. What do you think?