Wednesday 28 May 2008

Enterprise IT

Information Technology (IT) in enterprises and corporations is often characterised by uniformity, outdated basic specifications, boring 'grey' designs, and a lack of aesthetic appeal.  The consumer market for devices and gadgets by contrast typically has a much faster innovation cycle, some wonderful design flair, and in general IT that people want to own and use.  Enterprise IT almost invariably includes a Microsoft element and indeed the software giant is very good at selling to organisations.  It understands much less about selling to individual consumers; indeed most private individuals use of its product revolves around the Windows operating system for PCs, which the consumer almost never has to buy due to it being automatically bundled with the hardware.  Apple, on the other hand, has a relationship with consumers which is built around a core of loyalty but has not particularly courted the enterprise market outside of educational institutions and publishing houses. 

IT departments cost organisations quite a significant amount to run, and are often outside their core business.  Outsourcing is a common option but there is an increasing trend beginning to happen, and one which I believe we will see much more of in future, especially where the IT mainly consists of desktop computing and personal items (mobile phones, PDAs etc.).  This trend, the so-called "Consumerisation of IT", is where instead of providing the IT kit, the organisation treats it much like many treat the provision of company cars.  The enterprise doesn't have an IT department in this scenario, but rather gives each employee some money to buy their own mobile phone, laptop computer etc.  Suitable providers can be briefed by the company on what the minimum required specification is for its employees.   Employees can also purchase training if they want it.  This together with any hardware repair or replacement costs can be claimed back via the existing expenses system in the enterprise.  For a number of companies, this can actually be a cheaper option than running the IT department, company-wide licence provision, and policy specification, communication and attempted enforcement.  

But this way of providing IT is not just about the economic benefits.  In the future, talented people who apply for jobs may choose who they want to work for partly on the basis of how flexible the organisation is about the kit they have to use to perform the job.  In particular many of these people will have better kit which they are more familiar with already in their (consumer) private lives, and will baulk at the idea of downgrading when they join a new company.  User satisfaction will be an important factor.  And to attract the best people, enterprises will need to offer the most flexible options.   The corporate/personal life split of synchronising information between devices will also be unsustainable without more flexible unification of the two.  There will be a general blending of work/life entities.  

So maybe the Apple approach to wooing consumers and Microsoft's lack of understanding them will result in a gradual shift in who dominates enterprise IT in future?  

Saturday 24 May 2008

Processor chip fab process roadmaps

IBM is estimating that 32nm chips will be available as prototypes in Q3 this year, and that these will be 35% faster than the current crop of 45nm chips while consuming 30-50% less power.  This should bode well for the next couple of years' consumer electronics gadgets!   The use of high-K dielectric compounds possibly including Hafnium also apparently extends to a plan to move to a 28nm process as well.  Results from nanotech research experiments suggest that 22nm will also be possible without prohibitively high leakage currents in the gate junctions on chip at that scale.   I believe there are even more exciting nanoscale developments to come in this context in the next decade.  Coupled with the new technologies for powering devices more efficiently in that same decade, the prospects look very bright indeed. 

Thursday 22 May 2008

Education futures ...

While companies and other organisations have had to change the way they structure themselves and operate to keep up to date over the decades, our education system has remained largely the same.  Sure, successive Governments have tinkered with the funding and selection policies but the way that children are taught has largely remained unchanged through all of that.  We have children who are six years old being taught how to look up and organise information by teachers who are sixty years old.  Many such children are now growing up within an environment where to look up things on Wikipedia or to Google extensively is a natural part of their normal activity. 

While businesses have largely embraced the idea of flexible working and collaborative outsourcing, the education system typically runs the same fixed hours and types of locations for classrooms which it always has, in some cases since Victorian times!   Education still also has a long way to go with exploiting collaborative technology to afford students new ways of learning compared to the traditional one teacher to many pupils model.  

The number of years needed to gain a degree has been constant for as long as people can remember and the University and general higher education policy in recent decades has been ruined by an artificial quest to raise numbers instead of maintaining quality.  The Open University was one of the products of the post-war era which along with the National Health Service came out of the need for innovation at that time, and indeed a period of desperation.  As Bob Geldof mentioned on Tuesday at the Innovation Edge conference, if necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is often the father of necessity.  Perhaps we will finally get round to proper reorganisation of the education system to better suit the needs of people today, when the country becomes even more desperate for a better skilled and prepared workforce, rather than just because the future technology will support a more collaborative approach?

Tuesday 20 May 2008

A collaborative future ?

The online web technologies of the future will enable collaboration like never before.  There are real needs for a collaborative approach to solving the future problems of the planet.  In addition to current issues such as climate change, it is inevitable that the future will hold new wars that we fail to avoid, and epidemics/pandemics that kill even more people than the wars.  At present, the focus of many is the threat of the power of emerging economies in Asia such as India and China.  Beyond that though, one can imagine a collaborative scenario of online distributed power, a new form of democracy in the hands of groups of individuals who can influence and innovate on a global basis.  Ten million additional phone users are being added in India alone every month.  And many phones are internet devices now.  There is also enormous underestimated potential in the continent of Africa too.  Phone users there are in many cases already using their mobile minutes credit as mobile electronic payments in ways that makes European and North American culture look some distance behind. 

Bob Geldof quoted George Bernard Shaw at the Innovation Edge conference in London today... "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself".  Social entrepreneurs are essential to innovation and they are examples of unreasonable people - the world needs more of them.  

The Innovation Edge - The Web

Hi from the Innovation Edge conference, where I just listened to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who as ever was amazingly humble and straightforward about his view of the World Wide Web that he invented.  It was particularly interesting to note the comment that there are now more web pages than neurons in the human brain but that of course the number of the former increases every day whereas the latter decreases!

There are a great line of speakers at the event today, and I look forward to listening to Bob Geldof in the next session.   Sir Tim said that he hoped the web would allow and facilitate the solution of the huge social, economic and above all global challenges that we face for the future by enabling collaboration in new and existing ways between the geographically separated brains around the planet.  The next speaker has clearly championed a number of the causes underlying those challenges and put them into the global consciousness over the last decades.   More later...

Thursday 15 May 2008

How men and women shop differently...

It's fairly well known that men and women generally approach the task of shopping in completely different ways.  My wife, like many women, treats shopping as a regular therapeutic exercise which is a social activity.  She will spend hours going from store to store and walk miles between them, searching out and comparing various items and options.  Like most men, I prefer to decide on the detail of what I am looking for before setting out and then visit just one or two stores to purchase the item in as shorter time as possible.  

The interesting thing borne out of some research done recently is that when shopping online instead of in 'bricks and mortar' stores, the behaviour of men and women is likely to be reversed.  Women more often tend to look online for a single comparison or search, visit an online store and then purchase the item.  Men are more likely to spend a lot more time surfing around online looking at all the detail and assessing the various options from all over the web, before putting any items into the online basket and moving to the checkout stage.  

Wednesday 14 May 2008

How easy is sharing media online?

Today we have lots of ways that have been devised to let people share media online.   Whether it be Picasa or Flickr for photos or video sites like YouTube or GoogleVideo, or mechanisms embedded into applications such as photocasting or web galleries supported by Apple's iLife suite, there are many options for the net-savvy to share their digital stuff with other people.  But is this really what we ideally want?  My mum is still struggling with moving to a digital camera from film, and she's not alone when it comes to being less than confident or enthusiastic about the new online world and how it complements her new digital devices.  There are many 'mums' out there!

What I mean is that surely we would like these sharing methods to be more direct and intuitive.  Just knowing what is out there and good to use is baffling enough for many.  Most Flickr or Picasa users chose that particular way to share their photos because a friend already used it to share some with them!  It was by word of mouth or in some sense viral.  And it's not just about discovery of mechanism either.  

When my mum shared a traditional photo with someone, she probably ordered a copy of the print, and either sent it by mail or physically handed it to someone.  She didn't have to concern herself about whether the picture would fall into the wrong hands as a side effect of the sharing.  Neither did she have to worry about the capacity of the person storing a copy.  And there was often no need for her to point the copy out to the people she sent it to either - if it was included or passed on, it was self explanatory.  In the online world, all of these additional things often cross people's minds.   It's extra stuff to think about - and there is plenty more.  

In the far future, we want to be able to simply think about the idea of sharing media (and other things) with particular people and it happens.  When biotechnology advances allow this intimate interfacing between human and machine, we will be back to a more simplistic world of naturally conveying digital content between people.  The underlying mechanisms will simply make it happen, and utilise the appropriate networks and devices to achieve it.  

In the meantime, lets hope there will be some significant improvements in the way we deal with sharing the enormous and ever-increasing amount of digital content we are creating.  Storage will soon be a commodity item - it is how and to whom we expose what is stored that is important.  If such improvements are made, maybe more 'mums' will be comfortable with climbing fully aboard the technology train.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Nanotube paper to provide power!

Some Chinese physicists have invented some new paper made from carbon nanotubes which is super-thin and super-strong.  It also conducts both heat and electricity extremely well.  One practical use for this 'paper' is to make super-capacitors - devices that store up to a thousand times the electrical energy of normal capacitors.  Such devices are often used in applications where a sudden large surge is required such as when starting a large engine.  But it is not just the starter motors of future traditional cars that might benefit from these developments.  Super-capacitors are also being used in newer hybrid powered cars and in prototype fuel cell based vehicles.  It is also possible that the same nanotube paper could help remove heat generated by computer processor chips.

Monday 12 May 2008

Future Internet ... Flattening the Earth?

The Internet is providing a global platform of relative freedom for all.  Socially and politically, the world is effectively being flattened, letting people from almost anywhere regardless of their status or background have a voice and a means to innovate.  As non-democratic Governments around the globe continue to struggle to maintain political control, the Net brings more individuals together into virtual online communities.  Such communities will gradually assume more power and there have already been examples of how these online groups, which may be dynamically formed and self-organising, have successfully formed to support specific causes and managed to influence decision makers in a number of organisations including Government.  

Further ahead, it may be that the Net based community movements will also begin to steer the sort of regulatory decisions that currently Governments aspire to make.  Where these decisions are about regulating individuals rather than business,  this shift may be most significant and indeed effectively flatten layers of Government.  Is this the 'ultimate' in political flattening and perhaps devolution and democracy itself?

Friday 9 May 2008

The promise of increasing addiction ?

Is technology driving an increase in addictions?   Many people now state that they can't bear to be without their mobile phone.  Many corporate folk are similarly panic-stricken if they are parted from their Blackberry device for any amount of time.  Believe me - I work with some of them!  Many of those who are games console fans or hardcore PC gamers become extremely immersed in the environments that those games create.  Then there are the hardened social networkers, bloggers and twitters, who by the nature of trying to keep their net based contributions up-to-date, spend large amounts of time being connected and posting new stuff!   

As more people have more personal internet connected gadgets about their person, they will spend more time connected and therefore involved in communicating, information gathering, transacting and being entertained.  And because these devices will be personal to them, they are more inclined to become attached to them emotionally and therefore potentially addicted.

In the future, the use of the Internet will be so ingrained into society and the way things are done, it will be impossible to accomplish some tasks without a connection.  Already it is impossible for some classes of business to file a tax return without using the net.  And at present we are only in the very early infancy of the Internet.  As virtual world environments become even more immersive in their experience, and their use becomes even more widespread, both in business and people's personal lives, they will also lend themselves to addictive tendencies.  

A final thought in this space is that many people are busier and more stressed in their daily working lives, especially by increasing information overload as connectivity provides more ways for them to be contacted, tracked and monitored, more may then turn to technology based stimuli to relax with when they manage to be "off-duty".  This additionally provides for other technology time! 

So it appears that there will be many pressures on people and reasons why technology could drive more addiction ... maybe health services need to take this into account when considering future scenarios?  

Thursday 8 May 2008

The potential UK digital HD publicity disaster

Digital terrestrial television is now getting pretty well established in the UK, supported by both the cheap availability of set-top boxes (STBs) and the falling price of HD-ready flat panel TVs.  The BBC in particular have had a very extensive campaign about the switch-over for sometime now and it has been very clear about what the general public need to do to be part of the digital TV revolution.  

However techies like myself realised a considerable while ago that once high definition (HD) broadcasts were made available on Freeview (as the terrestrial version is known here) the existing STBs and HDTVs being purchased would have to be replaced in order to receive the HD channels.  In the case of the latter, HDTVs with Freeview receivers built-in, they will at least require a STB for the HD channels.  This is at least partially due to the use of MPEG2 coding for existing digital transmissions and the decision to move to the MPEG4 standard for HD broadcasts.  This will disappoint many ordinary consumers who may partially have decided to invest in such a TV in order to get digital without needing a separate box underneath it!    The tech community often fail to appreciate the things that appeal to these consumers (like my Mum!) including such things as the simple aesthetics of how many damn boxes have to be plugged in just to see the best picture possible.   The cost of a replacement box/TV within such a short period will not go down well with many consumers either. 

HD broadcasts on Freeview are only just being mooted here since it will be a while before the space is found to accommodate them by re-organising the existing channel/multiplex arrangements as well as the analogue broadcasts being turned off.   Therefore the full reaction once this necessity becomes understood is far from being realised yet.   But it isn't a good situation for the tech community to be in, nor a good way to give more people confidence about future technological advances.  

As a postscript, the BBC and ITV have in the last few days been announcing the FreeSat alternative for those who prefer to use a dish and STB rather than terrestrial antennas for their TV and stressing the HD capability of this delivery mechanism.   Perhaps they believe that those who switch to this will not notice the Freeview issue since they will sell them a new STB with the dish anyway.  It might just bring the requirements for people who want to stick with Freeview for HD into more focus instead.  

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Sunny days inspire green power!

Today is the warmest and sunniest day in the UK so far this year ... and on such days I wish the technology of photo-voltaic solar cells was already developed to the point of being economic to be widespread.  It needs to be as easy as going to the local DIY store and buying replacement tiles for the roof that can be snapped together and combined to increase the electrical power yield.  I hope on days such as this that this type of technology reaches critical mass very very soon.  As many of us continue to increase the number of devices we have that are consumers of electricity and the time that they are used, there is even more reason to want the electricity they need to come directly from natural so-called green sources.  

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Retailing and Web 2.0

This YouTube parody comedy video showing what happens when you combine Web 2.0 technology with retailing in a supermarket made me smile.  How many Web 2.0 points can you spot as it plays through?   

Sunday 4 May 2008

Microsoft & Yahoo

Well for now it seems like Microsoft has pulled out of the bid for Yahoo ... suggesting of course that the price is the deal breaker.   However one of the little details which has happened behind the scenes during the long battle, which might have just proved a regulatory nightmare, is Yahoo outsourcing its online advertising to Google!  Still given that the Yahoo share price has fallen since the announcement, it's indeed possible that Microsoft plan simply to buy later at a better price.  

Friday 2 May 2008

Energy future scenarios by Shell

I've been reading the strategy vision document published by Shell which identify two scenarios under the name of Scramble and Blueprints.  These scenarios span from now to 2050 and contrast the Scramble of National Governments to secure their own energy supplies against the formulation of coalitions between all levels of society and Governments to produce a new energy framework.  There is also a video on the Shell website which describes these scenarios.   It will be interesting to see how much actually happens from both scenarios - as I expect there will be a blending effect in due course from each type of approach that society and Governments pursue.