A beautiful application of technology it is to use it to bring sunlight to a place naturally deprived from it.
With a peculiar orography, Rjukan small town west of Oslo, Norway is surrounded by mountains that prevent sunlight from reaching its almost 3500 inhabitants between September and March each year. A pioneering project is installing three computerized mirrors that will direct sunlight to the town’s market square.
Powered by solar and wind energy, the heliostat mirrors are controlled by a computer program following the sun movements to provide an illuminated ellipse-shaped area of 600 square metres.
A century in the making
The town was established in the beginning of the 20th century around the industrial settlements of the Norsk Hydro Company exploiting the waterfalls in the area for power generation. The importance of sunlight was identified as early as 1913, when Sam Eyde, founder of Norsk Hydro, envisioned the idea of a mirror to direct sunlight to the settlement in the valley.
A century later, the vision has become a reality thanks to the application of modern technology. A beautiful and environmentally friendly application of modern technology to deliver the sun to those deprived of it.
The ubiquitous nature of technology and the frenetic pace at which it evolves becomes dramatically obvious when products with a traditionally longer lifecycle embrace electronics and software traditionally only available in computers. The flooding of technology into these consumer products can be seen everywhere, with TV sets becoming closer and closer to computers with Internet connection and multiple apps that go well beyond the original intention of the base product, or cars with multiple, software-powered, onboard systems such as Navigation, Audio, Phone and Voice command, just to name a few.
This increased affordability of computing power and ubiquitous connectivity brings a whole new world of possibilities to enhance the traditional concept of certain consumer products, it has also had a number of downsides. Some products have seen their life cycle accelerated and a TV set that not so long ago had its lifecycle measured in decades, is now reduced to a few years. The adoption of advanced operating systems to power day to day consumer products accelerates obsolescence of these bringing it closer to that of computers.
Cars, for obvious reasons, are a different story. Long lasting products by nature, and with manufacturers integrating more and more technology (both hardware and software) onto them, a situation is created in which the (expensive) technology onboard vehicles, such as GPS Navigation, gets quickly outdated, with very few options for upgrading the hardware part of it. These systems soon pale when compared to the much more affordable, and easily upgradable features available in smartphones for a fraction of the cost.
Moves like iOS in the car, announced as a yet-to-be-implemented feature in iOS 7, can be game changing by going far beyond just providing a pretty interface for your iPhone when shown on your onboard screen. They can go as far as transplacing the complete onboard technology of vehicles into a smartphone, by basically getting all the software to run remotely in you
r handheld device, rather than in the onboard processors.
First of all, the obsolescence is over. All your car will provide is a screen, and that is the only thing that can get obsolete. The Navigation software available on iOS (despite the Apple maps fiasco) is on par with any onboard GPS system, and comes for free. No in car GPS hardware required, no more slow processors that can only run simple maps, no
more costly upgrades to onboard maps. Online maps permanently updated, real time traffic information and all the necessary hardware packed in your smartphone, which you can upgrade as frequently as you wish.
Audio is another key application brought by iOS in the car, creating a specific interface for managing your audio library while on the move, together with the phone interface.
Siri is King
In my humble opinion this is the moment that Siri has been waiting for. Interacting with onboard technology in cars has been, and still is, a big safety concern. Whilst all manufacturers have invested obscene sums in creating intuitive interfaces (BMW’s iDrive, Lexus’ Remote Touch or Audi’s MMI as an example), they still require attention from the driver. Of course most of the premium brands have implemented voice command systems, but in most cases require learning or following very specific instructions with accuracy being low enough not to be a full alternative to the physical interaction.
But here comes Siri, with the ability to understand natural language and take dozens of different instructions without the need for the driver to learn how to enumerate them.
Basing your car electronics in a naturally connected device brings new possibilities by being able to make use of Siri’s current (and possibly future) capabilities like finding restaurants, petrol stations around the current location, finding movies to watch and maybe booking hotel rooms in the future.
If Apple opens iOS in the car to developers, I bet we will be seeing cars giving away most of their onboard technology transplacing it to apps implemented in iOS which will manage most of the car functions, with Siri as the main way of interacting with your vehicle systems, from your Navigation, Climate control, Audio, Video and even car adjustments to be managed easily by interacting with apps in your Smartphone while talking to Siri.
Not a bad move, and one that would increase customer loyalty once a long lasting good like your car is tied to a particular Smartphone platform, on top of possibly transforming the way we understand technology onboard vehicles. And bring a second life to them.
Today I attended a very interesting session about Customer Service, in which it was made clear that customers expect more than service excellence, they want to be delighted. Apparently customer expectations have gone to a complete new
level, in which Customer satisfaction is now worthless, customers expect that their needs are anticipated, they want to be surprised well beyond their expectations.
We all try to differentiate from our competitors by improving and continuously improving our products, services and processes, implementing better and more sophisticated technologies that enable us to do more with less, but this, by itself, does not bring customer satisfaction, furthermore, it does not delight our customers. No matter how good our systems and processes are, most of your experience as a customer will be down to the person that managed the interaction with us. This will determine whether you will be satisfied or not. Even though, Customer satisfaction is no longer enough. It is now necessary to delight the customer, which is down to how you make your customer feel throughout the whole interaction. Whether you are able to anticipate their needs, and create that wow factor that will be long remembered after the interaction.
The shortest distance between two persons is a smile
Yes, technology can help provide the necessary tools for staff to be more efficient and provide a better service. It is a necessary, yet not sufficient condition for delighting your customers. It is down to the physiology of your customer facing staff, the way the talk, the way the make eye contact and above all, the way they smile. And this is not something that is taught in a customer service training, it is something that needs to be part of the DNA of the Organization. It is the face that you have when you arrive at work that will be seen -and remembered- by your customers. What differentiates good companies from great companies is precisely that, their staff, and how the culture they breath every day influences them, which will ultimately determine how genuine their smile. After all there is nothing worse than a clearly fake smile right?.
As the session went by, I started remembering a few past experiences in one of my favorite companies, Singapore Airlines. Air travel is by nature very anonymous, as you share a small space with a few other hundreds of passengers, and crew see hundreds, if not thousands of customers every week. This seems to be the perfect base of an impersonal service. Yet after so many flights I still get impressed by how they are able to transform an anonymous experience into a personal one. And how they are still able to create that wow factor, by going that extra few miles that are not in any onboard service manual. It is not only about saying please or thank you, it is about genuinely and generously keeping your ego to yourself and letting customers have their moment.
Not all crew are the same, of course, and there are always good and bad days. But one thing (and I say this by personal experience), these guys are just doing it right and they have managed to create a whole corporate culture around customer service that clearly pays off. The most remarkable flight I have had onboard any Singapore Airlines plane will not be remembered by the quality of the seat, the food, the amount of champagne of the movies offered on the entertainment system. It will be remembered by how genuinely the crew smiled and took care of me throughout the flight, and how they went well beyond the service manual to make sure I enjoyed the experience.
Once I was told that the only thing that truly can differentiate ourselves from our competition, and that can not be copied by them is the human being and their attitude. The session today was all about it, and I can only tell by personal experience that it is very true.
It’s no secret that apps have changed the way we consume content and software, and expressions like “I have an app for that” are now part of our daily lexicon. Little by little, the appmania has been overflowing SmartPhones and Tablets. TVs where the next conquered territory, and now it seems that cars, and more specifically, on board infotainment systems are the next frontier.
Key players in the industry like Denso, QNX, Magneti Marelli and the traditional car manufacturers are already working in their respective strategies for bringing apps to your car. While most of the current trends are around driving performance and self-diagnostics, extending the features currently available on most infotainment systems, some brands are already introducing very popular general purpose apps. Read Lexus here, and the recently launched latest version of their on board system, Enform, which includes some interesting apps available on board the car. Things like buying movie tickets or booking a table at your destination are now possible, even through the cars voice commands. Even checking in your destination on Facebook is now something you can do behind the steering wheel.
This probably opens a new question behind the technology on which these on board infotainment systems are based. Will we see Android or iOS based in car navigation systems?. It would definitely be very exciting as this would mean instant availability of thousands, if not millions, of apps right to be installed in your car. Interesting potential advantage for Android as some of the current platforms are already based on Linux, which could mean easier integration of Android-based apps onboard.
There is something I quite missed on today’s Apple event. It was not Steve Jobs, and it was not iPhone 5. Actually, whether it was an upgraded iPhone 4 (as it finally turned out to be) or the long awaited iPhone 5, the feature I really missed is the NFC chip built into the latest object of desire.
manufacturers announcing -or even shipping- NFC-capable phones, it is surprising that Apple chose not to make a move on this space. The whole set of actors in the industry, from hardware and software manufacturers to card issuers, financial institutions and merchants are positioning themselves on what looks like one of the next big things in both Mobile Technology and Financial Services.
Apple is known for not leaving anything to chance, so either they do not believe in NFC (clearly unlikely, considering the push and support the technology is getting) or they are preparing something really big that is worth waiting for their next generation SmartPhone to be unveiled.
So is Apple preparing a move similar to Google’s in this space, by combining the hardware -probably linked to the iPhone 5 launch sometime next year- with a complete ecosystem of applications and platforms to cover the whole, end to end payment experience?. Is it wise for Apple to reach the market at least half a year later if they want to have a predominant position in this space?. Time will tell, but it looks that either they have an ace under their sleeve or it will be a big leap to cover if they wait for iPhone 5 to step in.
The App Stores are one of the key pillars on which the SmartPhones have built their success. Not that mobile applications where only introduced at the time the stores became available, but they solved nearly all of the issues that existed until them.
First, it was very difficult for developers to find customers, and for customers to find the applications they wanted. This also discouraged many from investing time, effort and money in developing these native applications, which resulted in a low number of available ones.
Second, all the logistics of applications installed in devices rather than browsed from devices where not solved, in some cases falling into the traditional burdens of software distribution. Installing, uninstalling and specifically maintaining your applications up to date was not an easy thing to do.
Last, but not least, charging for the apps meant each developer had to find a solution for managing the payments, with PayPal having been a traditional partner on this space.
But suddendly these App Stores arrive, and buying applications becomes as easy as buying any other article online, making the installation and uninstallation of applications as easy as 1-2-3, and more importantly, you no longer need to worry about keeping your software up to date. The App Store will tell you and let you update what you want, when you want it. Easy right?. Bringing developers and consumers to a single place has also boosted both the availability and consumption of applications, with numbers of applications in the hundreds of thousands.
So are these new stores the panacea for software distribution?. I suspected so, and I kind of confirmed it when Apple launched the App Store for Mac. The concept is reaching the desktop. So this is when things get interesting. Can this be applied to your corporate environment?. I hope so.
There are a number of issues typically associated to large estates of PCs usually running Windows.
First, one size does not fit all, so you will face different users with different software needs, meaning that you will need to find a balance between standardization (critical to keep support and maintenance costs under control) and the specific needs of your user communities.
Second, you will have to automate as much as possible the possible of provisioning applications upon users requests, and more importantly, keep an inventory of all of this, as you want to know who is using what to avoid any licensing issues.he
Cost. This is usually tackled by complex approval processes which in the end do not really cap the amount of money a user spends on software which is likely to be rarely used.
And not to talk about software updates and patching.
When you look at these traditional issues, it seems miraculous that the App Stores have achieved to resolve most of this issues for a wider, more diverse crowd than the one in any of the Company.
Applying the concept
So how about delivering vanilla desktops or laptops to your employees, and giving them a budget according to their profile?. If a concept such as an App Store could exist in the corporate environment, users could have a budget to spend there. Go to the supermarket, choose what you need and install it. You are running out of budget? Maybe you can return to the App Store that application you downloaded which no longer you are using.
This, if tied to an inventory of licenses, will surely help software costs under control on a very predictable manner, while giving a much better user experience. Your users are now autonomous and can self manage their software, which would also have a very positive impact in your helpdesk and engineering budgets.
Did I talk about software updates and patching? How much money do you spend on that?
I am sure there are lots of challenges to be solved before such a concept can be applied completely in the Enterprise world, but after seeing what Apple has achieved with the Mac App Store I am hopeful it will come…
Sometimes, implications are hidden by the glowing success of certain new technologies. This is exactly what is happening with the current smartphones, or I would better say AppPhones. A trend opened by Apple in 2007 when the first iPhone was launched, ever since then most of the companies providing end customer services through smartphones are choosing to do it over native applications that are downloaded from their respective application store.
So far nothing wrong with this, actually from an end user perspective I am personally a great fan of this way of delivering contents and services, as they can provide an incredible user experience as well as providing full integration with the smartphone features like the camera, in-built GPS, compass and whatever will come in the next generations, with NFC chips already knocking on the door.
A bit of history
It is, however, when you look at the evolution of technology in the last few decades that you find this trend quite curious, as it implies effectively going against some of the basic principles we have been enacting for long years.
Think about traditional systems up to the 80’s where client-server computing used to be the rule. No middleware systems in between, and full blown applications (with exceptions like mainframes accessed through emulators) installed in end users computers.
The web comes in the 90’s, and soon browser-based, thin client computing is understood to be the way to go. Numerous advantages, like eliminating the error-prone processes of software distribution and patching the distributed applications. Looked very good and actually was (and still is) the rule up to nowadays. Except for mobile applications.
Back for good, sometimes
Back to client-server architectures, albeit in most of the cases a middleware will be paving the way between the client application and the back end systems, but client-server, anyway. It must be said, though, that the traditional burdens of distributed computing have been brilliantly solved by the companies ruling the mobile platform industry, with simplified application download, update, install and uninstall processes that eliminate nearly all the issues while maintaining all the advantages of native applications in terms of responsiveness and user experience. So brilliant is the concept of an Application Store or Marketplace, that I bet we will be seeing more applications for this concept outside the mobile ecosystem.
So back for good, I would say, in this case.
Back to square one, in others
Another traditional battle, specially since the early days of the web, has been standardization. Not only a problem for users who had the freedom to choose their browser of choice, but also for developers which had to write, test and maintain
code for many different browsers which did their own interpretations of the existing standards. This had improved in the last years though through greater standardization, so now we could talk about tuned versions of the same development rather than multiplied developments for different browsers.
Now think about mobile applications from this perspective, and here is where I see clearly a return to the beginning. Multiple platforms, with no grounds in common and even different programming languages, means that a company developing an application for Apple, Android and RIM devices, needs effectively to write 3 different applications. Of course design and some coding frameworks will surely be reused, but most of the work needs to be redone. Promising frameworks are out there to help bridge this gap, however, it looks that in this case we are back to square one.
From a technology point of view, NFC (Near Field Communications) might not imply a great revolution. In a nutshell, it is an evolution of the RFID shortfield technology that has been in use for years now, adding the possibility of bidirectional communications. With RFID, your device could send some data to the receiver, but no dialogue was possible, allowing for very simple, low value applications.
So being an improvement from RFID, there is nothing too fancy about it as a technology feature. Smartphones today support various types of communications which serve different purposes, like their Wi Fi support, 3G and Bluetooth. So what is NFC bringing to the party?. The main beauty might be in its own nature. It is near field, which means it has very short range, typically up to 4 inches. This has a double advantage, first, it makes it more difficult to intercept (even though it is not impossible) and secondly, it demands very little power from the device.
Finally a solution that allows communication between two devices positioned close enough in a reasonably private manner, that demands very little space and power. How is this little thing becoming the next big thing in Mobile?.
Payments, payments and payments
A number of industries are really excited about the massive introduction of this technology in our devices. Key players from Device Manufacturers, Carriers, Financial Services Institutions, Internet giants, all of them are making their moves in the adoption of this technology. Samsung is including NFC chips in their latest Smartphones, while Google’s wallet makes use of NFC chips to replace your old fashioned plastic credit card. Even AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have teamed to create the ISIS commerce network supporting NFC payments.
In essence, the NFC chip can communicate with the point of sales device in the merchant, transmitting the necessary information so that the payment transaction can be performed, exactly as you would do with your standard credit card. Typically there will be an application in your smartphone that allows you to store your credit and debit cards information in a secure manner, and that requests a PIN number in order to access that information, securing the usage of the virtual card stored in your phone.
These applications would also allow for your card issuer to provision your card over the air onto your phone.
So far it looks interesting and convenient, but not a killer app. Even if we consider that credit card fraud due to card cloning might be more difficult with the introduction of NFC than it is today, at least for the moment.
The real beauty
It is not that you replace the plastic, it is that a whole new channel is opened, allowing Merchants and Financial Institutions to enrich the moment of the payment and use that interaction with the customer to add value, link and increase customer loyalty.
The combination of a chip for performing the physical payment transaction and an application driving the process, is the real beauty behind the NFC application to mobile payments. Now you can have coupons or virtual vouchers delivered by the merchant to your phone at any time, that you can redeem to make part of the payment. What about promotional codes delivered to your phone?. Points redemption, loyalty cards… All become now part of the ecosystem surrounding the little chip, to make the most of every time you tap your phone to pay.
Google seems to have understood pretty well the broader boundaries of what NFC is bringing to the table, with products like Wallet and Offers, which cover the whole range of services for Businesses to make the most out of the new technology. Add this to geolocation and in-door location and you can start to explore the benefits of pushing offers to the potential customers that are on the surroundings of your store, which they can instantly redeem at the moment of payment.
It will be some years for this technology to be massively present, with a conservative prediction being that it would be present in 50% of the phones by 2014. So we seem to be giving the first steps on this thrilling technology, both on the physical availability of the technology on our devices and on the number of applications we will see coming and sophisticating not only the payments process itself, but the whole relationship between Businesses, Merchants and Customers.
Thrilling, at the very least.