Tech Trends Archives

The recent 2017 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. was full of talk about “digital transformation,” driven by everything from artificial intelligence (AI) to blockchain to the Internet of Things. Among the insights, for me, were the current limits and future potential of AI, and how much a real (rather than hyped up) story of digital transformation stood out.

Are the Robots Coming for Your Job?

Some reports predict that artificial intelligence (software programs that can teach themselves how to do complex tasks) will take as many as half the jobs humans now do in the next decade. For those of us not made of silicon and algorithms, Tom Davenport, President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College, had some comfort from his survey of 160 such projects. He found no evidence of job loss, although there was some reduction in outsourcing.

The bad news, he said, is that smart machines are not yet delivering increased productivity, and that doing so may require the layoffs the experts are predicting. Nor is machine learning yet delivering other dramatic breakthroughs optimists had hoped for. He cited the MD Anderson Cancer Center, which spent $52 million in an attempt to use IBM’s Watson AI system to diagnose, treat and cure cancer. Not a single patient has yet been treated with the technology, he said, and the project is “pretty much on hold.”

However, the use of AI for more basic and labor intensive tasks, such as helping patients schedule visits and determining which patients are unlikely to pay their bills and thus need prodding, are delivering “huge and rapid” return on investment, he said.

He is still predicting big, and impressive, long-term results from AI, with an “amazing” breadth of projects underway spanning functions from legal to human resources to auditing. He also was careful to say his predictions about the limited impact of AI could change dramatically with the rapid, ongoing increase in machine intelligence (one of the programs he studied taught itself Italian.) When the “singularity” arrives (the point at which machines become more capable than humans), he said “all bets are off.”

Marketing/PR tips: Stay informed about AI developments and aggressive in understanding how they affect your industry, no matter how “low tech” it seems. Don’t underestimate AI and how quickly it is developing. One sweet spot for thought leadership (on which I’m working with one client) is how to ensure smart machines act ethically and don’t harm humans. With luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warning of the dangers to the future of the human race this has obvious headline value.

Real Digital Transformation, at Last

The meaningless (to me, at least) “digital transformation” buzzword was all over the symposium, although not one speaker took the time to define it. Naturally, this meant discussion of how to achieve it was all over the map, and some of the examples were, shall we say, less than compelling.

The most convincing story at the conference came from Tetra Pak Group, a leader in the not seemingly digital nor transformative business of supplying milk and juice cartons and the machinery to fill and seal them. (Yes, they make those little juice cartons with the plastic straws that litter the back of every parent’s car.)

As CIO Mark Meyer described it, this 60-year old family-owned firm has dominated its space for years. Expansion came from entering new geographies, which it did with a classic razors and razor blade strategy: Sell the packaging equipment at a low margin to make higher margins selling the packaging material the machines need.

With increasing competitive pressures, the packing firm is increasing the amount of monitoring data it gets from its machines in the field, so it can sell services such as preventive maintenance and information about best production practices to reduce waste. Eventually, he hinted, it might get into the business of running its customers’ packaging equipment, “selling” a certain number of packed cartons guaranteed to meet their freshness, sterility and cost needs rather than just equipment and packing materials.

This is similar to the much-touted GE strategy of moving from selling jet engines to selling “time on wing”  – a jet engine on an airplane guaranteed to meet specific levels of reliability, thrust and fuel consumption, enabled by GE’s wealth of data about engine performance. The appeal of the Tetra Pak story is that it is an attempt to “transform” an even more old-style manufacturing company through the smart use of data, and in a fundamental and permanent way.

PR/marketing tips: if you’re touting a “transformation” story make sure the change your client is aiming for is 1) fundamental and 2) permanent. The more common and every day the product or service (i.e., milk cartons) the more dramatic the story. Be ready to capture reader attention by explaining the change in business models very clearly, and then sell to the tech reader with details such as the types of data required, the sensors that gather it, the networks that transmit it, the data models used to organize it and the AI capabilities required to analyze it.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Driving Thought Leadership in Blockchain

blockchain thought leadership

Kosta Peric of thge Bill & Melinda Gates foundation describes a blockchain-based digital payment platform for the poor.

So you’re convinced of the potential of blockchain (networks of encrypted ledgers in which the nodes automatically and continually assure the accuracy of all the data on the chain without the need for a central authority.)

And you think you have some deep thinking that will help you ride the blockchain rocket. If so, what content marketing strategies will make you a blockchain thought leader?

Here are some approaches based on my own recent work on blockchain thought leadership, and from the recent “Business of Blockchain” event, organized by MIT Technology Review and the MIT Media Lab. (Videos of the event here.)

Use the “D” Word – Decentralization

The technical rebel (or rebels) who created blockchain were driven by a desire to decentralize power and authority from the centralized gatekeepers that now make the rules, handle the transactions and keep much of the money in today’s economies and societies.

For example, Uber looks like a decentralized ride-sharing service that lets drivers make money when their cars would otherwise sit unused. But the information about who needs rides and which drivers are available sits with a central authority (Uber), not the drivers or riders. And it is Uber that sets many of the rules and takes a percent of each transaction. Same with the home-sharing service Airbnb.

While blockchain since gone mainstream, with the likes of IBM offering “enterprise production ready blockchain services,” the disruptor mentality is still strong. And since blockchain is meant to be so disruptive, much of the talk at the conference was about who will be disrupted, and how.

Not all the answers are clear. Amber Baldet, blockchain program lead at J.P. Morgan, for example, cited the upside that blockchain can dramatically lower processing costs. But the downside is how blockchain could eliminate, or greatly reduce the need for entities like J.P. Morgan at all. How will this all play out? No one knows. Therein lies your thought leadership opportunity.

In your content marketing strategy, be bold in identifying  middlemen (even yourself) that are ripe for replacement through blockchain. What can or must they do to survive if blockchain replaces their “utility” function of providing safe, cheap transactions? Should they rethink who they can serve as customers, or how? Are their new value-added services they need to develop now to prepare for the loss of revenue if blockchain takes off? What will your industry look like in five or ten years if blockchain eliminates or reduces the need for today’s middlemen?

 Noodle on the Big Legal, Regulatory and Social Issues

Much of the talk at the conference was not about technology, but rather how laws and regulations will need to change if blockchain is to reach its decentralizing, empowering potential. For example, Lawrence Orsini, principal and founder of LO3 Energy, waxed poetic about the potential for local, decentralized solar powered micro-electric grids to produce greener power at lower cost. But in countries such as Germany, the rise of such renewable energy has sent traditional utilities into a nosedive as their revenues drop, while their costs stay the same for standby power plants for when renewables aren’t available, and the electric grids over which renewable producers sell their energy.

Use your industry smarts to think deeply about how blockchain could change your business, and what role regulators as well as traditional middlemen play. In the case of utilities, should regulators allow them to spin off legacy infrastructure into safe but low-return businesses that maintain power grids as a public good while putting more investment into smart grids that allow the dynamic sharing of power across markets? Why (and if so, how) should governments or regulators change how rates are sets and financial returns regulated to encourage such a shift? If a blockchain is corrupted or allows the theft of a cyber currency, who is liable for the loss? What issues should lawmakers and industry groups be tackling now?  

Think Social Good

Multiple users, and even entire sessions at the conference, were devoted to how blockchain can help the world. Ideas (and actual projects) range from delivering credit and secure transactions to the billions the billions who are now “unbanked” to low cost identity assurance programs that can widen access to government aid and even fighting human trafficking.

In some cases, the messaging spans the commercial and public realms.  Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the Hyperledger Project, an open source blockchain initiative, told the conference his  “aha” moment occurred when he learned of blockchain’s potential to securely record property claims and thus prevent the theft of land from the poor in Latin America.

 If you have a genuine social strategy, go for it in your content strategy. If you don’t, or are mixing social good with private gain, be careful. If you “greenwash” your blockchain thinking with an idealistic spin the rebel zealots in the blockchain community will delight in shredding you. Look instead for areas where your interest and society’s align, such as a utility that needs to reduce peak power generation costs while meeting greenhouse gas emission laws, and can use blockchain to do both.

The potential of blockchain is so great there’s plenty of room to think big thoughts and answer (or raise) big questions. Don’t be afraid to think big, and to focus on the vertical market and business issues you understand, not the blockchain technicalities you don’t.

What do you do when a client, or your executives, issue the trumpet call for blockchain thought leadership?

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Blockchain Will Be Huge. We Think.

Blockchain – the distributed ledger system meant to handle financial and other transactions without the need for banks or other central authorities – will be huge.

Those is, if dozens of players with competing agendas can solve multiple complex technical problems, and convince regulators to overturn centuries of rules in everything from finance to utilities.

That was my takeaway from this week’s “Business of Blockchain” event, organized by MIT Technology Review and the MIT Media Lab. (Videos of the event here.) (Blockchain is a network (or chain) of encrypted ledgers, in which the node hosting each copy of the ledger automatically and continually assures the accuracy of all the data and transactions on the entire chain without the need for a central authority.)

Speakers at the conference speculated that blockchain could today be where the internet was in 1990, 1985 or even 1969 –- a seemingly arcane technology poised to fundamentally change economies and societies.

But getting there is by no means certain and will require a lot of work. This post is about where blockchain is today, based on buzz at the conference and my blockchain work with clients. Follow-up posts will describe 1) tactical themes for your blockchain marketing content, and 2) more strategic questions to tackle for blockchain thought leadership.

Blockchain is Real…

Among the proof points for blockchain are:

  • UK-based Everledger uses IBM’s blockchain to prove the authenticity of 1.2 million diamonds worldwide, assuring customers they’re getting the gems they paid for and reducing counterfeiting. “Smart contracts” on the blockchain check each diamond for compliance far more quickly than previous methods.
  • Global derivatives trader CME Group is testing a blockchain-based “digital record of ownership” for ownership of gold stored in the vaults of the Royal Mint in England. This will give buyers and sellers better visibility into pricing and availability in a market that’s “screaming for disruption,” said Sandra Ro, digitization lead at CME Group. (Video of her presentation here.)
  • The Moog Aircraft Group is combining blockchain with additive printing to transmit designs for parts (and the paperwork proving the part is up to spec) to 3D printers at, say, a local airport or aircraft carrier at sea. James Regenor, business unit director for Additive Manufacturing and Innovation at Moog, told the conference this will reduce not only inventory and shipping costs, but the time required to send the documentation without which parts cannot be used. (Watch his presentation here.)

Both Ro and Amber Baldet, executive director and blockchain program lead at J.P. Morgan, pointed out the potential of blockchain to reduce transaction costs in an industry under intense cost pressure in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. IBM, a co-sponsor with Deloitte, referenced a survey showing 14 percent of its global financial services customers expect to deploy production blockchain applications this year, and said more than 400 customers are using its own IBM Blockchain.

…But Still Very Young

But even those who believe blockchain could be as revolutionary as the Internet stressed how much work is yet to be done. One described blockchain, for example, as nowhere near the “tipping point” the Web reached when HTTP (the Hypertext Transfer Protocol) put a pretty graphical interface (in the form of Web pages) on the underlying technology in the mid-1990s.

Baldet noted that while there are more than $18 billion in bitcoins (a “cryptocurrency” and payment method based on blockchain) in circulation, this is dwarfed by the $97.4 in conventional currency in circulation globally. Although bitcoin is the most widely known use of blockchain, some speakers argued over whether such cryptocurrencies are even a necessary part of blockchains. (Ro can be seen on YouTube asking whether bitcoin is a currency, a commodity, or something else altogether.)

Blockchain Busters

Even on the technical level, there are serious questions over whether blockchain can deliver. Associate professor Emin Gün Sirer of Cornell University listed the three essential promises of blockchain. They are 1) that every transaction must be valid, 2) the history of each transaction must be immutable (impossible to change) and 3) all nodes must reach a consensus on which transactions are valid.) Production blockchains have failed all three tests, he said, with software bugs allowing the creation of fraudulent bitcoins and forcing the roll back of fraudulent transactions.

One vulnerability, he told the conference, is the consensus model by which blockchain nodes continually check the validity of entries in the distributed ledger. If a hacker can take over enough nodes to force a consensus, they can block a valid transaction, or commit a fraudulent transaction. This threat is heightened, he said, because in many blockchains, the same code is used to run all the nodes, making them vulnerable to the same hack.

Yet another challenge is proving that a participant in a blockchain (whether a person or an organization) are who they claim. This was a major sticking point for conference speakers, who had trouble agreeing how to define “identity,” much less how much identity a participant might need in various cases or how to assure it.

Non-technical governance, regulatory and legal questions loomed as large, if not larger. If hackers steal a digital currency but don’t cash it in for “official” currency, has a crime been committed? Would regulators, or customers, accept a financial system where 51% of blockchain nodes could “vote” to roll back a transaction? What will it take to convince regulators that blockchains are safe replacements for today’s “middlemen” such as banks and electric utilities?

Marketing Blockchain? First Steps

All this makes an unusual challenge if you want to play in the blockchain space, but don’t have a finished product, service or business model to talk about in your marketing content.

To start, be sure you have answers to (or at least a feasible approach for) dealing with the security and other limits of blockchain, and the regulatory or governance hurdles it faces in your specific industry.

Second, as several speakers warned, don’t just use “blockchain” as a way to sell your current offerings. One example that surfaced repeatedly was database vendors disguising their wares as distributed ledgers, whether they meet the unique needs of blockchain or not. The blockchain community prides itself on being “disruptive” of existing technologies and businesses, and the true believers will be all too happy to trash tacky marketing ploys.

Finally, broaden your content marketing mindset – as many of my clients are — beyond getting leads to generating interest and involvement from potential partners, investors, regulators and governments. Getting blockchain right will take a lot of bright minds, and content that attracts them may be just what you need at this point.

How does this square with your view of blockchain acceptance in the marketplace? Are you or your clients even thinking of marketing your blockchain chops or still trying to get your mind around the concept?

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Want some serverless BS with your FUD?

selling serverless architecturesI hadn’t heard of serverless computing until I saw this post by storage maven Greg Schulz. Put simply, “serverless” reduces the need for conventional servers by off-loading functions such as authentication onto other systems, such as those in the cloud.

Even though he’s deeply technical, Greg cuts through the hype and provides a great road map for differentiating a technical solution by describing it clearly and focusing on the value your solution provides.  This is reprinted by kind permission of Greg’s Server and Storage IO Blog where you can find the full version with illustrations.

By Greg Schulz

A few years ago a popular industry buzzword term theme included server less and hardware less.

It turns out, serverless BS (SLBS) and hardware less are still trendy, and while some might view the cloud or software-defined data center (SDDC) virtualization, or IoT folks as the culprits, it is more widespread with plenty of bandwagon riders. SLBS can span from IoT to mobile, VDI and workspace clients (zero or similar), workstations, server, storage, networks. To me what’s ironic is that many purveyors of of SLBS also like to talk about hardware.

What’s the issue with SLBS?

Simple, on the one hand, there is no such thing as software that does not need hardware somewhere in the stack. Second, many purveyors of SLBS are solutions that in the past would have been called shrink-wrap. Thirdly IMHO SLBS tends to take away from the real benefit or story of some solutions that can also prompt questions or thoughts of if there are other FUD (fear uncertainty doubt) or MUD (marketing uncertainty doubt). Dare to be different, give some context about what your server less means as opposed to being lumped in with other SLBS followers.

Data Infrastructures (hardware, software, services, servers, storage, I/O and networks)

Moving beyond SLBS

Can we move beyond the SLBS and focus on what the software or solution does, enables, its value proposition vs. how it is dressed, packaged or wrapped?

IMHO it does not matter who or why SLBS appeared or even that it exists, rather clarifying what it means and what it does not mean, adding some context. For example, you can acquire (buy, rent, subscribe) software without a server (or hardware). Likewise, you can get the software that comes bundled prepackaged with hardware (e.g. tin-wrapped), or via a cloud or other service.

The software can be shrink wrapped, virtual wrapped or download to run on a bare metal physical machine, cloud, container or VMs. Key is the context of does the software come with, or without hardware. This is an important point in that the software can be serverless (e.g. does not come with, or depend on specific hardware), or, it can be bundled, converged (CI), hyper-converged (HCI) among other package options.

Software needs hardware, hardware need software, both get defined and wrapped

All software requires some hardware somewhere in the stack. Even virtual, container, cloud and yes, software-defined anything requires hardware. What’s different is how much hardware is needed, where it is located, how is it is used, consumed, paid for as well as what the software that it enables.

What’s the point?

There are applications, solutions and various software that use fewer servers, less hardware, or runs somewhere else where the hardware including servers are in the stack. Until the next truly industry revolutionary technology occurs, which IMHO will be software that no longer requires any hardware (or marketing-ware) in the stack, and hardware that no longer needs any software in the stack, hardware will continue to need software and vice versa.

This is where the marketing-ware (not to be confused with valueware) comes into play with a response along the lines of clouds and virtual servers or containers eliminate the need for hardware. That would be correct with some context in that clouds, virtual machines, containers and other software-defined entities still need some hardware somewhere in the stack. Sure there can be less hardware including servers at a given place. Hardware still news software, the software still needs hardware somewhere in the stack.

Show me some software that does not need any hardware anywhere in the stack, and I will either show you something truly industry unique, or, something that may be an addition to the SLBS list.

Add some context to what you are saying; some examples include that your software:

  • works with your existing hardware (or software)
  • does not need you to buy new or extra hardware
  • can run on the cloud, virtual, container or physical
  • requires fewer servers, less hardware, less cloud, container or virtual resources
  • is the focus being compatible with various data infrastructure resources
  • can be deployed and packaged as shrink-wrap, tin-wrapped or download
  • is packaged and marketed with less fud, or, fudless if you prefer

In other words, dare to be different, stand out, articulate your value proposition, and add some context instead of following behind the SLBS crowd.

Watch out for getting hung up on, or pulled into myths about serverless or hardware less, at least until hardware no longer needs software, and software no longer needs hardware somewhere in the stack. The other point is to look for solutions that enable more effective (not just efficient or utilization) use of hardware (as well as software license) resources. Effective meaning more productive, getting more value and benefit without introducing bottlenecks, errors or rework.

The focus does not have to be eliminating hardware (or software), rather, how to get more value out of hardware costs (up front and recurring Maintenance) as well as software licenses (and their Maintenance among other fees). This also applies to cloud and service providers, how to get more value and benefit, removing complexity (and costs will follow) as opposed to simply cutting and compromising.

Next time somebody says serverless or hardware less, ask them if they mean fewer servers, less hardware, making more effective (and efficient) use of those resources, or if they mean no hardware or servers. If the latter, then ask them where their software will run. If they say cloud, virtual or container, no worries, at least then you know where the servers and hardware are located. Oh, and by the way, just for fun, watch for vendors who like to talk serverless or hardware less yet like to talk about hardware.

Ok, nuff said for now…

Greg Schulz – Microsoft MVP Cloud and Data Center Management, vSAN and VMware vExpert. Author Cloud and Virtual Data Storage Networking (CRC Press), The Green and Virtual Data Center (CRC Press) and Resilient Storage Networks (Elsevier) and twitter @storageio. Watch for the spring 2017 release of his new book “Software-Defined Data Infrastructure Essentials” (CRC Press).

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Three Ways to Lose a SaaS Customer

driving SaaS renewals A recent hack of my Web site led me to sign up with a security as a service (SaaS) vendor to monitor my site. A month in, they emailed to ask if I was pleased.

I don’t know, and that is bad. The updates they give me are so unclear, and their service so hard to navigate, I’m less sure about my security status than before.

When it comes time to renew my subscription, I’ll either cancel or find another SaaS provider whose value I can assess. If you’re a SaaS vendor, are you alienating your customers like this?

Dumb SaaS Mistakes

This provider seems to lack any understanding of my business. I make money by talking to clients, marketing myself, interviewing experts, and writing and revising marketing content. I lose money every hour I spend deciphering cryptic security messages, reading FAQ’s on arcane security topics or fiddling with complex WordPress files.

Whatever application or service you’re providing over the Web, your customers pay you to handle the IT plumbing so they can make money. Here’s what this vendor got it wrong, and what you should avoid with your customers.

Failed to properly set my expectations. Their Web site promised to “clean your site of malware with one click.” They may or may not have done this. But even after my site was supposedly clear of malware, it didn’t look and run right. It took many, many more hours and a lot of money with a designer fixing what the malware broke. A “one click” fix implies I’ll be good as new after that one click. If that isn’t so (and a customer will need other help beside yours to get back to business) tell them up front.

Bombarded me with jargon. This security provider tries to tell me what they’re doing, but fail miserably. Their weekly security alerts are full of techno-babble (see below) and provide “alerts” which turn out to be routine notifications I don’t need to take action on. This is a waste of my time and of theirs.

Error message one

Are hard to work with: Rather than ask questions or get help via email, I have to log into this provider’s Web site to create my own trouble ticket. The site is crammed with tiny type and technical jargon. The “trouble ticket” option is hidden under other buttons, and requires me to submit my FTP log-in info to proceed. (You do have your FTP log-in credentials on the tip of your tongue, right?)

How to Get My Business 

  • Build your service around on my needs, not your technical specialty. In the case of a security monitoring service, I’d love it if they partnered with WordPress experts to take ownership not just for cleaning my site, but returning it to its original look and feel.
  • Communicate effectively.  Only contact me when I need to take action. Don’t tell me about routine security updates or “alerts” about which I don’t need to or don’t know how to respond to. (One exception would be a clear weekly or monthly report telling me how many infections/attacks you stopped, and the effect they would have had on my business, to help me measure your value.)
  • Make everything easy. Large type, attractive icons and plain English terminology on Web sites, please. I work in email, not trouble tickets – let me ask questions and get help without logging into your site. And give me one or two click access to information about the most recent issue, without forcing me to go through a list of service requests. This is user interface 101.

I know security is devilishly complicated and requires safeguards and extra steps to work through customers’ Internet Service Providers and WordPress sites. But it’s comparatively easy to:

  • Not promise a “one click” fix if you can’t provide it.
  • Make it easy for me to understand what you’re doing, and most importantly…
  • Remember the problem I’m paying you to fix isn’t fixed until I’m back earning money.

Need more help selling cloud services? Check out this sample content plan you can adapt to your own needs.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Pokémon Go: Why IT Marketers Should Care

Pokemon Go security When I was assigned a story on the security risks of Pokémon Go, I groaned. What could be interesting about a game where players chase comic book characters superimposed on the real world on their smart phone?

It turns out the enormous popularity of Pokémon Go IS the story. It’s so engrossing players are tumbling down hillsides and reportedly being lured into ambushes while glued to their screens. That means enterprises that can latch onto Pokémon Go (or create similar apps that go viral) can tap huge marketing opportunities – but face equally large security risks.

Let’s start with the downsides, as those were the focus of my reporting.

Risky Business

The initial security scare focused on reports that Pokémon Go vacuumed up too many details from the Google accounts of players. By all accounts, the developer and Google quickly fixed that, and the game may never have actually used all the information it asked for. But one source hinted darkly that even one-time access to email or other accounts could give a game developer valuable information they could use later. He also asked whether, as Niantic (the game’s developer) frantically ramped server capacity to meet demand, it could possibly put the proper security precautions in place to protect any user info it did gather.

Even if the legit game doesn’t snoop too much info from your phone, my sources described cleverly disguised malware variants that can. Another possible channel for malware are unofficial guides to games that help users improve their scores, or “hacks” that promise a short-cut to extra rewards. “jailbroken” or “rooted” devices, in which users bypass the manufacturer’s built-in security safeguards, are an especially prominent risk.

Then there are the broader (and even more story-worthy) societal concerns. If someone hacks your application and sends unwary players into traffic to chase a character, are you liable if they are it by a car? One source who does a lot of work for defense clients raised the specter of “crowd spying” in the form of a game that sends hundreds of players to catch a character the spy agency placed in front of a sensitive military base. Before authorities can chase the players away, their phones have already captured and transmitted images of the base from multiple angles.

Sound crazy? There Indonesian army has reportedly blocked service members from playing the game while on duty for just that reason. And how much of a leap is it to port such a game from ground-bound smartphones to drones, adding a new dimension (literally) to the privacy, security and liability questions?

The Upside 

The story angles don’t stop at the dark side. McDonald’s is reportedly first into the “monetization” game, sponsoring Pokémon Go play sites at its restaurants in Japan. But using games to draw foot traffic to a specific location is only a baby step.

Imagine a toy retailer creating an AR/VR game that lures kids into their stores and puts the most popular characters near the highest margin toys, giving them an instant discount as they “capture” the character with a tap on the screen? The next step, of course, is to combine real-time information about a player’s location with their past purchase history, credit worthiness or other factors to pop up real-time offers within the game. (This raises the challenge of securely combining corporate data with that from customers’ devices I tackled in my story.)

Senior Vice President Nagaraja Srivatsan at Cognizant Technology Solutions* has a whole raft of other ideas and examples.  They include restaurants giving diners a discount if they drop “lures” to get other customers to drop by, or offering “contextual” ads based on where a player is and what they are doing.

Finally, think of the opportunity to use AR/VR games to train or motivate employees. How about a Pokémon Go-type app that rewards hotel employees with bonuses or time off for finding and capturing not characters, but dust spots or trash in public areas? Or that gives field service reps points for sharing maintenance tips through an AR app on their smartphones? (In that case, how do you protect sensitive data about the failure rates of your components, or those from your competitors you see on your customer’s premises?)

 Get Pitching 

Any or all of these scenarios may, or may not, pan out. Pokémon Go itself will undoubtedly fade (maybe sooner than later) as just another fad.

But its blockbuster popularity, however short lived, shows that everyday consumers will download, play, and spend huge amounts of time with the right VR/AR app. And where eyeballs and interest go, money and opportunity follows. Pokémon Go is the tip of a lot of fascinating icebergs we’ll all be innovating around, writing about and pitching about for years.

Got any clients who are trying to ride the Pokémon Go bubble, or facing security threats as a result?————————————————————————————-

*Cognizant Technology Solutions is a client but did not reimburse me for this mention.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Making Health Insurance “Digital”  

digital health insurance

Spring brings two painful ordeals. One is doing my taxes, where software can at least help ease the agony.  The other is choosing a health insurance plan, from a provider that seems never to have heard of the “digital” revolution.

Among the many loose definitions I’ve seen of the “D” word in my work with clients are:

  • Putting the customer first
  • Making products and services easy, and even delightful, to buy and use.
  • Customizing products and services, using Big Data to understand and even anticipate each customer’s needs.
  • Being mobile-first, or at least mobile friendly.

So 1980s

Compared to this lofty vision, what do I get from my insurer every year? A thick wad of paper (not even an email notification it’s coming) full of dense charts, impenetrable jargon, and confusing pricing options. The only “personalization” is their recommendation of a replacement of my current plan, which is being discontinued.) The new plan is close to 20% pricier than my current plan, and is about the level of a modest mortgage. But there’s no guidance on what I’m getting for the extra money or how this compares to my current plan. There are several pages of “mapping” diagrams to compare the insurer’s former and current plans, but it’s a year since I’ve signed up and neither my insurance card nor my bill have the name of the specific plan I’m now enrolled in.

And despite the fact I have, for at least 15 years, purchased only individual plans, the insurer makes me sift through four pricing levels for each of their new plans: for an individual, a spouse, a child and a family. It’s just another level of confusion about a decision (“How sick or injured will I be in the next year?”) that I’m not very qualified to make.

It’s also not very insightful or customized, in an era when Netflix can track which Doc Martin re-run I last binge-watched, and Amazon recommends stuff for me to buy based not only on my purchases, but my browsing history, and the purchase and browsing history of millions of others.

This seems like a process, and an industry, ripe for takeover by someone that could harness Big Data, real-time customization and a friendly user interface to make health insurance comprehensible and truly customized. (Note to health care CEOs: I, and a lot of other folks, would probably pay a modest premium just for the peace of mind of knowing what we’re buying. Just think, also, what simplifying the process would do for your back-office administrative and customer service reps.

So what would a “digital” health insurance purchase process look like?

Personal, Customized, Easy

  • Make online the default, and easiest to use, channel for information about plans and the process of choosing one.
  • Provide instant chat with a rep who can view my account and medical history without endless authentication and approval processes.
  • Use Big Data analysis of individual purchase behavior and health, as well as of others in their cohort, to recommend a plan on each customer’s historic health care consumption and scenarios (low, medium and high probability) of care needed in the next year.
  • To make it even more customized and interactive, provide cost estimates reflecting the customer’s most recent activity. (“Based on our experience with patients with your age and symptoms, there’s a 20% chance that shoulder pain you saw us about last week will require surgery rather than ice and Tylenol. If so, here’s the projected out-of-pocket cost under each of our three recommended plans.)
  • Tailor benefits to each customer’s needs and histories. Don’t tout your smoking cessation programs if you know I haven’t smoked in 30 years, or offer me a low-cost health club membership if you just gave me a discount for installing a home gym.
  • Speaking of home gyms, why not give me a one-click option to link my smartphone pedometer to your fitness-tracking program and give me a monthly discount on my premium based on my exercise level?

In industry after industry, disruptors are blowing away old-school competitors by providing easier to use products and services that save customers money. As a totally disgruntled (can you tell?)  health insurance customer, I’m ripe for being disrupted right out of my current provider.

Any contenders out there?

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Digital Lessons From a Dying Industry

Hand in sea water asking for help. Failure and rescue concept.Yes, some people still read the print version of newspapers. So when the Boston Globe botched the move to a new delivery provider and left us paperless for the better part of a week, it caused a major disturbance in the force for my significant other.

Mistakes do happen, of course, although after 143 years you have to wonder what the Globe doesn’t know about home delivery. But it was its botched response to the delivery problems that holds lessons for anyone trying to succeed in this “digital” age (however you define it.)

Here are four digital must-haves I see my clients talking about, how the Globe failed to achieve each and some lessons for the rest of us.

  • Anticipate, don’t just meet, customer expectations: Proactively apologize for failures, tell the customer what compensation (if any) they’ll receive, but most importantly tell them when their problem will be resolved. It took four days for the Globe to even tell us we’d get a credit for the undelivered papers, and no word on a solution except that delivery problems should ease “within the next few weeks.”
  • Provide a seamless, personalized experience across service channels such as phone, Web and mobile apps. Nothing screams “clueless” like endless waits on customer service lines and Web sites that crash under the flood of complaints. When Netflix can instantly stream video to my phone, why couldn’t the Globe buy a bunch of cloud capacity to keep its customer service site up? The Globe showed it’s neither effective in its old business model (delivering physical papers) nor its new online, digital model.
  • Provide a personalized customer experience that puts the customer’s needs, not what you want to sell them, at the center. The service rep I finally got on the phone not only couldn’t tell me when delivery to my street would resume, she didn’t seem to hear my question.  How about a Web site showing, in green, yellow and red, what areas will see their papers the fastest? Or even better, email or text alerts with updates on when service will resume to a subscriber’s street?
  • Recognize the customer is in charge and act accordingly. With its late and clueless communication, the Globe seems to have forgotten its customers even exist, much less understanding and meeting their needs. Fixing this doesn’t require sophisticated Big Data social media analytics, but just common sense and putting yourself in the customer’s shoes. For example, if you were a subscriber to a daily newspaper would you be satisfied hearing  that delivery will resume sometime in the next few weeks?

I say all this more from sadness than anger, having admired the Globe for most of my life. It takes strong, healthy news outlets to do investigative reporting like the Globe’s uncovering of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as portrayed in the movie Spotlight.) Having already been crippled by the Web, the last thing the Globe needs is to finish the job off through its own incompetence.

For the rest of us, it’s a shot across the bow and a heads-up to put the systems and processes in place to respond like a true digital organization when – not if – we have big and unexpected customer service issues.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.
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