Thursday, 12 February 2015

The economic virtue of IT failure

Politicians have noticed the advantages in failing and starting again

Listening to politicians talking IT used to be amusing, as most knew so little about the subject that they were bound to put a foot in the mouth at some stage. But these days you don’t get the laughs – and it’s for the better – as more of them have a decent grasp of what’s going on in the industry.

It came across at this week’s Big Digital Debate – staged by TechUK, the BCS and Computer Weekly – at which representatives of the UK’s three main parties outlined their views in advance of the general election. It’s notable that one, Labour’s Chi Onwurah, has worked in telecoms at Ofcom, while the Conservatives’ Ed Vaizey and LibDem Julian Huppert both showed a reasonable degree of knowledge (not surprising for Vaizey as he is minister for the digital economy).

All highlighted the need for the UK to make more of its digital talent, and cheered on the start-up culture that has emerged in various hubs around the country. But they also acknowledged the gap between this and the growth into successful mid-sized businesses that make a serious contribution to the economy.

How far can a government go in providing this? There was talk from the politicians about tax breaks, focusing support on technologies in which the UK is strong, providing the broadband infrastructure and development support, and ensuring schools and universities produce people with the right basic skills. But there is a limit, and cultural factors are just as important.

Start-ups with bright new ideas for digital products and services are great, but most of them will fail. It becomes a drag on the economy when they linger and fritter away their founders’ talent. It’s best for the economy if they fail quickly, leaving their people to start again with fresh ideas or take their experience into other companies and help them grow. This is crucial in an industry where the technology advances so quickly, and the chances of success, often based on how it aligns with human behaviour, are unpredictable. 

It can still be something of a stigma to fail in a business venture, but it shouldn’t be when those trying again are looking for seed funding, technical facilities or research support. The new idea can often benefit from the failure of the old one, and deserve the backing to give it a chance.

Julian Huppert made the point that one thing that would help build the UK’s digital economy is to help small companies fail quickly and release their people to start again. That’s when failure becomes a virtue.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Monday, 26 January 2015

Surface Hub will provide early push for Windows 10

Businesses will see the attraction in a device that makes remote meetings more flexible

Microsoft is including some seriously sexy stuff in its plans for Windows 10, pushing it as not just an operating system but a platform to bring together a number of devices and a big range of applications. The plans for holograms and integrating the Xbox and PCs are the obvious sources of excitement, but it could be the Microsoft Surface Hub – essentially a large screen for remote meetings – that provides the initial boost.

While the early speculation on Windows 10 focused on rectifying the mistakes of Windows 8, Microsoft’s presentation last week made clear it’s about a lot more. It emphasised what it called the “mobility of experience”, so what you’re doing on one device can be automatically resumed on another, and the importance of natural interactions such as voice, using a pen, gestures and gaze.
It flagged up advances in its Cortana personal assistant, which is moving beyond Windows Phone into PCs and tablets. And it showed off some cutting edge augmented reality in the form of its HoloLens.

Then there was the Surface Hub, an 84 inch HD screen with integrated computing capacity and built-in everything to support brainstorming and meetings for groups in different locations. It can link up with Skype, take content from any connected device, and lets users scrawl their notes straight onto the screen for everyone to save.

I can see this prompting a lot of businesses to think seriously about moving to Windows 10 earlier than they might have done. It’s anchored in something that all still appreciate – the importance of sitting in a room and sharing ideas – while making it easier to share and update documents, images and ideas visually. It looks like taking them closer to sitting in a room together when they could be on different sides of the world.

I’ve been sceptical about any rush to adopt Windows 10 in the workplace, and still feel that most businesses will be cautious; but Surface Hub could do more than any other element to encourage early adopters. It offers a lot of potential while being rooted in a process with which most people are familiar, and won’t require too big a leap for them to begin using it.

Of course, the technology needs Windows 10 to work, and Microsoft has to rectify its mistakes with the interfaces of 8; but combined with the promise of free upgrades for users of Windows 7 and 8 it will provide an attractive lure for the early days of the campaign to sell the new operating system.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Monday, 12 January 2015

Is business in a rush to adopt 4G?

It’s more than two years after the first 4G networks were rolled out in the UK, and how are they are being used? Mainly for uploading selfies and downloading video streams, according to the leading network operator EE.

Last week’s statement from the company reports that the amount of data downloaded through 4G increased sixfold last year, but the traffic was driven largely by people using social networks or streaming services such as BBC iPlayer and YouTube. It’s consumers using it for entertainment who are feeding the growth.

EE highlights that the busiest spot in the country is Tech City in East London; but that’s inevitable given the high concentration of tech start businesses in the area, and I would bet a sizeable chunk of that data is down to personal use by the people working there. It suggests that business as a whole isn’t yet racing to take up 4G.

It does have obvious advantages; faster, stronger connections that extend further than 3G from hotspots open up a lot of possibilities for companies to deliver services and manage their own operations online. But how many have so far identified clear benefits for themselves? How many feel that 3G does the job perfectly well for checking emails and occasionally downloading an application? How many still feel that any major downloads are best confined to landlines and office networks? Plenty might like the look of 4G but are in no hurry to take it up.

But things won’t stay that way indefinitely. Businesses in rural areas with no fibre broadband and weak 3G coverage have a much stronger incentive to pick up 4G, and as they prove its worth they will provide examples for others to follow. And as more people – that includes business owners and employees – get used to using 4G for their amusement their expectations around downloading data in the workplace are going to become more demanding. Give it some time and more business owners will see 4G as essential rather than a ‘nice to have’.

Once they have it, that’s when their minds will really open up to what it can do for their bottom line.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See