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MY INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
ARTICLES IN 2015

Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in January 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect. Since 2013, I have contributed such articles for both the Connect section newsletter "DigitalEye" and the Prospect magazine "Profile". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2015. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.

February 2015 The Emerging Internet Of Things
July 2015 Welcome To The World Of The Platform
November 2015 Sooner Or Later, The Internet Changes Everything


Ever more rapidly, the Net is connecting more devices than people, explains our regular columnist ROGER DARLINGTON

THE EMERGING INTERNET OF THINGS

For decades, the Net has been seen as a network to connect people, whether communicating one-on-one through e-mails or in groups through chat rooms and then social media, whether obtaining information from web sites like Wikipedia or making purchases through e-commerce sites like Amazon.

Quietly, in the background, however, more and more the Net has been connecting devices, leading to the notion of the ‘Internet of Things” (IoT).

Here in the UK, a nation of 64 million, 83% of homes are now connected to the Net. But already more than 40 million devices are connected, A report commissioned by Ofcom [click here] suggests that by 2022 that number will have increased eight-fold to 360 million devices.

Of course, the same thing will happen globally. The world population is moving from over seven billion to eight billion in a decade’s time. Meanwhile estimates of the number of devices connected to the Net worldwide are between 25-30 billion as soon as 2020.

So we are talking of a world in which, in just a few years time, there will be around four Net-connected devices for every man, woman and child on the planet.

What sorts of devices are going to be involved? The variety is exploding, but three sectors illustrate the kind of transformation that is taking place and the potential benefits to citizens and consumers.

Healthcare: Devices that monitor fitness and activity levels enable monitoring of existing conditions within the home, to treat illness and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Transport: Collecting information from vehicles could help improve traffic flow, allow drivers to avoid traffic accidents, and provide information for better vehicle design.

Energy: Connecting a wider range of household, office and industrial equipment could enable their use of energy to be monitored and potentially changed, with implications for cost-saving.

Beyond these direct citizen and consumer benefits, additional benefits will be realised through the existence of a multiplier effect as a result of ‘big data’. The volume and variety of raw data from such a diverse range of devices will stimulate innovation and new services across multiple sectors.

Like any new technical development, a host of policy issues is thrown up.

First, this sort of connectivity requires spectrum - some licensed, some licence exempt - in various bands. The latest review by Ofcom has concluded, however, that existing initiatives will meet much of the short to medium term spectrum demand for IoT devices.

Second, as IoT services become an increasingly important part of our daily lives, there will be growing demands for greater resilience and security of the networks used both to transmit IoT data and to store and process the data collected by IoT devices. We cannot afford network outages or data leakage.

Third, all these IoT devices need their own unique addresses. The current Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) has run out of its 4.3 billion addresses, so speedy migration to IPv6 – which generates 2 to the power of 128 addresses (a lot, lot, lot more than IPv4) - is necessary.

Fourth, many of these IoT devices will be generating data specific to an individual or organisation, so it will be vitally important to ensure that this data is stored and processed securely and used with appropriate consent. Consumer and citizens need to know what data is being generated and who is using it.

Take, for example, the case of an elderly woman with a heart irregularity who is still living independently. Her son buys her a health monitor that she wears on her wrist that measures and transmits information on a variety of life functions. Who should have access to that data? The son? The woman’s doctor when at at the surgery? Other medical staff 24/7? Medical researchers anywhere in the world once it has been anonymised?

Who would need to give consent? The woman herself? Suppose she won’t agree even though her son believes her life is at risk? Suppose she suffers from dementia and is in no position to give informed consent? And how should that data be used? Passively to be discussed when the woman sees her doctor? Actively so that the doctor intervenes if he suspects an imminent heart attack or stroke?

By the woman’s insurance company to determine life premiums or car and holiday insurance? As part of ‘big data’ to be correlated with other personal data like age, diet, medication?

IoT is going to change all our lives big time.


The Internet is changing markets in a manner which some have dubbed “platform capitalism”, explains our regular columnist ROGER DARLINGTON

WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF THE PLATFORM

“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

So wrote Tom Goodwin, Senior Vice-President of Strategy & Innovation at Havas Media, for the web site TechCrunch earlier this year [for text click here]. So what exactly is happening? And should we welcome or fear it?

Essentially what is happening is that the Internet is enabling a re-invention of the traditional supply chain through a process with an ugly word “disintermediation”. In economics, disintermediation is the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain or "cutting out the middlemen".

So, how does it work? In old markets, supply chains were often long, slow, and expensive and linked designers, manufacturers, distributors, importers, wholesalers and retailers. Think, for example, of the car market.

In new, Net-enabled markets, all sorts of links in the chain can be cut out and open platforms can put lots of suppliers or producers in direct contact with lots of buyers or consumers.

Think, for example, of accommodation (Airbnb), books (Amazon), food (Ocado), information (Google), personal messages (WhatsApp), general messages (Twitter), personal news (Facebook), general news (reddit), music (iTunes), price information (CompareTheMarket), professional connections (LinkedIn), taxis (Uber), video (YouTube), charitable donations (JustGiving). The list goes on …

So no need to invest in physical infrastructure, distribution networks or retail chains. Instead a good platform needs three things: data, algorithms and server power. Instead of bricks and mortar, it’s all about code and software. From then onwards, a smart brand, consumer endorsement, and network externalities do the rest.

So what are the benefits of such platforms?

For the operators, there are lower costs and greater scale, so Uber does not need to own taxis and Airbnb has no property. They are the interface between other parts of the supply chain (where the costs are) and a multitude of potential customers (where the money is).

So profits have often been huge and market valuations have been crazy. This new breed of company is the fastest-growing in history. For consumers, many of the services are free and easy to use, offer exciting services, and are constantly innovating.

Perhaps the best case is Wikipedia where anyone can create, edit, access or use content on an exploding number of topics in a growing number of languages. But this is an exception where profit never rears its ugly head.

More typically, there are all sorts of problems with the rise of the platform. Many of the services concerned are in effect monopolies and no company can really challenge Google or Facebook or Amazon.

Many of the platforms are not genuinely open, but discriminate between providers (tough take-it-or-leave-it terms) and even sometimes between customers (geo-blocking prevents buyers from certain countries from making purchases).

For the user, the platform can become a prison. How would you move your browsing history to a search engine other than Google? How would you take all your Facebook postings to another social media site?

Most such operations are parasitic: they feed off existing relations and produce little themselves except the code that powers the platform. Most of the companies concerned are American and ensure that they play minimal tax in other jurisdictions. And these activities are largely unregulated, so it is difficult to hold them to account for market abuse or predatory behaviour.

But this is just the beginning. Already we are seeing platforms extending to other markets (so Amazon started with books but now sells so much more) or using their expertise and profits to indulge in new activities (so Google has gone into fibre provision and driverless cars).

Could the world of the platform extend into public services such as public order and security or even voting? Now that would make a great novel, wouldn’t it? Actually it’s already been written. It’s called “The Circle”, it’s by Dave Eggers, and it’s available – naturally – on Amazon [for my review click here].

Link: article by Evgeny Morozov click here


If there is one word you always hear about the Internet, it is “transformational”. Our regular columnist ROGER DARLINGTON looks at what this means in practice.

SOONER OR LATER, THE INTERNET CHANGES EVERYTHING

In his seminal 1999 book "Business @ The Speed Of Thought", Bill Gates wrote: "Here on the edge of the twenty-first century, a fundamental new rule of business is that the Internet changes everything."

Was he right? Or was this hyperbole? Over the last decade and a half, we have seen a recurring pattern.

The Net is forecast to transform a traditional sector; over the next few years, the changes are quite marginal and traditional operators ridicule the forecast; then, a few years later, the change kicks in rather later but even faster than anticipated; yett the old way of doing things offline is not totally eclipsed by the new online paradigm but learns to respond and coexist with the new order.

As Gates himself put in in his book: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

Let’s look at three sectors to illustrate these themes: one sector where the changes have already been dramatic; another where the changes are still in progress; and a third where the changes are not yet too significant.

For 24 years, I was a national trade union official for the POEU, then the NCU and finally the CWU. In my final years with the union leading up to my early retirement 13 years ago, I warned of the massive impact that could be expected on mail volumes from the growth of electronic communications.

But, in the early stages of the Net, the growth in direct mail more than compensated for the decline in personal mail. Then the decline started and went on and on. UK letter mail volumes have declined from 20.1 billion in 2005/6 to 12.7 billion in 2013/14 - a staggering fall of 37 per cent.

According to a recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers study, letter volumes are expected to continue to decline over the next decade but at a slower rate. The letter will survive.

Now consider e-commerce. After a hesitant start, online sales in the UK have grown spectacularly. Per head of population, e-commerce is bigger in the UK than in any other country in the European Union.

According to data from the Centre for Retail Search, online sales in Britain account for around 11 per cent of total retail sales. The biggest players are Amazon (16 percent market share), followed by Tesco (9%) and eBay (8%). Growth is still very strong at around 16% a year.

But traditional retailers are learning to embrace e-commerce with a ‘clicks and mortar’ approach. For instance, John Lewis now earns 36% of its sales online, but just over half of its Internet sales involve ‘click and collect’ so that stores still very much matter.

Finally let’s consider television viewing. Most British homes now have smart televisions, computers and tablets plus a broadband connection, but this does not mean that all or even most viewing is now over the Net.

There have been repeated claims that we are seeing "the death of television", but something like 70% of television viewing in the UK is still live (linear) and the decline in live viewing is slow. A recent report by Enders Research suggests that live viewing will continue to dominate for at least the next 20 years.

But will this really be the case? Ofcom’s “Communications Market Report” shows that already, in the 16-24 age category, only 50% of viewing time is devoted to traditional television. Video on demand services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant, are increasingly popular in this age bracket.

In the future, will older viewers follow the same trend or will younger viewers switch to linear TV as they grow older? We do not know but we need to watch this space.

This column has only looked at three sectors, but the Internet is having an impact in all sectors whether it is financial services, the travel industry, or the consumption of newspapers, books and music. Sooner or later, the Net does change everything.


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