Bot technology offers a new era in seamless business support

Conversational apps and services, such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana have managed to find a way into peoples’ everyday lives as a way of finding answers to questions, quickly.

These conversational apps, also called ‘Bots’ which are a form of Artificial Intelligence (AI), are not limited to just answering questions, but can, using ‘natural conversation’ enable users to interact with services (be it ordering a pizza without looking at a traditional menu, or providing technical support to an employee’s PC issue).

Bots can be interacted with by either voice or text and can come in the form of a website, an app, or integration into existing services such as:  Skype for Business; Facebook Messenger; Cortana; Microsoft Teams and more. Bots can be accessed via a wide range of devices from smart phones to laptops and even devices without screens.

So why should businesses consider developing their own Bots?

The advantages of Bots to a business should be obvious – without the need of a dedicated and extensive support desk to handle queries for your own website, app or service, you could bake in support for bots inside your own website, app or service.  This way users would have access to the same support tools using natural conversation, without leaving the screen that requires assistance.

Bots can work well on their own, but they work even better with the help of humans when they hit the limit of their coded knowledge.   Bots are primarily programme driven but are inevitably only be as good as they are designed and coded by humans.  The Bot experience is intended to be seamless to the user, even if the Bot’s script has reached its end and it needs to interface to get guidance from a service desk.  The user talking to the Bot just enjoys a single trafficked conversation without seeing any splits.

The disadvantages at the start of the Bot technology process was in the creation period as building a coding system from scratch to handle conversational queries and integrate across known and used services was a monumental task. The good news however is that a lot of this work has now been done and is being made available as a foundation to consumers to build their own Bots. Microsoft is currently taking the lead in this area with its own Bot Framework, currently in preview.

Bots are no longer reserved by the technical giants of the world.  With the tools to create Bots having been developed and distributed, this makes Bots accessible to a wide array of devices and services. We will soon see a lot more Bots out in the wild from a wide variety of businesses and tech hobbyists. This influx in Bots could impact the technical landscape in a similar way that mobile Apps achieved when their tools became readily available – like with the original arrival of Apps in 2008 for Apple with the iPhone 3G.  So those who can make a strong brand early on will see stronger success as the platform evolves over time – and Bots could become a regular feature as part of the service desk toolkit for IT Managed Service Providers in future.

 

The Death of Flash

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Adobe Flash, released in 1996 brought with it animations, games and of course ads to a mostly static web. The technology was greeted with almost universal praise and adoption by developers and web surfers alike.   Nowadays the software tool has a less favoured reputation; it’s unable to run on most mobile devices, consumes high amounts of devices’ processing power and battery life – and then of course there are the many security issues around Flash.

The adoption of Flash has decreased throughout the years but its most noticeable set-back was arguably the unveiling of Apple’s iPhone, bringing with it a new world of mobile internet which left Adobe behind technically, despite their willingness to be included.

Steve Jobs published his Thoughts on Flash on April, 2010 detailing why Apple don’t and won’t allow Flash onto their hugely successful iPhone, iPad and iPod. His main reason being that the mobile era is all about low powered devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where ‘Flash falls short’.

In August 2015 Amazon announced it would no longer be accepting Flash ads on its website.  This week Google announced, from the 30th June 2016 it will stop accepting Flash ads on its AdWords and DoubleClick networks and from 2nd January 2017 it won’t display any Flash ads on Display Network or DoubleClick.    Google has stated “We’ve rolled out tools to encourage advertisers to use HTML5, so you can reach the widest possible audience across screens.”     This move is likely to be the killing blow for Adobe’s Flash platform, with Google being the most prominent web ad provider around.

Adobe itself has come around to support open web standards, now providing its own Flash-alternative, HTML5 tools, for developers to create HTML5 content for both desktop and mobile.

With the almost inevitable demise of Flash in sight and modern, mobile-friendly web standards likes HTML5 ready to take over, appreciation of Adobe’s early efforts in making the web a more animated place should be acknowledged, though few will mourn all the security headaches that came with it.

EE retains its brand in the new BT world

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With BT’s recent purchase of mobile giant EE receiving clearance from the Competition & Markets Authority, we have been curious to see how EE would fit into BT and whether they would lose their identity and become part of BT Mobile?

Following the announcement of the £12.5 billion acquisition on 29th of January, BT has announced the first details on the new organisational structure which comes into place from April 2016.

For EE this means being split in half:

•         The first half is led by EE’s new CEO Marc Allera and comprises of their mobile, broadband and TV services. This part of EE becomes BT’s sixth standalone line of business and interestingly will retain control of its branding, network assets and retail stores.
•         The other half of EE is its business operations, which will now be spun off into a new business unit, BT Business and Public Sector unit which will replace the current BT Business.

So it appears, at least for the short term, that both BT mobile and EE’s mobile offerings will be managed by distinct business groups within BT, each with their own brands, tariffs and marketing – and both being competitively sold to consumers.

“We will operate a multi-brand strategy with UK customers being able to choose a mix of BT, EE or Plusnet services, depending on which suits them best,” said BT CEO Gavin Patterson.

One wonders whether one of the underlying decisions in retaining the EE identify (perhaps a rather canny one in our view), may be down to EE’s brand strength. Cited against the more unwieldy BT Mobile brand, EE’s is perhaps the better recognised, which in fickle markets can cause change – and with the mobile market dominance they hold, any churn could be substantial.  Either way, we’ll see how well they continue to serve their respective customer base and how much more competitive their offerings might become in this new world of Chinese wall telecommunications.

What does the future of Windows Mobile look like?

Lumia 950 XL
Microsoft who originally launched their first smartphones back in 2002, compared to both Apple and Google (launching in 2007 and 2008 respectively) have been in the smartphone game a lot longer than their main competitors, but looking at their current marketshare they look more like the underdog.

By 2007, Microsoft’s smartphone platform was the most popular in the US, but this quickly faded after Apple and Google entered the market.  Today, these numbers are at an all-time low with US marketshare of Windows Mobile (and Windows Phone) down from 4.8% in early 2015 to just 1.6% at the end of December 2015. In the UK, Microsoft is in a much healthier position of 9.2% with iOS at 38.6% and Android taking the lions share with 51.9%.

With Microsoft continuing to struggle in its home turf and its marketshare slipping away in spite of the launch of its new Windows Mobile 10 platform and phones late last year, the question again arises – what does the future of Windows Mobile look like to Microsoft?

Despite both the loss in marketshare and revenue from Windows Mobile, taking a look at Microsoft’s more recent tablet-laptop hybrid Surface Pro may provide some answers.

In their recently announced quarterly fiscal results they revealed an impressive $1.35 billion in revenue generated by their Surface line, up from $1.1 billion the same time last year.  The now very successful Surface line is headed by Panos Panay who also recently took the lead on their Windows Mobile division. The most recent Microsoft flagship phones the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL launched under his leadership, however they would have been designed and developed before this time. On its announcement, the new feature which had the most time under the spotlight was Continiuum, which lets you plug up the phone to a monitor, keyboard and mouse and use it like a PC. The apps you have access to in this mode are the same as those available when using a phone and these will scale as needed to the screen plugged in.

Looking ahead to where the future of Windows Mobile lies, there have been rumours for some time of Microsoft working with Intel to get Windows Mobile working on x86 processors (the same ones that power their laptops and PCs) and even more recently x86 support was listed on their manufactures design guideline specification for Windows Mobile, although this information has since been pulled from their site.

With Panos Panay currently developing future Windows Mobile devices, alongside the next Surface models, we may see the next Windows Mobile flagship branded with the Surface stamp, reserving the Lumia name for both low and mid-range devices in the future.

A Surface flagship phone could see a Surface-like premium metal build and include an x86 processor, meaning when in Continuum mode, it can also run full PC applications in addition to scaling mobile apps.  As well as using full PC apps on your phone, a more unified brand could make Microsoft flagship phones easier to market and sell to consumers with the simpler name ‘Surface Phone’ compared to the current ‘Lumia 950’.

The future of Windows Mobile may look bleak now, especially in the US, but with such a heritage with smart devices and the very successful launch of Windows 10 on PCs they can’t be dismissed.

BT’s EE acquisition now cleared by the Competition and Markets Authority

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Last January we reported on BT’s £12.5 billion takeover of mobile provided EE. We had since been awaiting to hear from the Competition and Marketing Authority (CMA) whether this move would significantly harm the competition, in not just the mobile provider arena but in the Quad-play (selling a package of fixed-line phone, mobile, internet and TV) space as well.  Surprisingly, the CMA have granted BT the all clear in the EE buy out.

Both BT and EE are giants in their specialties with BT controlling 37.6% of the UK home phone market, 31% of the UK fixed-broadband market and EE holding 33.8% mobile market share. Together they hold 35 million customers between them.

Rivals, including Vodafone and TalkTalk had voiced concern during the acquisition’s original announcement calling for competition authorities to force BT to spin off its Openreach operation which maintains the UK’s copper and fibre communications cable network. This has since gone to regulator Ofcom for review for whether BT and Openreach should in fact be split up due to concerns their performance to other providers had often been poor.

The bringing together of BT and EE will likely see both cross-promotion and cross-sales between landline services and mobile.  One would assume that customers buying all their telecommunications packages from both BT and EE should get monetary savings and they wouldn’t want to lose by switching their mobile carrier next time round, something that is more frequent in the mobile world compared to consumers switching their landline provider.

Another matter yet discussed is the fate of the EE brand, being relatively young at just 6 years. Despite its size as the largest in the market, BT may not be able to resist the temptation in switching the EE brand for uncool BT Mobile. If this was the case, we could see some users switch back over to other mobile provides due to BT’s lack of lustre reputation in customer services and lack of historic expertise in the mobile arena next to O2, Vodafone and even now Three.

Is this really a fair and prudent decision by the CMA in what should be a competitive marketplace?

The Microsoft Sim for Windows 10

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Getting online on your PC or Microsoft tablet, outside a WiFi area may get easier soon with the new Windows Store listing called ‘Cellular Data’ by Microsoft.   The app is only designed to work with specific  Windows 10 devices and requires a Microsoft Sim.  The app details advise that you will be connect with and pay for a mobile data plan using your Microsoft account for payment, with no long term commitments.

This approach sounds similar to Apple’s with recent iPads, with an Apple Sim you can choose your network carrier on the device and choose a short-term rolling contract. So far the Apple Sim is limited to just the company’s iPad with no plans to date to bring the sim to its phones and laptops.

The safe bet is that the ‘specific Windows 10 devices’ mentioned in Microsoft’s store listing is referring to its own hardware like the Surface 3, which does come with a Sim card slot for LTE access and other future Surface devices with sim card slots. This would let consumers and businesses buy-in Surfaces from Microsoft and then decide later, commitment free which network carrier and tariffs to choose and on which devices.

The other, less safe, but more interesting bet is that in addition to Microsoft’s own hardware, the support for this app and service spans OEMs. So for example, an HP or Lenovo laptop or tablet could also come with Microsoft Sims, letting even more consumers and businesses take advantage of opting-in to mobile data as and when needed. Of course this would be a much more complex relationship between Microsoft and OEMs. If Microsoft didn’t want to cut OEM’s into a % of data plan profits they could offer one-off payments per Microsoft Sim shipped with device’s or simply offer Windows licencing discounts if Microsoft Sims are included with their laptops and tablets.

Whether we see the Microsoft Sim locked down to its own hardware or not, its presence still offers up some much needed flexibility and competition for mobile data users in the Microsoft ecosystem.

At the very least we would be surprised if we don’t see an announcement for an alternative Surface Pro 4 with cellular compatibility and a Microsoft Sim in the box in future.

Another mobile OS bites the dust

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The smartphone OS market is incredibly competitive, made up of just 3 main players. In the UK Android is in the lead with 51.9%, iOS in second with 39.5% and Windows in third with 8.2%, leaving just 0.4% for the rest of the market.

Firefox OS by Mozilla is one of these other OS’s, however this week Mozilla announced it is now throwing in the towel after just a few years of pushing FireFox OS on Smartphones. These were aimed at the low-end without great success. The OS will live on as an open source project but will cease to support smartphones as they were not able to offer “the best user experience possible”.

Firefox OS is not the first in exiting the smartphone market with other examples in smartphone history including: Symbian, Bada, MeeGo, Palm OS and WebOS.

There are also other current OS’s making up the ‘other’ category with Blackberry, Sailfish OS, Tizen and Ubuntu Touch.

Android was the latest introduced platform that has found large success, overtaking at-the-time most popular OS Symbian, back in 2010.

So why have we not seen any companies make a significant impact in the mobile market since Google’s entry with Android?

We’re seeing both a maturation of the smartphone landscape and costs of entry skyrocketing, even with these two large factors it is possible that the ‘other’ category could increase in market share instead of diminish over the next few years as we see more informed consumers looking elsewhere amongst the mature and arguably creatively stagnant platforms.