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Pulling the plug on quality

May 31, 2019

cordWhen it comes to discussing technology, the focus today is usually on innovation – but that wasn’t always the case. The worrying thing about this is that we seem to have forgotten about quality, longevity and reliability.

That said, given that most tech we buy will be superseded in 12 months, does it really matter? Based on recent experience, I’d say yes. More on the cut cord (pictured) later!

Thirty years ago, I was working as a sales assistant in the ‘TV and Sound’ section of a department store (yes, when we still had VHS video recorders and 21″ – yes, 51cm – CRT televisions at around the $900 price point were the biggest sellers). Invariably customers would ask me which brand or product was the most reliable, which one had the longest warranty, and where was it made (Japan then being the preferred country of manufacture for quality consumer electronics).

People didn’t seem so hung up on features back than, or that they might be missing out on some new technology just around the corner. Most people wanted to know how well it was made and how long it would last. In fact, the first amp (NAD) and speakers (Richter) I ever bought are still going strong, and sound just as good as the year I bought them (1989).

Fast forward to this year, and I’ve just received my third multi-function cooker in three months after the previous two were faulty. We did have a ‘quality brand’ cooker originally, which lasted about two years before packing it in. So, instead of paying a couple of hundred dollars for the replacement, we went for the ’16-in-1 Multifunction Pressure Cooker’ for around $70 from a budget online retailer. My thoughts were, why bother paying a premium if it’s only going to last two years anyway? Also, how amazing to have a single device that has 16 different cooking functions! I think the old one we had only had four …

The first 16-in-1 cooker we received was faulty on arrival, and the second one developed the same fault after a month or so of use. At least the retailer had a pretty slick returns process (I guess they do a lot of them). First, I had to send them a video of the fault, then a picture of the cut electrical cord before they sent the replacement. The cut cord was to prove that I was no longer able to use the device – they didn’t want me to return the whole device – shipping fees would have ended up costing more that the product itself!

So what happens with all these faulty products? They just go into landfill. What a colossal waste of our finite resources in a time when we are facing the biggest threat to our environment we have ever seen.

Really, should I care about having 16 cooking functions? In the time I’ve had a working device, I’ve only used three.

I was given a Wi-Fi extender purchased from the same online retailer, and it was so bad that I stopped using it almost immediately and reinstalled my trusty Apple Airport Express, which is well over ten years old and still going strong.

What worries me is not just all the people who are buying this cheap, nasty technology – or the number of budget retailers out there selling this crap. The biggest worry is the pressure that this price-driven race to the bottom is putting on the ‘so-called’ quality brands to cut manufacturing corners to stay competitive. We are getting to the point where we will no longer have a quality option for tech. The sheer scale of the problem needs to be addressed before it becomes unsustainable (if it isn’t already).

And don’t get me started on other industries. Poor clothing quality, thanks to fast fashion,  is costing Australian charitable recycling organisations a staggering $13 million per year sending unusable donations to landfill. That’s also spilling over into the quality brands. Have you noticed that your new sheet sets barely fit your mattress any more? That’s because manchester manufacturers have realised they can save a few dollars on material by making every standard sizing a little bit smaller.

I could go on, but I won’t. I love innovation, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of our planet. We need to make manufacturers more accountable for the products that they are selling; if not by introducing longer mandatory warranties for technology, then maybe we need to force manufacturers more generally to take responsibility for their product over its entire lifetime. That way, it will force them to think more carefully about the overall quality and longevity of the product, the sustainability of the materials they are using and the ability to recycle or the product at end-of-life. That will also put a real cost on this cheap, throw-away tech that everyone seems so happy to buy.

App overload?

April 17, 2019

comms appsAs a consultant working with a range of different technology companies, it’s a matter of course that you have to become familiar with a bunch of different communications applications, because everyone has their own set of collaboration tools that they use. The picture left gives you an idea of the number of comms apps I’m using on a day-to-day basis.

While it’s unavoidable for consultants like Explore Communications, for employees in a large corporation collaboration should be a lot simpler. However, a RingCentral survey last year found that workers use an average of four communications apps at work, and almost seven out of 10 waste up to an hour of work daily simply navigating between them.

Of course, it shouldn’t be like that, but there are any number of reasons as to why organisations are yet to consolidate onto a common unified communications (UC) platform. That said, even if every organisation did manage to consolidate, they are not all going to be using the same UC vendor! That still makes inter-organisational collaboration a challenge.

VidyoRemember that feeling of panic as you wait for five minutes for the conferencing application to download and install on your PC before you can join the meeting? I still haven’t gotten around to uninstalling the Vidyo app that fires up every time I reboot my PC – an app I had to download for a couple of meetings I had two years ago, but haven’t needed since.

The good news is that things seem to have got a lot easier. Now, most of the conferencing providers I use have developed a mobile app that by and large works beautifully. Click on the link from your calendar invitation, the app launches and generally automatically connects you to the meeting by voice, video, chat and screen sharing. And if you don’t have the app yet, it’s a pretty quick and simple process to install it. Sure, if you are on a smart phone, it’s not a great screen to view a shared PowerPoint deck, but in most cases it does the job perfectly. And you can still use the PC version of the application if you need the larger screen.

Features, functions and performance are obviously important, but ultimately it’s the UC vendors that focus on the end user experience that will be successful in the long run.

 

 

 

 

Keeping up the innovation

March 11, 2019

flowhive6After the incredible initial success of the Flow Hive, it’s great to see further, more subtle innovation has been taking place to give the product ongoing commercial viability.

When it was released on Indiegogo around this time four years ago, Flow Hive became one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in history – but the Flow Hive team struggled to cope with the unexpected flood in demand.

Last week I put together my first Flow Hive 2 and, while the core invention – the Flow Frame – has remained unchanged, the updates are a really good illustration of what innovators need to do to keep ahead and be responsive to customer feedback.

Since getting one of the original crowdfunded hives, even the unboxing experience and packaging has been refined. A lot of thought has been put into minimising the overall box size to keep storage and shipping costs down, despite the Flow Hive 2 having a more complex design than the original hive. And they have used environmentally-friendly materials and incorporated information onto the packaging, as well as in the instruction manual.

flowhive2.jpg

Also, since the launch of the original product Flow Hive has switched to a local manufacturer for the timber components, and you can really see this in the quality of the parts and precision of the laser cuts. They have also thought through the customer’s flat pack build experience, not just with the detailed steps in the manual, but also in marking each of the pieces of timber very clearly, so you don’t use a wrong part during construction (which happened to me on one of my earlier hives!).

flowhive5

Finally, all the functional improvements made to the hive design are more than just cosmetic. They address usability issues on the original design: including an additional viewing panel, better and more durable base and fittings, adjustable legs and a harvesting shelf.

The thing is, that despite the time that the Flow Hive has been in the market and the amount of attention it has received, there is still a lot of work to do to promote beekeeping and sell the product. There was intense interest in the Flow Hive at last weekend’s Canberra Region Beekeepers Field Day, but hobby and small-scale beekeepers currently still represent a tiny proportion of the world’s population.

Hopefully, the team at Flow Hive continues to innovate, continues to respond to customer feedback and ultimately continues to encourage more people to take up beekeeping.

Broken digital: the frustrating, the costly and the funny

November 13, 2018

old_broken_chainAlready before lunchtime today, I’d experienced three examples of broken digital processes in banking, insurance and retail – one frustrating, one costly and one funny – and in that order too! Digital transformation is great, but it only takes one broken link in the process and it all comes undone.

First up, I was trying to complete a credit card transaction over the phone, and my payment was declined. I followed up with a call to the bank, who let me know that a block had been placed on my card owing to suspicious activity (a very small amount paid to a US-based charity – called credit card testing).

Well done to the bank for having automated systems in place to pick up on the fraud and stop it before it caused any serious damage! However, when I asked why I hadn’t been notified about the blockage, the bank’s security guy told me that a message had been sent to my mobile number – which turned out to be a number I had changed a few years ago.

I was sure I had updated my number with the bank at the time. My online banking contact details showed that I had, so I called the bank to find out why this old number was still floating around in their systems. After some time searching for it, they couldn’t find any trace of it and could only assure me that they have ‘put a note on my file’ so that it wouldn’t happen again. There is obviously some sort of broken link in the chain where the change I made to my online record isn’t flowing through the entire system. The sum effect? Frustration and an hour of wasted time, first in trying to process a transaction that wouldn’t go through, then on the phone twice to the bank to sort out the issue.

Second and somewhat connected, as it was in relation to the credit card payment I was trying to make, I found out that I would have been paying too much to renew my car insurance. Why? Because a premium costs more when you have a car with finance attached to it. However, I had finished paying off the car early in 2018 and, even though I was insuring the car through the same finance company, the price of the policy renewal wasn’t automatically updated to reflect that change in status. I only discovered this because I was on the phone with the company trying to make the unsuccessful credit card payment to renew the policy.

While this could be an inadvertent error from the finance company in its automated processes, the cynic in me thinks otherwise. The end result? A difference of $200 on my premium. If you calculate that across all the companies and people with car insurance where the finance has ended during the previous 12 months, that’s a lot of money.

The final broken digital process came in a “Because you purchased … we also recommend these” email I received from an online retailer. I purchased some Tiles – finder devices – the day before, but I think the retailer’s keyword-matching AI algorithms might need a little bit of fine tuning.

The recommended product? A steam mop.

(Pictured top: “Old Broken Chain” by Jaysin Trevino via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.)

 

 

A win for IP rights and innovation

November 8, 2018

HivesWith our weather warming up, the flowers  blooming and Explore’s own Flow Hives (pictured this morning) ramping up honey production, there was great news today with the hive’s inventors winning their fight against a ‘copycat’ manufacturer.

The global reach that businesses now have with the Internet is both a blessing and a curse – especially for innovators like Flow Hive. It would have been next to impossible for them to have raised so much money so quickly, together with global market awareness they generated for their product, without the help of the crowdfunding platform they used.

At the same time, it’s been just as easy for scammers and copycats to take a short cut and make a quick buck on the back of Flow Hive’s hard work and experimentation over ten years – and this is despite the attempts Flow Hive has made to legally protect its intellectual property rights globally.

Part of the problem is that the so-called ‘tech disruptors’ like Google, Amazon, Facebook and eBay are facilitating these IP contraventions, while claiming to bear no responsibility for the actions of their users. The issue with this is that they are deriving direct benefit from the contravention – which seems to have little bearing on their complicity. I’m not sure why they aren’t forced by the regulators to take a more active role in policing and enforcing the IP rights of the legitimate holders. And this isn’t something new. It’s been at least 20 years since I first complained to Google about a competitor using one of our trademarks as a paid keyword search term.

Surely, technology is now at the stage where we can have APIs into the various IP administrative systems globally, so that companies like Google and Amazon can connect to the data sources and automate a large part of this IP enforcement process?

Cedar Anderson from Flow Hive says they have had to spend a huge amount of money and time trying just to shut down copycats. “In some cases it makes it hard for people like us with a legitimate product. For example. Amazon and eBay even advertise counterfeit products on keywords, which really shouldn’t be allowed to happen. It’s bad enough that they are allowed to list counterfeits, let alone advertise them.” – Flow Hive pest free after parasite brand folds

Let’s keep up the good fight!

More local recognition and support needed?

October 26, 2018

In terms of recognising Australian technical innovation, we tend to focus our attention on the eastern seaboard, so it’s great to have the opportunity to highlight a significant piece of industry achievement from South Australia.

You probably hadn’t heard the news, but a collaboration software product from SA was presented with an Engineering Emmy this week in Hollywood: cineSync, developed by Adelaide firm Cospective.

You can read more about cineSync  and the Emmy win on fxguide.

eng-2018-cospective-p-900x600

Rory McGregor, CEO of Cospective, from left, Neil Wilson, Robert Bartlett, and Roland Empson accept the Engineering Emmy Award for Cospective at the 2018 Engineering Emmy Awards (Phil McCarten/Invision/AP Images) – https://www.emmys.com/photo/484806?galleryid=484771

 

One of the creators of the software was recently recognised locally for his achievements – with Tony Clark from Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) presented with the 2018 SA Pearcey Entrepreneur Award last month in Adelaide. Tony is pictured below, receiving his award from Professor Mike Miller.

Professor Mike Miller and Tony ClarkAccepting his award, Tony was pretty outspoken about the lack of technology industry and government support and recognition for homegrown innovation in his speech:

“At a really fundamental level we need to support our entrepreneurs and insist that our government helps to build local businesses that are here because they love and are committed to this place, not because they are coming for subsidies.”

Tony‘s career achievements to date have been remarkable.

First up, RSP established its own high-speed broadband network in 2004 called “Cinenet” that’s since become part of Superloop (https://www.superloop.com/cinenet/) which helped RSP to win the contract for the special effects on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (see an old ABC news story on this here: http://www.abc.net.au/technology/articles/2011/09/13/3316672.htm).

Then, it was during the production of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that RSP first developed the cineSync software  so that people could easily collaborate on the film across different locations (https://cospective.com/cinesync/). cineSync has since become the default industry tool around the world and won the creators a technical Oscar back in 2011 (some news on that at the time here: https://www.smh.com.au/technology/aussie-geeks-win-big-at-oscars-20110214-1at5e.html). It has also led to a web-based version of the software called Frankie, all achieved out of the company’s Adelaide base.

The list of movies that RSP has worked on are incredible – it’s worth checking out their demo reel on their home page – https://rsp.com.au/home/. And cineSync is now pretty much in use by every major production studio, to the point that it “has become almost a new verb, replacing ‘review session’ in much the same way ‘Googling’ something has replaced ‘searching’.” (https://www.provideocoalition.com/frankie-makes-content-sharing-and-client-review-simple-and-easy/)

Maybe we need a little more local recognition and support for technical achievements like this?

Going with the Flow

September 25, 2018

beesWhen I first found out about this incredible piece of innovation about three and a half years ago, I knew immediately that it was perfect for me. I was one of the first to sign up for a Flow Hive when the crowdfunding campaign went live in February 2015, and we added a second hive the following year.

It’s been a steep learning curve, especially when you have to deal with your first swarm! And, like this recent CNET article attests, you can’t be hands off with your Flow Hive.

However, the experience has been amazing. We are producing the beautiful, complex and delicious honey, we’ve got two healthy bee colonies, we’ve caught and supplied new swarms for other beekeepers in the area, and the fruit trees and vegetables in our garden have never been as productive.

In response to the controversies about commercial egg production, we’ve had our own chickens for years, so we know exactly where our eggs are coming from and how our chooks are being treated. Chickens are also a fantastic way to reduce food waste and produce fertiliser for the garden.

explore_honeyNow, we are seeing similar problems with bees and the honey industry. There’s a dangerous decline in the bee population worldwide, which is having a devastating effect on the environment and especially food security. And, partly as a consequence, we’ve just had a “fake” honey scandal erupt involving adulterated samples from some of the big commercial producers.

I was thrilled to be asked by the team at Flow recently to become a Flow Ambassador. My role is to be a local point of contact for people in my region (the Southern Highlands of NSW) who are interested in finding out more about beekeeping and Flow Hive products. It also means that people have access to my referral program, which gives you a discount on Flow products: https://mbsy.co/honeyflow/maungle.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone with a backyard had their own chooks producing eggs and their own bees producing honey?

Please get in touch if you’d like to find out more about keeping bees, or if you’d like to come and have a look at our hives.