Author Archive for Andy Wilkinson – Page 2

Environmentally Responsible Blockchain

At its conference in Barcelona, VMware (tech subsidiary of Dell Technologies and CO2 emission-reducing evangelist) has announced that it has introduced a beta version of blockchain-as-a-service.

Part of VMware Tools

According to VMware, the new blockchain-as-a-service product will be integrated into existing VMware tools and will provide permissioned blockchain for enterprise consortiums, which will be more secure than public blockchains.

What Is Blockchain?

Blockchain, the open-source, free technology behind crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, is an incorruptible peer-to-peer network (a kind of ledger) that allows multiple parties to transfer value in a secure and transparent way. Blockchain’s Co-Founder Nic Carey describes blockchain as being like “a big spreadsheet in the cloud that anyone can use, but no one can erase or modify”.

Why Blockchain-as-a-Service?

The BaaS market is likely to take off in a much bigger way because it offers enterprises the chance to deploy distributed ledgers without the cost or risk of deploying it in-house, and without needing to find in-house developers.

VMware has highlighted a need by financial customers to use a version of blockchain in a commercial environment that is secure and can be audited, and the way in which a blockchain service could be a way for organisations to run distributed ledgers efficiently.

VMware believes that the decentralised trust, enterprise-grade scalability, reliability, security and manageability, with the ability to deploy nodes across multiple cloud environments, (including on-premise) and a single management interface with enterprise monitoring and auditing tools will make its blockchain-as-a-service product attractive to businesses.

Why Environmentally Responsible?

VMware’s CEO, Pat Gelsinger, has described the computational complexity of blockchain as being an “environmental crisis”, and the company is keen to point out that the virtualisation and server consolidation that VMware offers has reduced hundreds of tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Not The Only One

VMware is certainly not the only company in the race to get a blockchain-as-a-service product out to businesses. Microsoft was one of the first software vendors to offer BaaS on its Azure cloud platform as far back as 2015, and tech commentators have noted that Microsoft and many of the other big tech companies, including Amazon and Oracle, are now looking to make the most of the growing blockchain as a service (BaaS) market.

Real-World Blockchain Examples

The benefits of blockchain technology are already being in enjoyed by many companies, and some of the ways that it is currently being deployed include:

  • Walmart’s pilots where the time it takes to trace a food item from shop to farm was reduced, through the use of blockchain, from 7 days to just 2.2 seconds.
  • A pilot project between car-maker BMW and start-up Circulor with a view to eliminating battery minerals produced using child labour. In that project, blockchain is being used to help provide a way to prove that artisanal miners are not using child labour in their cobalt mining activities.
  • Using the data on a blockchain ledger to record the temperature of sensitive medicines being transported from manufacturer to hospital in hot climates. The ‘incorruptible’ aspect of the blockchain data gives a clear record of care and responsibility along the whole supply chain.
  • Using an IBM-based blockchain ledger to record data about wine certification, ownership and storage history. This has helped to combat fraud in the industry and has provided provenance and re-assurance to buyers.
  • Shipping Company Maersk using a blockchain-based system for tracking consignments that addresses visibility and efficiency i.e. digitising a formerly paper-based process that involved multiple interactions.
  • Start-up company ‘Electron’ building a blockchain-based system for sharing information between those involved in supplying energy which could speed up and simplify the supplier switching process. It may also be used for smart grid processes, such as local load-balancing of supply and demand.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

VMware is one of many big tech names that now want to make the most of a BaaS market, although VMware’s (currently beta) offering is targeted at enterprises in regulated industries. VMware has plenty of powerful support in this venture in the shape of partnering with Dell Technologies, Deloitte and WWT as well as having the advantage of IBM Cloud for VMware Solutions supporting VMware Blockchain.

Blockchain is growing in popularity as companies are able to see real examples of how it can be used save time and costs, provide fast and secure traceability, visibility and efficiency, and provide a real competitive advantage.

New App-Based Banking Platform For SMEs From NatWest

NatWest bank is reported to be testing a new app-based banking platform called ‘Mettle’ that combines banking with other business services, and is specifically aimed at the needs of SMEs.

Mettle – Independent From NatWest Bank

Mettle is the first standalone banking app to be launched by one of the UK’s big retail banking brands, and is described by Mettle as a “forward-looking business current account”.

The new SME-focused banking platform is to be run independently from NatWest, is not a bank but operates as an agent under an e-money licence held by PrePay Solutions, and is being developed in partnership with 11:FS and Capco.

The pilot of the new mobile-app based Mettle service has been rolled out to between 100 and 150 existing and new customers, and their feedback will be taken into account before a general roll-out to the public.

Why?

According to Alison Rose, CEO of commercial and private banking at NatWest, the premise for the Mettle banking app is that it will provide customers with data they can use to make business decisions and to let “customers focus on forward-looking finances, combining technology and proactive insights so that SMEs can make better decisions and run their businesses more successfully”.

Other reasons for introducing Mettle are that:

  • Greater awareness of and trust in fintech (financial technology) in the market place, and rapidly advancing technology and a trend towards ‘mobile everything’ mean that traditional banks need to adapt to more customer-focused services, and feel that they can now diversify their offerings.
  • Large banks such as NatWest need to head-off the threat of fast-growing challenger banks such as Monzo, Starling and Revolut.

About Mettle

Apart from the obvious convenience aspect of being able to use a mobile banking app, some of the key features that could make Mettle popular among SMEs are:

  • The account is free and fast to open, and can be operated just using a mobile app and a debit card.
  • Receipts can be added to customer transactions and expenses can be tracked straight from the phone.
  • Customers can lock and unlock their card from their phone with a single tap.
  • It offers other business tools to help SMEs stay on top of a current account.
  • It offers SMEs a maximum balance of £50,000 and a maximum pay out of £10,000.
  • Mettle has the backing of a big banking brand.

Limitations (many of which may be temporary due to it being at the pilot stage) include that Mettle:

  • Offers no overdrafts or interest.
  • Limits cash withdrawals to £500 a day and £4,000 a month.
  • Is currently by invitation only (after interest has been registered online).

How To Open A Mettle Account

At the moment, opening a Mettle account involves going to www.mettle.co.uk, clicking on “register your interest” and entering your email when prompted. After this, Mettle will email you a list of questions to understand the nature of your business, and will let you know whether you can be part of the first group of users with early access.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If you’re an SME, this kind of account could provide a much faster and more convenient way of operating and staying on top of your finances, and it has been designed specifically with the needs of SMEs in mind. It also offers other helpful business insights that a simple bank current account doesn’t and, therefore, could help SME business decision-making.

For the big banks, app-based systems enable them to keep up with consumer trends and needs, aid customer retention and with the attraction of new customers, and fight-off competition from the other big banks and fast-growing challenger banks.

New Qualifications To Improve Digital Skills of Adults in England

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) has begun a consultation about the introduction of new BDSQs [Basic Digital Skills Qualifications] that are designed to improve the digital skills of adults across England.

What’s the Problem?

Research by UK domain name company Nominet, for example, has shown that less than half of adults have the digital skills needed to easily complete a number of common tech tasks, with only 42% of adults being able to easily complete digital tasks such as downloading apps, uploading videos or using online maps. The same research from October 2017 showed that:

  • Older people struggled more with their digital skills
  • Only 46% of those born between 1965 and 1980 (Generation X) have appropriate digital skills.
  • 64% of millennials could be described as “digitally savvy”.
  • Surprisingly, only 34% of ‘digital natives’ Generation Z (those born from 1997 and onward) could be considered “digitally savvy”.

The results of this and similar research indicate that those without a good basic digital skill level could lose money in savings from online shopping, could miss out on work and other important opportunities, and could be prevented from fully participating in society. Also, with a digital skills gap costing the UK economy approximately £63bn a year, and after Brexit, tech skills are going to become an even more important advantage.

The New Qualifications

The latest consultation about the proposed new BDSQs [Basic Digital Skills Qualifications] is part of the government’s investment in increasing the level of digital skills in adults throughout the country, and it has been reported that Department for Education (DfE) is aiming to introduce a national entitlement to basic digital skills by 2020.

The qualifications, which will be ‘Beginner’ level for those with no previous digital / Internet experience, and ‘Essential’ for adults with some experience, will cover what the DfE believes to be the five key skill areas which are handling information, creating and editing digital content, communication, transacting, and being safe and responsible online.

Delivery of the Qualifications

The delivery of the training for BDSQs will be undertaken by organisations or providers selected by the DfE, and students will be expected to have received a minimum of 45 guided learning hours.

Providers will have some flexibility in designing and delivering the qualifications, but will be required to follow existing naming conventions to make employers and learners more comfortable with the qualifications’ delivery.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The UK, and specifically England in this case, has been suffering from an IT / digital skills gap for several years now. This has affected the competitiveness of UK businesses and poses a major challenge to the UK government’s vision of making the UK global technology centre. A further digital skills drain and drought caused by Brexit fears, and an apparent lack of people graduating from colleges and universities with the right digital skills has added to the need for the government to do something now to increase the home-grown digital skill level among adults in England.

These new qualifications should ultimately help businesses and the wider economy by helping more adults to take a greater part in a society that relies more on digital communications and transactions, improve their employment prospects, and give employers more opportunities and choice in getting the skills into their businesses that they need.

Tech Tip – Cloud Clipboard

With the new Windows 10 update and the new ‘Cloud Clipboard’ feature, you can avoid losing text that you’ve copied, see a history of the text and images you previously copied (via the new Cloud Clipboard feature), and even pin frequently used content to the clipboard permanently. Here’s how to use it:

  • Hit the Windows key + V. This shows all the content previously clipped and copied.
  • Select a piece of content from the clipboard history, left click on it.
  • The next time you select paste from the dropdown menu or hit Ctrl + V you will paste that selected content.
  • To make a piece of content permanently available in Cloud Clipboard, mouse over the content you want to keep, and left click the horizontal push-pin icon on the right-hand side of that item. The icon should switch to a diagonal position, indicating that it is now pinned to the menu.

Your Latest IT News Update

EU’s Web Copyright Directive Could Spell Trouble

A vote in January on contentious new EU copyright laws could negatively impact tech platforms and all online publishers, create risky legal grey areas for many businesses, stifle freedom of expression, and lead to more surveillance and control.

<More>

Blurring of Personal and Business Technology Cause For Concern

A report by CCS Insight showing how three-quarters of employees are forced to install work software on their personal mobile devices has highlighted how the increased blurring of personal and business technology is causing concern.

<More>

Adult Site Visits on Work Computer Lead to Network Infection

The extensive online porn-accessing habit of an employee of a US government department known as the US Geological Survey (USGS) is being blamed for a government computer network becoming infected with malware.

<More>

New Features and New Prices For Old Apple Products

At a recent event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, Apple announced the introduction of new features and accompanying price changes for old favourite products like the iPad Pro and Mac Book.

<More>

Easyjet – Electric Planes By 2030

Easyjet is reported to have backed plans to develop and introduce commercial passenger aircraft powered by electric batteries on its short-haul routes, possibly by 2030.

<More>

Tech Tip – Save Time By Dictating Rather Than Typing

Microsoft’s Windows 10 contains speech recognition linked to Cortana that allow you to dictate speech through your Windows machine’s microphone, and convert it into typing in a text field. Here’s how to use it:

<More>

EU’s Web Copyright Directive Could Spell Trouble

A vote in January on contentious new EU copyright laws could negatively impact tech platforms and all online publishers, create risky legal grey areas for many businesses, stifle freedom of expression, and lead to more surveillance and control.

What Copyright Law?

There will be a final vote in January 2019 on an EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. According to EU leaders, the intention in creating the new Directive is to modernise copyright laws across all EU member states, and to take account of how people now share and distribute content in the digital age.

The change in the law essentially puts a greater obligation for policing copyright infringement on those companies distributing content / making works available online e.g. tech giants, rather than on individuals for downloading it.

Key Articles

The likely introduction of the new Directive has provoked arguments, many of which relate to 2 particular articles in the Directive. These articles are Article 11, which states that new websites should be able to charge web firms for sharing links to their content, and Article 13, which puts the onus on news websites to work with copyright holders in order to prevent users from uploading content that they don’t own the rights to.

In the case of Article 11, for example, some commentators have asked whether this will mean that there will be difficulties placing a value on articles / article extracts, whether headlines and snippets will require licensing, whether payment will be required for hyper-linking (a ‘link tax’), and whether platforms publishing news e.g. Google, will have to pay compensation for providing headlines and extracts. These kinds of complications and costs could, therefore, discourage the distribution and sharing of news content, and could even discourage the sharing of things like holiday photos on the internet.

For Article 13, the requirement for the installation of ‘content filters’ to help web firms stop users sharing copyrighted content, which appears to be targeted at platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, has led critics to say that how people use the web doesn’t appear to have been taken into account by lawmakers. Article 13 could, therefore, mean that too much legitimate content is removed, thereby negatively affecting user experience, and sharing news articles online and finding good quality journalism online could become more difficult for web users.

Other Concerns

Several other concerns have been raised about the contents of the new EU copyright Directive, including:

  • This being a potential step towards the transformation of the internet from an open sharing platform to a tool for the automated surveillance and control of users.
  • Content filters creating a kind of censorship, and doubts over whether automatic content filters will be able to detect things like fair comment, satire, criticism and parody.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Although the stated intention for the change in the law appears to be a good one, for the tech giants this law change represents greater responsibility and control being placed upon them. The potential for increased costs and legal grey areas could create more risks for any company that simply wants to freely report or share news content. The news directive has, therefore, been widely criticised and greeted with suspicion e.g. back in June, 70 of the biggest names of the internet, including, Tim Berners-Lee, and the Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, signed an open letter citing worries about the news directive being simply used as a way for governments to exert more control and extend surveillance. The use of automatic content filters and the threat of charges for using even headlines, snippets and even hyperlinks certainly look as though they could limit free speech, and discourage and deter the sharing of information and news in a way that could work against the interests of many businesses and organisations.

It remains to be seen how January’s vote goes and whether Brexit will mean that the UK will actually be subject to the directive.

Blurring of Personal and Business Technology Cause For Concern

A report by CCS Insight showing how three-quarters of employees are forced to install work software on their personal mobile devices has highlighted how the increased blurring of personal and business technology is causing concern.

Objections

The report, which took into account the views of 672 employees across the US and Western Europe about digital technology, revealed how, among many other concerns, workers object to the practice of having to download work-based applications onto their personal mobile devices just so that they can carry out their jobs. As well as the understandable objection to feeling forced to blur work and home life by having to install intrusive work software on a personal device, employees also objected to the practice out of fear that their employers could use the software to track them.

Poor Connectivity

Another major annoyance indicated by workers who took part in the survey was poor connectivity in the digital workplace.

WhatsApp Popularity

Despite highlighting poor connectivity at work as a major grumble for workers, it appears that it hasn’t stopped them from using always-on, connected apps. For example, the report revealed that WhatsApp is now the most widely used mobile app in businesses, even beating out Microsoft Office 365. WhatsApp, however, is likely to be something that workers will have on their phone anyway, and its end-to-end encryption means that workers don’t have to fear any kind of tracking by the boss through its use.

Other Concerns

Other employee concerns highlighted by the report include:

  • The fear that their job may be lost to AI. This concern was expressed despite half of the employees surveyed saying that they expect digital assistants such as Google Assistant to help them in their job.
  • Only two-thirds of employees saying that they trust their employers with their privacy.
  • A mistrust of tech giant companies, although Microsoft was shown to be more trusted than most.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The fact that many employees have high spec mobile devices and access to apps that could be used by the company, and the fact that ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) schemes are commonplace, doesn’t appear to make employees feel comfortable about having to download work-based apps. Employees may be justified in feeling that they shouldn’t feel pressured into having to employ their personal devices for work tasks, and that employers shouldn’t rely so heavily upon the personal devices of employees instead of providing their own, and that respecting the barrier between work and home life is important. By the same token, employers who allow workers to use their own devices at work may also expect employees to be respectful in terms of how much time they spend dealing with personal matters during work time on their devices.

Workers may be justified in worrying about the impact of AI on their jobs in the future, and connectivity problems are a known source of work stress, particularly in the case of mobile workers.

When it comes to the mistrust of tech giants, this seems reasonable considering the number of high profile reports of data breaches and unauthorised data sharing in recent times (e.g. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica).

Adult Site Visits on Work Computer Lead to Network Infection

The extensive online porn-accessing habit of an employee of a US government department known as the US Geological Survey (USGS) is being blamed for a government computer network becoming infected with malware.

9,000 Pages

In an investigation, highlighted in a paper (published online) by the US Office of the Inspector General, it was discovered that the unnamed employee is alleged to have accessed 9,000 pages on adult pornography websites.

Infected

It is believed that the infection of the government network happened after the employee used their work laptop to visit pornographic websites, some of which originated in Russia and contained malware, thereby compromising and infecting the laptop. It was from this laptop that the malware was able to spread to the government network.

The employee is also reported to have saved images from the infected websites onto an unauthorised USB device, and to a personal Android phone that was connected to the government-issued computer. This resulted in the Android phone also becoming infected with malware.

Stealing Information

The big risk with malware is, of course, that it is designed to steal information and spread to other systems, and in the case of ransomware, for example, to destroy files, lock-down systems, and extort money.

Malware

In the UK, a government report from April this year found that nearly half the businesses in the UK have fallen victim to cyber attacks or security breaches in the last year, and that the most common breaches involved fraudulent emails e.g. phishing, attempts by scammers to impersonate the organisation online, as well as viruses and malware. The annual Verizon data breach investigations report from April showed that ransomware is the most popular form of malware used in cyber-attacks, and this type of malware is responsible for 40% of all successful malware attacks. The use of ransomware has doubled over the last year.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

In this case, the use of USB devices and government computers for personal use was against the rules, but this didn’t appear to be actively monitored and / or enforced. As the government department discovered to their cost, and too late, it may have been better to address such obvious security vulnerabilities by restricting web access to certain types of websites (and monitoring this), disabling USB connections on government-issued computers, providing IT security training, and developing a well-communicated IT security policy.

This story also highlights the risks of policies such as ‘bring your own device’ in businesses. BYOD policies allow employees to bring in their personally owned laptops, tablets, smart-phones and even storage devices, and use them to access company information and applications, and solve work problems. Unfortunately, as shown in this story and in a study by SME card payment services firm Paymentsense back in May, BYOD schemes and using USB storage devices can increase the cyber-security risks for businesses and organisations. The most popular types of BYOD security incidents in the last 12 months include malware, which affected two-thirds (65%) of SMEs, and viruses (42%).

These days, secure cloud storage and storage on secure company systems are provided, and this, combined with adequate security training and forbidding the use of USB ports (closing USB ports) on company computers could be ways of minimising this kind of security risk for many businesses.

New Features and New Prices For Old Apple Products

At a recent event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, Apple announced the introduction of new features and accompanying price changes for old favourite products like the iPad Pro and Mac Book.

iPad Pro

It was announced that Apple’s higher-end tablet and direct competitor to Microsoft’s Surface, the iPad Pro, will be upgraded with thinner bezels (the outside edge of the screen display), more screen space, and have the same face unlock system that’s found on Apple’s newer iPhones.

Also, a USB-C port on the improved iPad Pro means that it can be hooked up to peripherals / an external monitor for the first time. This fact, combined with its ability to work with a keyboard, makes the iPad Pro more like a laptop competitor too.

The improvements will be reflected in a price increase for 11 and 12.9 inch models, although the 10.5-inch version will remain at $649 (£510).

Mac Book Air

The Mac Book Air, which was originally released 7 years ago, will also be re-released with improvements including a higher-resolution display and thinner bezels. The price will be increased by $200 to reflect the improvements to $1,199 (£1,570).

Software Partnerships Too

Apple is also keen to highlight how partnerships with popular software companies Adobe and Autodesk Inc enables their programs to work on Apple’s iPad Pro, thereby adding value and improving user experience. For example, the new iPad Pro will feature a full version of Adobe Photoshop.

Why The Big Improvements?

There are several reasons for the product boosts, including:

  • Poorer than expected sales. For example, July brought the worst quarter of Mac sales since 2010 (unit volumes down 13% year over year), and iPad unit sales only rose by 1% from the previous year. Revenue for both the Mac and the iPad fell 5% from the previous year.
  • To take advantage of the holiday shopping season. It is thought that the new, improved versions of the old favourite products will be on the shelves by November 7th, just in time for Christmas buyers.
  • Extending the life-cycle of products that have a good reputation anyway. Apple products are generally held in high regard and adding a bit of excitement to old favourites and giving them a boost back into the limelight can help to extend their life and their contribution to the company’s profits. For example, the older Apple product lines still accounted for $45 billion in sales in the most recent fiscal quarter.
  • Making the most of what are still market favourites. For example, Mac sales growth has outpaced the PC market, and the iPad has been the most successful tablet on the market.

News Products Too

Only last month, Apple introduced new iPhones and Apple Watches.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Many businesses trust, like, are used to (and are prepared to pay for) the reliability and usability of Apple products, and having improved features on products that they’re used to and trust anyway is bound to be an advantage.

For Apple, it’s an opportunity to get out of a slight slump and get more leverage out of some of their old and trusted favourites that are still capable of being profitable. Some of the improvements also enable the products to become more versatile and to compete in other market segments.

Easyjet – Electric Planes By 2030

Easyjet is reported to have backed plans to develop and introduce commercial passenger aircraft powered by electric batteries on its short-haul routes, possibly by 2030.

Prototype

A prototype battery-powered, electric aircraft with a range of 335 miles is already being built by one-year-old US company Wright Electric, the same company that Europe’s no.2 low-cost airline Ryanair has been working in partnership with.

Wright Electric’s prototype is reported to be a nine-seater plane, although its CEO Jeff Engler, is reported as saying that the company is also starting work on a 50-seat version. Wright Electric estimates that an electric aircraft of this kind could reduce the energy costs of a plane by around 30%, and that its 9-seater prototype could be ready for testing by next year.

Easyjet & Wright

Easyjet’s involvement with Wright Electric is thought to date back to May last year when discussions were held with the start-up after it announced its intentions to offer an electric-powered commercial flight from London to Paris in 10 years. Easyjet is reported not to have invested money in Wright, but its validation and support of Wright’s work appears to be a considerable driver in the development of the new type of aircraft.

New Battery Technology = New Aircraft Design

It has been reported that new energy technology that could contribute to lighter batteries will need to be developed to make the development of electric aircraft successful. These new batteries could then be used to power the propellers or fans of aeroplane engines, meaning that motors could then be put inside a plane’s wings, rather than be slung underneath them.

Advantages of Battery-Powered, Electric Aircraft

The advantages of battery-powered, electric aircraft over current aircraft would be huge cost savings (no expensive oil-based fuel required), quieter planes that are also more environmentally friendly (no fuel emissions), more aerodynamic planes with less drag (with motors inside the wings rather than outside), and a more sustainable aviation industry.

Others Working On Electric Planes

Wright Electric is not the only company working on developing battery-powered, electric aircraft. For example, Zunum, backed by Boeing Co, is also reported to be working on an engine turbine from France’s Safran SA to power an electric motor for a hybrid plane, and Siemens is reported to have been working on developing electric motors for aircraft in collaboration with Airbus.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For the aircraft industry, the development of battery-powered, electric aircraft could be an important new development with positive benefits. For example, airlines using these aircraft could save money, tackle pollution (noise and emissions), and publicise the environmental benefits to customers as a differentiating competitive advantage that could have positive rub-off value on the aircraft brand. Quieter, cleaner planes could also help airports to reduce their environmental impact, and could provide a feel-good factor to customers.

There are clearly many technological challenges to be overcome first, hence the estimate of at least 10 years development time, but it is exciting and promising to think that planes are going the same way as cars in terms of harnessing new battery / electric technologies and creating more sustainable, lower environmental impact transport for the future. In reality, it seems likely that hybrid versions of commercial aircraft rather than full battery-powered, electric aircraft will be the first to be introduced.
The new technologies developed along the way to producing battery-powered, electric aircraft will, in themselves, also create many new engineering and business opportunities.