Archive for Hardware

Amazon Announces Smart Office Supply Re-Ordering Device

Amazon has announced the introduction of a ‘smart’ office essentials re-ordering device called Dash Smart Shelf which uses a weight-sensing, Wi-Fi-enabled smart scale to re-order products when they’re running low.

Why?

According to Amazon, monitoring and reordering everyday business essentials (e.g. printer paper) can be unnecessarily time-consuming for the small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that make up 99% of business in the U.S. (99.9% of the business population / 5.9 million businesses in the UK – FSB figures).  Having a smart inventory-tracking service could, therefore, mean that time and money in manual stock checking can be saved, plus the disruption of running out of a particular item when it’s needed can be avoided.

How Dash Smart Shelf Works

Amazon’s Dash Smart Shelf is a weight-sensing, Wi-Fi-enabled smart scale that looks like a closed laptop. The device is around 1-inch-tall and will be offered in three different sizes – small (7” x 7”), medium (12” x 10”), and large (18” x 13”). Amazon says that the Dash Smart Shelf can work on a range of surfaces e.g. from counter-tops to wire shelving.

The idea being that the Dash Smart Shelf is placed on the shelf where stationery is stored and the stationery e.g. packets of printer paper, sticky tape or pens are stacked (one Smart Shelf per item type) on top of it.  When supplies run low, the Dash Smart Shelf automatically orders more.

Incentive

The Dash Smart Self is for Amazon Business Customers and Amazon is offering them “business-only prices” on certain products, and savings of up to 15 per cent on orders for selected products placed using the new Dash Smart Shelf.

Easy

Amazon says that the Dash Smart Self is easy to set up and only requires a wall plug (included) or four AAA batteries, a connection to your business Wi-Fi and that you are logged in to your Amazon Business account via the web or Amazon Shopping app.

Timescale and Price

Amazon says that the Dash Smart Shelf will be made available first to Amazon Business customers with a registered U.S. business license “starting sometime in 2020”, and no prices have yet been made available.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Amazon makes the point that if you’re in a location far from an office supplies shop, or if you miss a big order (e.g. because you don’t have a certain sized cable), you will instantly see the value of a product that makes sure that you never run out of essential supplies. This product does appear to have the potential to save time, money and hassle by no longer having to manually monitor stock levels.  However, since this product is aimed SMEs, and one unit will need to be purchased for each office product type and the price per unit Dash Smart Shelf (as yet unknown) is going to be an important consideration. Businesses may wonder how much flexibility they will have in choosing which supplier (via the amazon platform) they can have with the device.

Amazon has made in-roads into our homes and found out much more about us and our listening, viewing and other consumption patterns with smart speakers (Echo), Fire TV, the Ring Doorbell and more, and the Dash Smart Shelf marks a move into our business lives by Amazon. As the company becomes the close, sole supplier of some of our valued home and business services, this should enable Amazon to use the data about us to tailor more services and offers, thereby helping it to increase our loyalty and commitment to Amazon, and further fuelling the growth, power and diversification of this online giant.

Uber Loses London Licence

A decision by Transport for London (TfL) means that ride-hailing service Uber has lost its licence to carry passengers in London over safety and security failures.

Why?

According to TfL, it had identified a pattern of failures by Uber, including breaches that had risked the safety of passengers and drivers, plus some uninsured journeys.

Prior to the decision to remove its London Licence, Uber had pledged to improve its drivers’ safety training and provide a direct connection to emergency services.

Not The First Time

Uber had its London licence removed before by TfL back in 2017 after it was decided that the company was “not fit and proper” following security issues, public safety issues, poor reporting (of serious in-car crimes), poor medical checks (of drivers) and poor background checks (of drivers). Uber’s controversial founder and CEO Travis Kalanick had already resigned (in June 2017) amid rumours that he had possibly been “pushed” by unhappy shareholders.  Mr Kalanick was replaced by Dara Khosrowshahi.

In 2018, Uber was only given a probationary 15-month license in London following changes made to improve relations with city authorities and had most recently (September) only been granted only a two-month license, which is the licence that is now about to be allowed to expire.

Black Cab Battle

Uber has not had an easy ride in London from its competitors, the drivers of the famous black cabs. The 22,000 traditional “cabbies”, who are required to pass the notoriously difficult memory test of the city’s road network known as “the Knowledge” in order to pick up passengers have objected (many would say understandably) to the loss of business as a result of having to compete with a growing number of Uber drivers who don’t face the same costs or regulations, and who don’t take the same test, and who can rely on satnav apps.

Carry On and Appeal

It has been reported that although the decision to remove the London licence has been taken, Uber will appeal and it is likely that its 45,000 drivers in London may decide to keep accepting customers until the long process of the appeal has been considered.

Trouble Around The World

It’s certainly not just the UK where Uber has found itself facing legal challenges in recent years.  For example:

In the US, in March, the company had to pay $20 million in settlement of a lawsuit brought by drivers who claimed they were employees and were therefore entitled to some wage protections. Also, in November, Uber unsuccessfully challenged a city law which limited the number of licenses for ride-hailing services.

In Australia this year, the company faced a class action on behalf of thousands of drivers who alleged that Uber was operating illegally and harming them financially, and back in December 2018 in Germany, Uber’s limousine service (stopped in 2014) was ruled to have been illegal. Uber has also faced legal problems in the Netherlands, India, and Austria.

Other Woes

Back in November 2017, Uber was handed a £385,000 fine by the ICO in the UK for data protection failings during a cyber-attack back in 2016 which involved the compromising (and theft) of data relating to 600,000 US drivers and 57 million user accounts.

Also, back in May, Uber’s trading debut at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) proved to be somewhat underwhelming when the opening share price was much lower than had been expected at only $45 per share.

Move to Bikes and Scooters

In August 2018, Uber announced a shift in focus towards bikes and scooters in order to drive growth and keep people using the platform. It was thought that bikes and scooters would be more effective and efficient than cars in congested city areas, could represent a way to get another slice of the lucrative mobility market, and that they could be used to help shape consumer behaviour and keep levels of engagement high.

Popular With Users

It has to be said that despite Uber’s problems with the authorities and London cabbies, the service has been popular with many users having positive things to say about the convenience of the app, Uber prices and the speed of the service.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Uber had already been on borrowed time in London after finally being granted a two-month licence (following on from just a 15-month probationary one).  Uber’s relationship with the UK authorities and Mayor Sadiq Khan, who had accused Uber as adding to the city’s congestion problems, has been on the edge for quite some time, and it appears as though Uber may not have made the changes that it had pledged to make in order to retain its licence.  The appeal may take a few months, so it is likely that Uber drivers will simply carry on for the time being.

For users, it may come as a disappointment that a service that they found to be very convenient will soon no longer be available but it may be the case that a new London Mayor after May 2020 could take a different approach towards Uber.  For example, some Uber drivers have expressed the belief that Mayor Khan may be pandering too much to the black cabbies, and a hopeful future mayor candidate, Shaun Bailey (Conservative) has expressed regret over TfL’s decision to not grant another licence to Uber.  For the time being though, it’s a waiting game in London for Uber.

Windows Still Need Some Work on Tesla’s New “Cybertruck”

Tesla’s Elon Musk proudly launched the new ‘Cybertruck’ in front of the world’s media last week, only to find that the distinctly breakable difficult-to-break windows were the main focus of media reports.

Cybertruck

The new Tesla all-electric Cybertruck is a futuristic pickup truck / armoured vehicle which will not be manufactured until late 2021 and will retail for between $39,000 and $76,900.  The Tesla website claims that the Cybertruck features “a nearly impenetrable exoskeleton” and that all of the components are “designed for superior strength and endurance”.  For example, the truck features an “Ultra-Hard” 30X Cold-Rolled stainless-steel structural skin and armour glass (toughened glass).  The smooth steel shell is intended to resist dents, damage and long-term corrosion as well as providing added safety to the truck’s occupants.

Features

Tesla says that the new Cybertruck can accelerate from 0-60 mph in only 2.9 seconds, has up to 500 miles of range (thanks to improved Tesla batteries),  a 3,500 pounds of payload capacity, offers 100 cu ft of “vault-like” storage, has adaptive suspension, and can seat six comfortably.

In addition to the futuristic exterior, the ‘cyber’ aspect of the truck appears to be focused around the 17” touchscreen with a new customized user interface.

That Glass Incident

The embarrassing aspect of the launch that international media outlets chose to focus on was when Tesla’s head of design, Franz von Holzhausen attempted to demonstrate how strong the window glass on the Cybertruck was by throwing a heavy metal ball at two different windows, only to find that both broke (although the ball didn’t end up inside the vehicle in either case).

Orders

Elon Musk tweeted on the Sunday after the Cybertruck’s (Thursday) launch that there had already been 200,000+ orders of the vehicle (with no advertising), but this figure appears to relate to pre-orders of the not-yet manufactured vehicle involving a commitment from potential customers of only $100 deposit (fully refundable).  As any car salesperson could tell you, the small deposit coupled with the long wait for manufacture may be unlikely to produce anywhere near the same number of actual sales as pre-orders.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

There is no doubt that the major car manufacturers are committed to producing electric cars, and Tesla has achieved a great deal in establishing itself as a major player in this market, particularly with its Model 3. Much of the media attention for Tesla, however, has focused on the claims and behaviour of its charismatic leading light and often double-edged sword Elon Musk, who appears to be no stranger to controversy e.g. when he was sued by (and settled with) The US Securities and Exchange Commission for a “false and misleading” tweet about his plans for Tesla that was thought to have upset the market and investors.

Unfortunately, unpredictable and embarrassing events at the launch appear to have slightly overshadowed many of the positive aspects of the Cybertruck. Sir James Dyson also found that his ambition in the electric car market didn’t live up to reality as Dyson recently had to scrap its £2.5 billion ‘N526’ electric car project with Sir James Dyson announcing that it was “not commercially viable”.  It remains to be seen if Tesla’s Cybertruck can achieve the same levels of popularity and approval as its Tesla 3 model.

Despite Patches, Researchers Warn That Intel Chips Are Still Vulnerable

The New York Times has reported that despite Intel issuing patches for security flaws (that were discovered last year) in its processors, security researchers are alleging that the processors still have some serious vulnerabilities.

What Flaws?

In January 2018, it was discovered that nearly all computer processors made in the last 20 years contained two flaws known as ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’. The 2 flaws could make it easier for something like a malicious program to steal data that is stored in the memory of other running programs.

Meltdown, discovered by researchers from Google’s Project Zero, the Technical University of Graz in Austria and the security firm Cerberus Security in Germany, affects all Intel, ARM, and other processors that use ‘speculative execution’ to improve their performance; i.e. when a computer performs a task that may not be actually needed in order to reduce overall delays for the task (a kind of optimisation).

Meltdown could, for example, leave passwords and personal data vulnerable to attacks, and could be applied to different cloud service providers as well as individual devices. It is believed that Meltdown could affect every processor since 1995, except for Intel Itanium and Intel Atom before 2013.

Spectre, which affects Intel, AMD and ARM (mainly Cortex-A) processors, allows applications to be fooled into leaking confidential information. Spectre affects almost all systems including desktops, laptops, cloud servers, and smartphones.

8 More Flaws Discovered

Then, in May 2018, 8 more security flaws in chips/processors were discovered by several different security teams.  The new ‘family’ of bugs were dubbed Spectre Next Generation (Spectre NB).

September 2018

According to reports by The New York Times, the Dutch researchers (at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) also reported a range of security issues about Intel’s processors to the company in September 2018 and provided Intel with a proof-of-concept code to help them to develop fixes

14 Months On – Only Some Fixes

It has been reported that after waiting 8 months to allow Intel enough time to develop fixes (of which only some have issued), and more than a year after providing Intel with a proof-of-concept code, Intel has only just announced the issue of more security updates earlier this week.

More Vulnerabilities

Unfortunately for Intel, just as they announced the issue of new security fixes last week, the researchers notified them of more unfixed flaws, and it has been alleged that Intel asked the researchers to alter the report about the flaws and to effectively stay quiet about them.

MDS

The latest unpatched flaw in Intel processors that the researchers from Amsterdam, Belgium, Germany and Austria have gone public about is a hacking technique, which is a variant of ZombieLoad or RIDL (Rogue In-Flight Data Load). The technique which exploits a flaw in Intel processors is known as microarchitectural data sampling (MDS) and it can enable hackers to carry out several different exploits e.g. running code on the victim’s computer that forces the processor to leak data.

Criticism

The news that there may still be flaws in Intel’s processors after the company appears to have had a long time to fix them has prompted some criticism of Intel online, some of it reported in the New York Times e.g. allegations  that there has been a lack of transparency about the issue from Intel, that the company has tried to downplay the problems, and allegations that Intel may not decide to do much to fix the problem until its reputation is at stake.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Bearing in mind that these flaws are likely to exist at the architectural level in the majority of processors, this story is bad news for businesses that have been legitimately trying to make themselves totally compliant with GDPR and as secure as possible from attack.

For the time being, in the short term, and unless processor companies try to completely re-design processors to eliminate the flaws, closing hardware flaws using software patches is the only realistic way to tackle the problem and this can be a big job for manufacturers, software companies, and other organisations that choose to take that step. It is good practice anyway for businesses to install all available patches and make sure that they are receiving updates for all systems, software and devices.

The hope is now that researchers can put enough pressure on processor manufacturers e.g. through bad publicity to make them speed up their efforts to tackle the known security flaws in their products.

‘Moore’s Law’ and Business Innovation Challenged By Slow-Down In Rate of Processing Power Growth

Many tech commentators have noted a stagnation or slow-down period in computing related to ‘Moore’s Law’ being challenged, but has the shrinking of transistors within computer chips really hit a wall and what could drive innovation further?

What Is Moore’s Law?

Moore’s Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, is based on his observation from 1965 that transistors were shrinking so quickly that twice as many would be able to fit into a micro-chip every year, which he later amended to a doubling every two years.  In essence, this Law should mean that processing power for computers doubles every two years.

The Challenge

The challenge to this Law that many tech commentators have noted is that technology companies may be reaching their limit in terms of fitting ever-smaller silicon transistors into ever-smaller spaces, thereby leading to a general slowing of the growth of processing power.  The knock-on effect of this appears slowing of computer innovation that some say could have a detrimental effect on new, growing industry sectors such as self-driving cars.

What’s Been Happening?

Big computer chip manufacturers like Intel have delayed the next generation of smaller transistor technology and increased the time between introducing the future generations of their chips. Back in 2016 for example, Intel found that it could shrink chips to as little as 14 nanometres, but 10 nanometres is going to be a challenge that would take longer to achieve.

The effect has not only been a challenge to Moore’s Law, and a challenge to how the big tech companies can keep improving their data centres, but also how computers are able to work for (and keep up with) the demands of business.

Mobile devices, which use chips other than Intel’s may also have the brakes put on them slightly as they now also rely, to a large extent, on the data-centres to run the apps that their users value.

What About Supercomputers?

Some experts have also noted that the rate of improvement of supercomputers has been slowing in recent years and this may have had a negative impact on the research programs that use them.

That said, the cloud means that IBM is now able to offer quantum computing to tens of thousands of users, thereby empowering what it calls “an emerging quantum community of educators, researchers, and software developers that share a passion for revolutionising computing”.  It is doing this by opening a Quantum Computation Centre in New York which will bring the world’s largest fleet of quantum computing systems online, including the new 53-Qubit Quantum System for broad use in the cloud.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Many smaller businesses that are less directly reliant upon the most-up-to-date computers may not be particularly concerned at the present time about the challenge to Moore’s Law,  but all businesses are likely to be indirectly affected as their tech giant suppliers struggle to keep improving the capacity of their data-centres.

Many see AI and machine learning as the gateway to finding innovative solutions to improving computing power, but these also rely on data-centres and other areas of computing that have been challenged by the pressure on Moore’s Law.

A more likely way forward may be that chip designs will need to be improved and highly specialised versions will need to be produced, and Microsoft and Intel have already made a start on this by working on reconfigurable chips.  Also, the big tech companies may need to collaborate on their R &D in order to find the way forward in increasing the rate of improvement of computing power that can ensure that businesses can drive their products, services and innovation forward.

Dyson Scraps “Not Commercially Viable” Electric Car

Dyson has scrapped its £2.5 billion ‘N526’ electric car project with Sir James Dyson announcing that it was “not commercially viable”.

So Close

The project, which could be traced back to 1993 with the development of a cyclonic vehicle exhaust that could 95 cut per cent of harmful emissions, evolved into the full-blown development of Dyson’s own electric car.  The ‘N526’ project employed 500 UK workers (aimed to roll out the first vehicles for sale in 2021) had a driveable prototype, and was on the verge of kitting-out its production factory in Singapore before the plug was pulled on what some saw as the founder’s expensive “vanity project”.

Battery Work To Continue

Despite the project to build a whole car being scrapped, Dyson has announced that work will continue on improving the battery technology that would have been used in the car.  Dyson had originally planned to invest £1 billion in development of the car and invest another £1 billion in developing the electric battery technology, something that was closer to its existing business.

Even though there was great sadness among Dyson employees, and a question mark hangs over the future of those employed in the UK electric car division, Sir James Dyson said that his company had successfully built a “fantastic electric car”.

What Went Wrong?

Producing vehicles and competing in a car market where there are already well-established and experienced car companies such as Volkswagen that is spending £50 billion on its own electric vehicle requires massive amounts of money, capital investment, and the addition of different core skills and competencies to the ones that Dyson has.  Also, Singapore (compared to China or Malaysia) looked likely to be an expensive place to manufacture the vehicles.

Even though Dyson’s team was able to relatively quickly produce a working prototype, and convince some media commentators that it would become a serious challenger with a high-risk, high level of difficulty ‘new product in a new market’, it looks likely that the numbers didn’t add up and Dyson chose to ‘stick to the knitting’ (its core business) and not to risk the whole company and its brand on the expensive venture.

Harley Davidson Too

Just as Dyson announced that it was scrapping its electric car project, U.S. motorcycle giant Harley-Davidson announced that it was halting production of its first electric motorbike.  In Harley Davidson’s case though, the stopping of production was down to an issue with its charging system.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Sir James Dyson’s positive view of this being more of change of direction of a project (which is not likely to be the last change of direction) must mask some sadness that the company came so close to producing an electric car which may have been well received on the back of the company’s adventurous and innovative image.  The numbers, however, simply wouldn’t stack up, and the announcement of Dyson pulling the plug is unlikely to have come as a major surprise to the long-established automotive players who know just what it takes to produce, supply and compete successfully in the car market.  That said, relatively new car market players and likely of competitor of Dyson, Tesla has established itself as a real contender in the electric car market with its Model 3.

Report Says Public Cloud May Double In Just Four Years

The new cloud market report from the Synergy Research Group shows that cloud-associated markets, such as the public cloud, are growing at rates ranging from 10% to over 40% and the annual spending on the cloud may double in four years.

IaaS & PaaS Biggest Growth

Synergy’s half-yearly report shows that, across the seven key cloud service and infrastructure market segments, revenues for operator and vendors in the first half of 2019 exceeded $150 billion, which is a rise in growth of 24% from the first half of 2018.

The biggest area of growth in the cloud infrastructure sector was in the infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS) market segments where there was a massive 44% growth rate.  IaaS is online, virtualised computing resources over the internet, and PaaS is where a provider hosts the hardware and software on its own infrastructure with PaaS products enabling developers to build custom applications online without having to worry about data serving, storage, and management.

The Synergy report also showed growth rates of enterprise SaaS at 27%, UCaaS at 23% and hosted private cloud infrastructure services at 20%.  The report also shows that spending on cloud services is now much greater than spending on supporting data centre infrastructure.

Infrastructure Investments

In the first half of 2019, cloud service provides spent $55 billion on the hardware and software used to build cloud infrastructure (evenly split between public and private clouds).  These infrastructure investments helped cloud service providers to generate over $90 billion in revenues from their cloud infrastructure services (IaaS, PaaS, hosted private cloud services) and enterprise SaaS.

Leaders

The Synergy report shows that the leaders in the IaaS and PaaS segments in the first half of 2019 are Microsoft, Amazon/AWS, Dell EMC, Cisco, HPE and Google.  Back in February, Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) reported a massive 45% growth in the revenue of the fourth quarter, mostly fuelled by big profits in its public cloud arm.

Other big names in that market segment include Salesforce, Adobe, VMware, IBM, Digital Realty, Equinix and Rackspace.

All these big players together account for over half of all cloud-related revenues.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The public cloud is being embraced by businesses as they seek to outsource and ditch traditional capital investment and maintenance problems and costs while reaping the benefits of having the pay-as-you-go scalability, security, and outsourced expertise that allows them to free up more of their own resources.  Cloud service providers are now investing heavily to win large slices of the cloud market with Amazon and Microsoft as market leaders, and as the Synergy report shows, this investment is delivering big revenues and impressive growth rates, particularly in the IaaS and PaaS market segments.

IBM To Offer Largest Quantum Computer Available For External Access Via Cloud

IBM has announced that it is opening a Quantum Computation Centre in New York which will bring the world’s largest fleet of quantum computing systems online, including the new 53-Qubit Quantum System for broad use in the cloud.

Largest Universal Quantum System For External Access

The new 53-quantum bit/qubit model is the 14th system that IBM offers, and IBM says that it is the single largest universal quantum system made available for external access in the industry, to date. This new system will (within one month) give its users the ability to run more complex entanglement and connectivity experiments.

IBM Q

It was back in March 2017 that IBM announced that it was about to offer a service called IBM Q that would be the first time that a universal quantum computer had been commercially available, giving access to (and use of) a powerful, universal quantum computer, via the cloud.

Since then, a fleet composed of five 20-qubit systems, one 14-qubit system, and four 5-qubit systems have been made available, and since 2016 IBM says that a global community of users have run more than 14 million experiments on their quantum computers through the cloud, leading to the publishing of more than 200 scientific papers.

Who?

Although most uses of quantum computers have been for isolated lab experiments, IBM is keen to make quantum computing widely available in the cloud to tens of thousands of users, thereby empowering what it calls “an emerging quantum community of educators, researchers, and software developers that share a passion for revolutionising computing”.

Why?

The hope is that by making quantum computing more widely available, it could lead to greater innovation, more scientific discoveries e.g. new medicines and materials, improvements in the optimisation of supply chains, and even better ways to model financial data leading to better investments which could have an important and positive knock-on effect in businesses and economies.

Partners

Some of the partners and clients that IBM says it has already worked with its quantum computers include:

  • J.P. Morgan Chase for ‘Option Pricing’ – a way to price financial options and portfolios. The method devised using the quantum computer has speeded things up dramatically so that financial analysts can now perform option pricing and risk analysis in near real-time.
  • Mitsubishi Chemical, Keio University and IBM, on a simulation related to reactions in lithium-air batteries which could lead to making more efficient batteries for mobile devices or automotive vehicles.

Quantum Risk?

Back in November 2018, however, security architect for Benelux at IBM, Christiane Peters, warned of the possible threat of commercially available quantum computers being used by criminals to try and crack encrypted business data.

As far back as 2015 in the US, the National Security Agency (NSA) warned that progress in quantum computing was at such a point that organisations should deploy encryption algorithms that can withstand such attacks from quantum computers.

The encryption algorithms that can stand up to attacks from quantum computers are known by several names including post-quantum cryptography / quantum-proof cryptography, and quantum-safe / quantum-resistant cryptographic (usually public-key) algorithms.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The ability to use a commercially available quantum computer via the cloud will give businesses and organisations an unprecedented opportunity to solve many of their most complex problems, develop new and innovative potentially industry-leading products and services and perhaps discover new, hitherto unthought-of business opportunities, all without needed to invest in hitherto prohibitively expensive hardware themselves. The 14 hugely powerful systems now available to the wider computing and business community could offer the chance to develop products that could provide a real competitive advantage in a much shorter amount of time and at much less cost than traditional computer architecture and R&D practices previously allowed.

As with AI, just as new technologies and innovative services can be used for good, their availability could also mean that in the wrong hands they could be used to pose a new threat that’s very difficult for most business to defend against. Quantum computing service providers, such as IBM, need to ensure that the relevant checks, monitoring and safeguards are in place to protect the wider business community and economy against a potentially new and powerful threat.

AI Destined For McDonald’s Drive-Throughs

The acquisition of AI voice recognition start-up Apprente by the McDonalds franchise gives the restaurant chain its own Silicon Valley technology division and promises an automated ordering system for drive-throughs, self-order interfaces and the mobile app.

Apprente

Apprente is a Silicon Valley-based start-up (founded 2017, Mountain View, California) that specialises in making customer service chatbots.  Its acquisition by McDonald’s gives the restaurant chain its own AI-powered voice-based conversational system that can handle human-level interactions, thereby helping improve the speed and accuracy of orders.

It is thought that the Apprente system will not completely replace the traditional front of house staff, but may be used in mobile ordering or kiosks i.e. added to drive-through kiosks or sited nearby (and added to the mobile app) so that that food can be ordered by the customer’s voice, and transcripts of the order can be given to staff to ensure that the order is correct.  The transcript may also be presented or read to the customer when they pick the order up minutes later.  The technology may, therefore, provide time-saving, accuracy, and convenience benefits to both customers and staff.

Why?

There are a few key reasons why McDonald’s has gone down the tech route with its order taking.  These include:

  1. Competition from home delivery companies.
  2. 70 per cent of the company’s orders come through its drive-throughs but some reports show that McDonald’s may be relatively slow in getting its drive-through food orders out.  For example, a recent report (Oches’ 2019) shows that while the average wait in a Burger King drive-through is over 193 seconds, the waiting time in McDonald’s is considerably longer at 273 seconds.  McDonald’s ranked the tenth and slowest fast-food company in that report, but the addition of the voice-based conversational system could help speed things up.
  3. To give McDonald’s a technology development centre, the McD Tech Labs in Silicon Valley so that the restaurant chain can keep adding value through new technology and stay ahead in the market.

Other Acquisitions

McDonald’s has also recently acquired customer services personalisation company and AI start-up ‘Dynamic Yield’. With this deal, worth more than £240 million, McDonald’s can use the decision-logic technology to create drive-through menus tailored to its customers based on the time of the day, trends, previous choices and other factors.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For customers, the deployment of the new voice-recognition technology in addition to the Dynamic Yield (already deployed in 8,000 US drive-throughs) should make ordering food a faster and better experience.

For McDonald’s, the addition of the new technology and of a tech base in Silicon Valley to develop more of the same should help it to compete in a market that’s getting busier with companies that are using technology to reach customers and satisfy the same need for fast gratification.  The value-adding technology (combined with the fact that McDonald’s have a restaurant in most towns with a standardised and trusted product and brand) means that McDonald’s is taking steps to ensure that it stays ahead in a future where technology is an important competitive advantage in fast food delivery.   The new technology may also help McDonald’s address its current need to get orders ready more quickly and accurately while adding a novelty factor, talking point, and perceived advantage among customers.

Tesla Owners Locked Out

Some Tesla Model 3 car owners found themselves decidedly locked out in the cold due to a vital Phone Key app being down for maintenance.

Labor Day Dismay

On US Labor Day, some owners of Tesla Model 3 cars who tried to use their Phone Key app, the smartphone app that will open a Model 3 without the owner having to take the phone out of their pocket, found themselves locked out when the app didn’t work, and they hadn’t brought a physical key fob/card with them.

Net Fret

Some of the immobilized owners took to social media platforms to highlight their plight, voice their frustration and seek information.  For example, some Tesla owners on Twitter claimed to have been locked out of their cars for up to four hours whereas others reported being stranded at Supercharger stations and plugged in longer than was necessary.

No App Trapped

The reasons why some owners of Tesla Model 3 cars were locked out appears to be the fact that they had logged out of their app, may not have been able to get a phone signal, and that the app was undergoing maintenance at the other end.

Under normal circumstances, the Phone Key should be able to operate on Bluetooth Low Energy frequencies rather than a network connection in order to communicate with the Model 3 vehicle.

Pain Again

This is not the first time that Tesla owners have experienced a lack of mobility due to being locked out by apps.  Back in 2018, after media control unit replacements and a problem with digital certificate transferral, some owners found themselves in the same frustrating situation of being temporarily refused entry to their own cars.

Not Hard If You Bring Your Card

The Tesla Manual states that the Model 3 comes with two physical key cards for entry and operation that can be used when a phone is not accessible, out of battery, or if someone else needs temporary access to the Model 3 e.g. a valet. Those owners who were temporarily stranded by the app failure appear not to have brought either of their key cards with them.

Electric Blues

All this comes at a time when Tesla is facing competition from the likes of Harley-Davidson which has just announced that it’s taking pre-orders for its first all-electric motorcycle, the LiveWire.  The LiveWire can cover 110 miles on a single charge and can go from zero to 60 in just 3.5 seconds.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

This is clearly an embarrassing incident for a company that has a technological focus for its vehicles, and where the price reflects the early-curve electronic vehicle development – Model 3s starting at around £37,000.

This story is also an example of the potential dangers of relying too much on technology and apps to run every aspect of our lives going forward.  Even though Tesla does provide physical key cards that could have helped those stranded drivers, human error (not reading the manual and / or forgetting to bring one) played a part, as it often does, in errors involving the human and technology combination.  Also, the use of interconnected technologies i.e. the reliance upon some kind of Internet/Bluetooth connection to enable the app to work correctly shows how today’s newest smart services still have a heavy reliance upon the existing communications infrastructure.