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Laura Brown's Blog

Next stop, wearables

Do you remember when Apple launched the iPad? It’s only four and a half years ago but, much like in dog years, Apple tends to operate a little faster than the rest of us. We mocked it. We did and it’s easy to forget now but we mocked it. “It sounds like a sanitary product,” one Tweeter commented; “Who is going to use that to take pictures, it’s huge,” said another; “Making iPhones for hobbits since 2010” was my own insight (which I’m still rather proud of but you had to be there).

If you have an iPad or a tablet now can you imagine life without it? Probably not. Laptops are now almost redundant as tablets have replaced them as the lightweight, powerful device to access your data on the move. Yes, we even hold them up in the sky to take pictures.

Technologists operate in that grey space between what we think we want and what we actually want. There is actually a job called a futurologist which is the study of what’s coming next. The point, if there is one, is that when new technology emerges we may find it funny but all too often within a few short years it is part and parcel of our day to day lives.

The Apple iWatch is likely to be an example in point. Why would we want to wear a watch that does what a phone does? Because it isn’t about doing what a phone does. It’s about the gradual shift towards wearable technology that’s part of the internet of things that cloud computing is increasingly making more possible.

Wearable technology is nothing new. Headphones, pacemakers, even those little gadgets you use to find your keys; all examples of wearable technology. However the way it is shifting is to link this technology up with other devices and to do more than one thing. It isn’t enough to track your steps like a pedometer, now we want to be able to understand how many calories we’re burning, how active we are throughout the whole day, how we can eat to benefit this and how are sleeping patterns might affect our activity levels. It is an holistic approach where one watch or device can synch with all of others. For example we might track that we need to burn more calories and plan in a workout then synch that data with a shopping app allowing us to buy food that suits our workout routine.

It’s this intuitive approach that’s at the heart of wearable technology. The cloud enables these devices to be smaller and to store our data in centralised locations meaning that it can be accessed wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

There is much hyperbole whenever Apple releases a new device because often media commenters forget that actually similar devices have been made by other people; it only becomes truly recognisable when Apple does it. The growth in wearable technology is a trend that has been happening for a while and will continue to do so as we empower ourselves by storing our data in the cloud and being able to access it via numerous devices. The effect it will have on our health and wellbeing will be immense.

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Banking on a cloud revolution

This has been a big week for me. Seismic in many ways. I finally switched off my paper bank statements. My banking has gone entirely online.

I’m not alone. Increasingly customers aren’t seeing banks as traditional bricks and mortar businesses but instead are looking for the convenience proffered by mobile and online banking. For banks this means that have to take a close look at their infrastructure. You want to make it secure, safe and easy to use at the same time. Plus you’re doing it all in a  competitive market, like finance.

Gartner predicts that by 2016 (just two years away) over 60% of the world’s banks will do the majority of their transactions via the cloud. What is particularly attracting them is the flexibility of a hybrid public/private solution that strengthens security options. It allows them to use their existing infrastructure as a framework and build on top of it.

That’s the cost side but there’s also the customer. Now I like banking online. Admittedly you have to store twice as many passwords in your head and remember to carry those passcards with you but that’s part and parcel of wanting a secure cloud. Eye recognition and other bio-tech solutions can’t come fast enough though, really. But this is the modern customer. We like using our mobiles. More importantly we like everything centralised. We’re busy; if we can’t make it to the bank to check our accounts or our local branch is just that too far away we get frustrated.

Mobile banking removes that issue. It’s also good for emerging countries that don’t have that bricks and mortar traditional banking infrastructure. Mobile banking allows them to have their account with them from the word go. It’s accessible.

It allows banks in emerging economies to grow quickly and inexpensively. If your growth strategy is based on the cloud it’s scalable. You think of a mobile strategy first and how to offer a secure and simply service to your customers. It’s cheaper and and it’s easier. It enables you to prepare for future growth as well as improving customer service e.g., speeding up customer transactions.

Banks are often seen as slow-moving traditional organisations. They’re not seen as being quick to adopt new technology but are cumbersome. The cloud is enabling them to change that perspective, albeit gradually. The drive comes from the customer. When so much of your life is online it makes sense for the rest of your life to do so and banking is just one element of that. It also allows banks to lead the field when it comes to security; no one wants to think about security more than when it’s to do with their money.

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Why cloud security is more important than ever

Column inches and blogs are filled with the reaction to the hacking and theft of the private pictures of a string of celebrities. Let’s be clear, this is theft. Blaming Jennifer Lawrence, Kelly Brook and Kate Upton et al is akin to blaming a homeowner whose house is broken into and their favourite jewellery stolen. As of right now the FBI are investigating and Apple is facing questions about its security.

This isn’t an issue about putting sensitive data in the cloud. That puts the level of responsibility on the user. If we go back to the house analogy say you do have a break-in. You bought a burglar alarm, you set it before you went out and it failed to work. It isn’t your fault for leaving the jewellery in your house when you went out. You took security precautions. It’s the fault of the provider that they didn’t work. Apple has already had to withdraw some Cloud services in the past because they couldn’t guarantee their security measures. It isn’t good enough.

One of the major comments cloud providers get from those wavering about adoption is security. They fear that their data will be accessed and used and that nothing private is ever really private in the cloud. This isn’t the case but the major flaws these hackers have taken advantage of truly shows the onus on cloud providers to ensure their systems are hack-proof.

Giacom’s cloud based service uses both an anti-spam and anti-virus software ensuring communications and data are both protected. Cloud providers have to be both fastidious about the security they offer to customers and also be clear in their communication of it.

The impact of this is twofold; a) it ensures that data is secure so the cloud provider is doing their job b) Second it boosts confidence in the cloud itself, strengthening trust and use of the service.

There are a lot of iCloud customers – Kirsten Dunst included – blaming iCloud for the leak. That can’t be confirmed yet. But if they are found to have left holes in their security or flaws that hackers could take advantage of then they have undermined trust in the whole cloud industry, not just their own product.

The cloud is still relatively new to many consumers. Its use is strengthening and growing among businesses across the world but for many consumers there is still a caution, a fear of using the cloud for sensitive data. This latest scandal isn’t going to challenge that reaction.

So what can cloud providers do? Well reviewing their security is probably a good idea. There’s nothing wrong with checking the locks a couple of times, even if you know they work fine. Giacom knows there are security provisions in place at the cloud farm we use including CCTV, card and ID access. It isn’t just for peace of mind it is so customers can be reassured. It is also a point of difference and can be used to communicate to customers front and centre. SEcurity shouldn’t be something hidden away in the small print, it should be at the top in big and bold letters. This is the only way that cloud providers who are truly serious about security will be able to convince wavering customers and establish a basic set of expectations and delivery for the cloud industry.

Security scandals will always happen. The majority of people know banks are secure, that doesn’t stop a handful of criminals trying to break into the vaults. But what banks do is they emphasise security. They tell customers exactly what they do to protect their valuables and continually explain how vital it is for them to keep it secure. The cloud needs to do the same. Because only then will incidents like the iCloud leak cease to define the industry when they really shouldn’t.

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Evernote kind of proves why the cloud works

Being organised is an ongoing battle for many people. If you are organised, then well done, you have kind of succeeded. If you aren’t and find yourself sitting on a bus writing to do list after to do list using a biro you need to lick the end of to work (because you’ve forgotten to buy biros, again) then there are two things you will know to be true; 1) Every New Year you promise that this will be the one you become organised believing it to be a halcyon state of affairs and 2) You’ve tried several tools and technologies promising to organise your life for you.

Chances are at some point you may have stumbled along Evernote. It isn’t for everyone. It can’t wholesale change your life and it can be a little finicky (technical term). Yet it’s one of the most ubiquitous and popular life-organising sites.

What does it have to do with the cloud? Well, the cloud has pretty much transformed to-do lists. Every new site that develops offers  glimmer of hope to those of us desperately in need of a PA and promises that it will make being organised if not second nature then at least easier. At the heart of this is the principle that your work and to-do lists will be usable on different devices from computer to tablet and smartphone. The connectedness of the app mirrors the way we increasingly work, from device to device. It is intuitive, working quietly away in the background allowing you to pick up a to-do list, or an essay, or a mind-map, to store pictures and link them to projects and do so how and when it suits us, the user, rather than the app.

Evernote is far from the only app or platform using this concept to offer a service to people. Think of Netflix for example or Google. It works because of the cloud. The cloud enables users to save all their information on a single drive which can be accessed via different devices.

Yet what this set-up has enabled the makers of Evernote to do is to try new things. Building on its original premise, to help make people more organised, it is expanding and branching out. Six months ago they launched an online store offering tangible props and tools to bolster organization. The first wave of products were designed for the desktop. The next are handheld so think pencil holders, a catch all tray and a tablet stand. Made in plastic and wood they have a utilitarian feel, a simple and modernist design. They’re functional yet sleek and stylish.

Who knows if this is going to work? Who knows if the fans of Evernote who’ve built it into a multi million $ company are going to want branded products on their physical desktop as well as their virtual one. Yet Evernote gets how the cloud works, their app has illustrated that clearly. And they’ve taken the principle of the cloud very simply and allowed it to work as part of their business model. So the app they have developed online works. There’s a principle at the heart of that that people buy into. The online shop is an extension of that. Because the cloud enables them to work in a streamlined way they are able to use the rest of the time for innovation, of thinking about different ways they can try out their brand and use it to make new things. The online store is also cloud based so they don’t need an extensive bricks and mortar outlay. It’s cost-effective and its flexible.

This is what working in the cloud means. It’s about using it to solve a need and to make working easier. But it’s also to try new things and to experiment and see if they work. And heh, if some of us become more organised along the way then that’s just a bonus.

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How do you know when new technology is coming?

Technology is often the vital ingredient in helping companies stay one step ahead of the game, but how do you know what the new thing is?

For the businesses that were early adopters of cloud computing they can clearly identify the benefits of utilising a new technology. When a game changer technology comes around there are benefits of getting to grips with it before anyone else.

Can new technology really make that much of a difference? Well, the earlier you can understand how a new or emerging technology can benefit your business the earlier you can offer it to your clients. You can use it as a point of departure or a positioning statement; you offer something no one else does. It also means you get to understand it before anyone else, are able to get to grips with it and understand what elements of it you can use. If it something that benefits the way you run your business, like cloud computing, it can ensure you save costs and are working more flexibly than your competitors from earlier.

So understanding and identifying what the new technologies are can be a big deal. Every year, Gartner publishes what’s called a “Hype Cycle”. It’s designed to show firms who want to describe themselves as digital businesses, what are the most significant and important trends and emerging technologies. For teams focused on innovation, CIOs, R&D developers as well as entrepreneurs and business strategists.

The cycle divides the technologies into five different strands helping to map where they are on the consciousness and awareness and the business community; Innovation Trigger, Peak of Inflated expectations, the Trough of Disillusionment, the Slope of Enlightenment and the Plateau of Productivity. This map enables them to plot where a technology is. For example, hybrid cloud computing and cloud computing, according to Gartner, will reach a plateau in around 2-5 years. This means that the people who are being reached as potential customers has reached a peak; after all there are only so many companies who can benefit from using the platform.

The thing about emerging technologies is that not all are applicable or relevant to everyone. Autonomous vehicles will have an impact on many different sectors, especially logistics, manufacturing and potentially some professional services but are unlikely to impact, say accountants.

The trick is to identify the right emerging technology for your sector at the right time. Technologies like cloud computing affect a wide range of businesses and they affect business behaviour. It can also impact on the products offered and affects the rate new businesses can start up and grow. So not only does this impact a wider range of firms – most businesses use data and have an IT need – it also affects different sectors. For example as well as those building hardware and selling it, the cloud impacts on those selling services to new businesses and those who might need support or a professional service like accountancy or digital marketing. It has a greater impact and is therefore more a sea change technology.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle is interesting as it is important to map and track technology changes. But while they identify being at the right place at the right time it is also vital to understand how significant a technology is going to be. A new technology platform like the cloud is exactly the kind of thing you want to be at the ground floor of, as it help a business grow quickly and leap ahead of its competitors. Using a tool like this to identify new technology enables a business to hold their finger up into the wind and use their powers of deduction to see what way the wind is blowing.  By understanding their sector, regularly mapping how they themselves do business and what challenges they are facing can help a firm understand how a new technology might affect them and prepare for its adoption.

The growing self-employed and the cloud

The latest employment figures remain far more people are self-employed in the UK than there used to be. The figure has increased to 4.59 million, an increase of 408,000.

There are many reasons why people are increasingly turning to self-employment. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. The huge drop in the cost of set-up, powered by cloud computing has helped to remove a major barrier which was cost.

In the past setting up one’s own business involved an expensive outlay; a domestic server to host data, applications as well as communications like email; a subscription and monthly fee for as many email addresses as are needed, office space to house the server; an understanding that each bit of kit will need to be maintained, fixed and upgraded as and when.

The Cloud makes that a much simpler process. Despite the regular predictions that email is dead it is still the preferred method of communication between businesses. Email clients rely on physical memory to store data. The difference that using the cloud for this offers is that you can use cloud storage and check your messages online wherever you are. This added flexibility makes it much simpler for self-employed individuals to run and grow their new businesses while being contactable by clients whatever they are doing (within reason, obviously, you still need a life!).

This flexibility extends to the idea of data storage, of having all the information for a company hosted online behind a security set-up. This makes it easier to access information from wherever and whenever. Sharing documents and collaborating with partners becomes much easier because it doesn’t rely on geography. Editing and amending project notes together, developing ideas or designs remotely via a cloud storage helps self-employed individuals grow both their talent base and spread their pool of influence.

The office can be anywhere; home, coffee shop, flexible working space. This hugely reduces overheads and ensures the individual can take home more of their profit. In the same way they can rent office space IRL, this is replicated online via a cloud or virtual office that allows them to save their data and relevant files. Removing the need to pay for an expensive infrastructure, to be able to work wherever they need to helps the self-employed stay lean and operate much more cheaply. This vastly reduces risk.

Some has questioned whether the rise of self-employed individuals is a good thing. It’s a trend that has grown significantly over the last five years and doesn’t look to be going anywhere. What is needed is for self-employed individuals to feel empowered, to be given the advice and support they need to treat their self-employed status just like a traditional business. The cloud, most importantly, enables them to do this, flexibly, cheaply and leanly. Operating behind a veil of a larger firm this enables the self-employed to grow their firm and secure more business. The cost-effective nature of the cloud’s operating costs is fuelling this opportunity.

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IT giants aren’t just software providers, they’re offering solutions too

On Forbes India right now there’s a great story about a little known press release sent out by one of India’s biggest IT firms. The Chief Operating Officer of Infosys, UB Pravin Rao, had announced that they had been brought on by a financial firm in Australia tasked with moving software applications onto the cloud.

Big deal, you might think. But Infosys are part of a wider trend that other major players like Tata Consultancy and Wipro who are becoming part of the cloud computing revolution that’s happening in business. Knowing that more organisations are looking to move into the cloud, but need a little guidance, they offer to rent cloud space. Like a storage company that offers to keep a collection of your belongings safely under lock and key these firms are utilising the desire to move into the cloud along with the need to work with a trusted name. They are extending their brand offer.

It makes sense. In India the cloud is growing rapidly; Gartner estimates the market will rise to $557m this year and triple by 2018. There is serious money to be made for those who look to help firms navigate the new cloud waters.

It’s a strategy that can be adopted in the UK by IT firms and experts who want to extend their relationship across old modes of software and embrace new platforms, but also by companies who are looking to move into the cloud but aren’t sure where to start. In India the IT experts from firms like Infosys are being invited in atb the planning stage. They are helping their corporate clients define exactly what it is they need to be doing to utilise emerging technologies. This builds on their existing IT offer, which has often been brokering services. They enable companies to plan effectively, whether it is beginning with the back end and helping to shift a cultural understanding; it helps a firm prepare for a move into the cloud.

For Infosys the strategy is paying off and they estimate they have won 20 new contracts in the last quarter alone. By working to their strengths and extending their offer into new technology, but relying on a tried and trusted approach they are able to build trust with new clients and be seen as an IT early adopter.

For companies who are looking to move into the cloud it’s also win win. They know that the company they are working with is a trusted name. It allows them to get planning support and expertise ensuring that their move to the cloud is structured and well planned. Relying on IT know how and expertise means companies can be sure they are working with firms who can help them explore and navigate the new technology without the risk of failure and with a greater degree of success.

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The uneasy balance between privacy and sharing

There’s an interesting dichotomy when it comes to the use of technology and privacy. Privacy is, as many who work within technology and use the cloud on a daily basis know, the central concern of both businesses and consumers. How data is used, where it is stored, how it is stored; these are all legitimate fears of consumers. They place a great deal of trust in those who hold their information. That trust shouldn’t be taken lightly.

At the same time, consumers are happy to share thoughts, information, personal details, pictures, videos and a whole host of creative content online. Whilst understanding that signing up for a free social media account often means that the commodity is yourself and your data, consumers tend to accept it’s a bargain they’re willing to make.

Say you’re a business operating in the cloud. You offer an e-commerce service and your primary means of customer communication is via email, storing relevant consumer information in cloud storage. A customer contacts you angry that you’re sending them tailored emails and information. They are concerned you might sell on their data, that you’re using it to create a profile of their shopping habits. Meanwhile they are sharing a blow by blow account of what they did at the weekend.

In truth it’s all about choice. When you choose to commodify yourself you don’t necessarily imagine yourself as a consumer first and foremost. You want to share information about yourself to connect with other people. You don’t want businesses and brands to use this information to sell you things.

So how, as a business, do you balance this?

Consumers were never meant to be consistent. But choice and control is the crucial factor. Along with the ability to make an informed choice. Businesses using the cloud for data storage have an obligation to explain to their customers how and where they are storing their data and what it is being used for. That should be all part of the service.

Yet there is also an opportunity for businesses to lead on their wider education of consumers about the use of data and how to share it online. By establishing clearly to customers the basics; what data is, how much, or how little should be shared, what data might be used for etc., businesses can help customers to become savvier. Instead not being sure what their data is used for they make a more informed choice about what to share.

If customers are more of a part of their conversation then they are in a much stronger position therefore to feed into the discussion about how data is stored and manipulated. Customers have to feel that they are in a position of power when it comes to data.

The cloud has enabled businesses to be more flexible and versatile but the storage and use of data remains the most controversial issue when  it taps into privacy. By empowering customers and ensuring they are part of the debate and discussion the business achieves two things; one they have consumers feeding into the conversation and defining what data should be used for. Second they engender a sense of trust. Data and its use is an important part of life online. To know that it is valued and that they have control over it will be what guides consumer behaviour in the future.

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Introducing the Cloudcatalyst

How do you get more businesses to sign up for the Cloud? You build confidence, work to minimise fears and work out how it easier to encourage adoption.

That’s exactly what a new project is in Europe is designed to do. The Cloudcatalyst is funded by the European Union and has three core targets; to map the current level of cloud adoption and the cloud computing marketing across Europe; to identify what might be stopping firms adopting the cloud; and to offer tools, techniques and ideas to boost its growth.

The project clearly comes from a position of confidence in the cloud itself and a desire to ensure more businesses benefit from cloud computing. Targeting business, public bodies, IT providers and other people invested and involved in the cloud the idea is to create “a strong and enthusiastic community of cloud adopters and supporters”.

But what’s the goal for Europe? At the heart is the recognition that there is still a healthy dose of skepticism from both businesses and consumers about the cloud itself. To tackle this, the project wants to give the public more information and also encourage adoption; the more people using the cloud the easier it is for people to understand and deal with their fears and concerns.

The analysis of the cloud market across Europe will also be a fascinating facet of the project. By identifying what the conditions are for a successful cloud adoption, the environment can be replicated. It can also help the EU to widen the spread of adoption by ensuring more businesses are able to tick a critical checklist and smooth the road towards using the cloud, i.e., technical barriers, data privacy and compliance.

To help spread the word the project will be developing a series of tools, from value added cloud projects to various services and platforms making it easier for businesses to access the cloud themselves. This will combine trend analysis, case studies and recommendations helping to educate people in the strengths and opportunities presented by the cloud and making people feel much more confident in making decisions around it.

Europe is still emerging from the economic downturn so any technology with the potential to drive economic growth and create jobs is to be welcomed. The European Commission estimates that within the next six years millions could be employed thanks to the cloud. It’s is described as both an “engine of change” as well as a “central ingredient for innovation”. The cloud is, it’s believed “one of the fastest-growing markets in Europe”.

This is a timely and worthwhile project aimed at empowering European businesses by mapping cloud adoption, usage and making it easier for businesses across the public and private sector to understand the potential benefits of the cloud. Increasing both knowledge and confidence will empower individuals to make the right choices in terms of using the technology that’s right for them. Knowledge can dispel skepticism and doubt, instead allowing people to understand the flexibility of the cloud. Once their concerns are alleviated so will the concerns of their customers.

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The cloud and start-ups; a marriage made in heaven

Setting up a new business is hard work. It’s all-encompassing, time consuming and for the first few heady months money can be tight.

Yet the latest figures show that instead of being on the fringes of British business, in fact increasing numbers of individuals are setting up their own companies. The UK’s start-up culture is in full bloom  with £4.9m worth of SMEs responsible for 60% of employment in the country. It’s a major part of why the UK economy is recovering so well.

So why have more people decided to forge ahead on their own? Why, increasingly, is a start-up in the business future of so many of the UK’s workers.

Technology has made an entrepreneurial spirit much easier to achieve. Starting your own business is, now, thanks to cloud computing and open source IT a much more cost-effective and achievable goal.

The most optimistic tend to be those under 35 with over half (54%) saying their are upbeat and confident that it’s much easier to set up a company than it used to be.

The truth is our digital culture has transformed how we do business and has change the way of life for many of the UK’s entrepreneurs. Selling online is now common place. E-marketplaces and e-commerce are much cheaper than buying a bricks and mortar store, having to invest in staff and having an expensive outlay before you’ve even opened the doors.  A great online presence can give a company the edge, helping it to engage directly with customers.

The Cloud is a major part of that. Reducing costs enable start-ups to emulate major international firms with half of the overheads. It enables communications and marketing to become much more flexible. Sales are conducted easily and the entrepreneurs themselves can test and try out new ideas and ways of engaging without investing in an expensive piece of kit. That allows entrepreneurs to be more dynamic, innovative and braver. Innovative companies tend to grow faster and make more money in the long term so giving these start-ups room to breathe bodes well for their future success.

It’s easy for cloud computing providers to see the UK economy going in the right way, to see confidence rising amongst SMEs and to take credit for it. Much of it is about being in the right place and the right time. How many companies would have experimented with the cloud if the downturn hadn’t demanded the majority of firms needed to look for more cost-effective ways of doing things? The downturn has created a generation of entrepreneurs who are independent, braver and willing to try new things, they are confident in their ability to get their online presence right and know what they’re looking for. The growth of cloud computing and the birth of this new wave of entrepreneur is a marriage made in heaven.

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