Jargon watch: lights out production lines

If you are of a certain age, ‘hand made by robots’ brings to mind the Fiat Strada / Ritmo a thirtysomething year old hatchback design that was built in a factory with a high degree of automation for the time.

Fiat subsidiary Comau created Robogate, a highly automated system that speeds up body assembly. Robogate was eventually replaced in 2000. The reality is that ‘hand made by robots’ had a liberal amount of creative licence. Also it didn’t enable Fiat to shake off its rust bucket image. Beneath the skin, the car was essentially a Fiat 127. Car factories still aren’t fully automated.

Foxconn is looking to automate its own production lines and create products that truly are ‘hand-built by robots’. Like Fiat it has its own robots firm which is manufacturing 10,000 robots per year.

Foxconn has so far focused on production lines for larger product final assembly (like televisions) and workflow on automated machine lines: many consumer products use CNC (computer numeric control) machines. That’s how Apple iPhone and Macs chassis’ are made. These totally automated lines are called ‘lights out production lines’ by Foxconn.

Foxconn is looking to automate production because China is undergoing a labour shortfall as the population getting older. Foxconn uses a lot of manual workers for final assembly of devices Apple’s iPhone because the components are tightly packed together. It will be a while before Foxconn manages to automate this as robotic motor control isn’t fine enough to achieve this yet.

More information
Foxconn boosting automated production in China | DigiTimes – (paywall)

Working class truths, populism and dark futures

Following president Trump’s election and the British plebiscite on European Union membership there has been lots of hand wringing about workers who traditionally participated in legacy industries being outside society.
We won't pay for their crisis - Mancunian protest sticker
Here is what we have to deal with:

  • The ‘traditional’ jobs aren’t coming back
  • Middle-class roles are already being disrupted
  • There is a declining  return on investment in further education, yet lifelong learning is a compulsory requirement
  • Globalisation is working at an aggregate level, but isn’t working at a local level
  • Western society has fractured. It will become more fractious once the realisation takes hold that:
  1. It can’t be resolved by simple measures, populists might listen – but can’t solve anything. Jobs are governed by a multiple factors that affect both cost and demand considerations
  2. It can’t be solved in a relatively short time frame. You can’t build the necessary eco-system and supporting industries to bring the jobs back; even if the economics made sense
  3. Governments don’t have their hands on the levers of control, the best governments can do is actively manage decline. Technological disruption puts the levers of control with a smaller group of people
  4. There is a lack of willingness by those with the money and the power to solve it – primarily due to the pressures that drive their behaviour
  5. Existing social welfare safety nets aren’t sustainable

The realisation that populism doesn’t deliver is likely to cause a further visible outburst of anger. Which should be good news for the private security industry. This could result in civil or international conflict. It has already happened. Factors that contributed to the Arab spring and the Syrian civil war included a large under-employed population living in stagnant economic conditions with no hope in sight. This probably sounds familiar.

I am ruling out some sort of positive ‘black swan’ event which changes the game completely and provides meaningful work with great wages across societal boundaries. If I could reliably predict these, I would be writing this from my private Airbus A380.

Instead I can see four broad categories of outcomes, all of which are ugly:

  • Carry on – carrying on isn’t likely to be sustainable as societal pressures go to breaking point
  • Managed decline – from a rational point-of-view the most ‘possible’ solution. Unpalatable from a voter perspective. It begs the question at what point would the UK economy bottom out? Managed decline makes the most sense as an interim measure whilst a country works out what its new place in the world is and charts a path towards it based on careful strategic investments with limited capital
  • Massive investment – presents a number of challenges that make it nearly impossible for western countries. It would require a long term view – unlikely without consensus driven politics with a high level of comity, huge access to credit – again unlikely with highly indebted economy and a slowly declining credit rating like the UK. Would take too long to satisfy angry voters
  • Massive disruption – the dice is thrown in the air as society tears itself apart and the strong gain control – think China’s Cultural Revolution. Wages and worker rights may drop to make them more cost competitive for low skilled manufacturing allowing for an employed but disgruntled workforce. Power is unlikely to shift too much, the corresponding upheaval in population numbers may provide some supply side pressure on wages when its all over. In all likelihood, it would just reduce pressure for change, increased willingness to work together on a longer term solution, but not provide much medium term economic benefit

Disruption

Here is a chart of numerous successful business, some of them are over a century old. AT&T and Verizon can trace their history back to 1877 and the Bell Telephone Company set up by Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law. General Electric goes back to work by Thomas Edison in 1880. These companies took from 117 – 137 years to become $200 billion businesses. Facebook took ten years requiring only 3% of the people AT&T needed.

It would be reasonable to assume that the future is going to create less jobs with given investments rather than more.

Company #Employees Year its market capitalisation became US$200 billion
Facebook 9,199 2014
Microsoft 27,000 1998
Apple 46,600 2010
Alphabet (Google) 46,600 2012
Amazon 165,000 2015
Verizon 176,800 2014
General Electric 239,000 1997
AT&T 302,000 2007

So large private enterprises will:

  • Employ less people which means less ancillary demand for services in the locale. Less restaurants, shops, artisanal coffee shops, micro breweries, nail bars, car valets, hotels and hair salons
  • Employ even less unskilled people – what unskilled labour is required will be employed on a flexible basis. Their roles will be competing on ‘total price’ with a global workforce and robotics

This hypothesis is supported by data from the MIT Technology review which showed that modern US manufacturing managed to increase productivity by 250% whilst reducing staff numbers by over 40%.

Win-Win to Winner Takes All

Technological progress and globalisation has resulted in a decline in the middle class in western countries. Pew Research claims that the US middle class declined from 61 per cent of the population in 1970 to 50 per cent by 2015.

Corresponding average ‘real wages’ for US ‘good producing’ workers peaked by the mid-1970s and have been broadly stagnant since. A pattern mirrored in other developed economies. Hong Kong saw a similar peak from 1967 riots through to the early 1990s until factories moved across the border.

Manufacturing productivity had grown steadily over that time. You can argue over the data points but the overall trend seems to hold true.

Owners of capital have enjoyed increased returns versus the providers of labour. Knowledge work, a key part of middle class roles could be easier to export than production lines. A classic example is the bank back office roles that have been exported to India.

Supply chain

At the moment UK manufacturing jobs operate as part of a complex supply chain that primarily addresses the European Union as a market. The supply chain is built around a number of factors:

  • The value of the product
  • The weight of the product
  • The volume of the product
  • The cost of shipping versus the cost of production
  • How well the product travels
  • Distribution of product demand
  • Proximity to suppliers
  • Proximity to talent

This is why companies may package a product in one country and manufacturer in others. Washing powder is a classic example of this. Chocolate travels well, so Cadbury could move production lines of internationally popular products to Poland. There is a greater incentive to move low skilled work out of areas that aren’t geographically central to a given supply chain.  European freedom of movement may have kept jobs in the UK by allowing low and semi-skilled workers to move rather than the factories. This would be of little consolation to UK workers, but would benefit UK tax coffers.

This complex formula is the reason why jobs move in and out of the UK.

Cutting the UK out of this supply chain with a hard Brexit ensures that suppliers have to make complex choices. BMW will probably be wondering what UK presence it needs to maintain in order to keep the Mini brand values. It may decide its easier to evolve the quirky Britishness out of the brand over time and just keep it quirky. The Audi TT hasn’t been harmed by actually being assembled in Hungary.

The majority of components in the supply chain for the Mini production line is based in Germany.

A post-Brexit UK could be in the position of importing more rather than less products once companies take into account the bigger picture of the supply chains and the EU single market.

Role of eco-systems

Richard Florida is a Canadian professor who has spent much of his time looking at urban studies from the perspective of prosperity. He is known for is work around the creative class and urban regeneration (or gentrification). His work is controversial. One key concept he has of relevance to working-class communities is one of ‘clusters’ where eco-systems exist.  When you apply it to traditional working class industries one can see how the jobs aren’t just going to come back. The UK has a series of traditional clusters that are in overall decline, this is best illustrated by the state of chemical, oil refinery and coal sectors which underpin a wide range of manufacturing industries.

Where new clusters spring up (Silicon Roundabout and the FinTech businesses within the Square Mile) they create employment that much of the UK population is ill-equipped to fulfil.

Let’s look in greater depth at traditional manufacturing industries.

Factories build on suppliers, who build on raw materials processors, who build on utilities and extractive industries. Take for example industrial revolution era Stoke-on-Trent which was close to high quality clay pits and coal that could be cheaply shipped in from mines in Lancashire or South Yorkshire.

Unfortunately for Stoke-on-Trent; clay is readily available around the world, opening up the possibility of production in areas with cheap labour. Automation raised the quality of production and fashion can quickly dictate whether an ‘area’ brand is in demand.

If we look at the industrial landscape of the United Kingdom, the manufacturing industry has been hollowed away during the 1980s and 1990s. The UK lost 18% of its manufacturing capacity in the space of 18 months during the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.

There has been a corresponding (likely terminal) decline in the necessary facilities to support an industrial economy. Now let’s look in-depth at three essential types of facilities that underpin manufacturing:

  • Oil refineries
  • Coal mines
  • Chemical plants

This base of the UK industrial eco-system is running on ‘life support’ in critical areas.

I was fortunate to have a great science teacher at school, he once said to me that you could measure the size and health of an industrial economy by the amount of sulphuric and hydrochloric acid it manufactured and consumed. In order to manufacture hydrochloric acid you need a chlorine gas plant – neither chemical is something you want to transport over long distances. The side effects of a leak would be catastrophic.

The UK currently has one plant to make chlorine gas that is government subsidised because there isn’t a sufficiently large industrial base to support continued profitable production. What industrial capacity is in the UK is perilously close to being snuffed out.

What is left of the UK chemical industry has consolidated in the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEEPIC). Some of the products created are intermediary chemicals for use elsewhere in the European Union. Brexit is likely to have a disruptive effect on some of these manufacturers. The cluster is a key reason why Nissan decided to build a manufacturing plant in Sunderland. NEEPIC is dependent on oil refining capacity for key chemical building blocks (feedstock).

Oil refineries are considered by the public as providers of petrol (gasoline), diesel and jet fuel. The reality is that they provide feedstock (chemical building blocks) for most things in everyday life:

  • Foods
  • Medicines (or we can go back to leeches and blood letting)
  • Paints (containers, large manufactured goods, civil engineering)
  • Plastics (the modern world as we know it) – structural plastics, coatings, fibres including clothing textiles

As I write this is, it is easier to look around my desk and count the products that don’t have an oil-derived input – one item, the desk itself which is unpainted. Though I would put good money on it that the trees it was made from were felled with petrol chain saw and transported on a diesel powered lorry to the saw mill.

Yet the UK has lost a huge amount of oil refining capacity. From 1974 – 2012 refining capacity almost halved from 148 million tonnes to 77 million tonnes (Energy Institute). This decline happened despite start of UK North sea oil production in 1975.

Peak production on North Sea oil occurring in 1985 and 1999 (two peaks due to technological innovation). There were 22 active oil refineries in 1974, at the time of writing there are now seven.

Part of this was driven by changing energy consumption such as the decline of home heating oil and more fuel efficient cars. But a good deal would be due to reduced ability to compete against foreign petro-chemical feedstocks and reduced industrial capacity.

Oil refining capacity has moved to closer to where the industry is.

Belgium and the Netherlands have oil refining capacity beyond their internal needs because of their ease of access to continental European markets. Germany as Europe’s industrial powerhouse has the largest refining capacity in the European Union – which matches its industrial economy.

Much of the capacity to provide chemical feedstocks for industrial use has moved to the Far East; notably Singapore, Japan, Korea, Jamnagar in India and China. Overall industrial production has moved to East and Southeast Asia.

Coal production in the UK is roughly 10 percent of what it was in 1980. There are no deep coal mines active in the UK, only a handful of open cast mines. Coal is not only useful as a fuel but also a alternative supplier of feedstock for a diverse range of products including fertilisers, plastics and medicines. Even if coal comes back to prominence as oil reserves run out it would take a lot of effort to get UK production going again – perhaps too much effort.

Managed decline

The purpose of managed decline would be to concentrate efforts where they can make the most impact. London would draw in more people from the hinterlands. Cities like Liverpool would continue to decline in population. Low quality housing (think trailer parks or shanty towns) would cater for the internally displaced workers and there would be a likely increase in casual or gig economy roles.

So what would managed decline look like? We have a clue from government discussions after the 1981 Toxteth riots. Lord Geoffrey Howe wrote a letter which was considered too controversial at the time

“I fear that Merseyside is going to be much the hardest nut to crack,”

“We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East.

“It would be even more regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey.”

“I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.”

Howe realised that even discussing the concept at the time would be explosive.

In practical terms, it would mean:

  • Re-centralising government departments
  • Not spending on infrastructure beyond critical maintenance
  • Rationalising government support infrastructure: police, hospitals, social services
  • Re-zoning areas from a planning perspective to encourage development only in future clusters
  • Allowing local government to go into bankruptcy protection and under go US-style emergency management
  • Once population decline hits a critical mass, turning off the last services, rather like the city of Detroit has done
  • Focus infrastructure investment on ‘clusters’
  • Connecting benefits to re-location

This process would then give time for western countries; in particular the UK, to re-invent themselves and think about their economic purpose in the world beyond consumption.

The Chinese government have already started on this process whilst their economy is still in a high state of growth – looking to move up the manufacturing value chain, moving into the professional and financial services sectors that the west currently occupy. On the flip side they have not flinched from closing down excess capacity in the steel industry and low value industries. This is causing economic hardship amongst unskilled workers in Guongzhou and the steel towns of Hubei province.

Former clothing factories are being bulldozed to make way for corporate campuses. Small electronics factories in Shenzhen are making way for a financial services centre including a stock exchange.

If one thinks about the Chinese experience and their migration to higher value work, where would the UK go next?

More information
The Current Moment | Poverty, Inequality and Productivity
Manufacturing Jobs Aren’t Coming Back | MIT Technology Review
The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground | Pew Research Center
Toxteth riots: Howe proposed ‘managed decline’ for city | BBC
Detroit’s Least Bad Option | The New Republic

The internet of hacking or WTF is happening with my smart home?

Mirai – is a bot network that is powered by a range of devices including infected home routers and remote camera systems. It took over these systems by using their default passwords. The network of compromised machines is then targeted to overload a target network or service. Last week the Dyn DNS service was targeted which restricted access to lots of other services for users on the east coast of the US.

DNS is like a telephone directory of internet destinations, if no one knows where to go it becomes a lot harder to get in touch.

DDoSing
Mirai didn’t spring miraculously out of thin air. It finds its history in passionate gamers who used distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to slow down or even kick opponents off online gaming platforms. Eventually the gaming companies got hip to it and went after the cheaters, not to be outdone the cheaters went after the gaming companies.

Taking a service offline using DDoS became a source of extortion against online banking and e-commerce services. Attacks can be used as a form of ‘digital hit’ to take out opponents or critics like online security commentator Brian Krebs.

Computing
Moore’s Law meant that computing power has become so small and plentiful that it is surprising what we often have in the palms of our hands. The first Cisco router was built on the circuit board of a Sun Microsystems workstation. Home routers now are basically small computers running Linux. A CCTV camera box or a DVR are both basic PCs complete with hard drives.

Back in 2007, BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis described the iPhone as

“They’ve put a Mac in this thing…”

The implication being that the power of a sophisticated PC was essentially in the palm of one’s hand. The downside of this is that your thermostat is dependent on a good broadband connection and Google based cloud services and your television can get malware in a similar manner to your PC.

Security
For a range of Chinese products that have been acknowledged as part of the botnet; the manufacturer acknowledged that they were secured with a default admin password. They fixed the problem in a later version of the firmware on the device. Resetting the default password is now part of the original device set-up the first time you use it.

The current best advice for internet of things security is protecting the network with a firewall at the edge. The reality is that most home networks have a firewall on the connected PCs if you were lucky. The average consumer doesn’t have a dedicated security appliance on the edge of the home network.

Modern enterprises no longer rely on only security at the edge, they have a ‘depth in defence’ approach that takes a layered approach to security.

That would be a range of technology including:

  • At least one firewall at the edge
  • Intrusion detection software as part of a network management suite
  • A firewall on each device
  • Profile based permissions across the system (if you work in HR, you have access to the HR systems, but not customer records
  • Decoy honey post systems
  • All file systems encrypted by default so if data is stolen it still can’t be read

Processes:

  • Updating software as soon as it becomes available
  • Hard passwords
  • Two-factor authentication

Depth in defence is complex in nature, which makes it hard to pull off for the average family. IoT products are usually made to a price point. These are products as appliances, so it is hard for manufacturers to have a security eco-system. The likelihood of anti-virus and firewall software for light bulbs or thermostats is probably small to non-existent.

The Shenzhen eco-system
Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong has been the centre of assembly for consumer electronics over the past 20 years. Although this is changing, for instance Apple devices are now assembled across China. Shenzhen has expanded into design, development and engineering. A key part of this process has been a unique open source development process. Specifications and designs are shared informally under legally ambiguous conditions – this shares development costs across manufacturers and allows for iterative improvements.

There is a thriving maker community that allows for blurring between hobbyists and engineers. A hobbyists passion can quickly become a prototype and then into production . Shenzhen manufacturers can go to market so fast that they harvest ideas from Kickstarter and can have them in market before the idea has been funded on the crowdsourcing platform.

All of these factors would seem to favour the ability to get good security technologies engineered directly into the products by sharing the load.

China
The European Union were reported to be looking at regulating security into the IoT eco-system, but in the past regulation hasn’t improved the security of related products such as DSL routers. Regulation is only likely to be effective if it is driven out of China. China does have a strong incentive to do this.

The government has a strong design to increase the value of Chinese manufacturing beyond low value assembly and have local products seen as being high quality. President Xi has expressed frustration that the way Chinese manufacturing appears to be sophisticated, yet cannot make a good ballpoint pen.

Insecurity in IoT products is rather like that pain point of poor quality pens. It is a win-win for both customers, the Chinese manufacturing sector and by extension the Party.

More Information
WSJ City – Massive Internet Attack Stemmed From Game Tactics
Your brilliant Kickstarter idea could be on sale in China before you’ve even finished funding it | Quartz
Asus lawsuit puts entire industry on notice over shoddy router security | Ars Technica
Europe to Push New Security Rules Amid IoT Mess — Krebs on Security
Why can’t China make a good ballpoint pen? | Marketplace.org

Oprah Time: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest is the second book in Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem trilogy. I reviewed the first book here. In the second book the tone changes from being a hard bitten conspiracy story to a fully-blown space opera.

The Dark Forest of the title is a metaphor for a philosophical thought experiment. The universe is thought to be teaming with life. Each civilisation is like a hunter in a dark forest. Revealing oneself, leaves one open to being killed by another hunter. Since you don’t know a hunter’s intention it seems better to be quiet. Conversely if you become aware of another civilisation there is a strong incentive to get them before they get you.

Unlike the first book, The Dark Forest takes place over centuries as the protagonist is put into cryogenic hibernation and then woken centuries later. Living in the future provides a warning for readers against the perils of having all parts of our life automated and connected – it delves into similar themes as Michael Crichton’s Runaway.

Liu deals with complex arguments and grand societal change in a masterful way. I am waiting to read the last book in the trilogy Death’s End.

Oprah time: The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia by Bill Hayton

Hayton sets an ambitious goal for himself to try and unpick the claims and counter claims on territory in the South China sea. It is a massive convoluted story that encompasses colonial powers, oil companies and a plethora of Asian countries.

In the end no one comes out of it with glowing colours. China is easy to paint as a villain and it has played to type. But other countries and major powers have made constant mis-steps and it has become an intractable problem. The more hawkish may see the inevitability of war with China.

On the Chinese side, it makes sense for them to escalate a fight with one of their neighbours; as a Chinese idiom puts it ‘kill a chicken to scare the monkey’ and distract from the pain of change at home.  The history is wrapped up with rising nationalism and aspirations of China and its neighbours.

From the American perspective, it makes sense to have the war with China further away from the Homeland, so the South China sea rather than the Pacific ocean.

Hayton doesn’t take a standpoint one way or the other leaving the reader to decide.

From a reading perspective, the tangled nature of the claims makes the book more difficult to read in small bursts. I tried reading it as a commuting book and it took a while to get it done.

More details on The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

Technology companies, we have to talk about China

Uber has been cited as an example of how US technology companies can’t succeed in China, but the wrong lessons are being learned. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Facebook

Facebook is viewed as having ‘failed’ in China. There are two parts to this. First of all lets talk about Facebook’s business model, simply put it monetises consumers attention by selling advertising and related services to businesses.  In order to get consumers in a relevant market, it has to comply with local laws. In the EU it has a relatively easy ride as it is policed by the Irish government for compliance with EU regulations.

China has taken much more of hands on regulatory approach to the internet, like all media. Much of this is down to keeping a ‘harmonious’ society. You might not like the way they do it, but the party views internal pressures in a similar way to Western views on terrorism. Whether that terrorism in the name of Islam or black bloc anarchists.

China has an extensive censorship mechanism, it is a part of doing business there. Whilst the content maybe different, it is similar to the censorship structure for the UK in many respects:

  • Government steered industry practice
  • Legislation

One of the big differences in the UK is site blocking to protect commercial rather than government interests such as sporting event rights. Facebook chose not to implement systems that would make it compliant in China – so it isn’t available to ordinary Chinese consumers. Facebook does sell advertising in China to companies who want to reach western consumers. It has been successful in its advertising sales, sometimes to the detriment of western consumers. State-owned enterprise (SOE) Air China features as a case study for Facebook’s advertising business. San Francisco-based Papaya Mobile has built a successful business providing an online portal that allows Chinese businesses to target Facebook users abroad. I’d argue that Facebook isn’t failing in China.

If Facebook wanted to get Chinese consumers on board it had three market entry routes:

  • Build a separate Chinese product. This is something that US companies generally don’t do, they may localise the product but they avoid forking the product
  • Build infrastructure that complies with Chinese regulations. Google had done this in the past, before they chose not to
  • Have a local partner do the relevant work. Skype successfully entered the Chinese market with Chinese partner TOM. The Chinese client of Skype is known to allow government listening and weaker encryption. But in a post-Snowden world that shouldn’t be too surprising, the Chinese lack the subtlety of other countries security apparatus in their implementation but the goals are similar

Facebook somewhere along the line decided that they didn’t want to enter the Chinese market for consumers as is; but may do in the future if market dynamics change.

It is notable that Facebook’s growth in both Korea and Japan was slower than comparable western countries. Local platforms addressed the market better (KakaoTalk) and social norms of ‘nick name’ identities allowed to Twitter to become a comparative success in Japan.

Google

Google had entered China in 2005. They hired a local executive to run the business who had previously worked at Microsoft. Four years later they were third in the market behind local firms Baidu and Soso (Tencent subsidiary). Google had an estimated 29% market share.

So Google was in third place before it had legal issues in China. Why was it in third place? Google is thought to have under-estimated the growth rate in terms of number of web pages of the Chinese internet. In the same way that Yahoo! and Bing under-indexed the western web and paid for it by losing market share to Google, Google lost out to Baidu. This was about localisation and agility rather than the system being gamed against it. Google hasn’t indexed non-Roman languages as well as English, French etc.

Google was particularly beloved of those Chinese who had a more international life; scientific researchers, journalists, bankers, marketers and the more cosmopolitan members of the middle class. But for the average Chinese consumer, other search engines did a better job.

Google services ran into trouble with a YouTube video showing security forces and protestors in Tibet. Google took action in the Chinese market when Chinese dissidents had their Gmail accounts hacked. Again in a post-Snowden world this isn’t the shocking scandal it would have once been. Complaints in the US together with this incident meant that Google was prepared to give up on Chinese consumers. The business still has an R&D team in China and works with manufacturers on Android.

So why do American companies succeed elsewhere?

The simple answer is one of scale. The US is a single country with largely the same regulatory framework, a single language, good infrastructure and access to large amounts of capital. It is a market for approximately 324 million people. This allows businesses to grow rapidly to a scale that is internationally competitive.

By comparison although the EU has an addressable population of just over 510 million people, you have different legal systems (though it is becoming more harmonised by the EU). You have 24 languages, a common currency but diverse banking systems.

This comparative lack of scale in EU technology start-ups has two effects:

  • They are harder to grow as there isn’t a comparable domestic market to incubate businesses. If they do grow, the better access of capital allows an EU start-up to be bought out. Look at last.fm, DeepMind or ARM as examples of this.  Some businesses have managed to break like Spotify as they tapped into US funding. It is also pertinent to point out that Spotify isn’t make money
  • With some noticeable exceptions like Spotify, getting capital to grow a business internationally is much harder. It isn’t realistic for a European start-up to pursue the Amazon / Uber model of betting against competition by assuming that they will always have access to cheap plentiful capital

This has meant that Facebook, Google and the like have risen largely unopposed in Europe. They have found it so easy that they’ve gained monopoly levels of market share. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. At best Europe acts like a ‘feeder team’ of talent and IP to US start-ups. Where Europe is successful is largely based on past dominance in legacy industry sectors like vehicle manufacture and pharmaceuticals. This also partly explains Europe’s stagnant growth.

China is different

China is the polar opposite of Europe. It has an addressable market for 1.4 billion people. Whilst there are many dialects in China the party railroaded Mandarin as the lingua franca and simplified Chinese as a common written language.  Live and incomes in the tier one cities would be comparable to parts of Europe. Economic growth has slowed to 6 per cent a year, but the economy is still flush with capital.

A huge population means a huge pool of qualified staff. You combine this with a large amount of capital and you have a business than can out-Uber Uber.

The culture of China is different. Chinese consumers like to go to Starbucks and KFC, use Apple products and wear luxury fashion brands; but only because these fit into Chinese cultural constructs. That means that products need to be optimised for the local market.

China has been through huge change since the rise of the party, which means that the owner executives of these companies have have a greater desire for risk to capitalise on ‘the now’.

This means that most of the advantages Silicon Valley has: agility of action, talent and capital are negated in their competition in China. In addition, since they committed to an approach that already works, adaptation to local market needs are limited. This is interpreted by the Chinese counterparts as hubris; the reality is more subtle.

China does have strategic interests which means that it regulates ‘state secrets’ very carefully. Mapping technology is carefully controlled. It has tried to use its size to benefit its businesses. In the same way that the EU through ETSI defined the GSM standard, the Chinese government tried to do the same with TD-CDMA. The reality is that favoured companies like Huawei have managed to allow their clients to get cheap funding for purchases via Chinese state-owned banks.

Like the US government, the Chinese government uses research funding and infrastructure spending to direct some aspects of technological development. Since the administration of Hu Jintao, the Internet of Things (IoT) has been a government focus.

The danger of the invincible China myth

Whilst China wants to have a world-beating successful technology sector. There are problems that comes with a perception of invisibility, China will find it hard to keep open markets. Trade negotiations will become intractable as the other party sees no upsides to working with China. An eco-system where foreigners have a modicum of success is a better outcome for the Chinese government.

Uber’s problems were entirely of their own making, their choice to go into China was likely their first error. Not because it is excessively gained against them, but because they didn’t have any comparative advantages over Didi.

More information
Uber has destroyed the Western myth that companies can grow huge in China without being Chinese
Content filtering by UK ISPs | Open Rights Group Wiki
Facebook “Will Do Everything We Can” To Address Shady Dress Retailers | Buzzfeed News
Facebook for Business | Air China
Papaya Shoptimize | Papaya Mobile
China listening in on Skype – Microsoft assumes you approve | GreatFire.org
Spotify financial results show struggle to make streaming music profitable – The Guardian

Oprah Time: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem like all the best science fiction is multi-layered. It has a complex story which gradually weaves together a large set of characters across time as the story is told in a non-linear manner. It is also multi-layered in terms of genres:

  • It is a space opera as rich as Asimov’s Foundation books, except it is the aliens who will be doing the interstellar travel
  • It has a conspiracy at the heart of it that reminded me of James Bond novels and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps
  • It is the tail of of hard-bitten detective work as if Raymond Chandler had been in Beijing; complete with film noir levels of smoking and drinking

But most interesting of all is the mirror it offers on the modern China from the cultural revolution onwards. Liu is unflinching in his depiction of Cultural Revolution excesses.

Like all good authors there are hints of Liu’s early life in a rural part of Henan province during the cultural revolution. He has managed to spin the complex web of a story. The Three Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy – I am looking forward to reading The Dark Forest – the second book.

The QRcode post

A few years ago, I was involved in a project that used QRcodes on OOH (out of home) activity for a retail launch. QRcode scanners varied in performance. In addition you had to think about:

  • Contrast – did the QRcode stand out?
  • Relative aspect – would it be too big or too small for the audience to scan?

In the UK, QRcodes are seen by marketers as old hat (but then they didn’t ‘get’ them in the same way that Asia did). Other people don’t really understand how to use them.
QRcode 101
Above is the picture of the local cafe around the corner from my office. The QRcode is too disjointed and blurred to read. I asked a member of staff about it and he told me that he thought it was some type of logo…

Currently reading….

I have a couple of books on the go at the moment:

  • Smartphones and beyond: Lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian by David Wood. Wood was a senior executive at Psion and Symbian. A combination of an extensive email archive and electronic diary allowed him to produce a blow-by-blow account. Much of it is in the weeds, interesting, but tough to tease definitive answers out. I keep reading it in spurts and then going away. A more details review will come once I work my way through this.
  • The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin’s book has been applauded as a science fiction classic in both Chinese and Western circles. Liu has won a Hugo award for this book and is the recipient of the Galaxy award (China’s Hugo award, but with a better name) on nine occasions. I have just started on the book but it seems to have contrasting narratives, the first of which is a shocking portrayal of how intellectuals suffered during the cultural revolution. This is my go to book for commuting, expect a full review soon(ish).

Links of the day | 在网上找到

As Tastes Mature, Chinese Crave Native Materials | Global Currents | BoF – also mirrors a desire to look less flashy and moving away from tu hao jin products

Photographer Bill Cunningham left the fashion world some brilliant advice on how to dress millennials – “I think what they should really think about, and be fearful [of], is the high-tech, and the high-tech kids,” he tells the interviewer, fashion consultant Fern Mallis. “They’re no longer dressing the outsides of their heads. This generation are dressing the inside of their heads.” 

Asked by Mallis to clarify what he meant, he continued: “The whole country is electronically connected. They’re educating the insides of their heads, as they should do! Not the outside, with a fancy hat or a dress. Simple clothes… That’s the key. I think that’s what the fashion world should really think about.”

BlackBerry has not informed Verizon or AT&T that BlackBerry 10 devices have been discontinued | CrackBerry.com – being a BlackBerry user must feel like being a Mac user circa 1996, though I don’t expect there will be any salvation with those few keeping the faith. In Senate, Blackberry Era Officially Over | bomble.com – the West Wing will start to look dated pretty darned quick once this goes through

Brands who are part of Beijing’s Hutong Neighbourhoods – SocialBrandWatch – interesting the way Nestle has built a quality Chinese brand

After Brexit, British scramble for foreign passports | HKEJ Insights – really good read on the change in dynamic between Britain and Ireland

Chinese smartphone brands are dying off fast as market consolidates | Techinasia – Xiaomi’s diversifying strategy may look smart

Private Equity Has a Crush on Tech – WSJ – recurring subscriptions, but cloud may disrupt traditional packaged enterprise software and is cycle resistant only insofar as the clients stay in business

Amazon Is Quietly Eliminating List Prices – The New York Times – “When Amazon began 21 years ago, the strategy was to lose on every sale but make it up on volume,” said Larry Compeau, a Clarkson University professor of consumer studies. “It was building for the future, and the future has arrived. Amazon doesn’t have to seduce customers with a deal because they’re going to buy anyway.”

Pollster who called the EU referendum right: No late Leave swing after all • The Register – interesting descriptions about errors in poll design

Sony chief Hirai places faith in AI | FT – interesting move given Sony’s relatively lack of prowess in software and services

DriveTribe social network founded by the former ‘Top Gear’ presenters is launching this year – Business Insider – interesting that they’ve set up a passion based network.

Remarks at the SASE Panel On The Moral Economy of Tech – really interesting essay

EU regulations on algorithmic decision-making and a ‘right to explanation’ by Goodman & Flaxman – potential impact of the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation on the routine use of machine learning algorithms. The problem revolves around the ‘right to explanation’ (PDF)

WWDC – what did it all mean?

I watched the few hours of keynotes at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. I also read some of the resulting analysis and wondered if we’d been watching the same event.
Cómo ver la WWDC 2016 en vivo en iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV
So thought I would think about the event carefully and come up on my take of what it all meant. This is a bit later than I originally planned to publish it.

Firstly, there was no change in direction for Apple from a strategic point-of-view. Apple has been clear about its direction, it is the ‘how’ which is the mystery.

Over the past few years, Apple has focused on the integration of its devices. The reason why there isn’t one OS*, a la Windows 10, is that the different form factors have different contexts. Cross-pollination of services only takes place where it makes sense, which is why Siri has taken a while to roll out.

The first big thing is APFS – a new file system for all of Apple’s devices. This builds on upon a feature set of ZFS which was a file system developed by Sun Microsystems for its Solaris UNIX operating system. Solaris runs on large enterprise computers where the prevention of data corruption and handling a large amount of file changes simultaneously is very important. Like ZFS, APFS supports encryption, granular time stamping, fast file management and has improvements in data integrity. When it’s fully finished it should make encryption on devices easier to manage and provide the user with more control. It should also help with syncing data across devices and the cloud.

The interesting thing is how this technology will scale over time handling multiple devices and form factors working seamlessly from a common database. Like many of there other technologies this is an extension of Apple’s Continuity offering and future integration with a wider IoT offering.

When Steve Jobs launched Mac OSX 10.0 in 2001 he described it as being the OS for the next 15 years. At the time the original MacOS was showing its limits. The UI was colour but hadn’t really moved on that much since System 7.5. The operating system wasn’t multi-tasking. The internet felt kludgy even though it performed well on the hardware at that time. Looking at OSX / macOS now, the operating system it feels fresh. The tweaks and changes under the hood keep the performance hub and the features comparable with the rest of the Continuity eco-system. macOS also doesn’t seem to be seriously threatened by iOS ‘pro’ devices.

iOS 10 was important to me for its embrace of messenger-as-a-platform. Apple innovates within its own Messages apps with some UI gimmicks. More importantly, notification real estate that was once the exclusive preserve of the Apple dialer. This allows you to accept calls from the likes of Skype, WeChat or Slack from the lock screen. This follows Apple’s model of using it’s own apps to work things out and then open up the function once it is mature. Apple’s own Messages app includes a number of features including:

  • Simple chat bot-like functionality
  • Swipe to read on messages to prevent shoulder surfers from reading messages
  • Messages app takeover emotions
  • More emoji / sticker like icons

Apple Pay roll-out – continued geographic roll-out makes sense. Apple Pay isn’t about building a rival payment system a la PayPal. Instead, Apple is trying to build more touch points with the user. The level of usage doesn’t matter too much from that perspective. Geographic roll-out to Hong Kong and more European countries makes sense. The more exciting development is two-factor authentication for e-commerce payments on compatible sites using the Apple Pay infrastructure. This is big for shopping on both Mac and iOS-powered devices.

Thinking differently about intelligence. Unless you have been living under tech industry equivalent of a stone, you’ll be aware of cloud companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google or Baidu using artificial intelligence techniques to drive device function. Apple hadn’t been as visible in this space up to WWDC. The reason for this is due their rigorous approach to user and device privacy.  There were two approaches to this:

Having the mobile devices GPU to perform relatively simple neural-network computing. This can learn user preferences or intent over time and be more helpful

Making Siri more intelligent by looking at the behaviour of users encrypted, salted with false data and aggregated up. Differential Security is the process of acquiring this data. In the second world war, the Allies cracked the cryptography derived from the Enigma machine. But that was only the first part of the challenge. In order for it to be useful the Enigma team used statistics to hide any usage of the intelligence hiding reactive activity in the midsts of statistically expected ‘normal’ behaviour.

Differential security is kind of similar to this. All the data is encrypted, the phone sends a mix of false data and real data. When Apple looks at aggregated data they can see the false data as being false, but can’t tell which users data is false at a given time.

Apple’s WatchOS 3 is interesting because of the performance boost it gives the wearable. The difference is really noticeable. The boost in performance is due to Apple having more memory to use than it had originally allowed for. This provides a more refined experience. Much of the UX enhancements were focused on fitness.

From a developer perspective there were a few things missing:

  • Apple had no new pro-level hardware announcements
  • Apple later walked away from Thunderbolt displays, saying that 3rd parties were now making great displays. This reminded me of when Apple stopped making printers, it felt permanent, though there is a lot of speculation about a forthcoming Apple 5K display – we’ll see
  • Apple still needs to do more work on integrating its Swift programming language throughout its OS’
  • Given Twitter’s peak in growth, Apple didn’t show how Siri would cope in a post-Twitter world

Finally the two-hour keynote was a love letter to China. At every opportunity Tim Cook mentioned the Chinese market, support for China-specific items like language and called out Chinese apps like WeChat.

* From a technical point-of-view; tvOS, iOS, and macOS all share underpinnings based on NetBSD and a Mach micro-kernel.

More information
Apple Pay supporting banks | Apple Support Documents
Apple finally opens Siri to third-party developers | TechCrunch
Apple rolls out privacy-sensitive artificial intelligence | MIT Technology Review
What is Differential Privacy? A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering
Digging into the dev documentation for APFS, Apple’s new file system | Ars Technica
Apple File System Guide | Apple Developer documentation
Mac & iOS Continuity | Apple

Five for Friday | 五日(星期五)

Things that have made my day this week:

Haruka introduced me to WEDNESDAY CAMPANELLA『桃太郎』

Interesting video on entrepreneurial opportunities in China

Interesting way to approach content for a travel portal

The mag that captured 60s countercultural Japan | Dazed – check these photos out from Provoke magazine, Showa era FTW

I am not the greatest fan of Wired UK and prefer its US counterpart, but this documentary on Shenzhen is quite nice. You can almost taste the South China humidity

Mary Meeker’s annual state of the internet presentation

Mary Meeker’s annual presentation on internet trends is a tradition within the technology sector. Here is the latest iteration for 2016

June 2016 online marketing and technology research slides

Here is a copy of the slides that I pull together (when I have the time) each month of publicly available data that would be of use.

This month I have some new data around search which came from disclosures at Google I/O in terms of search volumes. We talk about social as if search has gone out of style but its growth is still staggering, driven by mobile device penetration.
Google global search volume
Looking at global search revenue over time, Google’s monopoly position becomes immediately apparent.
Global Search Revenues
More details about me here.
Slide20
Full presentation available for download as a PDF on Slideshare