Orange steps further into the convergence game

Orange has announced a new partnership with Groupama, adding another branch to the convergence strategy with a home telesurveillance service.

Everyone in the industry is talking about convergence as a means to improve revenues, but few have created quite a splash in the deep-end as the cannon-balling French telco. This latest partnership with Groupama will see the creation of Protectline, a joint platform for the operation and management of home telesurveillance services.

“The upcoming launch of our home telesurveillance service is an important part of Orange’s multi-service operator strategy,” said Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange. “To deliver the best product possible, we have again chosen to work with Groupama to pool our skills and resources, following on from our Orange Bank partnership.”

With Orange owning 51% of the new venture, it’s a very clever way for the telco to diversify revenue streams. Groupama is already a well-established player in this segment, but Orange has something which every business wants; a humongous subscriber base to potentially sell added-value services into. This is where this partnership is a stroke of genius and an excellent foundation for future convergence growth.

Orange has built a successful business and large customer base through doing what it does very well. Until recently it has focused exclusively on markets which it has a pedigree in; connectivity. Recently it has explored banking, cyber-security, entertainment and smart home services, though each has relevant-industry partners under-pinning the venture, as well as a direct tie back to the core business.

Protectline is another example of how the Orange business is embracing convergence in a low-risk, high-reward manner. Groupama has the expertise while Orange has the sales and marketing capabilities. Each is supplemented the other, leaning on the skills which are brought to the table. Its sounds incredibly simple, because it is, but it is effective. Of course, you have to wonder why there aren’t more in the industry doing this and the answer is relatively simple.

When splitting the risk, you have to split the spoils. If Protectline becomes a roaring success, Orange can only collect 51% of the riches. This might not sound attractive to other telcos, some of which have chosen to go solo on diversification to varying success; just have a look at BT’s attempt to rock Sky’s dominance in the premium TV segment.

Sky is another which has proven to be successful in the convergence and diversification game, branching out from the core TV services to offer broadband and mobile connectivity offerings. However, similar to the Orange example, the risk has been somewhat removed as the broadband offering runs over Openreach infrastructure and the Sky Mobile is a MVNO. The high-risk elements of these diversification ambitions, the CAPEX heavy infrastructure, has been removed from the equation. Sky focuses on what it does best, maintaining a relationship with its customers.

The buzz around convergence has been dying down a bit recently, as while it is an effective strategy few has realised the bonanza which was initially promised. Orange is one of those few who are reaping the considerable benefit, but only because it is not going alone.

The question which remains is whether Orange can nail the customer experience element. This would have been the big hurdle for the banking product, though it seems to have passed with flying colours. Groupama can take the operational risk away from the telco, but customer experience is slightly different in every vertical; Orange will have to prove its worth by being engaging and intuitive if this is to be a success.

Orange has realised where its strengths are and by offering this massive subscriber base as leverage is any future partnerships, it is proving the low-risk convergence game can be a very profitable one.

58% of UK business can’t detect IoT security breach – study

Digital security vendor Gemalto claims the IoT euphoria might be hitting the UK before its ready, as research shows 58% of businesses are not able to detect a breach.

First and foremost, we need to put a disclaimer on this report. Gemalto is a security company and is thus incentivised do its best scaremongering to drive revenues. The more scared companies are about potential data breaches, and the punishments which follow the incidents, the more likely they are to buy security software. Making the world a big, bad, horrible place is an effective marketing strategy for security vendors.

That said, considering the lax approach most of the industry takes towards security and data protection, we suspect many of the statistics being discussed are pretty accurate.

“The push for digital transformation by organisations has a lot to answer for when it comes to security and bad practices,” said Jason Hart, CTO of Data Protection at Gemalto. “At times it feels organisations are trying to run before they can walk, implementing technology without really understanding what impact it could have on their security.”

The most shocking figure from the report is the 42% of UK companies who are capable of detecting an IoT breach, with only France worse off at 36%. Considering the role IoT has been touted to play over the next few years as 5G hits the streets, this is an incredibly worrying statistic.

While spending on IoT security has increased from 11% of the overall IoT budget to 13%, you have to wonder what direction this money is heading. Perhaps even more concerning for those companies involved, is that 90% of them accept this will be a major buying motivator for customers. At least they are aware that security can have a direct impact on the revenues of the business now, a concept which has taken years to hammer home.

“Given the increase in the number of IoT-enabled devices, it’s extremely worrying to see that businesses still can’t detect if they have been breached,” said Hart. “With no consistent regulation guiding the industry, it’s no surprise the threats – and, in turn, vulnerability of businesses – are increasing. This will only continue unless governments step in now to help industry avoid losing control.”

IoT is set to be one of the biggest winner of the 5G bonanza, while the segment is also predicted to be the major catalyst of 6G. If predictions are anywhere near accurate, 5G networks will soon not be able to cope with the strain of IoT, driving the case for 6G due to the sheer number of ‘things’ connected to the network.

Looking at the predictions, IDC believes the IoT market will grow to be worth more than $1.2 trillion by 2022, with consumer devices expected to account for the largest share at 19%. Ericsson has forecasted the number of cellular IoT connections to reach 3.5 billion in 2023, increasing at a CAGR of 30%.

Security remains a major challenge for the industry, though the buzz around blockchain could provide a suitable means to meet the expectations of the consumer. In the absence of regulation, Gemalto notes the adoption of blockchain technologies has doubled from 9% to 19% in the last 12 months, with 23% of the respondents to this survey believe the technology would be an ideal solution to use for securing IoT devices. 91% who are not using blockchain are considering it for the future.

“Businesses are clearly feeling the pressure of protecting the growing amount of data they collect and store,” said Hart.

“But while it’s positive they are attempting to address that by investing in more security, such as blockchain, they need direct guidance to ensure they’re not leaving themselves exposed. In order to get this, businesses need to be putting more pressure on the government to act, as it is them that will be hit if they suffer a breach.”

While research like this does indicate security is becoming a more serious topic in the world of telecoms and technology, it also confirms there is a very wide gap to close. Security has long been the ugly duckling of the industry, many seemingly choosing to ignore the challenges because they are too difficult to solve, though new regulations such as GDPR has perhaps forced the issue up the agenda.

Interestingly enough, should the telcos get serious about security there would certainly be a revenue generating opportunity to capitalise on. With cyber security incidents and data breaches becoming more prominent in the news, consumers are gradually becoming more aware of the risks of the internet and the emerging digital society. While the industry has played down the risk in recent years, the incidents speak for themselves.

An excellent example of turning this scenario into a business opportunity lies with Orange, the master of the convergence strategy. Here, the team have invested heavily in cyber security capabilities and are now offering security services to customers as a bolt on to other connectivity packages. The move has proven to be a success as while it is generally becoming accepted that 100% secure is impossible nowadays, more people are willing to do something about it.

Security is a topic which has always been in and around the news, but few want to do anything proactive about it. Unfortunately, with the perimeter expanding so rapidly as IoT penetration grows, these statistics are incredibly worrying. Perhaps regulators will get the chance to swing the GDPR stick before too long after all.

Google unveils Assistant delights at CES

It wasn’t going to be long before Google stole the show with a horde of updates to the virtual assistant. And in fairness, some of them look pretty useful.

Who is leading the smart assistant battle varies depending on who you are talking to, but the importance of this segment is consistent throughout. With more users becoming comfortable with the voice UI, buying power will gradually shift away from the smartphone screen and onto connected devices. Whoever has the best and most prominent virtual assistant will control the relationship with the consumer.

Google might dominant search revenues for the moment, but the smart home and the connected economy are changing the status quo; the Google Assistant is one of the ways the firm will stay relevant. So, what is new?

To kick things off, the team has launched Google Assistant Connect, a platform for device manufacturers to bring the Google Assistant into their products in an affordable and easy-to-implement way. This is an important step for the Google team to take, as it allows for scale. Google’s speakers and smart products will not dominate the smart home forever. Sooner or later, traditional brands will take the lion’s share of spend as the mass market will be more comfortable buying from the trusted, specialised brands. But the ambition for Google in the smart home should be in the software not the products.

Google needs to make it as easy as possible for appliance and device manufacturers to incorporate the virtual assistant. Just as it is with the search engine, scale is everything. The more users Google is interacting with, the more accurate its algorithms become and more money its advertising models can generate.

As it stands, the Google Assistant currently works with over 1,600 home automation brands and more than 10,000 devices. This number will only accelerate as the mass market acceptance of smart home devices and applications becomes more apparent.

Another area which has been targeted by the firm in recent months has been automotive. Back in September, Google was named as the technology partner of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, allowing it to embed the Android operating system directly in vehicles. Last year, the alliance sold a combined 10.6 million vehicles in 200 markets across the world. At CES, Google announced a number of new features which would increase the usability of its applications in the car.

One of the updates is to bring the Assistant to Google Maps. Not only will the Assistant help with navigation, but users will be able to use voice commands to send messages to friends, such as estimated time of arrival. The Assistant can also be commanded to search for points of interest or stop-off points along the designated route. It’s a useful little update.

The final update which we like to draw attention to is focused on travel. Before too long, users will be able to instruct the Google Assistant to check them into flights (starting with US domestic flights), and also book hotel rooms at the destination. How effectively this will work remains to be seen, and it will be interesting to see how many hotels the Assistant has to choose from (as well as the price ranges), but again, it is a useful update.

Virtual assistants are not new, but they are becoming increasingly normalised in the eyes of the consumer. The voice UI is starting to make a genuine impact on the technology landscape the sci-fi image of tomorrow might not be as ridiculous as once though. Perhaps if someone nails AR glasses the smartphone screen might become redundant sooner rather than later.

DCMS launches new initiative to bring elderly into digital

The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced the launch of a new initiative to help older and disabled people get digital skills and reap the benefits of the digital era.

The scheme will see digitally savvy older people open their homes up to be kitted out in the latest technologies, before allowing others to visit and learn first-hand from their peers how to make the most of smart technology to control household appliances, book GP appointments online, contact friends and family by video, and shop online. In short, you can get some free kit, but you have to let Edna and Harold from down the road parade around your home.

“We are committed to improving the digital skills of people of all ages and abilities, so everyone can enjoy the benefits of modern technology,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “These innovative projects will not only help some of the hardest to reach people live healthier and happier lives but also boost our mission to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business.”

Funded by the Digital Inclusion Innovation Fund, this scheme will initially receive £400,000 and will be championed in rural West Essex by a partnership led by Uttlesford Council for Voluntary Service.

“Organisations across Essex are backing the Digital Boomers which will see older people redesign their relationship using technology to become even more tech confident and retain their independence for longer,” said Clive Emmett, chief executive of Uttlesford Council for Voluntary Service.

“Thanks to the Digital Inclusion Fund, our exciting Living Smart Homes and Digital Buddies pilots will help us rethink how older people use digital to support their health, wellbeing and independence.”

While some might turn their nose up at this idea, it is very easy to forget the older generations need to be taken forward into the digital economy as well. These are people who in all likelihood weren’t forced into the digital mindset through work or society and therefore need all the assistance possible to make sure they feel the benefits.

The UK government has not necessarily shown itself to be the most forward-thinking in the world, but this is an initiative which we quite like the look of.

Share price drops for both Amazon and Google after quarterlies

Despite reporting quarterly numbers most companies would kill for Amazon and Alphabet share prices dropped by 8.6% and 5% respectively due to investor disappointment.

More than anything else it shows the high demands of investors but also the confidence which is being placed in the internet giants. With Amazon reporting a revenue increase of 29% to $56.6 billion for the quarter, while Google parent company Alphabet reported $33.7 billion, up 21%, the expectations are certainly high.

Starting with Amazon, the revenue increase of 29% paled in comparison to the more than 10X lift in net income to $2.9 billion. While this would be a regular cash bonanza for most companies around the world, sales guidance between $66.5 billion and $72.5 billion for final quarter were lower than what the market wanted to hear. The more coy guidance for Amazon’s busiest quarter resulted in the 8.6% drop, after confidence during the day sent stock up 7%.

In Google’s HQ the story was slightly different. Revenues of $33.7 billion, up 21%, and net income of $9.1 billion, compared to $6.7 billion in 2017. Shares were down 5%, following a 4.4% rise across the day, after sales figures did not hit the expected heights. The last three months have been a tough period for investors to swallow with various scandals dropping share price by 8.8% over the last three months.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad news. The cloud unit for both businesses is continuing to rack up revenues with AWS up 45% to $6.7 billion across the quarter and Google’s other revenues segment, which features cloud up 29% to $4.6 billion. Encouragingly for both, Gartner estimates the worldwide public cloud services market is projected to grow 17% percent in 2019 to total $206.2 billion, up from $175.8 billion in 2018. IaaS is set to get the largest boost, forecast to grow 27.6% in 2019 to reach $39.5 billion. With so many businesses around the world citing a cloud-first approach, it’s amazing to think only 10% of workloads have been moved into the cloud.

The relatively new venture into the world of smart speakers and virtual assistants is proving to be a continued success story as well. For Amazon, the number of Alexa-compatible smart home devices has quintupled to more than 20,000 devices from 3,500, while the team have also started to launch new products such as a smart home security solution (Alexa Guard), and Alexa is expanding what it can give updates on as well, such sports with predictions, live streams, cooking instructions and maths homework. For Google. the Assistant has expanded to 20 languages and 76 countries, while the devices with screens will help YouTube business, which is attempting to blend in more direct response adverts as well as branding to its proposition.

There will of course be short-term wins for the pair in this space, but this is a long-term bet. Once the idea has been adopted by the mass market, the opportunities to make money through third-party relationships will be quite remarkable. Search revenues can be moved into the voice domain (effectively anywhere) and look how profitable search has been for Google. This is only one way to make money, but both Amazon and Google are putting themselves in a remarkably strong position for the future.

Both businesses might have suffered in the last 24 hours but they are still in incredibly dominant positions. The cloud units still have incredible growth potential, while the smart speaker ecosystem is starting to become a reality. For Google, the is delivering amazing profitability but sales growth does seem to be slowing slightly. Amazon is delivering on the North American market but the business is not as effective on the international scene, posting a loss of $385 million.

There are issues, but these are nothing compared to the billions being raked in and the growth potential in new, lucrative markets.

Facebook eyes up the connected home space

Facebook has seemingly taken its first steps towards the connected home market with the launch of Portal.

As it stands, Portal is being marketed simply as a video calling product, though with partnerships with various content streaming channels and a tie-in with Amazon’s Alexa, the future could see Facebook enter the fray as a competitor in the smart home hardware segment.

Two products will be released to start with, Portal and Portal+. Portal will feature a 10-inch 1280 x 800 display, while Portal+ is a larger model with a 15-inch 1920 x 1080 pivoting display. Powered by AI, Facebook claims the smart camera automatically pans and zooms to keep everyone in view, while smart sound features minimize background noise and enhances the voice of whoever is talking. How effective the AI remains to be seen, however now the idea of smart communications products have been normalised in the home it won’t be too long before some pretty impressive products will start hitting the market.

Such a venture could prove to be a very useful gander for the Facebookers, as diversification is going to need to happen sooner or later. With younger demographics searching elsewhere for their social media fix, Snapchat and Facebook-owned Instagram benefiting, pressure will soon start to mount on the advertising business.

Shareholders are used to exceptional year-on-year growth figures, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see these flatten; people are becoming less engaged by the platform, therefore spending less time exposed to adverts, while recent figures have shown key markets are not boosting total subscription numbers. Sooner or later a threshold will be hit; only so many adverts can be placed in front of users. Perhaps this is where the Portal products can help.

Unlike the other internet giants Facebook hasn’t really done an exceptional job of diversification. It has added more advertising products (i.e. different ways to engage users on the platform), but this isn’t genuine diversification. If the audience for the core product declines, Facebook’s business suffers; it doesn’t matter how many products there are if no-one is one the other side of the screen to see them.

Google or Amazon however have supported their core business with outside bets. Think of the cloud computing businesses they own, or the content platforms, or ventures into the grocery sectors. These are ventures which diversify enough to ensure negative impacts on the core business do not have a significant impact, however, close enough to lean on the brand and expertise.

With the Portal products, Facebook could make a play for the focal point of the smart home. This has a couple of interesting benefits, one of which will be controlling the gateway and therefore access to the consumer. By operating a window to the consumer, the owner of the window can charge access to gaze through. Partnerships are already in place with the likes of Spotify Premium, Pandora, and iHeartRadio, as well as Food Network and Newsy. This is a business model which could certainly be successful should Portal offer scale.

It is a simple, but effective idea. The window owner would also have the opportunity to launch new services and products which be installed as default, offering an entry-point to the data economy, in the same way Google dominates the mobile OS space with Android.

The focal point of the smart home is still an on-going battle, though Amazon and Google do seem to be winning with their smart speakers. The telcos have a chance with the router, though the proactive nature of the internet players is wrestling the ecosystem behind the speakers. However, today’s generations demand screens. Amazon has been trying to launch its own smart device with a built-in screen for months, though a difficult relationship with YouTube has not helped the situation.

Should Facebook be able to launch a video-orientated product, with high-enough specs, deep connections to the smart home ecosystem and smart enough AI applications, it could make a dent in the market. No-one has really produced a product which grips onto the space, and priced at $199 and $349, it isn’t out of the question for the Portal and Portal+.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook has made a point of security. AI applications are stored on the device, meaning data will be processed locally not transferred to the cloud. It’s almost as if Facebook has accepted it has a terrible reputation for data collection and management, and is offering an alternative to trusting the team with your personal information.

The big question is whether people trust the Facebook brand enough to give the business such prominent influence over so many different aspects of their lives. Even with a physical cover for the camera lens, users might be sceptical, though if there is ambition for additional services, there is a lot of work which will need to be done. The brand is not in a very good position when it comes to credibility and trust.

Another area which might prove to be a stickler for the product is that you have to have a Facebook account for it to work. This might not prove to be an issue at all in the long-run, though considering there will be people who don’t have and don’t want a Facebook account, or people who have intentionally deleted theirs as a result of recent scandals, it might be immediately ruling out a number of potential customers.

Connected speakers could refresh smart home euphoria

Enthusiasm for connected devices is on the rise, but it’s taking the buzz away from smart appliances and the smart home category on the whole.

According to research from GfK, products which are geared towards improving connectivity and entertainment are gaining traction in the market, though this is replacing the appetite for smart home appliances which are geared towards efficiency and functionality.

“Take-up of smart home products in the UK continues to rise, with interactive speakers the hot product of the last year,” said Trevor Godman, Divisional Director at GfK. “In contrast however, the level of consumer excitement about smart home as a category has lost momentum somewhat – particularly for smart appliances and smart health products.  As smart home pivots to the mass market, it is essential that manufacturers look at what is holding consumers back and communicate compelling benefits that capture consumers’ imaginations.”

While Godman is taking a rather negative approach to the trends, we do not see it in the same light. The idea of the smart home, and various devices in the kitchen or around the house being connected and programmable is not a new idea. The smart fridge or connected light bulbs have been around for years without stimulating enough momentum for the segment to really take off. A creative spark was needed to engage consumers and offer an attractive proposition, unfortunately, smart energy readers do not offer this. Smart speakers and TVs do however.

For the mass market to embrace new ideas, there needs to be genuine excitement. Being able to switch the light in the living off with your smartphone might be functional and useful occasionally, but the smart speakers capture the imagination of the consumer. These are products consumers would actually want to buy, instead of a central heating system which reacts to the weather outside.

According to the research, the UK smart home market was worth £900 million in 2017, making it the second largest market in Europe. It has also become the fastest growing, increasing by 19% in value from 2016 and 35% by volume. There are now 336 brands offering 3,777 smart home products, while 85% of the UK’s online population now own at least one smart product, and the number owning four or more has grown from 35% last year to 44% this year. The fastest growing segment is smart speakers, though this does seem to be at the expense of other categories.

Manufacturers of smart cookers or connected mirrors might look at these statistics and worry, though GfK suggests consumers who plan to buy a smart device or appliance in the future have their sights set on a wide range of products. The smart home might have failed to deliver over the last couple of years, though the accessibility and entertainment value of smart speakers does seem to open up consumers to new purchases.

The purchase of smart home devices might not be growing across the board, but that isn’t necessarily awful for those who have their eyes on the long-game. Smart speakers are normalising the idea of the connected economy. Once the basic concept has been accepted by the mass market, the opportunity to sell becomes significantly easier as value is more readily realised and accessible.

Philips might preach about the benefits of a smart central heating system, but the frivolous purchases were needed to normalise the segment first. The smartphone ecosystem didn’t explode overnight, there were years of adoption as the touch user interface become second-nature, the same could be said here. Frivolous purchasing is needed before the connected bug can spread throughout the home.

Smart speakers starting to drive next era of digital

Years usually pass before the world realises a technology breakthrough actually happened and it catches on; the voice user interface might just have arrived at that watershed moment.

The fantastic breakthrough of touchscreen mobile phones is often attributed to Apple, though if you go back to 1992 IBM unveiled a phone called Simon which featured the first touchscreen. Apple didn’t invent the concept of touch screens, it simply innovated, making the iPhone a genuine smartphone as opposed to a PDA. This might seem like an odd introduction, but the same trend is emerging in the smart speaker world.

Amazon and Google did not invent the concept of the voice user interface, they simply used their brands to effect change and offer a product which was dutifully adopted by the masses which call themselves fans. In releasing their own smart speakers, the two internet giants did what other companies couldn’t; they normalised the voice user interface.

According to Nielsen’s MediaTech Trender survey, the smart speaker has penetrated the mass market and is normalising the concept of the smart home, as well as the idea of your voice being the control function. Across the US, 40% of homes now own at least one smart home device, with 24% owning a smart speaker, up from 22% in the previous quarter. Of those who currently own a smart home device, 65% plan to purchase more. Looking at the speakers themselves, usage is up, the average user interacts with the device for 72 minutes on the weekend and 65 minutes during the week, while 81% of users report using voice-command searches for real-time information, such as weather and traffic conditions, during a typical week. The more normal it becomes to use your voice in the home, the more acceptable it becomes elsewhere in the world.

Another interesting statistic from the report are the services synced to the speakers. Music streaming services are unsurprisingly the most popular, 53%, while the second most popular is shopping apps at 52%. With the user seemingly becoming accustomed to ordering goods through the smart speaker, there are a horde of new opportunities emerging, from grocery shopping to on-demand purchases linked to advertisements.

Finally, the most device synced to the smart speakers is the smartphone. This might seems like a very obvious statement, though only 32% of the respondents have linked their smartphone to the device. This is a small percentage of what is possible, though the potential to learn more about these individuals who have synced their devices is quite exciting. The virtual assistant is no-longer limited to the users home and can start to learn about habits in the big, wide world. This offers a much more in-depth opportunity to create valuable, personalised services.

As it stands, the smart speaker is little more than an entertainment product. 90% of users listen to music on the devices, 81% search for real-time information such as the weather, 68% listen to the news and 68% use it for alarms or timers. However, these devices are introducing new concepts and features which are gradually becoming accepted and normalised by the user. The voice user interface is an incredibly important one.

Just like the touch interface opened up new opportunities to make money, the voice interface will do the same. But this is a while down the road, mass adoption of both new devices and the normalisation of new concepts need to take place first. New ideas open the mind up to even more new ideas, including services and products, as well as blurring the lines of what would be considered intrusive or unacceptable. The smart speaker is playing a critical role here.