All posts in “Entrepreneurship”

Where Blockchain Tech Offers the Most Promise

“Blockchain” is the word on everyone’s lips in the tech industry, with vendors pushing it as a solution for everything from banking and finance to retail and apparel.

“We’re going to continue to see tech vendors trying to push blockchain as the solution to problems that may exist,” said Rebecca Wettemann, VP of research at Nucleus Research.

However, blockchain may not be “a privacy-effective or cost-effective solution” for all of them, she told the E-Commerce Times.

Product research is one area where blockchain does appear to show promise. Some in the apparel industry, for instance, have envisioned using blockchain technology with sensors sewn into clothing to track how and where the apparel is worn, providing feedback that would help manufacturers create products better suited to consumers’ preferences.

While privacy issues may be a concern for garment manufacturers, companies working with or investing in blockchain technology believe that in general, blockchain will facilitate customer engagement and co-creation, according to a report from the IBM Institute for Business Value, based on research conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Other areas where blockchain could deliver benefits:

  • Product safety and authenticity;
  • Supply chain optimization;
  • Finance;
  • Operational processes; and
  • Promotional strategy management.

Blockchain “basically says a transaction is valid without knowing precisely who conducted the transaction,” noted Michael Jude, research manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

It’s a way to collect data from a large number of individuals while ensuring anonymity, he said.

This sort of data “can inform predictive analytics that can improve products dynamically as they’re manufactured,” Jude told the E-Commerce Times.

IBM researchers surveyed executives from 203 organizations in the consumer retail and packaged goods sectors across16 countries for its report, released earlier this year.

Respondents to the survey expected targeted business benefits — such as time and cost savings and risk reduction — as well as the opportunity to create new business models or to disrupt the industry.

The respondents wanted to expand new blockchain solutions to cover most aspects of their value chains, on both the supply side and for customer-facing interactions.

Other report findings:

  • 7 percent of the respondents expected to have a commercial blockchain solution at scale this year;
  • 18 percent already were working with and investing in blockchain;
  • 75 percent of the respondents were eyeing new markets;
  • 69 percent expected blockchain would help them get rid of information risks; and
  • 64 percent expected the technology would help them better navigate the regulatory environment.

Demystifying Blockchain

Blockchain “is just a big, expensive, slow and limited database,” observed Steve Wilson, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

On one side are the original networks designed for cryptocurrency, like bitcoin, which are “misunderstood and unsuited to any real world asset management,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

On the other side are new-generation synchronous ledger technologies, Wilson said, which are mostly in managed cloud-based forms from vendors like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Infosys.

Those solutions are “based on open source substrates like Hyperledger, and specially tuned to enterprise use cases,” he noted. They are confined to big, well-funded pilot programs such as supply chain, shipping, trade and finance.

Blockchains “are really good at orchestrating real-time updates to complex data structures by multiple parties who are arms’ length or who don’t trust one another,” Wilson pointed out.

That’s because blockchain doesn’t let users record transactions directly in a table, Wilson said. Blockchain can be updated only sequentially, indirectly and collectively through its distributed consensus algorithm.

Logged entries never can be overwritten or edited. Because all ledger updates are processed through the community consensus algorithm, the process is slow and computationally inefficient.

Blockchain Use Cases

The supply chain, and product and quality authentication, are where blockchain will be most useful in the retail sector.

For example, Walmart has partnered with IBM’s Watson on a blockchain pilot project that traces pork through China’s supply chain — from the farm to the factory — tracking data such as storage temperatures and expiration dates.

IBM, Walmart, Tsinghua University and Chinese etailer last year announced the Blockchain Food Safety Alliance, which will enhance food tracking, traceability and safety in China.

Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick, McLane, Nestle, Tyson Foods and Unilever also have partnered with IBM to test blockchains that support food traceability in various regions.

Bitland and FoodCoin have partnered to offer blockchain technologies to facilitate real world tech, mainly in developing countries. FoodCoin uses blockchain to connect consumers to locally produced food, while Bitland lets users file land and real estate deeds using blockchain technology to reduce corruption.

INS has developed a scalable blockchain-based platform that will let consumers buy groceries directly from brands at lower prices.

The new system cuts out grocery retailers, whose dominance limits consumer choice and impacts prices, according to the startup.

Logistics, Freight and Transportation

Efforts to improve the supply chain will depend heavily on logistics, freight and transportation. The Blockchain in Transport Alliance has been working on blockchain technology standards and education for the logistics and freight industries.

Thousands of companies reportedly have applied for membership, and BiTA expects to develop its first standards this year.

BiTA has begun working on small pilots “to test the feasibility and assumptions of the tech stack,” said Craig Fuller, BiTA’s managing director.

The alliance “is focused on commercial use cases and is often technology- and framework-agnostic,” he told the E-Commerce Times, because “the success of the technology will determined by the problems it solves.”

Some banks have developed their own blockchain technologies, noted Fuller, and BiTA has begun working with some of the banks to learn how supply chains can interact with banking technology.

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology.
Email Richard.

Voice Shopping Set to Skyrocket

The voice shopping market in the United States will rise from its current US$2 billion valuation to $40 billion by 2022, according to survey results
OC&C Strategy Consultants released last week.

The trend is being driven by a surge in the number of homes using smart speakers, from the current 13 percent to 55 percent by 2022.

It’s likely that Amazon will continue to dominate this channel, the survey results suggest. Amazon Echo currently has 10 percent penetration of homes in the U.S., while Google Home has a 4 percent market share. Seakers featuring Microsoft Cortana are in 2 percent of homes.

Apple so far has not been a contender, because its HomePod only recently hit the market, and its digital assistant Siri is no match for Google’s AI capabilities, according OC&C.

Among the other OC&C survey findings:

  • 39 percent of consumers trust in the personalized product selection of smart speakers;
  • 44 percent believe smart speakers offer the best value selection of products;
  • Smart speaker owners are likely to be younger, more affluent consumers who are more likely to have children; and
  • Voice purchases tend to be standalone, lower-value items.

The most commonly purchased items through voice are commodities:

  • Groceries — 20 percent;
  • Entertainment — 19 percent;
  • Electronics — 17 percent; and
  • Clothing — 8 percent.

Eighty-five percent of consumers select the products Amazon suggests, OC&C found; 45 percent of grocery orders placed through voice replace existing store or online purchases, and most are bought through Amazon Fresh.

OC&C late last year surveyed 1,500 consumers in the United states and the UK, and adjusted the sample to account for channel bias.

OC&C Analytics recorded product sale rates over a one-month period for 2,000 products listed on Amazon, tracking the impact of choice on sales performance.

Go for Amazon Choice

Maintaining Amazon Choice status will be crucial for consumer goods businesses, OC&C found. Products that get listed as Amazon Choice will triple sales, while losing that status will result in a 30 percent sales decline.

Retailers must ensure their products are easy to find, because 69 percent of consumers know the exact product they wish to buy.

Businesses must develop “skills” or connected applications that integrate into current voice offers. Currently, there are only 39 such apps within the voice shopping category.

Voice Shopping Pros and Cons

Voice shopping is best for reordering products that need regular replenishment, noted Ben Fisher, CEO of Magic + Co.

“It’s a lot easier to just say ‘Hey, Alexa, send me some new detergent,’ and it’ll know what you previously ordered,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Starbucks has a similar ability, using Alexa, that lets customers place their usual order, Fisher noted. Voice ordering “really ties people to the brand, disincentivizing them from going to the store and exploring new possibilities. This is crucial for companies wishing to build brand loyalty.”

Magic + Co. helps high-profile brands, including Chobani, Jim Beam, and Tide, implement voice technology to engage existing customers and target new ones. Its clients have been embedding voice in their products, and using platforms like Alexa and Google Home to connect with customers in their own homes, Fisher said.

Purchasing with voice “works well enough if you have an established buying history,” noted Michael Jude, research manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

However, “if you’re trying to find a product, good luck,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Still, “using voice recognition and natural language processing, AI has emerged as the new user experience,” said Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

Also for SMB Etailers

Voice shopping “inherently favors larger businesses with brand recognition, as it requires consumers asking for a specific brand,” said OC&C spokesperson Jeff Siegel.

However, “Most of the NLP and AI functionality is available through Web API calls,” Frost’s Jude pointed out. With the help of skilled IT people or contractors, “SMBs can leverage the work big companies like IBM and Google have already done to create their own retail systems.”

Voice technology prices are coming down because of technological advances from Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, Constellation’s Wang told the E-Commerce Times.

“The kits will be commoditized over the next 12-18 months,” he said. “In fact, they’ll be more integrated with operating systems.”

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology.
Email Richard.

Amazon Buys Ring to Make Homes, Deliveries More Secure

Amazon has agreed to buy smart doorbell maker Ring for US$1 billion, the companies disclosed this week. Ring last summer added an Alexa skill that allows Ring users to use the Echo Show to see and hear visitors at the front door.

The deal means Ring will be able to further its “mission to reduce crime in neighborhoods by providing effective yet affordable home security tools to our neighbors that make a positive impact on our homes, our communities and the world,” Ring said in a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by company rep Meredith Chiricosta.

[embedded content]

The Ring acquisition is Amazon’s latest step to secure deliveries to homes and businesses through the use of smart tech.

Amazon last fall launched Amazon Key, a service to allow indoor package delivery to customers who are not at home. It requires the purchase of a US$249 Amazon Key Home Kit, which includes the Amazon Cloud Cam and smart locks from Yale or Kwikset. Users can monitor deliveries remotely in real time or view recordings stored in the cloud.

Amazon acquired Blink, a maker of wireless home security cameras and video doorbells, late last year. Also, Nest was folded back into Google earlier this month.

Grocery Deliveries

Securing deliveries is a critical component to advance Amazon’s assault on the grocery market.

Amazon last month announced a new perk for Prime members: free two-hour grocery delivery for customers who buy $35 or more in groceries from Whole Foods. The rollout began in Dallas and Austin, Texas; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Cincinnati. The company plans to expand the service to additional U.S. cities this year.

Rival Walmart last fall announced it had partnered with local delivery service Deliv and smart lock maker August Home on a pilot program that not only would allow delivery of groceries inside your home, but also allow a delivery person to put perishables in your refrigerator.

August and Deliv earlier this year announced plans to open the service to other retail partners under the name “August Access.” The system is also compatible with Yale lock products.

Walmart unit Sam’s Club just this week entered a deal with Instacart for home delivery of groceries and other goods. It will operate initially in Dallas-Ft. Worth and Austin, Texas, as well as in St. Louis. Nationwide expansion is planned throughout the year.

Cloud Cam

The Ring acquisition is certain to heat up the competition between the Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speaker lines. The Echo features Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence software, while the Home uses the Google Assistant AI tech to control connected home devices.

Amazon dominates the category with about 69 percent market share, or 31 million units sold, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, while Google Home controls about 31 percent of the market, with 14 million units. Google Home has been growing quickly, though, having accounted for 40 percent of smart speaker units sold during the last holiday shopping season.

Security Threats

Internet of Things devices, particularly smart cameras, have been shown to be vulnerable to hack attacks.

Consumers need to be on guard whenever using this type of connected device, cautioned Andrew Howard, chief technology officer at Kudelski Security.

“Ring, like many Internet of Things devices, provides a greater user and security experience for its users, but smarter and more feature-rich devices often mean enhanced security concerns,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Fundamentally, these devices track, store and share more data than the average user understands.”

Threats against these type of devices change often, Howard noted, so consumers need to be aware of the kind of information they expose to these systems and understand the potential ramifications if the technology is compromised.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times.

Mobile Pay, Smart Speaker Brand Confusion Means No Winners

Google Pay launched last week, becoming the latest entry in the world of master-brand confusion. The new Google Pay combines features of Android Pay and Google Wallet, brands that each had different brand relationships with customers. That means the master brand message, which should be simple and clean, and which Google should have been building all along, is shaky at best.

Mobile Pay, Smart Speaker Brand Confusion Means No Winners

Apple Pay launched several years ago, and while it has seen growth, it has not been embraced as rapidly as the company had hoped.

At the same time, competitors including Samsung Pay and Amazon Pay have been giving them a run for their money. So, what can we expect this new mobile pay space to look like going forward, and who will lead it?

E-Commerce Transformation

The entire e-commerce space will continue to grow and change. Mobile payment systems have been around and have been growing for years. This is a rapidly changing space, and all it will take is a breakthrough idea to capture consumer interest and lead.

A variety of new mobile payment options have entered the marketplace and have been competing for dominance. None can be called a winner yet. None has created the brand relationship customers enjoy with their iPhone or Android smartphones.

More Brand Confusion

Although Google has combined the best features of its mobile payment systems in its unified Google Pay offering, what it really needs to do is create and build a solid brand relationship with the customer.

No competitor has done that yet.

Imagine this mobile pay space were the tissue industry. If that were the case, there would not yet be a Kleenex brand. That kind of brand identification should be the goal of every company moving into this new space. However, that has not happened.

Changing names and brand recognition — as Google did with Google Pay — is not good. Hopefully, it will stick to this brand, so it can build the customer relationship. Brand changes are not helpful.

Google Home vs. Amazon Echo

To confuse matters even more, it’s likely Google plans to extend the Google Pay service beyond the smartphone space to work with its Google Home device, which competes with a growing number of competitors, including Amazon Echo. The Google Home speaker is powered by AI software called “Google Assistant.”

Google is not the only company suffering from brand confusion. Amazon has the same problem. There are too many devices and technologies under each master brand. Each has its own name. Amazon speakers are chiefly known as “Echo” devices, but there are several models with different names. The AI software that powers them is “Alexa.”

As more AI devices and technologies enter the market, the mobile pay space could see incredible growth. However, the current branding approaches result in confusion. Most customers are not tech experts, and they don’t want to be.

Alexa, Meet Echo

Amazon and Google should create brands that stimulate users rather than confuse them. Both currently are suffering from brand confusion — perhaps more so than the companies realize — and confusion is death to brand building.

The brand and the master brand must be clear and solid. They should encompass something the customer understands and can relate to on an emotional level. Today, there is no product in the mobile pay space or the home speaker space that has made a strong emotional connection with the customer.

Both Google and Amazon need to simplify and focus their branding efforts with their mobile payment systems, their devices and their AI software. They need to adopt a master brand strategy. Either keep it simple or lose — my message is as simple as that. Is anybody listening?

Jeff Kagan has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2010. His focus is on the wireless and telecom industries. He is an independent
analyst, consultant and speaker.
Email Jeff.

To Fix Healthcare, Fix IT First

We spend a great deal of time and effort trying to make healthcare more affordable and to ensure better outcomes. Too often, the upshot is to reduce all problems and challenges to a singularity in search of a silver bullet. It never works, but it seems like human nature to take that approach.

Salesforce has taken a tactic that is bearing fruit, in part because it isn’t really trying to fix healthcare. Instead, it has set a more modest goal of making the information flow a little better. It turns out that this can have big positive effects.

Like many industries, healthcare began its information automation odyssey many decades ago by building systems of record — places that stored diagnostic data for rapid retrieval. Initially that was plenty, because a single doctor usually took care of the patient. When multiple specialists began treating the same patient, data got big and demands for it increased significantly.

Today an army of people participate in patient care — from nurses and technicians to doctors, both generalists and specialists — and they all need access to the patient’s data. Hospital IT was set up to serve the information needs of doctors in the hospital, but data consumers increasingly call for data in and out of the hospital and at all hours.

The End of Hospitals?

This is all brought home in “Are Hospitals Becoming Obsolete?” published earlier this week in The New York Times. In the article, author Ezekiel J. Emanuel, MD, presents some startling information for the layperson. For example, the peak year for hospitalizations in the United States was 1981, and they have been declining ever sense.

In 1981, there were 6,933 hospitals in the U.S., while there are now 5,534. It’s not healthier lifestyles that account for the decline, though. Healthcare, like Elvis, has left the building in favor of clinics, ambulatory surgical centers, birthing centers and other noncritical care centers.

Patient data has not kept up with the trends. Much of it still exists at the hospital or other places where it first was gathered. For instance, lab or radiology studies may remain on the servers of a hospital or radiology practice, and primary care doctors must be able to log into those systems to get results.

It’s also not unheard of for a doctor to need multiple datasets on a screen at the same time to make intelligent treatment decisions.

Enter Salesforce

What’s needed today are integrative systems — what we in the business world might call “systems of engagement” or even “systems of intelligence.” Such systems might capture data from the relevant third-party applications in a practice’s geography to provide practitioners with all the necessary patient information on a screen or at least on a device.

When necessary, those systems should be able to crunch raw data to produce the information that practitioners need to make decisions.

Salesforce’s approach has been to capture care data from various sources, extract information through artificial intelligence and other methods, and then deliver it to the healthcare provider at the point of service, which puts the patient in the center of the care network. It also opens a lot of new opportunities that hospital systems don’t have the bandwidth to address.

For instance, a patient on a long-term treatment plan — such as for diabetes or asthma, for instance — would benefit not simply from a diagnosis and a prescription, but also from a friendly phone call. Simple periodic check-ins can do much to help patients stay on plan and avoid costly readmissions. The technology needed for this approach to healthcare is all in the CRM bucket.

This approach fundamentally changes healthcare. It goes from a 20th century model of fixing something that’s broken to a 21st century model of preventing an outage. It’s the same basic idea as the Internet of Things, only with people. In the IoT, it’s preventing a machine outage; when applied to people it’s supporting wellness.

My Thoughts

Many cloud computing enthusiasts have despaired of ever seeing much progress on that front for healthcare. It’s too this or too that, or just too hard to expect healthcare providers to cross the chasm to cloud computing.

Perhaps we’ve been looking in the wrong places for results. Hospital and practice-based systems do a good job as systems of record, and rebuilding them in the cloud might have benefits — but at unacceptable costs. Even if the costs were low, we’d be fixing the wrong problem.

When cloud computing arrived at the front office, it changed the work of the front office. We’re seeing the same thing now in the back office. Business processes that barely could be imagined are coming on stream.

The same appears to be happening in healthcare. Although there’s still a long distance to travel, the flexibility of the cloud and the creativity of its users have been opening new vistas, even in the stodgy world of healthcare IT.

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can’t Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there.
Email Denis.