Now you might be wondering ‘why all the hype’ about containers? The truth is you probably got to this blog from a container without even knowing it. As far back as May 2014, Google were proudly announcing that ‘Everything at Google runs in a container’. Your searches, Gmail, Calendar, apps, all of it. In 2014 Google was starting over 2 billion containers a week, which if you do your maths, averages out at over 3,000 containers started per second! And that was in 2014, can you imagine, with the growth of the mobile phone market, how many containers they start per second now?
Containers aren’t exactly new anymore, but they’re definitely a buzz-word of the moment. They are of extreme importance in both our industry, and to the IT world at large, so let’s take a look at where they came from.
Where did they come from…
Containers started back in the early noughties, when Google donated the cgroups technology to the Linux Kernel and it was accepted. Combining the segregation/aggregation capabilities of cgroups with network namespaces, and LXC or LinuX Containers were born.
Containers back then, however, required an expert level of tech knowledge to utilise, and sat on the back burner until start-up company Docker was formed. Docker took the approach of creating a standardised API, and promoted ease of use to the community to build libraries of containers which were portable. This is when container technology really became accessible, interesting, and started to grow.
Why they are cool…
The true power of any technology to become fully utilised in the market is for it to seamlessly replace older ways of doings things, without the major populace being aware. Containers have definitely fit this bill at Google, and many other companies around the world are doing the same.
The innovative LiveHive project was crowned winner of the Sopra Steria UK “Hack the Thing” competition which took place last month.
Sopra Steria DigiLab hosts quarterly Hackathons with a specific challenge, the most recent named – Hack the Thing. Whilst the aim of the hack was sensor and IoT focused, the solution had to address a known sustainability issue. The LiveHive team chose to focus their efforts on monitoring and improving honey bee health, husbandry and supporting new beekeepers.
A Sustainable Solution
Bees play an important role in sustainability within agriculture. Their pollinating services are worth around £600 million a year in the UK in boosting yields and the quality of seeds and fruits. The UK had approximately 100,000 beekeepers in 1943 however this number had dropped to 44,000 by 2010. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in beekeeping which has highlighted a need for a product that allows beekeepers to explore and extend their knowledge and capabilities through the use of modern, accessible technology.
LiveHive allows beekeepers to view important information about the state of their hives and receive alerts all on their smartphone or mobile device. The social and sharing side of the LiveHive is designed to engage and support new beekeepers and give them a platform for more meaningful help from their mentors. The product also allows data to be recorded and analysed aiding national/international research and furthering education on the subject.
The LiveHive Model
The LiveHive Solution integrates three services – hive monitoring, hive inspection and a beekeeping forum offering access to integrated data and enabling the exchange of data.
“As a novice beekeeper I’ve observed firsthand how complicated it is to look after a colony of bees. When asking my mentor questions I find myself having to reiterate the details of the particular hive and history of the colony being discussed. The mentoring would be much more effective and valuable if they had access to the background and context of the hives scenario.”
LiveHive integrates the following components:
Technology Sensors: to monitor conditions such as temperature and humidity in a bee hive, transmitting the data to Azure cloud for reporting.
Human Sensors: a Smartphone app that enables the beekeeper to record inspections and receive alerts.
Sharing Platform: to allow the novice beekeeper to share information with their mentors and connect to a forum where beekeepers exchange knowledge, ideas and experience. They can also share the specific colony history to help members to understand the context of any question.
How does it actually work?
A Raspberry Pi measures temperature, humidity and light levels in the hive transmits measurements to Microsoft Azure cloud through its IoT Hub.
On a larger scale, the data behind the hive sensor information and beekeepers inspection records creates a large, unique source of primary beekeeping data. This aids research and education into the effects of beekeeping practice on yields and bee health presenting opportunities to collaborate with research facilities and institutions.
The LiveHive roadmap plans to also put beekeepers in touch with the local community through the website allowing members of the public to report swarms, offer apiary sites and even find out who may be offering local honey!
The team have already created a buzz with fellow bee projects and beekeepers within Sopra Steria by forming the Sopra Steria International Beekeepers Association which will be the beta test group for LiveHive. Further opportunities will also be explored with the service design principle being applied to other species which could aid in Government inspection. The team are also looking at methods to collaborate with Government directorates in Scotland.
It’s just the start for this lot of busy bees but a great example of some of the innovation created in Sopra Steria’s DigiLab!
Many theme parks offer an additional paid service that provides a virtual queuing bot that gives the paying customer immediate access to a ride during an allocated time slot with minimum fuss. This can deliver a smoother customer experience while enabling the park operator further monetisation opportunities through differentiated ticket prices.
But such services are not perfect. For example, like real queues, virtual ones can still get filled up (so reducing availability of time slots), a customer can’t simply change their mind at the last minute and expect an alternative ride to be available at the same time and many of these systems don’t reflect other dynamic factors that could affect ride enjoyment like poor weather.
So how could Artificial Intelligence (AI) potentially address these challenges? Here are some ideas…
One opportunity is to apply retail thinking to personalise the end to end experience – via mobile, an AI could suggest rides to visit throughout the day based on a customer’s social media updates, current and expected volume/demand for an attraction and forecast weather. In “the background” (i.e. the Cloud), the AI is constantly analysing customer behaviour in the park to drive these suggestions to help manage the people flow through different areas and rides to minimise friction for all. This capability could also enable the operator to offer on the spot additional services (like offering the chance to immediately access any roller coaster ride for a small charge) to further delight and surprise a customer during their visit.
Conversely, such an application of AI may be counter to what an operator wants to offer – after all, exciting theme park experiences come from customers being spontaneous when choosing their next desired ride or attraction. Accepting such unlimited freedom is not possible – this still leaves the risk of friction (like boredom) when a customer is waiting for the next experience to become available. An AI could turn this “dead time” into an experience in itself – using it as an opportunity to send personalised media content and offers to a customer’s mobile or tablet to consume while queuing for a ride. Alternatively, the AI could create social events for people in the park to interact with each other like mobile gaming competitions or dating. Such services could also be linked to third party promotions to generate further revenue for the theme park operator.
These illustrative use case ideas are based on one key assumption – most customers visiting a theme park at the same time will follow the guidance or direction given by an AI consistently, even when it results in a lesser personal experience than intended (but results in all participants gaining mutual benefit). This notion that AI can effectively influence human behaviour at scale in one place (like a theme park) is a major challenge for Artificial Intelligence Customer Experience Design.
If you would like more information about how artificial intelligence can benefit your business, please leave a reply below or contact me by email.
Alexa is arguably the tipping point for intelligent personal assistants; with Amazon’s open source approach to sharing its app (“skill”) development capabilities the sky’s the limit for this new, disruptive form of natural language driven customer experience. But what could retailers make of this opportunity? Here are some ideas…
It’s not the hardware but the cloud analytics that matters
Critical to any retailer using an intelligent personal assistant to innovate their brand is that these use cases should primarily focus on the business outcomes from using its cloud analytics capabilities, not the front-end device itself.
A retailer, for example, could use Alexa to provide instore guidance to shoppers to help them find items or make simple queries, physical customer browsing behaviour captured in the cloud that when combined with online experiences enables deeper, more contextual forms of personalisation across all this retailer’s channels.
An opportunity to simplify (and risk of complicating) customer journeys
A unique strength of an intelligent personal assistant is that it has the potential to smartly rationalise customer queries and transactions – an opportunity to turn chatbots into compelling conversational experiences a customer would have a preference for using over engaging a person or using a digital channel.
But there remains a significant user experience design challenge for its natural language driven interface – at what point does the buying journey become too complex for this channel and risks increasing friction for a customer? Any form of customer experience that requires a customer to look at detailed product information or make comparisons between products could be difficult and hard to follow through spoken voice generated content alone.
Alexa’s use of APIs could enable a retailer to combine this channel with its mobile e-commerce site (or in-store tablets) for example to create a seamless, holistic experience where complex information is shared visually driven by a customer’s voice commands and smartly informed by Alexa’s AI.
Bricks and mortar as a truly experiential destination
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Alexa (and intelligent personal assistants in general) is the potential for them to create unique, personalised experiences instore – a direct, deep relationship between a customer and a retailer’s brand. And because its cloud driven this enables interconnectivity (IoT) with other instore technologies such as targeted digital signage, interactive mirrors, social media engagement and mobile point of sale.
If you would like more information about how digital transformation can benefit your retail business, leave a reply below or contact me by email.
Bob Dylan is recognised as one of most influential writers of the 20th century. He is not though, seen as an inspiration for the digital age. Perhaps he should be? With his 1964 song, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, he states that “He not busy being born is busy dying”. With this line he couldn’t have been more prescient.
Organisations need to continually “be busy being born” and innovate or face the alternative.
Think about it: what differentiates companies hobbling along the digital highway from the ones paving the way? The ability to embrace change, refuse status quo and turn the business into an ever evolving entity.
Put another way, being digital is about reconciling the pace of adoption of new technologies with the pace of their commoditisation. The latter recently experienced a dramatic acceleration, while the former is often stuck in old-world mode.
Old world versus Digital world
Twenty years ago, adopting new software was a big deal. There were limited numbers of vendors in each market segment. Software customisation or process transformation was necessary to take advantage of technology. Integration was complex, ongoing maintenance and support often presented challenges. All of this resulted in expensive acquisition costs, from both a financial and an effort perspective. Long-term supplier contracts were the norm.
Once software was installed, and the vendor proven, it was a lot easier for an organisation to allow the vendor to expand its footprint through additional modules and products rather than go back to the market to look for alternative solutions.
From a vendor perspective, selling and delivering software was costly requiring a large sales team to reach customers and negotiate complex contracts. Vendor delivery teams would need to be highly skilled building bespoke integrations to satisfy the specific needs of customers.
New software integration was expensive, risky and therefore needed careful consideration. Adoption pace was slow as software was seen as complex far from being a commodity.
Today, the pace of commodization has increased by an order of magnitude, mainly due to Cloud technologies. Let’s have a look: what does innovation mean today in the enterprise world? Big data maybe, machine learning and AI, blockchain or IoT?. All these have already been turned into commodities. Fancy running some machine learning algorithms on your customers database? AWS has an API for that. Conducting a first run shouldn’t take more than a few hours of work. Same goes for most of big data technologies, IoT, blockchain and even virtual reality.
The as-a-Service paradigm has drastically reduced costs, complexity and risks of adopting new software and technologies. The SaaS model for instance through turning CAPEX into OPEX, has abolished any notion of commitment.
Should your company use this marketing software over this one? Who cares? Use both, allow yourself to pay a bit more for one month or two, then keep the one that perfectly meets your needs. Going further, why even consider it at company level? One department may prefer one software because it measures what they want in the exact way they want, while another department may prefer another one. With almost no acquisition and no integration costs, why try to over rationalise at the expense of business value and user experience? Standardisation is still to be considered on non-differentiating applications, but at a much less prominent position.
The Digital highway
All this said, most of old world companies are still considering innovation with the same eyes as before, missing business opportunities and losing ground to new entrants.
If conducting an IoT experiment means running an RFP, conduct a 6-month PoC and sign a multi-year contract, then you may be doing IoT, but you’re still hobbling on the digital highway.
Velocity is key to transforming your company into an ever evolving, fast learning, business.
“He not busy being born is busy dying”
Thanks to Clara, Gavin, Jian and Robin for their kind guidance.
UK retailers are losing billions of pounds a year from managing reverse logistics costs for returned items across their physical and digital channels. Because of the multiple touch points involved margin can often deteriorate to a point where writing off the item as a loss is a better outcome than resell.
A key area of risk is online women’s fashion retail where customers may order multiple sizes or variations of the same item and then return those that don’t meet requirements. It’s estimated on average a returned clothing item costs a retailer an additional £15 to process back through its supply chain regardless of channel – extra cost that significantly reduces margin at full price (and much worse when further price discounting is applied).
But could personalisation (the application of big data analytics to pro-actively meet an individual customer’s changing needs) deliver a better outcome for both customer and retailer? Could such an approach incentivise a customer to self-manage the reverse logistics process or even be persuaded to keep the unwanted item (so reducing, or even eliminating, the additional £15 cost)?
For example, rather than a customer filling out a paper form using a nondescript reason code for a return, he or she could use a loyalty card smartphone app that captures their reasons as spoken voice text. Not only would this be more convenient (and user friendly) than form filling, it also provides the retailer with richer data about a customer’s preferences to enable better targeted personalised offerings in the future.
Secondly, the app could lever cloud big data analytics to make an on the spot personalised counter offer to the customer alongside the standard return. This could draw from the customer’s buying history and social media behaviour. The counter offer could ask the customer to give the item to charity in exchange for a future discount (so eliminating the return cost and refund while driving future sales and positive brand reputation). Alternatively it may make a third party offer for a ‘no return’ outcome (so driving cross- or up-sell opportunities with little cost impact).
Fundamentally, the counter offer approach is primarily driven by the need to preserve and, ideally, grow a retailer’s margin – the economic case. In addition, by gathering better data about an individual enables greater personalisation to build and retain their loyalty and reduce the volume of unwanted items (for example, future purchasing of clothing items online may include specific recommendations for an individual customer about size and colour based on this gathered insight). The app could also utilise a retailer’s existing core systems (e.g. databases) and new digital technology (such as cloud analytics or machine learning) together successfully – the opportunity to use the best of both worlds to create disruptive competitive advantage.
For many of our customers, large and small, their first foray into the beautiful world of cloud computing is driven by a less beautiful compelling event related to one of the following:
On-premise email servers (typically Microsoft Exchange) require an upgrade of either software, hardware or both
Licensing and upgrades of the Microsoft Office suite, typically as part of some enterprise-wide licensing agreement (or maybe an audit!)
So, if you are approaching a refresh, what should you do? There’s a myriad of comparisons out there on the web comparing the features and costs of Microsoft Office 365 against Google Apps so I won’t add to that. To cut to the chase, feature-wise they are approaching parity but of course it depends on the specific requirements of your organisation. What I wanted to cover was the usual corporate dilemma, and why Microsoft is currently (and probably for a long time) the right answer.
The logic goes like this. I really quite like the idea of using Google Apps, it’s a bit easier to administer (in my view – but partially as it’s less rich and maybe doesn’t expose all the cruft of Exchange in the config pages), it’s just feels a bit more hip and happening. Although to be fair, Microsoft have managed to shed their corporate image and loosen up a bit, as demonstrated by this identification challenge that tickled me when you are registering for Office 365…
But, I really only want to have one vendor and configuration to manage – surely I can get everything I need from one vendor in 2016? It really depends what line of business you are in, but certainly for us as a professional services-based business some customers will expect materials to be sent to them in Microsoft Office formats (Word, Excel, PowerPoint). Whilst other vendors can work in this format or I could use LibreOffice, I know that the interoperability just isn’t quite good enough. And my finance team are going to rebel if I don’t give them Excel, so… I really need to buy Microsoft Office – and this is when the costing dimension comes in. Pricing starts at £7.80/month/user for up to 300 users for Office 365 with the ability to download all the Office client applications (jumping to a pre-discount £14.70 for the Enterprise E3) – and that immediately makes a Google Apps-based solution unattractive as you basically have to pay for many of the services twice, e.g. email services, Skype or Hangouts etc from both Microsoft and Google. A masterstroke of lock-in from Microsoft.
OK, so I accept this as a fact of life, and resign myself to going “all in” with Office 365. Not so fast. Like many organisations today, I might have a BYOD or CYOD policy and I know that my users have both PCs and Macs. That sounds fine – Office 365 supports Macs. Yes, the Mac implementations of Word, Excel etc are a bit different (mainly as a result of the weird double menu bar thing – why have one “Insert” menu when you can have two?) but the apps are pretty good these days.
But the issue comes with file sharing and synchronisation on the Mac. Whilst there is a Mac client for syncing your OneDrive so you can work offline etc, it does not sync shared files – and so the only way you can access them is via the web interface – not something that you are going to enjoy on the train on the way home. This fact is a little buried here – there’s more evidence of Microsoft’s sense of humour with this statement…
So that leaves us with an issue as to how to support collaborative file sharing across our organisation. This is what Dropbox (in my experience) does best – it just works across clients. So you end up having to have at least one other vendor product to plug this functionality gap, which is frustrating. I was talking to a start up the other day – they are not big but they’ve active subscriptions for all three – i.e. Google Apps (as the email search is the best), Office 365 (as they need the client apps) and DropBox (for the file sharing). I bet this is much more common than it should be.