Dawn of the neo-meta-banks

Digital is redefining the way we interact with money. While online banking is nothing new, virtual currencies are getting big enough to attract the attention of regulators. Mobile phones are becoming payment gateways and POS terminals; meanwhile, stored value and pre-paid debit cards are more ubiquitous than cheque accounts. (In Hong Kong, the Octopus card originally introduced as a payment system for public transport, then extended to small purchases like coffee and newspapers, has now launched a dedicated mobile SIM card.)

Last year, Wired magazine predicted that tomorrow’s banks will resemble Facebook, Google or Apple. And of course, PayPal is owned by eBay, so it sort of makes sense that tech giants with huge customer bases conducting millions of online and mobile transactions would be the source of new banking services. For example, earlier this month, online banking start-up, Simple was sold to a Spanish bank for $130m, even though it is not really a “proper” bank – more a banking services provider – because it had managed to attract customers who don’t want to deal with a “traditional” bank.

But where are the non-traditional banks and virtual financial services providers of the future actually going to come from?

The answer could be the People’s Republic of China.

Last week, it was reported that local tech companies Alibaba and Tencent will be included in a pilot scheme to establish private banks in China. The news should not be that surprising – Alibaba, for example, has already been using its experience and knowledge as a trading and sourcing platform to provide small-scale loans and export financing to Chinese manufacturers, funding production to fulfil customer orders. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou, where I met with a team working on credit analysis and risk management for this micro-financing business, drawing on data insights from the payment history and transactional activity of their SME clients. It was certainly impressive, and my colleagues and I were left in no doubt that there was every intention to take this expertise into a full-blown banking vehicle.

However, this being China, it’s not quite as straightforward as it seems. Just a few days after the private bank pilot was announced, the People’s Bank of China suspended a mobile payments system used by Alibaba and Tencent.

Pause : Edit : Delete – My new year’s resolution for content management

Last week, Apple confirmed it had acquired SnappyCam, an iPhone photo app that is capable of taking 20 frames per second.

At first glance, this seems like a great improvement on the iPhone camera function – until you start to think about some of the implications:

1. Does this mean we’ll be creating (and uploading, sharing, archiving) 20 times more digital photos than we do already?

2. Does Apple intend to remove some other functionality from the iPhone to make way for this enhancement (on the basis that they have just about packed in everything they can in the current iPhone 5S, and processing power and memory capacity are relatively finite)?

3. When will we ever find time to look at all these superfluous/supernumerous photos that Apple will be encouraging us to take?

For myself, I realise that I actually take far fewer photos than I did 10 years ago. In fact, I have never owned a digital camera, and basically lost interest in photography when it became virtually impossible to obtain film for my Nikon APS SLR camera. Previously, I had been using one of the very first Canon IXUS APS models, and before that, for many years I owned a solid and reliable 35mm SLR camera – a Praktica that was made in the former East Germany.  And while I have been using an iPhone to take photos for several years, I do so much more rarely than with any dedicated camera I have owned, even though the smart phone camera technology is much easier and more immediate.

Perhaps the ease of use is part of the problem with digital photography – there’s so little effort required, and practically zero cost involved, so it’s natural that some people just snap away with very little thought or consideration. Besides, if we don’t like a particular photo, we can just delete it. But I wonder if we are being disciplined enough in consigning our mistakes to the Trash icon. Yes, we save, upload and share our better attempts (and maybe we will look at them more than a few times over the years), but do we cull the rest?

I reflected on this as I began the process of clearing out my attic prior to an imminent house move. I found a large box of photographs, all neatly arranged in albums (by chronology and geography – no option to “tag” who was in the shot), representing a major investment in time and money over the years – the cost of the cameras themselves, the effort in composing each and every shot, the cost (and anticipation) involved to get the prints back from the developing lab (plus the mix of sheer horror and pleasant surprise with the results – and those frequently patronising labels telling me the film was under/over exposed… And while I do recall looking at some of these photos from time to time, for much of the past 10 years they have sat ignored and untouched in that same box. I’ll be the first to admit that not every picture was vital, essential let alone unique (for example, how many other tourists have taken photos of the Great Wall of China?), and while many of them still evoked vivid memories, and most of them conveyed a sense of narrative, I realise that I had to impose a more stringent editorial policy on what was deemed worthy of keeping.

So, in the age of digital content, when it seems we can take an infinite number of photos, capture endless hours of video, stream non-stop music and download whole libraries, I am resolved to adopt the following approach to my own content management:

PAUSE

Before saving/archiving any new content, take stock and consider whether I am ever going to want to view/watch/listen/play/read it again.

EDIT

Having decided it is really worthy of taking up space on my hard drive, catalogue it appropriately for easy retrieval. In addition, undertake regular culling of the archive. (What I found to my taste 5 years ago might not appeal today…)

DELETE

Anything that does not survive the above processes must be erased (not just backed up to the cloud or to another hard drive).

As businesses and organizations, we would also do well to apply a similar pruning process to our own operations, especially when we are facing certain constraints on capacity and resources. For example, before embarking on a new project or launching a new product, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: what projects/products can we discontinue? When setting annual budgets and targets, shouldn’t we be questioning our assumptions on “continuing operations” – just because “we’ve always done it this way”, doesn’t mean we should continue to do so. When we reflect on what is important, can we really be sure we aren’t carrying any excess baggage? Part of this process will be driven by the need to prioritise resources, part of it will be determined by understanding what our customers and stakeholders truly value. Ultimately, what remains will likely be determined by its purpose and its relevance.

If you haven’t looked at that photo on your smart phone in over a year, what is it still doing there?