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:


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.


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…)


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?

New Year Wishes: What I hope for in 2014

A new year normally brings with it the usual predictions for the 12 months ahead. Sometimes, as with political elections, the World Cup, fiscal budgets and the Oscars, most informed commentators can usually hope to get at least one or two things right. But as a former colleague once wrote, anticipating new developments in technology is like “trying to predict the unpredictable”.*

Rather than attempting to gaze into a crystal ball, here are a few of my personal wishes** for 2014


I think it’s interesting that in 2013, two of the political leaders that generated most of the news were Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela – and in both cases, it was their passing that dominated the headlines. Neither had been in power for many years, yet in death they were more noteworthy than most of today’s world leaders. Why? Well, a lack of truly charismatic politicians could explain it. But I rather think the lure of holding political office has been undermined by the need to micromanage the machinery of government – so rather than attracting visionary leaders capable of projecting big picture thinking, we mostly get a collective mediocrity blinkered by the spin doctors and party pollsters, and rarely willing to tell the public what they actually think or what they personally believe in, for fear of offending voters in marginal electorates. Whether or not you agreed with or liked their particular brands of politics, it was pretty clear that both Thatcher or Mandela actually believed what they were saying when addressing parliament, giving interviews, or delivering campaign speeches.

In 2014 it would be wonderful to see the return of political leaders who were not simply trying to avoid defeat at the next election. Even better, wouldn’t it be wonderfully refreshing to hear politicians willing to amend their policies because they have been persuaded by informed argument, prepared to admit that they might have got it wrong, and able to speak their mind without being accused of knee-jerk reactions or heretical u-turns; situations change, so shouldn’t our politicians be entitled to adapt and clarify their thinking accordingly?


Which brings me to my next wish – a willingness to openly embrace situational leadership. Yes, organisations should have a clear purpose, stated objectives and well-articulated means for achieving them, but there also needs to be flexibility and the ability to adapt and evolve based on changing circumstances.

We hear a great deal about the need for diversity on boards, among executive teams and across the workplace generally. Much of the diversity debate centres on gender and ethnicity – which is fine, but we require organisations with greater cognitive diversity. Such diversity could help avoid group-think, constructively challenge the status quo and counter the underlying causes of institutionalised inertia.


Unless you are a single-product company, with a unique and proprietary production process, a guaranteed market monopoly, and an endless supply of materials and customers, your business cannot afford to exclude alternative thinking or ignore external perspectives on your industry, your markets or your products and services.

Equally, in a low-growth/no-growth market environment, companies have to develop or acquire better strategic growth skills. Expansion via capturing market share (usually achieved by competing on price, and resulting in lower margins) will be hard to sustain, and will likely result in a race to the bottom.

My big wish for 2014 is that businesses in general, and service industries in particular, will recognize what their true value proposition is, and build strategies for competing on quality (not just on quantity). For example, unless you understand your cost structures, and can relate those to your customers’ perceptions of what they are paying for, you will either waste resources on stuff customers don’t value, or miss opportunities for serving them better.

Technology and the Internet

It’s hard to think of any significant developments in popular technology or on the Internet during 2013. Sure, there was some consolidation among social media platforms, and product rationalisation at Yahoo! and elsewhere; but apart from launching iOS7 and the iPhone 5, Apple did not bring any major new products to market. Although Apple’s global share of smart phone sales may be declining, it may simply be market maturation rather than any product advances from its competitors. (There is also evidence that in key markets, iPhone 5 has boosted Apple’s smart phone sales, and the iPhone 5 itself lays claim to being the most popular model.)

The Internet continues to grow exponentially, largely driven by social media and user-contributed content. But I’m not sure that our collective knowledge and wisdom have improved at a corresponding rate. (Plus, targeted and streamed advertising means it takes much longer to watch YouTube clips, resulting in a lower return on the time we invest in consuming content.)

I’m hoping that 2014 will herald the launch of Internet 3.0 – an on-line environment that is more informative, more insightful and more interactive, and which connects more intuitively between my desktop and mobile devices. (For example, various upgrades to iOS and their associated back-ups forced me to transfer manually a large archive of Notes from my iPhone 4 to my iCloud account, simply because Apple unilaterally changed the way legacy content was “recognized” between my iPhone and my iMac.)


Perhaps we should also wish for a slightly kinder and more caring social media environment in 2014 – and as I heard one media commentator observe this week, professional sports people and other celebrities should probably refrain from using social media after 11pm, even if they are only slightly inebriated. Anyway, at the risk of revealing some of my own prejudices and preferences, this is what I expect from 2014 in Culture.

First up, I don’t want to see any more of the following categories of movie: sequels, prequels, comic-strip franchises, CGI extravaganzas or anything containing anthropomorphism (unless it’s a Director’s Cut of “Animal Farm”).

Second, I eagerly await the end of geo-blocking for digital content – copyright owners, music labels, publishers, licensors/licensees, distributors and on-line retailers please get your act together, and don’t make it unnecessarily difficult for me to buy your content just because of where I happen to live.

Third, I’d like to advocate a special tax on reality TV shows – the proceeds of which will be directed towards alleviating human suffering, solving important world issues, or nurturing genuine artistic/culinary/terpsichorean talent.

Finally, I hope that David Bowie’s return to form with 2013’s “The Next Day” was not a fleeting reminder of past glories….


* Anthony Kinahan in his introduction to “Now and Then 1974-2024: A Celebration of the Bicentenary of Sweet & Maxwell” (1999) a collection of essays on the future of legal publishing

** Aside from, of course world peace, the end of poverty and a global commitment to address the negative impacts of climate change

Is it safe to upgrade to iOS 7?

I ask the question because like many other users, I am holding off upgrading to iOS 7. I have even backed up a copy of iOS 6.1.3 to “freeze” it in case I am forced to upgrade before I am ready. I am holding out until some of the potential glitches and bugs are ironed out. I was first alerted to the issue by the developers of Audiobus, but it seems that they are not alone….


Leaving aside the fact that many customers could not easily download the new operating system, or the fact that the shiny “new” iTunes Radio is not available outside the US, it seems that iOS 7 has been launched rather hastily, along with iTunes 11.1 (barely a month after iTunes 11.0.5….).

Audiobus had earlier notified their customers that iOS 7 would automatically update apps, without users even knowing, which risked corrupting personalised settings, especially for more complex apps. Now, it seems that the upgrade function has been modified, so that users can select when and how their apps will be upgraded.

But Audiobus, who launched inter-app connectivity for live audio, could be one of a number of apps that Apple is seeking to render obsolete or redundant, since iOS 7 supports Inter-App Audio. Other apps seemingly under threat include those featuring, photography, music streaming and document sharing.

Even an app that utilises the amount of contact area made by your fingers on the device touch screen was forced to remove that functionality by Apple. To me, this type of gesture or articulation could be critical in helping people with accessibility issues – so why should its deployment be restricted at the whim of Apple, rather than being made available to all developers?

Apple will not countenance any app that “interferes” with the telephony functions of an iPhone, and until iOS 6 introduced “Do Not Disturb”, I wonder how many 3rd party apps with similar functionality were rejected by the iTunes Store?

Now Apple appears to be cornering other functionality and interactivity design – even if Apple didn’t think of them first…. In fact, every original app design or feature is like a piece of middleware, that allows the user to interact with the device’s operating system, in a way that the system developers probably had not anticipated; this process is at the heart of innovation – taking something good and making it even better.

The fanfare of the new iPhone 5S (and its colourful cousin the 5C) probably won’t allow any criticisms about iOS 7 to rain on Apple’s new product parade – but I can’t help feeling that as customers we are being oversold each new release of an Apple device or operating system upgrade.

Although every incremental release or upgrade is supposed to come with lots of great new features and benefits, we actually lose some functionality and user options as Apple continuously locks down customisation and personalization. For example, iTunes 10.8 disabled the option to manually sync Notes between devices – now it’s all done via iCloud, and legacy data that predates iCloud (or is in a folder “On My iPhone” and thus not “recognised” by iCloud) has to be copied over to a cloud-enabled folder, one-by-one, as I have learned to my cost. Why does Apple think it can determine how I manage my own data?

While I understand that all product developers rely on user experience and expectations to help them develop new features, and they need customers to migrate to single, common platforms and versions as quickly as possible post-release, I’d prefer that my loyalty and patience were not taken for granted.