BlogTalk conference to be held in Galway (IT – 13/08/10)

Leading figures in social media will descend on Galway later this month as part of the seventh annual BlogTalk international conference. The two-day event, which took place last year in South Korea, will be held on the campus of NUI Galway on August 26th and 27th.

Speakers already scheduled include Galway-born entrepreneur Fergus Hurley and Dan Gillmor, the former Silicon Valley journalist who is now director of the Knight Centre for Digital Media Entrepreneurship. Representatives of the industry’s biggest players, including Google and Facebook, are also due to address attendees.

The conference’s general chairman John Breslin accepted that in recent years many other social media conferences had been created and this had pushed them to open the event to anyone interested in attending.

However, despite these other events he felt BlogTalk still had a unique selling point, particularly due to the more forward-looking approach it takes to the industry.

“We have a nice bunch of speakers coming in this year; it has traditionally been more of a technical event but now there’s a split between technical and general interest,” he said. “It also has a mixture of what’s going on now but also has some future talks.

“We have a lot of people coming in talking about what they’re doing next which is always very interesting.”

Despite the conference’s name, this year’s BlogTalk will have little to do with the relatively old-fashioned platform of blogging, instead focusing on the impact of newer social tools such as Twitter. Mr Breslin said this was a sign of how quickly the internet was evolving and creating new communications channels.

“The conference was all about blogging when it started seven years ago but blogs have kind of faded from the limelight and it’s more about social media now,” he said. “This is probably the last year we will use the BlogTalk name, to be honest.”

Two-day tickets for the event are €149 or €99 for students and the unemployed; a one-day ticket costs €99. A full list of speakers and times can be found at 2010.blogtalk.net.

Deal paves way for customer loyalty schemes (IT – 13th August 2010)

Small retailers will be able to establish inexpensive customer loyalty schemes following a deal between AIB Merchant Services and Irish-based Zapa Technology. The exclusive agreement means merchants can use Zapa’s contact-less chip technology in their shops, removing the need for individual loyalty cards and systems.

Zapa uses near-field communications technology to produce a small sticker that can then be stuck to a customer’s phone or wallet. Users can then tap the sticker on a terminal at the point of purchase, registering it on the chip and gaining rewards in return.

One sticker can be used across any number of shops, with each business’s loyalty programme working independently of others.

“This is a merchant-specific scheme but the sticker works in multiple merchants,” said Chris Mason, managing director of AIB Merchant Services. “The points a customer earns across shops does not get consolidated into one place; each retailer can have their own scheme in place.”

However, it is also possible for a single loyalty system to be established across a number of shops, for example, allowing businesses in small towns to offer a centralised reward scheme to those who buy locally.

In addition to saving money by not having to roll out and manage an individual loyalty scheme, the Zapa system will give merchants access to more customer information, Mr Mason said.

“The merchant can go online to see how many points have been redeemed, how many customers have the tags and what they are doing. It offers a lot of information in terms of who’s been in their shops and how regularly they have done so.

“They would also have the chance to communicate with them through an SMS or e-mail campaign.”

In order to participate, retailers will have a special terminal installed, which will cost up to €30 extra per month depending on the number a retailer takes. Merchants will also be given a supply of Zapa stickers that cost less than €1 each, a cost the retailer is able to pass on to the customer if they wish.

Zapa was launched last year by Alphyra founder and former Payzone executive John Nagle. The company’s first venture was a loyalty scheme with the Insomnia coffee chain.

Start-ups to collaborate on plans in Galway (IT – 6/08/10)

A new Irish networking event aims to give start-ups and entrepreneurs a chance to collaborate to develop tailor-made action plans for the year ahead.

Féile Icarus takes place in Letterfrack, Galway, on August 27th and 28th and invites attendees to share their experiences to help one another identify the next step.

According to founder Chris Mortimer, the event aims to get individuals talking about what drives them and from there decide where they need to go next.

“The nature of the event is a room with 50-100 people who crowd-plan their strategy for the next year; they do that through exchanging their plans and answering the question ‘why do I do what I do?’,” he said.

“That’s why we call it a festival, there’s a passion and even a madness where these people will keep going despite it being difficult to do so.”

The intended end result is for each person to leave with a “flight plan” for the months ahead and a partner with whom they can work to see it through. Mr Mortimer hopes that these teams will then return at next year’s event to talk about their successes and failures.

“There are different methods for exchanging information and working out why you do what you do,” he said.

“The idea really came from my own failures. I’ve spent the last 10-12 years working in start-up businesses and I failed at quite a lot of things and you learn so many things from that.”

More information is available at feileicarus.com.

In search of the light fantastic (IT – 6/08/10)

The switch to green lighting has moved from CFL bulbs to LEDs and Irish firms are targeting niche shares in a burgeoning market, writes Adam Maguire.

As LEDs (light-emitting diodes) become an increasingly promising replacement for traditional light sources, numerous Irish companies are seeking – and finding – niches in a burgeoning market.

CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) have to date been the assumed replacement for inefficient incandescent bulbs as companies, households and governments alike seek to go green. LED equivalents, however, have quietly moved into prominence in recent years, offering even greater efficiency and life-span than CFLs with less environmental risk.

This sudden shift is evidenced by Philips, which two years ago announced it would not spend another penny on research for CFLs, focusing instead on LEDs only. Since then, the company has been engaged in a race with General Electric (GE) as they attempt to create a practical LED for the consumer market.

With billions of dollars up for grabs, it is easy to see why these big players are so keen. What may be less clear is how a number of small Irish companies think they can compete against such massive manufacturers.

“Everybody is focused on getting LED into where a critical mass is, there’s definitely momentum behind the technology,” says Cian O’Flaherty, chief executive of Frontline LED which provides indoor and outdoor lighting for companies such as Tesco and Vodafone Ireland. “However a lot of international companies are focusing on bulbs, spotlights . . . Philips and GE seem preoccupied on supplying street lights and incandescent replacement.”

Rather than try to compete in the same space, Irish LED players are instead targeting niches, the aim being to take market-share before the big players get there.

“Nobody is at the level that we are at or the level we are looking to get at with our down-lights. We believe we can steal a march on the market,” says Seán Carty, chief executive of Lita Lighting which is developing and manufacturing lighting for industrial, commercial and retail with a long-term view towards a consumer offering.

“It really is a great product and what we want to achieve nobody else is even touching at the moment.”

Lita Lighting was originally based in Spain but moved to Ireland after it was acquired by Carty late last year. He says many people told him he was mad for not manufacturing in Asia but to him, the legacy of the multinational manufacturers in Ireland made the move an obvious one.

“There was a biblical exodus of manufacturing companies from this country over the past few years,” he says.

“The good news is that the US multinationals left behind an incredibly educated workforce who know how to make technical goods well.”

He says there are no other real perks of the move – such as easy grants or tax incentives – and it was purely a business decision.

“There are significant cost savings being based in Ireland and having development in Europe, not least the quick access to market,” O’Flaherty says.

“It’s also an English-language economy. LED in the US has been a huge story and being in Ireland gives you an advantage there as it’s a place and location that’s attractive to the US market.”

Frontline currently has its RD (research and development) and manufacturing facilities in Seoul, South Korea, where O’Flaherty is based. He says this helps keep them close to the cutting-edge development taking place there but he feels it will not be long before that knowledge is taken back to Kerry with him.

“South Korea is one of the largest economies in the world and is well known for quality semi-conductors. Being able to work at the coal face with companies that are so familiar with the product and the industry is so advantageous.

“Ireland has suffered from companies coming in and moving on when the economics make sense. We’re taking the opposite tack, we’ve come to harvest the knowledge and then bring it home.”

One of the most successful Irish LED companies to date has been Nua Lighting. This company specialises in the lighting of fridge and freezer displays in a retail setting and has been extremely successful internationally, working with large multiples such as Tesco around the world.

Unfortunately no spokesman for the company was available to talk at the time of going to print, however there was no shortage of praise for Nua Lighting from its peers.

“When you see what Nua has done in such a short space of time, it’s just phenomenal, they really have a great product and a great set-up in what they do,” Carty says.

“Nua have had such market exposure for six years, that exposure is invaluable even if others decided to compete with these guys,” O’Flaherty adds.

However, despite the rapid progress of late, LED still faces the challenge of its high cost – something which has so far thwarted Philips’s and GE’s attempts at a consumer iteration. For businesses this is different, however, as return on investment is given a much longer time-frame. It stretches beyond simple energy savings, too.

“You’re talking about a 50,000-hour life-span so it’s a two- to three-year return on investment,” O’Flaherty says.

“During the lifetime you also don’t have to worry about maintenance, like a crane going up a floodlight to change bulbs every few months, so it makes perfect sense.”

PwC says recession putting IT projects on hold (IT – 16/07/10)

Many organisations have scrapped or curtailed IT projects in light of the downturn, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) survey of Irish chief information officers (CIOs).

One-third of those asked said planned or initiated projects in their organisation had been cancelled in the past year. Two-thirds also reported a reduction in the scope of other projects. Eighty per cent of respondents said this kind of cost-cutting was their biggest challenge as they tried to maintain service levels and innovate.

“There’s a few different directions that it [IT spend] is going,” said Pat Kelleher, director of PwC consulting. “There’s a cost-reduction focus in IT, but there are quite a lot of companies where it’s not been cut or has actually been increased in the downturn.”

Ninety-five per cent of CIOs also reported that a business case was now required before any significant expense was made in IT. However, a third of organisations did not follow this through to see if the promised benefits were actually realised upon completion.

This lack of proper procedure is an issue, according to Mr Kelleher. However, he said it had improved on years gone by.

“There was a time when people could afford not to know what the IT expense was even for or what it did,” he said. “There is still a deficit but now more people want to see and understand what they’re getting for their investment.”

The survey also showed that most organisations lack a formal policy for the reduction of their IT carbon footprint, with just 21 per cent already having one in place. While there are clear signs of an awareness and understanding of green issues in IT, the survey suggested they are not a priority.

“Green is on the agenda, all CIOs are aware of what can be done and should be done to reduce carbon footprint,” said Mr Kelleher, “but I don’t think there’s going to be any significant investment in that area in IT while there are difficulties elsewhere.”

Mr Kelleher also said simple green initiatives that saved money were sure to have been embraced but longer-term investments were being overlooked for now.

There are positives in the survey, however. For example, 71 per cent of CIOs said IT had been a significant factor in cutting costs.

More than two in five said they were now reporting directly to their CEO while 62 per cent are members of the senior management team. This suggests that IT is now being seen as a more important part of an organisation.

This piece originally appeared in The Irish Times on 16th July 2010.

Airspeed to expand WiMax service with extra spectrum (IT – 16/07/10)

Airspeed Telecom has bought Magnet Networks’ wireless spectrum licence, allowing it to expand its WiMax broadband services in the months ahead. Airspeed already holds a licence for another piece of the spectrum and through it provides broadband to businesses around the country.

Wireless spectrum is the space that allows information, such as broadcast signals and mobile calls, to be transmitted over the air.

“This acquisition has allowed us to augment the spectrum we have to add more capacity so we can connect more customers and do a technology refresh,” said Liam O’Kelly, managing director of Airspeed Telecom. “It also means that we can provide a lower entry point to our services for customers who may not require a higher-capacity leased line.”

Airspeed’s deal with Magnet means the company now owns the 3.5GHz Fixed Wireless Access Local Area spectrum licence for Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Magnet will maintain its relationship with its customers using the frequency, but with Airspeed now providing the service as a wholesaler.

“We have a good reputation for technical excellence and our customer base has a lot of well-known names and some Government agencies so we expect to get an immediate pick-up of customers from there,” said Mr O’Kelly. “After that, we hope to get more custom through word of mouth and maybe from the digital advertising that we always do but there will be no big TV and radio campaign.”

Wireless spectrum has become an increasingly lucrative asset for companies in recent years as its range of functions increases. Countries like the US have already seen multibillion-dollar auctions for pieces of spectrum which can allow phone and broadband companies to offer a wider range of services.

While the Communications Regulator (ComReg) has already issued licences for some of Ireland’s spectrum frequencies, the most attractive one, 2.3GHz, has yet to be offered. This is expected to draw a lot of attention as it is one of the best available for companies wishing to offer reliable mobile broadband.

“Spectrum is a limited resource, no one’s making any more of it and generally the lower you go in terms of frequency the better it is,” said Mr O’Kelly. “We expect there to be a lot of interest when the 2.3GHz spectrum finally becomes available, especially from the phone networks.”

This piece originally appeared in The Irish Times on the 16th July 2010.

Irish firm using GPS system to transform navigation for blind (IT – 2nd July 2010)

An Irish company is testing new technology that could revolutionise navigation for the blind. Point The Way is conducting early tests of its phone application that helps visually impaired users follow GPS directions easily.

The application uses a phone’s built-in GPS receiver and compass to gauge its location. It then vibrates when the phone is pointed in the correct direction, allowing users to follow a route by touch.

“A normal GPS may say ‘go straight’, which makes sense to most people but may not to a blind person,” says Tim Walsh, director of Point The Way. “Our tool will let them put it in their breast pocket and follow it quite easily.”

The company is currently running a small trial in conjunction with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland but is hoping to expand this soon. As part of this, it is already in early stage talks with manufacturers like Motorola, which has an accessibility programme in the US.

Another application designed by Walsh is being used to assist Team Daft.ie in this year’s Round Ireland Yacht Race. It was developed as an extra safety precaution to track the boat in case of emergency as one of its crew, Mark Pollock, is blind.

“It basically looks at the GPS location and texts it off to a particular number, we pick up that on our database and pull it into Google Maps,” says Walsh. “SMS is a very robust way of doing things as it requires the least signal and battery power to work . . . it means we get updates every five minutes compared to every 20 on the official race trackers update.”

The phones used were provided by O2 and run on Google’s Android system. As part of this agreement Point The Way is also recording mast signal details so O2 can gauge the quality of its network in coastal regions.

Walsh says that while the application started as a side-project, he now sees commercial potential to it. “When I built it it didn’t occur to me, but I realised this is actually quite useful.”

This article originally appeared in The Irish Times on 2nd July 2010

US firm marks 10 years in Donegal and keeps hiring (IT – 25th June 2010)

Pramerica Systems is committed to Ireland and is still hiring, according to executives visiting its Donegal offices yesterday. The company employs 700 people in Letterkenny and is marking 10 years in Ireland at a celebration in the town this week.

Pramerica is the contact centre and software development division of US-based Prudential Financial, providing services and support for its operations across Europe, Asia and the Americas.

According to John Fox, vice president of the service management group at Prudential Financial, the company initially chose Ireland because of its low costs and he still sees the country as competitive.

“We don’t see that we’ve lost the competitive edge today,” he said. “If we were to go by person-to-person costs you might find lower costs elsewhere but what we find here is much higher productivity. People here are very smart and very ambitious.”

Despite being based in Letterkenny, 20 per cent of the company’s staff do not work there, with many working remotely from places like Belfast and Dublin. This is part of the firm’s “alternative work arrangements” programme, which Mr Fox said is extremely successful. “The company as a whole have embraced it,” he said. “People manage their lives better and are far more productive as a result.”

However, the company itself has solid ties to the local community and has built a strong working relationship with both Letterkenny IT (LKIT) and training agency Fás since its arrival 10 years ago.

“We have an internship scheme with LKIT so students can come here and learn hands on the work that’s involved,” said Pramerica executive Barbara Koster. “It gives them some real life experience of how a company works and we’ve had that in place from the very, very beginning.”

She said Pramerica also gives input to new LKIT and Fás programmes to ensure they match up to industry needs. In one instance they helped develop a Fás course on a subject that was no longer being taught in Ireland. This allowed them to hire locally as opposed to looking abroad.

The company also has a training scheme with LKIT which allows its call centre staff to learn software development around their job, eventually allowing them to move to a new job in the company. Despite the recession it is still hiring staff in both its development and call centre divisions.

O2 clients can leave without a penalty fee (IT – 25th June 2010)

Bill-pay customers on O2 have a rare opportunity to leave their contract without penalty thanks to some little-known European legislation. The network recently announced call tariff changes and, under EU law, it is required to give customers the option of leaving their agreement as a result.

The rule is part of a 2003 regulation on electronic communications networks and covers the entire telecoms industry. It requires networks to give customers one month’s notice of contract changes and a chance to walk away if they disagree with them.

Customers who wish to leave their contract with O2 need to notify the network before 12th July.

“It [the regulation] is industry-wide for a start; even for a change in terms and conditions this has to be done,” said Fiona Dowling, representative of O2 Ireland. “We’ve done it before and traditionally it hasn’t translated into many customers leaving the network, we’re naturally very keen to retain our customers.

“We do get a lot of queries, though, as there is a certain amount of confusion about changes and some clarification is required.”

The opportunity may be of particular interest to customers signed up to 18-month contracts as part of the network’s iPhone deals, some of which may have been taken out shortly before the announcement of the new iPhone 4.

At present it is not known how existing iPhone users will be able to upgrade their handsets and how much it will cost to do so. However Ms Dowling said this fact has not appeared to translate to a higher number of cancellation requests than usual.

“In the past we have not experienced a pattern of increased calls on this subject when a new smart phone enters the market, and iPhone 4 is no exception to this,” she said. “Things like this are often an opportunity for us to talk to the customer and ensure they’re on the right price plan for the way they use their phone.”

O2 in the UK, which launched the iPhone 4 this week, has offered existing iPhone-owners an upgrade if they pay a flat rate for each month left on their existing contract. This translates to £20 (€24) for each full month remaining, regardless of the amount the customer would normally pay per month.

Ms Dowling said O2 was still waiting on details of iPhone 4 availability in Ireland before it announced its own upgrade plans.

Apple fans queued overnight in their hundreds outside shops in Europe and Japan to snap up the latest iPhone, as the technology giant set a new benchmark in the fast-growing smartphone market.

The iPhone 4 makes possible video calls, can handle multiple tasks simultaneously and has longer battery life than previous versions – adding specifications that some rivals already have to its iconic design appeal.

It sold a record 600,000 in pre-orders in a single day last week, and BGC analyst Colin Gillis expects Apple to set a record for being the first company to sell a million smartphones in a single day.

Apple’s latest salvo in the battle for the smartphone market, which IT research firm Gartner expects to grow 46 per cent this year over last year’s 172 million units, comes as rivals based on Google’s Android software gather steam.

Analysts estimate that Android’s 4 per cent of the market last year will grow to 11 per cent this year, while Apple’s share is seen steady at 14 per cent.

Demise of the desktop (IT – 25th June 2010)

As an increasingly rare sight on retailers’ shelves, in people’s homes and even around the office, it is clear that the desktop computer is dying. So what is driving the demise of this once ever-present machine and does it have any hope of survival?

Once expensive and unwieldy, the laptop is now the dominant player in the computer landscape.

According to both manufacturers and retailers this is because of two distinct trends which, between them, are working to squeeze out the desktop – ever-improving miniaturised technology and changing customer behaviour.

“The price points [on notebooks] have come way down and the market has caught up a lot with desktops in terms of performance,” said Aaron McKenna, country manager for online retailer Komplett.ie.

Just a few years ago, money spent on a laptop would give users far less power than the same amount spent on a desktop. However, cheaper and smaller components mean this gulf has all but disappeared at consumer levels.

Lisa Holmes, client field product manager for Dell’s commercial division, echoes this, saying the price gap that used to exist between laptops and desktops is now all but gone.

“You can definitely get a fairly mainstream laptop that would be quite close to the desktop in terms of spec and performance now. They’re fairly comparable.”

As a result, laptops have become an obvious fit, particularly for college students and professionals, especially as battery capacity and mobile broadband access continues to improve.

However, for the standard household the creep of the computer into the living room has also modified what users are looking for. A desktop, which requires the computer itself, a monitor, keyboard, mouse, desk and chair in order to be functional, is less appealing and more obtrusive than a simple laptop.

“When people buy something now, they go for a laptop so they can sit on the couch and use it,” said Holmes. “This is especially true for those living in an apartment as space is an issue and desktop requires a lot of that.”

All of this has combined to create a market hugely skewed in favour of laptops. HP, the biggest computer manufacturer in the world, currently sees 79 per cent of its sales going on notebooks in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Asia) region. Ireland trumps that average with 86 per cent of HP machines sold here being portables.

Things are more balanced on the commercial side, however, where HP records a near-50/50 split in EMEA. Interestingly, Ireland is lagging behind here, with a 58-42 per cent split in favour of desktops.

“We’re slower to move on the commercial side and faster on the consumer side,” says Stephen McDonald, head of corporate, enterprise and public sectors at HP.

“Commercial would be more conservative for a number of reasons and no organisations within the public sector have moved whole-scale to mobile computing yet which has a huge effect in the island of Ireland.”

However, while desktops lack mobility, they do retain one crucial selling point over notebooks – their ability to be easily tweaked and upgraded. This has kept desktops as the tool of choice for so-called “power users”, be they hardcore gamers or professional designers.

“Power users is where the desktop still thrives and this is where the laptop still has not caught up,” McKenna says. “Notebooks are not as customisable; with a desktop you can change your graphics card or upgrade the processor and so on. With a laptop, you can change your memory and hard drive but that is about it.”

Not only are they less customisable, gaming laptops also suffer still from the large price differential against desktops that has been all but eliminated at the lower end.

The other deficiency in this market is that the main benefit of the laptop over a desktop – its mobility – is also wiped out.

“You can buy gaming laptops from Dell and so on, but they’re bulky and they’re heavy to carry around,” said Mr McKenna.

So what is the desktop’s fate? McDonald feels it does have a future, although as a far more niche machine than it was before.

“The likes of engineers, designers, broadcasters and so on – they will all stick with desktops for what they do,” he said. “In the consumer space, I cannot see the tower machines surviving though. What is happening now is a move towards the all-in-one devices that effectively look like a monitor with a keyboard and mouse attached.”

These types of machines – perhaps the most notable example of which is the Apple iMac – fit into the idea of an aesthetically pleasing and space-saving device that the traditional desktop is not.

There is also a growing market of media centre desktop machines – minuscule devices that are intended to act more as components for a HD television than as standalone computers. What these all have in common is that they are secondary computers, built and used for very specific tasks and not general browsing or working.

“These devices become more a media play rather than a desktop and that seems to be the direction the consumer desktop is going to,” said Mr McDonald. “Besides that, if you’re not looking for a pure ‘media play’ it’s very hard to see why you would buy a desktop over a notebook.”

DESKTOP COMPUTER ITS RISE AND FALL

1977 The Commodore PET is launched, the first all-in-one PC.

1981 The IBM personal computer is launched, setting the standard for PCs for many years with its separate keyboard, removable storage media and then-powerful 4.77MHz Intel processor.

1983 Epson’s HX-20 – recognised as the first true laptop – becomes available to the masses. It has a tiny screen, 32kB of RAM and a micro-cassette drive. Its battery gives up to 50 hours of usage.

1984 Apple releases its first Macintosh, the first big-selling computer to feature a mouse and graphical user interface – until then users needed to type strings of code to execute functions.

1995 Microsoft releases Windows 95, which becomes the operating system of choice for most desktops.

1998 Apple launches first iMac, reinvigorating the company and the all-in-one desktop in one go.

2007 Analysts at Forrester predict one billion PCs will be in use worldwide by the end of 2008.

2008 Laptop sales overtake desktops for the first time, according to researchers iSuppli.