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.

Irish firm to manage iPad payments for US network (IT – 11th June 2010)

Irish company Openet has announced the roll-out of a flexible data payment system for Apple’s iPad on a major US carrier, believed to be ATT.

The company manages the transaction process that users are guided through when activating their iPad’s 3G connection and allows the network to provide fixed and ad hoc data packages.

Prepay and pay as you go options are available to users and the system is flexible enough to allow for more tailored plans in the future.

For example, users could pay for just a set amount of connection time, a small data allowance or even for access to specific sites only.

“The initial roll-out will be followed by a series of innovative roll-outs post event,” said Niall Norton, chief executive officer of Openet.

“What has gone out to the public at first was a very straightforward few choices of how you wanted to manage your account; what will happen later this year is that the options will become more sophisticated.”

The company provides similar solutions for a number of US and international carriers and this flexible system also works on other 3G devices, including smartphones and USB dongles.

Mr Norton said the company had succeeded where legacy billing technologies had not because it is able to adapt to huge numbers of subscriptions and payment options quickly.

“Our platform was designed to be hugely flexible and we are able to be that agile,” he said. “It’s also highly robust, very highly engineered and very fast.”

Despite being headquartered in Park West in Dublin, the company does not have any Irish clients.

However, Mr Norton said he was excited about the launch of a partnership with mobile operator Meteor, which is due to go live this summer.

“We have provided some additional solutions with these guys for the likes of EU data roaming, but we have an active engagement now with Meteor which will launch in the summer,” he said.

“We enable many potential services and are looking to marry them to their marketing plans, so we’re extremely pleased to have a working relationship with them,” Mr Norton added.

Openet was founded 11 years ago by Joe Horgan, who is the companys chief technical officer.

The company employs 210 people in Dublin, 200 in its offices in Virginia, USA and a further 100 people across offices in Malaysia and Brazil.

The article originally appeared in The Irish Times on 11th June 2010.

98FM is going back to its roots (SBP – 6th June 2010)

The ‘FM’ in 98FM’s branding has returned after a two-year absence be cause it ‘‘just works’’, according to chief executive Chris Doyle.

The Dublin station last week unveiled a brand refresh, which returned the traditional radio acronym to its name, having dropped it in 2008 to become Dublin’s 98.

Doyle said that market research showed strong brand awareness behind the 98FM name, with most people still using it to refer to the station anyway. He also said that the motivation for losing the letters in 2008 was no longer as strong.

‘‘There was a lot of talk about DAB [digital audio broadcasting] around that time, and the thinking was to move away from FM, but DAB’s really stalled in the last while,” he said. ‘‘We’ve spoken to a lot of people and it just felt right to bring it back.”

However, while reclaiming its FM roots, the station is still spreading to other platforms.

Its existing iPhone app, which streams the station live, is being updated soon, with an app for other phone types arriving shortly afterwards.

Twitter and Facebook will also be used more, with the station’s presence on these networks being promoted on air and online.

The new look, which was designed with ad agency Rothco, is a shift from the polished purple imagery used for the past two years. The station now sports red as its main colour, with the logo having a more hand-written look.

‘‘That’s something we deliberately went for, to give it that bit of fluidity, perhaps make it feel a little bit less corporate,” said Doyle. ‘‘We also felt there was a requirement to be that bit more positive and that’s where our ‘now is good’ slogan comes in.”

To support the rebrand, the station will be rolling out a ‘‘relatively significant’’ marketing investment in television, print and outdoor ads in the weeks ahead.

There will also be a new fleet of branded vehicles on the capital’s streets, with Fiat 500s replacing the station’s existing SUVs.

Doyle said the ad push was important, not just to promote 98FM, but also to inspire confidence in companies that might be looking to advertise on the station.

‘‘I think it would be cheeky of me to ask people to advertise on 98FM if the radio station didn’t support or market itself,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post on 6th June 2010.

Small firms urged to use website for sales (IT – 4th June 2010)

Small firms still have a lot of catching up to do online, according to David Curtin, chief executive of the IE Domain Registry (IEDR) which manages Ireland’s .ie internet address space.

Mr Curtin said many companies still had a “picture postcard” website containing little more than contact details, with few using their sites for e-commerce or product promotion.

“Those days are over, there is a lot of untapped potential online now,” he said. “Companies should be using their websites as sales channels as it is available to customers 24/7, not like their existing sites which are basically nine to five.”

Mr Curtin suggested that Ireland’s lacklustre performance in broadband had been one reason why small businesses held back from investing online.

However he said that broadband infrastructure and take-up had improved in recent years but small firms failed to keep up with that. The registry had seen a significant increase in the number of small businesses and sole traders buying .ie domains in the past year.

This, he added, was likely to be a side-effect of rising unemployment, with many of those affected deciding to establish small businesses and start-ups instead.

The IEDR took over the running of the .ie domain in 2000 and currently has 142,000 sites registered on its database, about 40 per cent of all Irish-owned domains.

This week it is hosting a meeting of the Council of European National Top Level Domain Registries, which will include representatives of 58 international registry bodies.

One important area of discussion is likely to be on the decision by ICANN – which oversees all internet addresses across the world – to allow ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups and cities to have their own top level domain.

Once these addresses become available, it will mark the biggest shift in domain policy since individual countries were allowed to have their own top level domain.

This article appeared in The Irish Times on 4th June 2010

Colourful informalities aim to shake up workplace (IT – 4th June 2010)

With no desks, fixed computers or phone lines in sight, you would be forgiven for thinking Microsoft’s office in Schiphol, Amsterdam, had fallen prey to an overzealous cost-cutter. However this jarringly informal workplace, which looks more like a giant cafe than an office block, is actually the work-life balance theory taken to its extreme.

According to the company, it works too.

Showcased to journalists as part of its Office 2010 launch, Microsoft’s Amsterdam base is the manifestation of its “new world of work” policy. This idea – informed by a 2005 Bill Gates essay and 2006 company White Paper – focuses on increased employee freedom as a way of driving up both productivity and satisfaction.

So – with a move to new offices in early 2008 – the company did away with cubicles, landlines and stationary computers. Employees no longer had their own desk nor did they have set hours to clock in for.

In short, every standard workplace constraint was removed.

“There were a lot of habits to break when we started this first,” said Gonnie Been, communications manager at Microsoft Amsterdam. “Most importantly, we had to change the leadership style to one of trust and output . . . It taught people how to let go of control.”

Instead of desks, employees are now issued with laptops. Workspace within the building is communal, with different styles available for different types of work.

So, for example, those who are open to chat while working might now sit at a long desk with many other seats. In fact, most features are designed to encourage conversation and – Microsoft hopes – collaboration. Even staff at the inhouse canteen have been told to serve slowly to create queues, forcing people to converse while they wait.

For those needing to concentrate, however, there are the glass “isolation” booths, which let people know you are off-limits for a while. There is a strict “no camping” policy in place, however, with staff jokingly reminding each other to move on when their two hours are up.

Overall, employees are given the freedom to completely dictate their day – which might involve an early start, a midday break to collect the children from school, or simply not coming in to the office at all. Employees are trusted to work towards a level of output and not set hours of attendance.

“It quickly becomes an embarrassing thing within a peer group to betray that trust,” said Been, who claimed that productivity did not even drop while people were adjusting to the change.

She also said it was hardest for middle-management to change the practices they were so used to and that major readjustment was necessary for all workers.

“There is a mental dimension to how people are dealing with new ways of working. Some were a little bit afraid about it,” said Dr Eric Van Heck, professor at Rotterdam School of Management in Erasmus University, who worked with Microsoft to study the changeover.

“‘I don’t have my own office any more’, ‘Does my boss see me all the time now and can I make promotion if he doesn’t?’ – these are elements of peoples’ thinking when they first envision this stuff.”

However, despite the concerns, Dr Van Heck’s study suggests the move was well-received by staff. Overall workers felt a little more productive and much more flexible afterwards.

Microsoft’s own figures reflect this with productivity rising, though not dramatically, since 2008.

Employee satisfaction has increased so much that the company says it now has another problem: staff turnover is too low and it is becoming a challenge to make room for fresh blood.

However, the shining example set by Microsoft’s Dutch experiment is dulled somewhat by the simple fact that it is way out of the league – and budget – of most companies.

Besides the huge upfront investment in office refurbishment and staff retraining, a company undertaking this automatically creates other overheads too.

For example, as Microsoft encourages staff to work from home, it must also offer a subsidy on their phone and broadband bills to compensate them. Even in the friendliest of economic climates, it has not been in the gift of most employers to reinvent the way business is done in such a way.

However, Dr Van Heck is less cynical: “We are not talking about the world of work but the new worlds of work,” he said.

“The people dimension is crucial in new working – it is not so much about the technology.”

For him, creating workplace flexibility is dependent on people’s ability to trust each other and give up the controls they are used to. This is about changing minds and can cost very little, if anything at all: it has little real connection to stylish decor.

In that case, it is clear why Microsoft chose Amsterdam as its “new world of work” centre. The Netherlands is the country with the highest number of flexible and part-time jobs in the world, while its populace’s relaxed and open-minded temperament is the stuff of legend.

With that in mind, the success of this cutting-edge office is perhaps not as surprising as it might seem at first.

The real test of Bill Gates’s theory is whether it would work as well for a traditional business in, say, Athlone as it did for a modern one in Amsterdam.

This article appeared in The Irish Times on 4th June 2010.