An Epic battle…

An acquaintance who is just a few years away from becoming a pensioner has just started work in an old-fashioned, small town hardware store, after 18 months being unemployed due to physical injury.  They were surprised to get the job given their age, until, that is, the boss explained that he was ‘fed up with employing youngsters who can barely tear themselves away from games on their smartphones whenever a customer comes into the shop’. Hmm. An interesting insight to life in the modern world for many!

Games on digital devices are a fact of life and readily available from the app stores in the Apple, Google, and Microsoft ecosystems. If you are younger than about 40 years old  then it’s likely that playing games on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop is part of how you get your fun, which means you should take an interest in the acrimonious legal dispute between Epic – makers of Fortnite and other popular games – and Apple.  Events have been unfolding fast – as you can see, for example, here,  here, here and here – and they provide an insight into the attitudes and dynamics of major corporations when they have a serious spat.

What appears to have triggered events is a Fortnite update that allowed players to buy in-game currency direct from Epic at a lower rate, bypassing Apple’s compulsory payment system which takes a 30% cut of every purchase.  The lawyers are now having a field day.  Apple have essentially removed Epic’s games from their app store, and the associated media coverage gives us all a ready insight into how a 2 trillion-dollar corporation (Apple) and 20 billion-dollar corporation (Epic) are locking horns in the dispute.  

The courts will, of course, rightly decide the legal rights and wrongs, probably in late September. However, on cogitating about the situation, and notwithstanding what the courts decide, the Badger felt that Apple comes over in what’s been written as just an arrogant, monopolistic, mega-corporate bully whose 30% take on in-app revenues smacks of profiteering. It’s sad that Apple, once an upstart and disrupter itself, has inevitably turned into the kind of corporation that it once challenged. Harsh? Perhaps, but when you’re next playing a game on your Apple device just remember that it’s you that’s paying the 30%.

The Badger has a feeling that the outcome of the EPIC v Apple spat in the courts – regardless of who ‘wins’ – will ultimately start the ball rolling to force changes to the likes of Apple and Google. Given Microsoft was accused of being a monopoly 20 years ago, it’s plausible that we’ll see the likes of Apple similarly challenged at some stage.

So, there you have it. There’s a David versus Goliath fight underway, and it’s a brave person that bets on either David being squashed, or Goliath coming out of the fray without injury… 

The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day…

If something is prefixed with ‘Smart’ today, then the Badger tends to wince and immediately think of the need to tread carefully! Why? Because ‘Smart’ has become over-used in today’s digital world, although many may beg to differ.  The fact is that every new gadget in the last 100 years was thought to be ‘smart’ by those living at the time. The Badger’s parents, for instance, thought the introduction of a timer on their washing machine some 70 years ago was ‘smart’. They thought answering machines some 40 years ago were too.

In today’s Information Age, the word ‘Smart’ is much overused by marketeers, media pundits and politicians alike. For many the word has become tainted and a signal for something whose benefits are oversold, whose downsides are understated (or ignored), and whose value for money and longevity is questionable. Many feel that ‘Smart’ implies they will be fleeced of their hard-earned cash (and maybe their personal data, privacy, and security) for something that might quickly become obsolete.

Using the word ‘Smart’ as a pre-fix to something is becoming a euphemism for high cost and questionable benefit, at least from the average consumer’s perspective.  For example, the UK government’s ‘Smart’ Meter programme has already cost consumers through their bills, its roll-out is grossly late, and it’s not really delivering the promised benefits for consumers. Expensive ‘Smart’ Motorways appear to lead to more not less death on the roads, and the expense  of these complex ‘enhancements’ seems somewhat  questionable and wasteful to the average consumer if safety on the road has got worse.   And then there’s Smart Homes full of interconnected lights, fridges, power sockets, and so on. Do we really want or need to live inside a machine?

And then there’s the ‘Smart’ phone in your hand.  Apparently, the device itself has an average life of 4 to 5 years and we keep them, on average, for between 2 and 3 years.   How much did you pay for it? The percentage depreciation is probably worse than your car over the same period.

So, what’s the Badger’s point?  Simply that the term ‘Smart’ is not a relevant label for digital technology anymore.  Consumers today are no fools, are distrustful of the big Tech companies, and are more vocal about government expenditure. The pandemic has changed the way we think, behave, live, and work. It has made us realise not only the importance of technology in today’s world, but also that it doesn’t need to be labelled ‘Smart’ to have a positive impact on our lives, the planet, the climate, and wildlife.  The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day.  There’s only one thing that should attract this label, and that’s us – we human beings! And some of you may well argue with that…

An 88 year-old’s take on tech during pandemic lockdown…

It’s been tough for the elderly during the pandemic, especially if they live alone in their own homes and relatives live a long way away. Good neighbours, community volunteers, and some of the tech that younger people take for granted have been a big help, provided, of course, the elder in question wants to embrace the support.

A local acquaintance is 88 years old and has lived in the same house since the 1960s. They have lived there alone since their partner died 25 years ago. They suffer from arthritis which is progressively limiting what they can do. They are proudly independent, stoic, and keep their old house spotless. Before the pandemic, they frequently used public transport, did their own shopping, met friends for coffee at a local daycentre, and regularly attended their church. None of this now happens but they don’t complain about how difficult it is for elders who are not in care homes, don’t get visits from carers, and who have families that live too far away to provide anything other than telephone contact. Television is their primary source of company. They do not have a mobile phone, broadband, or social media. Their landline telephone – with a 30-year-old handset – is their lifeline to the outside world.

The Badger’s been keeping a watchful eye and doing their shopping, just like many citizens everywhere during the pandemic. Once a week we have a long, face to face, socially distanced chat that clearly lifts their spirits. This week they asked the Badger about video calls because they had heard about them on television, and their distant family wants them to accept having an easy to use video facility for the elderly put in their home. The Badger promptly used his smartphone and WhatsApp to show them  how easy video are to make in practice.

They marvelled at what’s possible, but immediately said they didn’t want ‘that kind of technology’ in the house or in their life! Asked why not, they gave two reasons. The first was ‘it’s too complicated to learn at my age’, but the second really took the Badger by surprise. From watching television and listening to the radio, they have decided that the internet, social media, and smart tech are responsible for most of the strife in the world. They don’t want anything that causes strife in their life!

They elaborated by saying that every generation has a nemesis, and that the impact of rampant smart tech will be the younger generation’s nemesis in times to come. The Badger was quietly impressed! How many of us will be able to formulate and articulate such an insightful view on reaching the ripe old age of 88? Will tech have overtaken our capacity for independent thought by then? Hmm…

Time for a ‘Smart’ National Healthcare System…

Some years ago, the Badger led part of a national UK programme for trading wholesale electricity. The national programme was struggling to stay on plan, a fact increasingly obvious to all the industry, supplier and public servants involved. Delay was inevitable, and most organisations involved inevitably manoevured to avoid being blamed and being exposed to the associated commercial ramifications. The Regulator asked the Badger for an honest view of the programme’s status. The Badger set out the facts and said a delay was inevitable. The Regulator smiled, and said ‘I know, but there needs to be ‘an event’, dear boy, before our masters will accept the need for any change’. Experienced large-scale programme, project or service delivery leaders will recognise the truth of the Regulator’s words.

The COVID-19 pandemic is ‘an event’ that has challenged national healthcare systems across the world. In the UK, for example, the National Health Service (NHS) has moved faster to overcome embedded bureaucratic, administrative, structural and operational issues in the last two months than it has ever done in its entire history. This imperative has rapidly changed the way things currently work for General Practitioners (GPs) in the community, hospital managers, doctors, nurses and other clinicians in hospitals, those providing goods or services in supply chains, and of course patients alike. Everyone, including patients, are realising that speedy change for the better is possible and that technology is nothing to be frightened of when used intelligently and properly.

The Badger saw such enlightenment first-hand last week. A very elderly neighbour was fretting because their routine hospital outpatient appointment had been changed to a telephone consultation. However, after the telephone consultation with the same doctor they would normally have seen face to face, the neighbour’s anxiety had completely evaporated. They were overjoyed to have avoided travelling twenty miles for a face to face meeting that would rarely be on time and last only a few minutes. They were also very keen to try a video call for the next appointment, as suggested by the doctor, even though they have neither broadband nor a smartphone!

The pandemic constitutes ‘an event’ and an opportunity to trigger permanent change and improvement. If we have ‘Smart Meters’ and ‘Smart Motorways’ isn’t it time we had a truly ‘Smart National Healthcare System’ that embraces the different ways of working suited to today’s digital world? Our leaders must ensure we emerge from COVID-19 with a stronger national healthcare system. It would be a travesty to revert to old ways, especially when this ‘event’ has shown that technology is not the barrier for a truly ‘Smart National Healthcare System’…it’s the willingness to change long established operational and functional practices.

There’s no ‘Smart Living’ without ‘Smart Working’…

‘Smart working’ has existed in the tech and IT industries for years. With pandemic coronavirus, many companies in many sectors will be severely disadvantage if they don’t have the capability! ‘Smart Working’ has pros and cons, but the pros dominate by far in today’s world of work. A software engineer neighbour, for example, sees nothing but benefit from ‘Smart Working’. He works permanently from home and travels just one day each week to his employer’s office or that of a client. His deadlines are the same as being in the office, but he feels much more productive, less stressed, and has a better work-life balance compared with the grind of a daily commute. He feels strongly that ‘Smart Working’ helps his carbon footprint, his employer’s carbon footprint, reduce costs for everyone, and makes handling crises like coronavirus easier. His employer trusts him not to abuse working this way – a trust he repays with unwavering loyalty. He says he’ll never go back to working permanently in an employer’s office!

The Badger embraced ‘Smart Working’ anytime, anyplace, anywhere years ago. Since leaving the corporate hamster wheel, however, the Badger’s feeling that ‘Smart Working’ will soon be the permanent way of working has strengthened. Coronavirus will surely reinforce that the days white-collar-workers must travel to and work in offices of their employer or a client are coming to an end. We’ll always work in offices, you might say! After all, Aristotle pointed out that we are social animals that need workplace interactions. The Badger’s seen some truth in this over the years, but for today’s younger tech natives the social interactions aspects of the workplace are gravitating faster and faster to the virtual world as technology advances.

It seems likely that pandemic coronavirus, environment/climate change, and heightened public awareness of the delicacy of global supply chains will drive faster change in the way we live our lives. Society could be at a turning point with ‘Smart Living’ becoming a much more dominant part of our psyche and behaviour. This will happen faster if employers henceforth adopt ‘Smart Working’ from home as the norm. When the current economic turmoil triggered by oil and coronavirus abates, political and business leaders will realise attitudes on how people should work in order to mitigate risk in the modern global world must change. ‘Smart Working’ and ‘Smart Living’ should go hand in hand. Without the former there can be no latter.

So, now’s the time to press the case for ‘Smart Working’ if your employer doesn’t currently have it. Remember that ‘Smart Living’ is more about the way you think, behave and take action than it is about the Internet of Things and the interconnectivity of gadgets. As Mr Spock would say, ‘It’s only logical that ‘Smart Working’ has to be a core component of ‘Smart Living’ and we need both to address our problems’.

Software defects…a fact of life.

The Badger recently used a bank’s online processes to establish formalised ‘power of attorney’ control over someone else’s accounts. Formalising the ‘power of attorney’ and setting up the associated internet banking facilities was pleasingly easy. Everything went smoothly. This week, however, the Badger encountered a problem. Not a major one, more an inconvenience. The Badger, as ‘power of attorney’, set up a new payee in order to pay a small invoice the same day. However, a ‘technical failure’ error message appeared every time the Badger tried to send the payment. Grr! The Badger called the bank, who were very helpful. It was a known problem – a software defect. If you are a ‘power of attorney’ and click the ‘send payment immediately’ box, the software won’t let you send a payment! The solution? Click the ‘send at a future date’ box – i.e. tomorrow – instead. The solution worked perfectly.

The Badger wondered why this ‘software defect’ hadn’t been picked up in pre-release testing. The experience was also a reminder of how reliant we are on software and on it working correctly. It was also a reminder that software will always contain defects even when the best design, development and testing practices have been used. While the Badger cogitated on this, he saw last week’s reports from the US about the software for Boeing’s reusable spaceship, Starliner. The reports, here for example, highlight a review following the unsuccessful Starliner test flight to the International Space Station(ISS) in December 2019, which has exposed ‘process’ failings in the software design, development, testing and assurance oversight of the ~1 million lines of code. Oh dear. There are obviously many more defects in the software than the ones that impacted the mission in the first place. The Badger raised his eyebrows in surprise. After all, well-established engineering disciplines and processes for producing quality software have been around for a long time and are there for a reason.

Software runs the modern world. It’s everywhere. Its scale and complexity have risen dramatically in recent decades, and when software goes wrong it can have wide ranging, unwelcome, and sometimes disastrous impacts. You can get a sense of the scale of some codebases here and you’ll find some of the software failures that have wreaked havoc and disruption in recent years here. Without software, modern civilization would grind to a halt.

Years ago, the Badger was told ‘Never expect software to be perfect’. Wise words still relevant in today. AI, autonomous vehicles, robots – and so on – are not immune to having software defects, so when you go about your daily life just remember that a software defect is always lurking somewhere, and that it will manifest itself at the most inconvenient time. That’s just a fact of life in today’s world!

Anything ‘Smart’ or New Technology always has a downside…

A one-liner that’s obviously true. All things ‘smart’ and new technology have pros and cons for both individuals and for society. History shows, however, that we only really pay attention to the cons when they bite us. When they do, attitudes change and what was a norm can quickly become a pariah. Plastic illustrates the point. Although first invented around 1860, mass adoption took off in the 1950s and today plastic is everywhere in our life. Recently, however, we’ve realised the danger from the ~8.3bn tonnes is in landfill or polluting the world’s oceans and so the world is now quickly moving away from this non-degradable material. Big UK supermarkets, for example, are now significantly reducing its use in packaging.

So, what triggered the Badger to focus on this one-liner truism? The trigger was a ‘permanently connected’ teenager’s tantrum which happened when the Badger was reading about the cons of ‘Smart Motorways’ (see here and here, for example). The tantrum arose from the perfect storm of their smartphone battery expiring just as a power cut knocked out internet access at home. Much teenage wailing about the end of the world ensued. The Badger unsympathetically pointed out that the teenager hadn’t actually died has a result of becoming ‘disconnected’. Thereafter a sensible conversation took place about how the world has changed since the Badger was a youngster, and the importance of thinking about the cons of using today’s online technology.

Badger described how he was raised on eggs, bread, butter, bacon, cabbage, sprouts and spuds, and how he played outside in the dirt, climbed trees, gathered tadpoles from ponds in jam jars, and watched a TV with only two channels and no remote control. There was no phone, no electronic calculator, no tablet or laptop, and music came from a radio or vinyl records. The Badger did a paper round, walked to school, did jobs at the weekend, and played football with mates on a local green whenever he could. Fish and Chips was the only takeaway food, shops closed for a half-day mid-week and all day on  Sunday. The Police were respected and so was independence and privacy. None of this stopped the Badger having a rewarding career in IT, or being a balanced, law abiding citizen!

The Badger told the teenager he was pro ‘smart’ and new technology when it respects an individual’s privacy and fulfils a true need in a person’s life, and he suggested the teenager think about a) the tech they use, why, and its cons, b) their privacy, and c) how they would live without a smartphone, tablet or laptop because they would indeed continue to live without them!

The conversation ended as soon as power returned restoring connectivity. The teenager then took a call from a friend. The friend was told that the teen wouldn’t be downloading a new app that ‘everyone else is using’ because they didn’t need it and they wanted to think about privacy and its cons. Result! The teenager had been listening after all…