If you’re interested about technology’s role in New Zealand’s economic growth, read Rowan Simpson’s April 4 post on the Callaghan legacy. It is a must-read.

Simpson has written an insightful analysis of Sir Paul Callaghan’s1 vision. He examines how the advice has played out since his death nine years ago.

He runs through, and updates, the seven common myths Callaghan talked about in presentations. I was at a couple of these talks and found Callaghan’s approach to the subject matter resonated.

Callaghan didn’t pull his punches. Nor does Simpson.

Challaghan challenge, missed opportunities

In simple terms, New Zealand has failed to pick up the Callaghan challenge. There’s, at best, limited progress.

Or as Simpson says, there is a lot of work to do.

There’s a lot I could comment on here, but I want to pick out two issues for now.

Tourism

The first is tourism’s role in the New Zealand economy.

It’s a subject that has had a lot of coverage since New Zealand closed its borders at the start of the Covid pandemic.

Simpson writes: “…it’s a mistake to think that we could grow more prosperous on the back of more tourism. This is because each additional job in this sector, as it’s currently configured, drags the overall average (GDP per job) down.”

For New Zealand to prosper we need the average GDP per job to rise. And that means moving jobs out of tourism into more productive areas.

Yes, there are regions that depend on tourism. And while tourism does lift a group of people out of abject poverty, it doesn’t lift them up as much as other economic sectors.

The hand-wringing over the future of New Zealand tourism is well meant, but misplaced. We may see short-term gains, but public money could be better spent in almost any other sector.

Let’s do that.

Economic distortion

Simpson doesn’t mention my second point: New Zealand’s rocketing property prices. Yet property has diverted investment from productive innovative sectors.

Why risk investing $100k on a software-as-a-service start-up that might fail? You can earn a guaranteed 20 percent return using the money as a house deposit. That way you get leverage and preferential tax treatment.

This is not the place to discuss a capital gains tax or any other ideas. It is the place to speculate that an obsession with property hamstrings innovation and economic growth.


  1. His name lives on with Callaghan Innovation. ↩︎

Writing about remote work at the Gartner Blog Bart Willemsen says: “…a proactive approach toward transparency and privacy creates an opportunity for a competitive difference among enterprises by fostering increased productivity and sales successes, improving public image, and enhancing customer trust.”

It’s hard to disagree with this.

He goes on to list one of five predictions Gartner made on the future of privacy. Making predictions about aspects of technology is central to Gartner’s business.

By 2023, organisations that do not excessively monitor remote working employees will experience up to 15 percent higher productivity than those that do.

Excessive remote work monitoring is one of the nastiest forms of Taylorism.

Lack of trust

This is a century-old management idea that sees workers as machines. It is dehumanising. It kills any notion of trust between employer and employee.

There are jobs and tasks that can benefit from monitoring. These are the mundane and repetitive things. That kind of job belongs to machines or bots.

When people need to think and come up with creative ideas, constant monitoring is counterproductive. You can’t deliver inspired thinking to order.

Remote work monitoring means lower productivity 

As Gartner points out, excessive monitoring will lead to lower productivity. No doubt companies that engage in the practice will find it hard to recruit. Those who have an option will choose to work elsewhere.

This matters more now that remote working is mainstream.

Dumb employers like to measure worker input: keystrokes per minute, completed calls and similar. Smart employers focus on output. That’s the part that matters. The how is less important. If someone gets the job done or hits targets, you don’t need to worry about the details of how they reached their goals.

One other point. Smart workers will go to lengths to get around monitoring. For some it is a challenge.

Early in 2020 much of the world went into lockdown. Companies sent workers home to work. Schools sent students home to study. As a response, there was a surge in technology adoption.

People, companies and organisations tried, for the first time, technologies they had not used before. In others, rarely-used technologies moved centre stage.

Video-conferencing, online shopping and streaming were among the technologies where adoption leapt forward. Cloud and collaboration surged. All became mainstream overnight. And those that were popular before lockdown reached the more reluctant users. That’s a group technology companies can overlook.

Vaulted five years, ten years

A technology adoption graph would show a discontinuity in the second quarter of 2020.

In May 2020, McKinsey, a management consultancy, reported: “Recent data show that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks”.

And for online shopping in America, progress was even more rapid: “ten years’ growth in three months”.

Shopping, banking, health

Netcomm, an Italian retail consortium, says shopping in that country, considered an e-commerce laggard, witnessed a “ten-year evolutionary leap” towards digital.

Banking experts canvassed by The Economist reckon the share of cashless transactions worldwide jumped to levels they had expected to see in two to five years’ time. This may look odd from New Zealand: cash and paper transactions remained popular overseas.

A British doctor told the New York Times the National Health Service saw a decade of change in a week, as doctors switched to remote consultations.

Beyond technology adoption

Late last year I interviewed Auckland-based Van Tang and Phillip Bradley from GHD, an international professional services company in the infrastructure sector. The story appeared in the NZ Herald’s Infrastructure Report as: NZ playing infrastructure catch-up after decades of under-investment.

The pair told me how the business took around 24 hours to make and implement a decision to send workers home before the first lockdown.

In normal times, a decision like that might take months of planning. Then there might be a trial project, an evaluation and another round of planning before pulling the trigger.

Compressed decision making

Tang made an important observation. If GHD could compress that decision making process into a matter of hours, it should be possible to proceed at the same pace with other moves.

It’s as if a conceptional barrier to rapid change has been breached. She says GHD will make more decisions this way in the future.

Sending workers home wasn’t the only sweeping change at GHD. Much of the work from the Auckland office involves infrastructure projects in Pacific island nations. In the past this meant sending engineers and other skilled professionals to the islands.

Augmented reality

This wasn’t possible in the pandemic. Instead GHD turned to augmented reality. A worker on site in, say, Fiji, can inspect progress on behalf of someone in Auckland. They can use a video camera, earphones and augmented reality to send back images.

The desk worker, can talk the remote engineer through the site inspection. If something looks wrong they can ask the on-site person to take a closer look.

GHD says this process not only works, but it is an excellent way for older, more experienced skilled employees to pass their expertise onto younger people.

At the same time, this approach extends the working life of older, skilled employees.

Productivity

As I talked to executives at other New Zealand-based organisations while working on other stories, a familiar picture emerged.

Leaders in businesses as diverse as HP, Vodafone and Russell McVeigh, the law firm, all had stories about accelerated technology adoption.

The lessons learnt, the progress made will make businesses more efficient, boost productivity. And heaven knows New Zealand needs to boost its productivity. As The Treasury makes clear, productivity is New Zealand’s biggest economic challenge.

Digital transformation

Last month I interviewed Datacom group chief executive Greg Davidson for a Dynamic Business report feature in the NZ Herald. In Digital transformation accelerated by Covid he echoed the story I heard elsewhere.

Davidson said many of his customers brought forward their digital transformation strategies.

Those who had a strategy moved things forward by two or three years. Those who were further behind became more focused on the job of preparing a strategy. Matters have reached a point where you either have a digital transformation strategy or you don’t have a future.

Schools

Something similar happened with schools and education. Many switched overnight to online learning. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t without problems, not least issues with less well-off students not having the tools.

The move to online learning highlighted inequality. We need to address this. It’s a subject we’ll come back to again and again until it is fixed.

One way trip

An interesting aspect of this Great Leap Forward is how it forced the hand of reluctant companies, individuals and industries.

New Zealand companies have been slow to reap technology productivity gains. It’s possible Covid has given them the kick up the backside needed to get moving.

The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no going back. Yes, a proportion, even a majority of workers may return to CBD offices. Yet the list of excuses used by luddite bosses to refuse working from home has diminished.

Technology adoption challenges

Working from home has challenges, it’s not all great, but no-one can ignore it.

We need to find ways to deal with loneliness. Companies need to generate fresh ideas when thinking heads don’t bump into each other in the tea room. Zoom fatigue is not imaginary. You can add your own examples, there will be many more.

This year saw a discontinuity in technology adoption across a range of industries and sectors.

When we iron out the problems, yes it is not trivial, we should see significant gains. They will be patchy, not everyone will get a boost, yet no-one can argue we failed to grasp the opportunity.

The move to working from home means there’s a boom in employee surveillance software. Bosses can check workers are hard at it, not leaning back for a Netflix binge.

Companies have used technology to snoop on workers for years. It ranges from spy-in-the-cab devices used to measure truck driver movements to key-loggers counting the number of keystrokes a desk bound employee makes every hour.

If you want you can check if an employee takes many tea, toilet or lunch breaks. There are even home detention style ankle bracelets used in warehouses and similar workplaces to track where everyone is.

Counter productive

Keeping close tabs on workers can be counter productive. If the metric is measuring the number of mouse movements per hour, employees will focus on moving mice, not on doing what they are paid to do.

What you measure is what you get.

For many tasks surveillance is plain dumb. It’s easier to measure a worker’s output. That’s what matters.

They earn their pay as long as they add value, serve customers, clear call backlogs or otherwise improve profits. It shouldn’t matter how many key strokes, phone calls or trips around the warehouse floor they make to get there.

Snooping

Now companies use similar employee snooping technology to watch staff working from home. The companies who sell these systems have seen their business grow at a cracking pace.

The names of these products say a lot about the mindset of companies using the technology:

  • Time Doctor,
  • ActivTrak,
  • StaffCop.

That last one is vile.

On top of everyday snooping there are products which let bosses watch what is going on through the webcams on home computers.

One product that does this goes by the name of Sneek….

There’s a naming pattern emerging here, at least the people who make this software are self-aware. You’d have to worry about managers leafing through brochures for products with names like Sneek and StaffCop.

Listening in

Others products let managers listen in on people’s home. There are tools that automate camera watching or listen in case trigger words are used.

And then there is this example from the Wired story

“PwC has developed facial recognition software that can log employees’ absences from their computer screens – including for bathroom breaks. The accounting firm insists the technology is to meet compliance regulations as the financial world adjusts to home life.”

Much of this is thought of as normal in the US. The products can be illegal elsewhere in the world. This review of StaffCop in PCMag) evaluates the product without any reference to ethics or morality.

It’s one thing for a company to put this software on computers in its offices, or even on computers that it buys and distributes to staff working from home. Asking people to install the software on their own hardware is another level of evil.

The idea of watching people in their homes using a screen was talked about 70 years ago. That’s when George Orwell wrote 1984. In the book Big Brother has a screen where government spies watch people in their homes all the time.

Orwellian

In other words, it’s no exaggeration to describe these applications as Orwellian. We overuse that term, but it applies here.

Once again we are at a point where 1984 is a training manual, not a warning.

Where they can, workers are fighting back. Wired magazine’s story is about the resistance movement fighting home employee surveillance.

As with the bosses, many of the weapons workers use to counter surveillance are digital. It’s an arms race. A range of new software helps workers get around surveillance. Surveillance software companies respond to block the blockers then the blockers block back.

One trick mentioned in the Wired story, which works if you have a powerful computer, is to use a virtual machine. That is, in effect, a software computer that lives inside of your computer. It can fence off the surveillance software.

There is software to fake mouse movements and software to emulate keyboard use. People even stick tape over webcams or microphones and then claim the hardware isn’t working. The potential to fight back is as unlimited at the potential for snooping.

Microsoft has a different take on a folding phone. While models from Samsung and Huawei have a folding screen, the Surface Duo has two side-by-side displays connected by hinges.

You will be able to buy a Duo next month. It won’t be cheap. The US price is US$1400. In normal times that would put the New Zealand price somewhere north of NZ$3000. Keep in mind that you can buy a decent Android phone for NZ$500 and a first class tablet with a better tablet operating system for NZ$600.

Surface Duo is a curious device on many levels. Above all, it is curious that Microsoft should get back into the phone business after being burnt by its Nokia experience.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Is it a phone, is it a tablet?

To be fair Microsoft isn’t calling the Surface Duo a phone. Although that word could be triggering for a Microsoft marketing executive.

Nor does it call the device a tablet. Yet there’s no question it fits somewhere between the two.

Another curiosity is that Microsoft uses the Surface brand name. The company previously said it uses the Surface name for products that highlight the potential of its Windows operating system. The Surface Duo is an Android phone.

And that’s another curiosity. Because an Android phone means Microsoft has to get into bed with Google, a company that is a rival in many markets.

Mobile productivity

Those curiosities keep on coming. Microsoft is pitching the Surface Duo as a mobile computing device at a time when demand for mobility has hit a pandemic-inflicted low point. Phone sales are down 30 percent. Meanwhile, demand for PCs, which are a Microsoft strength and Windows’ home turf, are riding at a ten year high.

The idea of productivity on the move was a potential winner before the world began working from home. Now, the Surface Duo is another device looking for a meaningful purpose.

There are two 5.6-inch OLED displays. You can run different apps in each or you can connect them for an 8.1-inch screen with a hinge down the centre. This format allows a more robust construction. The screens are made from Gorilla Glass and are less fragile than, say, the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

One screen good, two screens better

A promotional photo from Microsoft shows one screen used for text and the second as a on-screen keyboard with the device turned on its side. In this format it becomes a tiny laptop, albeit one that runs Android.

You’ll be able to run any Android app on the Surface Duo, although apps may be restricted to a single screen. There’s software that allows you to open an app on the other screen from the first one. Microsoft tweaked its own apps to take advantage of the larger display.

The idea behind the Surface Duo is sound enough. During more mobile times there was a healthy demand for devices that could keep you productive while on the run. A bigger screen, even if split in two, is better for reading.

Yet this is not the right product for August 2020.

Part of the problem is price. Upwards of NZ$3000 is a lot for a mobile productivity device if you’re not that mobile. Even if you are, it’s not clear what the Surface Duo brings to the productivity party that isn’t done adequately elsewhere. It could take off with people who have specific needs, but it was never made to be a mass market hit.

From my story at the NZ Herald:

LIC chief executive Wayne McNee says; “Genomics helps up predict which bulls will breed better. And it helps us do it more quickly. That means farmers can breed from a bull when he is younger.

“Traditionally we’ve had to wait until a bull has had daughters before we know how good he is. With genomics you can tell from before a bull is born whether he will be good. That means you can start using him as a sire as soon as he is mature. And you can use the first to sire other predictable bulls. This accelerates the rates of genetic gain quite significantly.”

Using genomics takes about three years off the normal bull breeding cycle. McNee says on top of that benefit there is the knowledge the bull’s sons will also be able to start breeding within a year.

Source: Agribusiness report: Genetics is a long game but it can speed up herd improvement? – NZ Herald

New Zealand agribusiness is making huge strides with projects like LIC’s genomics programme. We are starting to see huge payoffs.

This kind of genetics work is essential. LIC recognises that the environmental impact of dairy herds needs to be addressed. It is doing this in a number of ways, developing cows that cause less greenhouse gases is one goal, another is to breed more efficient cows so we can maintain milk output while reducing the total size of the national herd.

As McNee says: “If we are going to have fewer cows, we need to make sure the ones we have are better.”

I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by what is possible with agritech. In some respects the sector is hitting its stride now, in much the same way digital technology hit its stride in the 1980s. Every year  brings significant advances.

 

Jake Voytko posted a long, considered and comprehensive post about his experiment comparing DuckDuckGo and Google Search. It’s a subject that has fascinated me for years.

Voytko’s blog post headline makes his conclusion clear: DuckDuckGo is good enough for regular use.

He writes:

I haven’t tried a new search engine since I tried Bing in 2009. It was time to find out how good DuckDuckGo is in 2020. What was the biggest difference that I found?

Voytko concludes that Google works best for what he calls ‘low intention searches’. He says Google throws out so much information from so many sources that it often returns something close enough to what the searcher wanted.

Broad searches, narrow searches

He found Google shines at broad searches. That’s when you have a less clear idea of what you are searching for.

It wins hands down when you search to buy a product.

Voytko discovered that, in general, DuckDuckGo does a better job when searches are more specific.

Interestingly, the places where DuckDuckGo struggles are also places where Google struggles.

He concludes that DuckDuckGo is good enough for everyday use.

And so it is. Except where it is not.

New Zealand missing in action

Sadly, the place where DuckDuckGo fails me every time is when I search for New Zealand specific information. DuckDuckGo often misses obvious things.

It almost feels as if the search engine is biased against New Zealand. If Google produced the same quality of local results, search engine experts might deduce it had imposed what search professions call “a search penalty” for the entire nation.

I might, say, search for a New Zealand act of parliament, use the correct name of the legislation and yet DuckDuckGo might serve up a Canadian or UK law with a vaguely similar name at the top of search results.

Sometimes the results are totally bonkers, even when I click the New Zealand box at the top of the page. I’ve seen Te Reo names interpreted as spelling errors even when they are commonly used words in New Zealand.

As an aside, it doesn’t do a good job indexing my site either. Google has everything, finding my own stories on DuckDuckGo can be a challenge.

And yet DuckDuckGo still works for me

Despite all these whinges, I’ve moved all my search to DuckDuckGo because when I’m searching for something specific, say a piece of background for a story I’m writing, it regularly beats Google.

If the results are disappointing, you can always search again and use the G! command to have the search sent through to Google. It’s quicker than opening another browser tab.

I find DuckDuckGo cleaner, easier to navigate than Google. I rarely see advertising, that could be something to do with the New Zealand neglect. Or maybe not. Feel free to enlighten us all if you know what’s going on there.,

A DuckDuckGo that helps my writing work is that I can copy and paste the URLs in the search results. I do this if I use a URL in a blog post. I also collect useful URLs for later use. Google mangles URLs for some reason, making them harder to copy and paste.

Geoffrey Moore wrote Crossing the Chasm in 1991. The book is still an important sales reference for technology companies.

Moore says you can rank customers on a technology adoption scale. These customers can be companies, organisations or individuals.

There are five ranks. Moore divides the five into two clear groups and the gap between these groups is large. Or in his words, a chasm.

Early Adopters

Moore’s first group are early adopters. They feel they must have the latest technology. This can be about prestige or perceived competitive advantage. They are willing to pay a high price to get hold of technology early.

This high price is important. Technology companies get a big margin which funds further development or marketing. The companies love early adopters.

Chasm between visionary and mainstream

The next group are visionary customers. They need a product to gain competitive advantage or control costs. They accept immature support and absorb any technology risk.

They’ll pay a premium, often less than the early adopter premium. This allows companies to develop marketing channels and support infrastructures. These are important in the next phase.

Moore’s third phase is the bulk of the market. Moore calls them early majority or pragmatic customers. They look for clear pay-offs from a technology investment. They deliver the profits and locks a technology into the mainstream.

The fourth group are reluctant adopters. They buy mature, proven technologies if there is a sensible business case. They look for commodity products.

The last group are those who may never adopt a technology. There are companies that still don’t use email, mobile phones or computerised book-keeping.

Crossing the chasm

Moore says for any technology to succeed it must cross the chasm from the first two phases and enter the third. It’s an Evil Knievel leap, many technologies can’t make it.

The bridge across the chasm might be technical. It can be about channel organisation or support infrastructure. There are political matters such as establishing a standard or it might come down to old-fashioned marketing.

To pick winners, focus on the product or technology’s ability to cross the chasm between visionary and pragmatic customers.

Besides Moore’s chasm, there are common sense ideas of price and utility.

A product which meets certain key standards can sell. The number sold depends on price and function. A lower price or more functionality means higher sales.

If the first two phases allow a maker to build in enough functionality or reduce price through economies of scale then it’s easier to cross the chasm.

Standards are successful

Standards are a further good indicator of likely success. Yet you need to read the signs.

Many so-called standards are anything but open. Accepted standards aren’t always the ones which prevail. Think of market dominating companies like Intel or Microsoft.

The standards used in a particular product or technology are not always fixed. For example, developers can change a non-standard communications protocol with a software upgrade.

Work, rest and play

Moore started out looking at business technology. The principles also apply to consumer products such as smartphones.1 The rules don’t change much between the suits and the open-neck shirts but their interpretation does.

Building up a head of steam to cross the chasm is harder for makers of consumer hardware. Consumers rarely look for a return on their investment in the business sense. They are less willing to pay top dollar for new products.

Complicating matters further is the way many products now straddle both markets. In some areas the consumer market influences business purchasing strategies. For example, the first customers to adopt the iPhone were consumers.

There’s a clear connection between Moore’s chasm and Gartner’s Hype Cycle. While the two look at adoption from different points of view, both recognise there is a hump to get over before a product or technology can succeed.


  1. In general I prefer not to use the term smartphone, here we need to distinguish modern iPhone-like devices from those that went before. ↩︎

…he might also figure out how to dovetail them all together to make something more interesting and useful than Gutenberg, which has taken hundreds of developers and a magnitude larger amount of time to create.

Perhaps some additional competition against Gutenberg would help speed WordPress (and everyone else for that matter) toward making a simpler and more direct publishing interface?

Source: Chris Aldrich

“…he might also figure out how to dovetail them all together to make something more interesting and useful than Gutenberg, which has taken hundreds of developers and a magnitude larger amount of time to create.”

Gutenberg. Where can I start? This has done so much to disrupt my writing flow and my workflow.

Ironically it is all about blocks. I say ironic because when I teach people how to write, one of things I tell them is to remove all the roadblocks in front of readers. Gutenberg puts roadblocks in front of writers.

One roadblock is that it is now harder to export a post from my favourite Markdown editor (iA Writer) to WordPress. It works, but it’s not as smooth and seamless. The barrier may be small, but tiny barriers can disrupt flow.

At the same time, Gutenberg makes it hard for me to syndicate material to publisher sites with their own CMSs. In the past I could write a post, then pick it up as simple HTML and post that into the other CMS. Gutenberg allows you to copy HTML, but it’s badly broken and needs extensive editing.