3 Technologies to Watch in 2017

I think it would be good to start with a quick review of my three predictions from last year. The first one was Virtual Reality (VR). I think I got this one mostly right as the Playstation VR and Oculus Rift both reached consumers within the year and received extremely good reviews as did some of the Playstation VR games. I say mostly right though as the reach has been pretty limited to those who are well ahead of the curve and to some gimmicky examples mainly for marketing purposes. Although judging by the App Store charts this Christmas VR certainly seemed top of the list with many of the top 20 apps being VR apps.

Secondly was Personal Fitness and Health Tracking. I think this was pretty spot on. We saw a major shift in the wearables market over the last 12 months away from them being a smartphone accessory to being specialised fitness and health tracking devices. There was a clear focus on fitness in Apple’s marketing of the Watch and new Watch 2 in the latter half of the year along with the Watch 2’s new features mostly being around fitness. We also saw the French wearables company, Withings, being purchased by Nokia for 170 Million Euros in a bid to ‘accelerate entry into Digital Health’. Again this Christmas Fitbit was in the Top 5 apps in the App Store.

Finally, I discussed Electric Vehicles although focussed on Plug-in Hybrids (PHEVs). This, I think, was mostly right. The Tesla Model X did start shipping but in quite limited numbers. Details of Faraday Future’s offering were not really released in any detail but will be in the upcoming CES 2017. Most vehicle manufacturers released PHEV versions of some of the vehicles and sales of Low Emission Vehicles in the UK increased by 48% compared to last year. There’s still some way to go on this one though. Perhaps I was a year or two early on this one.

So now let’s get in to 2017. We’re starting to get in to a strange stagnant period, almost a ‘no mans land’ between old tech and new tech. Between the Smartphone and the next generation, between human powered tech and AI powered tech. I think 2017 is going to see some hyped up technologies tank - Autonomous Vehicles top my list as the hype fails to materialise in to anything close to the publics and medias (wrong) expectations.

We’re going to see some interesting things happen though as seeds sewn over the last few years begin to grow.

  1. Start-up Banks

In Europe, and particularly the UK, there has been a flurry of FinTech (Financial Technology) start-ups raising Venture Capital over the last two or three years. This combined with the relaxation of banking legislation meaning a number of start-ups have been granted banking licenses in the last year means that these start-ups are about to flourish and begin massive growth. Let’s take a look at one of my favourites - Monzo. In the last year they were granted a restricted banking license and according to their roadmap (yes they've released their product roadmap for all to see) they’ll be launching their ‘full bank’ offering within 2017. Earlier this year Monzo reached £20 Million spent through them which although is a drop in the ocean compared to the 100s of billions spent by consumers each year it does show rapid growth. Here’s two infographics showing April 2016 spending and August 2016 spending - the increase is huge and can only continue upwards through 2017.

We’ve also got Atom Bank and Curve growing in the UK while Germany is a hot bed of start-up banks with N26 and solarisBank to name a few services that are growing in popularity.

2. Chat Bots & Virtual Personal Assistants

I put these two together as they use similar technologies, mainly natural language processing and to some extent machine learning (the combination often termed Artificial Intelligence (AI)). Messaging apps have, over the last few years, become a focal point with over 1 billion monthly users each on both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (both owned by Facebook). Since Facebook launched bots on it’s Messenger platform earlier this year the number of bots has grown to beyond 30,000. In China the use of messaging apps as a platform is nothing new, they’ve been using them for shopping, banking, taxis and more for a number of years. With it now becoming immensely easy to develop chat bots companies are beginning to realise their value, particularly in customer relationship management.

Marketing powerhouse Ogilvy & Mathers have recently gone in hard on Chat Bots with them saying “messaging platforms are the new internet, chatbots are it’s websites”. There’s a good presentation here by their Innovation Partner - James Whatley.

Personal Assistants are certainly nothing new. We’ve had Siri and OK Google for years but let’s be honest, they’ve been a bit shit. With recent developments in Natural Language Processing though they’re getting a lot better. Over the last year we’ve also seen the unexpected popularity of the Amazon Echo (Alexa) virtual personal assistant. This was one of the most popular gifts this Christmas and has mostly been sold out since it’s launch.

So now with Chat Bots and Virtual Personal Assistants we’re pretty much there with the voice recognition bar some corner cases so I think this year we’re going to see them becoming a bit more intelligent in their answering of questions and performing tasks - something they’ve been lacking so far.

3. Cellular IoT

An interesting area with huge potential is the infrastructure and services to support the Internet of Things (IoT). I believe that one of the most interesting of these infrastructure items is Cellular IoT, specifically NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT). Through 2016 we saw the 3GPP standard develop and become part of Release 13 (LTE-A Pro).

As I wrote earlier this year there are many IoT specific network technologies such as LoRa and Sigfox that do the job quite well but something they’re potentially lacking is open standardisation, Quality of Service (QoS), and coverage. So SigFox for example is proprietary, it uses unlicensed spectrum so cannot give QoS guarantees, and only has relatively limited coverage (although this is growing significantly).

NB-IoT overcomes these potential issues which for many use cases may prove to be show stoppers.

Vodafone, who are very big in the M2M (Machine-to-Machine) arena are investing heavily in NB-IoT and have spent the last year or two conducting trials and will be opening up the first networks in the latter half of 2017. They also have their eyes set on a number of critical use-cases including autonomous vehicles and drones - both of which need QoS and coverage at least.

Now I have to admit that writing this post was a bit of a struggle. As I said at the top, 2017 is going to be a strange year for a lot of tech as we sit in this odd period between major developments. Let’s see how it pans out.

The Problem with Trolley Problems

There’s a runaway train barrelling down the tracks. It will kill 5 people, but, there’s a lever you could pull to divert the train and it will then kill only 1 person. What do you do?

This is the trolley problem. Everyone has heard something similar and there are an infinite number of variants. I remember them featuring heavily in high school R.E. and Philosophy lessons as a way to engage the class in debate and to help us easily understand the different philosophical approaches.

Now though they've recently been used by many as a way to ask what an autonomous vehicle would do in a situation where it could, let’s say, either kill a group of pedestrians or kill the vehicle’s passengers. I have a problem with this.

The first issue is that the situations often described are entirely unrealistic. I’ve seen everything from a cyclist pulling out to a group of children suddenly being in the road. When was the last time a group of pedestrians suddenly entered the road right in front of you? I’ve been driving for something like 8 years and it’s certainly never happened to me. Yes, people can step out in to the road but the chances are you’ve seen them on the pavement, perhaps even looking as though they’re about to cross. They certainly don’t appear in the front of your vehicle to the point that an emergency stop isn’t sufficient.

Secondly, we’re saying that a vehicle will have the ‘intelligence’ to make reasoned and complex decisions within a matter of milliseconds but will not have the capability to either a) identify the situation unfolding and take proactive action (e.g. slowing down, pre-engaging brakes, changing lane) or b) take emergency action and very quickly bring the vehicle to a stop or avoid a collision altogether by some other means. In a situation where proactive action could not be taken why would the vehicle do anything but perform an emergency stop just as we do today? Surely if the vehicle has the technology to make complex decisions it will also have the technology to simply avoid a collision altogether (by a combination of reacting quickly and with advanced mechanics and materials i.e. braking systems).

Additionally, there is the issue that there is a huge degree of uncertainty in these situations, even those that are mildly realistic. How can the vehicle ever know how external actors are going to behave? For example, if there is going to be a collision between a vehicle and a cyclist how can the vehicle ever know how the cyclist is going to be behave in such a situation. Let’s say the vehicle makes the decision to put itself in to a wall to avoid hitting the cyclist but the cyclist manages to move out of the way anyway. The vehicle has now potentially injured the passengers for no reason. My point here is that there are far too many variables and unknowns for a vehicle to ever do more than perform an emergency stop or take proactive action if it recognises a potential incident might happen. It is not unreasonable to say that the vehicle will always perform the action with the greatest certainty in the outcome and that will always be protecting itself (and therefore the passengers) as that’s the only thing it has control over and the only thing it knows the behaviour of.

Now I’m not saying I don’t like trolley problems in their entirety, they certainly have their place, as I mentioned at the start but I don’t think that the application of autonomous vehicles is one of them. I will say this though, it has been great that these sorts of debates have and are being had but I don’t see there ever being a decision like this being made by a vehicle.

The IoT Iceberg

The Internet of Things. A bit of a buzzword since it’s inception in the late 1990’s by a guy called Kevin Ashton (a Brit by the way). Almost every day we hear some companies hot take, hear about some start-up developing new hardware, hear about an incumbent building 'yet another IoT innovation lab’, and almost every time we dismiss it as nonsence that no-one would ever need. There’s good reason we’ve thought this. IoT products have largely been a bit pointless, security has almost completely been ignored, and lots of the backend systems haven’t been developed properly, if at all. There’s even a dedicated, and quite successful, Twitter account (@internetofshit) posting about the (mostly funny) failings of IoT. However, I think we’ve now reached an inflection point where the ‘usefulness’ of IoT is on the up.

You see, most of the IoT is actually behind the scenes, it’s under the water, it’s the bits that the average consumer doesn’t see, and it is recently started being developed at an astonishing rate.

Specific Internet of Things networks are going up all over the world. Countries such as South Korea and the Netherlands have country wide IoT networks based on LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) technology such as LoRa and LoRaWAN. Additionally, nearly all of France, Spain and the Czech Republic have Sigfox coverage thanks to their private investment in those countries. Sigfox is another LPWAN based technology. In the UK we have a bit of piecemeal approach to IoT networks. For example, Sigfox is present in some of the larger cities such as London and Liverpool while rival LPMESH based technology such as ZigBee is present across Hampshire.

The Hampshire network is quite a good example of what I’m talking about actually. I’ve lived in Southampton, a city in Hampshire, for about 3 years and had no idea that the whole county was covered by a ZigBee network. It was not until I went to a conference in Berlin that I learnt about this network. It happens that since 2010 every one of the 150,000 or so street lights in Hampshire have been replaced by a ‘Smart Lighting’ system where each lamppost has a ZigBee sub-node on it allowing each street light to be centrally controlled and for new IoT sensors to be added. The main aim of this was originally to save money and its provided around a 40% reduction in lighting energy consumption so far which equates to about £2 million/year - in part due to more efficient lighting and in part due to smart control. Now though this network is being used to test and trial a whole host of other ideas such as monitoring available parking spaces and environmental monitoring. The point I’m making here is that this huge enabling network now exists and most people don’t know about it - it’s the part of the iceberg that’s under the water.

In the news recently was the huge £24 Billion acquisition of ARM by SoftBank. ARM are well known for being ahead of the field in terms of processors for mobile. Their processors are the most power efficient on the market which is a huge advantage for IoT devices where potentially years of battery life are required. It think it’s no coincidence that ARM have been purchased at this point in time.

So, all of this stuff that the consumer doesn’t see is starting to enable consumer facing products that actually offer some benefit. We’re starting to see a number of the big players get seriously in to IoT and actually develop useful products. I don’t normally have good things to say about Samsung but in IoT they’re probably leading the way with their SmartThings product line. One of the major advantages of this is that the SmartThings Hub works with a wide range of products other than those developed by Samsung. This means that your Philips Hue Lights, Bose SoundTouch, or your Yale Smartlock all work off of one hub and one smartphone app. One of the key pillars of IoT will be interoperability.

We have an interesting few years ahead of us as the IoT networks get rolled out behind the scenes and useful consumer products start to slowly enter the market. This is all even before the behemoth that is 5G comes our way by 2020.

I’ll leave you with this great tweet from @BenHammersley:

A Month with Mondo

UK FinTech (Financial Technology) is on fire at the moment and one of the start-ups at the forefront is a challenger bank called Mondo. Mondo is still a relatively small start-up with somewhere in the region of £7 million of Venture Capital funding with Eileen Burbidge's Passion Capital funding £6 million and the other £1 million being raised in a record breaking 96 seconds on Crowdcube earlier this year. Mondo is currently in Beta with apparently around 20,000 customers and a waiting list even longer. Now Mondo isn’t a bank just yet and as such gives customers what is essentially a pre-pay MasterCard but they say they aim to get their banking license (at least a restricted one) in a few months time. What the Mondo Beta has shown so far though is a glimpse in to the future of banking and I have to say it’s quite bright.

To understand why Mondo is great, oh and this isn’t in any way sponsored by the way, Mondo won’t know I’ve published this post unless they read it themselves here, you have to look at what is wrong with the traditional banks and it all ultimately boils down to the fact that they don’t understand mobile and they don’t understand UX (User Experience).

The traditional banks saw mobile as a way to simply provide a bank statement, in fact, if you look at your mobile banking app it’s pretty much the same as getting a paper statement in the post in that it’s just a list of transactions, search is limited if it exists at all, and if you want to do anything even mildly useful you generally have to logon to the desktop website or even phone them (what the?).

Mondo, like most start-ups, have adopted a mobile first philosophy. They don’t have a banking website and they don’t have phone banking either and why would they? Everything you could ever need to do is or at least will be done through the app, and that is one of the major things missing from traditional banks. If you read some of the Mondo founder’s blog posts and listen to/watch some of his interviews then you’ll notice that the way they think about mobile is completely different to traditional banks, for example, using your mobile’s location services to determine whether or not transactions are fraudulent i.e. if your phone is in the same location as the transaction it probably isn’t fraudulent - particularly useful when you’re abroad. Mondo seem to realise that mobile allows them to overcome some of the biggest annoyances we have with consumer banking.

It’s not just their attitude to mobile that makes them great though, it’s their entire ethos to customer experience. A recent trip to Paris is a perfect example. My traditional bank charge a 2.75% fee for non-sterling transactions and another 2% fee for using a cashpoint abroad - crazy right? Mondo don’t charge a penny for either. This completely changed the way I travel. I used to search online for the best exchange rates, order currency online and then go to a physical store to get a big wod of cash - hundreds of Euros or Dollars. Now you’d never have £400 in cash when you’re at home (unless you want to be mistaken for a drug dealer perhaps) but somehow we do it when we're on holiday. Well as you can imagine with Mondo I didn’t need to do any of that, I behaved as I do at home and paid for 99% of things with my card and had about €20 in my wallet for those few times I needed cash. What’s more I could see immediately what the cost in both £ and € was straight on the app. You get none of this transparent experience with a traditional bank.

There’s a few other really good features of Mondo too. Merchant info is crowd sourced, you can see your entire history with a merchant including total and average expenditure in just a tap. If you misplace your card you can freeze it immediately from within the app. You get a breakdown of your monthly expenditure by category, and you can manually change the category of each transaction individually. Search though is one of the major features of the Mondo app for me. Search in Mondo seems to use somewhat of a natural language processing technique to allow search over time periods, locations, merchants, category and more just be typing. So, a search for ‘Lunch in London last month’ will show all transactions marked as ‘Lunch’ that happened in June and that look place in London.

Mondo also provide an API for 3rd party app developers to interact with the platform and develop new tools.

Now that I’ve banged on about all the good things I do of course have to discuss some of the improvements that need to happen. Something that’s missing but seems really simple is a low balance notification with an action to top-up the card. I’ve had multiple occasions where the card has declined due to insufficient funds. It would be great if there were a ‘suggested top-up amount’ based on previous spending habits and perhaps an auto top-up option.

Another major let down is the lack of Apple Pay. There’re a lot of things I don’t use Mondo for because I can’t use Apple Pay. For example, I use Deliveroo almost daily and pay on their using Apple Pay just because it’s the most convenient and secure method. Same with Uber, same with Tesco. Apple Pay is on the roadmap for Mondo but I’m amazed that such a mobile focussed company hasn’t supported Apple (and Android) Pay since the start.

Next up is London Transport payments, they’re confusing AF. For some reason Mondo shows all of Transport for London’s ‘active card checks’ and seemingly all sorts of other transactions that ultimately become you’re actual tube fare. This means that various transactions appear, disappear and change over the course of a couple of days. Please Mondo just show the actual fare.

User authentication is also missing which seems to be a bit strange. There’s no app login at all. This means if someone is using my phone, whether I’ve let them use it or otherwise they can just tap the app and see all of my transactions and freeze my card. You do need to know the card’s PIN to transfer money though. This isn’t necessarily a major issue as if I’ve let someone use my phone I probably trust them and if it got stolen they’d need to know my phone’s unlock code or have my fingerprint (if they had either of these I think them being able to see what I spent in Waitrose would be the least of my worries). It does just seem a little relaxed on the security/privacy side.

Just as I was about to post this they updated the app to include TouchID login.

Something I haven’t tried/need to use yet is the customer service side to Mondo. With what I’m presuming is a relatively small team I’m not sure how good it’d be in particularly urgent situations. In fact the app does say ‘… we try to get back to you within the hour, evenings and weekends may take a bit longer.’. I could see many people being put off by this and actually finding it quite concerning that they can’t speak to/message somebody immediately, particularly as Mondo is dealing with people’s personal finances.

So as I said at the start of this post Mondo has so far given a really good insight in to what the future of consumer banking should look like. I’ll certainly continue using it and I’m looking forward to seeing new and useful features.

Now I should also say that Mondo aren’t the only ones doing this. If you have a read of my previous post you’ll see there’s quite a few other. In fact, I’ve just received an invite for Atom Bank which I’ll to try out.

Have you tried Mondo or another Challenger Bank? What did you think? Comment below.

Should the High Street Banks be worried?

The internet, coupled with mobile, has been a force to be reckoned with for almost every industry. Travel Agents have been made obsolete by Expedia, SkyScanner, Kayak and a whole host of others. The traditional taxi business has been massively disrupted by Uber and Lyft. Retail is now a very different beast thanks to the likes of Amazon. Newspapers, TV, Fast Food, Music, Hotels, the list could go on and on. There are however a few industries that are yet to really feel mobile internet's effects and one of these is banking (automotive is another but that post is coming soon). For as long as I can remember there's been one constant on the British High Street - the 'Big Four'. The 'Big Four' is a term given to the four biggest banks in the UK, these are Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, RBS, and between them these banks own around 75% of the market [1]. This general lack of competition is bad for consumers as there's little incentive for any of these incumbents to change or do anything particularly different. In fact, if you look through their offerings not one of them stands out as giving anything above the rest.

Thankfully this might be about to change. There's a big, and quickly growing appetite by young and innovative start-ups to disrupt the old and traditional banking industry. These start-ups under the umbrella term of 'Fintech' are being built from the ground up with large investment from Venture Capitalists. They have none of the baggage that the incumbents have such as large overheads and legacy systems.

This new breed of financial business understands the frustrations and annoyances that a generation who have grown up with technology at their fingertips have. Companies such as Monese, Mondo and Atom are building banks made for the smartphone. They don't have branches, they don't even have website banking, everything is done from your smartphone. The sign-up process is made so simple, you sign-up on your mobile and scan your ID for verification which means you don't have to go into a branch to set-up your account as you would now with the legacy banks. Transfers abroad? No problem, all done from your phone and with zero fees. Going on holiday? No need to get foreign currency, just use your card as you normally would and pay no fees for foreign transactions.

It is this ease of use and transparency that the smartphone generation really understands and wants from everything they use, and why shouldn't they?

Unfortunately though this isn't something the high street bank seems to understand, and those that do can't do anything about it due to their legacy systems and costs and risks associated with building new ones at their scale [2].

"Replacing that tech is just so risky that no one else is going to try to do it. It is a multi, multi billion pound project that is going to take five to ten years, and even then risk failure." - Tom Blomfield, Monese CEO.

I recently switched to a bank that is supposedly 'different from the rest'. Except it isn't really. The app is horrible to use - it's design is terrible and if I want to do anything more than view my balance or transfer money to an existing payee I have to login to their website which takes about a million hours to get through the security (seriously, it's ridiculous). To set-up Apple Pay I had to phone them, yes actually speak to a human being who asked for my every intimate detail just to complete an action that should be so simple.

As I mentioned earlier, it is these annoyances that the start-ups understand and can use technology to do something about.

It's not just the high street bank that's being disrupted either. A whole range of financial services are being switched to mobile. Take Curve for example. Curve is a service that puts all of your cards in to one and guess what, it's all controlled from your mobile. Just scan all of your cards including Visa, MasterCard and American Express and set one as your default. Then just use your Curve card (which is a MasterCard) anywhere. If you want to use a different card just select it in the app. You can even use your American Express in places that don't accept it, and importantly get the same rewards and protections. It even lets you get cash from your credit card without paying fees.

Investments and stock market trading are another financial services area being disrupted. Take a look at Nutmeg or Robinhood who are offering free or very low rate investment and trading platforms all built around simple and easy to use mobile apps.

So, back to the exam question, should the high street banks be worried? Absolutely.


What do you think of the current banking industry, can it change and keep-up? Leave your comments below.

If you enjoyed this article or found it useful please do hit like and share :)




[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/11212515/Full-investigation-into-the-dominance-of-big-four-UK-banks-confirmed.html

[2] http://www.techworld.com/mobile/mondo-ceo-tom-blomfield-explains-how-build-next-generation-digital-bank-3618866/3/