Thursday, April 25, 2013

Gesture Control in the Enterprise and the Consumerization Chasm

When Microsoft first shipped Kinect as an add-on for the XBox 360, I thought: “Wow, there is a new way to interact with information!” Sure, Kinect was designed for ‘full body gaming’ as Microsoft calls it but the ability to use gestures to find, access and view information seemed very promising. Ever since the 2002 hit movie Minority Report, we are yearning to work with information the way the Tom Cruise character did: using gestures.
The original - Steven Spielberg's Minority Report 
The use cases in the consumer space are primarily focused on gaming and the interaction with entertainment media. Using iTunes on AppleTV or Netflix on Xbox is great but, let’s face it, searching for movies using a remote control with no keyboard is a pain. Gestures could help with browsing the content while voice recognition could solve the typing problem.
Microsoft Kinect
The use cases in the enterprise, though, are far more promising. Just think about the surgeon with sterile hands who needs to flip through a series of X-rays, zoom in, start and pause a video recording from a echocardiograph, and quickly query a drug database. Think about the aircraft mechanic with oily hands who needs to access a repair manual for the latest model of a jet engine. How about the teachers explaining the latest material in front of a class of students? Or the speaker on stage using his hands instead of a geeky laser pointer...or instead of a fork lift like Al Gore did in The Inconvenient Truth? There are many possible professional uses for the gesture technology!

Yet, how come I don’t see any of this in the real life? Maybe Kinect isn’t good enough? Maybe it is sold only through the same stores that sell the gaming consoles and ignore the enterprise? Does Microsoft Marketing perhaps need help? There is a Kinect for the Windows web site promoting a software development kit (SDK) but there are no business examples featured on that site.

Google Glass, those hip looking glasses with a built-in computer screen (and a computer) have a similar potential in the enterprise. There are many professions that would greatly benefit from this kind of “always on display”. However, Google’s primary concern right now is making sure that a lot of celebrities get their picture taken with the Glass on their nose. They don’t even talk about business use cases. I worry now that Google will spend all its energy on devising schemes on how to push ads to people while they walk down the mall. Sure, we have seen that too in Minority Report but, honestly, that part of the movie sucked.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin wearing Google Glass
Microsoft Kinect, Google Glass, and other interactive devices such as the MYO wrist device or the Leap Motion Controller, combined with the Siri-like voice recognition are the future of computing. Touchscreen has its limitations. People have only so much tolerance for the small screen size of a smartphone - which is why the so-called phablets have become so popular. The interaction with a computer of the future will likely not involve fingers on glass but rather gestures, voice and perhaps even thoughts.

MYO is a gesture control armband

While using such interactive devices to browse movies is cool, using them in the enterprise can result in some really powerful benefits. Unfortunately, the leading vendors such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft are all chasing the consumers right now. Consumerization is hitting the enterprise but the vendors only think about the consumers and not about the enterprise. The innovation in enterprise computing is stagnating today and there is a chasm. And where there is a chasm, new opportunities open up for new entrants...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

How Come Fax Isn't Dead?

When was the last time you sent a fax? I bet your answer is probably going to suggest that you don’t use fax machines much anymore. Yet the statistics are surprising. According to the industry analysts Davidson Consulting, there are almost 100 billion faxes sent each year worldwide. CouponChilli estimates a smaller number - 17 billion faxes annually - but either way, it is still a lot. The market for fax services is growing at impressive 15.2% CAGR as new technologies such as Fax over IP and cloud-based fax are dramatically reducing the the cost of faxing.

But let’s face it - fax? In the age of email, interactive web sites, and omnipresent mobile devices? There are so many alternatives - from email, FTP, managed file transfer, to interactive web sites, sophisticated BPM solutions and most recently even the easy-to-use cloud-based shared folders. How come we are still using faxes so much?

One of the arguments is usually the legality of the “wet signature”. Supposedly, our legal system is perfectly satisfied with an illegible scribble transmitted at 204×98 dpi but an electronic or digital signature on an electronic document is not good enough. I’d argue that’s a bogus argument - after all, a digital signature can use a much stronger authentication of the signatory which should make the digital signature much more legally binding. Only when notarized, do wet signatures come close in terms of security and legal admissibility.

Another argument is the confirmation that you get when you send a fax. That fax confirmation page (sometimes called the Transmission Verification Report) can act as legal proof that the recipient actually received the fax. That might come handy, for instance, when you fax an invoice. However, it also assumes that the right person has actually picked up the received fax and that it didn’t end up in the waste bin by accident.

This argument is also not very convincing. Electronic transmissions via email, ftp, managed file transfer, or shared folder usually all come with an audit trail. There is also no reason why an email system could not be setup to automatically send a confirmation - most e-commerce and customer service solutions do it today. A secure audit trail should be a much better proof of delivery than the easily falsifiable fax transmission report.

Then there is the cultural argument. We are all used to faxing, right? The New York Times reported recently that this is a big issue in Japan. Japan has by far the highest number of fax machines per capita. But give me a break. Japan is a country with thousands of years of tradition - from Zen gardens to calligraphy to the sword swinging samurai. And all the sudden,  they are culturally attached to a fax? Or a technology that was adopted at the end of the 1980s? Ah, come on!

Maybe, it is the ease of use - everybody knows how to use a fax, right? Right. To sign a document, I have to print it, sign it by hand, and stand next to a fax machine to wait to see if the transmission was successful. If the line is busy, I have to try again later. Yeah, right...that’s really easy and convenient...

I suspect that the reason is complacency. Complacency of organizations in banking, insurance, healthcare, government and other sectors. The Customer Service group would probably like to replace faxes but they are scared of Legal. The Legal group is scared of technology. And, IT does what Customer Services asks them to do after checking with Legal. In a way, this is actually about culture. But not in a good way.

Picture from the 1999 cult movie Office Space. I'm sure it's copyrighted but it fits so well here.
You have to see it, by the way! (That should get me off the hook with 20th Century Fox).
The result is that you can hardly open a bank account, refinance a mortgage, buy a car, or submit an insurance claim without having to send a fax. In some countries like Canada and Germany, it gets even harder as they require signed documents for stock trades, change of  address, and other relatively mundane tasks. No you can’t just call them. They need it in writing and signed...

But don’t despair, if you need a fax solution, you don’t need a fax machine on every floor anymore. There are some pretty cool network and cloud-based fax systems out there and OpenText (my employer) happens to be the market leader in this space. Just check out that Davidson Consulting page.

As consumer, though, I hope that the fax will soon die. It ought to be replaced by the interactive web or mobile BPM solutions. In any case, OpenText has a solution for you here ;-)