Software as Silo

Software is a funny thing. How important is it?

Apple has just announced it’s giving most of its away for free — effectively costing it some $900 million in the short term. Samsung has just convened its first developer conference in the hope of persuading more people to write software for its devices. Microsoft, known for its Office and Windows software, has just bought a phone manufacturer — Nokia — and promises a new raft of its lacklustre Surface tablets. Google, known for the money it makes off its software, has promised more Glasses, and owns a cellphone maker, Motorola. Amazon, which sells stuff, also makes tablets and e-readers, and is rumoured to be getting into a phone.

What companies are increasingly recognising is that software is everything but not on its own. To succeed in this new world of ubiquitous devices, you need to own as much as possible of what is loosely referred to as the ecosystem. That means hardware, software, and the services that make both hardware and software come to life.
Think a phone where you can take videos, edit them into a short movie at literally the push of a button, and then share them with friends with another push. Or a tablet that lets you and control see your company’s inventory or fleet of trucks in real time.

But this isn’t easy. It requires expertise in very different areas — areas that until recently were regarded as best considered separate industries. Focus on what you’re good at, the mantra used to be. Now, it’s more like: you’ve got to be good at all these things, or you’ll die. Think HTC, which makes great devices but hasn’t succeeded in building the software and services that makes those devices stand out.

Some companies can be good at all three, but it’s a fast-moving game. Think BlackBerry, which was good at both hardware, software and services for a while, with its email service, its own operating system and its keyboard-bound devices. But the world moved on, and BlackBerry didn’t move quickly enough.

So now it looks like Apple is heading the pack. But it too, is vulnerable. The world has been captivated by the phones and tablets it creates, but some detect a sense the company, without Steve Jobs, quite understanding where to go next. It’s likely to be an Apple TV, which should be interesting.

Samsung is late to the game, dangerously so. It dominates the world of phones, but has been slow to build software and services to bridge those devices to its other products — computers, TVs, fridges, etc. Only this week has it really embraced developers and tried to make it easy for them to do this. Samsung’s future hinges in being able to rid itself of its dependence on Google’s Android operating system — either by building an operating system of its own, or a suite of apps that run on top of it that make a Samsung device so much more valuable than one from LG, Sony, HTC or Huawei.

Then there’s Microsoft. By making its operating system and much of its software free, Apple has thrown down the gauntlet to its old rival. It’s not saying these products have no value: it’s saying that software is what makes hardware compelling, and so we’re effectively making the two one single product. For Microsoft, still largely a software player, that’s quite scary. No wonder the company is betting heavily on building its own hardware.

In some ways this is good for the consumer, in some ways not. On the one hand we’re already seeing the hardware basically controlling the software — automatically updating itself, optimizing itself for the user. On the other, the goal here is clear: bind the user to a single stack of hardware, software and services, increasingly isolated from each other. A Samsung phone may be a great device to control your TV with, layering little apps atop the screen, but don’t expect it to work with your LG smart TV. And don’t bother trying to use Apple’s AirDrop feature to send a file to your Samsung phone.

The bottom line is that these companies are being hugely innovative, moving the puck at impressive speed. But in their efforts to escape becoming commodities, they’re pushing us into silos. Nice silos, very nice silos, but silos that make me think more of the past than the future.

Autopsy as a Service

This is a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC 

Is it possible to disrupt a business that is, well, dying? 

Malaysian entrepreneur Matt Chandran thinks so. He wants to revive the post-mortem by replacing the scalpel with a scanner and the autopsy slab with a touchscreen computer.

He believes his so-called digital autopsy could largely displace the centuries-old traditional knife-bound one, speeding up investigations, reducing the stress on grieving families and placating religious sensibilities. And, he hopes, change the way not only pathologists but also doctors work. 

He is confident there’s money in what he calls his Autopsy as a Service — basically conducting a post mortem via a scanner and some pretty advanced 3d imaging software.  The first of his company’s digital autopsy facilities will open in the British town of Bradford on November 1. 

Here’s his logic: Around 70 million people die each year and around a tenth of those deaths are legal cases that require an autopsy. Right now these are done the old-fashioned way, expensively. Grab a slice of that, so to speak, and you’re in business. 

There are obstacles. First off, post mortems are dying out. While humans have been cutting each other open for at least 3,000 years to learn more about death,  the autopsy these days is rarely embraced outside TV crime dramas.

Chandran sees his offering as way to make the autopsy palatable again. Plug his software into any standard medical CT or MRI scanner, train an expert into how to use it and you remove layers of cloth, skin and bone with a mouse or by gestures on a tabletop touchscreen.

Much easier, he says, and less destructive of evidence. And not new — the idea has been around for a couple of decades. Chandran is the first to believe he can see money in it. He pays for and builds the scanning facilities and then makes money from those families who prefer to have their loved ones scanned rather than autopsied if a post mortem is deemed necessary.

Families, officials, hospitals would pay, he reckons, because it would make everything simpler, faster, cleaner — and offer a permanent record. 

For Chandran, this is just the beginning: eventually he hopes, these facilities would not only help us better understand the dead but also scan the living, providing a global library of scans for doctors to better diagnose patients. Instead of using a blood samples and urine tests to figure out what’s wrong with us a GP would take a scan and peer inside us via his computer as we sit patiently by. 

Not everyone is happy of course, from pathologists who say their skills aren’t just in looking, but feeling, smelling and sensing a cadaver, to pioneers in the imaging field who say the technology isn’t ready for primetime.

And then there are those who wonder about Chandran’s business model. For it to work he not only has to convince a few local councils to let him in: he needs to change our whole way of thinking about the role autopsies play. 

Right now we treat autopsies much as we treat death — the less discussed the better. That deprives us, Chandran believes, of insights into the body, disease and death that we could benefit from.