Freelancers – wave of the future

The transcript of my BBC piece which was just broadcast. The original Reuters story from which it was drawn is here: Global army of online freelancers remakes outsourcing industry

A country like the Philippines is getting big into what is called BPO — which stands for business process outsourcing. At its most basic think call centers. At its highest end think lawyers drawing up documents for someone thousands of mile away, or trained medical professionals poring over xray scans on behalf of a hospital in Birmingham. 

It’s a great way to export skills without having to actually export the people doing the work. For a country like the Philippines, many of whose families are spread around the globe, this is especially poignant. 

But the Philippines is some way off that high end. 

Which is why what librarian Sheila Ortencio does is so interesting, and has so much potential. She works from her laptop on behalf of companies in Australia and the U.S. but her workplace is not some Dilbert style cubicle, her job is adding library data to ebooks, something that closely matches her training, and the money she earns is 10 times what she was getting  at the local library. And, best of all, she is working from home, with her daughters bouncing off the walls and two Pomeranians yapping wildly in the yard,. 

This is outsourcing of a different kind: some call it elancing, some call it crowdsourcing, some call it microwork. They are distinct terms, but they all fall under one basic umbrella: freelancers, working online, for clients many miles away, who are entrusting them with ever larger responsibilities and projects. All done via the web. 

Sheila, for example, signs up for a service like odesk.com, lists her skills, experience and how much she charges, and then bids for contracts she thinks she could do, Companies posting the work go through the bids and choose one. The whole process is monitored online, up to the end payment. Odesk takes a cut. 

This has been around for a while, of course, but it’s only in the past couple of years that it’s really taken off. The reasons for this are varied, including better, cheaper, faster Internet, more people on both sides of the business simply ‘getting’ it, and an extra layer of services atop the existing intermediaries to tweak the marketplace to make it more efficient. 

Folk like Sheila find that clients like them so much they send more work their way than than they could handle, so she in turn recruits teams and monitors quality. And this is what’s intriguing about all this, and where I think this little niche economy could get big and interesting quite quickly. 

Because by morphing from librarian into manager and entrepreneur, Sheila not only helps herself, she also creates a pocket of innovation in her little corner of the Philippines. She’s converted 10 of her relatives into online freelancers, and countless neighbors. A local bank teller is on oDesk; everyone wants a piece of the action. She’s happy to help, because that’s her style and because the more people who do oDesk, the more business she can bring in. 

Eventually, it’s not far fetched to say these little pockets could turn into little Silicon Valleys — hubs of innovation and the ecosystem of businesses to support them, where skills and services become products and freelancers become startups. 

And, unlike Sheila’s parents, husband and siblings who had to go overseas to find a decent wage, this all could happen in a person’s backyard. It’s a long ways off, but maybe not as far as we think. 

Ending the Tyranny of the Telephone

How do we deal socially with the new technology around us? How do we come up with new norms, wrestle with the loss of privacy, deal with the way technology seems to force us to change the way we live, work and communicate,?

It’s not a new question, but I feel we need a new answer. We tend to focus on the intrusiveness of new technologies, and agonise over how they’re changing society, while failing to notice that the old technologies were just as intrusive. In fact, I’d argue that with each advance of communication technologies, they get less intrusive rather than more.  Our problem is that we have memories the size of hamster droppings.

Imagine a device that dominates every desk, every home, is on every street corner and train platform. Where we are so conditioned to answer its call we get upset when it’s left to ring. Even when we’re eating, praying, watching TV, asleep. Where we are expected to identify who we are, where we are to a disembodied voice at the other end, to run off searching for someone at its behest, jot down messages on its behalf.

Yes, of course I’m talking about the telephone. An awful device that intruded upon our conversations, our reverie, our concentration, our world. What is remarkable, then, is not how much we’ve submitted to technology but the speed with which we’ve embraced a different technology that better suits our world.

As quickly as technology allowed it, we have started ditching the idea of getting each other’s attention through voice. First we adopted the cellphone, but when users figured out they could use it to send messages by text or SMS instead, the telephone as a predominantly voice-driven device was doomed. It’s not that we don’t want to talk to people; it’s just that we want to ensure that the time and place are  convenient for both of us.,

The truth is that the telephone imposed its tyranny on us and dominated our lives so much that we still can’t let go of the idea. We still call our mobile devices ‘phones’ even when that’s no longer what they’re primarily designed to do. (I have a mobile phone that is as big as a croissant; this was not something that the ubiquitous ads touting its glories will ever show being held up  to the ear.)

Now, in 2012 most mobile phones are not used as phones primarily — if at all. Australians, for example, are making 12.5% fewer phone calls than five years ago. People have been giving up having a landline phone: South Africa’s Telkom, for example, has lost more than a quarter of its fixed line customers since 2000.  We have thrown off the shackles of a 140 year tyranny remarkably quickly, realising just how intrusive the telephone was.

Yes, we’ve replaced it with technology that can be antisocial. We download a lot of data over our device, and much of that data is personal, for our eyes only, or gaming with others not present. We ignore those we’re with, preferring the absorption of the small screen to the social complexity around us. But we’ll figure this out. First, we had to deal with the tyrant. Nowadays, in this mobile spring, look around you differently: listen for the absence of ringing phones. For once we have the technology — SMS, the instant message, the tweet, the email–to retrieve our lives.

My croissant sized phone, for example? It has a feature that, when I turn it over, mutes all incoming calls and sounds. Now that’s civilized.

Singapore startup Viki aims to take local TV global

Viki has long interested me and their deal with Warner offered a news peg: 

Who would want to watch a South Korean soap that was a flop back home?

Lots of people, it turns out – something that Singapore-based startup Viki feels vindicates its business model: an ad-supported streaming TV and movie site where unpaid fans add the foreign subtitles.

“We call it content arbitrage,” said Razmig Hovaghimian, Viki CEO and co-founder. “Ninety percent of content is trapped within borders. We’re taking things that aren’t travelling and making them go places.”

The service plays on a number of trends both in Asia and worldwide: a passion for watching video over the Internet; a growing interest in content from other countries; and the emergence of more sophisticated software to spread the burden of laborious tasks like subtitling.

Viki provides a platform that pulls together two traditional strangers: broadcasters and other video producers who license out content to territories where there are no existing rights with local broadcasters, and volunteer “fansubbers” who translate and write subtitles in any language they want.

Viki then inserts ads and provides the streaming service, and shares the ad revenue with the broadcasters.

Take, for example, that Korean flop, “Playful Kiss”. Ratings sank below 5 percent when it was aired during primetime in Korea in 2010, says Hovaghimian, when a top drama might capture up to 30 percent of viewers. But on Viki it topped the site’s charts for several months and was translated into 56 languages.

The company behind the show made “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in ad revenue and was able to secure rebroadcast deals with 10 countries it would otherwise never have reached, Hovaghimian said. The broadcaster wasn’t eating into existing audiences, it was finding value in new ones. “We’re increasing the size of the pie for you, we’re not cannibalizing,” he says.

Rest of the story: Singapore startup Viki aims to take local TV global | Reuters

ZTE confirms security hole in U.S. phone

This is a piece I wrote with my colleague Lee Chyen Yee on the ZTE vulnerability. 

ZTE Corp, the world’s No.4 handset vendor and one of two Chinese companies under U.S. scrutiny over security concerns, said one of its mobile phone models sold in the United States contains a vulnerability that researchers say could allow others to control the device.

The hole affects ZTE’s Score model that runs on Google Inc’s Android operating system and was described by one researcher as “highly unusual.”

“I’ve never seen it before,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike. The hole, usually called a backdoor, allows anyone with the hardwired password to access the affected phone, he added.

Read the rest at ZTE confirms security hole in US phone

 

Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

A piece I wrote ahead of Facebook’s IPO, casting a skeptical eye over assumptions that Asia would continue to be a source of major growth for the company.

Even as Facebook fever grips investors ahead of the social networking giant’s potential $100 billion-plus initial public offering, its breakneck growth in Asia may be slowing as it moves beyond desktop users to those who access the Internet largely or solely from a mobile phone.

In March, Facebook revised its own SEC filings to scale back its scope for further growth in India – its third-biggest user base and the largest population it currently has access to – China remains off-limits to Facebook. And independent data show that user numbers in Indonesia and the Philippines, its other largest Asia user bases, have actually fallen off slightly in the past three months.

“If you’ve been growing at such a huge amount it will definitely trail off,” said Ganesh Kumar Bangah, Kuala Lumpur-based CEO of online payment provider MOL Global. “You can’t expect it to keep growing.”

Read the rest: Analysis: Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

Social media stress? There’s an app for that

A piece on how one marketing company is capitalizing on what it says is growing stress among social media users. 

Nestle, purveyor of the decades-old KitKat snack, has launched an app it says addresses a growing problem among young social media users – giving them a break from the stress of posting updates by doing it for them.

The software, Social Break, automatically sends random updates to users’ Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. It will be officially launched in Singapore later this week and is free to download from kitkat.com.sg/socialbreak.

While the application is a tongue-in-cheek marketing gimmick, the developers behind the software, ad agency JWT, say it also highlights a serious problem among younger users, especially in Asia: growing stress about time spent maintaining a presence on social networks.

JWT surveyed 900 19-26 year olds in China, Singapore and the United States and found that more than half considered it too time-consuming to keep up with all their social media commitments and conceded that the time they spent on such sites had a negative impact on their job or studies.

More at Social media stress? There’s an app for that 

In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule?

A piece I wrote on potential roadbumps in Samsung’s ride to smartphone dominance. 

Samsung Electronics is the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer and biggest user of Google’s Android operating system.

And, for some, that’s the problem.

Samsung’s meteoric rise – in the first quarter of 2011 it shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but is now market leader – has handed it a dilemma. Does it risk becoming a commodity manufacturer of hardware, squeezed like the PC makers of old between narrowing margins and those who control the software that makes their devices run, or does it try to break into other parts of the business – the so-called mobile ecosystem?

“It comes down to this sense of what it is they want to be,” said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum. “Do they really want to be one of the power players or are they happy enabling someone else’s ecosystem?”

To be sure, Samsung isn’t in any kind of trouble, and isn’t likely to be so any time soon. Later on Thursday, it will launch the Galaxy S3, the latest addition to its flagship range of smartphones. Juniper Research expects Samsung to remain the No.1 smartphone manufacturer this quarter. The next iPhone upgrade is expected around the third quarter.

“Android has done wonders for them,” says India-based Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta.

But still the company has its critics. They worry that Samsung has yet to address the central contradiction of it making devices that use someone else’s operating system. By licensing the free Android OS from Google, Samsung saves itself millions of dollars in software development costs and license fees, but leaves itself dependent on Google.

More at In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule? | Reuters

Blackberry’s Future [BBC]

In some ways our world all looks very similar. Prefab coffee and fast food chains, Cars that all look the same. Everyone on Facebook. But what we–and by we I include the people who actually produce and sell these goods and services–don’t do a good job of is understanding while the global products may be similar, how they’re actually used can be very different. 

In short: Just because your fancy product is doing well in country X, do you actually know why? 

This, it turns out, is kind of important. Because if you don’t understand that, chances are you won’t know how to keep the good thing going, let alone expand on it. 

Take, for example, Research in Motion, They’ve done extraordinarily well in some countries, but none more so than Indonesia. Everyone, it seems has a BlackBerry. A friend recently bought one for his six year old daughter so she wouldn’t be teased at school. 

This is music to the ears of RIM, because as you may have heard they’re not doing so well in other parts of the world. So it made sense for the company to try to sell its devices to another 7 million Indonesians, After all, the first 7 loved them. 

So they’ve launched a new phone. It has a radio in it, because that’s what they heard people in emerging markets like Indonesia want. It has a special button on the side which will take users to its BB messaging service, which is what group-oriented Indonesians love about the Blackberry. And it’s going to be cheaper. 

But RIM didn’t create its success in Indonesia,. That was organic–a lucky mix of Indonesians’ love of new things and their conservatism that keeps them wedded to products after others have moved on. Local telephone providers helped by keeping prices low. And out of it all came a lively ecosystem of program developers, street corner vendors selling accessories and fixing broken phones, and malls full of second hand dealers. 

Now RIM is trying to formalize this, But they may not completely understand the unique culture of adoption and usage that Indonesians have given to the BlackBerry, which is quite different to how a corporate drone in New York might use it. 

As globalization throws up more of these quirks companies are going to have to work harder, faster and better to understand why their products are popular. Because if they don’t they may not only find themselves unable to build on that success; they may find their efforts to expand actually make things worse. By trying to expand downmarket in Indonesia for example, RIM may run against one of the very things that makes the brand popular: its exclusivity, which makes a BB a status symbol.

That may sound odd to someone in Canada, Hong Kong or London for whom the BlackBerry is yesterday’s news. But that’s the point. Globalisation may look good on paper, but going local is the only way to make it a success strategy.  

Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world

A piece I wrote for Reuters with Lee Chyenyee: 

(Reuters) – In the 1990s, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei visited the United States several times, hoping to learn from its leaders of industry about how to turn his Chinese telecoms equipment maker into a global company. On one trip in 1992, in the days before China had credit cards, he paid all his bills with cash from a $30,000 stash in his briefcase.

Sixteen years later, Ren was listed among Forbes’ 400 richest Chinese and Huawei was one of the world’s largest telecoms gear vendors, but the United States still treated him as an outsider. He was keen to win customers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint but had secured just $200 million of business in the U.S. in 2007 – in a $23 billion global market. Early that year, the United States effectively vetoed Huawei’s bid for U.S. networking equipment manufacturer 3Com on security grounds.

Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world | Reuters