Author Archives: John Byrne

Smart Phone Applications for the Pollution Guardian Project

Most Internet of Things (IOT) products are associated with using very efficient protocols such as MQTT over a special purpose radio link like LoRa. However the IOT solution we are building in the Pollution Guardian project is quite different for the following reasons:

  • As a consumer device we need interaction locally in real time.
  • Our aim was to produce hardware which could be purchased for the minimum cost to the consumer and so offer benefits to as many people as possible. This meant a minimized UI on the device itself.

These drivers brought us to the following decisions: we would build a device which reaches the internet via a smart phone bridge. We would therefore use Bluetooth Low Energy to communicate between the device and the phone.

 

 

We have chosen to build our prototypes using Android as this offers a lower cost to start up than using IOS in terms of devices and computing facilities, we have been careful however throughout the project not to lock ourselves into Android-only infrastructure solutions.

As a roadmap we realized that we needed two versions of the application: first an ‘engineering’ application optimized for our testing in laboratory and in technical field test and second a ‘consumer’ application which would deliver the experience design for a real customer.

The engineering application was the first target since it was the means to learn about our sensor package and how it reacted to changes in pollution conditions. Even for this application we have stuck to the principle of cloud data storage as the most effective means to leverage the value of the data collected – so no memory cards or local only databases were to be implemented. Because our background was in device-side development rather than infrastructure, Firebase Real Time Database emerged immediately as a very good candidate for data storage.

 

 

Further benefits of using Firebase emerged for authentication with code snippets available for sign-on and sign-up. Firebase also handles ‘beneath the hood’ all the buffering, reconnecting and error handling needed for practical operation with a mobile device where connection to the internet may or may not be available at any moment in time.

For the engineering phase, extraction of measurement results files for further offline analysis is essential and Firebase’s admin API library enabled this in a python environment. The data could then be further analyzed with data science tools in Jupyter notebooks.

So far we have extracted data from hundreds of miles of road-test and hours of static testing – the tool set works well and extremely reliably for us. Future posts will share more about the Engineering App and how we further developed our application and cloud designs.

Is it worth entering Innovate UK competitions?

We, at All about the Product, consider ourselves blessed to have won a grant from Innovate UK in the Open March 2018 competition along with our collaborators at the University of Surrey. Thus we are have now embarked on our “Pollution Guardian” Startup project. To help others considering such a bid we thought it might be useful to write this blog.

Why should you do it?

  • Investment: Quite simply the grants from Innovate can be the difference between properly exploring a business idea and letting it wither on the vine. We have found that the grant we received has made it possible not only to buy materials and hire specialist contractors but also to spend the time to unlock the potential of our own competences and experience.
  • Collaboration with academia: This benefit was not immediately obvious to us when we started our journey but has become a key component our activities as we execute our project. The good thing is that universities can attract 100% funding as a collaborator and with that you can get not only world class know-how in a certain field but also a different world view which will enrich your project no end.
  • Support from Innovate: You have a Monitoring Officer appointed who will review your project every quarter. While some may regard this as an examination to pass in order to get your funding released, we have found this discipline useful to keep structure in the project and facilitate periods of reflection on progress. Of course having the backing of ‘Supported by Innovate UK’ also opens doors and helps convey immediately that this project already has gone through a lot of scrutiny.

How do you win?

The simple answer is that we do not know. We had more than one attempt for different applications and through those attempts we did change our proposition significantly. So you could argue immediately that the application process in itself forces you to improve your idea and so is a worthwhile exercise in its own right.

Choosing the right competition to enter is often cited as very important with the idea that you should enter the most specific competition to your idea as possible. Since we won the Open Competition after failing in the Emerging and Enabling competition we cannot perhaps be considered a typical case.

Learning from previous bids and listening to feedback is important – you do get scored feedback on any bid you make. However winning is not simply getting the highest score since Innovate do consider the portfolio of investments they are making. You are only allowed to make the same application twice so do learn from previous feedback but do not give up too easily.

 

 What happens if you do win?

You get the email and read “We are pleased to inform you that your application has been successful” – so what now? In our case this was 3 months after we submitted our application and 5 months after the competition opened. You are not able to start the project immediately and there are quite a few more hoops you need to jump through before you get your all-important offer letter – in our case this took another two and a half months.

So you find yourself starting a project which you planned at least 6 months ago and in this time you may find contractors you had identified are no longer available so you will probably need to do some re-planning – things change after all.

Is it all worth it?

Our experience is that it is for the reasons outlined above. It is not necessarily a fast process for a start-up eager to get moving but if you hang in there it can be very rewarding.

https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/innovate-uk

https://allabouttheproduct.com/

 

Origins of the Pollution Guardian Startup

We have now completed the first quarter of the Pollution Guardian project part funded by Innovate UK and it seemed a good time to reflect on where this whole thing came from in the first place.

It all started from a growing awareness, through many stories in the press, about the negative health effects of air pollution. Furthermore this pollution, unlike the ‘pea-souper’ of the 1950s and 1960s was largely invisible. However its immediate term effects were not invisible to the large numbers of people suffering from various respiratory illnesses such as asthma. It seemed there should be a demand to ‘shine a light’ on this pollution.

When starting a business idea it is important not only to understand customer needs but also the business’s capability to do something about it. At All about the Product we are veterans from the mobile phone industry and are steeped in both technical and commercial experience to bring highly sophisticated consumer electronic communications products to market. Any solution we were going to build would therefore be an ‘Internet of Things’ solution.

As many people have told us, for a good product idea it is not only important to know whether there are high levels of pollution present but also there needs to be something to do about it. We therefore became interested in the effects of pollution inside vehicles where there was an opportunity to control this enclosed space more than the entire atmosphere of a city. On further investigation we found articles which showed that very often the level of pollutants inside a car exceed those at the road-side [1] – we had our application focus.

We wanted a product within economic reach of the majority of the population and therefore a low cost consumer internet of things product for use in cars and other vehicles was born.

As this idea developed, we spoke to many stakeholder organisations such as health charities, workers unions, academia and local government. What we learnt from these discussions underlined the fact that there was this invisible problem there and many felt powerless to combat it. Our motivation to do something only grew.

We put our engineering hats and did a quick study to show that producing such a product was feasible. However when we looked at the skills needed to pull this product off, we quickly realised we lacked knowledge about urban pollution and the experience of pollution measurement. Fortuitously our local University – the University of Surrey has a very strong department in this field, so we contacted Professor Kumar at the Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE) and set up a meeting. It quickly emerged that our skills complemented those of the university in making this product investigation happen. We agreed to join forces in making a bid for one of Innovate UK’s competitions and after a couple of attempts we won one! Thus the Pollution Guardian Project was born.

[1] Cepeda et al :Lancet Public Health 2017; 2:e23-34

https://allabouttheproduct.com/

https://www.surrey.ac.uk/global-centre-clean-air-research

Evolutionary crisis in smartphones?

Nokia Phone to Smartphone Evolution

For ten years now the mobile phone business has been dominated by similar looking device offerings with large touch screens and similar user experiences centred on a responsive touch interface; is this going to continue, how is the market going to evolve?

Competition as a supplier in the mobile phone business is not straightforward -the rules of the game change from time to time. The mobile phone industry has seen a number of such change cycles since the establishment of the first digital mobile phones around 1990, with different players exiting and entering the market according to their ability to compete profitably within the cycle. During each cycle, different business factors become critical within the different phases:

The impact on a supplier’s product portfolio through the change cycle is a gradual increase in the in the lifecycle of individual products, which leads in turn to a widening of the number of products offered and ultimately to a much more consumer segmented product offer.

The voice era

The first change period in the digital era was purely the ability to produce a digital mobile phone at all – leading to the development of proprietary chipsets and software. The first digital products were too large and battery life was terrible, so the following consolidation phase was one of miniaturisation and power optimisation over a period in excess of five years. As the technology reached a point where acceptable size and power consumption was available there followed a plateau period for roughly 3 years when branding, segmentation and physical cosmetics was to the fore.

The multimedia era

The next change period came in 2002 with the advent of camera phones and programmable operating systems in GSM world markets. This heralded a period of multimedia convergence in the mobile devices as music players, video players appeared alongside the ever-present camera. A further complexity was incorporated over the following 2 years as 3G WCDMA became established as a fundamental requirement of a multimedia device. It can be argued that this change cycle was still in its consolidation period when it was disrupted by the next change period in 2007 when the Apple iPhone brought fundamental innovation in the user interface and later in the software application model. For a short period of less than two years products from both cycles were active and successful in the market – it should be noted that always after a change event there is a similar period, but the Apple iPhone product paradigm became the clear winner.

The Smartphone era

Since 2008 there has been a consolidation period in what became the smartphone space with ever better cameras, better quality displays and improved computing performance to deliver a high quality experience. Today the consolidation is reaching a point where the experience difference between high end smartphones and low cost smartphones has never been smaller. The smartphone based on the iPhone of 2007 has made it through its period of consolidation without being fundamentally disrupted.

So today, the smartphone business is in a plateau period- with supplier profitability tied closely to branding and logistical excellence fighting against the gravitational pull of commoditisation.

By retaining its own proprietary platform Apple has maintained differentiation while the rest of the market shares the Android platform and has therefore experienced greater pressures. Since the chipset business in the Android space has also been horizontalised- there is pressure from Qualcomm, Samsung and the like to adopt the very latest generations of their chipsets, however these are not delivering the big improvements in user experience seen in earlier years. Product differentiation is increasingly hard and the mode of the business is moving much more to a fast moving consumer goods model – as it did in the 1998-2002 period. The greater challenge now is that the smartphone form factor does not lend itself to easy cosmetic differentiation since the front face is over 90% glass.

So unless some breakthrough innovation is made, the winners in the smartphone market will be those who possess a good brand and marketing with the operational excellence necessary to deliver really good value to the end user.

Nokia – a good time to make a come back?

Nokia 6

After largely disappearing from the mobile phone market following its acquisition by Microsoft, 2017 will see the re-emergence of the Nokia brand with products managed by HMD Global in partnership with FIH Mobile (part of Hon Hai Precision) and brand licensed from Nokia. As someone deeply involved with portfolio management at Nokia during the growth and glory days, I would like to take the opportunity to explore whether this is a good time for them to make a comeback?
In a previous blog I analysed the dynamics of the mobile phone market in terms of what facets of the overall business need to be optimised at a given point in time. In brief, my view is that the smart phone market has moved into a plateauing phase where the key strengths needed are brand, distribution and cost efficiency. So the question is whether this new Nokia set-up is well placed for this challenge?
First of all where is the Nokia brand today? Ten years ago Nokia was the leading mobile phone brand across the world except in North America, South Korea and Japan. This position had been built on fifteen years of growth – how much can this legacy be drawn on now? At its zenith Nokia stood for a perhaps contradictory combination of high technology and reliability – you could expect to get the very latest from Nokia and the products would be really tough in real life. The challenges of the 2008-2013 period largely stripped Nokia of the high technology association but today you still hear stories of how good and tough my Nokia was. The UK press has been full of stories about the resurrection for the 3310 over the last week, all very positive. So if I was to describe the Nokia brand today from a European perspective I would use words like: honest, tough and sentimental.
Distribution is the next major part of competing in today’s market scenario as with any fast moving goods business. Here HMD take responsibility for sales and FIH Mobile for manufacturing and logistics. This has the promise of being a good combination with a lot of personnel coming over from Microsoft devices business while FIH are of course a well-established world class manufacturer. Access to market in countries where operator distribution is critical will depend on the right deals being made but there is no obvious reason why this may not be the case. While a split company setup may struggle in a period where the market is changing fast with product innovation at the fore, since this is not the case at the moment there is no reason to believe this cannot succeed well.
Cost efficiency is the key to offering the value for money proposition essential in a plateauing market and in this case to compete against mainly Chinese companies which offer very keen price points. Clearly the advantage of the resonance of the Nokia brand will give the new venture an edge but as a challenger there can be no expectation of premium pricing at the beginning of sales. With the mobile phone chipset business dominated by only a few suppliers, the size of FIH/Hon Hai as a manufacturer will be important to get good pricing as well as the potential of Nokia branded goods making even a fraction of historical volumes.
So in a nutshell it would appear that the timing for a comeback looks good. Leaving re-entry any later would see the continuing in the decline of Nokia as a consumer brand – furthermore the operational mode of separate sales and manufacturing companies in partnership can work when product innovation is not the main route to success.

Radio technologies for the internet of things

This article reviews the issues when considering the choice of radio technologies when building Internet of Things systems. Our previous article proposed there were two radio technology selections to be made:

  • An ultra-low power technology to connect sensor nodes with gateway nodes to enable battery powering for ultra small devices.
  • A longer range technology to connect gateway nodes with the internet.

Ultra low power radio technologies

Given that a typical sensor node will be battery powered without re-charge over a period of the order of years, there is massive requirement for an extremely low power solution. Several radio technologies have been developed with this application in mind – of particular note Bluetooth Low Energy and Zigbee/Thread.

The case for Bluetooth is built on the universal availability of this standard in smart phones so allowing these devices to act as either gateways to cloud application, control points for the IoT system or data aggregation/display nodes for non-cloud connected cases.

The case for Zigbee and its Thread variant is built on their optimised design for connecting sensors and particularly their ability to create a mesh network which potentially extends the effective operating range of a gateway node.

Bluetooth SIG is aiming to close these functional gaps in the Bluetooth 5 release which is due late 2016 early 2017, promising in addition to mesh networking increased range. Timing is often critical for the process of choosing winning technical standards, but in this case it seems the whole IoT market has been dormant in a state of great expectation already for a number of years and therefore not a critical issue for Bluetooth.

Ultimately the winning radio standard in this case is likely to be decided by the role of the smart phone in the IoT ecosystem – if it plays an important role then Bluetooth solutions will dominate, if not then it is likely there will be less consolidation into  a single radio type.

Longer range radio technologies

For the RF connection between the gateway node and the ‘internet’, the availability of a local WLAN network has typically between the key factor driving choices as a Wi-Fi signal will usually mean lower costs and power consumption than using cellular. Indeed, Ericsson has estimated that nearly 90% of IoT devices will NOT be connected over cellular. However 5G is being designed with IoT in mind and therefore it may offer a more cost effective and robust communication solution than today’s cellular solutions, yet expectations are that this technology will not be widely available until after 2020*.

Long range IoT is currently dominated by a number of proprietary solutions such as SigFox and LoRa which have emerged to fill a gap of combining long range and low power. The price of this combination is to really cutback on data rates offered to a single node, which suits a lot of the contemporary machine to machine applications. Because of the very low bandwidth per node and their relatively long range, these solutions can be made to be a very economic solution for many applications.

Looking at past experience with mobile telephony, standardised radio solutions drive opportunities to create economies of scale and if operators create economic packages of IoT users then it is likely 5G will dominate in the long term.

*Verizon in the USA is aggressively driving 5G wireless trials and targets some early commercial deployments in 2017 for fixed site application i.e. fibre/cable replacement role, not mobility and not necessarily the scope of 5G required for lowest power IoT.

Internet of Things: Challenges using standard hardware modules

There is a huge amount of hype related to the internet of things as we have already explored in a previous blog.

However in its current state the IoT market consists primarily of a myriad of proprietary solutions optimised for a given application; with these conditions it does not seem likely that IoT will deliver on the hype around it. If that situation changed and standardised radio interfaces were used along with general purpose hardware modules which could be purposed for  application by software alone then the market could explode.

In order to make the internet of things realise its potential it is imperative that the creation of networks is both straight-forward and low cost.

The availability of wireless enabled computing elements such as the Raspberry Pi or ultra-low power elements such as the Nordic nRF52 promise to enable the creation of Internet of Things systems with very low cost and great configurability. However the reality of creating such systems is more complex than it might be.

Raspberry pi 3 with built-in wireless capability

Types of wireless compute elements

There are fundamentally two types of autonomous compute elements in IoT networks:

  • Battery powered without frequent re-charging. The over-arching design objective is minimise energy and power consumption (to use primary cells or perhaps solar charging) which prevents the use of current WLAN technologies and drives a demand to minimise processing on-board. The relevant RF communications candidates for these devices are Bluetooth and ZigBee/Thread. Generally speaking these elements require an intermediate gateway to connect to the internet. These elements will be referred to as sensor nodes.
  • Mains powered or battery with frequent re-charges. In this category ultra-low power is not a driver, RF link technologies such as standard Wi-Fi, proprietary (e.g. SigFox) or cellular are most appropriate to connect to the internet. Included in this category potentially are smart phones. These devices may either gather data themselves or else harvest it from the ultra-low power devices detailed above; in which case as well as possessing radio technology to connect to the internet, they must also contain radio technologies such as Bluetooth or ZigBee. These elements will be referred to as gateway nodes.

 

Connecting up

For a typical IoT application in addition to the elements detailed above the following are required:

  • A wireless router or a cellular base station connected to the internet.
  • A cloud application to aggregate, analyse and display data. In addition this application can also monitor and control the nodes in the network.

For this system to work in a ‘fully horizontal’ manner the interfaces between each element should be well defined and published and could therefore be connected like ‘lego’. However there are certain challenges which need to be overcome. The key questions which need to be initially addressed are:

  1. Choice of radio technology to connect the nodes.
  2. Choice of higher level communications protocol to gather/deliver information between the nodes and the internet based cloud application.

These two questions will be addressed in further blog posts appearing here.

 

 

When two worlds collide: Integrated Business Planning & Product Portfolio management.

As a long term practitioner of Product Portfolio Management (PPM), I was really interested to analyse the principles of Integrated Business Planning and compare it to the practises which I was familiar with. In the first place I must declare that in my career rather than labelling practices and processes, the modus operandi was to extend existing ways of working to become more holistic and drive higher overall business value. When looking at Integrated Business Planning, or IBP, I quickly recognised business processes which I had been operating for in excess of a decade.

The same problem from two different ends

The origins of Product Portfolio Planning lie in the desire to transform company strategy into an executable roadmap to deliver the corporate goals. In simple terms, it is about understanding the market opportunity and making decisions which maximally utilise the company’s ability to develop and market products. On the other hand, IBP was born from the world of Sales and Operations Planning (S&OP) which originated with the goal of balancing product sales and product manufacturing delivering the mantra of ‘one set of numbers’ – in other words, delivering operational excellence.

The collision between these two process philosophies is therefore natural once each has developed excellence in its original field of application: product sales performance is key intelligence for Portfolio Management whilst driving change in the selection of products is a key extension for S&OP.

The term, “Integrated Business Planning”, was originally coined by the consultants Oliver Wright who have a foundation in advising on S&OP. The aim of IBP is the integration of more company functions than S&OP, of particular relevance finance and product development, into a single regular planning cycle. The result being very similar to the regular cycles advocated in the portfolio management context.

A personal reflection

At Nokia in 2007 we implemented an organisational change which was characterised as an ‘integrated company’, the aim of which was to bring sales and operations into the same planning and decision making processes as product development. In reality this change had already started to happen ten years previously as operational excellence had developed as well as more structured product line management. Working in an integrated way had already become a way of life with functional decision taking a supporting role to the over-arching process driven, cross functional structures.

So overall it does not matter if the change to integrate a company into a common decision-making, shared-goal oriented organisation comes from S&OP or the Product Portfolio management end. Fundamentally, it makes sense for a company to operate as a single team which was our goal at All about the Product when we created our “Portgenie” Product Portfolio Management process framework.

In the end, so what?

You might accuse me of some bias, but my strongly held opinion is that there is no greater opportunity for medium and large scale businesses, than to look at how to jointly maximise product making and marketing capabilities in relation to market opportunities. Thus, I am really interested to hear the experiences of others in utilising IBP or PPM based approaches to deliver this benefit.

When does Product Portfolio Management become relevant for a growing company?

In the start-up phase a new business typically searches for the one product which can initiate some business momentum. Allied to this, following lean start-up methodologies, the product is often limited to a ‘minimum viable product’ and little attention is paid to further products or the evolution of that product into something more complete.
As the business moves into a phase of growth, the initial product becomes more complete and further products may be added to the firm’s line-up – typically products are managed in the same way as in the start-up phase. It is in this period that some Product Portfolio Management discipline can become crucial to maximising the prospects of the business.
However the traditional form of Product Portfolio Management is seen as a process for big companies with lots of activities to keep relatively remote senior management in control. So the question is how can a business benefit from Product Portfolio Management without incurring the overhead of doing so?
In a sense the question returns to one which is very familiar to a start-up: what is the minimum viable method of Product Portfolio Management?

Critical Aspects

Essentially Portfolio Management is about optimising the overall solution rather than focussing totally on the atomic constituents. What this means that any minimum portfolio management method must:
• Consider the business opportunity as a whole and so develop holistic objectives/prioritisation.
• Identify conflicts on resources between products/projects and arbitrate on them.
If these two aspects are addressed then portfolio management is already up and running!
As the business develops and grows further aspects of Portfolio Management can be added such as linkage to formal strategy, defined communications policies, standardised reporting and planned reviews.

A roadmap for Product Portfolio Management

It is recommended that any growing company should implement the minimum viable Product Portfolio Management Solution, anything less does not represent a step forward compared to managing products individually. An example template of this is Portgenie-MVP from All about the Product Ltd.
The first step of Portfolio Management(MVP) is enough to manage the portfolio operationally with consolidated plans and roadmaps without a dedicated Portfolio office, without a significant documentation, reporting burden or process load.
Elements of Product Portfolio Management can be added to the MVP state as needed by the particular business; if the company is operating over several sites then communications may be next key element to add or if strategy is changing then a formal strategic link could be added.
In essence this way of considering Product Portfolio Management makes it modular built onto a minimum core.

Minimum Core

  • Statement of business priorities
  • Roadmap of product plan
  • Resourcing plan of the roadmap
  • Decision making and conflict resolution

Modular add-ons

  • Internal/external communications policies
  • Regularised reporting rules and formats
  • Portfolio planning projects on a annual/six month cycle
  • Formal steering and followup processes
  • Linkage to strategic planning processes
  • Defined linkage to go to market projects.

Why we created PORTGENIE

Successfully managing a Portfolio of Products is much more difficult than it seems from afar. Complexity builds as a Portfolio develops from a single product, driven by increasing levels of dependency between potential product options and the reality that neither markets nor technologies stand still. Learning to master these complexities is therefore a steep and long learning curve.
From our experience leading Product Portfolio activities we know of this learning curve only too well. We also realised there was very little support out there to help master the art of Product Portfolio Management. While there are number of frameworks out there to assist with Project Portfolio Management, the case where Strategy, Marketing, Sales and Operations need to be embedded in the process is missing. We therefore decided to distill our decades of experience managing global product portfolios into a product which we call PORTGENIE.

We developed PORTGENIE with several key aims which we had learned the hard way:

  •  A Product Portfolio should be designed to deliver company strategy and not simply evolve.
  • Sufficient Portfolio space should be created to allow innovation to thrive.
  •  A Product Portfolio needs to track change in the market, competition, technology and progress in its own product development – we have learned that two ‘gears’ are needed to do this tracking.
  • Ultimately good decisions are the lifeblood of good portfolio management. Good decisions require holistic clarity of the current state and likely future trends as well as good timing.
  • Organisational commitment is built on common ways of working across functions with clear aims.

At its core PORTGENIE enables a company to get better leverage of its business domain specific knowledge and experience without having to expend effort in learning some hard lessons in the art of Product Portfolio Management.