Technology companies have long been claiming to listen to customers. Now one of them is taking the conversation further, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
It’s become almost a cliché that technology companies, gadget makers and high-tech service providers have been learning to listen to their customers. Examples abound, from Apple succumbing to the demand for large-screen smartphones despite a near-religious adherence to smaller formats, to Facebook putting more privacy controls in the hands of its users.
But now one company is taking the conversation further: listening to both the customer and the community. Seiko Epson, known for both its pioneering watches and its printing and robotics solutions, believes that it is no longer enough merely to give customers what they want.
“We have to listen to both our customers and to our society,” said Minoru Usui, president and CEO of Seiko Epson, speaking at the CeBIT technology fair in Hannover, Germany, last week. “We want to help make the world a better place and we are determined to make Epson a company that is indispensable in that process. But we can only do this by listening to society.”
The result is that the company has become fiercely focused on reducing the waste resulting from one of the business world’s most wasteful activities: printing.
Three years ago, Usui declared that his company would “make printers that are faster, more beautiful and more efficient than ever before”. Now, he believes, the company has achieved its goal.
CeBIT saw the launch of the new Epson PaperLab, a recycling machine that can fit in any large office. Designed to allow printed paper to be reused, it shreds and pulps the used pages, and spits out clean paper.
However, rather than it being the sole focus of Epson’s CeBIT presence, it was just one element of the organisation’s wide-ranging strategy to transform the office.
“We are exploring the world of tomorrow through the eyes and minds of the workforce of today,” Usui said during a keynote address at the event.
Later, in an interview, he elaborated.
“One thing is clear: there are going to be a lot of advances in Internet and cloud technology, and we have to look at what we can do with our technology and see how we can adapt our products to make a contribution. For example, as technology evolves, there is a need for ever-higher productivity, and to make things lot easier to use than they are now, while having less impact on the environment.
“If we look at what society wants and what we can deliver, there are environmental areas where we can contribute, there is a need for greater precision, or the same precision in a more compact format. We will focus on areas where our technology is suited to fill the gaps.”
The company is specifically focused on four areas of innovation, namely inkjet printer technology, visual communications, wearables and robotics.
Although laser printing exceeds inkjet technology almost fourfold in the global office market, Usui believes the latter has far greater potential in the workplace.
“In laser printing, there have been no technical advances in recent years and users seem quite dissatisfied with its high running costs. We hear from many customers they want to print in colour, but don’t because of the high cost. Inkjet technology has helped release people from restrictions they have felt about office printing today.”
Advances in inkjet printing technologies also mean fewer moving parts in Epson machines, and therefore less energy consumption. This has helped some large corporations make dramatic reductions in their own carbon footprints.
Usui points that many photocopier companies have been trying to reinvent themselves by putting an effort into managed print services. However, he says, this does not address fundamental issues like printer speed and cost of operating. As a result, he believes, 2017 will see a tipping point in the rate at which companies move over the inkjet printing.
While Epson has long served the consumer and small business market with inkjet printers, it also used CeBIT to unveil an enterprise offering. The WorkForce Enterprise WF-C20590 is not as sexy a name as the PaperLab, but it is possibly more important strategically. An A3 multifunction printer, it is Epson’s first corporate high-speed inkjet line head printer, and prints 100 pages per minute – which the company calls “breakthrough speed”.
The machine’s junior sibling, the WorkForce Pro WF-C869R, aimed at slightly smaller offices, uses a highly economical ink solution called the Epson Replaceable Ink Pack System, which allows the company to claim the lowest-cost colour printing in its class.
“Products like the high speed printers address cost issues, and innovations like the PaperLab address environmental issues,” said Usui. “We are taking an overall look at the business of printing, and removing concerns and restrictions one by one.”
Naturally, there are likely to be conflicting demands when society is pulling in numerous directions. But Usui believes this should be built into business strategy.
“Yes, there are lots of needs in society. However, it’s important for us to look at megatrends, understand the things that definitely will happen, and look at ourselves and see to which ones we are able to contribute.”
When will we stop calling them phones?
If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.
Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?
It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.
Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.
It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.
That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.
Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti, Admyt and Kaching.
Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.
Who has time for phone calls?
The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.
The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,
This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.
That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.
Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.
Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.
Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.
More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time.
I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.
There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.
MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps
MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.
The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.
“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.
Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”
“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”
“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.