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Goldstuck on Gadgets

Inside the Internet of Things

We heard much about the Internet of Things and Big Data, but now it’s getting practical, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK hears from a senior Microsoft exec.

If the Internet of Things and Big Data sound like impersonal approaches to high-tech, listen again. Increasingly, the two are being put together with mobility and social networking to allow companies to respond with unprecedented speed to customer demands.

Take the Red Robin restaurant chain in the United States. A while ago, they tested a new hamburger across the chain, and gave their frontline waiters devices on which to input customer feedback – likes and dislikes – about the burger. Normally, the testing, feedback and response loop would have taken 12 to 18 months. This time round, they were able to get a new, improved burger onto the menu within four weeks.

And there was an unexpected bonus.

Not only was it great that they could respond to customer feedback, but they found employees were so much happier,” recounts Susan Hauser, Corporate Vice President for the Enterprise and Partner Group at Microsoft, which is assisting in implementing such solutions to business problems. “They feel they’re making a difference, they’re being listened to and they feel more like they are part of the company. It makes a big difference in employer loyalty.

Susan Hauser, Corporate Vice President for the Enterprise and Partner Group at Microsoft

Microsoft also worked with Nike and consultants Cognizant to connect storefronts with Nike’s business intelligence portal. This not only helps them get a better handle on store inventory, but also to understand immediately what’s selling and what’s not, so that research and development cycles can be shortened.

In South Africa, it helped Intervate develop the Johannesburg Road Agency’s Find & Fix app, which allows motorists to report issues like potholes and broken traffic lights as they encounter them, with one or two clicks on a smartphone. The responsiveness of both the app and JRA is helping to revive the credibility of the much-maligned agency.

We’re moving away from a focus on releasing new versions of technology for its own sake, to addressing how technology can drive business outcomes,” says Hauser, whose enterprise division generates 55% of Microsoft’s overall revenue.

The four big tends that Gartner calls the “nexus of forces: – Social, Mobile, Cloud and Big data – she says “are driving our customers to take a new look at business, and allow them to look at a different way to connect with customers”.

Small businesses are also benefiting. Hauser’s division has guided 2000 start-ups in leveraging the Microsoft cloud computing platform, Azure, which is designed for quick building, deployment and management of applications in the cloud. The beauty of Azure is that it does not tie customers into Microsoft products: it is also compatible with the open source operating system Linux.

Not that it is all altruistic. Microsoft’s leadership in cloud solutions – it dominates the category along with VMWare – has propelled the company’s share price to a 14-year high. Sales of Office 365, the cloud-based version of Microsoft’s market-leading productivity software, has more than doubled its original targets.

We are seeing incredible momentum,” says Hauser, pointing to case studies ranging from patient care to kitchen appliances to in-flight entertainment. “The Internet of Things is about going beyond traditional development and seeing how we can we help customers leverage things like mobility and sensors and the cloud to make smarter, better decisions.

Car manufacturers, retailers, and banks, for example, are all looking at how they can leverage it to understand their customers, to make decisions faster, to get analytical information faster, and to service customers better. Across all sizes of business, and through to consumers, we are seeing technology truly enabling businesses and lives.

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