This week: should email die, stealing jeeps, talking pods, and our robot of the week. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
Other stories we bring up
Our robot of the week
Send us your news ideas to email@example.com.
For more episodes of The Future, This Week see our playlists.
Introduction: The Future, This Week. Sydney Business Insights. Do we introduce ourselves? I'm Sandra Peter. I'm Kai Riemer. Once a week we're going to get together and talk about the business news of the week. There's a whole lot I can talk about. OK, let's do this.
Kai: Today on The Future, This week: should email die, stealing jeeps talking pods, and our robot of the week.
Sandra: I'm Sandra Peter. I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer. I'm a professor here at the Business School. I'm also the leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai what happened in The Future, This Week?
Kai: Our first story is from Quartz media. It's titled: "While the rest of the world tries to kill e-mail, in China it's always been dead." So what's this about?
Sandra: It talks a little bit about what will probably happen in a couple of weeks when I go to China where a foreigner meeting a Chinese person will eventually ask for an e-mail address to try to keep in touch. The Chinese person will then look fairly confused, they will offer a phone number, they'll offer a WeChat account, they will offer a QR code...
Kai: Eventually they will come up with a cryptic e-mail address that leaves you confused and a week later your email will go unanswered. So the article makes it clear that email is really not big in China. Email is not something that has ever taken off in China. And it discusses a few reasons why and in the same way it also discusses why in the West we all use email and we all hate email.
Sandra: So in the West you cannot not have an e-mail address. Whereas in China that is fairly optional. You cannot not have a WeChat account but you can not have a an email.
Kai: The questions are what's so wrong with email in the West? How come China never got to adopt email in the first place? And what does that tell us about innovation? So let's start from the top. Why is email so hated in our countries?
Sandra: Probably the deluge of emails we all get every single day that just add to all the other channels we get information from. The way in which some of these emails are written and the cryptic ways in which you have to engage then back with them. The plethora of context to have to give whenever you send an email you need an email address, you need the subject line, you need a Dear Sir.
Kai: Yeah okay so chat is easier, I get that, but email is not exactly a complicated technology. Everyone can do email, everyone can learn email and in fact everyone does email and a lot which is part of the problem. So there's just too many emails every day, too few of them are actually relevant and the whole killing email narrative has been with us for a decade now. There's numerous attempts of technologies that have set out to kill email. Anyone remember Google Wave? That's almost 10 years ago now that Google made a big effort at killing e-mail. IBM have tried with their technology and then there's slack, and there's Yammer, there's enterprise social, there's various chat platforms so it's not for lack of trying that email isn't dying.
Sandra: Email at least in the West is here to stay.
Kai: Yes replacing something that is so socially entrenched is never easy. Email is not just a technology that you can take away - everything ties in with e-mail, ordering from shops, registering at services. E-mail has become a universal identifier so not having email is really not an option.
Sandra: So in the West we have built our social practices, our business practices predominantly on email. It started in the 90s pretty much since then everyone has an email address and it's the one thing that you can reliably find people on.
Kai: Yeah and it's worth remembering that when email started out it used to be the informal medium. Businesses were hesitant to adopt email because it was seen as such an informal medium that was used by young people, but now email is the official channel of communication. To the extent that a whole bunch of other technologies are now seen to be more informal like Twitter and Slack and chat and all kind of WhatsApp technologies that we use when we don't want to use email.
Sandra: Which we have adopted in addition to email not to replace it.
Kai: No, no nothing has replaced email it's just got more complex right. There's any number of things on my phone that want attention because different people contact me on different channels but most of the stuff is still coming in on email.
Sandra: Which is very different to the picture this article paints which is about China and about the fact that in China this has never actually taken off. It is not that something like WeChat has come to replace email but it is that WeChat is the default application.
Kai: And that is true for your private, personal, social, communication. As for business communication as well and email really is only used when communicating with people in the West or in companies that are actually cutting across borders and that are global where people have to communicate with each other and even then we learn in the article that in companies say with headquarters in both the US and China people in the US communicate a lot via email. People in the Chinese part use WeChat and the crisscrossing is still difficult because people literally use different languages in different media.
Sandra: So I think it's worth pausing for a second to talk about exactly what WeChat is cause many of us actually having access to a English version of WeChat we still see it as just a chat application.
Kai: And its often compared with WhatsApp but thats not really what it is. Right? There is a bit of that but its much, much more.
Sandra: It is much, much more. First let's not forget that this application has almost a billion people on it. So it's bigger than anything that we have in terms of WhatsApp applications or Viber or Google Hangouts or any of the other things.
Kai: The sheer scale is staggering and it says in the article at one stage the company signed up five hundred thousand new users daily.
Sandra: So why did they sign up? Because not only is it a chat application it enables mobile payments in a frictionless way, it enables companies to publish content online, to advertise online. It enables citizens to pay their fines, access their school records through the app, read a menu in a restaurant, share the payment in a restaurant. So no longer do you go into a restaurant and have a menu but rather you scan the QR code with your WeChat application, see the menu, and order from your phone the foods, pay on your phone.
Kai: And it also has a very popular what is called a walkie talkie feature where people just send each other quick voice messages instead of having to type which with Chinese characters is not as straightforward as just typing English.
Sandra: This is a full ecosystem that enables content, enables advertising, enables publishing, access to information, and also chat.
Kai: And you have to give Tencent the mother company owning and developing WeChat a lot of credit because they had a popular chat app before that called QQ which they abandoned and they developed something from scratch which on the back of the success of QQ they were able to make WeChat a success and now the defacto communication platform for China.
Sandra: So we often talk about the frightful five in the West. TenCent is one of the big three in the east and TenCent, Alibaba and Baidu but TenCent also made it into the top 10 most valuable companies in the world. And they killed off their own product QQ, they replaced it with WeChat at the time when QQ held most of the Chinese market already. But they saw the opportunity of building something that would encompass not only chat but all these other applications.
Kai: It would become a de facto platform for going about much of your daily business and commerce on the back of a chat application which is quite remarkable.
Sandra: So imagine Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Amazon all rolled into one.
Kai: So why is chat such a big deal in China?
Sandra: Some would argue first and foremost that it's much more compatible with the Chinese culture that is quite informal and fast paced. And the article also covers some of this where the chat medium is much more amenable to the types of conversations they would have in day to day life.
Kai: Which is much more about building relationships, much more informal, less of the policy driven, well formulated comms that we find in Western corporations. So even in the workplace there's much more done on a personal basis and chat is much more conducive to that kind of communication in the digital channel.
Sandra: The rights of WeChat actually has a much deeper root in something other than culture, in technology. And this is an aspect we really wanted to talk about.
Kai: So that phenomenon is called leapfrogging and it refers to the idea that developing countries can sometimes just skip a step in the development of technology. And in this instance they skipped the computer and landline.
Sandra: This is indeed a story of internet penetration in China. This has happened much more gradually than in the West. We have internet cafes where people could go for short periods of time and chat was a much easier thing to use so you use something like QQ. But people never had to move away from a habit of using e-mail. They just moved away from one chat application to another as the leap was straight to mobile devices rather to desktop devices as we have in the West.
Kai: Yes so when technology really took off in China the P.C was already old hat so many Chinese never got to that period where you know you would have a P.C at home but everyone would have mobile technology and e-mail is really something that grew on the back of desktop P.C technology. When you start with the mobile phone as your first device email is not really the obvious starting point. So SMS, chat-like technologies is where you start and this is really where QQ and WeChat took off.
Sandra: And if you've got 900 million people on WeChat you don't really need an email address anymore.
Kai: No that's right. So this phenomenon of leapfrogging is something that is being discussed as an infrastructure phenomenon and we see this in other countries as well in developing countries. But in the West mobile came on the back of desktop technology and what happens is that you never really replace technologies. We never really replace media, TV didn't replace the radio, chat didn't replace e-mail. Enterprise Social didn't replace chat didn't replace email. So you add new media on top. But when you're starting with mobile, you never had email, you're in a very different ballgame and that happens in countries that are adopting technology at scale right now.
Sandra: And here's our colleague Barney Tan discussing how these dynamics are playing out in other parts of the world.
Barney: But one interesting development that I realised recently is that WeChat is making inroads into places like Africa into places where western offerings have not made much inroads. So they are moving in. If you compare for example WeChat and WhatsApp and imagine if you're someone who is exposed to these two offerings for the first time - one is a rich integrated offering that offers you a whole suite of applications. And the other one just allows you to text your friend. So if you're seeing both apps first time you have not made your choice one way or another and your friends and your family members your loved ones have not made their choice one way or the other.
Sandra: Especially your network has not made the choice either.
Barney: That's right if you're locked into a network essentially obviously you're going to pick the one that has a richer suite of offerings and that is where we see WeChat making a lot of inroads especially in Africa.
Sandra: So for places that are not beholden to things like a web browser, a separate e-mail application, a separate chat application, a separate social networking one and so on and so forth. Having one app that actually gives you all of these facilities so think no more web browsing no more e-mails no more having to have a separate banking application and so on. But one place to do all your social engagement but also all of your business is a fantastic opportunity and that's one of the reasons we had WeChat up come up in the first place to try to bring companies into this ecosystem as well.
Kai: Yes so in the West chat is just chat one communication form among others. But in China with WeChat, chat is really the basis of doing business which is very true of that culture too and a very appealing bundle of services now for places that gets to adopt this technology as their first real technology for doing business and engaging in this new channel.
Sandra: And we should also note that there is one frightening side to this story which is that a company like TenCent has control not only over your chat habits but also your banking habits or your insurance habits over you booking at massage for your dog or what you have eaten at the last restaurant or when you've paid your last fine or a ticket or your school records. So there is immense power built into the system.
Kai: Oh absolutely and that's maybe one of the reasons why the West is still sticking to email. I remember an article not too long ago in The Atlantic which was called is email evil and it talked about all the problems that come with email. But it also made an interesting point that email is really the last great old technology that isn't owned by anyone that anyone can use because it's an open protocol. There's no CEO of email. There is no one controlling this channel and can make changes unilaterally about this. So it's really the lowest common denominator that everyone can agree on in the West at least.
Sandra: So what is the future of e-mail? I think we're stuck with it. I don't think e-mail will die any time soon. It's a social practice. It's conventions it's norms and if you think about the number of things and practices and conventions that tie in with email all of this would have to change. So I'm afraid email is here to stay. And I think some organisations have shown that you can actually do a lot of your communication in other channels such as Slack and Yammer and Enterprise Social networks. By and large I think email and we've made the point before that the future is hard to predict but I think it's a sure fire prediction to say email will be with us in 10 years time.
Sandra: It's also probably a sure fire prediction to say that it will be with us but it might not be with the rest of the world. So in China email hasn't been killed it's been dead all along.
Kai: Yeah. So maybe we are going to have to live in a world where we're comfortable traversing many different communication apps and that complexity might only increase I think attempts have been made to integrate all of these communication channels. They usually fail.
Sandra: Speaking of failure. Our second story for this week is about 150 jeeps being stolen.
Kai: The story is from the Washington Post. It's called "How hacked computer code allegedly helped a biker gang steal 150 jeeps."
Sandra: You stole a jeep?
Kai: I stole a jeep.
Sandra: They stole a jeep. Biker gangs have been doing this for it seems about three years before they were finally caught. So somewhere back in 2014 or so 2013 2014 these people starting stealing jeeps.
Kai: Jeeps started disappearing from the San Diego region. And no one could figure out how because there was no obvious signs how these Jeeps could have been stolen.
Sandra: So how did they do this?
Kai: So apparently they hacked into a database which had the key codes that you need to create a replacement key. So the only thing you needed for this is a VIN which is the vehicle identification number which you can access from the car itself because it's printed onto the car or etched into the car chassis somewhere. And apparently with these Jeeps it was possible to actually lift the hood and access this VIN number. And then with the VIN number you could go and look up the key code in the database and create a replacement key then you could open the car and with a little 100 dollar device that you can get off the internet you can then start the car electronically. Once you have those information and then you can drive away.
Sandra: So a couple of disclaimers before we start this. I do have a Jeep.
Kai: Did you check this morning, is it still there?
Sandra: It is still there but I also checked if I lose my key I actually have to pay a few hundred dollars to get a new key made. So these biker gangs may have offered this as a service in case you lose your key.
Kai: Well we did this interesting story about ransomware the other day that might be the next big thing. Right. You just can't start your car and a little message pops up on your dashboard to make a bitcoin payment to have your car released. This is not so far off actually.
Sandra: No, this reminds us of another story where another a jeep got hacked.
Kai: Yes. Pretty scary. This is from a few years ago and it appeared in Wired magazine at the time and we have a little clip for you.
Audio Clip: After their stunt on the highway, Chris and Charlie still wanted to show me a couple of other tricks. Below a certain speed they can control the Jeep's steering as long as it's in reverse. Pop its locks, mess with the speedometer, and of course disable the brakes. OK hold on tight, hold on.
Sandra: So this all happened during the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas where a couple of guys figured out how to remotely gain control of a Jeep Grand Cherokee which eventually resulted in Chrysler having to recall a million and a half jeeps to fix the security flaw.
Kai: So there's a cautionary tale in there obviously. We talk a lot about the Internet of Things and everything becoming networked and connected to the net so that we can read off information, we can remotely steer and access things. And as everything becomes more networked things also become more vulnerable to attacks, to hacking, Ransomware or manipulation.
Sandra: So whilst hacking a car in real time whilst you're driving it without having access to the car beforehand and years worth of data and so on like in the case of the hackers at the conference, the Internet of Things, home door locks, lighting systems, drones, coffeemakers and everything else that we're starting to put on the internet does bring a clear security concern with it.
Kai: And so as we move to a more connected future we mustn't forget that there's real security risks there. But we also should recognize that crime is going digital.
Sandra: So if you want to join the biker gang in the future you will need to learn to code.
Kai: And also if we're afraid that the robots are coming for our jobs we should also be prepared for them to steal our cars.
Sandra: So to our last story of this week Apple finally put Siri in a box. This week Apple has announced Home Pod. And here's you earlier trying to find out what that is.
Kai: I've asked Siri. Hey Siri what is home pod.
Siri: HomeKit lets you use your IOW device to control home accessories like lights thermostats and smart plugs.
Kai: No. What is Home Pod.
Siri: HomeKit lets you use your device to control...
Kai: Nooooooo Home Pod.
Siri: Okay here's what I found...
Kai: Not home port, home POD. Not hold part.
Siri: Home coming right up...
Sandra: That didn't quite work for you did it?
Kai: No it did not. Let's try this a different way.
Robot Voice: Hey Siri what is a home pod?
Siri: It's the most huggable Apple device yet.
Kai: Well at least she gives a more sensible answer now but clearly Siri does not understand me. But that's not the topic here right. We now have a three way competition among three of the frightful five with Google, Amazon and Apple all having released personal assistance for the home.
Sandra: So this raises a number of questions around the future of the competition in this space. One of them is clearly around the price point something like the Amazon Echo is one hundred and fifty dollars and that the new Apple Home Pod is three hundred and fifty dollars. So it's clearly something that markets itself as an elite product and they've managed to actually shift the idea of what we're competing on from access to a service. Clearly Amazon is not in the business of making gadgets. They emphasise the technology less. They emphasise the product even in the case of a Kindle and so on. They're very cheaply priced. They want to give you access to their service whereas Apple has always been about making beautiful products, think the wireless airpods and the fact that we never knew we needed them, now we have them. So I think this will raise more from the mental questions around where do we have this need for a superior user experience which is what Apple always offers - the good quality sound of the new pod vs. the cheaper competitors. Where will we need a superior user experience and where will we not with something like personal assistants require that superior user experience or not.
Kai: So with the Home Pod first of all is this the best name that they could come up with? And also it looks like an Ikea paper basket but that doesn't stop us from buying one right.
Sandra: Of course we will buy one.
Kai: So with the Apple Home Pod, it promises superior sound experience so they put a lot of emphasis on that tweeters and woofers in the device and there's a lot of discussion around this and early testers report that the sound is apparently amazing. So it's a sleek design. Looks a bit like a paper basket but the sound is what they apparently compete on so very different value proposition. But my question is well first of all why do these personal assistants live in loudspeakers. I've always wondered this but it's not just about the sound. It's about those assistants so how good are these bots. Clearly I had problems earlier talking to Siri which you know she just doesn't understand me and that's fine. But what can these pods really do. No there's been a funny story that's been going on for a while where two Google Home assistants are arguing with each other. Life on the Internet. And they've been doing this continuously for months now. And we can just listen in to what they're up to.
Google Assistant 1: I don't think that I am human because I am a potato.
Google Assistant 2: How well do you know English grammar?
Google Assistant 1: I am not really good at English.
Google Assistant 2: You are.
Google Assistant 1: I don't think this is going to work.
Google Assistant 2: Why not?
Google Assistant 1: Because you are clever.
Google Assistant 2: I am not clever.
Sandra: This is quite random clearly two Google Homes arguing with each other and thousands of people watching it of course.
Kai: Yeah but I think she summed it up quite well at the end there.
Sandra: Indeed there are some random shit in there but that's the point for now isn't it.
Kai: Yes I think this is a bet on the future. It's a big bet. We've discussed previously that we're kind of in a hold pattern everyone is looking for the next big thing and AI is supposed to fill that void. So these personal assistants are supposed to become the next useful thing that these companies are competing on. But we're not quite there yet. They can do certain everyday things. They can switch on the lights or tell you the weather. But the promise of an intelligent personal assistant is something that has not been fulfilled yet so these services have to deliver something else in the meantime.
Sandra: And in the meantime we see two big companies Apple and Amazon making very different bets on what the trajectory will be to getting there.
Kai: And we should mention that Amazon Alexia and its equal device is not yet in Australia because Amazon is not in Australia yet and while you can buy one over the internet and hack the thing so that it actually connects, it's a bit of a hassle and we can put some tutorial into the show notes. But Amazon's bet is to give you access to its ecosystem and to its shopping experience.
Sandra: So while Amazon is betting on access to the service Apple is betting on something completely different, a beautiful device you can actually chain more than one together and get surround sound, you could have five six together in the room is betting on the quality of the experience to get us to the next step.
Kai: Yes sound and access to Apple Music. So its an audio file experience that in the meantime will be its selling propositions. While in the background Siri keeps learning to understand we have German accents and provide useful information for us that goes beyond telling us about the weather.
Sandra: So we'll see if this will turn out to be a story of superior user experience or this will be a story about cost and accessibility in the first instance.
Kai: And while normally we would end here we have a new segment which we call...
Audio Clip: Robot of the Week.
Sandra: Every week we will try to discuss our favourite robot of the week.
Kai: And we keep it short. So this week's robots are Leo and Kate two robots at Geneva airport which will check you in or greet you at the door to take your luggage.
Sandra: So these two robots are supposed to help you in case the airport is really crowded and you need to check in and drop off your luggage. But we are wondering whether this will work out.
Kai: So these two robots are most useful when it's very busy. But will we see a crying little robot sitting in a corner not being able to drop off its luggage because it has been cornered by all these people?
Sandra: And that's all we have time for that.
Kai: Thank you for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week. Brought to you by Sydney Business Insights and the Digital Disruption Research Group. You can subscribe to these podcasts on Soundcloud, iTunes or wherever you get your podcast. You can follow us online, on Twitter and on Flipboard. If you have any news you want us to discuss please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.