The Internet of Things and tech trends IT leaders should have on their radar for 2017

(Courtesy of Jacksonville Business News)

A technological evolution called the Internet of Things – defined as the digital connection via the Internet of mobile devices and everyday objects – should be at the top of IT leaders’ agendas for 2017. Early adapters of IoT have seen major transformations of their businesses, as IoT helps drive operational efficiency, excellence and revenue.

One such company is a laundry delivery service in Kansas City. Before a solution implemented by Sprint, managing a fleet of vans was unwieldy for the company. Some issues included not knowing its vehicles’ locations, providing drivers with directions was cumbersome, customer feedback was difficult to gather, and measuring driver efficiency was almost nonexistent. By simply plugging a small device called an OBD II (on-board diagnostic II) into each van, these problems were eliminated. Every vehicle built and sold in the U.S. after 1996 has the port necessary for the device, according to Mohamad Nasser, general manager at Sprint’s IoT Business Unit.

“You just plug it in. It’s very easy,” Nasser said. “Anybody can do it. Even my grandma can do it.”

IoT is not exclusive to big business; small businesses should be excited, too, said Nasser. The cost of entry is extraordinarily low. The Kansas City laundry service pays about $30 dollars a month for its OBD II devices.

“IoT can transform small and medium-sized business and enterprise absolutely equally,” Nasser said. “The barrier to entry in terms of cost is low enough (for small businesses), and the sophisticated features are strong enough for enterprise.”

In addition to IoT, below are two additional tech trends IT leaders should be paying attention to this year.

Immersive technology

Virtual and augmented reality are the hot-button topics within immersive technology, a term defined as tech that puts users into virtual environments. While VR is not fully mature and is in the early stages of its business utility, forward-thinking companies can achieve competitive advantages by expediting the exploration of the technology.

“It hasn’t quite come of age for B2B yet. Slowly, slowly it’s making its way,” Nasser said.

Some companies are using VR as a sales tool, offering customers product demos before their potential purchase. Sports teams, for example, show prospective season-ticket holders views from the seats they are considering buying.

Nasser offered Otis Elevator as an example of a company using an AR solution to make servicing its products more efficient. Codes on Otis’ hardware allow staff at the corporate office to identify problems and deploy the right resources to fix them, rather than sending a technician to trial-and-error the issue. When technicians view the codes on elevator hardware through AR goggles, they can see how to fix that particular problem.

“Diagnosing the problem using virtual or augmented reality and fixing the problem with these tools shorten the time needed to correct the problem,” Nasser said.

VR and AR are not ready, as some would claim, to take over the entire business world quite yet. It’s still cost prohibitive for some small businesses. The advice to IT shops at smaller companies in particular is to keep it on their radar.

Adaptive IT

Small businesses are often more nimble than their larger counterparts, a dynamic that makes them well-suited to capitalize on our third trend – adaptive IT.

Adaptive IT is the state of being prepared for change in our rapidly evolving technological world – the ability to punch up new solutions to accomplish a business’ moving targets.

“Today’s reality is that IT shops are being challenged dramatically to cope with this, and a lot of it has to do with old infrastructure, old design,” Nasser said. “I call it spaghetti code. The systems have been built to help support these businesses over many, many years. So people and companies are having to do a transformation of their business to get into this digital world. That’s not just an evolution, it’s more of a revolution.”

Because smaller businesses have less legacy code to wade through, they often have an advantage when it comes to adaptive IT.

“It’s easier for them to dump the old stuff and go for the new stuff,” Nasser said. “I think it can be harder for the bigger companies and large enterprises to do so because of all their legacy issues.”

Amazon rolls out chatbot tools in race to dominate voice-powered tech

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SAN FRANCISCO Inc’s (AMZN.O) chief technology officer is working toward a day when people can control almost any piece of software with their voice.

The company on Wednesday rolled out the technology powering Alexa, its voice assistant that competes with Apple Inc’s (AAPL.O) Siri, to developers so they can build chat features into their own apps, CTO Werner Vogels said in an interview. The service, Amazon Lex, was in a preview phase since late 2016.

The move underscores how Amazon is racing to be the top player in voice-controlled computing, after losing out in mobile to Apple and Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google.

Vogels said that Amazon’s headway in processing how humans write and speak would make conversational assistants or “chatbots” more helpful than the clunky tools they’ve been in the past.

“There’s massive acceleration happening here,” he said before speaking at Amazon’s cloud-computing summit in San Francisco. “The cool thing about having this running as a service in the cloud instead of in your own data center or on your own desktop is that we can make Lex better continuously by the millions of customers that are using it.”

Processing vast quantities of data is key to artificial intelligence, which lets voice assistants decode speech. Amazon will take the text and recordings people send to apps to train Lex – as well as Alexa – to understand more queries.

That could help Amazon catch up in data collection. As popular as Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices are, such as Echo speakers, the company has sold an estimated 10 million or more. Apple has sold hundreds of millions of iPhones and other devices with Siri.

Vogels said people use Alexa for many tasks, from helping them cook to playing music, while they talk to assistants on their phones in fewer scenarios like when driving a car.

As with other cloud-based services, Amazon will charge developers based on how many text or voice requests Lex processes.

Still, the biggest payoff may come from e-commerce, which has already attracted many to build chatbots. Amazon has begun offering Alexa-only shopping deals to encourage purchases by voice, and Facebook Inc (FB.O) this week said its virtual assistant, called M, can help users order food from

“Voice is a big part of the computer interface of the future,” said Gene Munster, a veteran equity analyst and now head of research at Loup Ventures. “Whoever owns voice will be the gateway of commerce.”

The three B’s of cybersecurity for small businesses

(Courtesy of Jacksonville Business Journal)

Large-scale cyberattacks with eye-watering statistics, like the breach of a billion Yahoo accounts in 2016, grab most of the headlines. But what often gets lost in the noise is how often small and medium-sized organizations find themselves under attack.

In the last year, half of American small businesses have been breached by hackers. That includes Meridian Health in Muncie, Indiana, where 1,200 workers’ W-2 forms were stolen when an employee was duped by an email purporting to come from a top company executive. Many small companies are just one fraudulent wire transfer away from going out of business.

There’s lots of advice available about how to fight cybercrime, but it’s hard to tell what’s best. I am a scholar of how businesses can more effectively mitigate cyber risk, and my advice is to know the three “B’s” of cybersecurity: Be aware, be organized and be proactive.

Here’s how more companies can boost their cybersecurity preparedness without breaking the bank.

Be aware

The best defenses against these types of attacks involve skepticism and vigilance. Attackers can be very clever and persistent: If just one person has one weak moment and clicks on one malicious link, an entire network can be compromised.

Most companies go to great lengths to protect their physical assets and personnel. But many do not take similar precautions with their digital information. A key computer may be kept disconnected from the internet, but if it accepts flash drives or rewriteable CDs, or if its password is easy to guess, the information is just as vulnerable.

Small business owners need to prioritize cybersecurity. Without proper preparation, even large companies can find themselves unprepared for cyberattacks. When Sony was hacked in 2011, it did not have an executive focused solely on information security. But hiring someone did not prevent another hack in 2014.

Be proactive

Planning ahead is vital, instead of just being reactive. The National Institute for Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework lists five main functions of cybersecurity efforts: Identify vulnerabilities, protect against attacks, detect anyone who gets through, respond to the attack quickly and recover after the attack has been stopped.

Some companies are already receiving advice that following the NIST guidelines can reduce legal liability if cybersecurity problems arise or are discovered. Companies can also work with colleges and universities to create cybersecurity clinics, or even consider buying cyber risk insurance.

There’s no way to avoid being the target of a cyberattack, but that doesn’t mean becoming a victim. Simple steps can have huge results: The Australian government reported resisting 85 percent of cyberattacks by taking three basic steps: restricting which programs can run on government computers, keeping software updated regularly and minimizing the number of people who have administrative control over networks and key machines.

Cybersecurity doesn’t have to be rocket science; it’s just computer science.