TOC Keep your business in mind your own Your Turn

September 7, 2010

Journalists are supposed to relay the news and help us make sense of their unrelenting, unreliable rush. Beware when they make the news.

It is indeed by making up and spreading misinformation on his Twitter account that Mike Wise, the "sports columnist at the Washington Post", became fodder for Joseph Plambeck (*). Pity on the other end the anonymous hand fired for having used Wikipedia to post Tim Russert had died despite the fact NBC had imposed a temporary censorship to better profit from the event.

Yet when Paul Taylor made the news last Friday, it was as significant as it was unselfconscious (**). Responsible for the personal technology column of the Financial Times for the past eight years, he announced "later this month, I will be editing a new section on called the Connected Business. [...] [including] a new online column [...] useful to executives aspiring to make better use of technology in the workplace".

His company is shifting one more asset to its Internet reincarnation. So what, you yawn. Everybody knows newsprint is dead. And right you are. What makes his move newsworthy is the sudden jump of someone I considered, with all due respect, to be "the gadget guy" of the Financial Times into advising business executives "rather than IT professionals".

Not that I imply Paul Taylor's journalistic skills do not go beyond discussing "Wi-Fi chips" and "lithium-ion batteries". His career move underlines the exact opposite, i.e. that modern technology has lately come under a deluge of gadgets. And so, in order to thrive, businesses should listen to someone who has seen them all, for whom Microsoft is known for its Xbox as Apple is by the more successful series of its iPod, iPhone and iPad.

True, BlackBerry excepted, most gadgets are made to appeal to consumers. Look at the news. Most recently and according to Chris Nuttall, who takes Paul Taylor's mantel, the television set has turned into a magnet for gadgets which "compete for [its] input sockets" (***). And as if on cue here is Steve Jobs relaunching "its Apple TV set-top box" while aiming Ping at "the social networking business", Miguel Helft reports (****).

Yes but as the wall between home and office crumbled a while ago, so does the wall between working den and living room today. If business executives really want to know where their company data is, they better rely on someone able to track it down where ever it goes.

Perhaps I should confess my selfish interest in Paul Taylor's future. My business is eprivacy, which consumers' short-sightedness turns today into an uphill battle. Businesses are different. They may lust after consumer data and fight for their right to spam but are quite protective of their own data.

Indeed, contrary to consumers, business executives need no explanation as to why they ought to pay attention. Privacy, I never tire to stress, is about negotiating power and ultimately about money, two pillars of executive life. Let's jump start Paul Taylor's new job with a most realistic case.

Imagine a British businessman keen on winning a competitive bid in Saudi Arabia. Doesn't he want to know what is entailed by R.I.M. "placing a BlackBerry server inside Saudi Arabia to allow the government to monitor messages", an agreement Abdullah Al-Shihri called probable (*****)? Although R.I.M. encrypts business communications point to point, security is always relative to the resources hostile forces can muster against it.

Why indeed the similar pressure by the Indian government to compell R.I.M., Skype and Google to localize servers in India, which in the case of R.I.M. Joe Leahy presents as the condition for "a 60-day reprieve" (******)? Because proximate access is two thirds of possession. Let us embroider our case a bit. The deal involves a large weapon procurement contract. One party is a Saudian prince who values access to his counterpart's messages at a few hundred million dollars. For this price, wouldn't his half-brother in charge of security be able to oblige?

Where is my company data, who has access to it, these are defensive questions. Who needs access to my company data, how can it be accessed where and when needed are their more constructive cousins, ultimately leading to the crux. What information can my company get out of its data?

To these questions, gadgets bring solutions and problems both. Solutions flow from proximity to human capital. Observing how employees use current data can contribute to the experience curve of the organization and what better way to collect this new data than at the very interface with the user? Problems come from the same source. Proximity to human capital means one comes to depend on untold numbers of devices, more than one per employee, not even company-owned, easily lost, often broken, rarely supported past at most a few years and maddeningly incompatible.

Compared to what awaits companies, maintaining a fleet of owned personal computers will feel like a breeze. In response organizations are as dependent as ever on centralizing data even when its usage is decentralized, though they have less and less control over the associated server farms.

Either their employees' devices are tightly tethered to various and fractious Internet magnates keen to keep to themselves what they learn about user interactions, Apple being the most impenitent about it. Or the farms belong to cloud service providers whose security measures to protect data from unauthorized access and whose ability to release data when the corresponding contract expires in an easily exportable format remain to be tested.

At the same time Internet magnates and farm operators, Google and Facebook offer more openness and more stability. But executives should not be fooled. William Gibson sees Google as "a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products" (*******). In Saudi Arabia, British businessmen neither are citizens nor have rights to their data. On Google's Earth,William Gibson reminds us, we may be "citizens, but without rights" still.

May executives keep their minds their own to better mind their own business. May Paul Taylor points to the links which connect but do not shackle.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Washington Post Suspends Columnist for Twitter Hoax, by Joseph Plambeck (New York Times) - September 1, 2010
  • (**) ........... Look how far we have come, by Paul Taylor (Financial Times) - September 3, 2010
  • (***) ......... Small screen switches over to new era, by Chris Nuttall (Financial Times) - August 31, 2010
  • (****) ....... From Apple, a Step Into Social Media for Music, by Miguel Helft (New York Times) - September 2, 2010
  • (*****) ..... Saudi Arabia, BlackBerry reach deal on data access, by Abdullah Al-Shihri (Boston Globe) - August 29, 2010
  • (******) ... India takes aim at Skype and Google, by Joe Leahy (Financial Times) - September 2, 2010
  • (*******) . Google's Earth, by William Gibson (New York Times) - September 1, 2010
September 2010
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