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Change the way we do business

download-1Banks think it could be the future of financial transactions, while diamond miners hope it will help end the trade in conflict diamonds.

And this week the UK’s chief scientific adviser encouraged the British government to adopt the technology.

But what exactly is it and why is it causing such a stir? Technology of Business (tries) to explain.

Does it have anything to do with bicycles?

No. Blockchain is a method of recording data – a digital ledger of transactions, agreements, contracts – anything that needs to be independently recorded and verified as having happened.

The big difference is that this ledger isn’t stored in one place, it’s distributed across several, hundreds or even thousands of computers around the world.

But how does it work exactly?

Digital records are lumped together into “blocks” then bound together cryptographically and chronologically into a “chain” using complex mathematical algorithms.

This encryption process, known as “hashing” is carried out by lots of different computers. If they all agree on the answer, each block receives a unique digital signature.

“You don’t store details of the transaction, just the fact that it happened and the hash of the transaction,” explains Adrian Nish, head of threat intelligence at BAE Systems.

Once updated, the ledger cannot be altered or tampered with, only added to, and it is updated for everyone in the network at the same time.

What’s so clever about that?

Well, the distributed nature of a blockchain database means that it’s harder for hackers to attack it – they would have to get access to every copy of the database simultaneously to be successful.

It also keeps data secure and private because the hash cannot be converted back into the original data – it’s a one-way process.

So if the original document or transaction were subsequently altered, it would produce a different digital signature, alerting the network to the mismatch.

In theory then, the blockchain method makes fraud and error less likely and easier to spot.

Is this a new thing?

The idea has been around for a couple of decades, but came to prominence in 2008 with the invention of Bitcoin, the digital currency.

Bitcoins are created by computers solving complex mathematical puzzles and this requires lots of computing power and electricity. Blockchain is the technology underpinning it.

But there isn’t just one program – lots of companies, from Ethereum to Microsoft, are developing their own blockchain services. Some are open to all (“unpermissioned”, in the jargon), others restrict access to a select group (“permissioned”).

Why are the banks so excited?

“Banks do very similar things to each other, even though they compete,” says Simon Taylor, vice-president of blockchain research and development at Barclays.

“They basically keep our money safe and a big computer keeps track of who has what. But getting these computers to talk to each other is remarkably complex and expensive – the tech is getting a little old,” he says.

If banks started sharing data using a tailor-made version of blockchain it could remove the need for middlemen, a lot of manual processing, and speed up transactions, says Mr Taylor, thereby reducing costs.

Banks Technology

downloadThat was the key message emerging last week from FinTech City London, a series of events for financial services technology professionals organised by the CEO Agenda and Icon Corporate Finance.

Fintech, as financial services technology is modishly called, is enabling nimbler, hi-tech companies to re-engineer most financial activities, from payments processing to personal loan applications, and cut out the middleman.

It’s what Clayton Christensen, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, calls “disruptive innovation“.

While the things we do with money – save, borrow, invest, spend – have not changed much over the centuries, the way we interact with financial institutions is “drastically changing”, said Alex Scandurra, director of innovation strategy and business development at Barclays.

‘The micro multinational’

And that’s largely to do with mobile, open-source databases and cloud computing. About three-quarters of the UK population owns a smartphone, and there are more than five billion mobile phones globally.

“As a result of the proliferation of technology, digital, and now mobile with it, the barriers to entry have significantly decreased,” said Mr Scandurra. “Now we’re seeing that teams of 10 to 15 people can actually take on the large incumbents all around the world.”

Whereas big financial institutions have to cater for a mass market and try to please everybody, small fintech companies can focus on niche markets, globally spread. They can form what futurist and writer Alvin Toffler called “the micro multinational”.

One such company is Funding Circle, the peer-to-peer (P2P) lending service launched in 2010, which aims to provide businesses with access to loan funding while providing investors with a decent return on their money. Its 65,000-plus investors have lent over £208m to UK businesses so far.

In March 2013, the UK government began lending £20m to British businesses through Funding Circle as part of its Business Finance Partnership scheme.

Co-founder and chief executive Samir Desai said that while his company had certainly benefited from the 2008-13 banking crisis and the consequent collapse of trust in High Street banks, it is new open-source technologies and databases that have enabled P2P lending companies to grow.

“Every loan that goes through Funding Circle is funded on average by 700 different people,” he said “Those loans can then be bought and sold by other investors through a secondary market. So we have as many mini-loans going through our system as any bank, and thousands of secondary market transactions going through each day.

“We couldn’t have done that without these new open-source technologies.”

New credit scoring system?

Open-source databases that anyone can access and adapt, such as Hadoop and Cassandra, can process and structure vast amounts of data from a wide and growing range of sources, including social media, helping P2P lenders and other financial companies assess creditworthiness to much higher degrees of accuracy than before.

“Banks haven’t started to embrace these new types of technology,” said Mr Desai. “So we can lend to businesses they wouldn’t even consider.”

So now even your Twitter comments could affect whether or not you’re granted a loan, and companies like Facebook could end up displacing old-fashioned credit reference agencies.

Giles Andrews, chief executive and co-founder of Zopa, a more established P2P lender founded in 2005 that has lent more than £455m to individuals and sole traders, agrees that customer data – its efficient collection and analysis – is key to success these days.

“The business is not a bank and I’m not a banker,” he added. “We’re more of a data company.”

This is why Zopa has just hired its first ever chief data scientist, he said, who comes not from a bank, but from Amazon, the online retailer.

Legacy issue

Newer fintech companies are not encumbered by old technology, the so-called legacy systems that traditional banks struggle to integrate with newer software and hardware.

The Lloyds Banking Group IT glitch, which affected debit card and cash machine transactions at the weekend, is the latest in a long line of big bank technology problems.

“It’s an opportunity for the new challengers who don’t have that legacy issue,” said Sue Langley, chief executive of UK Trade & Investment’s Financial Services Organisation, “because it’s much easier with a blank sheet of paper to…. come up with something new.”

“The banks have an increasing need for technology,” said Mark Boleat, chair of the City of London’s policy and resources committee. “Some of that comes from their huge IT departments, but an awful lot of it is coming from new and start-up businesses.”

Alex McCracken, director of ventures groups at Silicon Valley Bank’s UK arm, believes we will see a polarisation in financial services, with global all-you-can-eat banks serving multinationals at one end, and small, technology-driven niche players serving local needs at the other.

“Corporates and small businesses are going to be able to pick and choose their niche service providers,” he said.

The mouse that roared

Mobile payment companies like Square, simpler direct debit providers like GoCardless, and foreign currency specialists like The Currency Cloud, all are offering financial services at lower cost and greater convenience through clever use of the latest technologies.

Are the big banks running scared?

Last week, US banking giant Wells Fargo banned some of its staff from investing in for-profit P2P lending companies, such as Lending Club and Prosper, admitting that they were competitors.

That is the wrong approach, argues Barclays’ Alex Scandurra. His bank is collaborating more with tech entrepreneurs and start-ups, as well as offering non-banking products such as Cloud It, an online data storage service.

He calls the approach “amplification through collaboration”.

Labour leader Ed Miliband may want to increase competition by forcing big UK banks to offload High Street branches, but to many observers, this is a red herring.

A hunting ground for cybercriminals

download-2The interconnectivity of social media means it is a perfect hunting ground for illegal activity, and increasingly people are realising that their “friend” many not actually be their friend.

Cybercrime on social networks can be broken down into three categories:

  • the traditional broad-sweep scams, trying to lure you to click on something or visit pages that will push malware on to your computer
  • searching for careless public exposure of personal data
  • using social media as a platform to connect, exchange ideas and trade stolen information

Malware, scams and ransomware

The first category is the most widespread.

“The problem with social media is that people have an inherent trust,” explains Mark James, security specialist with IT security firm ESET. “And that is what is being tapped into by those cybercriminals.”

“People still believe that you have to click on something and download a file to be infected,” he says.

“This really isn’t the case anymore. There are things like drive-by-downloads, infected adverts and things like that. It’s very easy to be compromised on your machines.”

In many cases the initial malware is just a gateway into the system. It doesn’t do any real harm, yet. But once a back door is established to the infected computer, that access may then be put up for sale.

A package of data offering, of access to thousands of infected computers, will be snapped up by another criminal for use in a variety of ways.

With access to the computers received, criminals may then install software which, say, hijacks the victim’s online banking, or reads usernames and passwords.

One of the most profitable scams is installing ransomware, malicious software that encrypts the data on a victim’s computer and then asks for payment before restoring the system to its original state.

Reconnaissance

Social media is also an ideal hunting ground for anyone who has a clear target to attack, be it an individual or a company.

If you want to see who works in which company and in which position, or who they are friends with professionally and privately, this information can often be easily picked up on social media.

Any attack on a specific individual will be much easier if the target has made a lot of private information publicly available on their profiles.

If the target is a corporation, it is easy to single out an individual or a group of employees, and then target their machines in a focused attack. And once one machine in a network is affected, getting access to the entire structure is not difficult.

“There’s such a big crossover between your personal social media accounts and the impact you can cause within a corporate environment,” warns Michael Sentonas, vice president of technology strategy at cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike.

“Most organisations allow their users to connect to Facebook, to Instagram, to Twitter and other platforms and that’s where an attack – even if it was targeted at a home user – can have a significant impact on the workplace.”

Putting up defences

“Our only effective protection is a multilayered approach,” Mr James of ESET explains. “There’s no single protection anymore, there’s no magic bullet or single piece of software that’s going to protect us.”

While security software is important, it’s only a first step. It is a cat and mouse game where the bad guys produce the malware and the good guys try to produce the means to stop it.

Blockchain tech takes off

These are some of the scenarios being mooted by an increasingly excited blockchain community.

The technology that underpins the cryptocurrency Bitcoin is nothing new – it’s been around for decades. It’s just an encrypted database that’s distributed across a computer network.

But what makes it different is it can only be updated when everyone on that network agrees, and once entered the information can’t be overwritten, making it extremely secure and reliable.

And trust, as we know, underpins most business transactions.

“Blockchain, for perhaps the first time, presents a legitimate threat to the status quo,” says Terry Roche, head of financial technology research at financial advisory firm, Tabb Group.

The tech has spawned a new generation of start-ups looking to find new, related applications, from peer-to-peer lending to smart contracts.

No restrictions

For example, OpenBazaar is a way people can sell anything to anyone, anywhere in the world using bitcoins.

Unlike with eBay or Amazon, users don’t visit a website but download a programme that directly connects them with other potential buyers and sellers.

“Our goal is to unbundle the incumbent marketplaces around the world by offering a more private, secure and flexible option that isn’t controlled by any one corporate interest, but rather, by the users themselves,” developer Brian Hoffman tells the BBC.

According to OpenBazaar, cutting out the middleman means there are no fees, no restrictions, no accounts to create, and you only reveal the personal information you feel comfortable sharing.

The software is now in its testing phase and has been downloaded nearly 20,000 times in the last three weeks. Other decentralised marketplace concepts include Syscoin, which is also a digital currency.

Smart contracts

Another major development exciting the industry are smart contracts, programmes that can automatically verify that contract terms have been met, and, once that has been done, authorise payment – all in real time without any need for middlemen.

The results are then indelibly recorded in the blockchain database. Some believe – perhaps fancifully – that such contracts could remove the need for lawyers one day.

Companies like San Francisco-based SmartContract and Hedgy are already building businesses based on the concept, which could have applications in the financial, property and commerce markets.

By incorporating smart contracts with the “internet of things” (IoT) – smart devices hooked up to the internet – blockchain tech could have uses far beyond the financial sector, says Emmanuel Viale, a managing director of Accenture’s Technology Labs.

“You could have a wearable fitness tracker that would send the number of calories or steps taken to the blockchain. The data is encrypted and my identity is anonymised. The same with home medical devices,” he says.

“The Blockchain would create a link with health professionals – whether coaches, doctors or healthcare institutions – and the smart contract could trigger needed services – whether it’s a fitness regime or treatment for a chronic disease.”

In another example, start-up Hellosent thinks smart contracts and IoT devices could be used to monitor deliveries of fine wines.

Sensors would continuously measure the temperature and humidity of the wine in transit, then if either fell below agreed levels as recorded in the smart contract, the purchase would be automatically cancelled.

‘Crypto renaissance’

Some firms are even developing their own version of blockchain. Ethereum, for example, is a blockchain-based decentralised platform that developers can use to create their own applications, cryptocurrencies and virtual organisations.

Co-founder Mihai Alisie says giants such as IBM, Microsoft and Samsung have already started researching its possible uses.

Chose to read this article

But in truth, you are probably manipulated into doing so by publishers using clever machine learning algorithms.

The online battle for eyeballs has gone hi-tech.

Every day the web carries about 500 million tweets, 430,000 hours of YouTube video uploads, and more than 80 million new Instagram photos. Just keeping up with our friends’ Facebook and Twitter updates can seem like a full-time job.

So publishers desperately trying to get us to read and watch their stuff in the face of competition from viral videos and pictures of cats that look like Hitler are enlisting the help of data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI).

But do these technologies actually work?

A question of timing

Recent start-up Echobox has developed a system it says takes the human guesswork out of the mix. By analysing large amounts of data, it learns how specific audiences respond to different articles at different times of the day.

It then selects the best stories to post and the best times to post them.

Echobox claims its system generates an average 71% gain in referral traffic from Facebook and a 142% increase from Twitter. The software is already being used by publishers such as Vogue, Le Figaro and Telegraph Media Group.

“Imagine a superhuman editor with an incredibly deep understanding of its audience, but 100 times faster,” says Antoine Amann, Echobox founder and chief executive.

“The data we use is both historical and real-time. For instance, our system will have a strong understanding of what type of [publishing] times worked well in the past, whilst at the same time analysing what’s currently trending on the web.”

Anne Pican, digital publisher at French daily newspaper Le Figaro, one of the firm’s clients, says they have already seen benefits.

“Social media optimisation has been a major headache,” she says. “Not only is it extremely complex but it’s a lot of guesswork and requires a more scientific approach.

“Since using Echobox we’ve seen a major upswing in our traffic and saved valuable time.”

Blossoming

Traditional newspapers facing dwindling print circulations are particularly keen to attract new digital audiences.

The New York Times (NYT), for example, has built Blossom, an intelligent “bot” constructed inside the messaging app Slack.

It uses machine learning to predict how blog posts and articles will perform on social media. It can also tell editors which ones to promote.

If a journalist sends Blossom a direct message, such as “Blossom Facebook?”, the bot will respond with a list of links to stories it believes will do well on the social media platform at that time.

According to its developers, Blossom posts get about 380% more clicks than ones it doesn’t recommend.

Which headline?

What this type of historical and real-time analysis shows is that certain headlines, photos and topics attract more attention than others on different devices at different times of the day with different audiences.

Predicting this without the help of machine learning computers is very tricky.

Programs such as Chartbeat and Echobox also give publishers the ability to test different headlines and promotional tweets for the same story in real time.

And programs like SocialFlow – used by some sections of the BBC website – apply algorithms to try to anticipate when the social media audience will be most receptive to an update.

It can then automatically post the message at the “optimum” time, measure how many people look at the post, and crucially, how many bother to click through to the original article.

Marketing hype?

But does using data analytics to learn about reader and viewer behaviour, then make publishing decisions based on that analysis, really count as AI?

The NYT is staying tight-lipped about the exact workings of the bot, citing intellectual property reasons, but Colin Russel, a senior data scientist at the newspaper and Blossom’s main designer, says: “We do characterise it as AI.

“We’re emulating what a team of editors would do if they had the time enough and a whiteboard big enough to observe and enumerate all the stories, all their history of posting, and all possible places they could be posted.

“It’s definitely an artificial intelligence.”

Echobox also describes its service as “artificial intelligence meets online publishing”.

But Tom Cheesewright, a futurist and head of consultancy firm Book of the Future, describes such tech as “more of a tool than an intelligence”.

“I’d argue this is probably the very outer edges of what might be called AI. Here, a more prosaic term like machine learning or predictive analytics might be more appropriate.”

Semantics aside, Richard Reeves, managing director at the Association of Online Publishers, believes this kind of tech could have a positive impact on the industry.

“Publishers are faced with the dual challenge of increased competition for user attention and a diminishing pool of resources.

Athletes are using tech to win medals

Likewise, when German sailor Philipp Buhl takes to the water, he will be able to predict accurately how the current will affect his boat as he whips along Rio’s Guanabara Bay.

This is because technology – and data analytics in particular – has made great strides since London 2012.

“Real-time data analytics may not seem like a big leap from an innovation point of view, but it has the potential to enable yet more records to be broken in 2016,” says Dr Helen Meese, head of healthcare at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Data collection and analysis is having an impact on almost every sport.

Fighting fit

For example, Team GB’s boxers have benefited from this type of analysis, using “iBoxer” software developed in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University.

The performance analysis system makes use of a wealth of data on Team GB’s boxers and their opponents, including detailed fight analysis that reveals threats and opportunities for the fighters, helping them refine their tactics.

And the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has co-developed a database in which Australia’s National Sporting Organisations closely monitor approximately 2,000 athletes each week.

“In athlete groups where there is really high engagement with data entry, we have been able to provide coaches with advice on training loads that have seen a reduction in injury and illness,” says Nick Brown, deputy director, performance science and innovation, at the AIS.

“The tech part of this solution is the database, smart data analytics, and in some cases, the use of wearable sensors to bring in training data.”

Two wheels good

Professor Steve Haake, director of Sheffield Hallam’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, has been working with UK Sport since 2000.

He says his team’s work has moved increasingly towards this kind of data-driven performance analysis.

For example, in cycling there is less need to focus on the mechanical aspects, he says, because “bikes are optimised now – they have bearings and gear sets which are 99% efficient”.

Instead, “most of the work we have done in the last two Olympiads has been interrogating how well these things actually work when you get out there in the field.

“It’s about data acquisition and complex databases that draw information from lots of places,” Prof Haake says.

Team USA track cyclists have even been interrogating live data during training using augmented reality glasses developed by Solos.

Data collected from bike sensors, such as power, speed and pedal revolutions, are beamed wirelessly to the cyclist’s glasses via IBM’s cloud platform. As the athletes pedal furiously they can view their key stats without taking their eyes off the track.

“With the ability for the athlete to receive real-time feedback via the Solos smart glasses, they can now adjust on the fly,” says Ernesto Martinez, a director at Solos.

“For example, if Sarah [Hammer] or Kelly [Catlin] need to meet a specific lap time or power metric during an exchange or portion of the race, they will be able to see whether they are hitting the mark or not and adjust accordingly.

“This real-time feedback and adjustment capability will enable faster riding times.”

But the cyclists will not be able to wear the glasses during the Games themselves.

Team effort

Sports the world over are looking to other industries for inspiration, not least the technology and engineering sectors.

For example, Sailing Team Germany (STG) partnered with business software firm SAP in 2011 in an effort to arrest the nation’s decline in the sport after Sydney 2000.

“The goal is to develop technology that helps the sailors train better, perform better and learn quicker,” says Marcus Baur, STG’s head of technology.

A key component of this is building virtual models based on real data, enabling tricky, ever-changing conditions such as currents and wind to be analysed.

Book your dream holiday for you

Now imagine being able to stop the action, ask your smart TV for the location, then have it work out how to get there, including flight and accommodation details.

It may sound far-fetched, but this kind of “joined-up” travel tech is closer than you think.

It’s all part of an effort by airlines and other transport providers to broaden their appeal and compete with the new app-based travel companies, such as Airbnb and Booking.com.

They want to give us the tools to turn our wanderlust into reality.

And travel inspiration can come from anywhere – even episodes of the seminal TV series, Sex and the City.

Madrid-based travel technology company Amadeus noticed that during one episode in which the lead characters went to Jamaica for the weekend, there was “an interesting spike in search activity for destination during the programme’s ad break”, says Rob Sinclair Barnes, strategic marketing director for the firm’s IT Group.

“This started us thinking about how we could implement the technology to build on it.”

Amadeus was then approached by US carrier United Airlines to develop a product that could exploit emerging technology from the likes of Apple TV and others.

The prototype makes use of GPS location tracking embedded in the filming process. By integrating airline data into the coding, the viewer can be given information on the best flight options and travel deals.

This level of personalisation may not be mainstream reality yet, but it’s an indication of where we’re heading. And with the data analytics and machine learning capabilities we have these days, we may soon find ourselves booking holidays to destinations we didn’t even realise we wanted to go to.

“Personalised technology will become so sophisticated that travellers will be offered what they want, when they want it, before they even need to ask,” says Mr Sinclair Barnes.

“We’re seeing massive growth and spending in this area over and above others and that’s healthy for the travel industry as a whole as it will stimulate continual technology advancements and improve the experiences for everyone.”

‘Worst case scenario’

In another example, German airline Lufthansa has opened up its huge passenger and flight status databases to about 400 third-party app developers, allowing them to access the data through an open API (application programming interface) and integrate it into a new range of travel apps.

This is a first for the airline industry.

Lufthansa’s Reinhard Lanegger says that these days for an airline to be known only for operating passenger planes is “the very worst case scenario”.

“We looked at how Amazon uses its data and it really made us think about how we interact with start-ups. You can fence yourself off from them or become an active partner to achieve the level of customer service that is now expected,” he says.

Planning a trip is not just about getting from A to B. There are recommendations to read on social media and travel review sites; bookings to be made, often for multiple forms of transport and different types of accommodation; routes and itineraries to be planned; insurance to be bought; pets to be fed and walked when you’re away.

All these elements are coming closer to being integrated to create a near-seamless travel experience.

Mr Lanegger envisages apps that “heat up your house based on the estimated time of arrival” or “alert your car to rebook the flight when you are too far away to reach the airport in time”.

He says such services will enable the airline “to transform our offering and better reach the younger demographic that now lives online”.

Mums and dads more paranoid

A growing number of tech entrepreneurs believe they have an answer.

But does using more technology offer time-starved parents valuable new ways to interact with their kids or simply make them more paranoid?

Molawa Adesuyi is co-founder and chief executive of Mytoddlr, an app that gives you updates on what your little one is up to at nursery or creche. He is in no doubt about the usefulness of such tech.

“Most working parents drop off their children in day nurseries as early as 8 or 9am, and can’t pick them up till 5 or 6pm,” he says.

“And in this time, they have absolutely no way of keeping in touch or staying abreast of their children’s welfare all through the day. This is a major, major problem.”

With the Mytoddlr app and website, nurseries input data about the child’s routine and behaviour throughout the day – from potty breaks to naps – and parents receive these updates in real time on their phones or computers.

 

“The nursery is happy, parents are happy, it’s a win-win for everyone really,” says Mr Adesuyi.

But isn’t this an extra administrative burden for nursery staff?

Mr Adesuyi claims not, as it can actually reduce paperwork and provide an easier, faster way of communicating with parents, he says.

“There are such great apps out there now for parents… solutions to real problems parents have. It’s just nice to see technology change parenting,” he concludes.

Launched in 2015, Mytoddlr is being used by 2,000 parents in Lagos, Nigeria, and is currently being trialled by some nurseries in London.

Paranoid parenting?

Harsh Songra, 19-year-old founder and chief executive of smartphone app My Child, was inspired to launch his child development monitoring app after having dyspraxia when growing up.

This developmental disorder affecting co-ordination and movement can be difficult to diagnose if parents don’t know what to look out for.

“I have known the struggle of a family where the child has a disorder,” he says. “It took my parents over nine years to figure out the specific problem, and I still go through some health issues,” says Mr Songra.

The My Child app helps parents monitor the development of a child up to 24 months old, asking questions, aggregating relevant content, and identifying local experts.

Launched in early 2015, the app has been downloaded more than 11,000 times in over 140 countries, and is particularly popular in the US, India, Singapore and the UK.

Mr Songra believes technology is a useful parenting tool, but concedes that it may sometimes interfere with the work of professionals.

“At times it does affect their relations with doctors, because parents become paranoid about their child because of what they searched on Google,” he says.

“The problem is that we tend to believe the content of one link over 100 others, and then take actions based on that knowledge.

“But we believe all this will surely change with time, as there is going to be more awareness about these issues in the future.”

Picture perfect

Parenting apps – from webcam baby monitors to location-tracking services, interactive games to health checkers – are definitely on the rise, as busy parents integrate the latest tech into their lives.

One woman in Australia even used Siri, Apple’s voice-activated iPhone assistant, to call an ambulance when her toddler daughter stopped breathing.

But for New Jersey-based entrepreneur Amit Murumkar, the motivation for creating an app was purely practical.

“My daughter was three… and would bring a piece of art back daily from her Montessori school, but there is only so much you can put on a refrigerator door,” he says.

“I also was a good artist as a kid, and when I became a parent I thought, ‘If only I could show the art I did to my own kids.'”

So he built a smartphone app called Canvsly, that allows parents to capture these works of art on the app, organise them into albums, and invite grandparents or other family members to see and comment on them.

The artwork can also be printed through the app and used to create gifts. As long as you trust the app’s cloud storage provider, you could then ditch the originals.

“Parents can go guilt-free and clutter-free,” Mr Murumkar says, adding that the app has been downloaded in more than 100 countries.

Anesu Charamba, a tech analyst at research consultancy Frost & Sullivan, believes such apps are helping parents raise and interact with their children in “new and exciting ways”.

Shopping website to load

Apparently, nearly half of us won’t wait even three seconds.

If a shopping website doesn’t load its content within that time, many of us are so impatient we’ll immediately jump ship.

And that means a lot of lost business for the online slowcoaches.

According to research from digital performance measurement firm Dynatrace, just a half second difference in page load times can make a 10% difference in sales for an online retailer.

Yet retail websites around the world have actually been getting slower over the last year, not faster, says Dynatrace, despite the general increase in connectivity speeds.

Why?

“It’s mainly because of all the third-party connections to Google, Facebook and Twitter,” says Dave Anderson, the tech firm’s vice president of marketing. “These, and chat functionality, are slowing things down, particularly for Australian sites.”

This is because data travelling between the US and Australia have to cover huge distances, causing a delay, or latency.

Australian retail websites have seen average load times increase from 5.4 seconds in 2015 to 8.2 seconds in 2016, says the tech firm – a debilitating time-lag for impatient shoppers.

In the US, the very home of e-commerce, average homepage response times have increased by half a second over the last year, from 3.4 to 3.9 seconds.

And globally, the average page load time has gone up by 7% compared to last year – from 4.2 to 4.5 seconds.

So, ironically, retailers who have been trying to offer a more interactive, personalised multimedia online experience for their customers have been shooting themselves in the foot.

All these add-ons have got in the way of the main aim – to sell stuff. Fast.

“With consumers used to lightning-fast speeds through the use of tools such as Google search, expectations are higher than ever, meaning even the slightest glitch or delay can leave them feeling disgruntled,” says John Rakowski, director of technology strategy at AppDynamics, a performance monitoring firm.

“The level of choice at the fingertips of today’s consumers means they will simply go to a competitor to complete the transaction, causing the sale to be lost forever. And convincing them to come back for another purchase will be an uphill struggle.”

Split second

But can fractions of a second really make that much of a difference?

In a word, yes. North American fashion retailer Nordstrom saw online sales fall 11% when its website response time slowed by just half a second, says Gopal Brugalette, who was the retailer’s senior applied architect in performance engineering at the time.

When you have total annual sales in the region of $14bn (£10.6bn) across 121 stores in the US and Canada, that’s tens of millions being lost.

The bigger the size of a digital file, the longer it will take to load on the page.

An innovative online “dressing room” seemed like a great way to impress customers, he says, but it didn’t work because it slowed the website down too much and sales dropped.

Page load times will vary depending on the type of products customers are looking at, the speed of the networks and devices they’re using, and how far they are from the retailer’s web servers, says Mr Brugalette.

“There’s a lot we can’t control. No two customers will have the same web experience at the same time, because an image of a multi-coloured dress will take longer to load than a plain one,” he explains.

Nordstrom believes a page load time of 2.5 seconds or below strikes the right balance between functionality and speed.

But the bottom line is that “if our site goes slow, our sales will drop, which is why we monitor our performance 24/7”.

Conversely, the faster you make your website or app, the more likely it is you’ll make more sales. Office stationery retailer Staples, for example, saw its online sales increase 10% after speeding up its website by a second.

Balancing act

Retailers face the almost impossible task of offering a fast, stable, easy-to-use website or app that is also visually rich and integrated with social media.

“Personalisation requires the use of scripts, images and integrations with other applications and systems, and this can take its toll on performance, especially during busy retail periods such as Black Friday or the Christmas season,” says Mr Rakowski.

To make things more difficult for them, many don’t even know that their sites are running slowly because their IT teams are concentrating more on keeping the service up and running than on speed and performance, says Mr Brugalette.

But website architects are now getting very clever at fooling customers into thinking pages are loading faster than they really are, he says.

“Say you Google search for ‘brown shoes’ then click on a link. If brown shoes are the first thing you see on the page you feel that the page has loaded fast, so it’s important to make sure the page loads in a particular sequence.”

So online shoppers want speed, simplicity, and reliability all wrapped up in a fun, multimedia experience. Retailers that can offer all this – however technically difficult – will be on to a winner.

Transforming the global conversation

No wonder so many of us blunder into lamp-posts and each other rather than looking where we’re going.

But which dedicated chat app do you use? WhatsApp, Snapchat, Viber, Line? That largely depends on where in the world you live.

In China the biggest chat network is WeChat; in Japan the market leader is Line; KakaoTalk rules OK in Korea; Kik is huge in Canada and the US; Hike bosses India; while in the Arab world niche networks such as Palringo and Soma dominate.

And the number of chat platforms continues to proliferate, as tech companies aim to emulate the eye-watering valuations achieved by the leaders.

Snapchat was recently valued at nearly $20bn (£15bn). Facebook bought WhatsApp for $22bn in 2014 and this week changed the app’s privacy policy to allow businesses to message its billion-plus users directly.

In July, Line raised about $1.3bn in a stock market flotation that valued the company at around $6bn. And now chat networks are even investing in each other, with China’s WeChat recently leading a $175m funding round in India’s Hike network.

But can the market sustain so many platforms? Can we have too much chat?

Talkaholics

In 1993, US researchers James C McCroskey and Virginia P Richmond created the Talkaholic Scale, a method of identifying people who were aware of their tendencies to “over-communicate in a consistent and compulsive manner”.

Initially it was SMS and text messaging that made such communication compulsive. Then it was instant messaging with text, photos and videos.

And now you can access banking, shopping and other services within these chat apps.

“WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, Snapchat and a handful of others would seem to have the platform side sewn up as we head towards a one-stop-shop approach, where messaging apps become almost a command line for people’s lives,” says Eamonn Carey from Techstars, the tech start-up accelerator.

So how do the newcomers differentiate themselves in such a crowded market and keep their users loyal?

Chat goes niche

The trend is towards chat that can be conducted in a safe place by users who share a common interest.

“Niche networks will have a big role to play in what otherwise is a saturated market,” says Mr Carey.

For example, London-based Palringo is a social chat platform that helps people find games that can be played in chat groups of up to 2,000 people.