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Oh User, where are you?

Snapchat, Threema, WhatsApp – a burgeoning number of chat apps and programs are linking users, decentrally. Many companies are literally dumbfounded by the speed at which customer communication has started to bypass them. Time to talk.

20 Mar. 2015
Snapchat, Threema, WhatsApp – a burgeoning number of chat apps and programs are linking users, decentrally. Many companies are literally dumbfounded by the speed at which customer communication has started to bypass them. Time to talk.

"We need to talk." A seemingly innocent request which nevertheless conjures up negative connotations – even as the spoken word continues to lose ground to other forms of communication. In Germany alone, the number of mobile contracts within the last 20 years went up from 2.5 million to over 117 million today – an average of 1.5 per person. But this has had scarcely had an influence on the amount of time spent talking on the phone – to the contrary!

A decrease on the phone of five percent year on year.

Last year Germans spoke for 279 billion minutes on the phone . What may sound like a huge amount actually represented a decrease of five percent year on year, continuing a downward trend which started in 2010.

The BITKOM association for the German ICT industry has termed this a " revolution in telecommunications ", noting a surge in the growth of chat and messaging services.

Chat systems for business applications

WhatsApp, Threema, Snapchat and a host of other programs that run on smartphones and mobile devices are leaving telephony in the dust, while decentralizing communications in the process. Whereas a short time ago people shared messages in Facebook groups, they are now increasingly turning to chat rooms. Instead of exchanging e-mails, a growing number of people are using instant messaging services to communicate. Even text messages appear to be on their way out: Although almost 74 million text messages were sent every day in Germany last year, this represented a mere 45 percent of the record volume recorded in 2012 .

And this new trend involves more than just private communication: business communication is also changing in a big way. Instead of costly hotlines, a growing number of firms are employing chat systems to communicate with their customers. Product information, support queries, feedback – virtually any kind of communication can be handled by chatting. And it is a safe bet that a large chunk of users prefer to chat using their mobile devices as opposed to notebooks or desktop computers. Not surprisingly, chat providers exhibit enormous market potential.

Currently some 600 million people use "top dog" WhatsApp as a chat service provider, while around 170 million employ "Line" and 105 million utilize "Viber".

Small wonder then that, alongside the logos of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, a growing number of company homepages are posting the opportunity to chat via WhatsApp. Order pickup notifications from multichannel retailers, customer satisfaction surveys or feedback forms directly following a purchase, or service information for customers are just three examples of the way companies can take advantage of chatting for direct communication purposes. But this communication channel is by no means restricted to companies with large marketing budgets. Swiss radio and TV broadcaster SRF uses WhatsApp to deliver news and background articles on current events, while local radio stations invite listeners to report traffic jams and speed cameras via chat messages. Meanwhile, bargain broker Groupon uses Snapchat to send coupons. According to a recent HeyWire business survey , 75 percent of consumers prefer texting with a customer support agent as opposed to corresponding with companies via social media.

In conclusion, it is high time companies entered into a (written) dialog with their customers. And while we’re at it: intra-chats are also a great way to communicate with employees and business partners.

In the intelligent cities of the future, traffic will be regulated automatically, with streets being closed off and new lanes opened up before traffic jams can even happen. The necessary data will be provided by sensors insides the vehicles. For now, this scenario is still a vision, but the reality won’t be much longer coming. What already does exist is intelligent software that analyzes the behavior of consumers when shopping online, takes account of Facebook and Twitter posts – and then sends a customized product offer directly to the user's smartphone when they next visit the relevant shop. So is the era of big data already here?

Demand for inspiration and technologies higher than ever

For EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes, this flood of data is "the fuel of the digital economy". Yet she also acknowledges that today's data volumes are so large and complex to process that new ideas and infrastructure are called for. This is why the EU wants to work with businesses and researchers to boost the data-driven economy. A total of EUR 2.5 billion is being invested with the aim, among other things, of creating some 100,000 new jobs in IT alone.

The real shortage is in ideas for harnessing the potential of large data volumes. The Dell Global Technology Adoption Index 2013 revealed that just 39 percent of SMEs around the world understand how to generate added value from big data. "It has been calculated that as little as 0.5 percent of available data is actually mined. The problem is primarily at management level." (Thomas H. Davenport)

And yet – BITKOM reports that revenue generated through big data solutions and services will increase by an annual average of 46 percent up till 2016. Within five years, it is expected to grow by a factor of almost eight. Evaluating large data volumes requires new types of databases, linguistic analysis and visualization tools. Faster IT systems, high-performance broadband networks and more or less unlimited storage capacities will be necessary.

Real-time computing in the cloud

The cloud will serve as the medium for both storage and transfer. Data centers that are physically remote but digitally networked can be used to analyze mass data in real time and communicate it to any end device. This is the only way to extract meaningful correlations from a chaotic jumble of information and use them for business purposes.

Despite concerns about data protection, the cloud is already well established in the private sphere – pioneers such as Facebook and Google have been paving the way for years with useful tools and an appealing user experience. In business, too, there is no stopping the rise of the cloud – not even in skeptical Germany.

"The NSA leaks only had a limited impact on growth in the cloud market."
Dr. Dieter Kempf, BITKOM

His industry association has been working with KMPG to find out how businesses use the cloud. The results show that 40 percent of German companies are already utilizing web-based solutions, while a further 29 percent plan to do so.

Security – a hot topic

The major stumbling block continues to be IT security. Even the cloud services provider Canopy admitted in a recent study that one in two IT decision-makers in Germany does not want to invest in the cloud because of data protection concerns. BITKOM reports that many businesses would feel more comfortable if the data centers were located within national jurisdictions – after all, Germany has particularly stringent regulations in place for safeguarding personal data.

Yet the idea of a "German cloud" is a naïve one. No matter where the data is stored – it will be transferred worldwide whenever it is needed. Instead, experts are advising businesses to invest in new technologies and security precautions. A unified European judicial framework will be just as important as transparency regarding who is responsible for data and who is using it.

New industry – new society

Big data and cloud technologies are set to revolutionize the world of business. Some of the changes have taken effect already, especially in industry. Industry 4.0 is clearly still at an early stage in its development, but manufacturers such as Harley Davidson offer a glimpse of what the future could bring. The cult motorcycle brand allows customers to choose from thousands of combinations to put together their dream vehicles online – and just six hours later, they are ready to roll off the production line. This is possible thanks to intelligent, networked machines. Examples like this show that the consumer industry is already changing. But there is potential for much more.

"Application areas for big data now cover almost all fields where large volumes of data are processed – from business management applications to scientific research and medicine", says Dr. Dieter Kempf, BITKOM.

David Cameron is also convinced. The British Prime Minister recently committed £300 million towards research funding for decoding the human genome – the blueprint for human life. This is set to be a major milestone in the fight against cancer and rare genetic disorders.