New Technologies and the Business Office

old robotI often write about new technologies that are just over the horizon.  Today I thought it would be interesting to peek ten years into the future and see how the many new technologies we are seeing today will appear in the average business office of a small ISP. Consider the following:

Intelligent Digital Assistants. Within ten years we have highly functional digital assistants to help us. These will be successors to Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. These assistants will become part of the normal work day. When an employee is trying to find a fact these assistants will be able to quickly retrieve the needed answer. This will be done using a plain English voice interface and employees will no longer need to through a CRM system or do a Google search to find what they need. When an employee wants a reminder of where the company last bought a certain supply or wants to know the payment history of a given customer – they will just ask, and the answer will pop up on their screen or be fed into an earbud or other listening device as appropriate.

Telepresence. It will start becoming common to have meetings by telepresence, meaning there will be fewer face-to-face meetings with vendors, suppliers or customers. Telepresence using augmented reality will allow for a near-real life conversation with a person still sitting at their own home or office.

Bot-to-Bot Communications. The way you interface with many of your customers will become fully automated. For instance, if a customer wants to know the outstanding balance on their account they will ask their own digital assistant to go find the answer. Their bot will interface with the carrier’s customer service bot and the two will work to provide the answer your customer is seeking. Since there is artificial intelligence on both sides of the transaction the customer will no longer be limited to only asking about the few facts you make available today through a customer service GUI interface.

Self-Driving Cars. At least some of your maintenance fleets will become self-driving. This will probably become mandatory as a way to control vehicle insurance costs. Self-driving vehicles will be safer and they will always take the most direct path between locations. By freeing up driving time you will also free up technicians to do other tasks like communicating with customers or preparing for the next customer site.

Drones. While you won’t use drones a lot, they are far cheaper than a truck roll when you need to deliver something locally. It will be faster and cheaper to use drones to send a piece of electronics to a field technician or to send a new modem to a customer.

3D Printing. Offices will begin to routinely print parts needed for the business. If you need a new bracket to mount a piece of electronics you will print one that will be an exact fit rather than have to order one. Eventually you will 3D print larger items like field pedestals and other gear – meaning you don’t have to keep an inventory of parts or wait for shipments.

Artificial Intelligence. Every office will begin to cede some tasks to artificial intelligence. This may start with small things like using an AI to cover late night customer service and trouble calls. But eventually offices will trust AIs to perform paperwork and other repetitive tasks. AIs will take care of things like scheduling the next day’s technician visits, preparing bank deposit slips, or notifying customers about things like outages or scheduled repairs. AIs will eventually cut down on the need for staff. You are always going to want to have a human touch, but you won’t need to use humans for paperwork and related tasks that can be done more cheaply and precisely by an AI.

Robots. It’s a stretch to foresee physical robots in a business office environment in any near-future setting. It’s more likely that you will use small robots to do things like inspect fiber optic cables in the field or to make large fiber splices. When the time comes when a robot can do everything a field technician can do, we will all be out of jobs!

A Better Customer Interface

AndroidToday a lot of the time and money for what we think of as programming is really spent connecting APIs (Application Program Interface). APIs are defined as a software component that defines the operations, inputs, outputs, and underlying functionalities of a specific program that are then used to have a reliable interface with a given program so that programmers can query programs or can link different programs together.

The software world is full of APIs that are the basis for building and operating most complex software systems. APIs can be simple, such as an API that just looks up a customer’s address when querying a database with their name. Or an API can be more complex, such as having an API routine that calculates the outstanding balance for a given customer and then ages the accounts receivable. The process of connecting a new software package to all of the needed APIs is time-consuming and expensive and is one of the reasons it sometimes takes months to implement a large new software package.

APIs have been integrated into almost all parts of the software world and there are plenty of them in the telecom world. For example, an integrated billing system uses a lot of APIs. APIs are used to allow OSS/BSS software to gather calling details from a voice switch to add or delete features. APIs connect to the software in a cable headend to define what channels a given customer should be receiving or to capture billing information from a pay-per-view event.

But there is a downside to using API-based software that anybody paying for software is all too familiar with. Almost every complex software package you buy these days in a telecom environment requires signing up for software maintenance – and it’s not cheap. Software maintenance is often set at an annual fee of 10% – 12% of the cost of the original software package. A large percentage of that money is to pay for keeping abreast of the changes in APIs. Every time the software changes somewhere in a telecom system, such as in your voice switch, those changes then ripple through the rest of your software systems.

Even if a large telco employs their own programmers a lot of programming time is used in working with and updating APIs. Reliance in APIs goes far beyond the telco world. Establishing the right APIs is the number one hassle of writing an application for smartphones, and it’s the difference between the APIs of iOS and Android that requires app makers to create and maintain two versions of their software.

There was an attempt a decade ago to make it easy for software packages to communicate with each other under the label of the Semantic Web. That initiative ran into a wall because of the massive effort required to make APIs work easily. However, it looks like maybe we are on the verge of doing away with the need for a lot of those APIs, at least in the manner we use them today. It seems likely that we are headed towards a time when bots are going to take over a lot of the tasks that require API interfaces today.

I use the Amazon Echo with the Alexa bot. Already today I can ask Alexa a question in English such as, “Which Baltimore Oriole has the most home runs?” and Alexa will search the web and bring back the answer Cal Ripken. Alexa and other personal bots are improving at breakneck speeds. We are getting close to a time when we are going to have bot-to-bot communications, which over time will replace a lot of the software in place today.

Soon we are going to be able to use our personal bots to interface with other software systems. I should be able to ask Alexa to go my bank and get a copy of my June bank statement. Alexa will then interface with my bank’s bot and get the needed information. The plan is for bot-to-bot communication to be in English, so if I don’t get what I want I can look to see what went wrong with the transaction between the two bots.

The beauty of bot-to-bot communication is that each customer is going to be able to find out what they want. Today, the owners of a web site for something like a bank have to pre-determine what they think customers are most interested in and then set up menus to supply those answers. But with bot-to-bot communication the bank doesn’t need to guess what customers want and doesn’t have to arrange the data in a format needed to support the APIs. The bots will figure this out for each customer inquiry. Bot-to-bot communication means doing away with a lot of clunky customer service interfaces and that means cheaper software costs for the bank. And for customers it means getting what you want by talking to your own bot in plain English. That should cut down on a huge percentage of customer service calls.

APIs won’t die, of course, but even interfaces with APIs can be automated using bots so that when something changes in a hardware or software system the bots in connected systems can figure out what this means on their own. That’s bad news for computer programmers, because today a lot of their work is connecting to or updating APIs. But it’s good news for consumers and it should be good news for any company spending too much money maintaining software that uses a lot of APIs.