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How the coronavirus is changing tech and 5 things to do about it

Let’s start with the good news.

Statistically speaking, the overwhelming probability is that you won’t get the so-called coronavirus (Covid-19). And if you do get it, you’ll very likely have a full recovery.

At some point in the near future, the coronavirus will be contained. A vaccine will be developed and made widely available. It will probably be with us for decades, at least, with a predictable number of people affected each year.

The bad news is more familiar and immediate. At press time, coronavirus cases exceeded 100,000. The news is screaming about death and disease. Fear and panic. Cities blockaded. Flights cancelled. Widespread disruption. Conferences suspended. Economic impact.

The news that affects workplace technology culture is major. But it’s less clear whether it’s good or bad in the long run. Here are the dizzyingly fast changes the coronavirus is forcing on your organization.

Office work is shifting to remote work

Tech companies Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Square, Lyft, Coinbase, Bungie and Zoom (which makes videoconferencing solutions 

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Let’s start with the good news.

Statistically speaking, the overwhelming probability is that you won’t get the so-called coronavirus (Covid-19). And if you do get it, you’ll very likely have a full recovery.

At some point in the near future, the coronavirus will be contained. A vaccine will be developed and made widely available. It will probably be with us for decades, at least, with a predictable number of people affected each year.

The bad news is more familiar and immediate. At press time, coronavirus cases exceeded 100,000. The news is screaming about death and disease. Fear and panic. Cities blockaded. Flights cancelled. Widespread disruption. Conferences suspended. Economic impact.

The news that affects workplace technology culture is major. But it’s less clear whether it’s good or bad in the long run. Here are the dizzyingly fast changes the coronavirus is forcing on your organization.

Office work is shifting to remote work

Tech companies Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Square, Lyft, Coinbase, Bungie and Zoom (which makes videoconferencing solutions for, among other things, remote work) are all encouraging employees to work at home. Thousands of other companies will follow this trend over the coming weeks. This year will usher in the biggest and fastest changes for how business works since the introduction of electricity.

Of course, remote work is possible only for a minority of the overall workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that only 29 percent of the American workforce can work from home. That’s about 42 million employees.

The percentage of employees working from home has been steadily increasing for years. But this year, thanks to the coronavirus, that rate of increase is going through the roof.

This is probably a good trend. In general, remote workers are happier, healthier, more productive and more loyal to their company. Remote workers help the environment because they don’t drive to work at rush hour every day.

A little-understood dynamic is also worth bringing up here. For many new remote workers, working from home is an acquired taste. It’s hard at first. But once they acclimate, settle into a routine and figure out how to stay focused and productive, they love it. A study by Condeco Software found that 75 percent of current teleworkers say they plan to work remotely for the rest of their career. (Most would switch jobs to keep working remotely.) That means the coronavirus will introduce millions of workers to the remote-work lifestyle, and they won’t want to go back to office work.

Another impact: Once companies acclimate to having far more remote workers, they’ll start hiring nationwide or globally, thus accelerating the expat and digital nomad trends. It will be easier to hire more-qualified employees. And it will be easier for the more-qualified employees to live anywhere.

Tech conferences are going virtual

Mobile World Congress, Google’s Google I/O conference, Facebook’s F8 developer conference, the Game Developers Conference, and many others have been canceled or will take place online.

For the next year at least, many conferences already planned will go virtual, with sessions streaming over HD video.

Eventually, I predict, in-person conferences will return. But I expect the number of live conferences to be much lower, and the number of virtual conferences to be much higher after the coronavirus dust settles.

Meetings are going electronic

Ford has banned business travel for all employees. Walmart, Amazon, Nestle, the Washington Post, the State of New Jersey and other organizations are tightly restricting business travel, and many more companies will do the same.

The same thing that’s happening to professional conferences is happening to business meetings. In general, a large percentage of face-to-face meetings will be replaced by video calls.

You’ll note that all three of these coronavirus-accelerated trends favor the adoption of better videoconference equipment and higher-bandwidth connections, which then make video communication even better and more powerful.

The remote-work acceleration is a massive shift, especially in the provisioning, training and management of security systems for those remote workers.

What you need to do — and do fast

The coronavirus is changing large-organization technology culture, practice and infrastructure faster than any event or phenomenon ever. And if you’re a technology leader, IT or security specialists, c-level executive, business owner, IT buyer or decision maker (and if you’re reading this, you almost certainly are), you need to act fast. The changes are coming today, tomorrow and over the coming weeks. Here are five things you need to do:

  1. Create or update a remote-work policy (or what I call a “Bring Your Own Office” policy). A 2018 report from the freelancing website Upwork found that some 57 percent of companies surveyed don’t even have a remote-work policy. And many of the companies that do have one haven’t updated it in the past five years.
  1. Prepare for a rapid increase in remote work. This preparation involves training, security and policy. Create a list of all positions that could possibly work remotely and prepare for all to work remotely at the same time over an extended period. For some companies, this could approach 90 percent of employees. Act fast on this, because when the decision comes it will happen whether IT is ready or not. As the New York Times said, referring to some large companies, “the coronavirus has moved faster than their preparations.”
  1. Prepare for a huge increase in video conferencing. Employees will conference each other, and attend more professional conferences virtually. Bandwidth consumption may increase by an order of magnitude over the next few months. VPN data may skyrocket.
  1. Create or update domestic and international business travel polices. Who can travel, to where and for what purpose? What training do they need? Lay all this out in a clear policy and communicate it. Also: Update it weekly or monthly during the crisis.
  1. Communicate to all employees regularly about the coronavirus. The emails or messages should be created or vetted by multiple departments, including your organization’s emergency response team. Employees are getting their news from media sources of varying degrees of fearmongering. The stress and anxiety can disrupt work and create morale problems. It’s important to communicate the facts, how they affect the company, the business and the employees, and use every new development as a teachable moment for how employees can stay safe and work better in the post-coronavirus world.

The bottom line on the coronavirus

In the long run, everything is going to be OK. In the short term, large organizations are facing unprecedented rates of technology-culture change. The rule is act fast, remain flexible and accept the changes as inevitable.

Also, very important: The changes will affect your organization long after the coronavirus crisis is over. These changes will have lasting impact.

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Coronavirus prompts collaboration tool makers to offer wares for free

Major collaboration and video conferencing software vendors are now offering products to users at no extra cost in response to the spread of the coronavirus. 

Concerns about the COVID-19 virus have led to a boom in remote working, as organizations encourage employees to stay home and a growing number of conferences are cancelled. 

While many companies have seen their stock prices take a battering because of the disruption caused by the virus – the new York Stock Exchange was down sharply again Thursday – software vendors that enable remote work such as video conference software provider Zoom have seen stock prices climb dramatically. 

This week, Microsoft, Google and Cisco began to offer some services for free to those who need remote collaboration capabilities.

Google on Tuesday said it would start offering advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities to all G Suite and G Suite Education customers at no extra cost this week. The features, usually available to enterprise tier subscribers, include access to larger meetings of up to 250 participants, live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers in a single domain, and the ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive. 

The move is set to remain in place until July 1. 

Microsoft is making the premium version of its Teams collaboration application available for free as part of a six-month trial offer for Office365 E1 payment plan. 

A free version of Teams is already available with limited features compared to the paid tier. Microsoft said that it will lift restrictions on user limits on the free Teams version beginning March 10, as well as letting users schedule video calls with coworkers.

“At Microsoft, our top concern is the well-being of our employees and supporting our customers in dealing with business impact during this challenging time,” the company said in a statement. “For many individuals and organizations, Microsoft Teams video-conferencing, chat and collaboration are playing an important role in helping people continue to work and collaborate. 

“By making Teams available to all for free for six months, we hope that we can support public health and safety by making remote work even easier,” the company said.

Cisco has expanded the list of features available as part of its free Webex offer in all countries where it is available. Additional features include support for up to 100 participants and unlimited usage. Customers that are not already using the service can sign up to a free 90-day license. 

And LogMeIn is making its GoToMeeting product available for free for three months to “critical front-line service providers,” the company said in a statement. That includes healthcare providers, educational institutions, municipalities and non-profit organizations. 

Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight, said the decision to offer short-term discounts  could spur longer term adoption of remote working tools.  But it could also raise questions about whether they’re taking advantage of the outbreak.

“While all these companies will argue that they are simply doing their bit to support people who are, either by choice or necessity, now having to work remotely, there will inevitably be suspicion and accusations that they are capitalizing on this difficult climate to promote their own solutions,” she said. 

“By providing additional features or free trials for a limited time, they can meet the spike in demand without actually cashing in [in] monetary terms, but of course they will be hoping that it means those users will see the benefit and opportunities that come from using their tools, and continue using them longer term – likely through a paid license,” she said. 

The rise in demand shows the shifting business perceptions toward remote working in general, she added.

“The sustained nature of the outbreak will mean that organizations that might otherwise have been quite averse to the prospect of allowing employees to work remotely will now be forced to experience it,” Ashenden said. 

“The question is whether this leads to changes in mindset in the longer term. For employees themselves, many will now be learning how to be productive when working from home, and how to collaborate with colleagues effectively outside of the office. I think we’ll see the issue of poor connectivity cropping up as well as more people spend more time on conference calls.”

Microsoft and Google have also announced that they have pulled out of two major events as efforts mount to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Having already cancelled its MVP Summit in the Seattle area, Microsoft said it will no longer be attending the HIMSS20 healthcare technology conference in Orlando, Fla., which typically hosts more than 40,000 attendees. 

“Out of an abundance of caution, we’ve made the difficult decision to withdraw from participating at HIMSS 2020. We look forward to sharing more on our latest healthcare innovations at a future date,” said a Microsoft spokesperson.

Google cancelled next month’s Cloud Next conference in San Francisco, Calif.  but will continue to host the event online.

Various other high profile tech conferences have been called off in recent weeks, including Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, and Facebook’s F8 developer conference. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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As coronavirus worsens, companies renew focus on collaboration, remote work

As the U.S. braces for the coronavirus epidemic, businesses looking to protect the health of their employees are taking steps to support staff working from home – leading to a surge in demand for video conferencing technology and other collaboration tools.

The stock prices of Slack and video-conferencing software Zoom have risen in the past month, even as the overall stock market saw serious declines last week. Zoom has also gained a number of new users amid the outbreak, according to CNBC, with company officials saying they’ve seen more active users in the first two months of 2020 than in all of last year.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, in a blog post, talked up the features offered by the company’s products and how they could be useful during the outbreak.

Though the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. remains low compared to other parts of the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned last week that the virus is likely to spread to further in the coming months. Two coronavirus deaths in the U.S. were reported over the weekend, and suspected cases of the virus began popping up in different states.

Even before that, on Thursday, Facebook decided to cancel the in-person component of its F8 2020 developer’s conference in San Jose, Calif. That decision came just 10 days after the social media company announced it was cancelling its global marketing summit in San Francisco. Other companies with well-known tech events, such as Apple’s WWDC, are also eyeing the prospect of cancelling their events.

IT needs to make plans now

The prospect of cancelled events and the need to keep workers productive is pushing companies to revisit collaboration tools and work-from-home policies, said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, senior analyst at 451 Research. “The coronavirus outbreak will definitely lead IT organizations to look at how they are supporting remote work, as it already has resulted in organizations cancelling attendance to industry events as in the case of MWC.

“While there already was interest, this could act as a catalyst accelerating adoption of technologies that enable remote workers,” he said.

Remote work has significantly increased in China as a result of restricted movement; in a conference call last week, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, advised U.S. companies to start making similar preparations.

“For adults, businesses can replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and increase teleworking options,” she said last Tuesday. “Now is the time for businesses, hospitals, communities, schools and everyday people to begin preparing.”

On Thursday, IBM – whch had moved away from remote work for its employees several years ago – urged employees in hard-hit areas to stay home, according to the Washington Post. Other companies are restricting business travel, or pulling out of events.

Remote working is not a new concept, with research from Merchant Savvy showing that 69% of businesses in the U.S. already have a remote working policy in place – 7% higher than the global average and a three-fold increase from 1996.

Even so, Castañón-Martínez stressed that, while there is an increased awareness about remote working, the majority of organizations are not prepared for its wide-spread enablement – and many are still evaluating requirements and solutions.

A 2017 survey by Polycom of 25,234 employees in the U.S. and 11 other countries found that 37% of respondents used video conferencing software every day to better collaborate with colleagues. Teams can often be dispersed across different states and communicating via video can help to improve employee relationships and drive productivity – and slow the spread of illness like coronavirus.

The same study also found that 62% of respondents didn’t believe the tools they had in place were adequate, and wanted their employers to provide better technology that’s both easy to use and helps them stay connected with their colleagues.

CDC: Companies should encourage telework

The official advice from the CDC states: “For employees who are able to telework, supervisors should encourage employees to telework instead of coming into the workplace until symptoms are completely resolved. Ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may be able to work from home.”

In his statement, Zoom’s Yuan said the company was doing everything it could to support those affected by the outbreak “by committing our reliable technology, expanded access, and agile customer service.”

The company removed the time limit on two-person meetings for users in China and scheduled a number of on-demand resources and tutorials to help new adopters learn how to use the platform “with ease and at their convenience.”

California-based BlueJeans is also providing support to customers that might be affected by the outbreak, according to a spokesperson. “BlueJeans is making every effort to support the growth in meetings by scaling up our cloud infrastructure and network capacity.”

One of the biggest issues stemming from working at home for long periods is that employees will need technology that allows them to collaborate remotely with the colleagues they usually sit next to, as well as workers in different offices across the country and external partners and clients.

“Enabling a distributed workforce is a complex endeavour,  particularly considering the growing security and compliance requirements that IT organizations have to deal with,” said Castañón-Martínez. “A good place to start is by evaluating how their current communications and technology stack supports different use cases.”

Castañón-Martínez said that the uptake in remote working has directly led to the rise of vendors like Zoom, which emerged precisely due to its relevance for enabling and connecting remote teams. While Zoom continues to focus on videoconferencing, CafeX Communications recently launched a new collaboration tool called Challo to tackle external collaboration while other options like Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook are looking at ways to better address the needs of frontline workers, both in and outside the office.

Matthew Finnegan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Coronavirus (and 5G) will boost telecommuting, change our tech future

Disclaimer: Most of the vendors mentioned are clients of the author.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) seems to be doing everything it can to keep from naming the coronavirus a pandemic, we are likely already past that point.  The combination of a long gestation period, where people are contagious but not showing symptoms, and a fatality rate that is too low to burn the virus out but too high to treat like a cold, will change behavior.  As I write this, Facebook has canceled F8; this follows the cancellation of Mobile World Congress and increasing speculation that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be cancelled, too. With no immunization process yet available, we’re months away from when this illness will peak, suggesting that companies need to rethink travel, telecommuting, and even how we hold meetings on-site. 

Now is the time to start rethinking how companies provision workers, both to telecommute and to avoid group meetings where viruses could spread. Maybe it is time we started looking at converged communications platforms so that our employees can far more easily collaborate without physically coming into contact with each other. 

Let’s talk about how a pandemic is likely to change what we use for personal technology and how that intersects with work needs.

The evolution of personal tech

PCs and Smartphones evolved very differently.  We started with typewriters, which became electric, then became connected (teletype), then got screens (as terminals), then added computing capabilities (PCs), and finally, became portable. That evolution was tied to advances in technology, not necessarily to productivity or an initially defined human need. For example, had we been more focused on productivity, we would have changed the QWERTY keyboard layout – it arose from a need to keep typewriter keys from getting tangled – and used a more efficient design. 

Smartphones came from wired phones, evolved into wireless phones, then merged with two-way pagers to become smartphones focused on business. Then, thanks to Apple and the iPhone, they made a hard pivot to entertainment. (It’s a pivot that a lot of industries like defense, healthcare and finance would like to see pivot back.)

There was an effort to tie the phone and the computermore closely  together on the desk with the old AT&T/NCR and IBM/ROLM Systems efforts; that largely died out with the PBX market.  Now, the closest thing we have to a unified communications solution is the smartphone.  Both Dell and Microsoft have created applications that better tie the phone and PC together. While both applications are handy, neither effort has yet forced a change in a blended solution. 

The rise of telecommuting

At this point, telecommuting has seen varied acceptance. It generally works well for people who are self-starters and enjoy working alone, who have a job that doesn’t require constant collaboration or physical proximity to some types of work product. (Manufacturing, for instance, would require a lot more robotics and remote viewing capabilities to make telecommuting viable; these options exist, but haven’t been consistently applied to the problem). 

There is a bigger concern with employees: when it comes to raises and promotions, the belief is that remote workers are disadvantaged. A lot of managers and executives still believe that remote workers waste time and don’t focus on work. As a result, some companies will talk up telecommuting when the job market is tight to attract new talent, then curtail it when there is a labor surplus for a perceived gain in productivity. 

Recent studies have shown that there is no career disadvantage to working remotely, particularly when it is common company policy.  It is interesting to note, however, that when telecommuters increased face-to-face contact, either in person or through teleconferencing, they saw faster salary growth. 

5G, the cloud and ‘holoportation’

One of the things Qualcomm demonstrated recently with 5G and the latest Lenovo/Microsoft “Always Connected PC” device – the Yoga 5G – is that portable workstation-class performance is achievable. And with 5G, you get latency and performance capabilities that potentially exceed what’s now available in the office with a hard-wired network connection. 

This cloud capability means you can use relatively inexpensive hardware connected to the cloud to give a remote employee more scalable performance than they’d have in the office, short of their high-end workstation hard-wired into the network. 

Another thing coming with 5G, and this was demonstrated with Facebook’s Oculus effort, is the ability to have an untethered Extended Reality headset and use it for telecommuting. Microsoft has been demonstrating interactive Telepresence (Holoportation) with Hololens. When you realize that even on-site meetings are likely to be a thing of the past shortly, it’s one way to keeping people isolated from each other and slow the progression of illnesses like coronavirus to manageable levels.

When you make an Extended Reality headset part of the solution, you should be able to lose the display on the laptop and smartphone and use only the head-mounted display instead.  The device, if used consistently, can put you in a virtual cubicle, an office – or by a canal in France, depending on where you’d like to be working. 

Wrapping up:  The blended telecommuting solution of the future

The main elements for a not-too-distant telecommuting system include a comfortable Extended Reality headset like the current generation Hololens or Occulus; a computing device that is 5G connected (likely your Smartphone); a keyboard; a portable pointing solution (which could be your finger); and an integrated cloud solution that unifies your communications, blending visual and audio capabilities.

This set-up, coupled with the right software and communications technology, would better integrate a remote worker with his or her  increasingly also remote peers. And it would allow you to work anyplace you wanted with full computing capability – be that in a cubicle, at home, or in a bunker with a 5G signal. 

In the end, I think the coronavirus problem will force us first to reconsider telecommuting and then reconsider how we provision remote workers to take advantage of the technology of today. The days of the wired phone and typewriter are larehly gone. 

I expect most companies will be late to embrace change this time. But recognizing something like coronavirus is likely to happen again, the corporate world will be forced to change to avod damage from our increasingly hostile future. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Apple sticks with March iPhone event despite coronavirus

Apple is reportedly still gearing up for a late March special event to introduce the much-expected iPhone 9, though production of any new iPad Pro models may have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Calling change in a spooky market

In January, a report claimed a March launch for the device. More recently, Germany’s said Apple intends to host the event on March 31, with the iPhone 9 (or iPhone SE2, as some call it) set to ship April 3. This was followed by a report from Bloomberg, which said Apple is still going for a March launch, but warns the plans may change.

The latter also predicts that Apple is aiming to launch new iPad Pro models with updated cameras, but warns of delays caused by the impact of the virus on the manufacturing chain.

These claims come as Apple issued a not completely unexpected warning that the coronavirus will impact business, as its supply chain partners are affected by quarantines and other measures as China attempts to stop the virus spreading.

Foxconn’s Hon Hai Precision Industry is understood to be weeks behind schedule, Bloomberg claims. That’s helped push down global stock markets as investors react to the news and what it may mean across multiple industries.

Apple’s reaction to the challenge has been to prioritize the human cost of the disease and to donate millions to support the work of those working to support the sick. While demand in China has been hit, the company says elsewhere it’s been “strong.”

What is Apple planning?

Rather than being the 4-in. model millions of people want the company to create, the March 2020 iPhone is expected to replace the iPhone 8.

The new device is expected to feature:

  • A13 processor.
  • Touch ID.
  • 64GB and 128GB models.
  • 3GB RAM.
  • U1 chip.
  • A 5.4-in. LCD display (though other reports suggest 4.7 inches).
  • Single-lens camera.
  • Space grey, silver, red.
  • $399

Apple is thought to have placed orders for a total production volume of 30 million of these new devices to serve anticipated demand this year.

What about other products?

We think the March event was also intended to see the introduction of new iPad Pro models equipped with faster processors and better cameras (and U1 chips), along with AirPods like over the ear headphones and Apple’s rumoured Tag device.

What we don’t yet know is to what extent these plans have been curtailed by coronavirus, though Apple’s profit warning pretty much confirms the scale of the problems it faces.

Things could be more difficult for Apple’s component suppliers, who work within tight margins, leaving very little space for damage control. 

There have also been persistent whispers Apple also hopes to introduce a new 13-in. MacBook Pro and a MacBook Air, particularly following a January filing describing new devices on a Eurasian regulatory database.

While Apple may still intend to announce all these products, it seems probable supplies for all of them may be constrained in the coming quarter while the virus is contained, and the company and partners continue to invest in alternative supply methods.

It’s important to note that distribution and transportation networks have also been damaged as a result of the virus.

What next?

Apple’s ambitious March launch plans should be seen in a wider context. The company has several more key events pegged for 2020, including its WWDC developer conference and the fall introduction of its first 5G iPhones.

With services expansion to add a little spice to these events, Apple management must surely hope to push into 2020 as a blockbuster year as it sets the scene for further surprises in 2021.

However, with America’s ongoing trade war compounded by coronavirus affecting  company production, Apple didn’t really need was this kind of contagion. Even so, it is refreshing that in its public statements company management remains laser focused not just on the business impact, but also the human cost.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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