Expert: Technology will change the world, but you can handle it

NOTE:  First published in the Jan. 9 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

As we begin the new year, you can expect technology to make further changes in the way your business and your customers interact, according to experts.
But a local expert says you need not fear the coming evolution because you are already a technology expert, though you may not know it.
“Most of you have become digital technologists, but you just haven’t realized it,” said Steve Bell, president of KeySo Global LLC in Long Grove. “But if you look over the past 30 years, you can see just how your life has changed inordinately.”
Bell, whose global consulting company tracks technology trends, says people tend to look at themselves as novices when new technology changes the way things are done. But when they step back and look at how they’ve adapted to technology over the decades, they can be more confident in taking advantage of the new developments that will affect their business and lives in the future.
Bell points to four developments in the 1980s that have significantly changed the way people live and work today: The creation of the PC computer and cellphone; the establishment of a global Internet, and the creation of the Sony Walkman. While the first three may be self-explanatory, Bell notes the Walkman opened the doors to the ability to carry “personal music” anywhere at anytime.
As the 1980s brought the introduction of these new technologies, the 1990s brought their integration into society, he said. For example, GSM cellphone technology (which Bell worked on when he was employed with Motorola), the development of the World Wide Web and Internet browsers, and the creation of TiVo with its ability to time-shift entertainment brought technology into the mainstream. Add to that the development of the iPod and iPhone and rise of social networking in the 2000s, and Bell said it easy to see just how well people have adapted to change.
“We help people recognize that they are much more technology savvy than they realize,” Bell said. “But it’s like the frog in a pot. You don’t know you’re being cooked until somebody shows you the water is much hotter than it used to be, so you have the opportunity to either jump out or continue to get cooked.
“We find once people look at it that way, they say ‘oh yeah, I never thought about it like that,’” he added.
Having that confidence to handle change will be even more important this year, as Bell believes 2012 will be a pivotal year in the integration of mobile technology into the business world.
“2010 brought everything together,” he said. “In device evolution, it’s the development of the tablets and cloud computing. The user experience is becoming more of a differentiator as touch screens are making things become more relevant. And social media is leveraging all these trends.”
As a result, he said. smartphone use and the growth of 4G LTE cellphone technology has already changed how consumers live, work, and shop — and that will change how businesses cater to their customers in the coming year.
“The confluence of LTE and smartphone devices is compelling because it gives an opportunity for the ecosystem that builds around them to not only grow and stimulate in relation to the U.S. economy, but potentially global as well,” he said. “But a more interesting element is that mobile devices, mobility and the power of the networks is fundamentally changing the business models for most companies and industries.”
We are already seeing this in the retail industry as more consumers are using smartphones to comparison shop — both online and in brick-and-mortar businesses (Bell estimates that 50 to 60 percent of all shoppers are already doing this). While in one store, they can use their phones to compare product prices among stores, and if they find a better deal, they can also check availability at that store before they leave one business for another.
But as digital wallets, smart cards and loyalty programs become more prevalent, businesses now have the opportunity to compile information on their customers, track their buying habits and even know what parts of their store they are frequenting. In turn, the business can develop and instantly push offers and opportunities tailored to keep customers in the store. Bell said having this technology gives the business the advantage to keep a customer from leaving the store if they find a better price elsewhere.
“On the one hand people are saying ‘can I get this somewhere else,’” he said. “But you can turn that around. You can push them a coupon (to their smartphone) that says ‘if you stay in the store and buy two items in the next half-hour, you can get a 25 percent discount on both items.’ It could easily match what they were going to get if they went elsewhere, but the positive thing is now they’re going to buy two items where before they would have bought none.”
While this is now being used by many national chains, Bell foresees the growth in 2012 of businesses that will help small to mid-sized retailers utilize the technology. He points to one company, Chicago-based Belly, as an example of firms helping small businesses develop customer loyalty programs that can compete with bigger players like Starbucks.
The key for the small business owner, Bell stresses, is to recognize what technology is doing, do some research, and take advantage of the opportunities that the changes will create.
“If you open your eyes and look at the technology that is around, if you use the Internet a little bit to explore, there is a plethora of opportunities to be very active and very flexible by utilizing some of the technologies to enhance your business, as well as enhance the experience of both the people who work in your company and the experience you can deliver to your customers,” Bell said.
For more information, go to www.keysoglobal.com.

 

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Expert: Technology will change the world, but you can handle it

Note: First published in the Jan. 9 Daily Herald Business Ledger.

As we begin the new year, you can expect technology to make further changes in the way your business and your customers interact, according to experts. But a local expert says you need not fear the coming evolution because you are already a technology expert, though you may not know it.

“Most of you have become digital technologists, but you just haven’t realized it,” said Steve Bell, president of KeySo Global LLC in Long Grove. “But if you look over the past 30 years, you can see just how your life has changed inordinately.”

Bell, whose global consulting company tracks technology trends, says people tend to look at themselves as novices when new technology changes the way things are done. But when they step back and look at how they’ve adapted to technology over the decades, they can be more confident in taking advantage of the new developments that will affect their business and lives in the future.

Bell points to four developments in the 1980s that have significantly changed the way people live and work today: The creation of the PC computer and cellphone; the establishment of a global Internet, and the creation of the Sony Walkman. While the first three may be self-explanatory, Bell notes the Walkman opened the doors to the ability to carry “personal music” anywhere at anytime.

As the 1980s brought the introduction of these new technologies, the 1990s brought their integration into society, he said. For example, GSM cellphone technology (which Bell worked on when he was employed with Motorola), the development of the World Wide Web and Internet browsers, and the creation of TiVo with its ability to time-shift entertainment brought technology into the mainstream. Add to that the development of the iPod and iPhone and rise of social networking in the 2000s, and Bell said it easy to see just how well people have adapted to change.

“We help people recognize that they are much more technology savvy than they realize,” Bell said. “But it’s like the frog in a pot. You don’t know you’re being cooked until somebody shows you the water is much hotter than it used to be, so you have the opportunity to either jump out or continue to get cooked.

“We find once people look at it that way, they say ‘oh yeah, I never thought about it like that,’” he added.

Having that confidence to handle change will be even more important this year, as Bell believes 2012 will be a pivotal year in the integration of mobile technology into the business world.

“2010 brought everything together,” he said. “In device evolution, it’s the development of the tablets and cloud computing. The user experience is becoming more of a differentiator as touch screens are making things become more relevant. And social media is leveraging all these trends.”

As a result, he said. smartphone use and the growth of 4G LTE cellphone technology has already changed how consumers live, work, and shop — and that will change how businesses cater to their customers in the coming year.

“The confluence of LTE and smartphone devices is compelling because it gives an opportunity for the ecosystem that builds around them to not only grow and stimulate in relation to the U.S. economy, but potentially global as well,” he said. “But a more interesting element is that mobile devices, mobility and the power of the networks is fundamentally changing the business models for most companies and industries.”

We are already seeing this in the retail industry as more consumers are using smartphones to comparison shop — both online and in brick-and-mortar businesses (Bell estimates that 50 to 60 percent of all shoppers are already doing this). While in one store, they can use their phones to compare product prices among stores, and if they find a better deal, they can also check availability at that store before they leave one business for another.

But as digital wallets, smart cards and loyalty programs become more prevalent, businesses now have the opportunity to compile information on their customers, track their buying habits and even know what parts of their store they are frequenting. In turn, the business can develop and instantly push offers and opportunities tailored to keep customers in the store. Bell said having this technology gives the business the advantage to keep a customer from leaving the store if they find a better price elsewhere.

“On the one hand people are saying ‘can I get this somewhere else,’” he said. “But you can turn that around. You can push them a coupon (to their smartphone) that says ‘if you stay in the store and buy two items in the next half-hour, you can get a 25 percent discount on both items.’ It could easily match what they were going to get if they went elsewhere, but the positive thing is now they’re going to buy two items where before they would have bought none.”

While this is now being used by many national chains, Bell foresees the growth in 2012 of businesses that will help small to mid-sized retailers utilize the technology. He points to one company, Chicago-based Belly, as an example of firms helping small businesses develop customer loyalty programs that can compete with bigger players like Starbucks.

The key for the small business owner, Bell stresses, is to recognize what technology is doing, do some research, and take advantage of the opportunities that the changes will create.

“If you open your eyes and look at the technology that is around, if you use the Internet a little bit to explore, there is a plethora of opportunities to be very active and very flexible by utilizing some of the technologies to enhance your business, as well as enhance the experience of both the people who work in your company and the experience you can deliver to your customers,” Bell said.

For more information, go to www.keysoglobal.com.

Melrose Park company keeps the light lit on pinball

NOTE: This column first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

For many of us boomers, it was our first real exposure to technology.
But we never really saw — or cared about — the relays, switches and other electronics inside the ornately-painted box on four steel legs. We were too focused on keeping that perfectly polished silver ball from mercilessly slipping between the flippers.
Pinball was the game elevated to royalty by rock ‘n’ roll and played by millions who plunked down countless quarters in a quest to capture the merciless machine’s top score.
In its heyday, several pinball manufacturers — many based in the Chicago area — built the complex and ornate machines for the world. But as video games became big in the 80s, and gaming moved into our living rooms in the 90s, the glamour and business of pinball faded into history.
But inside a nondescript building nestled in a Melrose Park industrial park, Gary Stern is keeping the legacy of pinball alive. His company, Stern Pinball, is the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world.
Stern, who has been in the pinball business for the majority of his 66 years, talks about the game with the energy of a player who just took the high score on a Fireball game.
“My father started in the game manufacturing business when I was two,” Stern said. In the 1940s, his father bought the Williams Pinball Company in Chicago. In the late 80s, it was sold to the Japanese game company Sega. In 1999, Stern bought the company back from Sega.
The pinball machines Stern makes are more technologically advanced than their predecessors, but he noted the core of the game hasn’t changed since it was developed in the 1930s.
“It’s still a bat and ballgame,” he said.
However, the game play experience has been improved with the help of technology. For example, computer chip memory allows the game to remember where a player left off during a play. Digital electronics provides animation during play. Even the bells and chimes have been replaced with digital audio recordings. Stern notes the “Rolling Stones” game, for example, features the music of the iconic rock band, and the “Family Guy” game has more than two hours of dialogue recorded by the show’s creator, Seth McFarlane.
More so, he notes, technology has made the machines more reliable, providing the ability to “self diagnose” problems and fix issues ranging from circuitry issues to a lost pinball.
“The electronics have changed so much over the years and it’s given us a lot more capabilities,” he said.
Even making a game has gone high-tech. Stern said game playing fields that were once designed on drafting tables are now done on computer screens with 2D CAD software. Once the game is designed, the parts are then completed using a 3-D design software, which has made the entire process more efficient.
“They can actually see how the parts will fit together, if the ball will fit through, what the ball’s is going to do,” Stern said. “And when its all done, they push a button and print out an assembly drawing with a whole bill of material.”
Stern’s Marketing Director Jody Dankberg said the company’s next step is to expand the pinball experience through new technologies. For example, the new Transformers game released this year features a number of QR codes that players can use to tap into information about the game, company, or even get some codes to speed up play.
Dankberg said the next step is to bring in a social aspect for players, connecting them to Wi-Fi and using online networks to play against each other.
“Pinball used to be very social, guys would go to a bar to play,” he said. “Now you might have a couple of guys with games in their home. Maybe with a webcam, they can talk to each other and play against each other. There are lots of things to do with an online database.”
Stern sells the games globally and about 55 percent of the inventory is exported, he said. Their customer base is threefold: operators and distributors who place the games in entertainment venues such as arcades and movie theaters; pinball enthusiasts and collectors; and the home entertainment market.
Stern said the home entertainment market is fairly new as boomers who grew up with pinball buy the machines for the family. But with prices upward to $6,000, it’s still a high-end device that shares itself with items such as pool tables and home theaters. In fact, Stern pinball games are primarily sold to consumers through high-end home entertainment stores, although they can also be found online through retail sites like Amazon.com and Bestbuy.com.
But it’s that very market, Stern adds, that’s creating a new generation of pinball wizards.
“One thing about having these games in the home is that teenagers are playing them, and that’s our next audience,” he said.
It’s also why Stern is focused on developing current and new games based on pop culture icons. Creating a game based on the “Transformers” movies, for example, gains appeal from young people, while the older generation appreciates the gaming experience.
As the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world, Stern and his employees take an exceptional pride in the work they do and the torch they carry for a game that has its roots in Chicago and an appeal worldwide.
“The world will continue to exist without pinball,” Stern said. “But we feel a bit of that fabric of life would be gone.”
And while technology, advances in design and links to pop culture have helped expand and deepen the pinball playing experience, Stern insists the key to a successful pinball game lies in a simple core fundamental.
“It’s got to be fun!”
For more information, go to http://www.sternpinball.com.