If you ask me
E&T has a great double bill for you this week with call encryption and manufacturing is coming home!
Call encryption comes of age
Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO, Cellcrypt
Mention phone call encryption and you immediately think of government leaders or secret agents in Hollywood movies. But the use of call encryption is no longer only for James Bond and his associates.
Just as over the last few years we have increasingly become used to secure email in business, we'll be experiencing the same in phone calls, as companies realise that they require the same level of security. Many leading companies are now looking seriously at the topic of securing their mobile phone calls from organised intruders.
Jeremy Green of analyst house Ovum describes voice communication as "the last unsecured data service". It might seem odd at first to describe voice communication as a data service, but it is exactly that. Operators are consolidating their legacy voice and data networks, and there is increasing use of Voice over IP to transfer voice data using Internet technologies. Now your phone calls are just data passing over networks where you have little control.
An advantage of Internet technology is a much higher call-density allowing many calls to be carried simultaneously on the same wire. A disadvantage is that this same concentration of calls makes rich pickings for potential hackers, who seek to attack where the protection is weakest.
Traditional solutions to this problem have been restricted to specialist equipment, designed primarily for military use. That's fine when you are in a remote desert under fire, but not something the average executive would carry in their shirt pocket. Fortunately for the rest of us, technology is coming to the rescue.
Modern smartphones have the same processing power as desktop computers of a few years ago and allow software applications to be run that encrypt phone conversations as they occur, to government-grade standards. From a user's perspective this brings the best of both worlds - the ability to have secured conversations when required, while retaining access to all the familiar functions of the mobile phone.
One recent breakthrough has been the ability to communicate voice calls over the Internet from a mobile phone, bypassing the limitations of older data communications such as those using circuit-switched data. In fact, voice is just another form of real-time streamed content - video and other content can be handled in exactly the same way if security is a priority.
What's more, because all the encryption and decryption occurs in the phone itself, there is never a point where the unencrypted content passes outside the device. This means it is no longer necessary for the network to be trusted - any open Internet channel can be used.
The technology is increasingly finding favour in the enterprise where confidential information has to be discussed over the phone. Think of mergers, drug discovery, oil exploration, financial transactions and high profile legal cases. But, as the technology improves, there is little reason to assume we won't soon all be using encryption for our calling, just like we do when we access our bank account over the Internet. And when we do, that will be one more loophole for criminals that has been closed down.
Bringing home manufacturing
Bryan Betts E&T manufacturing editor
in the 1980s, we were told that the West's future lay in service industries and the knowledge economy. Dirty old manufacturing was dead, they said - it would move to low-wage economies, and good riddance to it.
It didn't help, of course, that many of those peddling this line, both in the UK and elsewhere, considered anything vaguely industrial to be beneath their dignity. They preferred the clean job of pushing money around - and preferably someone else's money, at that.
Twenty years on, those peddlars have presided over a vast financial bust. It is obvious to anyone who cares to look that service jobs are far more portable and liable to flee abroad than manufacturing ever was, yet rehabilitating western manufacturing remains a struggle.
Too many companies are run by accountants who, as the saying goes, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. They are under pressure too from shareholders who have got into the habit of expecting dividends today, not company value tomorrow. As a result, they still look to of offshoring and outsourcing as ways to cut direct costs, without giving enough weight to indirect costs such as the long-term loss of skills or intellectual property, or added costs in the supply chain.
The economic recession is making it worse, if anything. Cost-cutting is higher up the agenda than ever, and the beancounters see it as their mission to husband the organisation's funds as tightly as possible, in case of disaster.
But, as the chief technology officer of a successful technology company recently remarked to me, "If you plan for failure, that's what you will get." Short-term thinking is a large part of what got us into this recession, and carrying on that way isn't going to get us out of it.
Fortunately, things are starting to change. Concepts are emerging, such as the idea of 'total landed cost' explained by Malcolm Wheatley on p64 of this issue of E&T, which bring in a bit of - dare I say it - engineering rigour to properly assessing the long-term cost of offshore manufacturing. Yes, it could
still turn out cheaper to offshore, but at least now there should be fewer nasty surprises down the line.
And of course advanced manufacturing technologies have the potential to change the sums too. They tend to require investment though, which is something that's in short supply right now.
Perhaps what's needed is a few more engineers in power, rather than the lawyers and businessmen who currently dominate western politics. It's striking that when the Economist recently surveyed politicians' professional backgrounds, the economy with the highest proportion of engineers in government was also the one most likely to carry on growing through the recession - mainland China.
So would things have been different if the thinking back in the 1980s had been different - if those bright young things had gone into manufacturing and engineering, instead of banking and finance? Perhaps, although having seen the mess they made of the financial system, perhaps not.