Fujitsu aims to play a bigger and better role in all our futures

The Japanese giant claims to be putting people at the heart of its technology

 

In the early morning calm of the Munich trade fair, a canteen employee is trying to get a free cup of coffee. Unfortunately for her the coffee machine has been programmed to release the precious liquid only after a two-stage process: hold your ID card to a reader attached to the machine and then hold your palm over the same reader for identification.

The coffee machine is a showcase for PalmSecure, Fujitsu’s new answer to identify theft and controlled access. Its devices read the unique pattern of veins in your hand and compare it to the pattern in its database. It’s more secure than fingerprints or other biometric ID scans, with potential uses in shops, offices and laboratories.

For the grumpy trade fair woman, who badly needs coffee and whose jittery palm isn’t recognised by the Fujitsu reader, it’s a pain. “It’s worse than a prison,” she says. “I mean: how much does a cup of coffee really cost?”

The Fujitsu Forum is only getting under way but she has already put her finger – her palm, even – on the dilemma facing big tech companies today: just because technology makes something possible, is it really necessary or useful? Does it really make life easier? And what are the consequences of convenience?

Back to basics

Though punctuation pedants might bemoan the slogan’s missing hyphen, it’s an interesting back-to-basics idea: that technology is there to serve its human users, not the other way around. But is it just marketing speak?

Fujitsu insists its concern is real and that, in our ever-more hyperconnected world, its 170,000 employees can provide its hundreds of blue-chip clients worldwide with technology and services to steer them through the digital mist and set a profitable course for the future.

Before we look at the proposal, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at the company itself. Trying to get your head around what Japanese technology giant Fujitsu actually does is a tricky business. Like most of its tech sector rivals, Fujitsu is not immune to shrouding its business in slippery corporate words like “solution”, “deliver” and “cloud”.

Another problem is that though it is a huge multinational, Fujitsu isn’t as big a name in consumer gadgets as Samsung or Sony. Yet this familiar, if not household, name provides the invisible but essential backbone for many of the world’s largest corporations. In Ireland, it runs the Oireachtas and Courts Service ICT systems, as well as those for Bord Gáis, Airtricity, telecoms companies and many more.

Internet of things

As part of this new IoT gold rush, Fujitsu hopes to steal a march on US rivals such as IBM and HP, while fending off competition from South Korea and China.

After years of quiet acquisition and being satisfied with a low-key business profile, Fujitsu has pushed through a major corporate re-organisation to strengthen its global reach while allowing local companies, such as Fujitsu Ireland, to operate with greater autonomy to identify opportunities and develop products.

“We are empowering our regions close to clients to make decisions on behalf of the company and to move faster than competitors in pursuit of the client,” said Duncan Tait, a corporate senior vice-president with Fujitsu.

He oversees 28,000 employees in Fujitsu’s EMEIA region from Europe to India, including a UK-based Fujitsu lab, three delivery centres in Poland, India and Portugal and 62 data centres.

Headline projects that represent the new Fujitsu outlook, he says, include winning the contract to develop a next-generation smart transportation system in Catalonia using technology from its Japanese parent company.

The Fujitsu Forum in Munich is the third part of its shake-up: an ambitious push to build the company brand and stop hiding its know-how under a bushel. In the globalised world, success depends on making the world sit up and take notice.

“We think the Japanese are too shy to communicate the good things they have,” said Vera Schneevoigt, senior vice-president of Fujitsu supply operations in Germany. “But they are operating globally now, which means being more present today than in the past.”

Helping flag its credentials worldwide are a new generation of international managers such as Alison Rowe, global executive director for sustainability. Her field has become a fashionable term in recent years, but she points out that Fujitsu was talking about sustainability as far back as 1938. Then, the company’s founders asked their engineers to devise how to make up for the environmental cost of establishing its first factory in Kawasaki – this was decades before anyone heard of the phrase “environmental footprint”.

Sustainability

“I ask what percentage of their energy bill comes from ICT, what they are doing in the community,” she said. “If we can build up metrics in business language, not sustainability talk, we can get far more done.”

Fujitsu’s reach is clear from the sprawl of its forum in Munich and the clients it has attracted. In the case of Fujitsu Ireland, these include Telefónica, Musgrave and Intel. The Leixlip-based microchip giant works with all the big tech companies, but Intel’s Brian Quinn says he is always impressed by the philosophy at Fujitsu.

“We build the brains, Fujitsu the computers, and we get a sense of integrity from them as a company, that they are doing business for the right reasons,” said Mr Quinn, director of strategic programmes at Intel Laboratories, Europe.

Back in the Munich trade fair canteen, not even the tech journalists have taken to the palm-reading coffee machine. This despite Fujitsu tech guru Joseph Reger (see panel below) citing Starbucks as an example of how you can digitalise your business even with an analogue product like coffee.

As a second machine is wheeled out, offering biometric-free coffee, the future still seems a few steps away. ‘Trying to make tech transparent’ Ask Regina Moran to explain what Japanese technology giant Fujitsu does – in a way that even an elderly aunt could understand – and the chief executive of the company’s Irish operation thinks for only a split second before speaking.

“What Fujitsu is trying to do is to make technology transparent to people, so that the human is at the centre and technology is enabling them to be successful,” she says. “If you are 80, you don’t want technology to be a barrier to you but . . . to enable better quality of life for you.”

Since taking over in 2009 as chief executive of Fujitsu Ireland, which employs 800 people on the island, Moran has reshaped the company best-known in business circles for providing systems backbones for the Oireachtas, the Courts Service, and even energy utilities. Today Fujitsu Ireland still does all that, but is part of the company’s global push for greater public recognition. Its aim: to develop tech not for tech’s sake but technology that can deliver a boost to someone’s quality of life.

From the mouth of this no-nonsense engineer, it sounds less like a sales pitch than a statement of fact.

“Fujitsu will be 80 next year and it has survived earthquakes and wars through an ethos of being socially responsible, as well as looking for commercial benefit, long before it was fashionable,” she says.

In Fujitsu’s base in Swords, Co Dublin, the company under Moran has pursued projects to show how societal and commercial gain need not be mutually exclusive.

For its “Kuduku” project, it is working with three research institutes to monitor elderly people in test “smart homes” in Dundalk. Residents’ movements are monitored by sensors and merged with other data in a bid to prevent – or identify – falls, illness and and other incidents that impinge on older people’s quality of life.

For Moran the three-year project is a perfect example of Fujitsu-style “human-centric innovation”: showing companies and governments that, by investing in smart technology in one area, they can reduce costs elsewhere.

Fujitsu calculates that EU countries spend on average 11 per cent of GDP on healthcare. If their technology can help shave even 20 per cent off healthcare costs, member states could reassign that money to double their budgets for R&D.

In the case of Kuduku, sensors that keep people independent for longer are cheaper than hundreds of hip replacements, lengthy rehab and other related costs.

In this way, Fujitsu hopes to ride the wave of hyperconnective technology that is knocking down all industrial barriers.

“It is ubiquitous to talk of Ireland’s ‘tech sector’,” says Moran. “Look at our food sector: technology is so deeply embedded in the supply chain that there’s no longer a tech sector in one corner and a food sector in the other.”

With a collision underway between physical and digital, tech firms that position themselves in the middle will benefit.

After a difficult 2011, a two-year corporate refit has put Fujitsu Ireland back on track with turnover up 14.5 per cent last year to €56 million and on track to grow another 25 per cent to €70 million in 2014.

Beyond her day job, Moran has two other projects close to her heart. As a member of the Government’s “Smart Futures” board advising on science matters, she has seen “huge positive changes” in Ireland’s education sector. Even compared to two years ago she now sees greater cohesion and joined-up thinking among players: schools, industry and sectoral groups such as her own ICT sector.

“Schools might not have all the technology they need but that’s not the main thing,” she says. “When I look at the project work my 15-year-old daughter is doing, I’m impressed to see how it’s now about researching and piecing things together through team projects.”

Another project close to her heart is to encourage more young women into the engineering and science professions. As president of Engineers Ireland, she participates in its STEPS outreach programme, listening to and mentoring young women thinking of entering a traditionally male-dominated realm. Events she has attended have generated an “amazing buzz” between today’s women engineers and the next generation, she says, and are a far cry from when she started into her profession.

“But you have to attract people in, get them excited about the future and make sure the whole lifecycle in companies supports diversity,” she said. “Diversity is not a one-shot thing or a fast sticking plaster. If you want it done, it has to be done right.” Keeping the tech giant on trend You could listen to Dr Joseph Reger talk for days. Fujitsu’s diminutive, bearded chief technology officer is a giant in his industry, with a compelling ability to explain slippery concepts clearly without getting caught up in the industry group-think that often accompanies them.

“Our IT industry tends to overestimate the speed at which things are coming at us. Then when it realises things didn’t come that fast after all, it often underestimates their magnitude when they do come,” Reger says.

It doesn’t take much to set off tech companies these days, he says. Increasingly brief innovation cycles mean that a new concept can, without warning, blow up into an industry-sized tornado. Companies fling half-baked me-too offerings onto the market for fear of missing out on a trend that may change things forever – but often embarrass themselves and annoy their customers if the trend evaporates without trace.

Reger’s verdict is key in deciding which trends Fujitsu backs and which races to enter, in the hope of preventing wasteful investment for his Japanese employer – or its clients.

“You need to do your analysis and you have to try and land not too early and not too late,” he says. “Above all, there shouldn’t be too much PR and marketing around until something has proven to be useful and likely.”

But for a multi-billion conglomerate such as Fujitsu, where sitting out too many trends isn’t an option, Reger offers his own version of Samuel Beckett’s advice to try again, fail again and fail better.

“I advise companies trying things like digital transformation, where there are a lot of uncertainties, to try a few things and that if they fail, to try and fail fast,” he says.

The spread of the start-up mentality throughout the tech industry has made this possible, he says, catalysed by cloud computing that allows companies to upscale quickly the computer capacity they need for a new product or service.

After the hype of the cloud, the frenzy over the “internet of things”, connecting a new generation of devices, from phones to fridges is fast becoming fact.

But, for Dr Reger, the key to not being distracted by the resulting big data tsunami is to concentrate on redefining the IoT in digital terms: as a digital transformation process.

To do this he draws a distinction between existing, established digital businesses – such as iTunes or Netflix – and what he calls “digitalised businesses” where the core product is not digital.

Coffee will always be analogue but everything Starbucks has around it is digital, from its mobile loyalty and ordering platforms to the maintenance and design of its machines.

Reger believes the thing for businesses such as Fujitsu is to find opportunities in the backbone of this digitalised business structure.

Reger sees the potential of the IoT and digital transformation, but says societies have some way to go on limiting how this “ominpresent, all-penetrating” IoT technology impinges on privacy.

Some argue that the privacy issue in the digital race is long over, with transparency already the default entry fee for participation and privacy now a cumbersome opt-out.

Reger concedes that the era of big data, with its massive, multiple sources of personal information, means that, even if you opt not to use Facebook, Google can fill in many of the same blanks.

Nowadays, even cautious internet users create the digital equivalent of a credit record which allows people you don’t know to learn more about you than you may be comfortable with. “What we need is a conscious, pre-planned and tool-assisted identity management with several levels,” he says. “We have been thinking of such a digital trust management; it would certainly meet Fujitsu’s ambition for human-centric innovation.”

Would big business permit any attempts to return power back to users who generate much of the so-called big data? Reger says it must be possible to find a balance between privacy rights and commercial needs.

“What is very clear is that, from the viewpoint of the citizen, they need help,” he says. “But things are improving and a lot more politicians in the EU and at the European Commission are giving this more attention, which I think is a good thing.” In brief: Fujitsu Fujitsu is the world’s second oldest computer company and will celebrate its 80th birthday next year.

Founded in 1935 in Kawasaki, Japan, as a maker of telecoms equipment, it produced its first computer in 1954

Today it has around 170,000 employees in 100 countries developing and implementing ICT systems for companies and governments, building supercomputers and doing research in Fujitsu Labs

It reported a 2014 first-quarter profit of $67 million. For the fiscal year ended March 2014, it reported consolidated revenues of 4.8 trillion yen (US$46 billion).

Fujitsu Ireland employs 800 people on the island.

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