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The Evolved Enterprise: Are smart products outliers, or the status quo?

Posting in Energy

In a new SmartPlanet column, analyst Vinnie Mirchandani explains how successful companies across many industries are using technology to get ahead of the pack.

Editor’s Note: We'd like to welcome you to a new guest column: "The Evolved Enterprise," by Vinnie Mirchandani. Over the next few weeks, Vinnie will discuss how corporations can use today's technology for tomorrow's competitive edge.

My name is Vinnie Mirchandani, and I am the author of a new book called The New Technology Elite, which looks at innovation through the use of incumbent technology.

When I began my research for this book, I assumed I would focus on eight to 10 industries -- automotive, healthcare, et cetera -- and how outlier companies like Nike, which embeds sensors in its shoes, were leading the way in offering products and services aimed at a tech-savvy consumer.

I ended up cataloguing examples in more than 75 industries.

Over the next few guest columns, I will explain how endemic this phenomenon has become, which new skills company executives are learning as their products get smarter, and how regulators, analysts and society at large are learning to adjust to this technology.

Some of the wide diversity of smart products and services cataloged in the book:

A smart shirt from Under Armour with a removable sensor pack that includes a triaxial accelerometer, processor and two gigabytes of storage -- all to measure athlete performance.

The smart version of bifocal or progressive eyeglasses from PixelOptics which alters the focal power of the lens when you tilt your head or tap the frame.

The smart hotel room at The Plaza in New York. An Apple iPad in each room allows you to order room service, make restaurant reservations, book wake-up calls, print out boarding passes, and control the room’s lighting and air conditioning.

The smart restaurant Do (pronounced like "dough") in Atlanta, Georgia. Again, iPads are used to replace paper menus and serve as personal assistants, so you can tell the valet when to bring your car. The bathrooms boast motion-sensored hand dryers and sinks with iPad “mirrors” positioned on the walls.

Moen is making the shower smarter with its IOdigital wall-mounted control panel and hand-held remote, which let you set and maintain water temperature and bath levels. (Though to be fair, this is pretty unimpressive compared to the vertical spas the company also offers.)

Rain Bird’s ESP-SMT irrigation controller makes lawn maintenance smarter. It utilizes historical and real-time weather data -- just input your zip code, allowed watering days, and plant/soil type for each zone -- to determine the optimal watering needs for the landscape based on the on-site current weather conditions.

John Deere’s FarmSight initiative helps farmers in three areas: machine optimization, which allows for increased uptime; logistics optimization for improved fleet management; and decision support, through the use of monitors, sensors, and wireless networks to enable access to machinery and agronomic data.

With check scanners and mobile applications, USAA Bank has been a pioneer in mobile deposits. It is also partnering with PayPal to allow customers to pay almost anyone, with only an e-mail address or mobile phone number.

Progressive Insurance offers Snapshot, a small telematics device that connects to the insured car’s electronic diagnostic port. It allows the insurer to analyze data culled from your driving patterns -- if you drive safely, the company offers up to a 30 percent discount on your premium.

The Hamilton County, Ind. sheriff's office has a smarter emergency call center. Each agent in the office can view "five large screens [that] simultaneously show call status, caller information, police radio activity and other data -- all of which can be shared instantly over radio, phone, Internet, dispatch and cellular systems."

And finally, the smart meters being installed by utility companies such as PG&E allow consumers to monitor hourly energy usage and subsequently better manage their expected electricity bill.

With all this in front of me, I faced an apparent hurdle: were there any industries that were not thinking about smart products and services?

Were the outliers really outliers?

An executive suggested that I look at the portfolio of legendary investor Warren Buffett, who has made a fortune avoiding companies that are susceptible to technology-based turmoil. So I pored through the portfolio: Coca-Cola, Burlington Northern, Procter and Gamble. Then I looked for tech innovation: FreeStyle vending machines, satellite based railcar tracking, social media innovations.

All are, under closer inspection, very savvy technology innovators.

It appears we have entered a phase where a chief executive, no matter the industry, faces a potential nightmare scenario: if his or her company's products and services are not viewed as smart, will its customers increasingly view them as dumb?

In the race for intelligent products, which company is the outlier?

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Vinnie Mirchandani

Vinnie Mirchandani is the founder of Deal Architect, a site about technology trends and economics. He's a former Gartner technology industry analyst, PwC outsourcing executive and entrepreneur.