Ki­wis as lab rats

Global tech com­pa­nies test­ing their prod­ucts on us


ON A CLEAR day in May, Auck­land com­muters gaz­ing up to the sky for some re­lief from the grid­locked traf­fic might have spot­ted some­thing un­usual: a spi­dery black ob­ject, look­ing a bit like a minia­ture Dalek, fly­ing over the fac­to­ries of In­dus­try Road with a small par­cel at­tached.

If they had fol­lowed this city-soar­ing UFO, observers would have seen it stop and hover be­fore smoothly de­liv­er­ing the par­cel to street level on what ap­peared to be a de­scend­ing fish­ing line. A quar­ter of an hour later they would have seen a Fast­ways van pull up, com­pre­hen­sively beaten to its own de­liv­ery.

This demo drone de­liv­ery in Auck­land (search “drone de­liv­ery trial” on YouTube) was the latest ex­am­ple of a for­eign com­pany (in this case US com­pany Flirtey) part­ner­ing with a New Zealand busi­ness (Fastway Couri­ers) to test new prod­ucts and ideas. In other ex­am­ples of new tech­nol­ogy be­ing tested on these shores, Sway, Mi­crosoft’s web­site-build­ing app, was pre­viewed in New Zealand in Oc­to­ber 2014, and Face­book has tri­aled a num­ber of fea­tures here, in­clud­ing sin­gle- col­umn time­lines and high­lighted posts.

It’s a source of smug­ness for us. We tell our­selves these be­he­moths use NZ not just be­cause of our ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion, but also be­cause of our tech-savvy pop­u­la­tion— a com­bi­na­tion that pro­vides the per­fect, low-risk test­ing ground for new prod­ucts.

They also like our hands- off reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment, our net­work of early adopters and the open­ness of lo­cal com­pa­nies to team up with for­eign part­ners. Oh, and we’re prob­a­bly cheap too. As Paul Spain, CEO of Go­rilla Tech­nol­ogy and host of the NZ Tech and NZ Busi­ness pod­casts ex­plains: “New Zealand has a grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion for in­no­va­tion, fast ex­e­cu­tion, value, and ease of do­ing busi­ness with.” Clever us. The trend is get­ting no­ticed over­seas. UK busi­ness mag­a­zine The Economist re­cently ran an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled “Ki­wis as guinea pigs”, where it sug­gested in­ter­na­tional tech firms use New Zealand to fix bugs, check server ca­pa­bil­ity and to make sure dud prod­ucts are killed be­fore any­one that mat­ters gets to see them.

“If a firm finds that a par­tic­u­lar prod­uct, or a new fea­ture added to an ex­ist­ing one, is a re­sound­ing flop in New Zealand, it can qui­etly be dropped with­out hav­ing much ef­fect on the com­pany’s over­all rep­u­ta­tion.”

Face­book ap­par­ently canned dis­ap­pear­ing mes­sages (à la Snapchat) and a tool that let users pay a small fee to pro­mote their sta­tus up­dates to friends, af­ter Kiwi users nixed them.

“If you mess up and burn [in the NZ mar­ket], it’s not that big a deal,” David Stewart of pho­to­shar­ing firm Fade told The Economist.

Be­ing a lab rat isn’t nor­mally a bar­gain, but in this case NZ firms also ben­e­fit from this coun­try be­ing the place to tech­nol­ogy-test sub­jects.

For ex­am­ple, NZ was one of the first test­ing grounds for Eftpos pay­ments in the 1980s. And this Kiwi suc­cess is one of the rea­sons New Zealand is at the fore­front of tri­als into “mo­bile money” (smart­phone pay­ment sys­tems), says Rob El­lis, CEO of Sem­ble, the com­pany be­hind New Zealand’s first mo­bile wal­let – a prod­uct in­tended as com­pe­ti­tion for in­no­va­tions such as Ap­ple Pay and Google Wal­let.

“New Zealand com­pa­nies in the tech­nol­ogy space will al­ways be helped by the fact that Ki­wis are very pro­gres­sive in their up­take of tech­nol­ogy,” says El­lis.

Sem­ble (launched in March and pre­vi­ously TSM NZ) is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Spark, 2de­grees, Voda­fone, Pay­mark, and bank­ing part­ners ASB and BNZ. It uses tech­nol­ogy pro­vided by the Dutch se­cu­rity firm Ge­malto to pro­tect users’ con­tact­less pay­ments.

While Rob El­lis re­jects the no­tion that Sem­ble is some­how a test ve­hi­cle for for­eign com­pa­nies (“It is a New Zealand in­no­va­tion, by Ki­wis for Ki­wis”), he ac­cepts the coun­try makes for an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion for over­seas firms.

“I be­lieve it’s about the Kiwi “can do” at­ti­tude and our size. We’ll al­ways give it a go and we’re small so we’ve got a bet­ter chance of mak­ing it hap­pen quickly,” says El­lis.

Paul Spain says he has come across a range of com­pa­nies work­ing with New Zealand firms – mostly lead­ing in­no­va­tors in their field glob­ally, such as Uma­jin, Aeron­av­ics, Power­ByProxi, Nav­man, Teknique, Marker Metro and Fu­sion – to test tech­nol­ogy in New Zealand.

“New Zealand com­pa­nies in the tech­nol­ogy space will al­ways be helped by the fact that Ki­wis are very pro­gres­sive in their up­take of tech­nol­ogy.”

Rob El­lis, CEO, Sem­ble

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