Joe Ferra is Chief Wireless Officer of Fidelity Investments, the nation’s largest mutual fund company and a major provider of financial services. Ferra has spent more than 20 years at Fidelity, and is responsible for helping lead Fidelity into the wireless age. While his job extends beyond the technical, in his current role Ferra oversees the strategic direction of Fidelity Anywhere, an innovative wireless technology that allows Fidelity investors to monitor the markets and manage their portfolios from just about … well, anywhere. Ferra is one of the few, if not the only executive, sitting in the C-suite of a global organization, who has company-wide responsibility for mobile strategy and execution. Before joining Fidelity, Ferra was a vice president with Drexel Burnham Lambert in New York from 1988 to 1990. Previously, he was a second vice president with Smith Barney in New York.
Ferra, who was a top-ranked pole-vaulter in his younger years, took time out from bounding between meetings to discuss what he affectionately calls the wireless revolution and it’s impact on our lives. Despite snow flurries filling the autumn sky above his Boston area office, Ferra talked about a wireless future that seems pretty bright. Check out his edited responses to five questions I asked about mobile technology and financial services.
1. It wasn’t long ago that most professionals resisted being connected from anywhere. Now, most of us can’t put down our smart phones and tablets. How did we get here so fast?
Ferra: People used to ask about the wireless evolution. Now we talk about the wireless revolution. It shows the growth that has occurred. What changed things was when networks got faster. That’s when the hockey stick occurred. When 3G was launched we started to see transactions happening wirelessly. We saw people finally enjoy watching a movie on their mobile device. With that everything else kind of fell into place. More types of capabilities were introduced to leverage the faster speeds.
So it wasn’t simply the availability of user-friendly devices like the iPhone?
Ferra: Of course that helped. But remember when they used to say content was king? Well, that’s turned on a dime and now context is king. Service providers, retailers, financial services companies said, “I don’t want to flood you with information.” Instead, we focus on things that are relevant to your world. And when that’s happened, that is when we see the user satisfaction level going up.
Can you give me an example?
Ferra: In the wireless space you are always trying to eliminate effort. That means eliminating key strokes. We can leverage what we already know about you and deliver something without laborious entry. So, we send you specific news on your particular [fund] holdings or your [stock] watch list, not the entire universe of stocks. By doing that we’ve eliminated the need for the user to have to enter all these ticker symbols. The same applies in the retail world. As a consumer walks through a store he or she will be sent coupons [to their mobile phone] that are based on buying habits. You’re not gonna see a coupon for something you’ve never purchased before.
2. Is mobile banking a reality today or is it still a thing of the future?
Ferra: There is so much more that it going to happen. I’m impressed with the features we offer and the diversity of services available. In banking you are seeing the entry of a variety of things—like remote check deposit—that are just starting to take hold. The gap between what you are able to do on the web and what you are able to do on smart phones is narrowing. With sensors and [remote server] intelligence everything—not just phones—will become smarter. Wireless technology is revolutionizing machine-to-machine communication. Cars, for example, will be in constant contact with the manufacturer, eliminating the need for the owner to make a call for an appointment. The manufacturer will know what needs to be done and when. Things are going to become so much more intelligent, and from a user perspective things will become so much easier.
3. What other transformative innovations will we see in the near future?
Ferra: What has not taken flight yet is user interfaces. You will start to see things beyond scrolling and touch screens. Voice and hand gestures will evolve, and one day iris scanning will eliminate the need for any data entry requirement. That will make things even more personal. You won’t have to tell a device or a provider who you are. The bank, for example, will know your name and what investments you have. That is a game winner.
Another potential game changer is software radio. It allows you to program a mobile device and gives that device the intelligence to determine what network it uses. So your phone would use an algorithm to determine which f six radios to use – based on coast congestion, speeds available you name it. With those six radios and software radio capability So you could purchase a phone and buy bulk minutes across all carriers. The phone would determine which carrier to use based on the best rate or the geographical location or the speed of the network. I see that as such a huge game changing capability as it evolves.
4. People are still very worried about security. How concerned should we be about the security of our data and finances?
Ferra: Well, I can speak about Fidelity. We treat security as paramount. It’s at the top of our list. We do everything we’re capable of to ensure end-to-end security. We won’t deploy anything if we’re not comfortable.
5. Beyond security, what other impediments threaten advancement of mobile technology?
Ferra: There are two areas where Moore’s Law does not apply: battery life and frequency. By frequency I mean network capacity. You’re hearing about technology coming out to deal with compression and utilization of the network. But those are the two areas that we need to keep a focus on in order to continue growing wireless capability.