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Big smartphone comebacks rich with heritage

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This month, two iconic phone brands made their return to South Africa. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK asks if Nokia and BlackBerry can win their way back into our hearts.

They say you can never go back, but two iconic phone brands want to prove the cliché wrong. Nokia won the world’s technology heart in the 1990s and early 2000s with basic but elegant phones that kept pushing the boundaries of what early handsets could do. BlackBerry gained executive adoration when it perfected email on the phone, and won over the youth market with its pioneering Messenger product.

Both failed to recognise the significance of the touchscreen revolution, and confused past popularity with future invulnerability. Both crashed and burned.

Numerous attempts have been made to revive them, but most relaunches failed to recapture the magic of old.

Now, in the space of a few weeks, both have released new handsets that dig deep into the heritage of the brands, in the hope that it still resonates with users.

Nokia has delivered the “reimagined” 3310, a new version of the phone that captured the youth market at the turn of the century. It was a device with extraordinarily long battery life, as well as especially long SMS messaging: As opposed to the usual 160-character limit, it allowed for messages of more than 400 characters. This option caught on like wildfire among the young, and helped generate sales of more than 120-million units.

The new 3310 looks very different. It is bright, with a wide range of colour options, and more curvy. The curves extend from the overall shape of the device to the quirky 2.4-inch colour screen to the control buttons.  At first site it appears overly toy-like, but the impression quickly gives way to a sense of fun.

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A 2 megapixel camera with LED flash and video capability, and LED torch, combines with FM radio, MP3 playback, and a 3.5mm AV connector for earphones to emphasise its positioning as a lifestyle device. The revival of the original Snake game – the first ever game on a mobile phone – adds to the sense of fun.

Thankfully, it leaves behind the Nokia legacy of a different charger for every device, using a standard micro USB port, along with Bluetooth 3.0 for wireless connectivity. Its most serious drawback is that it does not support Wi-Fi, meaning a mobile data account is essential for connectivity.

The biggest wins on the phone are its 31 days standby time, 22 hours talk time, 51 hours MP3 playback, and FM radio playback of up to 39 hours. With that package, a recommended retail price of up to R750 appears reasonable.

While the absence of Wi-Fi hints at a gap in the understanding of where the phone market has moved, Nokia cannot produce the handsets fast enough to keep up with global market demand. This further, suggests, however, that its output is not what it was back in the year 2000, despite the fact that Nokia phones are being built for its parent brand, HMD Global, by the giant Foxconn factories in China.

The same may be said of the output of the new BlackBerry phone, which has been licensed to the Chinese smartphone maker TCL Communication, best known for its Alcatel phone brand and manufacturing Vodafone branded devices.

BlackBerry, now a security software specialist, has licensed the handset brand to TCL, which has created a division called BlackBerry Mobile to build and market the handsets. Its first new model, the KEYone, in effect reinvents the BlackBerry phone.

However, it exudes that heritage word. It carries the classic BlackBerry physical keyboard and, like Nokia, uses the term “reimagined” to give it an updated spin. It functions as a touchpad, and can be used to scroll through pages or pictures, as well as take photos. It allows up to 52 customisable shortcuts, for those who want to personalise a device to the nth degree.

It uses BlackBerry’s secure version of the Android operating system, while still offering the full Android 7.1 Nougat edition. It also retains the previous BlackBerry handsets’ Hub, which consolidates messages, email, SMS and messages from other social media accounts in one place.

Like the 3310, BlackBerry always prided itself on battery life, and the KEYone  maintains the tradition with what TCL says is the largest battery ever found in a BlackBerry smartphone – a 3505mAh giant. It promises 26 hours of mixed use, outdoing even the 3310.

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As with Nokia, however, there are still question marks around the capacity of the new entity. It has launched the device country by country over the past two months, with South Africa far back in the line. By contrast, the most successful smartphone launches usually see devices released worldwide with minimal lag between territories.

“Working for BlackBerry Mobile is like working for a start-up,” points out Bob el-Hawari, the brand’s head of carrier operations for Middle East and Africa. “It means we are rolling out progressively, but it gives us the freedom to innovate very quickly. We will use our role as a challenger brand to disrupt the market.”

The KEYone will retail for R9649, which positions it as one of the best-priced high end phones on the market.

However, both BlackBerry and Nokia have a major marketing challenge on their hands to convince their loyal old users that their respective heritages are still relevant.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Which IoT horse should you back?

The emerging IoT is evolving at a rapid pace with more companies entering the market. The development of new product and communication systems is likely to continue to grow over the next few years, after which we could begin to see a few dominant players emerge, says DARREN OXLEE, CTOf of Utility Systems.

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But in the interim, many companies face a dilemma because, in such a new industry, there are so many unknowns about its trajectory. With the variety of options available (particularly regarding the medium of communication), there’s the a question of which horse to back.

Many players also haven’t fully come to grips with the commercial models in IoT (specifically, how much it costs to run these systems).

Which communication protocol should you consider for your IoT application? Depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s a summary of the main low-power, wide area network (LPWAN) communications options that are currently available, along with their applicability:

SIGFOX 

SigFox has what is arguably the most traction in the LPWAN space, thanks to its successful marketing campaigns in Europe. It also has strong support from vendors including Texas Instruments, Silicon Labs, and Axom.

It’s a relatively simple technology, ultra-narrowband (100 Hz), and sends very small data (12 bytes) very slowly (300 bps). So it’s perfect for applications where systems need to send small, infrequent bursts of data. Its lack of downlink capabilities, however, could make it unsuitable for applications that require two-way communication.

LORA 

LoRaWAN is a standard governed by the LoRa Alliance. It’s not open because the underlying chipset is only available through Semtech – though this should change in future.

Its functionality is like SigFox: it’s primarily intended for uplink-only applications with multiple nodes, although downlink messages are possible. But unlike SigFox, LoRa uses multiple frequency channels and data rates with coded messages. These are less likely to interfere with one another, increasing the concentrator capacity.

RPMA 

Ingenu Technology Solutions has developed a proprietary technology called Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) in the 2.4 GHz band. Due to its architecture, it’s said to have a superior uplink and downlink capacity compared to other models.

It also claims to have better doppler, scheduling, and interference characteristics, as well as a better link budget of 177 dB compared to LoRa’s 157 dB and SigFox’s 149 dB. Plus, it operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, which is globally available for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so there are no regional architecture changes needed – unlike SigFox and LoRa.

LTE-M 

LTE-M (LTE Cat-M1) is a cellular technology that has gained traction in the United States and is specifically designed for IoT or machine‑to‑machine (M2M) communications.

It’s a low‑power wide‑area (LPWA) interface that connects IoT and M2M devices with medium data rate requirements (375 kb/s upload and download speeds in half duplex mode). It also enables longer battery lifecycles and greater in‑building range compared to standard cellular technologies like 2G, 3G, or LTE Cat 1.

Key features include:

·       Voice functionality via VoLTE

·       Full mobility and in‑vehicle hand‑over

·       Low power consumption

·       Extended in‑building range

NB-IOT 

Narrowband IoT (NB‑IoT or LTE Cat NB1) is part of the same 3GPP Release 13 standard3 that defined LTE Cat M1 – both are licensed as LPWAN technologies that work virtually anywhere. NB-IoT connects devices simply and efficiently on already established mobile networks and handles small amounts of infrequent two‑way data securely and reliably.

NB‑IoT is well suited for applications like gas and water meters through regular and small data transmissions, as network coverage is a key issue in smart metering rollouts. Meters also tend to be in difficult locations like cellars, deep underground, or in remote areas. NB‑IoT has excellent coverage and penetration to address this.

MY FORECAST

The LPWAN technology stack is fluid, so I foresee it evolving more over the coming years. During this time, I suspect that we’ll see:

1.     Different markets adopting different technologies based on factors like dominant technology players and local regulations

2.     The technologies diverging for a period and then converging with a few key players, which I think will be SigFox, LoRa, and the two LTE-based technologies

3.     A significant technological shift in 3-5 years, which will disrupt this space again

So, which horse should you back?

I don’t believe it’s prudent to pick a single technology now; lock-in could cause serious restrictions in the long-term. A modular, agile approach to implementing the correct communications mechanism for your requirements carries less risk.

The commercial model is also hugely important. The cellular and telecommunications companies will understandably want to maximise their returns and you’ll want to position yourself to share an equitable part of the revenue.

So: do your homework. And good luck!

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Ms Office hack attacks up 4X

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Exploits, software that takes advantage of a bug or vulnerability, for Microsoft Office in-the-wild hit the list of cyber headaches in Q1 2018. Overall, the number of users attacked with malicious Office documents rose more than four times compared with Q1 2017. In just three months, its share of exploits used in attacks grew to almost 50% – this is double the average share of exploits for Microsoft Office across 2017. These are the main findings from Kaspersky Lab’s Q1 IT threat evolution report.

Attacks based on exploits are considered to be very powerful, as they do not require any additional interactions with the user and can deliver their dangerous code discreetly. They are therefore widely used; both by cybercriminals looking for profit and by more sophisticated nation-backed state actors for their malicious purposes.

The first quarter of 2018 experienced a massive inflow of these exploits, targeting popular Microsoft Office software. According to Kaspersky Lab experts, this is likely to be the peak of a longer trend, as at least ten in-the-wild exploits for Microsoft Office software were identified in 2017-2018 – compared to two zero-day exploits for Adobe Flash player used in-the-wild during the same time period.

The share of the latter in the distribution of exploits used in attacks is decreasing as expected (accounting for slightly less than 3% in the first quarter) – Adobe and Microsoft have put a lot of effort into making it difficult to exploit Flash Player.

After cybercriminals find out about a vulnerability, they prepare a ready-to-go exploit. They then frequently use spear-phishing as the infection vector, compromising users and companies through emails with malicious attachments. Worse still, such spear-phishing attack vectors are usually discreet and very actively used in sophisticated targeted attacks – there were many examples of this in the last six months alone.

For instance, in late 2017, Kaspersky Lab’s advanced exploit prevention systems identified a new Adobe Flash zero-day exploit used in-the-wild against our customers. The exploit was delivered through a Microsoft Office document and the final payload was the latest version of FinSpy malware. Analysis of the payload enabled researchers to confidently link this attack to a sophisticated actor known as ‘BlackOasis’. The same month, Kaspersky Lab’s experts published a detailed analysis of СVE-2017-11826, a critical zero-day vulnerability used to launch targeted attacks in all versions of Microsoft Office. The exploit for this vulnerability is an RTF document containing a DOCX document that exploits СVE-2017-11826 in the Office Open XML parser. Finally, just a couple of days ago, information on Internet Explorer zero day CVE-2018-8174 was published. This vulnerability was also used in targeted attacks.

“The threat landscape in the first quarter again shows us that a lack of attention to patch management is one of the most significant cyber-dangers. While vendors usually issue patches for the vulnerabilities, users often can’t update their products in time, which results in waves of discreet and highly effective attacks once the vulnerabilities have been exposed to the broad cybercriminal community,” notes Alexander Liskin, security expert at Kaspersky Lab.

Other online threat statistics from the Q1, 2018 report include:

  • Kaspersky Lab solutions detected and repelled 796,806,112 malicious attacks from online resources located in 194 countries around the world.
  • 282,807,433 unique URLs were recognised as malicious by web antivirus components.
  • Attempted infections by malware that aims to steal money via online access to bank accounts were registered on 204,448 user computers.
  • Kaspersky Lab’s file antivirus detected a total of 187,597,494 unique malicious and potentially unwanted objects.
  • Kaspersky Lab mobile security products also detected:
    • 1,322,578 malicious installation packages.
    • 18,912 mobile banking Trojans (installation packages).

To reduce the risk of infection, users are advised to:

  • Keep the software installed on your PC up to date, and enable the auto-update feature if it is available.
  • Wherever possible, choose a software vendor that demonstrates a responsible approach to a vulnerability problem. Check if the software vendor has its own bug bounty program.

·         Use robust security solutions , which have special features to protect against exploits, such as Automatic Exploit Prevention.

·         Regularly run a system scan to check for possible infections and make sure you keep all software up to date.

  • Businesses should use a security solution that provides vulnerability, patch management and exploit prevention components, such as Kaspersky Endpoint Security for Business. The patch management feature automatically eliminates vulnerabilities and proactively patches them. The exploit prevention component monitors suspicious actions of applications and blocks malicious files executions.
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