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MWC: Tech innovators prepare for next generation

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In the past, Mobile World Congress was associated with new smartphones and tablets. But this year, the dominant themes were technologies providing the basis for the next generation of mobile devices, writes NADIA GONZALEZ, Africa VP Mobile Solutions & IoT at Gemalto.

Barcelona was the scene of another festival of technology, as the world’s most influential companies, journalists and engineers travelled to Mobile World Congress (MWC). MWC tends to be associated with new handset launches, but this year’s show was about more than just devices. There were indeed notable mobile handset stories, with some iconic brands making stunning comebacks, defying beliefs they had been consigned to history. The dominant themes, however, were technologies providing the basis for the next generation of mobile devices, namely 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The year of the comeback

If you’d told someone a year ago that Nokia and BlackBerry handsets would be making a comeback, they might not have believed you. The former, once the world’s largest phone manufacturer, gave up trying to compete with Apple, Google and Samsung in 2014 to focus on networking, while the latter has rebranded itself as a cybersecurity company. However, at MWC this year HMD Global, which now owns the rights to make Nokia branded phones, released an updated version of the legendary Nokia 3310. BlackBerry, meanwhile, displayed its new Android smartphone.

With Samsung choosing not to reveal a new phone handset, and Apple and Google not making big announcements, the comeback kids stole the headlines. The question is, will the handsets sell?

Connected cars to hit the mainstream

We’ve got bad news for budding Formula One drivers; MWC17 demonstrated how drivers are going to be far less important to the functioning of a car, as the IoT and Artificial Intelligence (AI) takes over. One of our favourite innovations was the world’s first driverless supercar, capable of reaching speeds of up to 200mph. Manufactured by Robocar, the vehicle works through a combination of sensors and powerful cameras. The car’s operation is guided by algorithms, which means computer experts may decide the races of the future rather than the likes of Lewis Hamilton.

As the technology and new business models behind connected cars evolve, the Automotive Industry is transforming into what is called New Mobility. One of the big themes here is linking connected cars with the digital life of the driver or passenger, making them fully personalized. One notable development is the Virtual Car Key (VCK), a first example where the key, as part of a digital Car ID, will need to be securely stored on the end user mobile device. Opening a car and starting the engine is a crucial element of any comprehensive mobility app, and we’re likely to see many more developments in this area over the year ahead.

Artificial Intelligence

AI at MWC wasn’t limited to cars, with the technology appearing in many other areas. Future handsets from many manufacturers promise more advanced versions of virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana, which will learn from their user’s habits. Elsewhere O2 announced it would be turning to AI to manage customer service, speeding up processes and cutting costs. Similarly, Samsung announced it would be using an AI bot to train retail staff in managing customer queries. Clearly, organisations are recognising AI’s ability to not only improve the user experience, but also streamline operations and enhance the customer journey.

The potential of 5G and smart cities

5G represents the next generation of telecoms standards, ushering in a new era of connectivity and smart infrastructures. While we’re still some way off the technology being widely available, at MWC we saw many announcements about IoT-optimized machine-type communication and LTE Cat NB-IoT networks, technologies which are paving the way to 5G.

One area in which 5G will play an ever-important role is Smart City technology, which can be used to improve efficiency and benefit the environment. With billions of embedded sensors, governments and companies will be able to better monitor carbon emissions and track pollution levels. At the show, AT&T and GE announced a partnership to deliver environmentally-friendly IoT technology to cities across North and Central America. Intelligent sensor nodes will power a new generation of street lighting which will be fully integrated within light poles, allowing city governments to use existing poles and equip them with energy-efficient LED lighting.

We took this a step further with a demonstration of a smart city lighting and Electric Vehicle charging solution which uses smart sensors to transform street lights into intelligent platforms. Lights can be dimmed on demand depending on need, saving 50-80% in energy consumption, but they can also be used to alert and direct drivers and pedestrians to free parking spaces or charging stations. 5G technology based on the same principles can be applied to traffic, parking, and waste, enhancing city governance, and making it more environmentally-friendly.

Of course, for the smart city to work, the underlying infrastructure needs to be intelligent and secure. To enable a functioning street lighting system, for instance, there needs to be a secure connection between the lamps and a central control system. It is a complex process, with the potential for an undetected weakness in one part potentially compromising security for the entire system. Those building critical infrastructure and solutions for smart cities need to think very carefully and holistically about the networks and systems they are connecting, whether it’s car park, traffic or waste management projects they’re looking after.

To conclude, it’s clear MWC17 wasn’t just about mobile handsets. While product announcements from Nokia and BlackBerry were the key focus for some, this year’s conference should be interpreted as one dominated by the IoT connectivity solutions of the future; 5G, smart cities and connected transport. With the show over for another year, governments and other key stakeholders will need to keep collaborating on the best ways to connect, secure and monetize their IoT strategies to find success in the years ahead.

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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