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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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AppDate: Prepare for space

In this week’s AppDate, SEAN BACHER highlights Space Nation Navigator, Hitman Sniper, Snake Mask, Memrise, WhatsApp Web, and Carrot Weather.

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Space Nation Navigator

Space Nation Navigator is a bit of a strange app. It is part game, part exercise and part educational. On the game side, users have to navigate the Mars Rover, put the International Space Station back into orbit or move their Martians to safety before a sand storm hits Mars. When it comes to exercise, Space Nation Navigator provides users with a range of exercises and Yoga videos to prepare them for space travel and working in an anti-gravity environment. The education aspect teaches users about the planets, and star constellations, and then offers quizzes on what has been taught.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Memrise

Memrise takes a new approach to help people learn new languages. Instead of providing a user with random phrases and words to memorise, the app connects you with a person already fluent in the language you want to learn. In turn, the person you are speaking to wants to learn the language in which you are fluent. Once your profile is filled out and languages selected, it connects you with people around the world who are interested in your language, and then allows you to chat with them in real-time. Memrise also lets one learn new languages through games, chatbots and grammarbots that help with spelling, tenses and pronunciations.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Hitman Sniper

Hitman Sniper is loosely based on the Agent 47 movie released a few years ago. The game offers players the ability to hone their shooting skills through a range of training courses and, once they think they are ready, they can start taking out the bad guys. Things start off easy enough, but they get more and more difficult as one progresses through the 150 missions on offer. One will also have to upgrade various gun components, like scopes, magazine capacities and silencers, to make the missions a little easier. Hitman Sniper lets users buy 16 to tackle each of the missions – either with real money or via the points accumulated by completing missions. Money and points can also be used to upgrade firearms.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: R7 – with a range of in-app purchases.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Snake Mask

The iconic Snake game that was preinstalled on most older Nokia phones has had a complete make-over. It now uses Facebook’s AR technology, meaning that you have to navigate the snake around obstacles in your home or office, all the while collecting coins and stars that change the snake’s speed and length. Unfortunately, Snake Mask is only available on Nokia’s new range of smartphones. However, it should not take long before it slithers onto other devices.

 

Platform: New Nokia smartphones running Android.

Cost: Free to use through the Facebook app installed on the device.

Stockists: Available through the Facebook app.

 

WhatsApp Web

Although this is by no means a new app, it is an extremely useful one, and one that not many people know about. Tapping out WhatsApps on your phone is easy enough, but thanks to WhatsApp Web it can be even easier. Open the WhatApp Web page under WhatsApp and you will see a QR code. Scan this code through WhatsApp on your mobile and you will be shown a replica of what you would normally see on your phone. You can then type and reply to messages using your computer instead of having to stop everything and unlock your phone every time a message comes through. WhatsApp Web is great if you share your computer with other people as it automatically disconnects when the browser is closed. However WhatsApp also offers an app that when installed will stay connected to your phone unless you manually remove it.

 

Platform: Any up-to-date Internet browser

Cost: Free to use and install

Stockists: Visit www.WhatsApp.com

 

Carrot Weather

There are thousands of weather apps on the Internet these days and all of them do the same thing – inform you of the weather in your area. However, Carrot Weather has taken what is just another app and turned it into something fun. By fun, I mean sarcastic, rude and completely politically incorrect. A user starts off by selecting religious and political views. It then asks about personality, ranging from friendly to homicidal to overkill – which includes profanity. So, for instance, instead of waking up to to the standard partly cloudy forecast, Carrot Weather will display something like: “It’s only partly sunny, the sun is a total effing failure.” It also has a range of insults that it throws at you whenever you open the app – some of them downright insulting, so it is definitely not for those who are easily offended. The app’s user interface is very simple, displaying a week’s daily forecast and hourly forecasts for the day selected.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: Free to download but with adverts. The premium, advert free version costs R12 per month.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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SA Start-up reinvents PABX

For any South African business, the idea of setting up or changing a telephonic switchboard system is the stuff of nightmares. Dealing with expensive hardware and hearing things like QSIG and VOIP is not what you’d call exciting.But now there is an app.

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Enter BuzzBox (www.buzzboxcloud.co.za), a web-based telephone switchboard that is aimed at small and medium sized businesses wanting to take the hassle and cost out of the company switchboard. Whether you are a small one-man operation or a larger organisation with staff working remotely, BuzzBox is the best switchboard solution.

What sets BuzzBox apart from anything else on the market is its easy-to-use dashboard. It puts you in control of everything from picking your phone number to setting up voice prompts and managing your business-hours schedule.

BuzzBox was developed when the startup behind it, Jini-Guru, needed such a service for its own use across multiple continents. “When we started Jini-Guru we could not find a seamless online process that would allow us to set up a full web-based switchboard, so we decided to build one for ourselves,” says Mike Smits, Director at Jini-Guru.

He says a lot of startups today are tech savvy and know how to use apps and the services that go with it. “It’s the uberisation of services and its driving demand for instant service activation.”

BuzzBox works as an app on both iOS and Android but users wanting a desk phone option can choose from a variety of devices on offer or use their existing VOIP phones.

Setting up a BuzzBox account takes 5 minutes. During registration your FICA documents are uploaded [ID and proof or residence] and you get to pick your phone number before the account is created. Companies that want to keep an existing number can do so too.

The real magic happens when you log on to the BuzzBox Dashboard. The main screen displays a summary of statistics for your account while the left-hand menu provides you quick access to various configuration settings and reports.

Setting up new extensions or external numbers is done with a few clicks and you can even set up various departments which is a great way to route a call to various people in a department, like sales or support.

The intuitive user interface also makes it easy to set up hold-music and voice prompts. You can add voice prompts by recording them straight to your phone, just make sure you use a clear voice with quiet surroundings for the best customer experience.

One of the main features of BuzzBox is its call recording feature that allows an organisation to record calls for legislative purposes, such as a lawyer, or for customer service purposes such as support. Recordings are stored securely online, and you have the ability to download recordings for playback. Companies can opt-in for this service and it’s free to use. Recordings are stored online and are fully encrypted so only you can listen to, or download them. Storage costs R1 for every 1000 minutes of stored recordings.

Other features include call forwarding and scheduling. The latter allows you to set office hours for your organisation which will divert calls to an after-hours messaging service. You also have the option to enable routing to an employee who is on call after hours.

BuzzBox also has a reseller program for companies wanting to offer this as a switchboard solution to their existing customers.

The costs for this service is R89 p/m for the first phone number which includes your first extension for free. Thereafter you’ll pay R89p/m per extension. Calls between extensions are free but you pay per second for all outgoing phone calls. More info on pricing can be found here: https://buzzboxcloud.co.za/pricing/

BuzzBox is offering a Launch promotion where they are offering the first line and extension free for 12 months. Only pay for calls. Use promo code “feoifyaa” during sign-up to apply your discount.

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