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Samsung S9 extends lead – and catches up

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The new Samsung S9 smartphones launched in Barcelona on Sunday introduce killer features that other phones had last year, but add a few of their own, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

What do you do when you produce the world’s most advanced gadgets in their class, but a distant rival knocks the spots off you in one category?

If you’re Apple, it can take a few years to admit the shortfall, because you have so much else going for you. If you’re Samsung, on the other hand, you incorporate those features as quickly as possible, and add enough others so that the gadget extends its cutting edge in as many other categories as possible.

The new Galaxy S9 and S9+, launched at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona on Sunday, have taken already superb camera functionality and made it the best in the world. To do this, however, they’ve had to catch up with the cutting edge delivered by Sony a year ago, at the 2017 edition of MWC.

The standout feature of the Sony Xperia XZ Premium – also subsequently built into the XZ1 and XZ Pro – is its ability to capture video in 960 frames per second. This means it can replay in slow-motion, and capture still images of micro-moments of an action video.

This week, Samsung announced 960 fps video on the S9 and S9+.

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And then there was the XZ’s ability to create 3D images by panning the camera round a face, head or physical object.  The S9 and S9+ introduce the ability to create animated avatars, using 3D face modeling and tracking.

So far so similar. On the surface.

Samsung made a dramatic departure, however, in the capabilities it adds to these features.

The most significant hardware improvement lurks in its rear-camera set-up. Until now, the widest aperture available on a phone camera was f1.6, first introduced in the LG V30+, followed by the Huawei mate 10 Pro. The Samsung S8 came in at f1.7, meaning it let in a little less light than the LG and Huawei devices, potentially giving the rivals an edge in low-light photography.

Now, the S9 and S9+ raise the light bar with a lens that takes this year’s line honours for aperture. In a bold move, the main lenses on the rear of both phones feature moving parts that make it the most complex phone camera yet. It allows for the aperture to adjust automatically, based on light conditions, starting at f2.4 for bright li. It adjusts all the way down to f1.5 as light fades, promising to take low-light photography on a phone to new depths of darkness.

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The S9+ offers an even more moving experience, with a second rear lens that features 2X optical zoom and 8X digital zoom, matching the market-leading specifications of Samsung’s large-format Note 8.

The camera is central to another Samsung leap forward, although here it is software innovation that differentiates the phone. Where Apple’s iPhone X introduced the Animoji, an option to personalise one of a dozen animal emojis with one’s own expressions and sound, the S9 phones allow for users to turn their own faces and expressions into emojis.

Erin Willis, Samsung senior manager for channel marketing, put it neatly into perspective at the S9 launch on Sunday: “From emoticons to emojis, these are symbols and shortcuts that helped us to express a mood or emotion, but it didn’t help us express ourselves as individuals. Now you can map your facial expressions and emotions to make emojis that look like you.”

The function allows the user to take a selfie in augmented reality (AR) emoji mode, simulate the expression of the user, and adapt it into an avatar – a digital representation of the individual. As with Animojis, the user can add voice notes to the emoji. Unlike the Apple version, it can be shared with friends in messaging apps regardless of what smartphones they have. Up to 18 personalised emojis can be created in this way, along with a variety of characters that can have one’s own expressions added.

A partnership with the Walt Disney Company means that several Disney characters, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the Incredibles, can also be turned into AR emojis.

This is likely to prove an ingenious viral marketing vehicle, as users increasingly send what one could call selfie emojis to each other. The more people receive these compelling messaging objects, the more they are likely to want to send similar messages on to others. And this is probably just the beginning.

“What was announced in terms of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the Incredibles has now created the association with Disney,” said Craige Fleischer, vice president of IT Mobile at Samsung Africa, at the launch. “We do believe that the relationship will expand to include other Disney properties in time.”

While Fleischer was not able to spell it out, this suggested that franchises like Star Wars would eventually enter the emoji world, providing Samsung with yet another opportunity to create viral marketing messages.

The handsets break ground in several other areas, including “intelligent biometrics”, a fusion of iris and facial recognition, allowing users to choose the log-in or authentication method that suits them best. It is likely, however, that many users will not discover a high proportion of the phone’s features.

That won’t be a bad thing in itself, as even what people don’t use will provide guidance in what should be added to devices in the future. As Samsung mobile head DJ Koh put it at the launch, “It’s only when technology is in people’s hands, that real magic happens and our lives are transformed.”

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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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