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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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IoT at tipping point

We have long been in the hype phase of IoT, but it is finally taking on a more concrete form illustrating its benefits to business and the public at large, says PAUL RUINAARD, Country Manager at Nutanix Sub-Saharan Africa.

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People have become comfortable with talking to their smartphones and tasking these mini-computers to find the closest restaurants, schedule appointments, and even switch on their connected washing machines while they are stuck in traffic.

This is considerable progress from those expensive (and dated) robotic vacuum cleaners that drew some interest a few years ago. Yes, being able to automate cleaning the carpets held promise, but the reality failed to deliver on those expectations.

However, people’s growing comfort when it comes to talking to machines and letting them complete menial tasks is not what the long-anticipated Internet of Things (IoT) is about. It really entails taking connectedness a step further by getting machines to talk to one another in an increasingly digital world filled with smart cities, devices, and ways of doing things.

We have long been in the hype phase of IoT, but it is finally taking on a more concrete form illustrating its benefits to business and the public at large. The GSM Association predicts that Africa will account for nearly 60 percent of the anticipated 30 billion connected IoT devices by 2020.

Use cases across the continent hold much promise. In agriculture, for example, placing sensors in soil enable farmers to track acidity levels, temperature, and other variables to assist in improving crop yields. In some hotels, infrared sensors are being used to detect body heat so cleaning staff now when they can enter a room. In South Africa, connected cars (think telematics) are nothing new. Many local insurers use the data generated to reward good driver behaviour and penalise bad ones with higher premiums.

Data management

The proliferation of IoT also means huge opportunity for businesses. According to the IDC, the market opportunity for IoT in South Africa will grow to $1.7 billion by 2021. And with research from Statista showing that retail IoT spending in the country is expected to grow to $60 million by the end of this year (compared to the $41 million of 2016), there is significant potential for connected devices once organisations start to unlock the value of the data being generated.

But before we get a real sense of what our newly-connected world will look like and the full picture of the business opportunities IoT will create, we need to put the right resources in place to manage it. With IoT comes data, more than we can realistically imagine, and we are already creating more data than ever before.

Processing data is something usually left to ‘the IT person’. However, if business leaders want to join the IoT game, then it is something they must start thinking about. Sure, there are several ways to process data but they all link back to a data centre, that room or piece of equipment in the office, or the public data centre down the road. Most know it is there but little else, other than it has something to do with data and computers.

Data centres are the less interesting but very essential tools in all things technology. They run the show, and without them we would not be able to do something as simple as send an email, let alone create an intricate system of connected devices that constantly communicate with each other.

Traditionally, data centres have been large, expensive and clunky machines. But like everything in technology, they have been modernised over the years and have become smaller, more powerful, and more practical for the digital demands of today.

Computing on the edge

Imagine real-time face scanning being used at the Currie Cup final or the Chiefs and Pirates derby. Just imagine more than a thousand cameras in action, working in real time scanning tens of thousands of faces from different angles, creating data all along the way and integrating with other technology such as police radios and in-stadium services.

As South Africans, we know all too well that the bandwidth to process such a large amount of data through traditional networks is simply not good enough to work efficiently. And while it can be run through a large core or public data centre, the likelihood of one of those being close to the stadium is minimal. Delays, or ‘latency and lag time’, are not an option in this scenario; it must work in real time or not at all.

So, what can be done? The answer lies in edge computing. This is where computing is brought closer to the devices being used. The edge refers to devices that communicate with each other. Think of all those connected things the IoT has become known for: things like mobile devices, sensors, fitness trackers, laptops, and so on. Essentially anything that is ‘remote’ that links to the Web or other devices falls under this umbrella. For the most part, edge computing refers to smaller data centres (those in the edge) that can process the data required for things like large-scale facial recognition.

At some point in the future, there could be an edge data centre at Newlands or The Calabash that processes the data in real time. It would, of course, also be connected to other resources such as a public or private cloud environment, but the ‘heavy lifting’ is done where the action is taking place.

Unfortunately, there are not enough of these edge resources in place to match our grand IoT ambitions. Clearly, this must change if we are to continue much further down the IoT path.

Admittedly, edge computing is not the most exciting part of the IoT revolution, but it is perhaps the most necessary component of it if there is to be a revolution at all.

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Don’t panic! Future of work is still human

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The digital age, and the new technologies it’s brought with it – blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality – is seen by many as a threat to our way of life as we know it. What if my job gets automated? How will I stay relevant? How do we adapt to the need for new skills to manage customer expectations and the flood of data that’s washing over us?

The bad news is that the nature of work has already changed irrevocably. Everything that can be automated, will be. We already live in an age of “robot restaurants”, where you order on a touch screen, and machines cook and serve your food. Did you notice the difference? AmazonGo is providing shopping without checkout lines. In the US alone, there are an estimated 3.4 million drivers that could be replaced by self-driving vehicles in 10 years, including truck drivers, taxi drivers and bus drivers.

We’re not immune from this phenomenon in Africa. In fact, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that 41% of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation, compared to 44% in Ethiopia, 46% in Nigeria and 52% in Kenya. This doesn’t mean millions of jobs on the continent will be automated overnight, but it’s a clear indicator of the future direction we’re taking.

The good news is that we don’t need to panic. What’s important for us in South Africa, and the continent, is to realise that there is plenty of work that only humans can do. This is particularly relevant to the African context, as the working-age population rises to 600 million in 2030 from 370 million in 2010. We have a groundswell of young people who need jobs – and the digital age has the ability to provide them, if we start working now.

Make no mistake, there’s no doubt that this so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is going to disrupt many occupations. This is perfectly natural: every Industrial Revolution has made some jobs redundant. At the same time, these Revolutions have created vast new opportunities that have taken us forward exponentially.

Between 2012 and 2017, for example, it’s estimated that the demand for data analysts globally grew by 372%, and the demand for data visualisation skills by more than 2000%. As businesses, this means we have to not only create new jobs in areas like data science and analytics, but reskill our existing workforces to deal with the digital revolution and its new demands.

So, while bus drivers and data clerks are looking over their shoulders nervously right now, we’re seeing a vast range of new jobs being created in fields such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), data analysis, computer science and engineering.

This is a challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa, where our levels of STEM education are still not where they should be. That doesn’t mean there are no opportunities to be had. In the region, for example, we have a real opportunity to create a new generation of home-grown African digital creators, designers and makers, not just “digital deliverers”. People who understand African nuances and stories, and who not only speak local languages, but are fluent in digital.

This ability to bridge the digital and physical worlds, as it were, will be the new gold for Africa. We need more business operations data analysts, who combine deep knowledge of their industry with the latest analytical tools to adapt business strategies. There will also be more demand for user interface experts, who can facilitate seamless human-machine interaction.

Of course, in the longer term, we in Africa are going to have to make some fundamental decisions about how we educate people if we’re going to be a part of this brave new world. Governments, big business and civil society will all have roles to play in creating more future-ready education systems, including expanded access to early-childhood education, more skilled teachers, investments in digital fluency and ICT literacy skills, and providing robust technical and vocational education and training (TVET). This will take significant intent not only from a policy point of view, but also the financial means to fund this.

None of this will happen overnight. So what can we, as individuals and businesspeople, do in the meantime? A good start would be to realise that the old models of learning and work are broken. Jenny Dearborn, SAP’s Global Head of Learning, talks about how the old approach to learning and work was generally a three-stage life that consisted largely of learn-work-retire.

Today, we live in what Ms Dearborn calls the multi-stage life, which includes numerous phases of learn-work-change-learn-work. And where before, the learning was often by rote, because information was finite, learning now is all about critical thinking, complex problem-solving, creativity and innovation and even the ability to un-learn what you have learned before.

Helping instill this culture of lifelong learning, including the provision of adult training and upskilling infrastructure, is something that all companies can do, starting now. The research is clear: even if jobs are stable or growing, they are going through major changes to their skills profile. WEF’s Future of Jobs analysis found that, in South Africa alone, 39% of core skills required across all occupations will be different by 2020 compared to what was needed to perform those roles in 2015.

This is a huge wake-up call to companies to invest meaningfully in on-the-job training to keep their people – and themselves – relevant in this new digital age. There’s no doubt that more learning will need to take place in the workplace, and greater private sector involvement is needed. As employers, we have to start working closely with should therefore offer schools, universities and even non-formal education to provide learning opportunities to our workers.

We can also drive a far stronger focus on the so-called “soft skills”, which is often used as a slightly dismissive term in the workplace. The core skills needed in today’s workplace are active listening, speaking, and critical thinking. A quick look at the WEF’s “21st Century Skills Required For The Future Of Work” chart bears this out: as much as we need literacy, numeracy and IT skills to make sense of the modern world of work, we also need innately human skills like communication and collaboration. The good news is that not only can these be taught – but they can be taught within the work environment.

It sounds almost counter-intuitive, but to be successful in the Digital Age, businesses are going to have to go back to what has always made them strong: their people. Everyone can buy AI, build data warehouses, and automate every process in sight. The companies that will stand out will be those that that focus on the things that can’t be duplicated by AI or machine learning – uniquely human skills.

I have no doubt that the future will not be humans OR robots: it will be humans AND robots, working side by side. For us, as businesspeople and children of the African continent, we’re on the brink of a major opportunity. We just have to grasp it.

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