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Solving the Case of the Grumpy Smartphone

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We all wrestle with the frustration of love affairs with fresh new phones that end in frustration as they become ageing grumps. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK looks at reasons and solutions.

When that fresh new smartphone enters our lives, it often matches both our budgets and our lifestyles. It’s an expression of ourselves and of the hope that, this time, it’s going to be a long-term relationship.

A year later, it’s just like all the rest of them. Slow, cantankerous, temperamental, and prone to shut down on you just when you need a meaningful conversation.

Are phones designed to become ageing grumps? Is this a form of planned obsolescence that guarantees the manufacturers will keep selling new, improved devices as we become more addicted to the faster, better and – the real hope – fresher?

Well, yes. If phone makers didn’t keep making better phones, they would go out of business. But the truth is, they can’t help it. The technology going into the phones that are made today is simply not advanced enough to cope with the demands that we all make of the devices tomorrow.

As new apps emerge that give us new capacity and capability in our work, social, and entertainment lives, we push last year’s phone to the limit and are surprised that it groans under the weight of our expectations.

It’s not just that new apps are ahead of their time. In most cases, they could work on phones made six years ago or more. It’s that there are just so many of them. This is the main clue to The Case of the Grumpy Smartphone.

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The core reason why smartphones were so much faster than humans is that they are not smart enough to clean up after themselves.

There are a number of specific reasons. These include two major slowdown factors:

1. Most apps run in the background on the phone, even when you’re not using them. As you install more apps, more apps are running in the background, using more data, more battery power and more system memory. This gradually slows down the phone, even in the absence of any use of these apps. Because they are also constantly draining the battery, they reduce the life of the battery.

2. As your storage fills up with saved files (photos, videos, documents), as well as cached files from websites you visit or attachments to your chats and received emails, each new file is stored in small chunks of data spread across the phone’s drive – the storage that lies within the device. As more chunks of data are spread more widely, it makes retrieval of the files slower, but also slows down the storage of new files.

You would think that deleting a file or app would solve the problem, but it does such a messy job, it’s almost as bad as spilling coffee on the handset. As one does. When you delete files, the freed up space is spread out across the drive, and new files have to find enough space in all these new holes to fit in comfortably. All of this results in the phone becoming less efficient over time.

There are many workarounds to clean up the mess, but none of them represent a real solution.

The first smartphone to address the problem directly, the Huawei Mate 9, was launched in November 2016. It introduced machine learning algorithms that monitor the user’s behaviour, shuts down unused apps, optimises processor use for the tasks at hand, and prevents fragmentation of files.

In short, it cleans up after the user, using artificial intelligence (AI). Not the kind that will graduallly develop self-awareness and take over the world, but rather the kind that has context awareness and keeps doing one job better as it learns.

At the launch, Huawei claimed that, over an 18 month period, you would end up with a more efficient, better performing phone.

We’re now at the halfway mark in testing Huawei’s claim, so the phone still has 9 month to prove itself. If it performs as advertised, “machine learning” may well be the next standard feature in smartphones.

“In future we will introduce more AI fucntions, like components in charge of different aspects of the phone’s performance,” says Likun Zhao, GM of Huawei Consumer Business Group in South Africa. He feels strongly that the evolution of the handset is about to enter a third era, following the early feature phones as the first and the basic touchscreen smartphone, pioneered by Apple, as the second.

“We think the big change from version two to version three is AI. The smartphone plus AI equals the intelligent phone.”

Huawei, he says , defines the intelligent phone according to three key features: “First, intelligent interaction, which is very simple: the phone will be like your eyes, your ears, nose, tongue and brain; the smartphone can listen, hear, taste, and feel.

“Second, is borderless display. Today it all depends on the screen, text, and voice, but we think in future it will also be based on the actions of users, behaviour of users, and even proactive perception, like tracking your eyes automatically. This means the screen is no longer the border; it extends to your body.

“Third is proactive, intelligent services, starting with machine learning, but with AI becoming like the brain, where the phone can think, and can study behaviour.”

At that point, the phone begins to refresh itself, which means it is also likely to start treating its users better. But this could be anything from two to 10 years away, so what do you do in the meantime?

First, on most Android phones, there is a maintenance option. On the latest Samsung S8 devices, it’s labelled Device Maintenance, and allows the user to optimise the phone’s “maintenance status”. With one click, you can close apps running in the background, free up storage from temporary files, identify apps that are making abnormal use of the battery and shut those down, and clean up apps that are vulnerable to malware, which can infect and damage the phone’s software.

The function also balances battery life and screen resolution for everyday use, or enhances specific functions for games, entertainment or other forms of high performance. Most Samsung and Huawei smartphones have similar functions.

If the function is not available on your phone, or it does not offer a powerful enough set of maintenance tools, many apps perform a similar role.  For example, AVG Cleaner conducts an analysis, doing a particularly good job of identifying content that has been cached and can be deleted if not needed on the phone. Its only drawback is that it demands payment for a Pro version that allows automatic cleaning and to optimise battery use.

It’s worth shopping around in your app store to find equivalent phone maintenance apps that don’t demand payment for every additional function. However, it may also be worthwhile forking out a few rands or dollars to protect your investment in a device that cost hundreds or thousands when you were first persuaded to enter a relationship.

  • 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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