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Sony makes a Premium bet

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With every new flagship phone, Sony Mobile reminds the market that it is still a technology force. The XZ Premium is the latest example, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

Sony is the brand that just won’t go away. Every time Apple, Samsung or Huawei releases a new phone that threatens to sweep away all the minnows of the smartphone market, Sony Mobile pops up with a device that says, “We’re still here.”

So it was that the annual showcase of the latest in gadgetry, Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, saw the brand muscle in amid the big unveils, like the new Nokia 3310 and Huawei P10.

To rise above the noise at an event like that – close to 100 000 people attend, and more than 2 000 exhibitors push the hype to a frenzy – a product has to have something special.

Sony came up with a new flagship phone called the Xperia XZ Premium, but if it had been merely “its most ground-breaking smartphone to date”, as a press release bizarrely crowed at the time, it would have vanished along with every other brand’s most ground-breaking hype.

Rather, it had one of the best differentiators of the show. To quote Sony Mobile: “a camera so advanced it captures motion that the human eye can’t see”.

The Sony camera heritage has been a hallmark of the Xperia range for some time, always positioning the top-of-the-range models among the best camera phones in the world. Gradually, the phone is catching up to the capabilities of dedicated compact cameras, like the Sony ‘α’ and Cyber-shot models, by embedding the technology used in those devices.

The result is the new Motion Eye camera system, which features the Exmor RS sensor built into premium compact cameras. The more conventional benefits are that it provides five times faster image scanning and data transfer, but that alone would not be enough to differentiate it.

The highlight of the device is that it records video in 960 frames per second, and combines this with an ultra-slow motion video playback function that it claims to be four times slower than other smartphones. This means that, in ideal conditions, the phone can capture high-speed action, and then freeze individual frames of movement that would not have been visible with the naked eye.

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Not many phones cam make a virtue of being both the fastest and the slowest.

“It’s a first of its kind,” says Sony Mobile country manager for South Africa, Christian Haghofer. “It shows Sony’s technology leadership, its innovation leadership, and its ability to be first in the market. Being able to perform that on a mobile phone, and see things never seen before on a phone, means it is getting very close to professional cameras.”

The still camera is almost as impressive, with a feature called Plus Predictive Capture that automatically starts buffering images when it detects motion before the user presses the button. That means that if one, for example, missed the baby’s smile by a micro-second, one could find that moment from a selection of four shots taken a second before the button was clicked.

The camera has a 19 megapixel high-resolution sensor and, claims Sony, 19% larger pixels, “to capture more light and provides exceptional detail and sharp images even in low-light and backlit conditions”. If that’s not enough, the

Xperia XZ Premium is the first smartphone with a 4K HDR (High Dynamic Range, 2160 x 3840) 5.5” display.

It draws on technologies developed for Sony’s Bravia TVs – sadly no longer available in South African appliance stores.  Aside from 4K HDR, it also uses Sony’s Triluminos Display technology, X-Reality for mobile, and Dynamic Contrast Enhancer. While these may sound like marketing padding, each represents an enhancement over traditional imaging technology.

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The phone is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, so that it is potentially able to support virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, as well as LTE mobile broadband of up to 1Gbps – if that ever arrives in South Africa.

The device is also water resistant and dust-proof, and uses Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on both the front and back to reduce scratching and extend its physical life.

It doesn’t come cheap, at a recommended retail price of R15 000. However, that puts it on a par with the flagship devices from Samsung and Apple, and sends the message that it intends to compete directly with them.

It doesn’t mean Sony has abandoned the mid-market or even entry-level smartphone users, says Haghofer:

“For those who can’t afford the Premium, we have launched the XA1 Ultra, which has the same camera as the previous flagship, the Xperia Z5: a 23Mp rear and 16Mp front camera, positioned as a high-quality selfie camera. We’re targeting the urban mass market at a price of R6999 for a phone that is equivalent to the premium handset of two years ago and is now mid-market.

“We’ve extended the lifecycle of entry products, the E5 and XA, bringing that to the market at R1999 and R2999. It’s a critical move from us. We see a decline in disposable income and people spending less money on smartphones, and we want to address that.”

His parting shot is a warning to the dominant brands: “We are going to regain relevance in terms of volume share.”

  • 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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VoD cuts the cord in SA

Some 20% of South Africans who sign up for a subscription video on demand (SVOD) service such as Netflix or Showmax do so with the intention of cancelling their pay television subscription.

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That’s according to GfK’s international ViewScape survey*, which this year covers Africa (South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria) for the first time.

The study—which surveyed 1,250 people representative of urban South African adults with Internet access—shows that 90% of the country’s online adults today use at least one online video service and that just over half are paying to view digital online content. The average user spends around 7 hours and two minutes a day consuming video content, with broadcast television accounting for just 42% of the time South Africans spend in front of a screen.

Consumers in South Africa spend nearly as much of their daily viewing time – 39% of the total – watching free digital video sources such as YouTube and Facebook as they do on linear television. People aged 18 to 24 years spend more than eight hours a day watching video content as they tend to spend more time with free digital video than people above their age.

Says Benjamin Ballensiefen, managing director for Sub Sahara Africa at GfK: “The media industry is experiencing a revolution as digital platforms transform viewers’ video consumption behaviour. The GfK ViewScape study is one of the first to not only examine broadcast television consumption in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, but also to quantify how linear and online forms of content distribution fit together in the dynamic world of video consumption.”

The study finds that just over a third of South African adults are using streaming video on demand (SVOD) services, with only 16% of SVOD users subscribing to multiple services. Around 23% use per-pay-view platforms such as DSTV Box Office, while about 10% download pirated content from the Internet. Around 82% still sometimes watch content on disc-based media.

“Linear and non-linear television both play significant roles in South Africa’s video landscape, though disruption from digital players poses a growing threat to the incumbents,” says Molemo Moahloli, general manager for media research & regional business development at GfK Sub Sahara Africa. “Among most demographics, usage of paid online content is incremental to consumption of linear television, but there are signs that younger consumers are beginning to substitute SVOD for pay-television subscriptions.”

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New data rules raise business trust challenges

When the General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect on May 25th, financial services firms will face a new potential threat to their on-going challenges with building strong customer relationships, writes DARREL ORSMOND, Financial Services Industry Head at SAP Africa.

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The regulation – dubbed GDPR for short – is aimed at giving European citizens control back over their personal data. Any firm that creates, stores, manages or transfers personal information of an EU citizen can be held liable under the new regulation. Non-compliance is not an option: the fines are steep, with a maximum penalty of €20-million – or nearly R300-million – for transgressors.

GDPR marks a step toward improved individual rights over large corporates and states that prevents the latter from using and abusing personal information at their discretion. Considering the prevailing trust deficit – one global EY survey found that 60% of global consumers worry about hacking of bank accounts or bank cards, and 58% worry about the amount of personal and private data organisations have about them – the new regulation comes at an opportune time. But it is almost certain to cause disruption to normal business practices when implemented, and therein lies both a threat and an opportunity.

The fundamentals of trust

GDPR is set to tamper with two fundamental factors that can have a detrimental effect on the implicit trust between financial services providers and their customers: firstly, customers will suddenly be challenged to validate that what they thought companies were already doing – storing and managing their personal data in a manner that is respectful of their privacy – is actually happening. Secondly, the outbreak of stories relating to companies mistreating customer data or exposing customers due to security breaches will increase the chances that customers now seek tangible reassurance from their providers that their data is stored correctly.

The recent news of Facebook’s indiscriminate sharing of 50 million of its members’ personal data to an outside firm has not only led to public outcry but could cost the company $2-trillion in fines should the Federal Trade Commission choose to pursue the matter to its fullest extent. The matter of trust also extends beyond personal data: in EY’s 2016 Global Consumer Banking Survey, less than a third of respondents had complete trust that their banks were being transparent about fees and charges.

This is forcing companies to reconsider their role in building and maintaining trust with its customers. In any customer relationship, much is done based on implicit trust. A personal banking customer will enjoy a measure of familiarity that often provides them with some latitude – for example when applying for access to a new service or an overdraft facility – that can save them a lot of time and energy. Under GDPR and South Africa’s POPI act, this process is drastically complicated: banks may now be obliged to obtain permission to share customer data between different business units (for example because they are part of different legal entities and have not expressly received permission). A customer may now allow banks to use their personal data in risk scoring models, but prevent them from determining whether they qualify for private banking services.

What used to happen naturally within standard banking processes may be suddenly constrained by regulation, directly affecting the bank’s relationship with its customers, as well as its ability to upsell to existing customers.

The risk of compliance

Are we moving to an overly bureaucratic world where even the simplest action is subject to a string of onerous processes? Compliance officers are already embedded within every function in a typical financial services institution, as well as at management level. Often the reporting of risk processes sits outside formal line functions and end up going straight to the board. This can have a stifling effect on innovation, with potentially negative consequences for customer service.

A typical banking environment is already creaking under the weight of close to 100 acts, which makes it difficult to take the calculated risks needed to develop and launch innovative new banking products. Entire new industries could now emerge, focusing purely on the matter of compliance and associated litigation. GDPR already requires the services of Data Protection Officers, but the growing complexity of regulatory compliance could add a swathe of new job functions and disciplines. None of this points to the type of innovation that the modern titans of business are renowned for.

A three-step plan of action

So how must banks and other financial services firms respond? I would argue there are three main elements to successfully navigating the immediate impact of the new regulations:

Firstly, ensuring that the technologies you use to secure, manage and store personal data is sufficiently robust. Modern financial services providers have a wealth of customer data at their disposal, including unstructured data from non-traditional sources such as social media. The tools they use to process and safeguard this data needs to be able to withstand the threats posed by potential data breaches and malicious attacks.

Secondly, rethinking the core organisational processes governing their interactions with customers. This includes the internal measures for setting terms and conditions, how customers are informed of their intention to use their data, and how risk is assessed. A customer applying for medical insurance will disclose deeply personal information about themselves to the insurance provider: it is imperative the insurer provides reassurance that the customer’s data will be treated respectfully and with discretion and with their express permission.

Thirdly, financial services firms need to define a core set of principles for how they treat customers and what constitutes fair treatment. This should be an extension of a broader organisational focus on treating customers fairly, and can go some way to repairing the trust deficit between the financial services industry and the customers they serve.

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