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Tech can be our conscience

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Technology is great, but is it making us lazy, or is it transforming us into better people? JURIE SCHOEMAN, an executive at BSG explores the issue further.

It’s a busy Friday night in October 2000. A time before budget airlines, mobile apps, smartphones and the Gautrain. I’m rushing to Johannesburg International Airport (JIA) for a flight to Cape Town. With no GPS or real-time traffic information to rely on, and a chunky Nokia 5520 as my only travel companion, I’m cutting it fine – and I still have to check in.

After 15 minutes of dodging construction hazards in my innocuous white Ford Escort, I finally find an open parking bay and race to the counter with minutes to spare. Upon returning to Johannesburg two days later, I realised I had no idea where I had parked my car and was forced to commit the next hour to finding it.

When travelling again a month later, I add a calendar entry on my Nokia reminding future me of the floor and pillar closest to my car. Suddenly my mobile companion was adding value beyond merely being a phone. Years later, having upgraded to a Sony Ericsson with a full colour camera, I simply snapped a photo of the parking bay number stencilled on the ground behind my car – progress!

Fast forward to today when technology has continued to reduce the pain points associated with travelling. Thanks to the Gautrain and services like Über, I no longer have to drive to the airport, but if I do, GPS and real-time traffic information will work out the fastest route, and will even tell me when to leave the house without me ever adding a calendar invite. Best of all, I can drop a GPS pin at my parking location so I never lose my car again.

We’ve come a long way. My mobile companion went from just being a phone, to also being a calendar, camera and photo journal, and then a navigation device, and now a fully integrated mobile assistant. It’s gone from being able to use a few simple functions to do what I tell it to do, to proactively anticipating my needs and using a vast range of information to find better ways for me to achieve my goals.

I see two diverging paths, separated by how comfortable we are giving the external world access to who we are and what we do, and the potential benefit is directly proportional to that level of access.

High-tech road

The first path, the high-tech road, is an increasingly digitised, predictive and integrated one. Down this path, my mobile companion will be more knowledgeable about the world than I am – it may even know more about me than I do. Through the wonder of the connected world and data analytics, it is going to understand my goals and needs, and help make me a better version of myself. This could mean on-selling / cross-selling promotions based on what I’ve just done, or even what I’m thinking of doing, collaborating with as many as 28 billion other devices in the world by 2020, including my fridge, car and online retailers, to ensure that I never run out of milk or miss a car service.

There are a few risks associated with this path: the physical ‘text neck’, which is what two to four hours a day of hunching over a phone will do to you, and the mental risk of abdicating accountability to the device. As we become more reliant on our devices, we’ll begin regressing as our brains become lazier. A recent study shows more than 50% of Europeans can’t recall their children’s phone numbers without the help of their mobile phones. Ironically, many of us have resorted to using those same mobile devices to do brain training, using apps that probably don’t work.

There is also a risk to our relationships, with 61% of people admitting they regularly sleep with their smartphone turned on under their pillow or next to their bed, with more than 50% feeling uncomfortable when they don’t have access to their phones. The fact that there’s an app designed to switch off notifications to allow two adults to engage with one another without being disturbed is disturbing in itself!

Low-trust road

The second path, the low-trust road, is one where we rely more on ourselves to be successful, without assistance from the digital world. It’s a path that values privacy over prediction and control over coercion. While it’s certainly more old-fashioned, it’s one where people may manage to be engaged for more than six minutes at a time, or spend more time sleeping than online each day. That said, it’s only a matter of time before the march of progress makes it impossible to live off the digital grid and the laggards on the low-trust road will have to embrace the digital world or become social hermits.

I have high hopes for a world where the mobile device goes from being a second brain to being a second conscience, where your mobile device is the angel on your shoulder, urging you to do what’s best. Helping you to save instead of incurring more debt, or obey traffic laws instead of taking reckless short-cuts. If this can be realised, our mobile devices can help to make us better people, in a better world.

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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