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The next big change

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The world is about to change, yet again, and in ways few can imagine. South Africa won’t be immune, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Self-driving cars, text by thinking, and sensors in your body warning you of medical issues before they happen are some of the bewildering advances in technology expected over the next ten years. 

Even countries that are not linked by umbilical cord to the innovation hubs of Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and Shanghai will feel the impact. But many are woefully unprepared. 

In South Africa, banks, insurance companies and marketers are investing heavily in both their own innovations and in buying up start-ups that can help them catch up. Beyond those industries, however, it tends to be business as usual.

This is one of the reasons that an organisation called the Mobility Centre for Africa (MCA) has convened a conference this week to advance discussions around disruptive technologies affecting the transport industry, with the aim of predicting future scenarios for African cities.

Described as a platform for the research, testing and deployment of future smart mobility solutions, the MCA brings together the public sector, industry and academia. It seeks an integrated approach to the research and development of electric and autonomous vehicles. But, more importantly, it wants to prepare South Africa and Africa’s road and related infrastructure for legislative changes and infrastructure standards.

The MCA has held similar events in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town over the past six months. Its 4th Future Mobility Roundtable is being hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni, one of the few metros in Africa that has developed a truly long-term vision – stretching out all the way to 2055. The event focuses on predicting future scenarios in line with this vision. Drones, artificial intelligence, smart cities, electric vehicles and cloud computing will be among the areas where industry leaders will share their predictions and recommend a course for the future of the country.

What can be expected?

The shape of the future is already being outlined at major technology events the world over. Starting with January’s Las Vegas-based CES (Consumer Electronics Show), the world’s biggest launchpad for new technology, it became clear that one of the key changes we can expect is a move away from touch screens as interfaces and towards voice.

Signs everywhere exhorted visitors to say “Alexa” or “Hey Google”, to activate devices fitted with Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. The latter was to be found in smart TVs, cars and even coffee machines.

Kitchen appliance maker Gourmia was marketing not its latest appliances, but the fact that its air fryers and pressure cookers were now voice enabled.

The integration of voice with vehicle infotainment and navigation systems saw the trend speed into the automotive arena. Panasonic announced a partnership with Amazon to create Alexa Onboard, to integrate Alexa’s voice control features with cars. Panasonic’s Skip Generation IVI – for In-Vehicle Infotainment – has also been upgraded to the latest version of Android, allowing it all the functionality of Google Assistant.

Smart speakers to control smart homes will become commonplace this year. Headphones, heaters and fridges will respond to our voices.

Other new technologies that leaped out from CES were:

  • Smart TVs using HDR10+, a new standard that allows every single frame of a video or TV broadcast to be mastered individually, meaning that they will adapt the colour and brightness of the display to the needs of every single scene;
  • Nissan’s Brain-to-Vehicle, or B2V, a technology that allows the driver’s brain waves to be synchornised with the vehicle so that, for example, the driver’s intention to brake will be signalled to the car up to one second before the brakes are activated, allowing the car to optimise power to the brakes at just the right moment,
  • The advent of 5G, the next generation of mobile connectivity, with Intel demonstrating a 1.6Gigabyte per second connection that could stream a 4K – or ultra high-definition – video along with a virtual reality movie, at the same time, on a single connection, leaving bandwidth to spare.
  • Innovative ways of launching new models of cars: Kia for the first time chose CES over the Detroit Motor Show to launch a new car, with the Kia Niro EV Concept hybrid car unveiled in Las Vegas. BMW used CES to launch the new X2 in virtual reality – the first car ever formally unveiled in VR. As a result of such activity, CES entered the top 10 of American automobile shows, and we can expect even more automotive focus at tech shows in future.

At the beginning of February, the Cisco Live! Conference in Barcelona saw forecasts, previously covered in this column, going all the way to 2055, coincidentally sharing a time frame with Ekurhuleni.

Among other, according to Rowan Trollope, senior vice president at Cisco, we can expect the following:

2022: Dubai will launch the worlds first driverless hover taxi. 

2027: The first commercial launch of a technology called text-by-thinking. 

2030s: New job tiles on LinkedIn will include positions like Avatar Manager, Body Part Maker, Vertical Farmer, Nano Medic, Climate Change Reversal Specialist, and Waste Data Handler. 

2036:  As a result of reverse engineering the human brain, Alzheimer’s will finally be cured. 

2040: The average home PC will have the computing power of 1-billion human brains. 

2050: Virtual telepathy will dominate personal communications. 

2055: The first permanent human presence on Mars. 

Later in February, global consulting firm Accenture unveiled Technology Vision 2018, an annual report that identifies technological trends most likely to disrupt business in the coming years.

More than 6 000 businesses across 19 industries in 25 countries, including South Africa, were surveyed. The key finding was that the technology revolution is arriving.

 “South African businesses and IT executives are increasingly embracing the power of technology, with 80% of those surveyed agreeing that it can help companies weave themselves seamlessly into the fabric of daily life,” said Willie Schoeman, managing director of Accenture Technology in Africa. 

“Many people may not even realise that they are interacting with new innovations like AI. If you’ve received an automated telemarketing call or interacted with a chatbot online, then AI has already influenced your life.”

Clearly, the changes have only just begun.

  • 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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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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