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Acer opens new window for Windows 8

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A firm date for a Windows Blue preview release and a new approach to computing by Acer add up to a new window of opportunity for Microsoft, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

A 4% hop in Microsoft’s share price last week was attributed by many to a $2-billion bet on the stock by hedge fund ValueAct. But it was no flash in the pan. The share price has climbed more than 20% since the beginning of the year. In the same breath as the latest rise, however, new hope has arrived for long-suffering investors and users of Microsoft products.

At the Wired 2013 Business Conference in New York last week, Microsoft Windows Division corporate vice president Julie Larson-Green confirmed long-rumoured release plans for a new version of the Windows 8 operating system . To be called Windows Blue, a public preview will be unveiled on 26 June.

It’s expected to fix some of the most maddening flaws in Windows 8, such as the absence of a Start bar that made Windows 7 so much more user-friendly. A minor industry emerged around that void, producing apps that inserted an equivalent of the Start bar into Windows 8. That was enough to send a loud message to the software giant, but it would have been more useful had they listened to early criticism from the start.

The other big flaw lies in the way the tile-style interface is geared towards touch-screen devices, and makes conventional machines feel positively clunky. That’s not the greatest message to send to a massive business user base that has remained loyal to Windows machines. Expect Windows Blue to play a lot nicer with this market.

That said, the launch of a range of new products in New York a few days earlier provided evidence that Windows 8 was not dead in the water. Acer, which sells one in every ten computers globally, and one in three in South Africa, unveiled two new flagship devices running Windows 8.

The new Aspire V7 is the company’s most powerful yet in the Ultrabook format, a standard developed by Intel for ultra-thin, ultra-light laptop computers that boot up in seconds. Inspired by Apple’s MacBook Air, until now the format had not yet produced a true equivalent until the V7. It comes in a choice of 15.6‚” or 14‚” display, touchscreen or non-touch, with the larger model having a high-definition LCD monitor.

Their stand-out feature? Price. Until now, a key reason the MacBook Air had no competition was that equivalent devices were no match in the pricetag often adding a further 25% to 50%. Considering the MacBook Air starts at $999 in the USA, the V7’s dollar prices announced last week represents a seismic shift: starting at $799.

A less powerful alternative, the V5, was also announced, offering screens from 11.6‚” in size, playing in the same space as the entry-level MacBook Air but at half the price.

The new devices are expected to give both Acer and Microsoft a boost when they come to market in June, just in time for a Windows Blue upgrade. Acer also unveiled its new premium notebook, the ‚”four-in-one‚” Aspire R7 notebook. As with the V7, it has a full HD 15.6‚” touchscreen, but that’s where any resemblance rushes out the back door.

It features an ‚”Ezel Hinge‚” that allows the monitor to be folded all the way to the back of the notebook, turning it into a pad or slate computer, with tablet functionality but notebook power. The monitor can also be moved forward, covering a trackpad that is set behind the keyboard rather than in the conventional position at the front. This makes it easier to combine typing and touching, as opposed to typing and ‚”mousing‚”.

Finally, it can be raised horizontally above the keyboard, ‚”floating‚” in mid-air, to allow for several people to use it at the same time. Oh, and the screen can be flipped round into ‚”display mode‚”, for showing photos, presentations or movies.

It may not be the future of computing. It may not even be the future of Windows 8. But it underlines how much live is still left in the operating system. For Microsoft, the window of opportunity remains wide open.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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Millennials turning 40: NOW will you stop targeting them?

It’s one of the most overused terms in youth marketing, and probably the most inaccurate, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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One of the most irritating buzzwords embraced by marketers in recent years is the term “millennial”. Most are clueless about its true meaning, and use it as a supposedly cool synonym for “young adults”. The flaw in this targeting – and the word “flaw” here is like calling the Grand Canyon a trench – is that it utterly ignores the meaning of the term. “Millennials” are formally defined as anyone born from 1980 to 2000, meaning they have typically come of age after the dawn of the millennium, or during the 21st century.

Think about that for a moment. Next year, the millennial will be formally defined as anyone aged from 20 to 40. So here you have an entire advertising, marketing and public relations industry hanging onto a cool definition, while in effect arguing that 40-year-olds are youths who want the same thing as newly-minted university graduates or job entrants.

When the communications industry discovers just how embarrassing its glib use of the term really is, it will no doubt pivot – millennial-speak for “changing your business model when it proves to be a disaster, but you still appear to be cool” – to the next big thing in generational theory.

That next big thing is currently Generation Z, or people born after the turn of the century. It’s very convenient to lump them all together and claim they have a different set of values and expectations to those who went before. Allegedly, they are engaged in a quest for experience, compared to millennials – the 19-year-olds and 39-olds alike – supposedly all on a quest for relevance.

In reality, all are part of Generation #, latching onto the latest hashtag trend that sweeps social media, desperate to go viral if they are producers of social content, desperate to have caught onto the trend before their peers.

The irony is that marketers’ quest for cutting edge target markets is, in reality, a hangover from the days when there was no such thing as generational theory, and marketing was all about clearly defined target markets. In the era of big data and mass personalization, that idea seems rather quaint.

Indeed, according to Grant Lapping, managing director of DataCore Media, it no longer matters who brands think their target market is.

“The reason for this is simple: with the technology and data digital marketers have access to today, we no longer need to limit our potential target audience to a set of personas or segments derived through customer research. While this type of customer segmentation was – and remains – important for engagements across traditional above-the-line engagements in mass media, digital marketing gives us the tools we need to target customers on a far more granular and personalised level.

“Where customer research gives us an indication of who the audience is, data can tell us exactly what they want and how they may behave.”

Netflix, he points out, is an example of a company that is changing its industry by avoiding audience segmentation, once the holy grail of entertainment.

In other words, it understands that 20-year-olds and 40-year-olds are very different – but so is everyone in between.

* 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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AI, IoT, and language of bees can save the world

A groundbreaking project is combining artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to learn the language of bees, and save the planet, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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It is early afternoon and hundreds of bees are returning to a hive somewhere near Reading in England. They are no different to millions of bees anywhere else in the world, bringing the nectar of flowers back to their queen.

But the hive to which they bring their tribute is no ordinary apiary.

Look closer, and one spots a network of wires leading into the structure. They connect up to a cluster of sensors, and run into a box beneath the hive carrying the logo of a company called Arnia: a name synonymous with hive monitoring systems for the past decade. The Arnia sensors monitor colony acoustics, brood temperature, humidity, hive weight, bee counts and weather conditions around the apiary.

On the back of the hive, a second box is emblazoned with the logo of BuzzBox. It is a solar-powered, Wi-Fi device that transmits audio, temperature, and humidity signals, includes a theft alarm, and acts as a mini weather station.

In combination, the cluster of instruments provides an instant picture of the health of the bee hive. But that is only the beginning.

What we are looking at is a beehive connected to the Internet of Things: connected devices and sensors that collect data from the environment and send it into the cloud, where it can be analysed and used to monitor that environment or help improve biodiversity, which in turn improves crop and food production.

The hives are integrated into the World Bee Project, a global honey bee monitoring initiative. Its mission is to “inform and implement actions to improve pollinator habitats, create more sustainable ecosystems, and improve food security, nutrition and livelihoods by establishing a globally-coordinated monitoring programme for honeybees and eventually for key pollinator groups”.

The World Bee Project is working with database software leader Oracle to transmit massive volume of data collected from its hives into the Oracle Cloud. Here it is combined with numerous other data sources, from weather patterns to pollen counts across the ecosystem in which the bees collect the nectar they turn into honey. Then, artificial intelligence software – with the assistance of human analysts – is used to interpret the behaviour of the hive, and patterns of flight, and from there assess the ecosystem.

Click here to read more about how the Internet of Things is used to interpret the language of bees.

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