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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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Prepare for Wi-Fi 6

From traffic to healthcare, the applications of the new Wi-Fi 6 standard are set to transform how we connect.

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20 years ago, with the release of 802.11b, Wi-Fi began its conquest of the world networking scene in earnest. Wi-Fi can easily be called out as one of the most popular technologies of the last two decades. Just as mobile telephony and mobile internet, it has become a part of everyday life. And with the advent of IoT and the introduction of 5G, the time has come for the new standard – Wi-Fi 6.

Beyond being significantly faster than the previous generation, Wi-Fi 6 delivers up to four times greater capacity. Latency is vastly improved, allowing for near real-time use cases. Wi-Fi 6 is also easier on connected devices’ batteries.

So what impact will Wi-Fi 6 have on business in the coming years?

Digitisation, mobility and IoT are driving the need for connectivity. By 2022, more IP traffic will cross global networks than in all prior ‘internet years’ combined up to the end of 2016. In other words, more traffic will be created in 2022 than in the 32 years since the internet started. In 3 years, 28 billion devices will be connected to the Internet, many of which (robots, production lines, medical devices) will communicate over a wireless network. Against this background, it is easy to understand why we need a redesigned wireless standard that is more responsive to present and future challenges.

Wi-Fi 6: The business impact

“In the first phase, we expect the new wireless standard to gain a significant foothold in the B2B field, where it brings important innovations,” said Garsen Naidu, Country Manager, Cisco South Africa. “We will see it, together with other technologies, penetrate significantly into manufacturing, into the logistics industry. The technology is also more effective in high-density settings like large lecture halls, stadiums and conference rooms, so we are likely to see significant penetration in these settings too. And, with its extremely low latency, Wi-Fi 6 also promises to open up new opportunities in AR/VR, healthcare, and self-driving vehicles. ”

Ever since the launch of the Internet, every leap in network speed has had a major impact on technological innovation: 4G has brought along the age of smartphones, whilst 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will transform the business world. According to Cisco experts, these two technologies – 5G and Wi-Fi – will be widely adopted at the same time, complementing each other.

A short history of Wi-Fi

In 1999, half a dozen technology companies, including Aironet, which was later acquired by Cisco, formed the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. The standard announced that year, 802.11b, which gained significant commercial traction, was the first to emerge under the ‘Wi-Fi’ brand. As such, 1999 marks the year in which Wi-Fi really began.

Solutions that carry the official Wi-Fi logo work consistently with the IEEE 802.11 data transfer standard. These solutions are certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which guarantees compatibility between various wireless devices. In addition, networking manufacturers have done a lot to improve compatibility. Launched as early as 2002, Cisco Compatible eXtensions is a free licensing program that has enabled other vendors’ Wi-Fi products to be securely deployed on Cisco wireless networks.

Subsequent developments in Wi-Fi technology included managing interference and increasing data stability. Cisco is supporting these with the Cisco Flexible Radio Assignment and Cisco CleanAir technologies. The latter is capable of identifying and graphically displaying radio interference, identifying the source of the problem, and directing users to other, less crowded, channels.

Challenges of the present and opportunities for the future

One of the most widespread business applications of wireless technology is office Wi-Fi. Using Wi-Fi, employees can move freely and access the network from anywhere where there is a hotspot. Wi-Fi-based analysis and location services are also becoming increasingly popular. And with the spread of IoT, Wi-Fi is becoming ubiquitous, and is today found everywhere from agricultural fields to production lines.

“We see promising business opportunities and a wide range of new applications. At the same time, with hundreds and thousands of new devices connecting to wireless networks, IT teams are facing increasing complexity. So we need to rethink IT architectures from the ground-up,” added Naidu.

Much of this need to rethink network architectures is driven by the enormous growth in wireless connectivity.

Wi-Fi has driven growth in general IT use, which in turn has led to the need to provide and run bigger and more complex networks with a greater variety of endpoint device types on them. This complexity ‘feedback loop’, driven in no small part by Wi-Fi, requires that new solutions are developed to deal with this complexity.

Cisco has pioneered in this area, using AI, machine learning, and machine reasoning, via products such as Cisco DNA Assurance to eliminate manual troubleshooting and reduce the time spent resolving service issues.

The latest Wi-Fi 6 developments introduced earlier this year make a consistent, efficient and seamless wireless connectivity experience a reality.

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Now for hardware-as-a-service

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Integrated ICT and Infrastructure provider Vox has entered into an exclusive partnership with Go Rentals to introduce a Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS) offering, which is aimed at providing local small and medium businesses (SMEs) with quick, affordable, and scalable access to a wide variety of IT infrastructure – as well as the management thereof.

“Despite an increasingly competitive business environment where every rand counts, many business owners are still buying technology-based equipment outright rather than renting it,” says Barry Kemp, Head of Managed IT at Vox. “The problem with this is that the modern device arena has grown in variety and complexity, making it more difficult to manage, and to reduce the overheads of controlling these devices.”

According to Kemp, there is a global trend being observed in businesses moving away from owning and managing IT infrastructure. This started with the move away from servers and toward cloud-based subscription services, and now organisations are looking to do the same with the remaining on-premise hardware – employees’ desktop systems.

The availability of HaaS changes the way in which local businesses consume IT, by allowing them to direct valuable capital expenditure toward the more efficient and competitive operation of their organisation, rather than spending on hardware products. 

“The rental costs are up to 50% lower than if they buy these products through traditional asset financing methods. Furthermore, using HaaS gives businesses the ability to scale up and down depending on their infrastructure requirements. Customers on a 12 month contract can return up to 10% of the devices rented, while those customers on 24 and 36 month contracts can return up to 20% of the devices – at any time during the contract,” adds Kemp.

More than just a rental

HaaS gives business access to repurposed Tier 1 hardware from vendors such as Dell, HP and Lenovo, equipped with the required specifications (processor, memory, and storage), and come installed with the latest Microsoft Windows operating system, unless an older version is specifically requested by the customer.

Kemp says: “Where HaaS is different from simply renting IT hardware is that businesses get full asset lifecycle management, such as having all company software pre-installed, flexible refresh cycles and upgrades, support and warranty management and transparent and predictable per user monthly fees.”

The ability to upgrade during the contract period means that businesses can keep pace with the latest in technology without needing to invest on depreciating equipment, while ensuring maximum productivity and efficiency for employees. Returned devices are put through a decommissioning process that ensures anonymity, certified data protection, and environmental compliance. 

Businesses further stand to benefit from Vox Care, which incorporates asset management and logistical services for customers. This includes initial delivery and setup in major centres, asset tagging of all rented items, creation, and the repair and/or replacement of faulty machines within three business days – again in the main metropolitan areas. 

Vox Care also assists in the design, testing and deployment of custom images, whereby HaaS clients can have the additional programmes they need (security, productivity tools, business software, etc) easily pre-installed along with the Windows operating system, on all their machines.

Kemp says HaaS customers can get further peace of mind by outsourcing the day to day management of their desktop environment to Vox Managed Services, as well as leverage the company’s knowledge and expertise to manage and host workstation backups to ensure business continuity.

Says Kemp: “Hardware-as-a-Service allows businesses to reduce the total cost of ownership of their hardware and ensure they only pay for what they use. Making the switch to a service model helps them take advantage of the global move in this direction, and to turn their business into a highly functional, flexible, low cost, change your mind whenever you want workplace.”

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