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BlackBerry and Nokia reborn

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At a conference in Amsterdam and a launch in South Africa last week, BlackBerry and Nokia respectively revealed that they would remain a formidable force in Africa, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
Africa is an unlikely high-tech battleground for the future of the smartphone market.

While most Western markets are locked in a fight between Apple’s iPhone on the one side and a range of brands using the Android operating system (OS) on the other, the picture across the African continent is entirely different.

It is a market dominated by Nokia, but in which BlackBerry has become the aspirational phone of choice for the tiny elite at the top of the economic pile. In South Africa itself, BlackBerry has broken out into the mass market, to become the biggest smartphone brand and second biggest overall.

Yet, in Western markets, both of these brands were having their obituaries written at various times during 2011. Nokia had announced it was ditching its Symbian OS in favour of Microsoft’s Windows Phone, and BlackBerry’s entry into the tablet market, the PlayBook, was all but dead on arrival as it failed to meet user needs.

Now, the most unlikely pair of revivals are under way.  This week, Nokia released the first of its new Windows Phone-based devices in South Africa. Physically, the Lumia 800 looks almost exactly like the Nokia N9, which was released to wild acclaim late last-year, but which uses a once-off OS that Nokia does not intend to maintain.

The key difference, aside from a range of new colour options, lies in the way the devices are being sold: a Vodacom contract on the Lumia costs R279, compared to R299 for the N9, and includes 100MB of data per month for 24 months, compared to the N9’s three month data allowance. The pricing sends a clear message: Nokia wants customers to come on over.

The Windows Phone OS will initially be unfamiliar to most Nokia loyalists, but it will grow on them – especially when they discover a mobile version of Micosoft Office on the device, enabling a surprisingly extensive range of Word and Excel functions. If that’s not enough, the sharp, vibrantly bright screen uses a cutting edge screen technology called AMOLED. The phone is beautiful to the eyes and the touch.

Several Lumia models will follow, at various price points, along with a low-cost Nokia range called the Asha – Hindi for “hope”.

The hope is, of course, that it will give the massive Nokia user base throughout the developing world a reason to stay with the brand. The Lumia, on the other hand, is designed to give smartphone users a reason to go back to Nokia. Between the two, they signal the rebirth of the world’s most powerful phone brand outside North America.

A similar resurrection is under way at BlackBerry and its manufacturer, RIM, which has been entirely written off by American analysts. This week, RIM chose Europe to herald its comeback. New CEO Thorsten Heins delivered his debut address at DevCon Europe, BlackBerry’s developer conference in Amsterdam.

While he did not make dramatic announcements, he reminded the audience that BlackBerry was still the number one smartphone brand in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

He also led a string of RIM executives through demonstrations of the capabilities of the new OS, BlackBerry 10, which is expected to allow BlackBerry to compete with the functionality of Android and Apple phones for the first time. The most important of these demos, arguably, was of the PlayBook 2.0 tablet computer, which provides a foretaste of the BlackBerry 10 experience.

Not only does it repair the damage of the first PlayBook by including e-mail on the device, but it takes it to new levels by providing a rich range of messaging and contact options, along with performance improvements. The much-maligned Bridge, which previously was used to connect to a phone’s e-mail, now becomes a remote control tool between the two devices.

The PlayBook 2.0 will be released this month, and BlackBerry 10 phones will appear later in the year.

That may be just in time to catch the wave of South African BlackBerry users who began embracing the phone from late 2010, and who would otherwise be falling to the allure of Android and Windows Phone when their upgrades are due.

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TikTok takes on COVID-19

The fastest growing social media platform in the world has also become an epicenter of public education about the coronavirus, attracting more than 30-billion views, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The young have been getting a bad rap for wanting to party on while COVID-19 sends the world into lockdown. But a different movie is playing itself out on the social platform that is growing fastest among teenagers: TikTok.

Awareness campaigns by TikTok itself, collaboration with the International Red Cross, and spontaneous videos made by TikTok creators have combined into a barrage of information, education, awareness and social consciousness around the coronavirus.

Both globally and in South Africa, TikTok’s COVID-19 campaigns have gone viral.

The local #HayiCorona challenge, designed to remind people not to touch their face and wash hands regularly, has passed 1.5-million views. The TikTok collaboration with the International Red Cross, the #WashingHands challenge, has passed 12.6-million views.

One of the best-known participants in these challenges is the past year’s icon of South African talent, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, took up the global challenge with a 20-second hand-washing video. It put together a performance that brings tremendous energy to what can be a clichéd message, and ends with a punt for the Department of Health’s WhatsApp information service. The video can be viewed below.

@ndlovuyouthchoir

Our community has limited access to running water. Follow these instructions on how to safely wash your hands using a bucket. ##coronavirus##washinghands

♬ original sound – ndlovuyouthchoir

“On a global scale, TikTok also partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that, while creators are still having fun and expressing themselves on the platform, they stay informed with COVID-19 information coming from a reliable source,” a TikTok spokesperson told us. “Through the partnership, the WHO has created an informational page on TikTok that offers information to curb the spread of the coronavirus as well as dispelling myths.”

The page can be viewed at https://vm.tiktok.com/GHTEGf

TikTok has hosted a number of livestreams with WHO experts, attracting users from more than 70 countries, tuning in for live question and answer sessions. It has also introduced labels on coronavirus-related videos, to point users to trusted information. Resources are also offered directly in the app and in a dedicated COVID-19 section of TikTok’s Safety Center, at https://www.tiktok.com/safety/resources/covid-19.

If users simply want to explore videos on the topic, they can search via the #coronavirus hashtag, or click on https://vm.tiktok.com/swKbn4. The hashtag has had an astonishing 33.8-billion views, indicating the scale of activity and interest around the topic on the platform.

Read more on the next page about how South Africans have embraced the campaign.

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Old school is history

As South Africa goes into lockdown, the quest begins for new ways of teaching and learning, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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It happened so suddenly. One week schools and universities were considering their options if a “worst case scenario” forced them to shut down campuses. The next they were scrambling to adapt to an utterly changed world.

Many universities had for some time used online lectures to augment teaching, but primarily in the form of recorded lectures that could then be viewed at any time. The concept of “Moocs”, for “massive open online courses”, brought free online university courses to the world, and is now dominated by commercial offerings like Udemy and Coursera. Many traditional universities launched online offshoots as they embraced Mooc thinking.

Some schools referred their students to the likes of Khan Academy to revise or learn ideas they couldn’t grasp in class. Many embraced Google Classroom for assignments or Apple Teacher for extending lessons.

But it is hard to find any physical university or school that was fully prepared for the scale and scope of the shutdown that occurred in a wave across the world over the past month. Most scrambled to adapt their courses to a combination of live and recorded lectures and teaching sessions, but were still left floundering when practical and physical participation was required.

In South Africa, the government provided a convenient escape clause, declaring an early school holiday. It meant that those schools with the means could start devising online teaching programmes that would, with luck and a great deal of expertise, be ready when the new term was due to start.

Sadly, the vast majority of South African schools do not have that luxury: the schools themselves are not equipped for digital teaching, both due to lack of training and lack of resources, and the students simply do not have the means to learn remotely. A decade-and-a-half of dithering over wireless spectrum allocation has made sure that data costs remain too high, coverage to spotty, and technology too inaccessible, to allow for a universal digital education culture.

We cannot underestimate the challenge, now or for the future: the crisis has revealed how utterly unprepared the schooling system has been all along for the future world of work. It has also revealed how utterly essential it is to prepare for that future.

However, we do not have to blunder blindly into fumbled new models and uncertain new techniques. Numerous case studies have evolved over the years, and a vast body of best practice is available.

Read more on the next page about how difficult online education is to implement in many parts of the work, and how curricula must change.

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