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Can Priv save BlackBerry?

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Can BlackBerry handsets make a comeback? The new Priv smartphone could do the trick, if it gets the marketing right, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

BlackBerry was left for dead a couple of years ago.  Its share price had collapsed, its smartphone business was reeling from failed relaunches, and it looked ripe for the plucking by any of numerous tech giants.

Even when new CEO John Chen stripped the company to a lean, mean and focused core as a mobile security systems business, the future was never certain. The smartphone business was still contracting, and the BlackBerry 10 operating system became largely irrelevant.

Chen declared six months ago that BlackBerry would increasingly focus on its security solutions, and produce only one or two handsets a year. He put the company’s money where his mouth was by making a series of strategic acquisitions of software businesses.

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So it has come as something of a shock to discover that BlackBerry has produced a smartphone that is possibly one of the best in the world today. It is even more of a shock to discover that it is an Android phone.

That alone is a clue to the new thinking at BlackBerry: corporate ego had kept it from embracing the touchscreen revolution after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007. It kept it from producing Android devices after it unveiled the first BlackBerry 10 phones in 2013 to a lukewarm reception. The decline of handset sales continued apace.

Marketing missteps, like failing to launch much-anticipated phones in key markets at the time the hype machine was exploding, and poor pricing strategy in developing countries, hurried the process along.

Which is another way of saying that, as good as the new Priv may be, it will live or die by marketing strategy.

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And yes, it is very good.

The first thing that strikes one about the Priv, due in South Africa in the coming week from all networks, is the curved screen. It is the first mainstream handset in the world to follow Samsung’s example of curved edges: its S6 Edge and Edge+ allow for a side notification screen.

The purpose of the curve on the Priv is similar, but it is designed in such a way that, unlike the S6, the notification screen can’t be invoked accidentally while merely holding the phone. The user must swipe a finger across from the edge to bring up the notifications menu. The curve is also used in an aesthetically pleasing way to show charging status while the phone is in sleep mode.

“Along with Samsung, BlackBerry is the only vendor to have dual-curve edge technology in the marketplace,” said Gareth Hurn, BlackBerry’s director of global smartphone and software product management, during a visit to South Africa this week. “We’ve been conscious of designing the product where the emphasis is clearly on the design as opposed to only utility.”

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The 5.4” Gorilla Glass 4 screen offers a sharp OLED display, with 2560 x 1440 Quad HD resolution. That would normally add up to swift battery drainage, but an intensive focus on power management – along with a healthy 3410mAh battery – promises 22,5 hours of mixed use.

The device can capture images in the new 4K format used by high-end TV sets, but will not display in the same format.

“We made the decision not to go with 4K display because the human eye would struggle to see the benefits on such a small screen, and it would result in a massive drain on the battery,” said Hurn.

There are a few other surprises. This phone marks BlackBerry’s long-overdue admission that the camera is a critical element of a smartphone in the second decade of the 21st century. It has fitted the device with an 18 megapixel rear-facing camera, described by Hunt as “the best camera BlackBerry has ever done, on a par with the latest from Samsung”.

It includes a dual flash and a range of professional features, like optical image stabilisation and live filters. A slightly raised stainless steel surround on the lens means it won’t be scratched while lying flat. A front-facing 2MP camera includes a panoramic selfie mode, which allows a series of photos to be blended together.

The manner in which it has enhanced Android with some of the standout features of BB 10 is also a pleasant surprise. Referring to it as “Android amplified”, BlackBerry has built in the unified inbox concept called BlackBerry Hub, as well as a “Pop-up Widget” feature which allows for more widgets to be displayed more compactly. Aside from these elements, the Android experience has been kept relatively free of bloatware.

The old fan-favourite, the BlackBerry red “splat” notification, is back, both in the Hub and on the home screen, but can be toned down for the notification-weary.

The biggest surprise of all – at least if no one warned you – is that, while it has the form factor of a typical phablet, the Priv has a slideout keyboard. It comes as a shock primarily because the 9.4mm thickness of the device does not hint at an additional component waiting to slide out. On the other hand, it contributes significantly to the 192g weight of the device.

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Anyone who ever fell in love with the old BlackBerry Torch will feel compelled to try it out. Anyone who misses the physical QWERTY keyboard that once defined BlackBerry phones will be delighted with its responsiveness. Although the number keys share space with letters, the keyboard as a whole acts as a trackpad, with scrolling and cursor control across the keyboard. It also includes the standout feature of the original BlackBerry 10 phones, namely the ability to flick words up from a devilishly accurate predictive text layer above each of the four rows of keys.

The keys can be assigned shortcuts, so that holding down the “I”, for example, will open Instagram. Yes, thanks to Android, the Priv addresses this key gap in previous BlackBerry handsets.

Oh yes, the regular touchscreen also features a superb virtual keyboard that takes up the lower third of the screen when in use. In other words, you can have your cake or slide it.

There is more, such as the market-leading privacy and security features that give the phone is name, and a soft “tensile knit” coating on the back that gives the phone a comfortable, non-slip feel. An easy snooze function for reminders to respond to calls, messages or emails – customizable based on time, location or form of connectivity – is an example of a thoughtful approach to communications

The combined package makes it one of the best Android phones on the market – if it can reach the right market at the right time.

Will it bring old-time users back? Only if BlackBerry can get it into their hands at every possible moment when they are considering a new phone.

* 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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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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