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IoT makes plumbing a glamorous new frontier

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South Africa is considered a water-scarce country. This is hardly a surprise for those who live in Cape Town and have endured drought conditions that edged the city towards Day Zero (when the city would run out of water to supply), or for farmers who’ve struggled with yield and water scarcity, or for people who live with crippling thirst, every day. Water is a finite resource that’s finally getting the global attention it deserves. It remains one of the United Nations’ top sustainability goals and is consistently a focus of environmental discussions and focus groups.  

And yet there are often leaks and water pipe breakages that impact on water supply and water levels. Avoidable, preventable leaks that come about due to weak infrastructure and lack of insight into maintaining that infrastructure sustainably.

“A plumber is a trusted ambassador of water intelligence who can make a huge difference to water conservation,” says Ushal Moonsamy, Chief Solutions Officer, SqwidNet. “They are at the forefront of the challenges that influence the industry, the issues of infrastructure and the problems faced by consumer and business when it comes to unplanned leaks or loss.”

There are three core pillars currently dominating the conversation in the plumbing industry – the access to technology, the need to change societal behaviour, and the critical water situation. Plumbers have become key in driving water sustainability goals, leveraging new business models, and helping deploy smart water solutions, powered by the Internet of Things (IoT), to the South African market.

“IoT is the true enabler of data-driven decision-making by providing real-time information from assets that couldn’t be connected to the Internet before,” says Moonsamy. “So how can it make a difference? By providing information you can act on. It is guaranteed that almost every property has, or will get, a plumbing-related issue at some point in its life. Where the property is monitored by IoT, plumbers get an early notification as soon as the problems start, usually even before the homeowner realises. This is hugely relevant even in industrial and manufacturing businesses where water supplies and failures can have expensive, environmentally damaging, consequences.”

This shift to proactive insights in plumbing changes the plumbing model completely. It allows for the income model to become annuity-based, built on maintenance and innovation as opposed to emergency-based. An annuity-based model means a plumber can provide a better service to a homeowner, with just-in-time maintenance, and real-time visibility for both the plumber and the homeowner. This results in fewer water interruptions and a lower water bill. The deeper knock-on effect in South Africa could potentially allow for improved job security and more job opportunities, a much-needed boost in a country that suffers from high levels of unemployment.

“By blending the expertise of the plumber with the potential of technology, suddenly this profession becomes key in driving water sustainability goals, reducing water costs, improving water use and so much more,” says Moonsamy. “SqwidNet provides a low power network that covers over 90% of South Africa’s population and this, for the first time, is allowing us to connect water meters to the Internet using batteries that can last over 10 years. This makes the solution ultra-low cost. These connected water meters can detect possible leaks as they happen, reducing damage to property and reducing bill shock. In Cape Town connected water meter deployments, it has reduced water usage by up to 20%.”

The simple expedient of a low power network and connected water meters can instantly transform water control and management across the board. These battery-powered devices can even be retrofitted to existing water meters, reducing the need of having to remove existing water meter infrastructure. And it can be applied across numerous use cases from pool pumps to industrial pumping stations, and from commercial to residential estates.

“We have collaborated with many existing water technology partners in South Africa to create smart water solutions that address the water distress situation we currently face as a country,” says Moonsamy. “The solutions are cost-effective and easy. Users can view their usage and leak status on their mobile phones, set themselves water-saving targets, and even look at historical usage.”

The SqwidNet ecosystem provides a network that is ultra-secure and Sigfox Ready devices, like these connected meters, are hack-proof and jam-proof. On top of that, plumbers have access to technology seminars and training programmes designed to upskill their usage in IoT smart water solutions, and the opportunity to expand their skillset and businesses.

“We have great, appropriate technology; we have a great open access ecosystem; and now, we have great plumbers that are innovating and creating new offerings that will not only change how they operate but contribute to South Africa’s water sustainability goals,” says Moonsamy.

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Nokia 7.2: The sweet-spot for mid-range smartphones

Nokia has hit one of the best quality-to-price ratios with the Nokia 7.2. BRYAN TURNER tested the device.

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Cameras are often the main factor in selecting a smartphone today. Nokia is no stranger to the high-end camera smartphone market, and its legacy shows with the latest Nokia 7.2.

In many aspects, the device looks and feels like an expensive flagship, yet it carries a mid-range R6000 price tag. From its vivid PureDisplay technology to an ultra-wide camera lens, it’s quite something to experience this device – especially knowing the price.

Before powering it on, one notices the sleek design. The front features a large, 6.3” screen, with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. Like many phones nowadays, it features a notch, but it is smaller than the usual earpiece-and-camera notch. Instead, it features a small notch for the front camera only. It hides the front earpiece away in a slim cutout, just under the outer frame. While it’s not the highest screen-to-body (STB) ratio, it has a pretty slim bezel with an 83.34% STB ratio. It loses some of this to an elegant chin on the bottom that shows the Nokia logo. This is all protected by a Gorilla glass certification, which makes it a little more difficult to shatter on an impact.

It’s encased by a Polycarbonate composite outer frame, which seems metal-like but will withstand more knocks than an aluminium frame. On the right side, it features a volume rocker and a power button and, on the left side, a Google Assistant button, which starts listening for commands when pressed. Above the button is the SIM and SD card tray. On the top, it houses a very welcome 3.5mm headphone jack. On the bottom, it has a speaker grille and a USB Type-C port. Overall, the positioning of the buttons takes some getting used to because the Assistant button and power button are similarly sized, and many smartphones place the lock button on the opposite side of the volume rocker.

The back features a frosted Gorilla glass panel, like the front. The frosted design is quite understated and yet another elegant design feature of the device. A fingerprint sensor sits in the middle and, towards the top, the device has a circular camera bump, not too different from the Huawei Mate 30 series. The bump features two lenses, a depth sensor, and a flash. The camera system has been made in partnership with Zeiss optics to produce high-quality photography.

The back of the Nokia 7.2, showing off the 3 camera array

When powering on the device, one is greeted with the Android One logo, which is Nokia’s promise that its users will always be among the first to get the latest Android security and feature updates. This is one of the defining purchase points for users looking to get this device, as it features the purest, unedited version of Android available.

This, in turn, allows the device to run the latest software by Google that enables the device to get better over time. This is done by using Google’s Artificial Intelligence engine, which learns how one uses the device and optimises apps and services accordingly. That translates to the phone’s battery life actually extending over time, instead of deteriorating like other smartphones that are weighed down by battery hungry apps. The concept was pioneered by Huawei in the Mate 9.

The rear camera is excellent for snapping pictures and features a 48MP Sony sensor for accurate colour reproduction. This puts the device in the league of the Google Pixel and Apple iPhone devices, which also use Sony sensors. By default, the device is set to take pictures at 12MP, which is what makes the photos look great, as it blends 4 pixels into one for a high level of sharpness and colour accuracy, but users can bump up the resolution to the full 48MP if they want to zoom in a bit more.

The 8MP wide-angle lens spans 118-degrees, and proves extremely useful for getting everyone in the shot. It also features some great colour accuracy. The 5MP depth-sensing lens is purely for the portrait mode, which adds a blur effect to the background of the photo. It features a 20MP selfie camera, which also provides excellent sharpness and a portrait mode.

Picture taken with the Nokia 7.2 in Pro mode

The most impressive part of this system is the Pro camera setting, which can help take photos from excellent to extraordinary. We managed to get some excellent low light photography by adjusting the shutter speed, ISO, and exposure. The setting is pretty easy to use and it’s worth it for users to learn how it works.

The PureDisplay also helps make photos and video look great. The 7.2’s PureDisplay has a 2160 x 1080 resolution, at 401 pixels per inch (ppi). It also makes use of HDR10 and covers 96% of the DCI-P3 colour gamut, which makes the colours very vibrant. Some of these display features are not even found in some high-end phones on the market, so it’s very surprising that this tech is in a mid-range device.

At this price, there is one drawback: the processor. It houses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660, which is neither bad nor good. It performs well in many situations, but begins to stutter on heavier graphical applications like Fortnite and PUBG Mobile. That said, all other applications of the device work perfectly, and multi-tasking is very fluid between regular apps.

At a recommended selling price of R6,000, the Nokia 7.2 is one of the most feature rich and aesthetically pleasing devices available in this price range.

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Voice interface moves digital wars to ‘first mile’

By RICHARD MULLINS, Managing Director for EMEA at Acceleration

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Anyone who often travels on the London tube will notice people around them – usually students and young professionals – speaking into their smartphones even in sections of the underground without Wi-Fi or cellular coverage. They’re not sweet-talking their mobile devices, but cueing up a series of WhatsApp voice messages to be sent to their friends and colleagues as soon as they walk back into an area with an Internet connection.

This shift away from text-based and visual communication to multi-sensory (voice and visual) is one of the most significant trends to emerge from the next wave of artificial intelligence technologies. Many members of Generations X and Y abandoned voice calls for instant messaging once they got smartphones; now, the next generation are becoming more vocal in how they interact with – and through – machines.

We’re already seeing rising adoption of conversational voice interfaces, as young and imperfect as the technology still is. Research from comScore predicts that half of all searches will be performed via voice by 2020, while a study by Voicebot.ai indicates that nearly one in five US adults own a smart speaker or have access to one in their homes.

This trend is one reason that we are seeing the battle for the digital customer move away from the ‘last mile’ to the ‘first mile’ at a rapid speed. Now that the giants of ecommerce have largely solved the ‘last mile’ challenge of reliable logistics and rapid delivery, they are looking at ways they can tighten their grip on the first digital mile, where customers engage with and discover content, product and services.

Raising the stakes

This race to own the customer interface is not new, but the stakes are rising. We already live in a world with two major smartphone platforms (Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android), and now a handful of companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon) are seeking to own the voice interface with smart devices like speakers, kitchen appliances and home security systems.

Most consumers are today using voice conversation interfaces for simple content requests – Alexa, give me the news headlines; Siri, play my party mix – and the experience can be somewhat clunky. However, technology is improving exponentially, as we saw earlier this year when Google demoed its assistant phoning a hairdresser to make an appointment on behalf of a user.

Such interfaces are likely to become the place where a high proportion of customers are converted and complete transactions in the next few years. In other words, the likes of Apple and Google will have even more power over what consumers see, hear and interact with than they do today. Brands should be thinking about how they will prepare themselves for this future.

One of the first considerations is how they can use voice to engage with customers in an increasingly natural and simple nature. Today, it is usually easy to tell when you are speaking to a virtual assistant or chatbot, but in future, these interfaces will become harder to tell humans and machines apart, unless you are told.

This is an opportunity to offer personalised service in an automated manner—the human touch at machine scale. Brands that offer the best experiences through their conversational interfaces will have a competitive advantage. This will not just be about the AI driving the interaction, but also about how brands use data to personalise interactions and make them more relevant to customers.

How will you reach your customers?

Brands also need to decide how they will reach their customers in the first place – will they create services for platforms like Alexa and focus on mobile apps? Or will they try to take control of more of the digital first mile themselves? This will be a daunting challenge, but the rewards may be significant since the companies in the digital first mile will control the data and own the customer.

For this reason, we can expect to see those companies with the resources to do so focus on owning more of the customer interface and becoming the gateways to service and commerce for their client base. They will partner with other big brands to create platforms, experiences and digital destinations where customers can purchase a variety of goods and services.

Consider examples such as how Discovery’s Vitality weaves together healthcare, lifestyle brands and financial services, then think about how they might evolve in a digital world. Brands have long cooperated through strategies such as white label products, sponsorship agreements and distribution deals, but the next wave of digital change will take it to a new level.

As this shakes out in the years to come, brands will need to focus on building a technical architecture that enables them to rapidly partner with other brands to roll out innovative solutions and services. They will also need to consider how and where they will capture customer data and which touchpoints they can use to own the customer relationship.

The challenges will not be purely technical in nature. There is the human element of blending AI and people into ‘teams’ that deliver the best possible customer experience. Companies will also need to think about their business models and where they fit into the value chain. Those that align AI and data behind a coherent business strategy will be the ones who will win the first digital mile.

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