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Samsung wants to be back without a bang

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Samsung this week released its findings on the exploding batteries of the Note 7, but is ready to move on, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It was one of the best smartphones ever made. And it was one of the most disastrous products ever launched.

That is the maddening ambiguity behind the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which saw 3-million units recalled after batteries began malfunctioning. This week Samsung released its findings on what went wrong. Tellingly, however, the revelation was limited to the technical flaws, and did not delve into the strategic story. That, it appears, will remain an internal autopsy.

Koh Dong-jin, President of the Mobile Communications Business division of Samsung Electronics

Koh Dong-jin, President of the Mobile Communications Business division of Samsung Electronics.

Koh Dong-jin, President of the Mobile Communications Business division of Samsung Electronics, announced the results of the investigation. He was joined on stage by executives from three independent industry groups that had conducted their own investigations into the malfunctions, namely Exponent, UL and TUV Rheinland. There was to be no cover-up.

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They agreed that a design flaw had led to the first batch of phones catching alight: The battery’s external casing was too small for its components, leading to pinching of the top corner of the battery by the pouch that held it. This caused a short-circuit and, inevitably, ignition.

To make matters worse, according to UL, when things did go wrong, the high energy density of the battery design meant they went badly wrong.

The Note 7 could have survived the initial recall, but the batteries provided by a second supplier introduced a new flaw. Not only did it have defects in the welding, or what a Samsung YouTube video described as “an abnormal weld spot” that led to an internal short circuit, but some came without protective tape.

Guess which supplier won’t be invited back in a hurry?

Koh expressed his sincere apology and gratitude to customers, operators and partners, and unveiled new measures Samsung has taken to respond to the incidents.

“Based on what the company learned from the investigation, Samsung has implemented a broad range of internal quality and safety processes to further enhance product safety,” it said in a statement released on Monday. “These include additional protocols, such as multi-layer safety measures and an Eight-Point Battery Safety Check.”

Samsung also announced a Battery Advisory Group made up of external advisers “to ensure it maintains a clear and objective perspective on battery safety and innovation”. Members include a professor of chemistry from the University of Cambridge and professors of materials science and engineering from Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

Koh added: “The lessons of the past several months are now deeply reflected in our processes and culture. Samsung Electronics will be working hard to regain consumer trust.”

The announcement came as a relief to local executives, who had to keep the media in a holding pattern, not only to explain the Note 7, but also to build anticipation for the forthcoming Galaxy S8.

“We are pleased that the reasons for the Galaxy Note7 incident have finally been clarified,” said Craige Fleischer, director of Integrated Mobility at Samsung South Africa. “Samsung is a company that learns from our experiences and we are committed to incorporate the learnings to evolve. Samsung’s heritage and commitment to innovation will continue.

Craige Fleischer, director of Integrated Mobility at Samsung South Africa

Craige Fleischer, director of Integrated Mobility at Samsung South Africa

And that brings us back – or rather, forward – to the phone that Samung hopes will make all the monsters of poor public relations go away. The Galaxy S8 was due to be released at about the same time as Mobile World Congress opens in Barcelona at the end of February. Traditionally, that has been both the time and venue for the new Samsung flagship phone for the past few years. This time, Samsung will give the MWC launch a miss.

This is also a tacit admission that Samsung had been moving too fast.

The Note 7 would have been regarded as a technological marvel had everything held together. Waterproof devices despite earphone and charger sockets, iris recognition technology that heralded the next generation of biometric identification, and the fastest-charging battery on a flagship phone, put Samsung on a different planet from its rival-in-chief, Apple.

The latter would later struggle to convince the market that the new iPhone 7 was a signifcant step forward from the previous version. But when the Note 7 phone and image blew up, the wannabe Samsung converts flocked back to Apple.

Fortunately for Samsung, the S7 edge launched in Bacelona last February remained one of the most desirable phones in the world. It had been launched six months before the iPhone 7, but was probably still six months ahead of it in terms of innovation. Its camera remained in a different league, while its curved edge design made it one of the few standout handsets on the market from an aesthetic point of view.

Samsung was this week expected to report record profits for the fourth quarter of 2016, which would cement its reputation as a broad-based company that could innovate profitably acrosss all consumer electronics categories. It supplies many of the microchips and display screens not only for its own appliances and handsets, but also for those of some of its competitors.

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This makes it all the more puzzling that Samsung pushed the technology edge of the Note 7 so hard. It suggests that it may have expected Apple to take the iPhone 7’s innovation much further than it did.  It also suggests that Samsung may backpedal a little in attempting to cram too much of the future into its next handset.

It says it deployed 700 researchers, working with 200 000 devices and 30 000 batteries, to uncover the flaws in the Note 7. Their job done, that army of professional fault-finders must be swarming all over any new devices being brewed in the lab.

Chances are, the next devices from Samsung will combine serious innovation with serious safety.

  • 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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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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