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Sony aims to get ultra-smart

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“Smart” is more than a buzzword for Sony, which is poised to roll out a dizzying array of new gadgets and formats, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It starts with the Eye and the Ear. It is likely to end in the brain and the heart, but perhaps without the capital letters that have been allocated to the other body parts, courtesy of a range of new Sony devices.

The Eye is a tiny continual-capture video camera, the Ear a voice-controlled earpiece for smartphones. They were first demonstrated at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona in February, along with the Xperia projector, which projects interactive displays that turn any flat area into a working surface, and the Agent, a stationery robot that takes voice instructions.

In Tokyo last week, Sony provided a deep dive into the thinking behind these gadgets, which do not yet have a release date, as the company still regards the devices as conceptual, and is evolving their use cases.

For Tomokazu “Kaz” Tajima, SVP, Head of UX Creative Design & Planning at Sony Mobile, it’s all about preparing for the future. And there could have been no better time than the first two weeks of April.

Spring had come to Tokyo, and with it the city’s famed cherry blossom season.

“The cherry blossom is a symbol of spring in Japan but also symbol of starting new things,” he said while introducing the new strategy at Sony Mobile. “Everyone in Japan feels everything starts with the cherry blossom season. In the last two weeks we completed our fiscal year. All our activity was focused on transformation and preparation for the future.

“We have successfully concluded and completed our transformation programme. We have been preparing for the future by streamlining our smartphone portfolio, and put a strong focus on premium added value devices. We are also focusing on new business creation and opportunity. What you saw at MWC was a result of 2015 activity.”

The key to the new technology, he said, was a new philosophy: “communication with intelligence”.

While the years from 2013 to 2015 were dedicated to the highly-regarded Sony Xperia Z series, the coming three years will see the Xperia X, along with a range of “smart products”, build in more intelligence around a “new communication experience”.

Tajima, who was personally involved in the creation of the Xperia brand, explains that it is a combination of the words “experience” and “ia”, which means  “place” in Latin. In short, Xperia is intended to be “the place where experience is generated”.

The four new smart products launched at MWC under the Xperia brand – Ear, Eye, Projector and Agent – each has a specific context in mind, he said.

“Ear is a very tiny earpiece, for completely hands-free communication without looking down at smartphone. It offers a very intuitive and playful communications style.

“Projector is for family communication at home, and is designed to accelerate family communications.

“Eye is a personal content creation for social networking communications: it captures your life.

“Agent is intended to support a person’s communications life in all its aspects. It has a common voice-based natural user interface, and smart support or assistance.”

The latter is in effect a robot butler that serves up information, communication and entertainment needs rather than the physical. It allows other gadgets and appliances to be controlled from a single point, using natural voice instructions. Some might say it is a glorified voice assistant and remote control, but Sony believes it will keep evolving as more intelligence is built in.

The Agent in particular is likely to be hard sell, as Sony looks for use cases that will persuade households to invest in yet another gadget that is designed to control or access the gadgets that are already around. However, even if it doesn’t sell in large numbers, it serves a similar purpose as other brands’ high-end gadgets that are affordable only by the wealthy: it is proof of technology leadership, which creates greater desirability for the more affordable devices from the same brands.

“With the intelligence and connectivity technology we have, we believe we can find a new business field beyond the smartphone,” says Tajima. “The smartphone field is very busy and competitive. We want to find new fields, and the smart products are just the beginning.”

Asked whether the projector and other new smart technologies would be built into the Xperia X series, Tajima warned against pursuing more compact devices for their own sake, but did hold out hope.

“When miniaturisation is optimised towards smartphones, we will have the possibility of building projection technology into smartphones. But if we sacrifice form factor and size, we don’t think people will enjoy the experience.

“The smartphone is defined by a graphic user interface (GUI), and the size of the interface is almost defining the size of the phone. If we have a breakthrough in the GUI, for example via the projector, we will have the chance to change the form factor of smartphones. So we will try the projector interface through this product once we have that kind of breakthrough.”

That could well mean a time where your smartphone is only an interface, and an interface can be displayed on or transmitted to any device or surface. Think of it as a phone whithout a handset. If that sounds absurd, you may just need a new kind of Ear to hear the future coming.

* 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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Rain, Telkom Mobile, lead in affordable data

A new report by the telecoms regulator in South Africa reveal the true consumer champions in mobile data costs

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The latest bi-annual tariff analysis report produced by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) reveals that Telkom Mobile data costs for bundles are two-thirds lower than those of Vodacom and MTN. On the other hand, Rain is half the price again of Telkom. 

The report focuses on the 163 tariff notifications lodged with ICASA during the period 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2018.

“It seeks to ensure that there is retail price transparency within the electronic communications sector, the purpose of which is to enable consumers to make an informed choice, in terms of tariff plan preferences and/or preferred service providers based on their different offerings,” said Icasa.

ICASA says it observed the competitiveness between licensees in terms of the number of promotions that were on offer in the market, with 31 promotions launched during the period. 

The report shows that MTN and Vodacom charge the same prices for a 1GB and a 3GB data bundle at R149 and R299 respectively.  On the other hand, Telkom Mobile charges (for similar-sized data bundles) R100 (1GB) and R201 (3GB). Cell C discontinued its 1GB bundle, which was replaced with a 1.5GB bundle offered at the same price as the replaced 1GB data bundle at R149. 

Rain’s “One Plan Package” prepaid mobile data offering of R50 for a 1GB bundle remains the most affordable when compared to the offers from other MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) and MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators).  

“This development should have a positive impact on customers’ pockets as they are paying less compared to similar data bundles and increases choice,” said Icasa.

The report also revealed that the cost of out-of-bundle data had halved at both MTN and Vodacom, from 99c per Megabyte a year ago to 49c per Megabyte in the first quarter of this year. This was still two thirds more expensive than Telkom Mobile, which has charged 29c per Megabyte throughout this period (see graph below).

Meanwhile, from having positioned itself as consumer champion in recent years, Cell C has fallen on hard times, image-wise: it is by far the most expensive mobile network for out-of-bundle data, at R1.10 per Megabyte. Its prices have not budged in the past year.

The report highlights the disparities between the haves and have-nots in the dramatically plummeting cost of data per Megabyte as one buys bigger and bigger bundles on a 30-day basis (see graph below).

For 20 Gigabyte bundles, all mobile operators are in effect charging 4c per Megabyte. Only at that level do costs come in at under Rain’s standard tariffs regardless of use.

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Qualcomm wins 5G as Apple and Intel cave in

A flurry of announcements from three major tech players ushered in a new mobile chip landscape, wrItes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week’s shock announcement by Intel that it was canning its 5G modem business leaves the American market wide open to Qualcomm, in the wake of the latter winning a bruising patent war with Apple.

Intel Corporation announced its intention to “exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices”.

Intel said it would also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business, sharpening its focus on a market expected to be dominated by Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

Intel said it would continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but did not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020. In other words, it would no longer be supplying chips for iPhones and iPads in competition with Qualcomm.

“We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “5G continues to be a strategic priority across Intel, and our team has developed a valuable portfolio of wireless products and intellectual property. We are assessing our options to realise the value we have created, including the opportunities in a wide variety of data-centric platforms and devices in a 5G world.”

The news came immediately after Qualcomm and Apple issued a joint announced of an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm, along with a six-year license agreement, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Apple had previously accused Qualcomm of abusing its dominant position in modem chips for smartphones and charging excessive license fees. It ordered its contract manufacturers, first, to stop paying Qualcomm for the chips, and then to stop using the chips altogether, turning instead to Intel.
With Apple paying up and Intel pulling out, Qualcomm is suddenly in the pound seats. It shares hit their highest levels in five years after the announcements.

Qualcomm said in a statement: “As we lead the world to 5G, we envision this next big change in cellular technology spurring a new era of intelligent, connected devices and enabling new opportunities in connected cars, remote delivery of health care services, and the IoT — including smart cities, smart homes, and wearables. Qualcomm Incorporated includes our licensing business, QTL, and the vast majority of our patent portfolio.”

Meanwhile, Strategy Analytics released a report on the same day that showed Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia will lead the market in core 5G infrastructure, namely Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment, by 2023 as the 5G market takes off. Huawei is expected to have the edge as a result of the vast scale of the early 5G market in China and its long term steady investment in R&D. According to a report entitled “Comparison and 2023 5G Global Market Potential for leading 5G RAN Vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia”, two outliers, Samsung and ZTE, are expected to expand their global presence alongside emerging vendors as competition heats up.

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