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Nokia has officially launched the first three phones in the X family, the Nokia X, X+ and XL at Mobile World Congress 2014.

(scroll to bottom of page for video)

All three of the devices are powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon Dual Core processor and are Dual SIM. A range of third-party apps comes preinstalled, including BBM, Plants vs. Zombies 2, Viber, Vine and Twitter. As many more as you can fit can be obtained from the Nokia Store, third-party app stores and sideloaded.

The table below highlight the specs of each model:
The Nokia X, the entry level member of the family, with 4-inch IPS LCD screen, 512MB RAM and a 3-megapixel camera, and available in green, black, white, yellow, cyan and red.
The Nokia X+ offers 768MB RAM and a 4GB MicroSD card.

The Nokia XL comes equipped with its 5-inch screen and 768MB RAM, the free MicroSD card and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear camera with autofocus and flash.

 

Nokia X

Nokia X+

Nokia XL

Screen

4-inch IPS LCD, 800 x 480px

4-inch IPS LCD, 800 x 480px

5-inch IPS LCD, 800 x 480px

RAM

512MB

768MB

768MB

Storage

Up to 32GB
MicroSD

Up to 32GB
MicroSD; 4GB card included

Up to 32GB
MicroSD; 4GB card included

Rear camera

3-megapixel fixed focus

3-megapixel fixed focus

5-megapixel with autofocus and flash

Front camera

-

-

2-megapixel

Processor

8225 Qualcomm Snapdragon

1GHz Dual Core

8225 Qualcomm Snapdragon

1GHz Dual Core

8225 Qualcomm Snapdragon

1GHz Dual Core

Networks

ESGM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900

WCDMA 900 / 2100

ESGM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900

WCDMA 900 / 2100

ESGM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900

WCDMA 900 / 2100

Dimensions

115.5 x 63 x 10.4mm

115.5 x 63 x 10.4mm

141.3 x 77.7 x 10.8mm

Weight

128.66g

128.66g

190g

Standby time

2G = Up to 28.5 days

3G = Up to 22 days

2G = Up to 28.5 days

3G = Up to 22 days

2G = Up to 41 days

3G = Up to 26 days

Talk time

2G = Up to 13.3 hours

3G = Up to 10.5 hours

2G = Up to 13.3 hours

3G = Up to 10.5 hours

2G = Up to 16 hours

3G = Up to 13 hours

Published in Nokia

AUGMENTING OUR WORLD

One gadget I really would love is a pair of specs that cunningly displays information about the person I’m looking at. So I can shake hands with enthusiasm while I’m reading a little note in the corner of my eye that says ‘Robert Ndlovu, works at IBM. Last met at a conference in Cape Town.’ “Robert,” I’d cry, “It’s been ages - how’s IBM treating you?” Which is a vast improvement on my usual blank look that means someone I’ve met a dozen times still has to remind me of their name. Actually I hate wearing specs, so if that name and face recognition technology could project the information onto my contact lens, that would be ideal. It should happen – eventually - but probably not until I’m retired and can blame my bad memory on age, not carelessness. Incalculable amounts of money and brainpower are being poured into devising such ways to marry the real world with computer-generated information. To supplement the things we see with Augmented Reality (AR) to tell us things we might like to know about them. Several AR applications have already been devised for cellphones, so you can hold the phone’s camera up to a building, for example, and read about its history. It won’t be long before you can do the same with a person, and see their name and salient details hovering over their head when you view them through your cellphone’s camera. But that’s so unsubtle that I’d rather just admit to a memory lapse than pull out my phone and pretend I want to take their photo. 

DEFINING AUGMENTING REALITY

AR is one of those fascinating technologies that has been bubbling around for years, and will probably remain bubbling for several years to come. So far there are no compelling applications, the equipment is still clunky, and it’s far too early to estimate whether consumers will actually be interested in the results. In other words, it could become a technology for technology’s sake. Just like the much-hyped ability to watch movies on your cellphone, which occasionally happens, but only in relatively isolated islands of geekiness. The strength of AR is its ability to bring masses of stored data to your instant attention, by superimposing relevant text, graphics, sounds and even smells on top of your view of the real world. Not surprisingly, the military were among its pioneers, to give soldiers crucial information about their surroundings and enemy movements in the area. One commercial niche where it could certainly have a place is in tourism, since you often walk around wearing a headset in museums, art galleries or city centres listening to a commentary about what you’re seeing. If the headset was adapted to feature a display screen that shows text too, or perhaps overlays the ruins in front of you with a splendid scene of how they used to look, then AR could fly.

LOCATION BASED TECHNOLOGIES

Cellphone users can already use location-based technologies to indicate where they are, and that information is shared with others via the internet so friends can locate them, or marketers can send locationspecific offers. As this merges with AR, subscribers could access increasing amounts of data to tell them about their surroundings. Perhaps text from Wikipedia could be displayed on top of the real images you admire through your camera phone on a walking tour, telling you about the area you’re exploring. Images of how the area looked decades ago could be overlaid, or by clicking an icon you could hear some relevant audio. If advertisers got in on the act, a nearby restaurant could pop up with an icon offering you discount.

SOME REAL-WORLD APPLICATIONS

So far the cash-flush gaming world is leading AR developments, but its uses could extend to interactive marketing, education, and “how-to” applications. Probably the best-known examples so far are in sport, with yellow ‘first down’ lines drawn virtually across the pitch in TV broadcasts of American Football. Or the advertisements that appear to be painted onto rugby and cricket pitches by their sponsors when you watch a match on TV. Technology company Qualcomm’s global research and development teams are beavering away with complex computer vision algorithms, computer graphics, tracking and image detection at a new research centre in Austria devoted to the development of AR. The research will build on intellectual property acquired from Imagination Computer Services, a developer of computer vision and AR technology for mobile devices. “As part of our efforts to bring augmented reality to market, Qualcomm has been continually enhancing the capabilities of mobile devices with highspeed connectivity, powerful applications and graphics processors, GPS, cameras and other sensors,” said CEO Paul Jacobs. The acquisition of Imagination’s technology and the new research centre would accelerate this vision to make mobile devices “the remote control for your life,” both in the physical and digital worlds, he said. In June Qualcomm also joined forces with the Georgia Institute of Technology to establish an Augmented Reality Game Studio to pioneer advancements in mobile gaming and interactive media. The university’s Augmented Environments Lab has been researching ways to enhance a user’s senses by creating interactive computing environments for more than 12 years. “Powerful processors and sophisticated graphics engines in today’s mobile devices have only recently reached the point where they can meet the computing requirements for augmented reality,” said Lab Director Blair MacIntyre. “By collaborating with Qualcomm, we’ll have access to both the high-end hardware and core augmented reality technology that will enable us to push the envelope in game development.” AR technology in gaming and military applications on computers has been around for years, but has only recently begun moving onto handheld devices thanks to their increasing sophistication, faster wireless broadband networks, and new and cheaper chip developments. Yet much more experimentation and innovation is needed before any large-scale consumer services actually hit the market. Once they do, said Mark Donovan, a senior analyst at ComScore, we will go from telling applications where we are to applications that tell us about the world around us. We are getting there, slowly. A company called PresseLite has developed a Paris Subway application that uses AR to display information about local businesses when you look at the city through an iPhone camera. Acrossair has developed a similar application for New York’s subway system. If you hold up your phone and look through the camera, the screen will show where the closest subway is, and point toward nearby tourist attractions too. Even so, AR is still little more than a novelty. But as handheld devices and software get cheaper, more sophisticated and more powerful, the level of information they can access and display will increase. It’s just that the way they do it isn’t too convincing yet.

MACHINE-LED FUTURE

In an interview for The Naked Scientist, Tom Drummond, a senior lecturer at the Machine Intelligence Laboratory at Cambridge University, said AR was about taking computer graphics off the computer screen and making them available over the real world. Since the real world doesn’t have a computer display capability, you need to display those graphics by some other means. Some applications use a clunky headset, which is ok for pilots needing to see vital data about the landscape they’re viewing, but a bit daft if you’re walking down the street merely admiring the architecture. The advantage of Head Mounted Displays, the developers say, is the immersive experience for the user. “When you're looking at the world, the computer graphics are right there in front of your eye,” Drummond said. “So there’s a very strong connection between the virtual elements and the real elements. But there are some negative consequences as well. It’s very difficult to build these systems without latency in them. So when you move your head, the computer graphics might follow a tenth of a second later. Unfortunately, one of the consequences is that it can make people feel motion sickness and it can be very unpleasant to use.” Headsets are also very expensive and cumbersome and get between you and the real world they are trying to enhance. Far more likely to succeed are small, handheld computing devices with a display that uses see-through video techniques to overlay graphical information onto the real-world image. AR on a smart phone is like holding up a magic spy glass to learn something new about what you're looking at, Drummond said. “If there’s some latency and the picture takes a tenth of a second to catch up as you move it, nobody really minds because it’s not directly affecting what you're seeing and conflicting with what your inner ear is telling you.” Applications are already available for iPhones and Google Android phones that use GPS to pinpoint your location and an internal compass to work out which direction the device is pointing in. Then it displays computer graphics like “this is Table Mountain” over the image in the viewfinder. These applications will become very popular, Drummond believes, justifying the huge effort going into shrinking the algorithms down to run in the computer capacity of a cellphone. A third technique being developed is Spatial Augmented Reality (SAR), using digital projectors to display graphical information on physical objects. SAR is a system that can be used for mass audiences, since the displays are not related to devices for individual users. The results can also be larger and more impressive, since an SAR system can display information on several surfaces at once, instead of requiring users to squint at a tiny screen.

MARKETING THE FUTURE

Marketers have already started to use AR to promote their products. At the LA Auto Show in 2008, Nissan unveiled its concept vehicle Cube and gave visitors a brochure. When they held it against a webcam the page showed several versions of the vehicle. But who wants to hold a magazine up to a webcam just for the novelty of reading information they can live without? A more practical use is the possibility of giving people additional information to help them with a complex task such as assembling or maintaining components, or even performing surgery. Details about different engine parts could be displayed for a mechanic – or even a layman – holding their cellphone over the steaming, wheezing engine in his car. In medicine, a doctor performing keyhole surgery could wear a head visor to see images from probes or ultrasounds happening in real-time on the patient. One crucial component of an AR system is a tracking system to pinpoint the user’s location and track their hand or eye movements. The complexities of confirming their overall location and their movements so the graphics display correctly are a major hurdle in developing successful systems. To be effective, AR has to be almost instantaneous. Any time lag or mismatch between the graphics and the actual scene is disorientating. The data needs to be refreshed quickly too as you shift the device to focus on a different view. One day AR displays could look like ordinary glasses, with graphics appearing in your field of vision and audio playing in your ear. Which still sounds awfully disorientating. Imagine walking into a lamppost because you’re concentrating on the text telling you the history of the street you’re in. The technology may eventually become foolproof, but we foolish mortals may need educating in how to use it.

CUTTING THE EDGE

It’s still very much theoretical rather than practical at the moment, however, but it’s edging closer. Developers from MIT’s Media Lab first demonstrated their AR system called SixthSense in 2009. It combines a camera, mirror, small projector and a smartphone in a device that the user hangs around his neck. He uses the camera and mirror to view the surrounding world and that image is fed to the phone, which processes the image, gathers GPS coordinates and pulls data from the internet. The projector then displays the resulting data onto any surface in front of the user, whether it’s their wrist or a wall. Because the camera is on his chest, SixthSense will augment whatever he is looking at. So if he looks at a car, it could call up its specs, pricing and motoring reviews. He can interact with the projected information too, with the camera and phone picking up and processing those actions. With the car, for example, he can use his fingers to tap on projected links to receive more details. Equally exciting is a prototype application unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona which is focusing on the personal touch. Its Swedish developers at The Astonishing Tribe call it Augmented ID, and it works by calling up personal details about somebody when you point a cellphone camera at them. The software trawls the internet for details including their Facebook page and Twitter name and display them around their head. The application was voted one of the most innovative and promising worldwide initiatives of 2009 by the Netexplorateur jury. And it’s basically the first step towards those specs – or contact lens – with the built-in face and name recognition software that I so desperately need.

USING AR FOR EDUCATION

Educause, a non-profit association that advances higher education through the intelligent use of IT, believes AR is promising because it can add contextual data to deepen a student’s understanding of the world and its contents. Its website at www.educause.edu/eli suggests that in a technical course on PC maintenance, AR could overlay a schematic diagram onto the inside of a computer to identify the various components and access technical specifications about them. Augmented reality blurs the line between the reality the user is experiencing and the appropriate and timely content provided by technology, Educause says. Since every object or place has a history and a context, making that content available to individuals interacting with it will provide a richer experience. By exposing students to an experiential and explorative way of learning, AR has the potential to change education so students are not simply receiving content but take an active role in gathering and processing information.

Published in December 2010
Thursday, 02 December 2010 00:00

q&a with nick jones of gartner research

This issue of Africa Telecoms is focused on New Technologies. With your area of expertise being Mobile and Wireless, how would you describe the current condition on the Mobile and Wireless market when talking about Innovation?

Innovation is still very rapid and operates at several levels: Device hardware is evolving rapidly, for example we’re just seeing mobile devices with multicore processors exceeding 1 GHz, we’ll likely see several new types of display including 3D displays on a few mobiles in the next year or so, new sensors, new types of wireless such as Bluetooth 4, perhaps WiFi Direct protocols, wireless HDMI connections to screens and so on. We have economic evolution as well as technological evolution. Nokia is selling smartphones at EUR 115 retail (before tax), which means we’ll likely have sub EUR 100 smartphones next year. This makes smartphones accessible to a much wider range of people. Networks are also evolving. Many operators are on some form of HSPA. A few have started very early LTE deployments, and we can already see the next long term step on the roadmap which is LTE-A. We’re also seeing rapid innovation in mobile applications and services. Apple has over 300K apps, Android around 100K. Increasingly apps don’t just stand alone but integrate with innovative cloud services. We’re seeing growth in a wide range of mobile services such as payment, context, music, social networking and mobile advertising. I expect rapid evolution in all of these areas (and more) to continue for at least 5 years.

We would like to know from you what you believe will be the next big New Technology in the Mobile and Wireless space?

I don’t see any single “next big” technology. There are probably 20 technologies which are important including context, platform independent AD tools, Bluetooth 3 and 4, mobile HTML5, near field wireless, M2M, LTE, mobile augmented reality, haptics and new screen technologies. I think that in the mobile space, innovation often happens not from one single technology, but a combination of technologies. For example look at augmented reality (AR) tools such as Layar or Wikitude. These enable all sorts of new applications and visualisations such as location aware competitions, marketing, games, geotagging to name but a few. But AR itself is built on a set of underlying essential technologies such as GPS, e-compass, graphics accelerators and tilt sensors. So, in my opinion many of the innovations come from combining technologies rather than from a single technology. However, if I had to identify one technology which we don’t yet have, but when it arrives will be very influential, it would be indoor positioning. The holy grail in this area would be a technology that can locate your position indoors (where GPS doesn’t work) to within 1 metre or so. This would enable a wide range of applications such as indoor navigation, indoor AR, finding products on shelves in shops as examples. Sadly, we don’t yet have any single technology that looks as if it will become a dominant standard, although companies like Nokia have demonstrated some interesting possibilities.

In a recent Blog Post you spoke of the “Rule of 3” used in economic theory being applied across many industries. Specifically, you mentioned computers, PC’s and Mac’s for normal people and Linux for Geeks. Do you think this will be the case in the Operating System arena for Mobiles? And, if so would you care to take a guess at what they might be by 2020? Why do you think this will be the case?

I think mobile OSs will eventually consolidate to around 3 strong leaders, however it will take a long time; I don’t see it happening before 2015 at the earliest, probably later. At the moment the best candidates for the long term “top 3” are Symbian, Android and Apple iOS. But the game is still on and many things could happen before the market stabilises, so it’s not a very safe bet!

Mobile Operating systems are clearly a topic of interest worldwide with some interesting information coming out of Gartner over the last few weeks, specifically with declining Symbian and RIM market shares to increasing Android market share. What do you think the main drivers is in the world of Operating Systems?

I see this not so much as an operating system battle but an ecosystem battle. An ecosystem is bigger than an operating system, and it encompasses users, developers, applications and devices as well as the OS. What will determine the long term fate of the operating systems is the strength (or otherwise) of their ecosystem. A strong ecosystem means lots of applications which makes the platform more attractive to users, which in turn makes developers rich and attracts more developers. It’s a virtuous cycle. Ultimately, however good the OS if you don’t have applications and services the device can’t succeed.

Considering this, do you feel there is space in the market for new operating systems or is consolidation going to take place?

I think in the long term we’re going to see consolidation as I mentioned above. However, in the short term the market will get very competitive indeed. 2011 will likely be the most competitive year ever for platforms and devices because we will have a new Symbian version, the first release of MeeGo, a revitalised webOS from HP, Microsoft phone 7, new iPhone versions and new Android versions. It would be extremely difficult for a new platform to make much impact in such a crowded and competitive space. However, the competition isn’t just around OSs, because new “platforms” are emerging above the OS. E.g. I expect HTML5 will become a popular mobile app delivery platform, some of the AR tools I mentioned earlier are becoming “platforms” of a sort, which just complicates matters further.

A final question on the Operating System front. Do you think Open Source or Proprietary Systems will win the battle and why?

Both will co-exist because they have different, but viable business models. For mass market platforms with many manufacturers, open is attractive because the cost of OS licenses can be an issue and an open source approach allows manufacturers to differentiate their products. However the closed model such as that used by Apple or RIM also has advantages because it ensures a consistent end-to-end experience that includes the device and the services in the cloud.

There are many new areas of technology in the Mobile and Wireless space. Some of the ones that we think will have an effect in Africa specifically include:

a. Mobile Health

b. Mobile Government

c. Augmented Reality

d. Machine to Machine

Would you care to comment on their viability in Africa and what aspects do you think are interesting in these areas? Then, I would also like to know over and above these what else do you think will take Africa by storm in the next 2-5yrs?

I agree that healthcare is a huge mobile opportunity, and we’ve seen mobile phones used for clever applications such as eye tests, health education and support for remote health workers. Perhaps my only concern is price, most citizens won’t be able to afford a high end smartphone so there are still some challenges with what can be delivered. I mentioned AR above, I think it will become a major platform for delivering applications as it’s very user friendly, however it does demand top-end expensive smartphones and high speed networks which limits the opportunities a bit. M-governmwnt is also an opportunity although some applications like m-voting can be challenging for reasons of security and authentication. M2M is interesting but the opportunities in rural areas where signal coverage is poor are limited and in my opinion, although we have seen some examples in emerging markets such as India for water pump control. Another area which I think has great potential and where I’ve seen some very interesting leading work carried out in South Africa is mobile learning, i.e. using the mobile phone either to deliver lessons or to support the learning experience.

Tablets seem to be a technology that are taking the world by storm at the moment with the launch of the Apple iPad, the Cisco Cius and the up coming launches of a number of other including Research in Motion’s (RIM) Playbook. Do you think that this is a viable alternative for Third World Economies like Africa to personal computing (granted if the cost of the devices where to come down)?

Personally, I don’t think the hardware is the big issue. We have had low cost hardware for a while, e.g. the OLPC project. You can build cheap netbooks for the same cost as a cheap tablet. In my opinion, people are getting sidetracked by the hardware hype and forgetting the big issue which is the ultimate goal. The challenge is to deliver applications and content that benefit society, the hardware really doesn’t matter. Added to which many of the new generation of tablets aren’t designed for use in challenging environments such as villages without power; it takes a lot more energy to charge a tablet than a phone for example, and it’s easier to break a tablet when you drop it.

Taking a more global look at the Mobile and Wireless Technologies sector what do you think will be the biggest challenge facing the industry in 2011?

I think 2011 will be one of the most competitive years ever - as I mentioned above. For many of the platform vendors this will be a year when they have to run flat out to stop competitors getting ahead. It will also be a challenging year for network operators because the mindshare is owned by platform and device manufacturers such as Apple or Android, or app stores. It’s becoming increasingly hard to convince consumers that the network matters much.

Moving on from that what do you feel is the biggest opportunity that has arisen and can be commercially exploited in 2011?

I don’t see the market having a simple single opportunity. I think it’s a market of many opportunities at many levels. Mobile is still in the discovery phase of the market, in a sense now we’re moving beyond voice and SMS, yet we’re still trying to find out what mobile phones are for. App stores are discovery machines which let thousands of developers experiment with new services and along the way we’ll find out what’s popular by a sort of Darwinian process. Personally, I believe that one principle underlying many of the most successful new mobile services of the next few years will be context. i.e. applications which are hyper-personalised, sensitive to your location, behaviour needs and habits. For example; in a few years I expect my handset will beep one day and say something to me such as: “Did you remember It’s your wife’s birthday? I see from your mobile payment history today that haven’t bought any flowers, but the traffic is bad so by the time you’ve driven home your favourite florist will be closed. However, there are three flower shops within 500 metres of where you’re standing and one of them got great ratings from two of your friends on Facebook.” We can’t quite do all of this in 2011, but we’re certainly seeing the beginning of apps that can combine location, Facebook data and so on. I think context this is a huge opportunity that will continue to evolve for 5 to 10 years, but even now it can be used to deliver suggestions which are personalised and relevant. And that, after all, is what you want from the personal device in your pocket.

Published in December 2010
Thursday, 03 February 2011 00:00

Consumer Technology Rules, Ok? by Brett Haggard

If technology exhibitions were mythical cartoon characters, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas every January would undoubtedly have to be Godzilla. Bigger than any other technology trade show in the world, more brutal on attendees’ feet than a marathon and more taxing on their minds than a master’s degree in advanced computational mathematics, CES has for some time now been ‘the’ place to unveil new technology. There are so many new things to see and so many different vendors to engage with, most news agencies take entire teams of journalists to the event – and begin reporting on the goings on two days before the show opens its doors to the public. However, this year’s CES wasn’t as impressive as in previous years. That’s partly because the world is still recovering from the economic meltdown and partly because the industry seems to be stuck in that uncomfortable space between new technologies becoming available and the mass adoption of those technologies. Think 3D television, tablet/slate PCs and cloud computing if you need examples. This year the show only played host to 2,500 different exhibitors and managed to command the attention of somewhere close to 120,000 attendees. But even in its small form, the sheer scale of the tradeshow means it’s the perfect event for gauging market sentiment towards specific products and technologies, and a great opportunity to identify the trends that will shape the electronics space in the years to come.

More of the same

While there were some new takes on technology, the majority of the products announced at CES could have been predicted six months ago. For example, tablet or slate PCs continued to be a big focus area and well over five of the industry’s big names made announcements in and around the tablet or slate computing space. Another slightly predictable ‘hot topic’ was the evolution of 3D and the rather shrewd realization by manufacturers that in enabling users to create their own 3D content, they can get their 3D televisions flying off the shelves. As was expected, the show was also filled with a number of new handsets that US networks are still getting away with calling 4G, when in fact they’re equipped with nothing more than HSPA+ or LTE. There were of course some exceptions. One rather unexpected move came from US network operator Cricket, which aims to provide users with an ‘all– you-can-eat’ music service along with an unlimited voice, SMS and data plan. Another – and one that has stronger relevance on African shores – was the announcement of Motorola’s Atrix handset that becomes a desktop computer, media centre or notebook computer as and when the user’s needs dictate. But enough glossing over the details … Let’s get knee-deep in what was announced.

Tablets take centre stage

When Apple announced the iPad a little more than year ago and the market finally got to experience how trouble free this new mode of computing was – browsing the social web and consuming media with ridiculous ease – it was clear that everything was about to change. And even though it’s taken the market some time to catch up, now that RIM is aiming to ring-fence its customer base and Google has released Honeycomb, the tablet version of its Android operating system, things are becoming interesting. While it’s par for the course for us to expect the vast majority of vendors to simply take the ‘me too’ approach, much like Samsung did with its release of the Galaxy Tab, there will be some bold attempts at redefining the market. And there are really only three that stand out from the array of tablet-centric announcements at CES.

Motorola Xooms into view

The first was Motorola’s announcement of its 10-inch, Honeycomb-powered Xoom tablet. As yet, we’re unsure what processor it runs (Motorola has said no more than ‘it’s a dual-core’), exactly how much memory it has on board and what it will cost. What we do know is that it’s the closest thing we’ve seen to an iPad – both in terms of the overall polish of the hardware and the fluidity of the graphical user interface – and in a field of unsuccessful imitators is a good thing. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait some time for Motorola to firm some of those details up.

A decent Windows 7 tablet

Next in line when it comes to interesting tablet announcements, ASUS – the company that pretty much invented the netbook market with the release of the Eee PC all those years ago – let fly with the only remotely compelling Windowsbased tablet we’ve seen to date. Called the Eee Slate EP121, this little puppy has a 12.1-inch capacitive touch screen, runs an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory and a 64GB solid-state drive. Reality check. That’s a more powerful specification than the vast majority of notebooks out there today. When the EP121 was demonstrated on stage, the presenter retouched a 60MB image using the stylus while simultaneously playing back a 1080p video in the background. Finally there’s a tablet capable of running Windows 7 in a compelling way. Again, details that weren’t dished out readily at the event include the unit’s battery life and what the expected price point will be. Despite this, it looks promising.

Best of both worlds

Rounding up the tablet announcements, Lenovo finally showed off its U1 Hybrid: as the name suggests, a mix between a tablet or slate and a full-blown notebook that doesn’t compromise on either device’s core functionality. The idea is simple. Tablets are great for certain things, but sometimes notebooks are just far better for getting the job done. With the U1 Hybrid, users won’t have to make that tough choice. One on side , the U1 consists of a Core2Duo notebook, complete with a keyboard, trackpad, hard disk and other system essentials running Windows 7. But, instead of a normal screen, the U1 has a LePad – Lenovo’s touch screen tablet – which unclips from the notebook chassis and transforms into an Android tablet when the user wants to transform their work mode. To make the whole scenario more awesome, Lenovo has ensured that when the U1 is in ‘notebook mode’ the tablet’s internal memory is mounted like a USB flash drive in the Windows 7 file system and that whatever content was loaded into the tablet’s browser when the machine was docked is automatically synchronised to the Windows 7 browser. As would be expected, the same applies when undocking the tablet from its chassis. While Lenovo has an interesting approach for taking the Hybrid and LePad to market – selling the tablet separately and the U1 as a kit, but not the U1 chassis as an upgrade – what’s also interesting is that this product in its current form won’t make it outside of the Chinese market. That said, however, a couple of tweaks to this design could well see it released elsewhere in the world before the end of the year. Whatever happens, Lenovo has committed to making tablet or slate related announcements that are relevant to the rest of the world before the end of the year.

3D content creation

Putting tablets on a shelf for the meantime, the second major trend at CES was 3D technology and more specifically the strategy the leaders in the market will be employing to continue driving this new technology segment. As most analysts and some large consumer electronics brands will admit, 3D technology hasn’t been nearly as much of a success as the big noisemakers in the industry would have liked. While it’s still early days for 3D, like anything in the consumer electronics space there’s always time pressure to contend with. And although there is a wealth of display devices available today (and some that don’t require glasses coming during 2011) there’s not nearly enough content to create any real interest for the average person in the street. This, and the fact that we’re living at a time when social media interactions and users’ ability to create/contribute their own content to the mix is of massive importance. It follows logically then that the number of 3D-capable still and video cameras announced at this year’s CES are designed to get users excited about 3D content creation … and in doing so, sell more 3D televisions.

A horse for every course

The majority of the announcements made around 3D capable cameras came from the likes of Panasonic and Sony who together seem to have a solution for every user. Panasonic’s announcements comprised a number of new camcorders with 1MOS sensors (designed primarily for capturing 1920 x 1080 clips), a gaggle of others with a 3MOS sensor (designed for more professional 1080/60p shooting) – both ranges capable of recording 3D video with an additional lens – and a new ‘professional’ 3D camcorder with a US$21,000 recommended price tag. On the upside, it does come with a special lens, dual memory cards and more. Looking next at the company that could well have the largest vested interest in 3D, it’s not surprising that the number of camera-centric announcements from Sony dwarfed the rest of the industry. Starting with 3D video, the company announced a new Handycam that features what Sony calls ‘Double Full HD 3D’. In more simple terms, these Handycams feature an integrated dual lens system, which includes two Sony G Lenses, two ‘Exmor R’ CMOS sensors and two ‘BIONZ’ image processors. The result is the ability for 2D high definition and 3D high definition footage to be recorded seamlessly and simultaneously. Next up, jumping on the 3D stills bandwagon, Sony’s five-unit lineup of Cyber-shot cameras have 16.2 megapixel sensors and quite remarkably, are able to take 3D stills using only one lens and imager. Rounding its announcements out, Sony added a 3D unit to its popular Bloggie range of shoot and share cameras. The new 3D camera, as expected, makes use of two lenses, two image sensors and a stereo microphone to record 3D footage. Whether or not the focus on 3D cameras will save the 3D display space remains to be seen. One hopes that the current focus on user generated content on a worldwide basis will be enough to give this new market segment impetus.

Smarter phones

No technology trade show would be complete without a bunch of smartphone-centric announcements. And CES played host to a number of new handset launches. While for the most part it was more of what we’ve become accustomed to expecting, there were obviously some exceptions. Carrying on the 3D trend, LG showcased an early concept of a 4.3-inch smartphone that’s capable of playing back glasses-free 3D video (using the parallax barrier method). This is a long way off, but it was interesting to see vendors thinking in this direction. However, hot on the heels of its announcement of the Xoom, it was Motorola that again stole the show with the release of two new handsets – the Atrix and the Droid Bionic. While the Droid Bionic is nothing more than a crazy-fast LTE-equipped cellphone, the Atrix is a completely new concept that we believe will take the market by storm.

iPhone killer

Press and analysts alike have been saying for years that carrying around multiple devices with separate instances of our data on is a pretty counterintuitive exercise, not to mention one that’s heavy on the pocket and the back. What we’ve all really needed is a single device that has a large enough screen to provide access to one’s most vital information while on the road, but back at the office be attached to an external display, keyboard and mouse so that real work can commence. It would also be cool if this device was media centric so that it could double as a media hub some of the time, playing back high-definition stills and video on a large screen if needs dictate. And it seems like Motorola is the only company that listened. The Atrix does exactly what the dream outlined above calls for – and more. Not only is it a smartphone when you need it to be, a net-top when you need it to be (using a separately sold dock) and a media hub when you need it to be (using the same separately sold dock), Motorola has gone ahead and developed a notebook-chassis style dock – much the same form factor as a MacBook Air – into which the Atrix can be slotted, giving users a netbook while they’re out on the road. Again, while there’s relatively little tangible info available on the Atrix (it’s due for release in March in the US), we know that it runs Android, uses a dual-core NVidia Tegra chip and that the notebook-style dock has a six-hour battery, which simultaneously charges the smartphone’s internal battery while it’s being used. The Atrix is by a long shot the most interesting announcement to see the light of day at CES and one that could see Motorola taking the kudos for finally unseating the iPhone’s dominance in the market: not because it’s better at doing what the iPhone does so well, but rather because it solves a whole bunch of problems the iPhone doesn’t. The Atrix will undoubtedly be as significant as the release of the first tablet device, the original mainstream release of 3DTV and almost certainly, those first smartphones. And in a year’s time, who knows where this trend will drive things?

Summary

So, there you have the announcements that are likely – from a trends perspective, at least – to shape 2011’s tech landscape. While we wait with bated breath to see Apple’s response to many of the announcements made by its rivals at CES (the fruit company doesn’t unveil or exhibit at CES), it’s clear that the consumer electronics industry is alive, well and where the majority of the innovations are coming from today. Will the focus ever return to the business market? It’s unlikely. Does it matter? Not really. Most new consumer technologies make their way into the business sector sooner or later. It’s managing that transition that remains tricky and more importantly, where the business sector should be focusing its attention.

Published in February 2011

More than Mobile

Qualcomm, one of the communications industry’s foremost technology providers, gives its forecast for the future. A future that will be about more than just faster phones, Christo van Gemert explains, thanks to the company’s lineup of powerful and multifunctional mobile chipsets, designed to fulfil its vision of an “Internet of Everything”.

Cast your mind back to the phones from a few years ago: before we had our iPhones, Androids, ’Berries and Symbians. While phones were slowly starting to gain smart features – features that took them beyond just being used for text messages and phone calls – they were still hamstrung by the older technologies. Data connectivity was the limiting factor. Without a faster connection to the Internet, the average user was not going to bother using his phone to retrieve a party invitation via email and then use online maps to get him to the destination. Once there, he would probably have shot some video of the fun, but chances were slim of it being uploaded to YouTube. Nor was he going to update his Facebook status to let people know about the good time he was having.

Jing Wang, executive VP and president of global business operations for Qualcomm agrees. He says: “The wireless experience has gone through a radical change over the past decade. If we take a quick step back, 10 years ago the mobile device was just a phone – voice was the dominant application. Data was around but still in its infancy. Today, innovations and technology advancements have enabled the wireless industry to impact almost every aspect of our lives. This evolution has also created huge demand for wireless data.” This new demand, driven by smarter consumers and innovative services, needed hardware to back up its growth. If people were going to start using Twitter and Facebook every day, from their mobile devices, they’d need faster connectivity. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) was the first of the faster data connectivity services, but this second generation technology was quickly replaced by 3G. Now, we have 4G knocking on the door. And we’re seeing this need for ubiquitous connectivity spread – it’s no longer just our phones that we want connected to the Internet, but also bigger, smarter mobile devices with more functionality. Tablets, for example. Wang agrees. “The next big industry shift we see is integrating connectivity into all types of consumer electronic devices. Mobile devices — particularly mobile phones and tablets — are poised to become the user interface for consumers’ connected, digital worlds. Effectively, these devices will become remote controls for your life, allowing you to manipulate, control and interact with the things around you. They’ll also provide real-time access to a variety of information, from the Internet to hyper-local content.” New services are being introduced each week. Consumers want different ways of experiencing online content that suits their tastes. Whether it’s reading news, watching video or keeping in touch with others. People are not necessarily finding new ways to use their devices – their needs are driving what these machines are capable of, including being integrated with existing daily routines. “Accomplishing this will require some innovative new capabilities. Peer-to-peer communications without the need for intermediate infrastructure will enable people to connect their devices to one another on an ad hoc basis. Consumers will also need devices that support multipleradios frequencies – including various flavours of 3G and 4G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – and which can move seamlessly between these technologies. Qualcomm has excelled in integrating its software and hardware to provide these capabilities, so we’re in a good position for this next evolution of the wireless industry,” Wang adds.

Power for the people

Qualcomm’s solutions aren’t just those that power the wireless radios in mobile devices. At the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) the company launched its new Snapdragon chipsets – superfast processors with integrated functionality. These will enable future devices to do more than what we currently see, or expect of them. Wang points out that tablets are one of the devices that will be driving adoption of the new, faster chips. He highlights that the evolution isn’t going to see tablets replacing smartphones or computers, but rather complementing this existing ecosystem. “The tablet meets the needs of users who want more multimedia capabilities and who are demanding a device that is designed for a personal experience on the go. Over time, some users may feel that a tablet can serve as their primary device, and this may also be the case for emerging markets,” he states. Backing up this prediction is a stable of more than 10 different OEMs, with over 20 tablet designs – all based on Snapdragon chipsets. These are big companies, like Dell with its Streak and China’s Huawei and its S7 tablet. These and others boast Qualcomm’s next-generation dual-core chipsets that run at speeds between 1.2GHz and 1.4Ghz. And that’s just for 2011. Contrasted with the processors in desktop computers, which breached the 1GHz barrier in 1999 (with only a single core), these advances in mobile technology are nothing short of remarkable. They’re bringing desktop-like speeds and experiences to mobile devices. Wang hastens to add that the processor-speed wars of years gone by were fought at the expense of efficiency and battery life. “For fully mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, power efficiency is very important,” he says. “With Snapdragon, we’ve taken a different approach to the market by providing an unprecedented combination of 3G, powerful multimedia capabilities and optimised power consumption – all in a single chip – to enable a new generation of smart mobile devices.” This is in contrast to desktop and notebook computers, which both still use discreet components for each of these duties. Separate chips are required for networking, general processing and graphics. Qualcomm focuses on offering a single-chip solution, drastically reducing power consumption and design complexity. All of this means that it’ll be easier for a consumer to take more of their digital life with them, wherever they go. Games, videos, Internet access and more – with the same speed and responsiveness as they’d get on a desktop computer. The silicon onslaught doesn’t stop there, though. Wang holds out the promise of even more power, speed and battery life with an upcoming offering. “In February, we announced our new Krait family of quadcore chipsets based on a new 28-nanometer micro-architecture. The first chip products in the Krait family will deliver speeds of up to 2.5GHz per core, but it will also minimise power consumption and heat generation. The small size and power efficiency make the Krait chips ideal for new devices that are thin and lightweight.”

A view of the real world

More speed and lower consumption are all good, but Qualcomm isn’t resting on its laurels. It works closely with its customers to solve technical challenges and bring products to market even sooner. Wang says that the company’s vision of the future is for all devices to be connected, be it traditional consumer electronics, appliances, vehicles or healthcare devices. It wants to create an “Internet of Everything”, where devices all talk to one another and provide seamless access to all the content and services people use, no matter where they are. One of the technologies it’s working on to realise its future vision is augmented reality. This technology merges real world information with that in the digital world, through the cameras in mobile devices. Users can fire up their cameras and get information on their surroundings: tourist attractions, shops, restaurants and more. Instead of giving people a map of a city, a smartphone can be loaded with an interactive city tour. Travellers can use augmented reality to get a closer and more detailed look at fascinations, rather than driving past in a tour bus.Wang provides more examples, such as games that use a player’s environment, along with camera-equipped smart toys. “Media publishers can add new experiences to paper and print material such as magazines, books and newspapers. Marketers can create more interactive marketing pieces and product packaging. There are lots of possibilities – the only limit is the imagination of developers.” That last bit is quite important, as Wang points out that augmented reality in mobile applications is a relatively new market. Vision-based systems, using multi-megapixel cameras, require high processor speeds and powerful graphical capabilities. Devices with the necessary memory and processing potential have only recently come to market, many based on the Snapdragon processors. To help those developing applications and services optimised for the Qualcomm platforms, the company has released a free software development kit. Wang reasons: “By making it easy and cost effective for developers to create augmented reality applications, we’re aiming to give consumers more functionality in their smartphones and ultimately increase the benefits of having our Snapdragon chips in these devices.”

Seeing in the sun

All of these exciting technologies can still be let down by the weakest link in the chain. In the case of mobile devices, their limited use in outdoor environments is a big focus area for technology companies. We’ve seen manufacturers provide tougher devices, with dust- and water-proof seals or shockproof designs. Corning has made its name with Gorilla Glass, the scratch and shatter-resistant touch panels used in many manufacturers’ mobile handsets. Qualcomm also has something up its sleeve to help overcome one of Mother Nature’s hazards. In this case: the sun. For years it’s been nearly impossible to use full colour liquid crystal displays in sunlight. Turning up the brightness to maximum could alleviate the problem to a degree, but hampered visibility in direct sunlight is something we’ve become used to. Qualcomm’s answer is a new display technology called Mirasol. Mirasol displays use very little power and one of the inherent design advantages is a highly reflective internal structure that enables viewing even in direct sunlight. Wang says the company’s main focus for Mirasol is in the e-reader market, where it aims to offer full colour displays that are viewable in direct sunlight, with refresh rates capable of displaying video – without adversely impacting battery life. Wang is confident that no other display technology offers these four key traits. With demand growing for multimedia devices capable of displaying video content, Qualcomm has invested US$975 million in a facility to boost production of Mirasol displays. It will come online in 2012.

Connectivity: now and tomorrow

Augmented reality and more-usable displays are important advances, but both still rely on web connectivity to perform at their best. That Mirasol display is useless if it’s not letting you watch YouTube videos while you lounge next to the pool, and an augmented reality application is only as good as the information it downloads from Google or Wikipedia. Wang is enthusiastic over the changes taking place in Africa. Not only have the undersea cables given the continent immensely fast connections to the rest of the world, the wireless infrastructure has also grown. He points out that 2G to 3G migration is healthy in Africa, citing market competition and the availability of affordable handsets that drive the shift to wireless data. 3G and other wireless technologies have already overtaken fixed-line installations simply because they offer more economic efficiency. Wang quotes analysts who say that 3G connections are expected to grow by more than 25% in 2011, with a big part of the growth coming from regions that are still on 2G technology. Asked about 4G, he says: “From our perspective, we feel good about 4G, both as an extension of the 3G network as operators around the world deploy HSPA+, and as a nextgeneration solution with LTE. In terms of the chipsets, we’re sitting in a very good position because operators need to have backward compatibility to maintain the continuity of their services. They need multimode devices that support 2G, 3G and 4G in the chipset and make it seamless to the consumer. That’s what we’ve focused on.” The various generations of data connectivity aren’t interoperable, and require separate chipset features to ensure compatibility. Qualcomm has built both chips and software to make sure that people moving between regions that have new, 4G technology and older 3G technology will not have to deal with any complications. They will simply experience slower speeds on the older networks. Wang is really excited over his company’s cheaper 3G technologies, though. He says that in the past year Qualcomm has introduced new base designs for low-cost 3G handsets – something with direct benefits for Africa. He gives examples of Qualcomm working together with handset manufacturers and providers in countries like Kenya and South Africa, where solutions have been custom-designed for the market’s needs – be it for affordable 3G-enabled feature phones, or video streaming services. “Working with our partners, we’re developing technologies that will help make 3G services more accessible to everyone,” he says. Qualcomm is clearly driving progress in the right direction and securing its place in the technology history books. Dual and quad-core processors in mobile devices were unthinkable just a few years ago, but here we are on the eve of a more converged computing lifestyle than we ever imagined. Wang is almost hesitant to make a prediction for the future, given the radical changes we’ve seen in just the past five years. He also points out that there is a finite amount of wireless spectrum and a theoretical limit to wireless data speed. “We’re working hard on developing ways to use spectrum more efficiently and to support more capacity and more subscribers. As mobile data usage grows over time, improving network performance will require moving antennas closer to the end-users,” he explains. “It will be interesting to see how people use their mobile devices a quarter century from now!”

Published in March 2011

Building the Third Ecosystem

Stephen Elop, the new CEO of Nokia, has his work cut out for him. Reinventing Nokia as a smartphone manufacturer is only part of the challenge – a broader objective is in stopping Google from dominating the market.

On 21 April 2011 Nokia and Microsoft ratified the partnership that they announced in February. The Finnish cellular giant has hit an all-time low in terms of its smartphone market share with its Symbian operating system being displaced by Google’s Android that is now the leader with an estimated 33% global market share. With Microsoft in tow, it’s all eyes on Nokia’s new CEO Stephen Elop and the company’s next move that will be a Windows Phone-based device promised by the end of the year. I met with Elop in Dubai in March to discuss his strategy for re-establishing Nokia in the smartphone market and perhaps diversifying its product range. Emerging markets and new revenue streams were also put on the table – but Elop pointed to a more serious war underway in terms of mobile ecosystem providers. The agreement Elop has struck with Microsoft goes beyond Windows Phone. The two companies will also work on a new advertising platform that will make its way into Xbox LIVE, Windows Live, Bing and other Microsoft product sets. This platform will provide Nokia with a fresh revenue stream and should be music to Nokia shareholders’ ears. Nokia as a smartphone manufacturer is only part of the challenge – a broader objective is in stopping Google from dominating the market.

In with the old

The focus, however, remains on Nokia’s core business as a device manufacturer. Success in this space will depend on the company attracting developers to its platforms, and this includes existing systems. Developers I have spoken to are not convinced. They see Symbian as a dead-end street. If anything, they are looking to Windows Phone as a potential platform – but many will switch to developing for Android or iOS instead. Winning them over – or back – has to be a preoccupation for Nokia and is something Elop is fully aware of. “I think the best message for a developer to embrace, if you like, is to look closely at the strength that Nokia has, and what we bring to the market as it relates to Symbian today, and in the months and years ahead – because Symbian still has a large role to play even as we transition and focus on other things in the future,” he says. “For example, in my recent travels, which have included the Middle East and Africa, where we are today, last week in Russia and so forth, there is a wide range of markets where Nokia the brand and Symbian the platform are remarkably strong,” continues Elop. “And as we’ve described, we expect tens of millions of devices still to ship in the months and years ahead. There’s a tremendous opportunity there for developers, because when you look at the absolute scale of the operation, you say ‘wow, there’s something really there’, and so we’re definitely encouraging developers to continue with that, while also recognising that we hope to create a new opportunity around Windows Phone in the future,” he adds. Another challenge facing Nokia is how it will differentiate itself from other Windows Phone manufacturers. Services would be an obvious way to achieve this and Nokia has a powerful set of services grouped under its Ovi brand. However, the Microsoft agreement will see Nokia handing its services over for integration into Windows Phone and to the benefit of all manufacturers shipping the operating system. It seems a curious move at first, until Elop outlines his objectives. “First of all, the highest order point of differentiation that we need to focus on is Windows Phone versus Android versus Apple,” he explains. “Our number one competitor isn’t a Samsung or an HTC or whatever – it is Android. And so as we proceed in the months ahead, our expectation is that we have to take steps to ensure that the Windows Phone ecosystem is very strong and very powerful. Whether it’s us or even our competitors within Windows Phone who have access to some of the best technologies, we want to make sure that the platform holistically is very strong,” says Elop. “Now that being said, we have a number of different areas, be it in services, in hardware or in software, that can and will contribute to our efforts to ensure that we can differentiate,” he continues. “While mapping and navigation and location-based services are something that are crucial in the ecosystem, we will also make sure that we do unique and differentiated things on our devices, within that ecosystem, so that we work to stand apart from everybody else. But again, I emphasise, our principle competition is Android.”

Turning it around

Windows Phone had a less than ideal launch phase and uptake has been slow, to say the least. Last year Microsoft’s global market share in terms of smartphones was estimated at 5%. This year it has actually lost ground and dropped to 3%, according to Canalys. Elop and his colleagues at Nokia obviously think that this can be turned around. “I think there’s an opportunity to first of all differentiate on the range and quality of services that are provided within that ecosystem. For example, Microsoft brings certain properties – take the Xbox gaming environment, which in certain environments is a very powerful capability,” he says. “I think that we also bring a quality of mapping and location-based services that is better than and is differentiated from everything else, so there are elements of that. But when you look at it from a developer perspective, there’s actually a range of things you consider: does it have breadth, are there lots of people using Windows Phone devices? Well, not today – but clearly with the relationship between Nokia and Microsoft, we believe that there will quickly be tens of millions of people who are using these devices,” states Elop. “There needs to be great monetisation for the developers,” he adds. “Nokia brings operator billing with more operators in more countries and regions around the world than anyone else by far, and that we will bring to the ecosystem for general use,” he promises. “Developers need great tools; they need a solid development platform. Clearly that’s part of it already in terms of what Microsoft brings to the table. And then of course developers need the support from the vendors, such as Nokia. For example, here in Dubai today we’re asking what we can do with developers to help them build local applications and local capability,” he says. “At Ramadan, for example, there were applications supported and encouraged by Nokia, delivered by our development community, that were unique for this region at that time of the calendar. And it’s those types of things that we will do to ensure that this is a great platform for developers to target as they go forward.”

Building out

There has also been speculation that Nokia is working on a tablet device. In the past we have seen diversified products from the company, such as its Booklet 3G laptop computer. Elop sees potential for other devices in the future, but isn’t sold on tablets unless Nokia can do something wholly different with the form-factor. “We are building and contributing to this ecosystem with the belief that the opportunity is much larger than mobile phones, smartphones – however you would characterise them,” he explains. “The challenge I have for our team is to make sure that as we enter adjacent markets, that we have a unique and differentiated position. Today you can go and buy one of 150 or 180 – I’ve lost count – different tablets out there that frankly you can’t tell apart, and most of them aren’t particularly useful for much,” says Elop. “There are a couple that are very successful and we know who some of those are, at least one of them, and that’s fine. But Nokia has to look at itself – its market opportunity, the strength of its ecosystem, the geographies where it has strength – and consider what we can do that sets us apart and goes after a unique opportunity.” He continues: “We have some specific ideas, but are not announcing things there today. It’s not just about tablets – there are other devices, platforms, things that can be done, that take advantage of the ecosystem, and contribute to the ecosystem, and these are places where you may see us play in the future.” Nokia is also looking to emerging markets as a key strategy for the future. In these markets it has tried to play a more meaningful role than some of its competitors who are very good at talking the talk instead of delivering real value. I ask Elop whether Nokia has placed an emphasis on hyper-localised content that is not only designed for particular regions, but is actually developed by local developers. “You’ve just described a key element of our strategy, and that is the local aspect,” agrees Elop. “Local content, local applications and local services are hugely important to our efforts to differentiate. And indeed the strength of the Nokia brand in emerging markets and Africa and other places is largely because we have delivered more than anyone else on the promise of a great experience that makes sense within your local environment,” he adds.  “While other ecosystems and players churn out devices at a furious rate, we’re far more focused on making sure that you have a great experience that connects you. You know our overall statement about the company – ‘connecting people’ – well, that’s about connecting people with their community, with the environment in which they operate, with opportunity. That’s what Nokia is focused on. “And so, when you think about it, yes we’ll have great devices, we’ll have wonderful software and services that go with that, but to the extent that we deliver an experience that is unique and differentiated in the environment in which people are working … you’ve seen it already,” he says. “And we can go so much further with that. That’s part of the excitement that travelling around to these different regions is: you feel that, you meet people whose lives have been changed by the experience. And that’s not just about placing a phone call, or doing an SMS, it’s the whole experience.”

The next billion

Nevertheless, manufacturers still have a long way to go in terms of scaling prices for the broader market in developing economies. Nokia has managed to get its non-feature phones down to ridiculously low prices, but smartphones are still just out of reach of the average emerging market user. This is changing rapidly, however. Elop believes that affordable devices in terms of these markets is around the corner. “I think it’s much sooner than people realise. The rate at which price points can be addressed, starting at the high end and moving well down, with smartphone experiences or ‘smartphone like’ experiences even plunging below the prices [$100 mentioned in discussion], I think there’s a lot of opportunity there,” he says. “There’s work that we’ve already done to bring some elements of a ‘smartphone like’ experience to very inexpensive handsets. The thing that I keep in mind, and this is particularly true in a region like Africa, is that today 80% of the world’s population is within cell phone signal range,” continues Elop. “They’re close enough to a tower, and yet only 20% of them have had an Internet experience. And that’s why we’ve called this strategy ‘the next billion’. How do we bring the next billion to their first Internet experience, to give them their first banking experience, using their device? Some of that is smartphone capability, some of it is lower in the price point than that, but I think you’re going to see things come down much faster than anyone would have previously predicted,” he says. “And in our relationship with Microsoft that was a key part of the conversation with them: to make sure we jointly agreed to that, understood how it would be done, and could begin the engineering work to make it happen.” Elop reinforced his previous statements that the first Windows Phone-based Nokia product will be on sale before the end of 2011. One can only imagine the kind of frenetic work underway behind the scenes at Nokia to pull that one off. The smartphone market is inherently frenetic. Apple set the pace when it committed to annual iPhone updates. The market scrambles to keep up and revisions come hard and fast. Android seems an unstoppable force at the moment, but Elop apparently sees it as inevitable that Google is kept away from a dominant market share. Microsoft and Nokia need each other and may just be the perfect combination to bring the fight to Apple and Google. By this time next year we should know for sure.

Published in April 2011

In a confirmation of what we already knew, it has been calculated that globally, people spend around 200 million minutes per day playing the App game, Crazy Birds. Rovio, the Danish company behind the ubiquitious game, have even suggested that a move into movies and theme parks is not inconceivable. We have all heard of theme park rides being turned into movies (Pirates of the Caribbean), and even video game titles such as Final Fantasy, Tekken and Prince of Persia, but as yet, there have been no apps or app-based games worthy of this ignoble accolade. Slingshoot into sight Angry Birds. Having passed over 200 million paid downloads, Angry Birds has already extended its feathery wing to a crosspromotion with the animated movie from 20th Century Fox, Rio, released earlier this year. The final piece of the Angry Bird jigsaw will take place when Rovio launch Angry Birds for Facebook. This will complete the journey to mainstream acceptance. Rovio Mobile was founded in 2003 by 3 students, as a small start-up focusing on games development. Their primary target was mobile development. Over 6 years, the company produced over 50 games for third parties. At the time, their main customers were big publishers, mobile operators and device manufacturers. With the launch of the iPhone in 2007, the entire gaming dynamic was set to change. Little did we know then how dramatically, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Suddenly, anyone with a smartphone became a possible gamer. In this new 'app' environment, Rovio decided to create a title that would stand out and be distinct from any other offering in the bourgeoning app market. Angry Birds was born. It was Rovio's 52nd game, and is the icon of the app revolution For anyone unfamiliar with the game, its premise is simple. In a land far far away, inhabited by birds, pigs and other generally loveable creatures, the birds spend their days protecting their eggs. The slightest disturbance to their eggs and the once sweet birds become rather and peculiarly ANGRY. This was learnt the hard way by a little butterfly that with a flutter of its wing, slightly nudged an egg. Needless to say, said butterfly was duly dealt with. Whilst in the fit of anger bestowed on the butterfly, the aforementioned pigs took the opportunity to steal the birds' eggs, and so the Angry Birds saga was born. With the help of a slingshot, the birds become weapons to destroy the pigs, across multiple levels and difficulties, and with different birds having distinct destructive powers, to destroy their adversaries. Today, there are over 250 levels. So what's next for Rovio? Angry Birdland. Its not unfeasible according to company's CEO. A certain mouse better watch out. The birds are coming, and they're pissed!!!

Published in May 2011
Thursday, 01 September 2011 00:00

last word - SmartLove - Bradley Shaw

Did you know that smartphone users are more attached to their mobiles than feature phone users? Entertaining statistics from a recent survey of how people relate to their smartphones and feature phones have emerged from research company TeleNav in California. Leading the pack, Iphone users outstripped their Android and BlackBerry counterparts. In fact iPhone users would more likely than not go without their significant other, exercise and even shoes for a week rather than be separated from their devices. Following on from this, 83% of iPhone users stated that other iPhone users would constitute their ideal romantic partners. This compared with 70% of Android users and a measly 48% of BlackBerry users. I wonder if dating sites have started including a Mobile Device category on sign-up forms to ensure mobile compatibility. Based on this research, they should do so as soon as possible. From this we can also see that – at least in the USA – BlackBerry is not considered very sexy. The research went on to show that smartphone users were three times more likely to judge a person by the type of device they had than users of feature phones. Nearly half of Android users stated that their phone reflected a sense of their overall style compared with 35% of iPhone users and 43% of BlackBerry users. In addition, smartphone users were twice as likely to choose their mobile over their laptop or desktop computer. Smartphone users were broken down further into the different operating systems they used. iPhone users, for example, were twice as likely to have spent more than $40 on an app for their current device than Android users. As more and more Americans jump on the smartphone bandwagon, social behaviour is being affected, with 26% of smartphone users admitting to checking their phones frequently at the dinner table, compared with only 6% of feature phone users. Looking at the smartphone breakdown for dinner table usage, more than a third were Apple users, 21% Android users and 15% BlackBerry users. The biggest surprise finding of all was that a third of all respondents would be more willing to give up sex for a week than give up their mobile devices. Surely men are now asking themselves if they could really make such a sacrifice for their mobiles? But hold on! TeleNav did add the caveat that 70% of the respondents who said they would give up sex for a week happened to be ... women! As interesting as all this information might be, this research was conducted by asking a mere 514 mobile phone users to complete a questionnaire. The sample is clearly not large enough to elicit meaningful data. Is this statistical soupçon a depressing commentary on the negative social impact that mobile phones are having on our lives and values; or could it be just another pointless exercise in trivia gathering? In either case, use it to impress and amuse at the next dinner table you grace with your presence – unless of course you are now unwanted and uninvited, an iPhone addict.

Published in September 2011
Sunday, 04 September 2011 00:00

Top of the Apps by Bradley Shaw

The Oxford Dictionary describes an app as “a selfcontained program or piece of software designed to fulfil a particular purpose; an application, especially as downloaded by a user to a mobile device: apparently there are these new apps that will actually read your e-mails to you”. As we know, voice to e-mail apps certainly are available. Africa Telecoms went out to find the best apps available for BlackBerry and Android. We wanted to include Apple, Nokia and Windows Phone 7 apps but unfortunately we did not receive devices in time for this article. Five apps have been chosen for each device. They are not ranked in any particular order but simply as the Top Five Apps for each device that we have found.

Blackberry - The Device - Torch 9800 using Blackberry OS6

Facebook

The new-look Facebook social media app on BlackBerry is certainly a huge improvement on the first version with far superior looks and functionality and more Facebook-like navigation. Gone is the horizontal menu across the top – now there are two navigation grids. One gives an overall view of all areas of your Facebook profile from newsfeeds, places, photos and the rest. The other gives you a full notifications overview covering notifications (all including incoming chat messages), messages and friend requests. Overall the look and feel has been hugely improved, although it is still true to Facebook, which is great. On the downside as far as I can see the photo loader is still slower than on other devices with similar specs. However, this looks as if it could be an app optimisation issue rather than a BlackBerry hardware spec issue.

BlackBerry Protect

This is a protection/security app for BlackBerries. Once you have done your backup and configuration of BlackBerry Protect, you can remotely block your device if necessary; and if you forget where you have left your phone, Protect will tell you on Google Maps where it is. Unfortunately Google Maps is not yet detailed enough to tell you that your device is under the cushion on your couch but the info is still fairly useful. Should your phone get stolen, with Protect you now have options. You can either institute or change a password until the device is found. Lock the device. Or remote wipe the device. One handy feature here before you wipe the data is that you can do a remote backup, as it is unlikely you will lose or have the device stolen straight after you have backed it up. And that way when you do a restore on a new device all will be as it was the last time you had the device in your hand. The only downside I can see is that if BES has ever been installed on the device Protect cannot be loaded as the backup rights will still sit with your IT Admin. Overall this is a great app with some nifty features.

FNB Banking App

This is unfortunately a South African only application and is also available on Android and Apple OSs. This world first has set FNB apart from all banks worldwide as a true innovator. Using the app is amazingly simple and the design is great. Luckily, as an FNB account holder myself, on the day of launch I downloaded the app and now it is really quite indispensible. It has full transactional capabilities, transferring funds between your own accounts and making third party payments – all now possible with this app. It has a Branch Locator connected to Google Maps should you need to get to a branch while travelling around South Africa. They have also bundled FNB Connect with the app, which is useful as over WiFi you now have free access to FNB call centres. While travelling abroad this could prove to be invaluable – rather than paying roaming fees and suffering with potentially bad call quality, you will have a direct VOIP connection to your bank. There is also a live Forex tracker, which in the current times of financial instability and volatility could be handy while travelling. For version 1.0 this is a very slick app.

Bloomberg Mobile

This is a great app for those who have a vested interest in the financial markets through owning their own portfolio of stocks or are simply just interested. It contains information from most markets including South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Zambia and Tanzania, to name a few. Looking up stock quotes, exchange rates and financial news has never been easier. The app gives you the number of times the last quote was downloaded and so you are always able to track how old the individual quotes are. Another useful feature is that each quote on opening gives you a 52-week graph showing historic levels at a glance, giving you an easy indication as to how the stock is trending over time. Another useful feature of this app is the podcast section that allows you to listen to a variety of Bloomberg podcasts. This could be useful while travelling if you feel like a short market update. For the non-financial professional it may prove a nice to have; on the other hand if finance is your business this is definitely a hot pick for your BlackBerry.

WeatherBug Mobile Weather

This is the most comprehensive weather app found in the app store and seemingly accurate too. But to be honest we have all at some time said how useless our local weather forecaster is. Time will tell when using this app whether or not this will be the same. One certainty is that as this is developed by an American app developer the information is still coming from the same source that your local weather person is getting it from. As far as information goes, it will give you everything you need to know from a weather forecast summary to sunrise and sunset figures. This would clearly include all the regulars: wind direction and strength, temperatures, humidity and even pressures. However, on the day this article was written in Cape Town, it was a wet winter’s day with loads of rain, but WeatherBug had 0 mm as the rain figure for the day. An epic fail as it had been raining all day. Oh well, back to saying how useless weather predictions can be.

Blackberry - The Device - Playbook using QNX OS version 1.07

BlackBerry Bridge

BlackBerry Bridge is a certain necessity for any BlackBerry Playbook owner. This is the application that tethers/syncs your Playbook device with your BlackBerry device. This is done by loading BlackBerry Bridge onto your BlackBerry mobile device and then allowing a Bluetooth connection between the device and the Playbook. The reason for the ever so important application is that the Playbook does not have its own native e-mail client, although this has been mooted as a serious downside to the Playbook. In this case Africa Telecoms would disagree with this assertion, due to the fact that no syncing is necessary between Playbook and your BlackBerry mobile device as the mail is replicated on the Playbook from the Mobile. The other benefit of this is that your BBM service is also replicated. BBM has become the most ubiquitous app for BlackBerries worldwide and with younger generations a key driver of BlackBerry Sales. Then finally, as the Playbook has no SIM slot for an additional SIM card, BlackBerry Bridge allows the user to access the internet via this Bluetooth connection using the data available on the BlackBerry device. The other benefit of this is that the BlackBerry data bundle on your device is used. Overall this app is vital to gain maximum usage out of your Playbook.

Kobo Reader

Kobo Reader is a great e-reader with an amazing store available to purchase books. It has a very similar format and style to Kindle and the Google Books app on Android. Reading is easy, navigation is simple and intuitive. With a fairly large number of free e-books available on the platform, it is a great starting point for people wanting to use an e-reader for the first time. Paid books range from as low as US$0.99 to the average bestseller going for US$9.99. Although there is not much to differentiate Kobo from other e-book stores, it is nonetheless a serious competitor in a sector that Kindle has dominated from the start.

Need for Speed: Undercover

It would be remiss to review apps for Playbook and not include the Playbook’s signature game with great graphics that are just as good as PC renditions of the game. The gameplay is incredible and steering with the Playbook makes for loads of fun. After receiving the Playbook it took me about a week to complete all levels of this game. There are various “levels” to play through and a host of Cars Available to drive, from a Nissan 240SX to a Ford Mustang 67 (great for the drifting levels) to the Pagani Zonda F. When you have unlocked enough of the game and have the necessary cash in the “career” mode of the game, the Pagani Zonda F makes previous stages that seemed really complicated and difficult to win an absolute breeze as it is so fast. This game has been a hit with a wide variety of users from my daughter Tori through to clients who have tried it; this is certainly far and away the top game app available for Playbook on App World currently. And best of all, it is a standard feature on all devices.

Press Reader

It might seem strange to have Kobo and Press Reader as top apps. There is a reason for this. Press Reader is a great app for keeping up to date with news. This app offers newspapers from around the world for US$0.99 per edition. And it has worldwide coverage: to name a few of the countries, there are Albania with nine newspapers, Australia with 184 issues, Haiti with one, Oman with seven. The number of African newspapers available is also impressive, including Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. What is astounding is the variety of papers and the number on offer for specific markets, with 326 US newspapers being available. Readability is great with pinch to zoom functionality being available. Press Reader also gives you seven free credits when you download the app, which is sufficient for you to choose seven newspapers before you need to pay for additional editions.

Box

This is a very useful cloud-based application for the Playbook. As the name suggests, it is very similar to – if not a complete knock off of – Drop Box. The functionality is great, as you can login from a PC to upload or download files into your Box; and likewise with the Playbook, login, upload or download. Files can be organised in various folders. Free individual users have access to 5gb and a single file upload size of 25mb. This is upgradeable for an individual to 25gb of storage with a single file upload size of 1gb for US$9.99/month; or a business with 500gb of storage and a single file upload size of 2gb for US$15USD/month. Business users can also brand their Box with a company logo. I’m not sure the logo would sell the service but as a free cloud-based application Box it will certainly be useful. However there are some problems with the Playbook app. Files cannot be deleted from the Playbook. Although connectivity is required to download files from the cloud onto the Playbook, once downloaded the files are saved to the device. These downloads are also dated to ensure that you are viewing the most up to date version if multiple persons are working on a file at any given time.

Android Mobile - The Device - Motorola MB525 using Android 2.1 (Froyo) with Motoblur

Hot Apps

In the search for new and interesting apps on Android Market, Hot Apps is certainly a must use. This little app search app gives you a great view of apps that are currently trending on Marketplace. You can browse by “Hot Today”, “All Time” or “Best of 2010” tabs. It is an incredibly easy to use and intuitive app. The most interesting way to find apps is the “shake to discover apps”. This is simply a random selection of apps that comes onto the device’s screen. It might not be terribly useful but it is a fun way to discover apps that you might not necessarily have ever downloaded. The only downside is that the search criterion for apps is currently not customizable, which would be a useful addition. The only other fail that became evident while using this app is its inability to ignore apps that you are currently using.

Google+

Many people have their doubts about the new social media entrant Google+. But … has Google ever done anything that has not been hugely successful? Well, some might look at the Nexus and question the success of the device. However, with 20 million users having registered for the service in the first three weeks of operation, it makes a compelling case. Then with Google’s search page receiving around one billion users daily, there could be a huge conversion of users when Google+ launches in earnest. The Google+ app on Android is easy to use and requires a small amount of understanding as the terminology is different from the likes of Facebook and Twitter. By far the most impressive feature of Google+ is the handling of photos, shared by you or your circles. The default folders are for “photos from your Circles”, “photos of you” (tagged), “your albums”, and “from your phone”. The “from your phone” folder even allows photos to be automatically uploaded from your device. These photos do however remain private until such time as you “publish” them to your Google+ profile. Photo sharing has never been easier and required less effort.

Thinking Space

This is a great mind mapping tool for giving some organisation to your thoughts. If you tend to sit in meetings and or conferences and doodle this might be a useful tool for you. The Oxford Dictionary defines a mind map as “a diagrammatic method of representing ideas, with related concepts arranged around a core concept”. This is exactly what you can do with Thinking Space: instead of doodling, make pictures of the content in the meeting or the conference session you are in. it is very similar to doodling but far more useful that the reams of little doodle notes many people find in their possession. For tertiary education this app would prove invaluable for taking notes in lectures; although using it on a mobile phone could take some getting used to, compared with using it on a larger form tablet where it is perfect. The app itself is incredibly easy to use and even if you have never done mind maps, the user interface is very simple and in no time you will be mind mapping your way through your daily routine.

Talk to Me

This is an ingenious combination of Voice Recognition, Google Translate, and Text-to- Speech technologies. Best of all, this is a free to download app on Android. This is a definite must have for international travellers. It allows you speak a phrase into your Android device and it will recognise what you are saying and type it in your home language on the screen (this is to enable any correction of the voice recognition) and then repeat the phrase in a language of your choice. With what seems like a never-ending list of languages that it can translate, the only catch is that not all come with speak-back translations. These additional languages are available to purchase. But from an African perspective, for it to include Afrikaans and Swahili I was well impressed. I tested the speak-back translations from English to German and Spanish (this will be useful at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next year) and even with my limited knowledge of these languages, they certainly sounded like German and Spanish!

Smart Measure

This is another app that will probably turn out to be more fun than functional. But once you download it you may easily find yourself measuring the distances around your home or office. Or checking the height of arbitrary objects. Don’t worry, you are not alone. This is really just about some fairly basic trigonometry being implemented on a mobile device. These days the processing power of most mobile devices is more than sufficient to run extremely complex programs – so it is not surprising that we are seeing apps like this service that can calculate heights and distances using trig. Although not very useful, it is one of those apps you are likely to use as you say to a friend: “How tall do you think … is?” and you answer: “Well, let me check how close you are.” And I certainly can’t see builders and architects checking site measurements using an application like this with fairly enormous variances.

(Although it would be interesting to see how the buildings turned out if they did ...)

Android Tablet - The Device - Motorola XOOM Tablet using Android 3.1 (Honeycomb)

Angry Birds

Angry Birds has been the most successful app to date, with over 250 million downloads up to June 2011, an average of 3.33 million hours a day spent playing Angry Birds across all platforms and over 40 million monthly users of the app. The Apple IOS version of Angry Birds is a paid-for application whereas the Android version used for this review is the free version. Rovio, the developers of Angry Birds, found another way to monetise this app by providing in-app advertising and this is still generating Rovio in excess of US$1 million a month in revenues. Playing Angry Birds on a large format tablet like the Xoom is a far cry from playing the game on the smaller form mobile phone devices. With the graphics Angry Birds is really coming into its own and making game play far more engaging. And Rovio is not done with Angry Birds either: in a recent interview with Venture Beat, the chief marketing officer of Rovio, Peter Vesterbacka, stated: “We are betting everything on Angry Birds. We want to be the first entertainment brand with a billion fans. That will take us two or three years to do. Next year, we want to be the leading entertainment brand in China.”

Chrome to Phone

This is a great app if you are a Chrome browser user on your desktop or laptop. It quite literally takes links from your PC chrome browser and pushes the link onto your tablet. It is very easy to install: simply add the Chrome to Phone extension onto your PC browser and an icon becomes available. Once Chrome to Phone is installed on your tablet, it is simple to push any content from your browser to your tab. Great if you are busy reading an article and need to leave for a meeting or your daily commute; just push it onto your mobile device for your reading/researching pleasure on the move. The only improvement I can suggest would be a reverse functionality of pushing links from your tablet to your PC. This would certainly make the app more useful overall as there are times when you want to carry on reading or working using a link on your device.

Photoshop Express

This is another nice to have app, although its usefulness on a device the size of the Motorola Xoom might come into question. Holding the Xoom up to take pictures inconspicuously is not likely to happen. However, if you have taken photos and need to crop them, make minor adjustments to contrasts, etc, this is certainly the app for you. Or generally if you like tinkering and playing with photos before sharing in a myriad different ways. Adobe has done a great job of fitting some fairly highend photo editing technologies into this app and it is still a free download app on Marketplace. It allows for changes in brightness, contrast, changing the colour scale of the image, and creating borders for images. Overall this is a great app for the happy snappers who are never quite happy with their snap work.

Kindle for Android

Amazon has positioned Kindle as the leader in the e-book space with a variety of offerings including the Kindle Wireless Reader. Amazon launched the Android app for Kindle in June 2010. The Kindle store currently has over 900,000 books available, with prices ranging from free to US$9.99 for latest releases. This seems to be the average across all the various platforms where e-books can be purchased. The version of Kindle designed specifically with tablets in mind for the Android’s upgraded Honeycomb OS has seen improvements in layout and optimisation for the standard size of tablets between 7 and 10 inch devices. A great functionality of the Android app is that Whispersync automatically syncs your last page read, bookmarks, notes and highlights across all your Kindle devices. This includes the PC application, the Kindle device and any apps you have running. Granted this is based on the fact that you log into each application using the same login details. Reading using this application is great, with crystal clear text display and amazingly clear graphics when viewing magazines. Overall a very well put together app that runs smoothly and very efficiently.

Plume

Plume for Twitter is a powerful Twitter application for Android. The latest version being used for this review has been optimised for Honeycomb. Tweetdeck had set the standard for desktop Twitter applications. However the Android app version has not been optimised for Tablets – or Honeycomb for that matter. Plume sets itself apart from other apps in that it is fully customizable and can handle more than one Twitter account with ease. Multiple account management has never been easier, with each account given different colours, which makes tracking of these accounts within one client easier than ever. The free version of this app comes with one advertisement and with the premium paid app the ad is removed for just under US$3. However, the ad is not terribly obtrusive and so you may not want to fork out the additional cash for the premium version. The one area where Plume falls down against its largest competitors TweetDeck and HootSuite is that it currently does not support other social media offerings like Facebook or LinkedIn.

Published in September 2011
Saturday, 03 September 2011 00:00

Vas vs Apps by Alan Knott Craig Jnr

Not so many moons ago, the only meaningful way to offer a service for cellphone users was through the VAS (Value Added Services) channels that the network operators provided. These include SMS (Short Message Service), USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data), IVR (Interactive Voice Response) and carrier billing (where the user can pay for mobile content from their airtime). It was a great first step that helped to kick-start the mobile revolution by allowing a wide range of third-party services to make a phone into something more. Something more personal, perhaps, by allowing users to purchase ringtones and wallpapers. Something more useful, perhaps, by letting users look up the numbers for a business simply by sending an SMS. Something fun, perhaps, by offering an SMS dating service. In fact, the network operators in South Africa were amongst the first in the world to adopt the VAS model. It has contributed to the huge growth of the mobile market in South Africa, and in many ways ensured that South Africa was far ahead of places like the USA in the sophistication of the mobile services offered. But the cellphone industry is moving, literally and figuratively, at the speed of light. What's the difference between buying a ringtone via the mobile web using a bankcard or mobile wallet and buying a ringtone via premium-rated SMS? Price. The latter will always be more expensive. Period. Why? Because the mobile operators will always take too much revenue share. In SA, MTN keeps about 40%, Cell C about 30%, and Vodacom about 20%. The weighted average is 29%. Compare that to Visa and MasterCard who take between 1% and 7%. And the networks will stay the same for a very long time. Why? Because they are accustomed to operating profit margins of 20% plus. The moment they retain less than 20% they dilute their profit margins, and by definition they become less "profitable". And the analysts don't like that, so in spite of actual profit going up due to higher revenue, the share price will be smacked. And the CEO of the mobile operator will watch the value of his share options plummet. Therefore, no CEO (that I can see) will make any changes to the status quo. Even though by dropping their fee to 1% they would become the largest financial institutions in South Africa virtually overnight due to the power of the prepaid distribution channels ... So content supplied via premium-rated SMS and USSD and online-billing-services and IVR (29% mark up) will always be more expensive than content provided by mobile web services (5% markup). Slowly but surely the shift from the VAS model to apps and mobile web applications is happening. The VAS model globally was disrupted massively by the arrival of the iPhone and its ecosystem. The iPhone is designed primarily for data access. Voice, SMS and USSD are more like "apps" on the iPhone rather than the core around which the device is built. It was very clear that Apple did not intend to have their device shackled by the VAS model. Applications are bought using credit cards or vouchers (not carrier billing!) through the App Store. Instead of making SMS or MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) the preferred way of sending communications, the iPhone nudges people towards sending e-mails. Instead of letting app developers use SMS to communicate back to their users, the iPhone provides push messages. Instead of relying on getting a user's location from the cellular network (which cost about the same as sending an SMS), the phone has a built-in GPS. The trend is clear: the iPhone wants to move users and service providers away from SMS, MMS, USSD, carrier billing and network-based locations towards data. Firstly, this is great for users and service providers alike, because mobile data is 10 times cheaper than voice and around 2,000 times cheaper than SMS. Secondly, this ensures that service providers can roll out their products globally without having to worry about integrating carrier billing and SMS on hundreds of different carriers, each with a different standard, costing structure and regulations. Apart from this freeing the service providers from the extortionist fee structures of the carriers, it also saves significant development costs. Plus, being able to launch a service globally (either as a native app or a mobile web application) allows services to achieve much greater scale than was previously possible. Better scalability means lower operating costs, meaning cheaper services for users. The irony is that while local mobile service providers advertise ridiculously overpriced mobile content subscriptions – often amounting to R15 or R20 per day! – on SABC 1 to South Africa's poorest consumers, on my iPhone I can get an incredible range of content and services through my browser or the app store for free. The carriers argue that value added services follow open market principles and hence if prices are too high, it's because consumers are willing to pay those high prices. There is merit to that argument, but it's not the full story. One of the biggest problems with the VAS model is that there is no easy way for consumers to discover services. Hence, the VAS model relies heavily on TV and above-the-line advertising, which is expensive and in turn pushes up the prices. Also, service providers cannot easily differentiate themselves on quality of service. This is partly because consumers find it hard to discover services and partly because the technology is very limiting. The result is that the only way to grow revenues is either through more, expensive advertising (which drives up prices) or by trying to extract more money from users for the same service. Both ways are heavily used within the VAS industry and both end up being horrible for the consumer. The most common tactic to extract more money from consumers is to try to trick people into a subscription service and make it very hard for users to get out of such subscriptions. This makes the VAS industry the only commoditised industry where prices have increased as more competitors entered the market. Of course, while iPhone gets the credit for its massive disruption of the mobile industry abroad, locally we've had a similar disruption in the form of MXit long before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye. The huge success that MXit has experienced in the local market is largely due to the fact that it succeeded in providing users with a (comparatively) rich and diverse experience using data channels instead of VAS channels. Google's Android smartphones offer very similar functionality to an iPhone. Android is growing at an incredibly rapid pace due to large numbers of cheap handsets on offer. Very soon, Android devices that are cheaper than the magic $100 price point will enter the market. At that point, the line between a "smartphone" and a "dumbphone" will start blurring and then fading. With noncarrier controlled app stores and powerful mobile browsers, most of the pieces will be in place for the retirement of the VAS model. All that still remains to be found is a ubiquitous low-fee payment method to replace carrier billing for people without credit cards. On that day, the old-school premium-rated services will be history. Game over, insert coin.

Published in September 2011
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