Galaxy Home: Can Samsung make up for lost time in the smart speaker space?

Last week at Samsung’s Unpacked event for the Galaxy Note 9 in Brooklyn, New York, the company finally unveiled its smart speaker, the Galaxy Home, after years of talk and delays.

Details of the Bixby-powered AI speaker are sparse, but Samsung says it boasts six speakers, eight microphones, a subwoofer, and sound by AKG. Samsung also says its smart speaker is the only one that “moves a wave of sound toward you when you ask it to”.

We do know, however, that the Galaxy Home will enters a smart speaker market that is already a little crowded. Google and Amazon’s respective smart speaker offerings accounted for over 60 percent of the global market in Q1 2018, according to Canalys, and along with Apple’s HomePod make up the top three speakers in the US.

All three have a head start over Samsung; the Amazon Echo will have had its four-year anniversary before the Galaxy Home hits the shelves. In Samsung’s home country, meanwhile, SK Telecom launched its NUGU speaker in 2016 and another portable version last year, while chat giant Kakao launched its Kakao Mini last November.

So what will Samsung have to do to make up lost ground? And what is it about the Galaxy Home that will a) get on board first-time smart speaker buyers, and b) convert Google Home and Amazon Echo users?

Apart from leading sound technology, Samsung has enlisted the services of Spotify as part of a long-term deal that will make it the “go-to music service provider” on Samsung devices — a clear statement of intent from Samsung and a means to take on Apple Music. The streaming service will be tightly integrated with SmartThings and Samsung devices going forward, including Galaxy Home.

Galaxy Home will also work as a SmartThings hub, meaning users will be able to control all their smart home devices through voice, although SmartThings users can already do this with Google Home. But generally, so far, so good.

Two things about the Galaxy Home could put consumers off, however. Firstly, let’s address the Galaxy Home’s odd, cauldron-like design, which surely can only be that way for reasons of functionality, as opposed to Samsung possibly thinking it’s pleasing to the eye. It would be a surprise if feedback on the design — a lot of it negative — doesn’t lead to a second version that’s aesthetically more of a welcome addition to a person’s living room.

Reports also suggest the device is bigger than any smart speaker on the market, and promotional pictures give the impression that it’s barely small enough to hold in one hand. What makes something like a Google Home Mini so great is that it’s small, portable, and pretty unobtrusive in appearance. Galaxy Home looks to be none of those things.

The second factor is price. Samsung has promised more details on the device and its release date at its developers conference in November, but reports suggest the Galaxy Home could be around the $300 mark, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

It’s worth bearing in mind that going into the holiday season last year, Google’s Home Mini was on offer at some retailers for as low as $29 in the US and £34 in the UK. Samsung is boasting sophisticated, market-leading sound technology on the Galaxy Home, but we all know that innovative hardware and price tags often align.

However, Samsung’s delay may be cleverer than it seems, or than it intended. According to recent research from Strategy Analytics, smart speaker vendors entering the market with budget offerings are finding it hard to compete with the Amazon’s Echo Dot and Google’s Home Mini. Meanwhile, the premium end of the market offers opportunity to vendors that are offering superior build and audio quality, it added – examples of which could include the Galaxy Home or the audio-focused Google Home Max.

This means consumers who have had their $30 smart speaker for a year or two may be looking to upgrade to some better audio, making the Galaxy Home’s entry perfect timing. This is not to mention the support from Samsung die-hards who want any accompanying piece of hardware they can get their hands on. Likewise, Bixby-powered smartphone users may want to embrace more Bixby-backed products for a more seamless experience at home and on the go.

Samsung Galaxy Home is neither going to set the world alight nor be consigned to the embarrassing-failure bin populated by the likes of the Galaxy Note 7. It will be somewhere in the middle, a constant seller, and later iterations will eventually be part of a smart speaker market that’s as densely populated as the smartphone market is today.

Galaxy Home could be the last piece of that jigsaw for a Samsung-powered smart ecosystem. It’s just a surprise that it’s taken so long to arrive from a company that’s rarely had to play catch-up.



Why the Nokia 3310 reboot will struggle to do the original justice

Nokia’s 3310 will be rebooted at this month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, according to VentureBeat, and will launch as “a homage” to the original. HMD Global, which purchased the rights to the Nokia brand name in December, will release the phone for a comparatively moderate price of €59.

The Finnish company will allegedly announce four phones in total at the event, including an entry level Nokia 3 and a mid-tier Nokia 5, becoming the first series of handsets released by the Nokia brand in Europe since 2014.

The original Nokia 3310, which was launched in 2000 and sold 126 million units globally before being discontinued by its parent five years later, is still a benchmark for mobile phones and continues to be touted as such for reasons other than pure nostalgia. Here’s why.

The 3310 was a big tough cockroach of a phone that would’ve eaten the Note 7 for breakfast. It was my very first phone, and I held on to it for as long as possible before upgrading to a Samsung E330. It finally conked out after about eight years. Its successor, the 3410, was just as long-lasting, and continues to be used by my mother to this very day after nearly 13 years.

In my view, the crux of what makes a great mobile phone should be measured on two simple fronts: Mobility, and whether it makes phone calls.

My current Microsoft Lumia 950 — incidentally part of the line that was rebranded from Nokia’s handsets division when it was sold it 2013, now discontinued — has all the bells and whistles in terms of features but it lacks a fundamental aspect of what makes a phone mobile: It’s too big, just like 90 percent of smartphones on the market today.

Some of us don’t want a mini laptop-sized device to make a phone call on the go, nor do I want to walk up a flight of stairs as if I’m wearing a leg-brace because I don’t want to crack the screen. The mobile concept was never supposed to be like this.

The Lumia also has a weak battery life in comparison. The golden rule of a mobile phone, with an emphasis on mobile, is you don’t need to have daily access to a power point, and this was an area where the 3310 truly excelled. It was perhaps the phone’s most memorable feature, said to be up to 260 hours in standby and nearly five hours of solid talk time for a 1000mAh battery. I remember going almost a whole week before having to charge up; now I have to keep my phone charging every single day, as if it’s a landline.

The 3310 also boasted legendary durability, which continues to be parodied in a variety of memes and social media posts, and possibly the greatest mobile game ever in the form of Snake II, which is rumoured to be included on the reboot.

But most crucially, the 3310 kept close to the concept of a real phone. It had a keypad. It could fit comfortably in one hand. You could reach every button with your thumb. These should all be on page one of the smartphone maker’s manual, yet are something that models such as the iPhone 7 or Oppo R9 fall short on.

The 3310’s extra features were also kept to a modest minimum: SMS Chat, calculator, stopwatch and quick dialling among them. Granted, this moderation was only because of the relatively limited tech available to smartphone makers at the time, but the 3310 now serves as a snapshot of a time when phones were allowed to be phones rather than all-in-one life-savers. The more features you add and enhancements you make, the greater the likelihood of things going wrong, as demonstrated by last year’s Note 7 debacle. In an age where smartphone makers are searching for an eye-catching feature that puts it ahead of the pack in a saturated market, news of a 3310 relaunch is a welcome relief.

The original 3310 was by no means perfect, and for the reboot I’m chiefly hoping for two minor modifications: A slight weight reduction and an upgrade on the 84 x 48 pixel monochrome display. It will also need to maintain its durability, or even improve upon it taking into account the hardware advances since 2000.

Details about the reboot are limited, but it surely won’t be a straight-up recreation of the 2000 version. It will be a fine balancing act for the company to both respect the original and offer something that suits today’s network standards and consumer demand.

To make it commercially viable, HMD Global will simply have to offer features such as 4G access, and front and back megapixel cameras for today’s selfie generation. At that point it will essentially become a brand new phone, and the 3310 moniker would surely only exist to capitalize on a nostalgic tech-buying public.

Medibank launches VR for Australian hospitals on Google Daydream View

Australian health insurer Medibank has launched an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience for Australian hospitals on Google Daydream View, in collaboration with a group of neuropsychologists at Melbourne-based VR developers Liminal.

The “Joy” experience, which was entirely designed in 3D using Google’s Tilt Brush, provides hospital patients with a virtual experience to attempt to relieve loneliness and isolation, particularly for long-stay patients with restricted mobility.

From their hospital bed, users are transported to a computer-generated setting in a natural Australian landscape, around a campfire with a group of people and a sleeping dog. They can then choose from a selection of stories to be read to them by the attendee within the experience.

Sami Yamin, a clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscientist who works as head of research at Liminal, told ZDNet that Medibank had conducted research regarding loneliness in Australia before reaching out to Liminal for help to develop a new virtual solution.

“Long-stay hospital patients often really suffer from loneliness and isolation because they’re not necessarily able to access the community,” he said. “It’s sort of a growing problem within this specific context.”

The Joy experience was designed specifically for less able users, such as long-stay patients with debilitating injuries, and requires limited movement or interaction. Yamin said that Google Daydream View was perfect for the project over something like Gear VR, which requires more control of the head-mounted display by the user.

“We really had to think about what was reasonable for long-stay hospital patients to be able to do … something which was relatively passive but still gave the sense of community. So if someone had a spinal injury, and had had very little movement in their neck or below the neck, they’d still be able to enjoy the experience,” Yamin said.

“Using the Google platform was really important to us because of the fact that it’s the best mobile platform that’s available at this point in time. The Pixel phone has an amazing resolution, it has a lot of the power of the corded devices.

“Portability was a really big issue for us, so having something that was tethered was not an option. Room-based tracking would have been far too hard to set up. [Google Daydream View] just kind of made sense to us.”

Yamin added that although Daydream View’s interactivity is a bit more limited than other VR devices, it wasn’t a disadvantage given what Liminal was looking to achieve with Joy.

For the Joy experience, Liminal also encompassed several elements of neuroscience and neuropsychology to benefit the user on a deeper level. Rather than just a random setting, the elements that make up Joy’s genereated environment were chosen based on both the psychological and physical effects they could have on the user, such as reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

“[A campfire] from an evolutionary psychology perspective is something which is really innate within the majority of cultures,” Yamin said. “Historically, often campfires are where communities came to exchange stories. We know that natural environments are great for reducing depression and anxiety. We found research that suggested that fire was a really strong and powerful symbol of community and also looking at a fire has positive physiological effects.

“We wanted it to be familiar as well, not a completely removed situation. We wanted it to be sort of transportative, taking them out of their current four walls and taking them into another place, even if it’s for a short period of time.”

Medibank and Liminal are taking the Joy experience to around five or six hospitals this weekend before a nationwide rollout.

Yamin said virtual reality has practical applications for treating a number of psychological conditions, and helping with rehabilitation, exposure therapy, or specific phobias.

“In terms of being able to diagnose deficits in cognition or visual perception, in a 3D environment it’s just far far better [for treatment than] the things we still rely on paper and pencil for, or 2D computer screens,” he said.

Earlier this year, Victoria-based Build VR rolled out their Solis VR unit for Australian care homes, a Gear VR handset that features video scenarios that try to trigger positive emotions for dementia patients, even for those in the later stages who are often responsive to very little.

Marc Pascal, co-founder of Build VR, said that ideally the company wanted to customise a VR experience for those living with dementia. Potentially, personalised video content, such as a grandchild’s birthday party, could be uploaded on the same day it happened, allowing less active patients to experience the event as if they’re there.

“You could have, potentially, in the near future, an old man connecting with his grandson and doing a trip through his hometown together,” Pascal said. “In terms of dementia, it’s really about doing everything we can to bring back those memories.”

In a slightly different take, Alzheimer’s Australia Vic and Deakin University released a free app in September, allowing anyone with a smartphone and Google Cardboard to see through the eyes of a person living with dementia in an attempt to create empathy for those with the condition.

Spark launches ‘gigabit’ broadband at 700-900Mbps speeds

New Zealand telecommunications provider Spark has launched its Ultra Fast Fibre MAX broadband service, providing customers with claimed “gigabit” speeds of between 700Mbps to 900Mbps down and 400Mbps up.

Spark said that the new plan, which achieved speeds of up to 930Mbps in trials, is the fastest residential broadband service that they offer.

The telco is offering Ultra Fast Fibre MAX phone and broadband bundles with unlimited data for NZ$149.99 a month or broadband only for NZ$139.99; for businesses, broadband and landline bundles cost NZ$212.85 with unlimited data or NZ$179.85 for broadband only with unlimited data.

Spark customers connected to New Zealand’s Ultra Fast Broadband network can purchase a package in all areas apart from Queenstown, Greymouth, Oamaru, and Whakatane, where network upgrades are still being performed.

All plans come with Spark’s TV streaming service Lightbox and 1GB a day of free public Wi-Fi.

Spark also announced on Thursday that it is acquiring the remaining 50 percent of construction joint venture Connect 8 from partner Vocus Communications for an undisclosed amount, and will now own the venture outright.

Spark and Vocus formed Connect 8 in February last year for additional fibre construction and delivery capability, with Spark acquiring half of the joint venture for an upfront cash payment and an agreed annual construction spend.

“Spark already connects cities, exchanges, and datacentrres around New Zeland to fibre,” said Mark Beder, chief operating officer for Spark. “Given our extensive existing fibre footprint and our goals to be the market leader in data and digital services, full ownership of Connect 8 makes strategic sense. It gives us even more flexibility, capacity, and control over our fibre construction and delivery.”

Spark said the venture will continue to construct fibre and telecommunications assets for New Zealand telco providers. The purchase will provide the telco with extra capability for its fibre replacement program and the expansion of the Optical Transport Network, as well as support its goal of establishing CBD-owned fibre position in Wellington and Auckland, it added.

Spark recently announced its partnership with Chorus for a week-long trial of Spark’s “street in a week” fibre installation program. The trials, which begin in Whakatane on December 12, will offer 400 premises a fibre upgrade from their legacy copper service.

Spark highlighted the importance to move people off of the “fault-prone copper” service.

“Chorus copper lines are a legacy technology; they are getting older and are increasingly prone to faults,” the telco said.

Earlier this year, Spark recorded NZ$370 million in net profit for the 2015-16 financial year, attributed to an increasing mobile and cloud users. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDA) came to NZ$986 million, up 2.5 percent from the NZ$962 million reported for the previous financial year.

It had previously announced changes to its executive teams as part of their proposed “strategic transformation” from a traditional telco towards a digital services provider. As part of this, the telco’s Spark Connect business was split in two to form Spark Connect, which will focus on connectivity, and Spark Platforms, which will “design, develop, and operate best-practice digital platforms and the core products enabled by them”, according to Spark managing director Simon Moutter.


Broadband monitors TrueNet has found that it is quicker to download an Australian webpage from a New Zealand ADSL connection than it is using ADSL in Sydney, as shown in its October 2016 Urban Broadband Report.

The firm measured Australian-based TPG ADSL users in Melbourne and Sydney against ADSL users on several New Zealand ISPs.

Maximum, minimum and average times to download a single Australian web page.

(Image: TrueNet)

For the total time to download three Australian websites with ADSL, Spark, Slingshot, and Orcon took 1.1 seconds, Flip and 2Degrees took 1.2 seconds, and Vodafone NZ 1.5 seconds. TPG, on the other hand, took 1.7 seconds to download.

TPG also clocked the longest download time for three US-based web pages with ADSL, at 3.7 seconds, as well as for the New Zealand based web pages, which took the Australian provider a total of 18.5 seconds, compared to Slingshot’s 6.7 seconds and Spark’s 9.2 seconds.

TPG was the worst at downloading Australian and US websites than any New Zealand ISP they measured, according to the firm.

“Their performance downloading Australian websites (from Australia) demonstrates how far behind NZ they are, with all NZ ISPs having a far better performance for downloading the same Australian websites,” TrueNet said in its report.

The Australian Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) revealed last month that complaints about internet services in Australia had risen 22 percent between 2014-15 and 2015-16.

According to its Annual Report 2015-16 [PDF], new complaints about iiNet rose 48.2 percent across all service types throughout the year, while its owner TPG saw an overall increase in complaints of 7.4 percent.

The TIO also reported that complaints about Optus increased during the year, jumping by 18.2 percent. Complaints about landline and internet services increased, while complaints about mobile services decreased.

Optus CEO Allen Lew previously said during Optus’ financial results that Optus’ complaints statistics “remain an area of concern” for the telco.

“I think we certainly take a look at the TIO data very closely, we are not happy with the fact that our numbers … are still high,” Lew said.

With AAP

Digital Transformation Agency chief digital officer Paul Shetler resigns

Paul Shetler has resigned from the position of chief digital officer for the Australian Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) after just over a month in the position.

Shetler was the inaugural CEO of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), from which the DTA spun off in November, before being appointed as the DTA’s chief digital officer.

Interim chief executive officer Nerida O’Loughlin said Shetler had played an instrumental role in establishing the government’s agenda to transform its digital presence and service delivery.

“His creativity and vision have been a great inspiration, and have been crucial in helping the government to deliver the first phase of its digital transformation agenda,” O’Loughlin said. “This has included the delivery of six transformed ‘exemplar’ services and the establishment of the highly successful Digital Marketplace.”

O’Loughlin added that the agency expects to fill the vacant chief digital officer role in the new year.

The DTA was formed to push Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s digital agenda and IT policy and procurement operations.

“We are more mobile, more connected, and more digitally reliant than ever before. Government needs to consistently challenge itself, to ensure world-leading practices are being employed to make Australians’ lives simpler,” Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor said when announcing the DTA.

Then-Communications Minister Turnbull created its parent department, the DTO, early last year to unify government agencies and services online. It was initially tasked with creating a single online myGov portal for dozens of government-related services.

Labour MP Ed Husic later on Wednesday raised concerns over the high turnover of senior figures in the Turnbull government’s “much hyped” digital unit.

“Mr Shelter was clearly restructured out of his chief executive role when the government revealed last month its supposedly ground-breaking move to re-name the Digital Transformation Office the Digital Transformation Agency,” he said.

“While questions have been asked about the speed at which the DTO (now DTA) has delivered results, we have certainly seen its agile revolving door work its way through senior managers.

Husic said it was concerning that five different senior managers had departed in quick succession.

Internet Archive looks to take digital collection to Canada

The Internet Archive is looking to replicate its database in Canada in the face of potentially increased surveillance powers under a Donald Trump presidency in the United States.

The San Francisco-based organisation said in a blog post that it is seeking donations for an “Internet Archive of Canada”, which had been set as a goal in response to the November 9 election result and the greater web restrictions that will likely follow.

“[The election result] was a firm reminder that institutions like ours, built for the long term, need to design for change,” the post says. “For us, it means keeping our cultural materials safe, private, and perpetually accessible. It means preparing for a web that may face greater restrictions … government surveillance is not going away; indeed, it looks like it will increase.”

Increased surveillance powers will be a priority under the Trump presidency, according to Bloomberg, with the president-elect recently appointing Jeff Sessions as attorney-general and Mike Pompeo as director of the CIA — both of whom advocated government spying under George W Bush’s stringent surveillance policy.

The surveillance laws that were overturned or amended following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations are likely to revert back to how they were under Bush, the report added, including mass data gathering, internet activity, and email content collection.

Earlier this month, encrypted email provider ProtonMail encouraged users to switch to encrypted email following the election result.

“Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you are on, Trump’s control over the NSA is now an indisputable fact,” it said.

“As a federal agency, however, the activities of NSA are governed by federal law, in particular, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. However, with Republican control over both houses of Congress, President Trump would have broad power to rewrite FISA as he sees fit, or introduce a new law.”

Trevor Timm, executive director at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, warned that the US’ vast intelligence-gathering machinery will be turned over to a “maniac”.

“[Trump will] control a vast, unaccountable national security and military apparatus unparalleled in world history,” Timm said. “The nightmare that civil libertarians have warned of for years has now tragically come true: Instead of dismantling the surveillance state and war machine, the Obama administration and Democrats institutionalized it — and it will soon be in the hands of a maniac.”

Snowden had previously warned of the surveillance threat of a new leader immediately following his disclosure of National Security Agency (NSA) and Five Eyes documents in 2013.

“A new leader will be elected, they’ll flip the switch, say that because of the crisis, because of the dangers that we face in the world … some new and unpredicted threat … we need more authority, we need more power,” he said in his interview with the Guardian.

“And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it.”

Despite Internet Archive looking to back up its data in Canada, one Snowden document revealed the close collaboration between the NSA and the country’s Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).

The document mentioned “the exchange of liaison officers and integrees, joint projects, shared activities, and a strong desire for closer collaboration in the area of cyberdefence”, as well as Canada being a large consumer of US intelligence-gathering equipment.

Canada is also one of the Five Eyes nations, along with the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The alliance allows the sharing of citizen internet and surveillance data among members.

Internet Archive collects and stores a vast collection of webpages for public access. Its Wayback Machine saves 300 million web pages each week to ensure that “no one will ever be able to change the past just because there is no digital record of it”.

The organisation says it has only 150 staff members running one of the top 250 websites in the world, and due to its privacy policy does not collect IP addresses or accept ads that track user behaviour.


ASX-listed DroneShield launches signal-jamming DroneGun

Drone detection company DroneShield has unveiled its handheld rifle-style DroneGun, a device that jams communications between drones and their pilots in an effort to help fight terrorism.

The DroneGun can signal-jam a drone device up to 2km away in a range of environmental conditions, and enables a controlled landing of the drone and its payload, either dropping vertically or returning to its starting point.

The DroneGun can also track down the drone user for certain models, and offers an optional GPS-jamming capability for customers outside of the United States.

Delaware-based DroneShield said on Monday that there is a “substantial need” for the product, due to an increase in the use of drones for terrorism. The company cited reports of an Islamic State drone rigged with explosives that killed two Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in Iraq. Another instance last month saw Kurdish forces shoot a small hobby drone in northern Iraq, a stronghold for ISIS, which then exploded upon examination.

DroneShield has sold, piloted, and trial-installed approximately 214 sensor units. The company’s system detects acoustic signatures of drones, which are analysed by a signature database. This then issues an alert on an approaching drone.

The company filed its Initial Public Offering (IPO) in May, raising AU$7 million to complete its listing on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) the following month.

The company said at the time that it expects to use the IPO funds to further scale DroneShield’s existing technology, expand into new markets, and pay any ongoing intellectual property, legal, insurance, and administration costs.

DroneShield LLC was formed in January 2014, and in November last year, DroneShield Limited was incorporated. The company’s board includes Robin Brims, former commander of the British Field Army; Dr Samantha Ravich, former deputy national security advisor for US Vice-President Dick Cheney; and former Australian Minister for Defence Robert Hill.

The company estimates that 12 million drones will be in use by 2020.

With the proliferation of cheap drones has come a rising misue, and governments and agencies have been pushing counter-drone technology as a result. The US military’s Black Dart exercise series tests various commercial and military solutions, while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) trialled its Anti-UAV Defense System (AUDS) to detect and identify potentially dangerous or hostile drones close to airports.

The anti-drone ray, which uses thermal imaging for drone detection, was developed in response to the concurrent issue of people flying private drones far too close to airports, reports of which total around 100 per month, the FAA said.

Fellow ASX-listed American company Department 13 this month unveiled its counter-drone device Mesmer, which “mesmerises” intrusive drones by manipulating their radio transmission protocols.

With Mesmer, Department 13 can manipulate radio transmission protocols that are used to control drones. This is made possible because most commercial drone radio controls operate in established frequency bands and use standard command protocols. The company wanted a counter-drone method that reduced the risk of any potential danger to nearby personnel or infrastructure.

“We believe that making drones fall from the sky is a bad thing,” chief executive Jonathan Hunter said, who pointed to an incident last year when a drone carrying radioactive material was found on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office.

“If they had shot that out of the sky, they would have dispersed radiological material everywhere,” Hunter said. “That would have shut down Tokyo for at least a month.”

Department 13’s demonstration in Queensland was hosted at the Metricon Stadium, the primary venue for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which the company said “represents the sort of use case scenario which could be rolled out by Department 13 globally”.

Aside from drone defence, the company has 13 patents and 22 patent applications in areas such as cellular communications and networking, data bandwidth, and cybersecurity for mobile devices.