Inspect-a-Gadget

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October 12, 2017  4:11 PM

Splunk University: big data skills training from the ninjas

Clare McDonald Profile: Clare McDonald
Big Data, Big Data analytics, Data, Data Analytics, Software, Splunk

Alongside Splunk’s annual event Splunk.conf runs the software firm’s learning and certification course, Splunk University, where in 2017 I spent a day learning how to use Splunk to deep dive data and improve my big data skills.

As is common with third party software deployments, firms usually run certification courses which employees can go on to become an expert in the software their company is using.

After a few wines I decided it would be a really good idea to go on one of these courses and learn a little more about one of the firms I write about often, and managed to get the firm to agree.

I’ve written before about my fear of getting too techy, having chosen to put my degree in computer science on a shelf and never look at it again.

When it came time to actually attend the Splunk University course before the firm’s annual .conf event in Washington D.C I regretted agreeing to go – some of the coding workshops at university had been my least favourite parts of the course and I was worried it would bring back too many disappointing memories.

I joined the Splunk Fundamentals 1 course, which is advertised to do exactly what it says on the tin and teach you the basics of using Splunk to get the most out of your data.

The one day course promised eight modules to cover searching in Splunk, using various different fields as part of searches, creating dashboards and reports, learning about Splunk’s search language, using transforming commands in Splunk and creating lookups, reports and alerts.

We started by logging in to a dedicated server which was hosting all of the example data we’d be searching and accessing in real time during the session.

Yes, I did make a delighted “OOH!” noise as I successfully logged in to the server. Yes, I realise logging into the server is not the most complicated thing I’ve ever been asked to do, but I was anxious so I’ll allow myself this joy.

On this server was data from a virtual company called “Buttercup Games” a Splunk invention created to generate data with the purpose of testing and teaching the Splunk environment.

Buttercup is actually quite a big thing in the Splunk universe; the pony mascot has its own game and always stands tall at Splunk events.

Fictional company Buttercup Games is a platform selling video games and some accessories through third party retailers and an online store with three web servers – two different kinds of data injected into Splunk that can then be interpreted.

Data can come from logs, configurations, messages, call details records, alerts, metrics, scripts, clickstreams, virtual machines, internet devices, communications devices, sensors, databases  – basically “any system using a computer, any device that has logs” according to our session teacher and Splunk senior training technical consultant Laurent Dongradi.

Data is indexed as it enters the system – an index is a location within Splunk that searches for and stores event data – different users have different types of access to data depending on what they would need to know.

For example a security team might need access to the web index and the security index to notice trends in web patterns and whether these may have contributed to cyber-attacks.

As the class started and we were given time to acclimatise to the dashboard, the person sitting next to me immediately said: “Right, let’s click on some stuff.” to which my response was to stare at him in terror.

There’s just something about code that makes me feel unwell – and during our first module where we were talking through searching the data loaded into Splunk I realised we had to use Splunk’s own search language, called “Spl”.

Since I quit coding I’ve been continually assured that in some cases it is becoming easier to learn – automation is allowing some companies to develop software that requires little training or technical knowledge to use.

The Spl language was similar to many others, and once the familiarity set in I realised the best way to tackle each module was to power through… until a search returned a ridiculous result and then suddenly I was back to being terrified. I proceeded with caution.

Dongradi explained “we could define Splunk very simply as a search engine” allowing you to use different terms to search through data and use the results to decide what to do next.

For example Shazam uses Splunk to analyse usage data for its application to assess whether any changes to functionality have been successful, and Travis Perkins uses it to help respond more quickly to cyber-security threats.

What you’re searching for will depend upon the business – as a fake retailer Buttercup Games may be interested in looking at online vs in-store sales or trying to notice patterns surrounding abandoned online baskets.

If there are searches you hope to return to or check regularly they can be made into reports, and can be displayed on a dashboard which can be shared around the organisation – visualisations of data can be generated to help to drill down to underlying events.

But as we progressed it became clear to me that learning to use Splunk was by no means the most difficult part of the session – it was understanding what data to search and how to use the results.

For example we began by searching for failed log in attempts because our imaginary manager had asked us to.

This made sense to me – I knew that if a company is concerned about cyber-attacks it is a good idea to look at failed log in attempts to see if there were any patterns relating to the server that the attempts occurred on, the time gap between failures and whether the same person is consistently attempting entry and failing.

Insights like this can help pinpoint issues and more quickly prevent a disaster.

Later on in the workshop we were asked to look into other pieces of data, the reasons for which were a little less obvious.

One of the searches developed a chart which showed each of the actions that took place on the Buttercup Games website for each of the products the site sold.

For example, there were certain games that were added to the cart more than others, and also many that had been viewed, but then not purchased.

As it happens, World of Cheese was a good seller, but Holy Blade of Gouda was not very popular – there is an argument that data like this can determine which are the bestselling games or perhaps whether there may be a problem with a certain purchasing webpage if the purchase is abandoned many times for a particular game.

Then as an example of how to transforming commands such as ‘top’, ‘rare’ and ‘stats’ we were asked to find the top two places visitors to the website are coming from.

For some reason when I successfully extracted this data and displayed  it as a pie chart I got very excited – possibly because we’d been sitting in a room for a long time without seeing the sun and it was one of the last things we were asked to do.

Using Splunk was easy enough to learn, but as in many cases this doesn’t mean investing in expensive software will gain insight for your company – data scientists are in high demand at the moment as technology adoption and digital transformation has dramatically increased the amount of data firms are collecting.

Learning as many tech skills as possible can only be a positive thing – as an organisation Splunk works to help people in and outside of the firm to learn the skills needed to use its big data technology.

But data should not be underestimated – when properly interpreted it can be the perfect companion to a business plan, but it’s also very easy to drown in a sea of figures.

It’s all very well and good finding out which products are selling well online and which are struggling… but what are you then going to do about it?

Learning exactly how data ninjas glean insights from software such as Splunk was extremely interesting and gave me a new found respect for exactly how much data organisations are dealing with.

Whether I’ll place my Splunk University participation certificate on the shelf next to my degree and never look at it again? I’ve not decided yet…

August 31, 2017  9:33 AM

What’s a Meta For? Augmented Reality Startup Swaps Screens for Thin Air in Office of the Future

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
augmented reality, Office productivity, Virtual Reality

The office of the future, as viewed through rose-tinted augmented reality glasses.

A new film from augmented reality outfit Meta paints a vivid picture of how the office of the future may no longer be dominated by banks of monitors.

The video, which features the firm’s second-generation augmented reality headset running its new Workspace productivity software, depicts workers wearing high-tech-specs interacting with virtual PC desktops, or in meetings collaborating on 3D models.

Silicon Valley-based Meta is one of the protagonists looking to bring general purpose augmented reality headsets to market. Founded in 2012, Meta made a splash on the Kickstarter platform in 2013 and has since been backed to the tune of $75 million.

Yet while its hardware – and indeed that of its competitors – advances to a point of maturity, the search continues to find practical, genuine, revenue-generating use cases upon which to hang these thousand-dollar headsets.

Augmented Reality Office

In Meta’s vision of the office of the future, augmented reality headsets perch atop employees’ heads, projecting infinite adjustable touch screens within the wearer’s personal workplace.

The traditional desktop mouse and keyboard remain, but much of the activity takes place in mid-air with gestures to grab, swipe and pull virtual windows and objects. There’s smartphone interactivity here too, with notes and images from the real-world handheld’s screen only a pickup and push away from the virtual workspace.

So confident is Meta’s vision that its charismatic co-founder, Meron Gribetz, has made another grand gesture on his staff’s behalf: in Meta’s offices, flat screens are now consigned to the store cupboard, replaced by Meta’s own head-mounted displays. A home-grown showcase – and a beta test – for the future of the workplace.

Shoulder surfing at Meta HQ just got a whole lot more difficult.

What’s a Meta For?

It’s easy to be seduced by the ‘wow’, but forget about grasping the why.

While it’s easy to be short-sighted about future technology, there’s little yet to suggest how wearing immersive reality glasses to read an email, browse the web or scroll through a spreadsheet will be any less painful than it already is on a flat-screened display.

Indeed, once the novelty of the arm-waving gestures wears off, many tasked with frequent manipulation of a Photoshop image, for example, may simply rest their arms back on the desktop and revert to a trusted keyboard shortcut, mouse click or pen-tablet — all of which appear faster, more ergonomic, and more accurate. Some might call that lazy, others productive.

Microsoft HoloLens

HoloLens (Image: Microsoft)

Once collaborative working is layered on top of virtual and augmented reality technology, however, more solid use cases begin to appear. Rapidly iterating a prototype design alongside geographically dispersed teams provides a genuine benefit – a workflow already widely employed in some industries.

Outside of the office too, when navigating or performing unfamiliar tasks that may benefit from instant, heads-up contextual guidance, augmented reality technology has a tangible benefit.

Rose-Tinted Specs

Meta isn’t alone in the race here. The leading pack also features Microsoft HoloLens and the enigmatic-but-elusive Magic Leap – almost $1.5 billion of investment to date can’t be wrong, right? – both of which have also played out their visions of the future workplace.

Apple and Google are chasing too, but have chosen a different tack, engineering platforms to help developers explore from the comfort of their own smartphones and tablets. Apple’s ARKit received solid air-time at the firm’s WWDC developer’s conference this year, and will likely feature again in September’s iPhone reveal. Google announced its own augmented reality developer’s kit this week, ARCore. Even Facebook is in on the act, announcing its AR extensions during its 2017 F8 conference.

The fact remains that augmented reality in anything other than niche applications is still an uphill sell. Firms have long presented how  immersive technologies will revolutionise the way we work – but we’ve still to see a standout application that looks likely to endure beyond short-term novelty.


August 22, 2017  1:05 PM

Ok Google: What’s New in Android Oreo?

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
Android, Google, smartphone

Google announces Android Oreo with refined notifications, better battery life, updated emojis and ‘the biggest change to the foundations of Android to date’.

Google has opened the packet on version 8.0 of its Android operating system for mobile devices. Oreo succeeds Nougat and Marshmallow, and follows a long-line of candy-themed Android releases.

Timed to coincide with the passing solar eclipse in the US – and prior to the announcement of the next raft of Android smartphones from the likes of Samsung and Sony – Oreo brings dozens of enhancements to Google’s mobile experience, yet those expecting a cookie jar filled with colourful new features may be disappointed.

Nevertheless, under the covers is what Google calls ‘the biggest change to the foundations of Android to date’, promising more users will be able to enjoy Oreo sooner, safer and for longer.

What’s New in Oreo?

Headline features in Android Oreo include better battery life, improved usability, and measures to reduce so-called ‘notification diarrhoea’:

  • In-app autofill: already a common feature in web browsers, logins to popular apps can now be automatically populated too.
  • Notifications: Discrete dots appear on the corner of app icons to reveal the presence of a notification from that app. A long/force press on the icon reveals actionable notifications. Long overdue. Also new is notification snoozing and notification categories.
  • Picture-in-picture: continue watching a YouTube video while checking email, or check your calendar while on a video chat.
  • Background limits attempt to hobble battery hogs by imposing restrictions on infrequently used apps.
  • Emoji makeover: over 60 new emoji, with many more redesigned to look more like other platforms’ implementations. Bye bye, blobs.
  • 2 x boot speed: anything that improves time-to-productivity must be good, but given that most of us tend simply to lock our phones between uses rather than switch them off, the benefit here is minor.
  • Smart copy and paste attempts to bring a little more intelligence to the traditionally tricky activity, selecting entire addresses or phone number and suggesting appropriate activities for selected text such as calling, emailing or opening a map.

Oreo Rollout

Google Android Oreo

Image: Google

Google has submitted Android Oreo to mobile networks and manufacturers for certification and testing. At this point, it’s up to them when they choose to push Oreo out via an over the air (OTA) update. Many hope it will be soon, but history might suggest patience is required.

However, Google hopes its new modular architecture, also delivered in Oreo may speed this process. Project Treble, announced prior to the Google I/O developer conference this year, attempts to make rolling out Android easier, faster and less costly.

A new ‘vendor interface’ now sits between the device-specific vendor implementation code and the Android OS framework code, reducing the amount of code that needs to be reworked when a device is updated to a new version of Android.

It’s a great idea in theory, but time will tell how much of a real-world difference the change makes to the speed at which existing handsets get shiny new Android releases.

How to Download Android Oreo Straight Away

However, eager beavers hungry for some next-gen Android action can precipitate their Oreo feast by registering their handsets with the Android O Beta programme.

Visit the Beta portal, sign in with the Google account to which your compatible handset is registered, agree to the conditions and you’re good to go.

Google’s own pixel phone is one of a handful of devices that are ready to roll with Oreo right now.

The full list is:

  • Nexus 5X
  • Nexus 6P
  • Nexus Player
  • Pixel
  • Pixel XL

Within a couple of minutes of registering our Google Pixel XL, the System Updates menu revealed that the Oreo 8.0.0 release was ready to install.


August 17, 2017  11:12 AM

4D Printing, Smart Dust and Digital Twins: Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
4D printing, 5G, Gartner, Virtual Reality

Gartner has revealed its 2017 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies.

The highly-regarded annual report is seen by many professionals as an important indicator of which emerging technologies their organisations should invest in or explore.

Based on the US analyst’s insight into more than 2,000 technologies, the Hype Cycle charts how it sees potentially game-changing technologies traversing the bumpy road from ‘Innovation Trigger’ to ‘Plateau of Productivity’.

This year, Gartner has identified three ‘megatrends’ that it believes businesses must embrace “survive and thrive in the digital economy over the next five to 10 years.”

5G Debut

Among the technologies making their debut in the report this year is 5G, although projecting that mainstream adoption won’t occur until between five and 10 years from now may irk many mobile networks aggressively working towards a two- to three-year timeline.

Blockchain has progressed through this year’s cycle, from nearing the so-called ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ in 2016 to nudging the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ today. It too won’t be considered a mainstream technology until 2022 at the earliest, predicts Gartner.

Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2017

Image: Gartner

Virtual Reality Hype Cycle

Despite major launches in 2016, Virtual Reality remains largely static at the start of its ‘Slope of Enlightenment’. Nevertheless, its outlook to the so-called ‘Plateau of Productivity’ has now improved to between two and five years.

Other new entries into Gartner’s hit parade include Edge Computing, Artificial General Intelligence, and Digital Twin technologies, all of which join the ‘Innovation Trigger’ curve climb.

Megatrends

Gartner groups the emerging technologies it identified into three megatrend groups:

  • Artificial intelligence everywhere – covering everything from Deep Learning, Artificial General Intelligence and Cognitive Computing to Smart Dust and Autonomous Vehicles
  • Transparently immersive experiences – contextual, human-centric computing which includes Augmented and Virtual Reality, Human Augmentation, Volumetric Displays and 4D Printing
  • Digital platforms – it’s all about the platform, so 5G, Blockchain, Serverless PaaS and (thankfully) Software-Defined Security all feature here.

Commenting on the report, Mike J. Walker, research director at Gartner, said: “Enterprise architects who are focused on technology innovation must evaluate these high-level trends and the featured technologies, as well as the potential impact on their businesses.”

“These megatrends illustrate that the more organizations are able to make technology an integral part of employees’, partners’ and customers’ experiences, the more they will be able to connect their ecosystems to platforms in new and dynamic ways,” he continued.


August 14, 2017  11:22 AM

GUEST BLOG: Apple Watch is for girls (and that’s a good thing)

Clare McDonald Profile: Clare McDonald
Apple Watch, mobile apps, Mobile devices, smartphone, Smartwatch

In this guest post Dr Sunny Bains, editorial director of UCL ENGins and lecturer specialising in stories on emerging technologies in AI, computing, and telecoms, discusses why the Apple Watch is well suited to women and why this is a good thing. 

I have no pockets. Well, not none but few: and, like many women, I tend not to use those I do have (it’s a thing). Instead, I keep my phone in my handbag, usually with the ringer off.

You can imagine the consequences: phone calls left unanswered, texts unread. Turning up to teach at the wrong lecture theatre because, as I walk around my giant university campus, I foolishly rely on memory rather than dig out my phone, juggling coat, bag and backpack as I go.

I used to wear a beautiful analogue watch with a personal inscription on the back and was happy with that. I was an Apple person, totally co-opted by the eco-system but never really felt tempted by this particular gadget.

That is, until one October evening in 2016. I had dinner with a friend who is a real action hero: she had been a paramedic and a high-flyer (sometimes literally) in the Territorial Army, and now works as a medic on ships in the Royal Naval Auxiliary. She demoed her watch for me. Her appointments were right there on her wrist, with locations and reminders and names. That was useful. That would get me to lectures on time.

I took a punt and I bought one (I think it was actually the next day), and have never regretted it. Neither has my husband. Not only do I now know where I am going and why, but I always get my text messages and answer them instantly (even if Siri’s interpretation of my reply is often comedic, and I occasionally have to give up and scribble instead). I can also answer my phone without getting it out of my bag (even if I do look like a lunatic talking into a Dick Tracy watch).

Those are the big things, but there are little ones too. The voice-activated timer and alarm for instance, I use daily for checking on things around the house (laundry, cooking, kid) and calling people back. I routinely ask Siri when a particular film came out, or what the weather will be, or some other random fact: and I often get the right answer.

Best of all, my phone now calls out to me when it’s mislaid. We play an electronic game of Marco Polo and I find it in seconds. Miraculous!

The downsides? Not many. One would be the navigation system that works well enough for you to want to use it but not well enough for it to reliably get you from A to B without looking at your phone. Also, there are lots of apps for the watch that seem cool in theory but do almost nothing in practice: you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Oh, and there is the fact that most of the men I meet are perplexed that I find the thing useful. (They have pockets.)

Lastly, there’s the advertising. I think of the Apple Watch as a personal organisation tool. Judging by the ads, Apple seems to think it’s a cool toy for young sporty types. Personally, I’m too clumsy to risk wearing anything but a cheap sports watch in the gym, and – though I was willing to spend £300ish on something for work – I would never have spent it for play.

The lesson? There are a lot of professional women. We have money (and spend it). Don’t ignore us!


June 19, 2017  8:07 AM

AI UMA says it’s good to talk in the workplace

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
ai, Amazon Alexa, Artificial intelligence, Chatbot, Cortana, Siri, UI

Inspect-a-Gadget heads to London Tech Week to meet UMA, a conversational AI chatbot for the workplace.

“It’s good to talk,” assured Bob Hoskins in the famous ’90s ads. The campaign – credited with delivering £5 billion during its run – helped ease the transition from British Telecom to BT, from telephony monolith to consumer-friendly conversation facilitator.

Today it is Apple, Amazon and Microsoft who are trying to convince us of the merits of conversation. What Siri, Alexa and Cortana lack in heart-of-gold cockney gruffness, they more than compensate for in how they make technology accessible to a broader audience.

While this may ring true for the home, however, the battle for conversational AI in the workplace has yet to begin in earnest.

One smart office assistant currently prepping its CV with it sights set on corporate domination is UMA, on show for the first time at London Tech Week last week. UMA is a digital assistant – very much in the spirit of Siri or Alexa – that connects employees to business applications via a single, user-friendly conversational interface. Its strength is its ease of integration with devices and systems, including Salesforce and Dropbox.

So, interactions such as:

“Hey UMA, book me that meeting room on the third floor”
“Hey UMA, what Chris Smith’s extension?”
“Hey UMA, the light-bulb in the men’s room has blown. Again.”

become possible, and more depending upon how and what your IT department choose to plug into UMA’s interface.

Inspect-a-Gadget spoke to ISDM, the UK-based team behind UMA:

It’s still early days for conversational AIs and chatbots, but a growing market in both the business and consumer spaces suggests there’s strong interest. If one of the visions of an AI future is that some human roles get made redundant, UMA may soon have a few admin assistants picking up the phone and calling around for a new job…


May 19, 2017  4:12 PM

Dangerous IBM marketing emails make me WannaCry

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
Cyber security, Email campaign management, IBM, Phishing, Ransomware

Misspellings, suspicious hyperlinks, abnormal sender address, no attempt at personalisation. The classic signs of a phishing email? Or a botched marketing email from IBM promoting — wait for it — a cyber security webinar?

Updated 24 May 2017 with comment from IBM press office.

One week ago, the WannaCry ransomware outbreak made headline news, with organisations around the world infected by the virulent file-scrambling malware.

While little is known about its origins, we do know that it relies on a leaked NSA exploit in Microsoft’s SMB protocol in order to propagate between outdated and unpatched Windows PCs. Indeed, the hunt continues for a ‘patient zero’, the first machine infected by the malware that might yield clues to its provenance and how it took hold.

Now, we all recognise that one of the most common ways for malware to enter an organisation is by email, either as an attachment or a link to a website hosting malicious code. Hackers will often compose phishing campaigns off the back of high-profile news stories, capitalising on public awareness and fear.

Only yesterday, ActionFraud — the National Fraud & Cyber Crime Reporting Centre — released an advisory on fake emails purporting to be from BT that have been jumping on the coat-tails of the WannaCry attack.

Cybersecurity experts will tell us that the spelling mistakes, suspect sender address, generic introductions and hyperlinks to a dodgy-looking domain are all key tells that this supposed BT email is in-fact an attempt to ensnare less-savvy citizens.

bt-phishing-email

A phishing email purporting to be from BT.

So, surely a genuine marketing mailshot from a respected IT security solutions vendor would go to lengths to ensure it didn’t exhibit exactly the same failings as a fraudulent phishing email? Particularly if it were part of a vendor’s campaign advising on how to stay safe following a major malware outbreak?

Hello Irony

Our inbox has been creaking at the seams since the WannaCry outbreak as cybersecurity vendors and experts jostle for position to add their insight. Among the usual analyst quotes and researcher comments appeared this email purporting to be from IBM.

Let’s go through our phishing email bingo card once again:

ibm-phishing-email

Marketing mail purporting to be from IBM.

  • Poor spelling – ‘ransomeware’, anyone?
  • Suspect sender address – not sent from an ibm.com email address
  • Generic introduction – no name to reassure the sender knows any more than my email address
  • Hyperlinks to a domain that doesn’t match the sender – none of the links goes to an ibm.com URL; even the social media connections get directed to an domain that certainly doesn’t suggest IBM

That’s a full-house. In fact, there’s really very little here to convince me this email is anything but a phishing attempt.

So, how certain are we that this email is genuine? Well, aside from the fact that its social media channels were also advertising the webinar, the domain to which the hyperlinks direct – unicaondemand.com – is in fact owned by IBM. However, we only discovered this by resorting to a whois lookup – visiting the domain in a browser bounced back a 504 error. None of this is conclusive, of course.

Marketing Email Manifesto

Now, without wishing to lay too hard into IBM, it is far from alone here. While the irony is sharp in this particular case, it’s our experience that countless other firms compose their marketing materials with little care about the reader’s safety. Email is insecure, but there are things marketeers can do to make it less so.

Inspect-a-Gadget would like to see:

  • Clean links: use hyperlinks that direct to the domain of the sender or an obvious target (eg twitter.com) and not to some obscure click-tracking middle-man. Readers’ safety is more important that your analytics. If you must track, track from within your domain
  • Simple URLs: Provide a simple URL within that domain that readers can visit for themselves without clicking through (eg www.example.com/security/16-may-webinar)
  • Personalisation: use our actual names to prove you’ve not blindly copied our email from a hit list.
  • Spell checking: seriously

Without these as a minimum, companies are doing themselves no favours and ultimately putting recipients at risk.  I’m sure there are other tips companies should adopt too, and we’d love to hear them below.

We reached out to IBM for some insight, including its original email for reference. Three times. The first time, the email to security@ibm.com (as directed in the mailshot) bounced reporting an unknown user. A follow-up to the UK comms team followed, followed by another follow-up. Silence so far.

Perhaps IBM’s anti-spam filters are blocking its own phishy-looking emails…

Update: IBM’s press office responded with the following:

We are aware of this particular email which was sent to people registered to receive information from IBM. Thousands of participants ultimately attended the webinar on a very timely subject. We are exploring ways to assure future IBM emails are even easier to verify by adding a clear sender. We recommend those registered to receive emails from IBM add the email address used to send IBM marketing materials to their address book.


April 27, 2017  3:25 PM

Hands-on: BlackBerry KEYone Android smartphone

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
Android, Android security, BlackBerry, smartphone, TCL

Is this the phone loyal BlackBerry fans have been longing for? Inspect-a-Gadget goes hands-on with the BlackBerry KEYone, a super-secure Android smartphone with a trademark physical keyboard. 

Although BlackBerry called time on its plummeting hardware business in September 2016, a licensing deal with China’s TCL Communications means the BlackBerry hardware brand lives on.

Today’s global launch of the BlackBerry KEYone marks the first handset release since the TCL deal, and the last handset to be designed by BlackBerry’s in-house team. The press materials for the flagship’s London launch allude to this passing of the baton:

“Distinctly Different. Distinctly BlackBerry.”

In a market of me-too handsets, BlackBerry has tried hard to deliver on the promise of a distinctly different smartphone: Inspect-a-Gadget thinks it succeeds.

Keys to Success

BlackBerry Mobile clearly believes that keys are the key to regaining its loyal customer base. Known as the BlackBerry Mercury when it first trailed at CES in January, the TCL partnership focused its marketing and by the time the handset was fully unveiled at Mobile World Congress in February it had become the BlackBerry KEYone.

BlackBerry KEYone

(Image: BlackBerry Mobile)

The four-row physical keyboard is tightly stacked beneath a modest 4.5-inch IPS LCD display, ensuring both content creation and consumption are – depending on your viewpoint – equally compromised or catered for. However, BlackBerry is quick to point out that a physical off-screen keyboard can mean more on-screen real-estate than on larger-screened devices where a touch keyboard can fill half the display.

BlackBerry has once again imbued its hardware keyboard with some software smarts: app-launching short-cuts, swipe navigation and flick typing are joined for the first time by an unobtrusive fingerprint sensor on the spacebar.

Of course, keyboard preferences are highly personal, and changes as fundamental as how you input text and navigate around a device can take a while to bed in; those upgrading from a previous qwerty-equipped BlackBerry will take little time to adjust, but those who have grown used to – or always have always used – a touchscreen keyboard may take longer.

Secure

Alongside its keyboard, the standout features of the KEYone are its security and design.

BlackBerry Mobile claims the KEYone is the most secure Android handset in the world, and while the firm has long tolled the smartphone security bell, perhaps never more than now has that note rung as clear.

Android 7.1 Nougat comes as standard, along with access to over a million apps from the Google Play store. As with its previous Android handsets, BlackBerry’s DTEK software is in place, adding a convenient layer of permissions visibility and control across all applications.

An eye-catching feature is the BlackBerry Privacy Shade app, a screen overlay which keeps prying eyes at bay by darkening the entire screen except for a small movable cursor. The BlackBerry Hub universal inbox, familiar to BlackBerry users of old, is welcome here too.

BlackBerry Mobile’s Global Head of Device Portfolio, Gareth Hurn said that “Secure software is integrated into the chipset and locked long before it gets near to the assembly line,” no doubt alluding to reports of smartphones and PCs being infected with malware during assembly. BlackBerry has also committed to monthly Android security updates for at least two years.

Design

BlackBerry KEYnote

Image: BlackBerry Mobile

At the London launch event, BlackBerry Mobile bosses were at pains to impress how the KEYone has been styled for the professional consumer, and the feel is very much that of a premium device.

Alongside the intricate keyboard detailing, the strong aluminium chassis is fronted by a scratch-resistant 4.5-inch Gorilla Glass screen protecting a 1620 x 1080 IPS LCD display. To the rear is a grippy textured soft-touch shell, a pleasant change from the oh-so-slippy metal or glass back found on many other devices.

The KEYone is a phone that feels like it doesn’t want or need a case for extra protection.

The KEYone camps in an appealing middle ground between a standard and a plus-sized body. At 149.3 mm tall and 73.5 mm wide its dimension are almost exactly midway between an iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, though the extra few millimetres of depth are noticeable. The handset feels well proportioned and weighted though sadly, there’s no water-resistance here.

Hardware

Beneath its shell, the KEYone is powered by an octa-core Qualcomm SnapDragon 625 processor clocked at 2.0 GHz, together with 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of flash storage. Storage can be expanded by up to 2 TB with supported microSD media. On paper, some of these specs do sit towards the middle of the road but in practice, the software feels perfectly responsive when swiping between screens and opening apps.

A USB Type-C port sees to power and wired connectivity, and the non-removable 3,505 mAh battery claims 26 hours of mixed use. What’s more, QuickCharge 3.0 technology means a 50% charge can be achieved in as little as 36 minutes. Unfortunately, there’s no space here for wireless charging. The Inspector hasn’t put the KEYone’s power claims to the test yet, but longevity along these lines is most welcome in any wannabe workhorse device.

Content creation isn’t limited to the keyboard: the BlackBerry KEYone camera specifications are a pleasant surprise and may help broaden its appeal: the rear-facing sensor is the same top-drawer 12-megapixel Sony IMX378 unit we saw in the Google Pixel XL, complete with its 6-element f/2.0 lens, dual tone LED flash and fast phase-detect autofocus. Video recording clocks in at up to 4K at 30 fps. If you feel the urge to snap a selfie, the front-facing is an 8-megapixel sensor with an 84-inch wide-angle lens and light-up LCD flash.

Availability and Price

The BlackBerry KEYone launches today in the UK and is available in-store exclusively from Selfridges on Oxford Street in London priced at £499. The KEYone goes on sale in Carphone Warehouse stores from 5th May and other with mobile networks shortly afterwards, although many online stores are offering preorders right now. Details of launches in other territories will follow.

Summary

So far, the Inspector is impressed. One could pick out the lack of water resistance or wireless charging as minor faults, but the truth is that the KEYone is a solid professional smartphone with the potential to be the productivity workhorse many may feel they’ve been missing.


April 22, 2017  11:15 AM

Testing times for virtual reality despite Sky’s Attenborough odyssey

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
bskyb, Facebook, Sky, Virtual Reality

Sir David Attenborough is to be digitised as part of an interactive virtual reality experience promising hands-on access to some of the rarest items from London’s Natural History Museum. But after a difficult launch year, is virtual reality itself destined to become little more than a fossil?

The only person to have won BAFTAs for black and white, colour, High Definition and 3D programming, Sir David is no stranger to embracing new technologies.

In ‘Hold the World’, a holographic Sir David will curate a one-on-one interactive experience that will allow users to ‘hold up, peer inside, tilt and look more closely’ at fossils, bones and skulls.

Virtual Reality Relics

Bringing together video game technology with traditional TV documentary, Sky claims ’Hold The World’ will be a world’s first, although production isn’t pencilled to begin until later this year.

Sir David Attenborough in Virtual Reality

Sir David Attenborough to be transformed into a virtual reality holograph for the Sky VR/Natural History Museum collaboration (Image: Sky)

The project announced this week is part of Sky’s ongoing foray into the nascent virtual reality market. Seeking to capitalise on recent high-profile VR hardware launches, the broadcaster has been busily commissioning VR content, even releasing its own Sky VR app platform.

This isn’t the first time that the Attenborough has dipped his toes into VR: last year the venerable broadcaster designed a virtual tour of the Great Barrier Reef for the Google Cardboard Expeditions educational programme.

Difficult Reality

An estimated 6.3 million virtual reality headsets shipped in 2016, although this doesn’t take into account the many ‘free’ Google Cardboard headsets given away offering basic VR experiences. Nonetheless, it’s a disappointing return given the fever pitch leading up to the so-called ‘year of VR’.

While gaming has been a major motivator for those who have bought into virtual reality, there has been precious little else to compel consumers to invest. Despite major studios committing to VR content, little beyond novelty has stood out so far.

Interactive social content may shortly get some traction though, with details of the new Facebook Spaces VR beta revealed at the firm’s annual F8 developer conference this week.

Aside from the lack of content, the current generation of VR hardware is still primitive at best: uncomfortable, often tethered headsets feature limited motion control and frequent motion sickness.

Selling the VR vision to enterprise and professional markets has proven trickier than anticipated too. Envelop VR is one high-profile example of the difficulties faced: the heavily VC and angel-backed firm which offered virtual Windows desktop environments shed half its staff before folding earlier this year, its CEO telling GeekWire how challenging it was to figure out the best use cases for “immersive computing”.

Meanwhile, back at the Natural History Museum, Sir David remains excited about the project, describing it as ”extraordinary new step in how people can explore and experience nature, all from the comfort of their own homes”.

The veteran broadcaster has covered the story of evolution throughout his career — many will hope that Sir David’s continuing rubs with virtual reality will help speed its evolution too, lest it goes the way of 3D and the dodo.


April 13, 2017  12:09 PM

5 ways Bluetooth 5 will drive the Internet of Things

DavidMcClelland David McClelland Profile: DavidMcClelland
Bluetooth, Internet of Things, iot, Wireless

Bluetooth has come a long way since the days of flashing blue lights and embarrassing ear-wear.

Okay, perhaps the flashing blue lights are still here, but in almost every other way Bluetooth has grown-up, evolving from the frustrating hands-frees of the early ’00s to a flexible IoT platform for a connected future.

Bluetooth 5 is the latest iteration of the ubiquitous wireless standard. Bluetooth SIG – the body that drives its specification – gave Bluetooth 5 the blue green light back in December 2016 and hinted that the first compatible devices could land ‘within two to six months‘. A little over three months later and Samsung duly obliged with the announcement of the Samsung Galaxy S8, the first smartphone to support it.

So what does Bluetooth 5 do for our connected devices? How does it help developers expand the Internet of Things? And why isn’t mesh networking in the spec? Inspect-a-Gadget spoke with one of the Bluetooth team to get the lowdown on the latest version of the flashing blue tech.

3 x Specifications

The headlines for Bluetooth 5 are summarised as a comparison with the previous generation, Bluetooth 4.2 LE:

  • 2 x speed
  • 4 x range
  • 8 x throughput

Now, Inspect-a-Gadget tends to err on the side of suspicion when faced with conveniently round numbers in marketing materials, particularly when no absolute figures are given. Enter Steve Hegenderfer, director of developer programs at Bluetooth SIG, to explain:

Bluetooth 5“Bluetooth 5 is evolutionary; it includes the stuff that our members have been asking for for a long time – higher bandwidth, longer range and increased packet size”, says Steve. Pushed for specifics he responds, “Speed is straightforward: 1 Mb/s up to 2 Mb/s”. He explains that it’s actually one megasymbol per second rather than one megabit, but for our purposes it’s essentially the same. “However, you don’t get your cake and eat it – you won’t get 2 Mb/s at 4 x range”, he continues.

So, about that 4 x range, Steve…

“This is one of my religious points”, he begins. “There is no absolute range. Back with Bluetooth audio, it was 7 to 10 meters. With Bluetooth 4 LE there was an effective range of about 100 m, even further with a clear line of sight. But the range could be huge, it depended more on the radio – 350 meters was possible”. So what about Bluetooth 5? “We’ve seen experiments with a drone where range has been well over 700 meters”.

Long Range

The tests Steve refers to are courtesy of chipset manufacturer Nordic Semiconductor; in this film, the team flies a drone controlled via a Bluetooth 5 radio from the side of a hill in Trondheim to measure how far the signal reaches:

Spoiler alert: the drone operator loses his nerve way before the Bluetooth signal packs in (fast forward to the one-minute mark for the good stuff).

This is an area where Bluetooth 5 may begin to change the game: applications and devices that previously relied on Wi-Fi or proprietary protocols now have Bluetooth 5 as an option too, benefitting from its low power consumption and ease of integration. Steve is quick to stress that the real goal with the range boost is ‘whole home’ coverage irrespective of walls or (within reason) size of house or garden. In a smart home, there should be no technical reason not to employ Bluetooth 5.

Back to the final specs claim: 8 x bandwidth. Steve dispatches this with ease: 31-bytes ‘broadcasting message capacity’ before, 255 bytes now. Technically that’s 8.2258 x but as it’s still early in Seattle when Inspect-a-Gadget calls we’re willing to cut Steve – and the marketing team – some slack.

There’s some other stuff in Bluetooth 5 too, around interoperability and coexistence: channel hopping and slot availability masking means Bluetooth plays nicely alongside Wi-Fi and LTE, important in an increasingly busy wireless playground. All of this while consuming the same amount of power as the previous generation of Bluetooth.

For those rich in time and curiosity, the full 2822-page core specification for Bluetooth 5 can be found here.

Making a Mesh

One thing not included in the Bluetooth 5 specification is mesh networking. It is frequently flagged as a key topology for a robust and decentralised Internet of Things, extending the range and number of devices that can be connected, and its omission has puzzled some.

“It’s important to understand that mesh and Bluetooth 5 are two different things; mesh wasn’t in the specification to begin with. The developers architecting mesh wanted it to work with Bluetooth 4 radios, with the stuff that’s already out there today, so that a lot of devices could be mesh compatible.”

Steve points out that mesh is built on LE – Low Energy – devices, that not all Bluetooth 4 devices will be mesh-compatible. What’s more, those that are compatible will likely require firmware updates. Yet the desire to open mesh networking to as broad an install base as possible is clearly welcome.

When? “I can’t tell you”, teases Steve, “but I want to. I can say very confidently that it will be soon this year”.

Security

Security is a concern for everybody with a device that connects to a network, and IoT devices present specific challenges. Encryption and all of the other heavy lifting that comes with maintaining device and communication security means processor, speed, RAM and battery – resources at a premium in low-power, low-cost devices – all take a hit. “There is a very tangible cost”, Steve says, “but as we move forward security is going to become more and more important”.

From a specification perspective, the Bluetooth SIG prefers to take a hands-off approach, letting device manufacturers choose the level of security that they’re happy with. “Manufacturers should know their product, know their audience, and build security in from the ground up”, says Steve. “We have an out-of-band security model that manufacturers can plug into, but we leave it up to OEMs to choose the right level for them”.

Surely mesh networking mandates a different approach, though? “Security has been at the bedrock of designing Bluetooth mesh; security will be enforced.”

Internet of Bluetooth Things

For Steve, there are a couple of elements that makes Bluetooth well positioned to underpin an Internet of Things projected to grow to 48 billion devices by 2021.

“The Low Energy stuff is extremely important, but also that Bluetooth is everywhere. From a developer’s perspective, it’s cheap to implement stuff – no dongle, gateway or peripheral for a consumer to add on. That’s a big piece of it as well”.

The three major performance bumps with Bluetooth 5 come with a fourth for free inasmuch as the power requirement remains the same. Bolt on better harmony with complementary wireless protocols and the promise of mesh networking that is compatible previous generations of Bluetooth devices, and there are plenty of reasons for developers and consumers to be excited about what Bluetooth 5 brings to the Internet of Things.


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