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April 25, 2017

THE BIG NAMES MAKING BIG MOVES


There have been some huge changes to the world over the last 10 years, and this is made very clear when you look at the list of the top 5 largest companies in the world. Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Bank Of America and Citigroup are all gone, replaced by Alphabet (Google's parent company), Amazon, Facebook and Apple. Only Microsoft remains (and in the same third place as it was back then). Clearly, smartphones and what they are used for have become all-encompassing in their importance, so with this in mind, what are the biggest players planning for 2017?

Facebook
When you're a tech company in the top five biggest companies in the world, you don't need to turn up to other people's tech showcases, you simply host your own. The WWDC (Worldwide Developer's Conference) is Apple's version, while Google have I/O. Facebook have just held their annual conference, named F8 was held in San Jose this month, and they revealed some of their ideas for the future. Mark Zuckerberg is renowned for having an ambitious vision of the future, and this year's announcements were no exception - they're working on creating a way for computers to read your mind. This is something that Zuckerberg has been thinking about for at least two years, but the difference between a man worth $60 billion and the rest of us, is that he has the resources to turn daydreams into reality. As well as dreaming big, Facebook will be making a few tweaks and changes to their existing properties, which include the most popular apps in the world (for example, the number of people using Facebook Messenger is now an astonishing 1.2 billion). They'll be looking closely at both Virtual and Augmented Reality (and as you'll see below, they aren't the only ones), updating the Messenger app (because 1.2 billion users isn't enough) and working to combat 'fake news'.

Apple
Traditionally, Apple likes to wait until September before making any big announcements. Given that 2017 is the 10th anniversary of the release of the first iPhone, people are expecting something special this year, and there's already plenty of speculation about what that will be. But Apple have a bit of an image problem at the moment. After 10 years at the top, the sheen is starting to wear off a bit, and Apple are having to engage in a bit of damage limitation. What, for example, are they planning on doing with the $245 billion profit pool that they've got stashed offshore (it's unlikely to be anything on this list)? It was recently announced that in the future, Apple's phones would be made from 100% recycled materials. While this might be down to a new-found sense of responsibility, the more likely explanation is that it deflects criticism away from the fact that they don't allow people to repair the Apple products that they own.

Despite their issues, Apple remain technological visionaries, and, just like everyone else, considers Augmented Reality to be vital to their future plans. Having already reaped $3 billion from the success of Pokemon Go! apps on iPhones, Apple sees this as a better bet than Virtual Reality, as the former enhances the real world, while the latter locks you away from it. They have some interesting plans, and the option to combine this with another piece of futuristic tech that is becoming a reality - self-driving cars. The idea of Apple's design team let loose on the humble automobile would be something to get very excited about indeed, but we still need to ask ourselves how much Apple would charge for such a thing, and whether you'd be able to fix your car if it broke down.

Google

Apple aren't the only big company flirting with the self-driving car concept. Google are also on the case, and are already offering free rides in their driverless cars in Phoenix, Arizona. This is a little bit behind their co-founder Larry Page's extraordinary new toy, which looks like something taken straight out of the pages of a Batman comic. Meanwhile, Google continue to put their AI DeepMind through its paces, setting it up against one of the world's best Go players. DeepDream, an experiment to figure out what an AI network 'sees' when it looks at an image, continues to push the boundaries of both science and modern art. Even Bob Ross's Joy of Painting is not immune to its surreal influence.

In the smartphone market, Google seem to be faltering a little. While there are plans to follow up their very successful Pixel phones with newer models, there are still issues getting hold of the original. For a company the size of Google, this is a rare misstep. However, they have also recently announced two new initiatives that should make a sizeable difference. Firstly, they're reportedly putting an ad-blocking feature into their Chrome browser. Some may believe this is a bit of a strange move from the world's foremost advertising platform, but it's to protect users from other types of advertising - pop-ups, self-playing videos and the kind that hides malware. There's not much news on that yet, but speaking of news - they have also just announced an offensive against 'fake news'. How they're going to achieve this is yet to be seen, but in common with their peers, Apple and Facebook, no one could accuse them of thinking small.



April 11, 2017

GETTING THE BANNED BACK TOGETHER


It was announced last week that both the USA and UK governments have issued a ban on certain electronic devices being carried on flights in or out of their respective countries. The devices in question are any electronic items with a battery or plug, and that are more than 16cm in length. While this generally covers laptops, e-readers, tablets, portable DVD or games systems and some smartphones (the latest iPhone sneaks in by being just short of the requirements at 15.8cm long, but some other models of 'phablet', such as the HTC Ultra, are too long). While many believe that these measures are ineffective, others, particularly the airlines affected, at least have a sense of humor about things. But this is merely the latest ban on electronic devices, and while this one has very real ramifications and serious reasons for doing it, it's not the only ban out there at the moment.


From the serious, to the deliberately light-hearted - comedian Chris Rock has announced a tour entitled "Total Blackout". Part of the title has a very real application, as mobile devices will be banned from the audience. To do this, he'll be making use of a company called Yondr, who provide self-sealing pouches to venues to stop audience members recording the whole show on their smartphones. It's been an issue for Rock for a long time - in an interview conducted in 2014, Rock expressed concern that footage of him practicing jokes for a stand-up routine were being put into the public sphere before they were ready, and therefore ruining the act that would later be put together. He's following the lead of his fellow comedians, Dave Chappelle and Louis CK (although the latter's issues appear to run a bit deeper).


Sticking with showbiz news, another ban on using cellphones has been announced - but this is not for the audience, or even the stars. This is for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the accountancy firm. PwC, as you'll recall, recently took responsibility for the biggest error in Oscar history - when the wrong winner of the Best Picture award was announced. It later transpired that one of the accountants responsible for holding onto the envelopes that contain the winners had been Tweeting photos of the stars just moments before the mistake was made. Whether this was the reason for the mix-up or not, it's evident that the person in question was not concentrating on the task in hand, and next year, cellphones will not be permitted.


You might have thought that professional sports might be one of the few areas that doesn't really need to worry about smartphones on match day. But over in Australia, the National Rugby League is banning phones from dressing rooms. There is a partial concern that social media is distracting some players before a match, but the bigger issue is one of illegal betting. Because the NRL only (currently) releases the team list one hour before a match, the governing body of the league also wants to stop information that may be passed on to gamblers from the players themselves. In a similar but unrelated move, banking giant Deutsche Bank has banned employees from using WhatsApp or SMS messaging on their company phones, in order to tighten up compliance with banking rules and regulations. Since they've accrued almost $14 billion in fines since 2008, anything they can do to stop problems arising seems like a great idea at this stage.


Finally, in the historic Roman city of Bath, England, a local pub has created a stir by banning phones at the bar. Apparently, this is as a result of calls from the local drinkers, who often ask the barman to make sure that people on phones go outside. Evidently, the landlord got sick of having to do this, and banned phones outright. It's not the only pub in the country to ban phones - The Gin Tub in London has even gone so far as to construct a Faraday Cage around their bar. But to compensate for this, old-fashioned dial phones are on each table to make ordering/reordering much easier.


March 26, 2017

THE MOBILE BANKING REVOLUTION


N26 is a new bank based out of Berlin, Germany, and it's just had a really good year - their user base has just tripled to 300,000 customers over the last 12 months. It has only been around since 2015, starting life as a checking account for Mastercard users in Austria and Germany. Now they offer banking and money transfer services being offered in 17 countries across Europe and offering the full range of features that you'd expect from any other bank. But what has got people talking is the fact that this is a mobile bank, and while such things are incredibly popular in other parts of the world, Europe has, on the whole, been very slow to adapt to it. And if N26 had a good year, then UK-based Atom Bank had a really good day, signing up 5,000 users in 24 hours. So is mobile banking starting to take off in Europe? The top ten mobile banking countries by user (based on a 2015 survey) show Africa leading the way by a significant margin. The USA comes in 8th place, and of European countries, only Sweden makes the list. But is this changing, or are we still not quite ready to trust our phones with our wallets?

Using a mobile device to help with your banking has been around for a while. First adopted in Germany in 1999, people were given the option of using SMS for a number of banking-based uses. Primarily, it was used to look up account and balance information, with the SMS being a quick and useful way to provide confirmations of transfers and payments. 'Online banking' was quickly adopted by banks around the world - but this was at a time when the internet was only available on desktop computers. It would not be until 2007 and the arrival of smartphones that people would think seriously about mobile banking. But in Africa, a revolution was already underway.

The advent of mobile phones had already changed everything, especially for the pastoral cattle farmers of Kenya. With huge swathes of unconnected land to navigate, farmers would bring their entire herds to market without knowing whether there would be buyers there, or how much stock they would need. Sometimes, they took journeys that lasted for weeks, only to discover that everyone else had already gone home. Obviously, once mobiles appeared, they changed everything. Now farmers could figure out where they needed to be, and by when, how many cows to take with them and what the price would be. Phones became so integral to life so quickly, that they became an economy in their own right. In 2002, researchers at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation noticed an interesting trend - people were trading airtime as currency. In order to formalize this practice, provider MCel offered the first authorized credit-swapping platform in 2004, and by 2007, this had evolved into the first mobile-based money transfer system , M-Pesa.

M-Pesa's success was immediate and it is now the world's biggest money transfer service. The reason for its success is because it fills a need easily - namely that many people don't have easy access to banking services. Since its introduction, the difference it has made to people in Africa is clear. And now it is becoming part of life in other places, solving different problems in the same way. For example, issues of overcrowding. In the US, for example, there are on average, 144 people to every 1 ATM. In rural China, there are over two and a half thousand people per ATM, together with one physical bank branch for every ten thousand people. When the queues are that long, you need a better solution, and mobile banking has proved to be exactly that. 373 million residents of rural China used mobile banking last year, resulting in money transfers that totaled over $5 billion.

Apps, of course, have led to another great leap forward in mobile banking. But while many people are happy to use them, there is a reluctance amongst small businesses. The reasons for this are unclear - it may be that some people haven't yet caught on to the trend, or just don't trust their money with new technology just yet - and if they believe the latter, there's a lot of evidence to back them up. But it seems that this may be the direction we take in the future, whether we're ready for it or not.


March 15, 2017

LIFE IS A ROLLERCOASTER


Normally, people don't like long queues. They try to avoid getting stuck in traffic, eating too much sugary, expensive food, and when it comes to being subjected by massive amounts of G-Force against their will, then they really get ticked off. But even though you'll usually encounter all of these things when visiting a theme park, it's usually not a problem because... well, who doesn't love a theme park? Whether it's a one-off trip to somewhere really special, or an annual pilgrimage to your favorite ride, theme parks are still big business, and still growing. In fact, there are dozens of new theme parks opening or being constructed, so here's a look at some of the biggest and best.

The largest growing market in the world for theme parks can be found in the Middle East, with the United Arab Emirates leading the way. With a number of huge theme parks already, including Ferrari World and Legoland Dubai, there are several other new parks under construction, but one of the new ones is a genuinely incredible construction. With 1.5 million square feet of space, IMG Worlds Of Adventure would be the same as any other theme park %u2013 with themed zones, rides, restaurants and other attractions - but for the fact that it's entirely indoors, in order to combat the fierce Dubai heat.

The link between movie studios and theme parks is as old as the idea of theme parks themselves. Disneyland in California has been around since 1954, but has gone through a number of expansions and revamps to keep the experience fresh. When you combine this with a filmmaker who strives to make the viewing experience as real as possible, something quite special happens. That's exactly the case with Pandora: The World Of Avatar, which is opening in Florida in May this year. Who better to oversee the recreation of another world than the man who created it? James Cameron's personal interest in the park means that no details will be missed, and you'll find yourself truly transported to another world. As if that weren't enough, Disney have another expansion in the works - Star Wars. Opening in 2019, this 14 acre space in each of Disney's parks will offer a number of unique experiences, including the opportunity to rub shoulders with protocol droids on the street, and a chance to pilot the Millenium Falcon.

Over on mainland Europe, things are a little more restrained. If you're a fan of the classic children's story Heidi, for example, then I've got great news for you: there's a second Heidi-based theme park under construction in Switzerland! Being only 15 miles apart, both parks work along similar themes - an appreciation for the stunning Alpine surroundings and the simple pastoral life of those that live in them. Attractions at the new park, due to open in 2020, include milking goats, making stools and a period-set 3D journey to Frankfurt. If that doesn't quite sound exciting enough, then maybe you should head to Norway. This is where Thor's Rike is being constructed, a Viking-themed park where you can take a tour through the Norse underworld, barter at a Viking market and eat in a Viking mead-hall. I'm pretty sure taking long and dangerous sea voyages isn't part of the tour, and pillaging is probably frowned upon, but it sounds like fun nonetheless.

Finally, we visit Japan, who can be relied upon to go completely overboard with the theme park themes. The mayor of the town of Beppu, an area famed for its hot springs in the Kyushu Province, recently took to Facebook with an interesting proposal. He had created a video concept for what a theme park in Beppu might look like - and Beppu being all about the hot springs, that was what the theme park would be about. A rollercoaster made of hot tubs. Hot tubs in the cable car. A hot tub carousel. And so on, and so forth. If the video (which you can watch here) got 1 million ‘likes', production would begin on making the concept a reality. 1.8 million ‘likes' later, and things are about to get started on the world's first SPAmusement Park.


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