Archive for Mobile

Chatbot Supports Students

Lancaster University has announced that it has launched a chatbot “companion” for students which allows them to ask almost any question about their university experience, from student life, and welfare, to academic studies and more.

Ask L.U.

The chatbot service, called ‘Ask L.U.’, was built on Amazon Web Services (voice) and delivers a voice interface that interacts with users.

The chatbot companion was designed and built by Lancaster University’s Information Systems Services (ISS) and enhances the existing iLancaster mobile app with a range of student-focused voice services.

The chatbot project also includes special facilities for disabled students, developed in conjunction with the University’s Disability Service.

Asked Students

In order to make the chatbot as relevant as possible to students, the University’s developers surveyed Lancaster University students to gauge which questions they were most likely to ask. From this information, they were able to compile a list of more than 300 queries that could be divided into categories such as learning & teaching and campus activities & social.  All of these could then be put to Ask L.U.

Access

The chatbot can be accessed via the iLancaster App on mobile phones and tablets, or by asking “Alexa, Ask L.U.” on any Amazon Echo device.  Amazon Cognito is used to authenticate user data via the Echo providing a completely personalised experience.

Whole Suite of AWS Used

The Chatbot project uses the whole suite of AWS services, including AWS Cloudwatch, AWS Virtual Private Cloud and AWS ElasticSearch.  The natural speech is provided by Amazon Lex and Amazon Alexa.

Fast and Convenient

The chatbot companion is intended to enable students to get information in a fast, easy and convenient way, and delivering information via voice activation fits in well with the packed academic and social lives of students.

Chatbots

Chatbots are now used by many organisations, in conjunction with AI, to help deal with common enquiries, to save costs and resources, to free-up time for human staff to work on other aspects of the business, and to enable businesses to offer 24-hour customer service.

There has been criticism of bots where transparency is lacking and where they may possibly lead users to believe that they are talking to a human.  This is why the state of California passed laws to make AI bots ‘introduce themselves’ (i.e. identify themselves as bots).

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Many of us are now used to encountering chatbots on websites and voice-activated digital assistants, and this innovative new chatbot from Lancaster University shows how these new technologies can be put together in a value-adding and easy to access way, and in a way that is compatible with its target market.  It may also enable the university to save time and money, and free up valuable resources, and offer 24/7 help to student users.

Bearing in mind that it has been made at a University, it is also a good way of showcasing the technology skills of the university, and the voice activation aspect means that it has been built with an eye on the future.

This kind of chatbot could also have applications in many other businesses, organisations, venues, events, and experiences, and could help improve and support services where there are large numbers of users whose experiences could be enhanced by being able to get on-the-spot spoken answers to popular questions.

Tech Tip – Save Your Passwords Securely on Mobile Devices

If you’d like to be able to save all your login credentials in a secure and safe manner on your mobile device, an app like the ‘LastPass’ password manager may prove very helpful.  It’s one of many such apps, but it’s been rated highly.

LastPass is a ‘freemium’ model password manager that stores encrypted passwords online.

– Download the LastPass Mobile App from Google Play or Apple’s App Store.

– Follow the app instructions.

– Log in with the same LastPass account to sync data between devices, or you can swipe into the LastPass app with your fingerprint for extra security.

There is a built-in random password generator so all your passwords can be different.

Your passwords can be stored and viewed in a secure vault and the app offers autofill, sharing of passwords securely, password auditing, and the ability to keep digital notes with the passwords for e.g. memberships, prescription etc.

See https://www.lastpass.com for details.

Could 5G’s High Frequency Be Dangerous?

5G may be the next generation of mobile internet that could provide new and innovative opportunities and boost to new industries, but there have been some concerns that its high-frequency mmWave spectrum could pose new health risks.

Long-Held Concerns

Ever since there have been mobile phones, there have always been concerns that prolonged exposure to low-energy, non-ionising electromagnetic radiation radio waves, the type used by current mobile phones, could increase a person’s risk of health problems such as developing cancerous brain tumours. This radio frequency (RF) radiation does not have enough energy to ionise an atom or molecule, and therefore, is unlikely to have enough energy to damage cell DNA in a way that would cause cancer.  This is the reason why recent research has shown that it is now believed to be unlikely that radio waves from mobile phones or base stations could increase the risk of any health problems.

Even though it is now generally accepted that normal use of current generation mobile phones is relatively safe, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has still given a cautious classification of RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

What’s Different About 5G?

5G is different because it will use 3 Spectrum bands, low-band spectrum (LTE), mid-band spectrum, and what some believe to be the potentially dangerous mmWave high-frequency spectrum.

The mmWave spectrum, however, is still not close to the kind of ionising wavelengths that can cause damage to DNA.  In fact, mmWave high-frequency spectrum technology appears to be quite some way from the maximum human RF absorption frequency of about 70MHz. Also, mmWave will mostly be deployed in a spectrum that suffers from high reflection rates – 24 to 29GHz.  This should mean that any absorption by the body will be confined to the surface layers of the skin rather than the deeper tissue that is reached by lower frequency radiation.

So, Is It Safe?

Based on the science of radiation, and current evidence and limits relating to mobile phone use, there’s nothing to directly suggest 5G mmWave poses a significant health risk, but 5G is not here and in popular use yet, so more research will need to be done on the subject in future.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

5G represents a great opportunity for business.  Its increased speed and lower latency allow the downloading of films and games in seconds and watching them without any buffering, and this kind of speed will allow all kinds of new opportunities for presentation media e.g. in advertising, on social media and on websites.

Many different types of businesses could benefit from improved connectivity with remote workers or with salespeople in remote areas.

Also, the news from an O2 forecast is that 5G could deliver time savings that could bring £6 billion a year in productivity savings in the UK and that 5G-enabled tools and smart items could save UK householders £450 a year in food, council and fuel bills.

Safety, however, is a major concern for all businesses, but even though 5G will use a higher frequency, there is no compelling evidence to date to show that it would pose new health risks to users.  In the UK, it will be some time before 5G networks are up and running to any significant level, and this means that there will be time for research to be conducted in areas where 5G use is at a more advanced stage.

Apple’s Video-Calling ‘Eavesdropping’ Bug

Apple Inc has found itself at the centre of a security alert after a bug in group-calling of its FaceTime video-calling feature has been found to allow eavesdropping of a call’s recipient to take place prior to the call being taken.

Sound, Video & Broadcasting

As well as allowing the caller to hear audio from the recipient’s phone even if the recipient has not yet picked up the call, if the recipient has pressed the power button on the side of the iPhone e.g. to silence / ignore the incoming call, the same bug was also found to have allowed callers to see video of the person they were calling before that person had picked up the call. This was because pressing the power button effectively started a broadcast from the recipient’s phone to the caller’s phone.

Data Privacy Day

Unfortunately for Apple, insult was added to injury as news of the bug was announced on Data Privacy Day, a global event that was introduced by the Council of Europe in 2007 in order to raise awareness about the importance of protecting privacy. Shortly before news of the Apple group FaceTime bug was made public, Apple’s Chief Executive, Tim Cook, had taken to Twitter to highlight the importance of privacy protection.

It Never Rains…But It Pours

To make things even worse, news of the bug was made public on the day before Apple was due to announce its reduced revenue forecast figures as part of its quarterly financial results. Apple has publicly reduced its expected revenue forecast by £3.8bn.  Apple’s chief executive put the blame for the revised lower revenue mainly on the unforeseen “magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China”.  He also blamed several other factors such as a battery replacement programme, problems with foreign exchange fluctuations, and the end of carrier subsidies for new phones.

Feature Disabled

In order to close the security and privacy hole that the bug created, Apple announced online that it had disabled the Group FaceTime feature at 3:16 AM on Tuesday.

Fix On The Way

Apple has announced that a fix for the bug will be available later this week as part of Apple’s iOS 12.2 update.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Apple has disabled the Group FaceTime feature with the promise of a fix within days, which should provide protection from any new attempts to exploit the bug. Those users who are especially concerned can also decide to disable FaceTime in the iPhone altogether via the phone’s settings.

Even though the feature has been disabled, the potential seriousness of allowing eavesdropping of private conversations and the broadcasting of video from a call recipient’s phone appears to have been a major threat to the privacy and security of some Apple phone users.  This has caused some tech commentators to express their surprise that a bug like this could be discovered in the trusted, trillion-dollar company’s products, and concern to be expressed that those users who, for whatever reason, don’t update their phones to the latest operating system, may not be protected.

No More Windows 10 Mobile Support – Microsoft Suggests Switching

Microsoft has formally announced on its support pages that, as of December 10th 2019, Windows 10 Mobile users can no longer expect security updates and support, and Microsoft recommends that customers then move to a supported Android or iOS device.

Windows 10 Mobile

Windows 10 Mobile is a mobile OS that was released in 2015 as the successor of Windows Phone 8.1 and is essentially an edition of Windows 10 running on devices that have less than a 9-inch screen.

The end of Windows 10 Mobile support comes just over four years after Microsoft’s failed acquisition of Nokia’s devices and services businesses, which led to Microsoft having to write off $7.6 billion in 2015.  At the time, tech commentators wondered why Microsoft had got into the low-margin, highly competitive phone business, and Microsoft shifted its strategy from the standalone phone business to a strategy to grow the Windows ecosystem.  This effectively put the writing on the wall for Windows 10 Mobile, and many tech commentators have been waiting over the years for the formal announcement for the end of support to come.

What Is Coming To An End?

In this announcement, Microsoft has said that new security updates, non-security hot-fixes, free assisted support options, or online technical content updates from Microsoft for free will end for users of Windows 10 Mobile as of December 10, 2019.

Microsoft has also stressed that, although third parties or paid support programs may still provide ongoing support, Microsoft support will not publicly provide updates or patches for Windows 10 Mobile after that date.

The announcement does not mean that Windows 10 Mobile devices will shut down with the cessation of support, but that continuing to use the devices afterwards will mean higher risks because of issues such as the lack of security updates and the phasing-out of backups.

Which Models?

Microsoft says that only device models that are eligible for Windows 10 Mobile, version 1709 are supported through the December 10th end date. Also, for Lumia 640 and 640 XL phone models, Window 10 Mobile version 1703 was the last supported OS version and will reach end of support on June 11th, 2019.

What Now?

The suggestion from Microsoft itself to Windows 10 Mobile customers is to move to a supported Android or iOS device.

Those customers who plan to keep using their Windows 10 Mobile device after the December 10th support cut-off date have been encouraged by Microsoft to manually create a backup before that date.  This can be done using Settings->Update & Security->Backup>More Options and then tapping on ‘Back up now’.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

This announcement from Microsoft is certainly not unexpected.  Where commercial customers are concerned, they have the same cut-off dates as domestic customers, but Microsoft has said that it will be working with many commercial customers to ensure a successful migration to a supported platform prior to the end of support date.

This is an acceptance and acknowledgement by Microsoft that most of the partners and customers of businesses already use Android or iOS platforms and devices.

Some commentators have suggested that the move to end support for Windows 10 Mobile may also be a way for Microsoft to clear the decks ready for the introduction of a new folding smartphone, codenamed ‘Andromeda’.  This remains to be seen.

Does Your Business Take Cash?

Cashless businesses that only take contactless card payments, such as cafes and bars may be growing in number in major cities but despite their apparent convenience for their target market, they are also attracting accusations that they are discriminatory.

Cashless Bar

The BBC, for example, recently featured a story about the Crown and Anchor pub in South London which, in October, switched to fully cashless with customers only able to use debit cards, credit cards and contactless payments including Android Pay and Apple Pay.

In the case of the Crown and Anchor pub, it was reported that the decision by the parent company, London Village Inns, to make the switch to cashless was motivated by too many break-ins where the burglars were looking for cash. A positive reaction, and other cost and time-saving benefits to the change from not having to deal with (and transport) cash have meant that four of the firm’s pubs are now cashless with two more set to follow in the New Year.

Just Being Realistic?

Is it just a case of being realistic and acknowledging that we now live in a digital age where cash use is naturally in decline?

Other businesses in the UK and other countries seem to think so.  Back in September, The Boot pub in Freston near Ipswich, Suffolk switched to only accepting card or phone payments, and many bars and cafes in UK cities such as Manchester are reported to be cashless.

Travel in other countries such as Sweden and Australia can also be near cashless experiences as contactless and phone payments take over. Also, many of the ‘trendy’ New York eateries have switched to cashless, and no longer have cash registers.

Research & Stats

Research by Ikea, for example, showed that in its stores in Sweden, only 1.2 in every 1,000 people insisted on paying in cash, thereby leading to the decision that it was financially justifiable to offer them free food in the shop cafeteria instead.

The broader statistics certainly show a decline in the use of cash.  For example, UK Finance projects that in Britain cash will be used in just one fifth of all sales by 2026, and Paymentsense has reported the removal of 4,735 cash machines in the last year.

Criticism

Although there are clearly benefits for some businesses going cashless e.g. saved time, cost and hassle in dealing with cash (no cash registers and back trips), less temptation for thieves (and resulting damage to premises),  more counter space (no tills), faster transactions and turnover, plus credit card companies getting a commission for handling the payments, there are some critical voices.

What if the card payment systems suffered an outage / and or technical problems prevent payments from being taken?  Particularly in cities, this could cause considerable chaos.

Also, in New York, cashless businesses may soon face a ban with the introduction of legislation designed to protect the poor and prevent a “gentrification of the marketplace”.  It appears that cashless businesses in New York could prove to be discriminatory and exclusionary for the impoverished, homeless, under-banked, undocumented, in a city where studies have shown that nearly 12% of citizens don’t have bank accounts.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

There’s no doubt that cashless and particularly contactless can be very convenient, fast, and beneficial for customers, business, and bank alike, when it comes to purchases of £30 and under and hence it can favour supermarkets, shops, bars and other retail and convenience outlets.

There is also a clear decline in cash itself (and ATM numbers), and an increase in the amount of debit card and contactless payments, and the use of smartphones for payments in developed economies.  We are still, however, at a point where there remains quite a lot of cash in use, and where poorer and more disadvantaged and challenged members of society, of which there are many, need to use cash and may simply not have a bank account and a card with contactless / cashless payments enabled, and therefore, may find themselves being discriminated against. Some businesses and events that deal in cash may also find it challenging and costly to convert to a cashless situation.

Cashless transactions look likely to increase in the UK, and many retail businesses may soon find themselves seriously considering whether a switch to cashless could be workable and beneficial.

02 Outage – What Happened

After last week’s major O2 4G mobile network outage which left millions of customers with no network data access has been blamed on an expired software certificate that 3rd party supplier Ericsson had installed for some customers at business-critical part of the network.

What Happened?

On Thursday last week, O2 smartphone users were unable to use their mobile phone data for 24 hours.  O2, which is owned Spanish communications company Telefonica, has the UK’s second-largest mobile network, which is part of BT, and as well as having 25 million users, it provides services for the Sky, Tesco, Giffgaff and Lycamobile networks (whose networks were also affected).  It is estimated, therefore, that the outage affected around 35 million users in the UK and other parts of Europe (and even Japan’s SoftBank).

As well as the considerable disruption and inconvenience caused to individual customers, there were knock-on disruptive effects for organisations that run connectivity services on O2’s network, including Transport for London (TfL), Shropshire Council and a number of NHS trusts. In the case of TfL, bus information display boards, part of the Countdown Systems network, stopped working at approximately 5 am. Shropshire Council reported problems with its car park payment machines, which use O2 data connections.

£Millions In Damages + Compensation Expected

The scope, severity and duration of O2’s data network outage, and the impact on the company’s reputation as well as on its users have led to reports that 02 looks likely to seek up to £100 million in damages from Ericsson.

Also, O2 has already made announcements about how it plans to compensate customers.  For example, Pay As You Go customers look set to get 10% extra when they top up their phone in the new year or 10% off when they buy data for mobile broadband devices.

Both O2 and Ericsson have apologised.  It has been reported that Telefonica’s UK chief executive Mark Evans has promised a full audit of the problem across both organisations, and Marielle Lindgren, chief executive of Ericsson UK and Ireland has said that the software that caused the issues will be decommissioned.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Modern businesses now rely heavily on stable and reliable broadband connections and data network services.  Any disruption to these can be very disruptive and costly to businesses with potentially disastrous consequences.  In this case, a whole day was lost, and the true cost to UK businesses  (and their customers) may be difficult to calculate. For O2 and Ericsson, the incident appears to have caused some damage to their reputations.

As several tech commentators have since pointed out, the incident has illustrated how complex IT infrastructure has become and how, despite this complexity, organisations must stay on top of matters relating to software certificates, particularly those in business-critical systems. This incident also illustrates how problems with machine identities at critical nodes can have a wide-reaching impact on business and the economy.

Some commentators have also highlighted how operators picking up more IoT traffic and the introduction of 5G could mean that businesses are likely to experience more outages of this nature in the future.  The incident with O2 may also make some businesses take another look at their mobile strategies, feel less comfortable putting all their communications through a mobile operator, and take steps to reduce their dependence on any single external point of failure.