Nokia 3310 reborn, mobile Ubuntu, Trump pledge: E&T editors’ picks of the week
E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
The biggest tech companies in the world were showing off their new smartphones at MWC this year, but all anyone wanted to read about was a new version of the 3310. Huawei, LG and Sony all showed off new devices that each in their own way demonstrated the absolute bleeding edge of mobile-phone technology. But Nokia’s rehashing of a 17-year-old feature phone was the real talk of the day. It was a masterclass in branding and public relations. Firstly, Nokia themselves didn’t even make the phone, they merely licensed their brand name to Finnish start-up HMD Global. And even the phone itself only had vague similarities with its grandad. The (colour!) screen was much larger and the phone even has a limited internet browser and a 2MP camera. Feature phones like this never left the production line. In fact Nokia themselves always produced cheap, feature-light burners for the third world, even as their attempt to break into smartphones with Microsoft floundered. This phone could very easily have been just the next in a long line of no-name devices that few would have paid attention to. But by changing the model number and getting Gameloft to make a new version of Snake, the public’s nostalgia buttons were firmly pushed. I attended MWC and I could barely get near the thing, while at LG’s booth I could just walk up and play with their new, gorgeous G6 to my heart’s content. Looking at Google’s search figures, the 3310 was by far the most talked about phone of the whole of MWC. But realistically I don’t see people putting down their smartphones and abandoning social media, apps, maps, music, videos, streaming, Candy Crush and Pokémon Go in the name of nostalgia.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
Pity the poor rush-hour commuter who opts for surface transportation as their primary means of conveyance. While SpaceX revs up to fly loaded tourists to the Moon, us mere mortals are stuck on (very much earthbound) London buses crawling along at least as slowly as the horse-drawn carriages did in Victorian times. Motorised transportation was progress, yes, but that’s not how it seems when you’re stuck in a traffic jam. The reason is simple: there are too many vehicles on the roads. One way to beat the traffic is to cycle, as I often do, but whizzing through spaces between cars and buses means inhaling lungfuls of pollutants – another side effect of all those pesky vehicles. So how best to move people around in a city where there are just so many of us? It’s a conundrum that is only going to get more acute as urban populations boom. Chris Edwards’ article on so-called smart roads in the latest issue of E&T pointed out that wireless communication could soon bring relief to us long-suffering commuters by boosting car sharing and sending vehicles along the least congested routes. What’s more, smart ticketing could allow people to move effortlessly from automated minibuses in the city centre to pay-as-you go hire cars in suburbs. Getting private motor cars off London’s roads? Now that really would be progress.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need software like Perspective to flag up potentially offensive contributions to online discussions, because they just wouldn’t exist. Sadly though, there’s probably always going to be a minority of users who actually go out of their way to upset other people rather than just expressing themselves badly. The interesting thing about Google’s approach is that it has a learning element in that it assesses how ‘toxic’ comments are based on how people have rated previous contributions. Does this mark a new stage in what sometimes appears to be a social media arms race, where those who hold radically opposite viewpoints spend much more time than is healthy out of their lives simply trying to outdo each other? If one side’s forces believe they can label the other’s opinions as toxic by piling into the rating system, where does it end except with no one being able to express a viewpoint. Moderating debates in the virtual world has been a challenge since the birth of the internet. This might not be the perfect solution, but it’s at least worth trying as a step on the road to aligning the level of discussion more closely with what would be considered acceptable in the real world. What would be simpler though, would be if people just didn’t say anything online that they wouldn’t say in real life.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Most mobiles run Apple iOS or Android, with a few running Windows, but could the next big operating system inbox Linux? Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth seems to think so. The open-source OS has a small and loyal and enthusiastic following in the desktop computer market, but could it catch on in mobiles? I found Ubuntu one of the most attractive Linux distributions but the trouble with all Linux installations is they work fine until they don't. One small problem and you're left a bit stuck, having to fish around in online forums to try to find the answer to your problem and let's face it, most people don't have the time or computer nous for that. Perhaps it can be made more predictable and robust in the mobile environment though. Our correspondent sent an exclusive report form Mobile World Congress this week.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the country needs to spend $3.6 trillion to update the country's infrastructure, so Trump's promise of $1 trillion is nowhere near enough even if it is a start. His announcement this week though was short on detail so let's hope it doesn't all go on one wall. Sorry, I was forgetting that Mexico will pay for it so it won't be a problem. We're yet to see how though; will it be through import tariffs? The US engineering sector will be watching where that $1trillion goes but right now it's equally concerned about what Trump had to say about immigration - or rather what he didn't say, as Paul Dempsey explains in his View From Washington column.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
A team led by 94-year-old John Goodenough, one of the inventors of lithium-ion batteries, has developed an all-solid-state battery cell. Goodenough, a professor of engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, says the non-combustible battery could overcome some of the major drawbacks of Li-ion batteries by offering improved cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life. It uses glass-based electrolytes and an alkali-metal anode instead of lithium. This combination doesn’t produce the dendrites or ‘metal whiskers’ that can create short circuits in liquid electrolytes, so it’s a significant breakthrough. As always, there’s the caveat that what’s achieved in a laboratory doesn’t always scale into commercial production, but it certainly looks like a development to watch.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Book review: ‘Pyjamarama Funfair’ and ‘Pyjamarama Fever’ – Barrier-grid animation from Michaël Leblond and Frédérique Bertrand
Yesterday was World Book Day, which is why you may have seen one or two witches, wizards and other strange characters rushing off to school during your daily commute; it all makes sense now, doesn’t it? To celebrate one of the most glorious days in the British calendar we featured a review of two new fun-filled children’s books on the E&T website. The books have been designed using an old graphic design method, barrier-grid animation, which allows children to transform the illustrations into moving patterns using a simple sheet of acetate. Simple but innovative. Yes, I wrote the review, but that’s not why I’m publicising it here today. These books have been written in an attempt to get children interested in reading again – which is exactly what World Book Day is all about.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
That's it, they're here, get off the roads: robot cars are officially taking over the streets of London. OK, that might be a tad overstated and inflammatory, but the news that a self-driving Nissan car took to the streets of London on Monday, guided by cameras and radars and negotiating traffic and roundabouts, in the Japanese company's first European test of an autonomous vehicle on public roads is strong evidence for the inevitability of Level 5, fully autonomous vehicles being the future of personal transportation. This is not a bad thing. The sooner, the better - providing manufacturers lock down the safer. At CES this year, E&T spoke to a number of companies active in this area, talking about the key technologies necessary to realise the fully autonomous car. We're not quite there yet, but it won't be long.
Sony Xperia Touch projects Android tablet onto any surface; Xperia Agent is voice-activated media assistant
At Mobile World Congress this week, Sony demoed two conceptual devices. First, there was the Xperia Touch, a portable projector which enables the user to show their Android smartphone or tablet display on any surface, interacting with the "on-screen" (or rather on-wall, on-table, or on-naked-torso) controls. Meanwhile, Xperia Agent is something akin to Amazon's Alexa, for those people in the world too lazy to type a search query or operate their TV remote control and who would rather shout questions and bark commands out loud in their homes at the impassive techno box sitting on a nearby shelf. Presumably this - and all products like it - is aimed at those who live alone and desperately crave some sort of interaction, human or otherwise, or those whose partner has long since stopped indulging their every whim, so now they must turn to robot assistants to service their lethargy and indolence.