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Galaxy Fold fix, Boris Johnson’s tech pledge and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Samsung

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Samsung fixes Galaxy Fold display issues ahead of September launch

Samsung has resuscitated its ailing foldable smartphone after making a few design tweaks to try and make it less susceptible to damage. Many reviewers who received the first samples in April ended up damaging or breaking their devices after just a few days, forcing Samsung to go back to the drawing board. While it may have fixed some of the most glaring issues, I can’t help but feel that foldable phones may need to be put to bed for a few more years until the technology matures.

The principle behind the idea is great – who doesn’t want the option of having a tablet that fits into their trouser pocket? But the reality is that many of the early reviewers said the screen felt plasticky to the touch and had a weird jelly-like area running down the centre that is needed to give extra elasticity for the bend. The Fold is also probably the thickest phone on the market and while I have always been an advocate for thicker phones with bigger batteries, when folded this thing is more than 50 per cent thicker than anything else. The outer screen also looks unrefined; when comparing it to other devices released this year I’m not sure I’d want to make the sacrifice of having to use something running at 720p resolution with massive bezels.

Huawei’s Mate X is supposedly thinner and the inward fold design looks more appealing, eschewing the ugly bezels of the Fold. But again, it will have to be covered in easily scratchable plastic that does not feel as nice to touch as glass. Corning has said it is working on a foldable version of its Gorilla Glass that could make these phones more appealing. But until that arrives I’m sceptical that the drawbacks of foldables are worth the benefits.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

PM Johnson boasts of bright future for British tech in first speech

Irrespective of politics, although mine differ from Boris Johnson’s considerably, I can’t remember feeling more despondent about a UK political event than seeing Johnson enter No 10 as PM. While putting yourself in line for the top job requires a healthy dose of self-belief, Johnson’s recent track record is of believing that whatever he says he can get away with by hiding behind his affable and engaging charisma. However, that doesn’t work when his actions, or inactions, have consequences for people’s lives.

The bright future for British tech he mentions in his speech and commented on in this news report, means absolutely nothing unless it is backed up by positive action. We know that British research is among the best in the world, but there was always the possibility that it could be sidelined by withdrawing from the EU. Certainly if we swagger out of the EU with a ‘no deal’ this equates to ‘no strategy’ and ‘no relationship’. Our participation in collaborative projects could be a thing of the past.

Not that academics would allow the relationship to cease altogether – although research is incredibly competitive, the only people who really appreciate how clever researchers are are their peers, so collaboration between them will inevitably continue to some degree. It will be more difficult if British companies and institutions are frozen out of EU projects, which is far more likely if we end up with a ‘no deal’ and probably unavoidable if we start playing hardball with the billions we are still obliged to pay as an exit payment.

So my plea to the incoming PM, without any real hope of it coming true, is for once start thinking about what you say and appreciate that these words and their subsequent actions really do have consequences. A dismissive guffaw is now no longer good enough to get out of broken promises or lies.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Shortage occupation list expanded to include more engineering roles

Demonstrating that two or three days, never mind a week, is a long time in politics, this announcement from Wednesday saw Sajid Javid announcing changes to UK immigration rules in his capacity as Home Secretary. By Thursday his support for new PM Boris Johnson had seen him shifted to the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he was promising to “prime the economy” for Brexit.

His new task is no doubt more challenging than that of tweaking rules on which UK jobs can be advertised worldwide without having to allow a month for EU candidates to apply. What’s not in question though is that the two are inextricably linked.

There’s one finding to emerge from the Migration Advisory Committee’s review of the existing Shortage Occupations List that should worry UK industry. Not only is there a lack of candidates applying for many engineering roles, but in some areas, like electronic engineering, that should be central to a post-Brexit Britain’s industrial strategy, employers reported that they couldn’t find anyone with the skills they need.

That’s not a new problem – it’s something that’s been highlighted year after year by the IET’s own skills survey and the response is often that companies are simply being too prescriptive about the specific experience they’re looking for. What they need to do, it’s said, is to be more flexible about recruiting able people then training them to do a particular job rather than throwing their hands in the air because there’s no one out there who fits the bill already and is looking for work.

Shortages like this ought to be good news for job-seeking engineers prepared to take on a new challenge and move around. Not to mention other occupations on the SOL list like IT professionals, physicists, data scientists, cyber-security experts and science teachers. The kicker’s in the small print though. Inclusion not only means that firms can avoid limiting their initial search to Europe, it also allows them to offer a salary below the usual minimum that’s required to make someone moving to the UK eligible for ‘resettlement’.

Then again, with the changes announced this week not due to take effect until the autumn and the new PM having made a do or die pledge to leave the EU by the end of October, who knows what might happen? "Taking back control" may turn out to be as much about making concessions on immigration to shore up Britain’s economy and industry as it is about tightening borders.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

PM Johnson boasts of bright future for British tech in first speech

The expression “May you live in interesting times” has become a banality in itself, yet I cannot refrain from remembering it here, with a reminder that in reality this expression, famously used by Robert F Kennedy in one of his 1966 speeches and identified by him as a “Chinese curse”, has nothing to do either with China, or with cursing: it is, in fact, a purely English creation that can be traced to one obscure 19th century British statesman.

Curse or no curse, the times the UK and the whole world are living through now are remarkable – if not always ‘interesting’ then definitely unusually hot. And I don’t just mean the continuing global heatwave whose arrival in the UK coincided, almost to the day, with the start of Boris Johnson’s tenure as the country’s new Prime Minister.

I use the adjective ‘hot’ in its third (according to my online dictionary) meaning: “filled with passionate excitement, anger, or other strong emotion,” for I do feel very strongly about the recent global tendency of electing (or appointing) aspiring buffoons (the USA and the UK) or professional comedians (Italy and Ukraine) as presidents, prime ministers and leaders of major political movements. In fact, calling this tendency ‘global’ isn’t entirely correct, for it definitely doesn’t include China, where the overwhelming majority of ‘great’ and not-so-great leaders have had an engineering background – a tradition that seems to be working well, at least on the economic level.

To be honest, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at some time in the foreseeable future Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr Bean, becomes Britain’s next Prime Minister to replace Boris Johnson who will by then compromise himself totally by breaking all his promises and constantly over-peppering his passionate speeches with colourful, yet thoroughly un-PC, metaphors.

Why not? After all, albeit it is not common knowledge, Atkinson has an MSc degree in electrical engineering from Queen’s College, Oxford – a fact that is bound to facilitate considerably this country’s relationships with Communist China and its ex-engineering leadership.

In all seriousness, however, I would not put too much faith in Boris’s (forgive my familiarity, but I had some dealings with Mr Johnson when he was editor of the Spectator magazine, and we hacks have a habit of addressing each other by first names irrespective of the position we occupy in the editorial hierarchy; besides, everyone else in the country calls him ‘Boris’) ever-so-optimistic pledges for the bright future of the British technology. With his most memorable techno experience so far being the spectacular fiasco of the proposed ‘Garden Bridge’ across the Thames, which cost British taxpayers £53m and came to absolutely nothing, apart from being aptly branded by the Guardian newspaper “an absurd vanity project for our age”, one can be forgiven for taking his techno (and other) promises not just with a pinch, but with a full bucketful of salt!

I don’t know why, but I have a premonition that Mr Johnson’s time in office won’t be much longer than the life span of his infamous Hurricane Boris namesake, which raged above the Pacific Coast of Mexico for just several days before dissipating on 1 July 1996, having caused enormous damage, the exact estimate of which is still unknown.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Tokyo 2020 Olympic medals to be created from e-waste

Awesome work, Japan. I like this! The 2020 organising committee has revealed the Olympic and Paralympic medals will be made from e-waste. The medals will be created from recycled consumer devices like smartphones, which contain precious metals containing small amounts of gold, silver, palladium, platinum and rare earth elements like neodymium and yttrium.

The medals will have the traditional circular front faces debossed with art depicting the Greek goddess of victory, while the backs are smooth and pebble-like. They measure 8.5cm in diameter.

About 32kg of gold was stripped from more than six million used mobile phones and other consumer electronics donated over a two-year period by Japanese citizens as part of the ‘Everyone’s Medal’ campaign, amounting to 79,000 tonnes of used devices. In addition, tonnes of silver, copper and zinc were recovered.

The design was chosen from 400 entries to a competition for student and professional designers. The winner was Junichi Kawanishi. Congrats!

Ben Heubl associate editor

PM Johnson boasts of bright future for British tech in first speech

I had the chance to shoot a few questions at Boris Johnson a few years ago for a Wired magazine article I wrote in which he announced the launch of the London MedCity initiative. Johnson was the poster boy for the scheme and it is perhaps unsurprising now that he talked about "gene therapy" being used for the first time to treat blindness in his speech outside 10 Downing Street. At the time of the 2016 launch, digital health and health technology stood at the centre of the debate as many new startups had just begun sprouting from the ground.

Johnson arrived at the venue, I recall, rather unprepared. He said how good he found the initiative and underlined its importance for the future etc, etc. When I asked him from the front row what he thought of ‘mobile health' and where the opportunities would lie, he appeared notably startled and stuttered until someone helped him out with an explanation – it appeared he hadn’t had the faintest clue what, arguably, one of the central parts of health technology was.

Now, I wouldn’t want to argue that political leaders need to understand technology fully to be able to govern, but it does make a difference. Barack Obama, for instance, understood the value for the workforce. Despite not being a technologist in the fullest sense, he showed great interest in understanding technology and code. Obama even encouraged Americans to give coding a try in 2013 and in 2016 pushed for the 'Computer Science for All’ initiative.

Should more political leaders become more technically savvy and know more about what's under the hood before being allowed to boast about it? Perhaps, certainly more so than in the past. If Johnson talks about satellite and Earth-observation systems, or how rules on genetic modification affect the bioscience sector, we should expect that he has at least a glimmer of an idea of what he speaks about. Another issue is that he may not have grasped the full extent of the toll that Brexit can have on the tight UK-EU R&D and science relationship, which, according to the Royal Society, has been steadily increasing in the years before the Brexit vote.

And, really, what can go wrong with a PM not known as 'particularly tech-savvy' and with an eagerness to refuse to recognise the burden Brexit has on EU-UK research collaboration? Overly ambitious promises – such as the hyperbolic pledge to deliver full fibre broadband in every home by at 2025 – may not be the worst we have seen so far.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Conspiracy theorists hijack engineering terms to spread deceit on YouTube

A seemingly innocuous research revelation with genuinely disturbing ramifications. YouTube is now arguably the world's leading dissemination engine of intelligence. Millions of people go there to learn about all kinds of things, rarely thinking to question the wisdom and integrity of what they are watching and hearing. "Hey, someone took the time and effort to film this thing – they must be right!" It's not unlike people who refuse to believe that a lot of the stories they read in the newspaper or online have been largely (or entirely, Daily Mail I'm looking at you) made up by the journalist. It's how Flat Earth idiots are gaining serious traction among the more gullible members of society (see also 'The Moon landings were faked!!!') and why we have schools in America that deny the theory of evolution and are teaching a generation of children that mankind started with Adam and Eve, that prehistoric fossils are God's little joke on scientists, and that the Bible is a non-fiction historical documentary record of true events. This is serious stuff – propagated by foolish people – and it has to be eradicated at source as quickly and as completely as possible.

Samsung fixes Galaxy Fold display issues ahead of September launch

I remain unconvinced about the pressing human need for a bloated folding smartphonetabletslab – adhering as I do to the maxim of 'just because you can, it doesn't mean you should' – but my natural curiosity is nevertheless piqued to see the final version of Samsung's beleaguered Galaxy Fold. Early-access journalists have already broken the first iteration; we'll see how they fare with the second.

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