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productivity

Tech productivity meets Rugby World Cup streaming

New Zealand’s Productivity Commission plays down the threat to jobs from technology.

Instead, it says we need more technology to power higher productivity growth. It says this, in turn, will lead to higher income growth and the money need to pay for the things we value.

The Productivity Commission’s draft report New Zealand, technology and productivity says the available data indicates widespread jobs market disruption won’t happen any time soon.

Productivity outlook uncertain

The commission points out the future of work is not certain. It says: “There will undoubtedly be change over the next 10 to 15 years, but not at unprecedented levels”.

In other words, that’s the foreseeable future.

The Productivity Commission’s press release hints at one of the great mysteries of modern times: We’ve been using computers in business for more than 50 years. Yet the dial doesn’t seem to move much on productivity. It certainly hasn’t moved as much as the marketing and hype from technology companies suggests.

In the inquiry director Judy Kavanagh’s words: “If the rate of technological change was accelerating, you’d expect to see evidence in the official statistics, such as faster productivity growth, more business start-ups and more jobs being created and destroyed.

“But what we see in New Zealand and across the developed world is the opposite.”

Positive effects

The commission is right when it says technology mainly has a positive effect on jobs and work.

Think of, say, dishwashers. These machines let people spend less time with their hands in a sink full of plates and greasy water.

Someone has to make, distribute and sell then install dishwashers. They generally require regular servicing. These jobs are all better quality, better-paid jobs than minimum wage dishwashing.

And, let’s face it, a lot of that dishwashing was unpaid domestic work.

There’s also an industry supplying dishwasher detergent and rinsing agents.

Instead of spending time dishwashing, people can cook more elaborate meals. They can spend their time on other more productive tasks. Instead of domestic drudgery, people could get jobs.

If you look only at dishwashing, the sum of created jobs might be negative. Yet by displacing a menial task, other more productive opportunities open up.

This, in a nutshell, is why technology can displace jobs, but it can also often create as many or even more than it destroys.

We do a poor job

Back at the Productivity Commission Kavanagh says: “Technological change may pick up in the future but even so, it will take time to diffuse and affect work in New Zealand. We do a poor job of picking up technology quickly.”

You don’t need to look far to understand the truth of this statement.

Anyone who has been following the fuss about people adapting to watching the 2019 Rugby World Cup on streaming digital services instead of satellite TV can see this is on the money.

About half the population is ready to stream, close to half the population is pulling their hair out in frustration coming to terms with what is, in reality, a very simple switch from one medium to another.

Education is critical here. So is experience.

Rugby World Cup, productivity

Anyone who has spent the last decade or two using questionable services to download music and videos and then moved on to Netflix would find streaming Rugby World Cup games to be trivial.

Yet for people who have never seen BitTorrent, Chromecast or Apple TV, it can be a challenge.

There’s a clear link between the challenges Spark faces with domestic entertainment technology adoption and people at the sharp end of our economic extracting value from business technology.

Watching how this plays out with the Rugby World Cup could give us some clues about how to better leverage computers, broadband and other tools that can improve productivity.

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productivity

Tuning in to Chinese visitor technology needs

On Saturday I covered the China – New Zealand Year of Tourism Launch for the NZ Herald. The last session at the event was a fascinating panel discussion about the need for tourist operators to understand the importance of technology to a Chinese visitor and how to work with their needs.

Some highlights from the panel session:

Lisa Li managing director of China Travel Services New Zealand
Lisa Li

“Technology has a huge impact on their travel choices. From seeking information, making booking arrangements and paying. They do everything on their mobile phones.”

Lisa Li managing director of China Travel Services New Zealand, talking about young Chinese millennial vistors to New Zealand
Rebecca Ingram

There’s research showing the overwhelming majority of that millennial group has not picked up a single piece of paper media in over a year.

Tourism New Zealand general manager Rebecca Ingram

“Just over two years ago we signed an agreement with Alibaba Group.

“We wanted to get value from the Chinese market while also ensuring Chinese visitors had a good experience in the country. Part of that was us supporting a roll-out of Alipay.

…only 13 percent of Chinese visitors have credit cards. If they weren’t able to transact in the way they are used to, we would be leaving money on the table and they’d have a poorer experience when they came. “

Justin Watson, Christchurch Airport chief commercial officer

“This is the first generation that has grown up with a smartphone since the age of ten. So everything they do revolves around their phones.

“If you are in the tourism business and you’re not driving visitor experiences through that channel you are going to miss out.”

Liverton CEO Justin de Lille

“In China, there can be an app that doesn’t exist one day, it launches and three months later there are 100 million people onboard.”

Tourism New Zealand general manager Rebecca Ingram

Read the full version of Technology enhances the visitor experience at the NZ Herald.

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productivity review

Huawei P30 Pro review: More camera than phone

More a pocket camera with phone features than a mobile with a camera, the Huawei P30 Pro pushes the Android handset envelope further than any rival.

Huawei’s P30 Pro is the first phone with 5x optical zoom. It’s also the first to feature four cameras on the back. That’s five cameras all up when you also count the front facing selfie-camera. You get a lot of camera.

This should not come as a surprise. Cameras have been the key battleground for premium phone makers in recent years.

That’s because it is an area that has, until now, remained ripe for further improvement. Most other aspects of phone design are starting to look like dead-ends. One notable exception to this is Huawei’s Mate X folding phone.

All phone makers emphasise their camera prowess. Huawei pushes its skill a little harder than its rivals. The company has two main premium phone ranges; the business-oriented Mate series phones and the P series which is all about photography.

Huawei P30 Pro – everything up-to-date

When it comes to photography, the P30 Pro is, in effect, a physical compendium of all the latest digital camera trends in a phone-size box.

This year’s standout feature is the 5x optical zoom. It is more than any rival can offer. The most I’ve seen to date on a phone is 2x optical zoom.

Huawei P30 Pro periscope
A periscope makes better use of space inside the phone.

Adding 5x zoom to a phone relies on a complex periscope arrangement. To get that kind of zoom you need some depth, that’s hard to find in a phone that’s only a few millimetres thick, so Huawei used a prism to build a periscope through the inside of the phone.

The optical technology took me unawares. Periscopes are hardly new, but they are often big. Who even knew it was possible to fit a useful one inside a handheld phone and still leave enough room for everything else?

Leica

Less surprising is the Huawei P30 Pro’s array of four Leica cameras. Anyone who saw what happened to the razor blade market will know that was always on the cards from the day phone makers all had three camera models. It’s a more-is-more philosophy.

Lens number four is smaller than the others. It’s a depth-sensing time-of-flight camera. It should give better results with portrait images. The depth maps do a better job of separating the subject of a photo from the background. You get a better, more natural looking bokeh effect.

Huawei says it also plans to use this camera later with augmented reality applications. At this point I should offer a few words of caution. Phone makers are often not good at delivering on “we’re going to add this feature later” promises.

The main camera has 40-megapixel and there’s also a 20-megapixel ultra wide angle camera.

Super spectrum

Huawei adds what it calls a SuperSpectrum sensor. Most sensors divide light into red, green and blue. The SuperSpectrum sensor adds yellow to the mix. This lets in a lot more light, Huawei says up to 40 percent more. More light means better performance in low-light conditions.

The 5x optical zoom does what the name tells you. But it enables more zoom options. You can work the cameras together to get a 10x hybrid zoom mode. Push things further and there’s a an option to go all the way to 50x digital zoom.

Software

What amounts to a considerable amount of advanced camera hardware is neatly topped off with a serving of clever photography software. All phone makers talk about their devices using artificial intelligence. That’s not strictly true, not in the sense that the phones are smart enough to learn how to take better picture.

Huawei P30 Pro screenWhat the clever software can do is determine what the camera is pointing at. This could be a face, or a scenic shot with mountains in the background.

Armed with a rough idea of what is in the frame, the software can then adjust the exposure and other parameters. The whole adds up to a new level of phone camera sophistication.

It means in practice that you can often get stunning photos with the P30 Pro. Of course you can still get some naff ones too. But that’s generally down to the talent pushing the shutter button. Mediocre photographers have fewer excuses.

Screen, notch

Away from the cameras, the P30 Pro is a decent premium phone. There’s a 6.5 inch OLED screen. I can’t think of the last time I saw a premium phone screen that wasn’t ‘beautiful’, but this one also qualifies. Huawei has opted for a much smaller notch to house the front camera.

Huawei P30 Pro face recognition and fingerprint reader
Huawei face recognition and fingerprint reader

Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition. It’s fast but not a patch on the version Apple uses with the iPhone XS Max. Instead of going down that path with the P30 Pro, Huawei has opted for an in screen fingerprint reader. Maybe I could warm to this over time, but in testing, I found it hard to use and spoiled the overall user experience.

There’s an interesting approach to sound. Instead of an earpiece the front of the front of the phone turns into a speaker. To me this feels like showing off more that genuine innovation. But there you go.

Battery

At the launch function Huawei talked of getting two days battery life from the phone. Well yes, that’s possible if you don’t actually use it.

Realistically you’ll get a long, long working day from it with enough juice to order a cab home late at night. It may still turn on the next day.

In reality you’ll be charging it every night just like every other phone. The good news is that it charges fast. Half an hour gets you to about 70 percent.

Should you forget to turn the power on overnight, you can give it a solid charge while you eat breakfast. Make an extra pot of coffee and go in late if you need 100 percent power.

Huawei P30 Pro verdict

At NZ$1500, the P30 Pro is a big investment for most people. It could be worth the money if you want to spend time mastering the cameras and plan to take a lot of pictures.

If that’s not you, then you’ll find better value elsewhere, including elsewhere in Huawei’s range. You might consider the cheaper and smaller NZ$1100 non-Pro P30. It has a 6.1 inch screen, the same fingerprint scanner and less storage. There are also fewer cameras, only three on the back. It can only do 3x optical zoom.

Expect talk about devices like the P30 Pro putting the final nail in the coffin for standalone digital cameras. When it comes to consumer cameras, that happened a while ago.

The P30 moves the bar a little higher for other cameras. While I’ve found it’s still easier to get better pictures on my digital SLR, I can’t stick that in my pocket. In practice it means I pack the SLR less and less often. We’re quite not at the point of rarely using it yet.

Postscript

When I reviewed the P30 Pro, I charged the phone with a USB-C cable that I already had set up for other devices. In part that was because the phone was supplied with a Chinese power supply.

While packing the phone up to return to Huawei, I tested the supplied USB-2 to USB-C cable. It doesn’t work. This is an example of sloppiness that you wouldn’t expect to find with rival brands and goes some way to explain why Huawei’s core mobile network business faces problems.

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productivity write

iA Writer 5.2: Simple text editor, great writing tool

iA Writer 5.2 Macos white screenLeft to my own devices I prefer to use iA Writer over any other writing tool. It’s been my main word processor for the past seven years.

This might sound odd because iA Writer isn’t a word processor. It is a simple text editor app that runs on both iOS and MacOS. I have installed it on my MacBook, iPad and iPhone.

Late last year the software was updated to version 5.2. While iA Writer was already my favourite writing tool, the newest version makes for a better experience.

That’s because the update addresses the one aspect of the software I wasn’t comfortable with.

Stripped down

Unlike word processors and other fancy writing tools, iA Writer has a stripped down interface. I’m using it now to write this post on my Mac.

All I can see on the display is the Mac’s built-in menu bar across the top. A blank screen that I’m filling with my words and a small status bar at the bottom of the display. It’s the nearest digital equivalent to writing with a manual typewriter on a blank sheet of paper.

If that’s too much, you can enter a full screen mode and the menu bar disappears from sight. There’s also a focus mode that can hide everything except the paragraph or sentence you are working on.

No fiddling with iA Writer

This simplicity allows me to focus on writing. There’s a wonderful passage of text written by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams where he describes the creative ways he prevaricates with his work. It involves tinkering with fonts, type sizes, widths and so on.

The mere presence of all those options can be a distraction. iA Writer does away with it. As every long-term Apple user understands, restricting your options can boost productivity.

While, on one level, this iA Writer approach has always worked well for me, it has, at times been a problem. In the earlier versions of the software those choices were too restrictive. The text size was fixed and there was a strict monospace Courier-like typewriter typeface.

Legibility

Good in theory, but in practice we reached a point where I was struggling to read my text on the screen.

I have an eye problem and every so often have restricted vision, to get around it I need larger, clearer typefaces. When that wasn’t an option with iA Writer I found myself using different writing tools. The, now apparently defunct or neglected Byword was a solid alternative with variable fonts and text sizes.

iA Writer addressed these issues with the last two releases of the software. Version 5.2 builds on version 5. There are now three typeface choices: Mono, Duo and Quattro. As the names suggest the first is monospaced, the second uses up to two spaces and the third can use as many as four.

There’s a lot of nerdy material on the iA Writer website about fonts. It all boils down to the newer options making it much easier to read your words on the screen.

Uno, Duo… Quattro

The most recent typeface, Quattro combines the benefits of fixed and proportional spaced fonts. It is particularly easy on my eyes. Better still, it is legible if I need to read or write on a smaller screen, say an iPhone.

iA Writer has always done a good job of exporting to Microsoft Word. The latest version improves this functionality. If you want you can write documents with footnotes, tables or even inline images and convert them to Word .docx format. This is essential for my work as almost every client expects to see a Word document.

The software also integrates with other services. The only one I use all the time is the post to WordPress option. This was sometimes a little tricky with earlier versions of iA Writer but has been good since version four.

Sharing an iA Writer strength

You can also save documents as HTML, which is powerful when fixing web copy. As you might expect with a made-for-Apple app, iA Writer deals brilliantly with the internal Apple sharing functionality. They work well with the iOS Files app and on both operating systems with iCloud. One neat aspect of this is that I can draft a post on my Mac and then edit on an iPad or iPhone later. You can also link them both to Dropbox.

When I first purchased iA Writer for iOS, the price was, from memory, US$3. That was an introductory deal. It later moved to $5. Today it is US$9. The MacOS version has increased more in price, today it is US$29. Get it from the app store. You have to buy the app again when there’s a major upgrade, but the price is low enough for this to not be a deal breaker.

There is a US$20 Windows app and a free one for Android. There are trial versions at the iA Writer web site.

One last thing. iA Writer stores documents as plain text, but it uses Markdown formatting. This is a simple way of adding headers, bold, italics, hyperlinks and so on to you text. These show up in the text editor as punctuation marks. You can then create a preview to show how the document looks after converting it to HTML, Word format or whatever. It might sound off-putting, but in practice it’s easy to use.

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productivity

Emirates in-flight wi-fi: More despair than OnAir

While one trip is not enough to write a definitive review of Emirates OnAir inflight Wi-fi service, I’m not masochistic enough to put myself through the experience a second time.

So this is an anecdote, not a formal review.

My earlier plan to work at the airport business lounge was foiled by overcrowding. Plan B was to write, fact-check, polish and file my stories from my seat as Emirates flight EK448 made its way from Dubai to Auckland.

The plane has in-flight Wi-fi, so it should have been practical. It’s a 15 hour flight, which, on paper at least, left plenty of time to write and rest.

That’s not how things worked out.

Emirates OnAir options

Emirates offers three in-flight Wi-fi options on Airbus A380 flights. There’s a free 20MB download. 150MB costs US$10, 500MB costs US$16.

The 20MB free option wasn’t even enough to download the email that arrived in the eight hours since I last connected. That’s because some PR companies insist on sending journalists material as PDFs or Word documents with large embedded logos or other images.

I didn’t plan to work all through the flight so I opted for 150MB. As we shall see, this turned out to be a wise choice.

On my flight the Wi-Fi wasn’t turned on until almost an hour after take-off. By then the cabin crew were starting to serve a meal, so I waited until that was over; maybe two hours into the journey.

Simple

Connecting, logging-in and paying was straightforward enough. Two days after landing the payment still doesn’t show up in my bank account so I can’t confirm there were no price surprises. If it does show up I’ll let you know how it went.

The rest of this story is a tale of woe. Here at home I have a 1 gbps fibre connection. When I’m on the move I use 4G mobile which can mean anything between about 20 and 100 mbps. I’m old enough to remember 1 mbps ADSL and even dial-up, which during its last phase could connected at 56 kbps.

Emirates’ OnAir Wi-fi service was slower than dial-up. Much slower. It was so slow that I couldn’t even load many webpages before they timed out. This included Speedtest. Mail was slow. I normally use Apple’s Mail app. I tried to use Gmail, but, again, the page couldn’t load before timing out.

Emirates OnAir dreadful benchmark

The best benchmark I can give you is the time it took to file my first story. I use iA Writer, which produces a text file as output. The story was 5050 characters long. The file is 5k. That is five kilobytes. In other words, bugger all text. It took Emirates OnAir 27 minutes to transfer this file. That’s about three bytes per second.

To put this in perspective. Emirates OnAir sent my story at 33 words per minute. A Morse Code operator might transmit at around 13 words per minute.

It is like all the passengers on the flight are sharing a single dial-up internet connection.

That’s not the whole story. The OnAir service cut out entirely for large sections of the flight. This is to be expected. After all, Emirates publishes a map showing areas where the satellites servicing OnAir don’t operate. However, the flight didn’t pass through these areas.

Not a good look for Emirates

There’s nothing new or original when it comes to whinging about in-flight Wi-fi. The services are usually slow, poor quality and ridiculously overpriced. My point here is that it is so bad, it’s not remotely fit for purpose. Fact checking was near impossible. Sending email questions and getting answers was painfully slow.

In the end it took nine hours to do a job that might normally take me 90 minutes.

One last point. Even though I was using OnAir full tilt for about nine hours of a 15 hour journey, I only used about a third of the 150MB data allowance. This means there’s no point buying the 500MB plan, you simply can’t use it.

Like it says at the start, this is based on a single experience, it’s not a definitive review. Even so, Emirates OnAir is, at best, a marginal proposition.