CIO SA tech news round up: Google Cloud and Prudential sign a major deal, VodaPay gives away a large sum to commemorate its first birthday, and Meta releases the new Quest Pro VR headset

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Google Cloud and Prudential form strategic alliance

Prudential and Google Cloud have announced a strategic partnership to improve health and financial inclusion for communities in Asia and Africa.

Prudential will use Google Cloud’s data analytics capabilities, secure and sustainable infrastructure, and the broader Google ecosystem to accelerate its digital transformation and improve user engagement with its health and wealth platform, Pulse, as part of this alliance. This partnership provides an opportunity for Google Cloud to work with a leading insurance provider to make protection, health, and savings solutions simpler and more accessible across Asia and Africa.

Pulse is part of Prudential’s multi-channel strategy to improve access to healthcare and financial inclusion. Users can use the app to access services like health risk assessment and online doctor consultation to help them better manage their health needs, as well as digital wealth tools to help them make financial decisions. Pulse is available in 17 different markets and 11 different languages.

“Across our markets, people are living longer, but not necessarily healthier and better. Harnessing technology, we want to empower people to live well for longer by making it easier for them to take care of their health and plan for their financial futures,” says Solmaz Altin, managing director, strategic business group at Prudential.

“Through this strategic partnership, we will leverage new technology solutions to make the Pulse platform more intelligent and engaging with the aim of reaching out to more people across Asia and Africa, in particular those who cannot easily access health and financial information and services.”

VodaPay celebrates first birthday with big cash giveaway

October marks one year since the launch of VodaPay, and in celebration of this important milestone, VodaPay will be giving away a share of R1 million to 20 lucky winners between the 10 and 31 October 2022, where each individual stands a chance to win R50,000 as a cash prize that will be paid into the winners VodaPay Wallet.

Vodapay says this is to show its gratitude to loyal customers and uses of the application for the past year. In addition, Vodacom will also be giving away R50,000 in cash prizes, and offering some exciting discounts on South Africa’s leading brands.

VodaPay service and merchant offerings allow customers to access brands such as Makro, Builders Warehouse, iStore and Clicks. SMEs looking to access the market will also have an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem.

The public response to VodaPay has been phenomenal since its launch in October 2021. Users can access more than 100 mini programs in the digital mall, which has received over three million downloads in less than a year. The VodaPay app makes it easier for people to connect with technology that changes and simplifies their daily lives.

“It’s been such a fulfilling year to see the birth and growth of our VodaPay App and the amount of tremendous hard work in the development of our super app. It is for such reasons that we need to pause briefly and celebrate our overall Vodacom Financial Services successes,’’ says Mariam Cassim, CEO Vodacom Financial Services.

Mark Zuckerberg reveals new Quest Pro VR headset

At an online developer event, Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new VR headset, the Quest Pro.

Quest Pro costs $1,499 (R27,288), which is nearly four times the price of Meta’s current headset, the Quest 2, which starts at $399 (R7,264). The new headset has thinner lenses, a curved battery around the back of the head strap, and self-tracking controllers. The headset also allows users to see their actual surroundings around the screen’s periphery.

Unlike its predecessor, Quest Pro supports mixed reality, which means that digital content can be viewed overlaid on the real world. Mixed reality, according to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is “the next major step for VR”.

According to Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen, the device’s high launch price made it more suited to “high-end, enthusiast, and potentially enterprise users” rather than mass-market users.

As Meta seeks to position mixed and virtual reality as a work tool as well as a form of entertainment, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also announced that the office platform Windows 365 will be available on it.

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is betting its future on the creation of a metaverse – a virtual world in which people can conduct their daily lives as avatars while also exploring fantasy virtual spaces.

Many tech companies are developing their own metaverses, but it will be several years before any exist.

Horizons, Meta’s current virtual reality world, has received mixed reviews so far, with reports of avatars engaging in violence and sexual assault. “It will be a while before there are enough headsets out there,” says Andrew Bosworth, chief technology officer at Meta.

According to Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight, the technology is being “accelerated” into people’s hands. “There’s no demand, so why rush?” he reasons.

During the event, there was a lot of talk about virtual reality apps, some of which have proven to be very profitable for their developers, such as the VR version of the video game Resident Evil 4, which made $2 million (R36 million) in revenue in its first 24 hours.

Iron Man and Among Us were among the new VR gaming titles announced, as well as an upcoming partnership with Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming. However, there was no news about the long-awaited VR Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which some gamers were looking forward to.

Google Cloud expands to more regions and introduces new AI

Google has announced a plethora of updates to its cloud offerings, aiming to capitalise on its artificial intelligence strengths to steal market share from competitors.

Vertex AI Vision, which was announced at Google’s Next ’22 event, is one of the new services. It is designed to make it easier to use AI technology such as image recognition. According to the Alphabet Inc-owned company, there is also an AI-based service called Translation Hub that translates documents in 135 languages.

Google is also beefing up its cloud infrastructure, relying on a fourth-generation Xeon Scalable processor from Intel Corp and a custom Intel chip developed by Google. The company announced a new C3 machine series powered by the chips, as well as an updated Tensor processing unit that aids in AI function acceleration.

Customers can use the equipment to train large data sets using machine learning. According to Google, cloud users such as Snap Inc. are already benefiting from the new hardware. According to Google, that company saw a 20 percent increase in performance over the previous generation C2 machine.

The group also announced an expanded partnership with Nvidia Corp, which will deepen its AI infrastructure and work on open AI frameworks.

There is also new cryptocurrency support. Some Google Cloud customers, beginning with those in the web3 industry, will be able to pay with currencies via Coinbase Global Inc.. Coinbase Prime will also be used by Google for institutional crypto services such as custody and reporting.

“We see our collaboration with Google as an opportunity to bring web3 to a new set of users and provide powerful solutions to founders and developers,” says Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase.

Google will expand its service to six new countries: Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden. The company told reporters in a briefing that the plan is to either build data centres locally or partner with existing players in those countries. Google did not specify when the expansions would take place.

EU regulators oppose big tech paying for telco infrastructure

A group of European telecom regulators is opposed to the idea of big tech companies like Google and Netflix funding telecommunications infrastructure.

The findings of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) come at a time when the European Commission is debating whether internet platforms, which rely heavily on digital infrastructure, should be required to fund digital infrastructure such as 5G telecoms networks.

The BEREC conclusions stated, “BEREC has found no evidence that such (a direct compensation) method is justified given the current state of the market.”

The telecommunications industry has argued that because their services account for more than half of internet traffic, Google, Netflix, Meta, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple should pay for a “fair share” of telecom infrastructure.

However, digital rights organisations are concerned that if the big tech companies fund infrastructure, they will also strike deals with telecom companies to give their own traffic preferential treatment, undermining the principle of net neutrality.

In response to the BEREC findings, telecom lobby group ETNO – the European Telecommunications Network Operators, which represents Deutsche Telekom, Orange Group, Telefonica, and others – said the findings were out of date and that it would submit new evidence to the commission to back up its position.

According to BEREC’s findings, the internet has proven resilient to changing traffic patterns in the past, and ETNO’s proposals “could be of significant harm”.

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