Practice PowerPoint Presentations … Anywhere!

Microsoft has announced that its PowerPoint Presenter Coach is now available on all platforms.

Presenter Coach

Presenter Coach, first introduced in PowerPoint for the web, helps the user to practice their presentation skills. The app utilises AI to give users useful feedback on their pace, use of monotone pitch, use of filler words, poor grammar, lack of originality, use of sensitive phrases, and more while they rehearse their presentations. Also, at the end of each rehearsal, Presenter Coach gives the user a Summary Report which highlights the important pieces of feedback to give valuable, practical guidance, thereby showing the user exactly how to improve their presentation skills and become a confident presenter.

Available On All Platforms

Whereas PowerPoint Presenter Coach was only previously available on the web, Microsoft has now announced that it is now available on all platforms – the web, Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.  This gives users total flexibility about when and where they use it (e.g. it can now be used on the go).

3 New Critiques

Microsoft says that in addition to making its PowerPoint Presenter Coach available on all platforms it has also been given three new ‘critiques’. These are:

– A new capability that leverages the video camera to give a user feedback on their body language.

– A feature that identifies and lists repetitive language i.e., the words and phrases that a person may use too frequently. Presenter Coach then offers a list of synonyms that could be switched with them in the next presentation to keep the audience more engaged with the subject matter.

– Advice about correct pronunciation of words used during the rehearsal of a presentation.

Privacy

For those concerned about privacy on the app, Microsoft says that Presenter Coach does not save any video or audio data from rehearsal presentations.

Recently

Recently Microsoft has been announcing new features to help its ‘Teams’ remote/collaborative working platform compete with other platforms like slack and Zoom which became particularly popular during the lockdown restrictions.  One other service that’s recently been introduced by the tech giant and uses AI (like Presenter Coach) is a Custom Neural Voice, Text-to-Speech (TTS) feature in Azure Cognitive Services which allows companies to develop their own custom ‘brand voice’.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Presenter Coach has already proven itself to be a fresh, useful feature on desktop and as part of several improvements Microsoft made to 365 it’s provided a whole new dimension to PowerPoint which is a popular business program that many thought needed a lift.  Making Presenter Coach available on all platforms gives it extra value, relevance, and flexibility as it enables it to be used on the go which is likely to appeal to many business users.
Lockdown restrictions and social distancing have also made it difficult for users to test their presentation in front of audiences and other contributors (colleagues and friends), so having an expert ‘coach’ on hand at all times could prove particularly helpful to users at this current time. 

This story also illustrates how AI is being introduced more into standard programs in ways that adds real value to users and prolongs the commercial life of those programs as well as creating new opportunities for even more innovation.

Live Captions Expanded To Chrome Web Browser

Google’s real-time Live Captions feature is now available to anyone using a Chrome web browser instead of just for Pixel phone users.

Live Captions

Live Captions is an accessibility feature that uses machine learning to generate (on-device) real-time captions for videos or audio. The feature enables those in a noisy environment, trying to keep the volume down, or those who are deaf or hard of hearing, to follow along with whatever content they are watching.

Live captions had previously been a feature on (Android) Pixel 4 phones (2019), and in August 2020 Google extended Live Caption for Calls on the Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4 and 4a.

Now on Chrome Everywhere

Now Chrome users on any device can enable Live Caption and generate real-time captions for media with audio on the browser. The feature works across social and video sites, podcasts and radio content, personal video libraries (e.g. Google Photos), embedded video players, and most web-based video or audio chat services.

Google says that Live Captions currently supports English and is available globally on the newest release of Chrome on Windows, Mac, and Linux devices.  The feature will also be coming soon to ChromeOS.

Enabling Live Captions

To turn on Live Captions in desktop, Chrome users need to go to Settings, click on the Advanced section, and go to the Accessibility section and switch the ‘Live Caption’ toggle to ‘on’.

Other Accessibility Features

Back in October (National Disability Employment Awareness Month), Google highlighted many other new and existing accessibility features in Chrome Browser and Chrome OS. These included the ability to change the cursor to improve its visibility on Chrome OS, change the background text in select-to-speak to make it easier to focus on the spoken text, as well as Voice Switching to change the screen reader’s voice based on the language of the text being read in the ChromeVox screen reader.  Google also highlighted the feature that enables users to change the size of everything on the website they visit (content and font sizes), zoom, and magnify feature for the entire screen/specific parts of the screen, and a number of useful extensions.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

One billion people, or 15 per cent of the world’s population, have some form of a disability (The World Bank, Disability Inclusion Overview), and 466 million people in the world are deaf or hard of hearing.  It makes financial sense, therefore, for businesses, like Google, to reach an additional 15 per cent of people and improve ROI. Also, inclusivity and meeting the needs of diverse populations is a good business strategy today, especially for a global business that deals in large numbers.  Given that this feature had already proved itself on the phone version of the browser it was only a short step to introduce it to desktop and obtain a big boost in value and good publicity for Google. Incorporating accessibility features of this kind in services is not only good for revenue, reputation, and user convenience, but it also helps fulfil legal obligations and can be another source of competitive advantage.

This feature also has applications beyond serving those with hearing challenges as it recognises that many modern human and situational environments can be noisy or require people to be quiet while working and/or browsing the Internet, and that people may even be doing two things ate once (e.g. listening to music and browsing the Internet). This gives the feature even greater value to a wide range of users.

Ransomware Payouts Tripled Last Year

The Ransomware Threat Report 2021 from Unit 42 shows that the average amount paid by ransomware victims tripled from 2019 to 2020.

Ransomware

Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts the important files on a computer and the user (often a business/organisation) is given a ransom demand, the payment of which should mean that the encrypted files can be released. In reality, some types of ransomware delete many important files anyway and paying the ransom does not guarantee that access to files will be returned to normal.

The Palo Alto Networks, Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report shows that the average ransom paid by a victim organisation in Europe, the US and Canada trebled from $115,123 (£83,211) in 2019 to $312,493 (£225,871) in 2020.  The report showed that, over the same period, the highest value ransom paid doubled from $5m (£3.6m) to $10m (£7.2m), and the highest extortion demand grew from $15m (£10.8m) to $30m (£22m).

Why?

Some of the main reasons for the increase in ransomware attacks and the increase in the amounts paid to attackers are thought to include:

– Attempts to exploit vulnerabilities/opportunities created by remote working.

– Businesses not having effective data backup procedures in place (no recoverable, workable backup).

– Costs of downtime perceived as being greater than the cost of paying the ransom. Paying the ransom, however, very often does not lead to release of the files.

– The growth of ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS), where criminals can buy or act as affiliates and rent subscription-based ransomwares (on the Dark Web) from which they earn a percentage of each ransom payment. For criminals, this method offers a low technical barrier to entry and a high affiliate earning potential.

– A growth in a more focused and thorough kind of ransomware attack where victims are researched, and their networks are compromised in advance.

Key Targets

Some of the main targets of ransomware attacks last year noted by the report include healthcare organisations, leading pharmaceutical companies, and COVID-19 vaccine research and development organisations. For example, last October, Philadelphia company eResearchTechnology (which makes software used to try and develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments) was hit by a ransomware attack.  Employees were locked out of systems and the attack had a knock-on effect that was felt by IQVIA, the research organisation helping with AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine trial, and Bristol Myers Squibb, a drug-maker involved in the development of a quick test for COVID-19.

Double Extortion

As if these types of targeted attacks haven’t been dangerous enough, the report highlights how so-called ‘double extortion’ attacks have been on the rise.  This is where, in addition to demanding a ransom to release data files, the criminal also threatens to leak some of the files/data unless the ransom is paid.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Ransomware attacks tend to arrive in phishing emails, so it is important that staff are aware of the dangers of clicking on suspicious links. Also, staff should be wary of Microsoft Office email attachments that advise the enabling of macros to view the content, a this can be a sign of a ransomware email.

This story also highlights the importance of making sure that data is regularly and securely backed up (to a cloud-based service) and that disaster recovery and business continuity plans have procedures for ransomware attacks built-in to them. Businesses should also note that paying the ransom is a high-risk option and certainly offers no guarantee that any files will be unlocked/returned.

Other precautions that businesses can take to guard against these kinds of attacks include keeping antivirus software and Operating Systems up to date and patched (and re-starting the computer at least once per week), using a modern and secure browser, using detection and recovery software e.g., Microsoft 365 protection and Windows Security, and storing files on cloud services e.g. OneDrive/Google Drive, IDrive, or whatever work-based cloud file storage systems employees are required to use.

Featured Article: How Search Engines Are Dealing With Fake News

Fake news has become pernicious and widespread so in this article, we look at how the search engines are facing up to the enormous challenge of separating the real from the fake.

Challenges

Those trying to combat the spread of fake news face a common set of challenges, such as those identified by CEO of OurNews, Richard Zack, which include:

– There are people (and state-sponsored actors) world-wide who are making it harder for people to know what to believe (e.g. through spreading fake news and misinformation, and distorting stories).

– Many people don’t trust the media or don’t trust fact-checkers.

– Simply presenting facts doesn’t change peoples’ minds.

Other challenges include:

-‘Confirmation bias’ in humans means that we like to read stories that confirm our existing beliefs. This means that there will always be belief in many fake news stories.

– Young people (large users of social media) may be more susceptible to seeing and believing fake news according to research (Stanford’s Graduate School of Education). Most 18-to-24 year-olds consume news via social media.  For example, half of teens (54 per cent) get news from social media, and 50 per cent get news from YouTube (CommonSense 2019) and research in 2020 found that over a quarter of 18-to 24 year-olds get their new from Instagram, 19 per cent from Snapchat, and 6 per cent from TikTok. With social media platforms also battling against a tide of fake news, this is a real challenge that extends beyond search engines.

– Fake news is attractive and often seems more interesting than truth.

– People find it difficult to spot fake news.

Search Engine Algorithms Promoting Fake News?

Another less obvious challenge that some search analysts have highlighted how search engine algorithms may promote sensational fake news above real stories and may also, therefore, be profiting from showing them.  The thinking behind it is that people are simply drawn to click on links to stories / information that look sensational or controversial. When the links are clicked-on, this tells the search engine algorithm that the link was relevant to the search query (i.e. the search engine algorithm awards it ‘link relevance’).  If this link is clicked on enough times by others and receives more link relevance, it will move up the search engine rankings and be given greater prominence, even though the page content may contain fake news. This positive feedback loop can, therefore, ensure that even a fake story can keep getting served, clicked upon, and ultimately become circulated and believed as truth.

Making Money

In addition to getting revenue from adverts, search engines also track user behaviour and sell the data through real-time bidding and ad-driven search engines are able to show better metrics if they reward clicks on enticing links. This mean that links to sensational fake news stories and videos can drive (and be good for) search engine revenue rather than for the user who ends up reading fake stories. In short, it can be in a search engine company’s interest to simply show users what they want to read or watch, some of which may be fake.

What Are Search Engines Doing About The Problem?

Taking Google as the main example, search engines are keen to tell users what they are doing to combat the problem of fake news.

How Google Fights Disinformation – 3 Principles

Back in 2019, when the impact of fake news had been felt both in US elections and in wider society in what had been dubbed a ‘post-truth era’, Google (in its ‘How Google Fights Disinformation’ White Paper) laid out three foundational principles for how it would be tackling the spread of fake news / misinformation in Google Search, Google News, YouTube, and the company’s advertising systems going forward. These are:

1. Make Quality Count.  Google says that its “ranking algorithms” treat websites and content creators fairly and evenly, but they also ensure the usefulness of Google’s services, as measured by user testing, and don’t foster the ideological viewpoints of the individuals that build or audit them.

2. Counteract Malicious Actors. For this, Google admits that “Algorithms cannot determine whether a piece of content on current events is true or false, nor can they assess the intent of its creator just by reading what’s on a page”.  However, Google policies across Google Search, Google News, YouTube, and its advertising products clearly show what is prohibited and company says that it has “invested significant resources” in combatting deliberate ‘spam’ practices designed to deceive and get greater visibility for content.

3. Give Users More Context.  This involves Google users being shown “Knowledge” or “Information” Panels in Google Search and YouTube, providing high-level facts about a person or issue, using labels to show that content has been fact-checked, as well as offering users the chance to see “Breaking News”, “Top News” shelves, and “Developing News” information panels.

Google also says that it has teamed up with outside news experts and dedicated “significant resources” to supporting quality journalism. For example, this includes launching the Google News Initiative (GNI) in 2018, participating in and providing financial support to the Trust Project (http://thetrustproject.org/), partnering with Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), and supporting the work of researchers who explore the issues of disinformation and trust in journalism.

Bing

Back in 2019, a Stanford Cyber Policy Center report found that Bing’s SERPs contained dubious information more often than Google’s, and that “Bing returns disinformation and misinformation at a significantly higher rate than Google does”.

Nevertheless, Bing appears to have been tackling fake news / disinformation / misinformation in similar ways to Google.  For example, Bing introduced fact-checking labels as far back as 2017.

In April 2020, as part of an announcement about how it was promoting trusted information in response to COVID-19, Microsoft outlined many of the ways that it tackles misinformation generally.  For example, Microsoft highlighted how curated resources were being used across Bing, LinkedIn, Microsoft News and Microsoft Advertising, and how Bing could prioritise trusted news sources and could use algorithmic defences against certain types of misinformation.

COVID-19 Medical Misinformation Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the dangers of fake news into even sharper focus as medical misinformation became a very serious threat. To help counter this, Google announced (2020) that it was investing $6.5 million in funding global fact checkers to focus on coronavirus misinformation.  Google’s YouTube also introduces a policy to tackle any content that contradicts WHO advice.

Also, in response to health misinformation (COVID-19), Microsoft created COVID-19 information hubs in 53 markets globally, with an experienced team editing content from more than 4,500 of its “trusted” news brands.

Automation and AI

Many people now consider automation and AI to be an approach and a technology that is ‘intelligent’, fast, and scalable enough to start to tackle the vast amount of fake news that is being produced and circulated.  For example, Google and Microsoft have been using AI to automatically assess the truth of articles.  Also, initiatives like the Fake News Challenge (http://www.fakenewschallenge.org/) seeks to explore how AI technologies, particularly machine learning and natural language processing, can be employed to combat fake news and supports the idea that AI technologies hold promise for significantly automating parts of the procedure human fact-checkers use to determine if a story is real or a hoax.

However, the human-written rules underpinning AI, and how AI is ‘trained’ can also lead to bias. Whilst AI can do many amazing things, it is also not yet at the stage where it is able to exercise anything like human judgement as this is based on past experience and gathered knowledge.  This means that AI is not yet the single main way to tackle fake news at scale, although it is certainly helping.

Looking Ahead

Whether search engines benefit from fake news content or not, the problem of the spread of fake news goes way beyond search engines.  Social media companies are also involved in an ongoing battle to tackle the problem, as are other national and global new media outlets of all kinds. Much of the focus of the fake news problem has actually been on social media companies (e.g. Facebook), who have also introduced their own measures to tackle it (e.g. fact checking and introducing their own curated news).  The fact is that to tackle fake news involves wide co-operation, collaboration, and initiatives between multiple entities such as fact-checkers, civil society organisations, researchers, media and tech companies, government agencies and more to bring about a bigger societal change in the right direction.

Tech Tip – How To Wipe Your Phone Or Laptop Before Selling It

If you would like to sell a phone, laptop, tablet, or other device, but would like to know how to completely wipe it first, here’s how:

Firstly, make sure you’ve backed up things like your photos, other important files, and WhatsApp chats. Next:

Windows Laptops

– Type “Reset” into the Start search box and select “Reset this PC”. If this option doesn’t show, look in “Settings” under the “Recovery” tab.

– To wipe all storage drives, on the next page, click “Change Settings” and change the Data Erasure slider to “On”.

MacBooks and Macs

– Reset the system and press the Command + R keys together to load the recovery menu.

– Select “Disk Utility” (the system drives will be displayed).

– Right-click and select Delete on each applicable drive apart from the MacOS install partition.

– Return to the Recovery menu or reset and use the Command+R shortcut from a fresh start-up, and select Install MacOS.

Google Chromebooks

– Press Ctrl, Alt, Shift, and “R” together from the login screen to bring up the “Powerwash” box, or, from “Settings”, select “Advanced” and scroll down to “Powerwash”.

iPhones and iPads

– Go to the “Settings” menu, then the General sub-menu.

– Use the Reset option, and the “Erase All Content and Settings” control. To do this, you will need to use your Apple ID password.
Android Phones and Tablets

– Go to the “System” part of “Settings” and find ‘Reset Options’.

– Choose “Erase All Data” (Factory Reset), or similar and follow the prompts. You will need your unlock PIN.

Tech Insight: Are Macs Really More Secure Than PCs?

Apple Macs have long had a reputation for being more secure than PCs but where does this idea come from and is it really the case?

How Did It Start?

Apple itself supported the idea that Macs didn’t get computer viruses until (in 2012) it was noted that the claim was removed from its “Why You’ll Love a Mac” web page. 

Mac Users

There are also successions of fan-like owners who, judging by their online comments and based on their own experiences, would support the idea that their machines have never had a virus. Historically, more ‘user-friendly’ and more aesthetically pleasing, Macs were also the domain of those in design professions and/or ‘non-techie’ people rather than those using banks of much lower priced PCs as daily office workhorses and business tools that required them to be online more often, getting more exposure to viruses and threats.

Although less technical users may find the macOS platform easier to navigate and to keep safe, this can lead to perception that few safety precautions need to be taken, thereby weakening safe user behaviour.

Fewer Macs

There are far fewer Macs in use than PCs.  For example, looking at the OS market, although macOS’s share grew from a tiny 2.26 per cent in 2003 to more respectable 10.18 per cent July 2019.  This could mean that:

– If Windows accounts for 90 per cent of the market, it makes sense for cyber criminals to target the majority, and that this could mean that there are fewer Mac-focused cyber threats.

– If there are fewer Macs, owners may simply be enjoying a degree of ‘security through minority’.

Operating System

Apple’s macOS is based on Unix.  This is generally accepted as being more difficult to exploit than Windows. That said, the level of security for Apple’s macOS may depend on which version it is.

Macs Under Attack

There is (what appears to be) a mistaken perception that Mac’s don’t get viruses. In fact, contrary to popular belief, now that Macs are becoming more popular, they have become more of a target for cyber criminals. Examples of Mac threats include the Flashfake botnet, the Koobface worm, and Mac Defender malware, Silver Sparrow malware, Pirri/GoSearch22 adware,ThiefQuest/EvilQuest ransomware and LoudMiner/Bird Miner crypto-mining software.

Larger Threat Growth For Macs

As highlighted in the Malwarebytes (annual) State of malware report (February 2020), the growth in attacks on Apple endpoints is outpacing the threats targeting Windows machines.  Kaspersky figures also show increasing dangers for Mac users. Early last year, Kaspersky reported that two years on from its detection, Shlayer Trojan malware attacks one in ten macOS users, and it accounts for almost 30 per cent of all detections for the macOS.

System Vulnerabilities?

In comparison to Windows users, Mac users seem to suffer less from threats that exploit system vulnerabilities without the need for downloads.

Speed of Security Fixes

In the past, there have been reports of Apple being slow with security fixes (e.g. its patch for 2012’s Flashback exploit taking almost 50 days to be ready for distribution) to macOS users and even then, only being made available for those running macOS Snow Leopard and macOS Lion. If there has been any lack of urgency in the release of security patches and updates for the macOS it may simply have been down to a historically lower threat presence compared to PCs.

Browser Security

In the light of the increasing rate in attacks on Macs, Apple’s Safari browser has been updated to block ads and (unwanted) pop ups. However, third-party browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox may be considered to be more secure, especially against the newest threats, because Safari appears to have a slower update cycle.

Threats To Both

It should be remembered that both Mac and PC users also share common threats which aren’t linked to which flavour of computer an OS they have.  These threats include phishing scams and other social engineering attacks, spam, human error of the Mac or PC user, and the threats of theft or loss of the Mac or PC.

Whether a Mac or PC user, clicking on a link or downloading an attachment in a suspicious email can mean an equal risk of falling victim to malware.

Taking Precautions

Mac and PC users should always take precautions to reduce the risk of viruses and attacks.  These include:

– Keeping anti-virus software up to date and making sure that all the latest patches and updates have been installed.

– Not clicking on suspicious links or downloads in emails.

– Making sure that (staff) users are aware, educated and trained in spotting and dealing with cyber threats, scams, social engineering attack behaviour (on and offline) and more.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Macs and PCs are both vulnerable to attacks and threats and the increasing popularity of Macs means that threats towards them are growing. Users of both Windows and Mac operating systems should always stay up to date with measures that ensure that their systems are protected and should make sure that staff are educated, trained, and motivated to spot and deal with threats in the right way. 

Mac users may can check the advice on Apple’s website about features (found in System Preferences) that help protect Macs and the personal information of users from malicious software/malware, such as that embedded in harmless-looking apps.  See: https://support.apple.com/en-gb/guide/mac-help/mh40596/mac

Two ISPs Helped Secret Government Web Spying

Using the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016, it has been reported that a recent government test of tracking users’ web histories has been helped by two ISPs.

The Investigatory Powers Act

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (also known as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’) became law in the UK in November 2016. It was designed to extend the reach of state surveillance and requires web and phone companies (by law) to store everyone’s web browsing histories for 12 months and to give the police, security services, and official agencies access to that data when requested. The Charter also means that security services, government agencies and police can hack into computers and phones to collect communications data in bulk and that judges can sign off police requests to view journalists’ call and web records.

Back in December 2018, human rights group Liberty won the right to a judicial review into the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. It was decided that there must be suspicion of a serious crime (one with a 12 month or more sentence) for the government agencies and police to request browsing history records.

ICRs

The records of ‘metadata’ that ISPs/telecoms companies are required to collect and store about users are called Internet Connection Records (ICRs). These show which websites a person has visited, the relevant IP addresses, and how much data they download, but do not show which pages within a website that a person visited.

Latest Trial

The latest trial of the new powers under the Act is reported to have involved the Home Office, the National Crime Agency, and two unnamed ISPs.  The ISPs involved cannot identify themselves because the law prevents them from disclosing the existence of a data retention notice to anyone else. Reports indicate that the trial is small in scale and is still in its early stages.

Issues

The trial has brought criticism that has highlighted the many issues around collecting data about everyone’s web activities.  For example:

– Privacy. The blanket mass collection of Internet histories in the hope that something will be found in it seems like an unnecessary level and type of surveillance that impacts on privacy.

– Compromising the role and values of ISPs. Commercial companies such as ISPs that need to protect customers are being made to act as an extension of government agencies, thereby being forced to compromise their role in a way that may erode customer trust.

– Security. Storing browsing histories for a year has raised concerns about how securely they are stored and what extra level of risk this poses to customers.

– Transparency. The law does not allow the disclosure of which ISPs are involved in the test, plus it is not clear how often this could happen, or whether it is necessary or proportionate.

– Oversight. There have been questions about who/what is overseeing the process.  This has led to the Investigatory Powers Commission announcing plans to appoint 13 judicial commissioners for independent oversight of any surveillance.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The popular justification for the introduction of the Investigatory Powers Act (Snooper’s Charter) was to improve UK’s ability to spot and foil potential terror plots, and a qualification for agencies requesting a user’s browsing records/history should be suspicion of a serious crime.  With a lack of transparency and questions about oversight, this has increased mistrust about what could be happening under this law and how the vast majority of law-abiding people are still essentially under surveillance while ISPs  (with whom customers may think they have a normal business arrangement) are obliged by law to secretly pass customer data to government and law enforcement agencies. While national defence matters are important, for some, the Investigatory Powers Act feels a bit too much like ‘Big Brother’. Some people argue that if a person has nothing to hide, they have nothing to worry about while others argue that this attitude simply gives the green light to the erosion of hard-fought rights that could have consequences for everyone further down the line.

Remote Working, The New Norm. Er, Is It?

After Liz Truss’s (the UK’s Minister for Women and Equalities) suggestion that flexible working should be standard appeared at odds with the Prime Minister’s views, will remote working be the new norm … or not?

February – The Prime Minister

In February, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said (while on a rail industry conference video call) that he believed that workers would return (all being well) to their physical workplaces in “a few short months” and that he did not believe that the future new normal would be characterised by people not moving around and commuting and simply doing things remotely.

Views Shared By Goldman Sachs Boss

The CEO of investment bank Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, who moonlights as DJ D-Sol, appeared to agree with Prime Minister Johnson’s view, saying of home working (at a Credit Suisse conference) “And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”.  Mr Solomon justified this view by saying that remote working isn’t compatible with the innovative and collaborative apprenticeship culture at the bank and remote working would mean that new employees would miss out on things like “direct contact, direct apprenticeship, direct mentorship”.  JP Morgan is also understood to support the idea that remote working could mean a lack of mentoring for young staff and that remote working can lead to a drop in productivity on Mondays and Fridays.

Liz Truss

Liz Truss’s recent comments, just ahead of International Women’s Day, that employers should make flexible working (including remote working and job sharing) a standard option to help level the digital divide appear to be at odds with those of the Prime Minister. The Minister argues that the pandemic has led to “changed mindsets” and that allowing flexible working as the norm rather than by special request could help open up employment opportunities to workers, regardless of their sex or location.

Research Supports Remote/Flexible Working

Research from Cardiff and Southampton Universities shows that 90 per cent of UK people who worked remotely during the pandemic would like to continue to stay away from the office.  Also, research by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and the jobs website ‘Indeed’ shows that job ads that explicitly offer flexible working would increase applications by up to 30 per cent.

Hybrid Model

It is likely, however, that many businesses may opt for a ‘hybrid’ model of working in the near future.  For example, according to research (Feb 2021) by global human resource consulting firm Robert Half, 89 per cent of UK businesses expect hybrid working trends to become permanent.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For many service-based businesses, switching to remote working during the pandemic led to several discoveries (such as the idea that they can continue to offer a good service), many employees like remote/flexible working (due to its compatibility with the real work/life balances and challenges), and some businesses have discovered that it allows them to reduce costly office space.  For example, HSBC is cutting its office space by 40 per cent and Lloyds is cutting its office space by one fifth. In many sectors (e.g. the hard-hit hospitality sector) flexible and remote working is not an option and for some businesses (e.g. Goldman Sachs) there are clearly concerns about how physical separation could affect the development and training of staff. Looking ahead to the near future and with predictions that COVID-19 is essentially here to stay, many businesses look set to go for a hybrid solution to working where possible.

Featured Article: Getting The Most From Spotify

If you like the streaming music platform Spotify and sound quality is really important to you, here are some ideas and tips for how to get the best listening experience.

Disclaimer

Firstly, the disclaimer.  This article in no way endorses, recommends, or favours Spotify over the many other audio streaming services that are available such as Amazon, Apple Music, Tidal, Primephonic, Deezer, Qobuz and more.  This is merely written to highlight ways that users of this particular (popular) streaming service can improve their experience.  Many points could apply to other music streaming services.

Spotify

Subscription music streaming service Spotify has 155 million premium subscribers and 345 million monthly active users. Spotify has a massive music catalogue with more than 50 million songs, with around 40,000 being added every day. In recent times and in a move to improve user engagement and get away from a reliance on music licensing, Spotify has been investing very heavily in podcasts.  There are now 2.2 million podcasts available through the platform and with the pandemic, podcast consumption is reported to be up by around 100 per cent compared to the same time last year.

Compression

Audio files are very large and in order to be able to reduce the size and the bandwidth required by audio files and to minimise data usage, audio files need to be compressed.  Lossless and lossy are the main types of compression for audio.  The difference is that lossless compression (as the name suggests) squeezes the file size without taking anything away from it (it’s a near-perfect copy), and lossy removes elements from the audio file in a way that may be almost imperceptible to the listener in order to shrink the file.

Bitrate

With Spotify being an audio streaming service, the bitrate also affects how a listener perceives sound quality.  Bitrate is the number of bits per second that can be transmitted along a digital network and a higher bitrate generally delivers better sound quality.

The highest bitrate supported by Spotify (for its Premium customers) is 320 kbps. Even lossy audio files can sound the same as lossless to listeners if the bitrate is high enough.

For most devices, the tiered default bitrate for Spotify’s ‘Automatic’ settings  are thought to be 24 kbps (for low), 96 kbps (for normal), 160 kbps (for high), and for very high, 320 kbps.

Wi-Fi

The quality of the Wi-Fi signal also affects data transfer and, therefore, could impact on the bitrate.  In short, a better, stronger Wi-Fi signal can contribute to a better music streaming experience.  It is worth remembering that Wi-Fi signal quality is affected by many factors including how many other networks are on the same Wi-Fi channel, how many users in the building are using the Wi-Fi signal (same network), the data rate of the backhaul network that connects the Wi-Fi network to the Internet, and more.

Speakers and Headphones

Once the Spotify audio is delivered to the subscriber via their receiving device, the type and quality of speakers or headphones is another factor that can impact on a Spotify user’s experience.

Spotify Connect

The Spotify Connect service, available to Premium customers, enables users to stream songs over wi-fi (no Bluetooth pairing) to any compatible audio product in the user’s home (e.g. wireless speaker, soundbar, AV receiver or smart speaker) with just two presses of a button, rather than listening just via mobile or desktop. Spotify refers to these as Connect-enabled speakers.

Listening to streamed music through these other speaker systems could, therefore, be away to improve the listening experience.

Spotify ‘Hi-Fi’ Lossless, CD Quality

In February, Spotify announced that beginning later this year, Premium subscribers in select markets will be able to upgrade their sound quality to Spotify HiFi.  Spotify says that this service will enable users to “listen to their favourite songs the way artists intended” and that Hi-Fi offers a “new high-quality music experience”.  The company says that this better listening experience will be possible thanks to what it describes as its “high-quality music streaming” as well as CD-quality, lossless audio format to the user’s device and Spotify connect-enabled speakers.

Perception

There is, however, some debate online as to whether users will be able to clearly distinguish between the sound quality of lossless through Spotify Premium and Spotify Connect.  For example, Premium already streams as 320 kbps (256 kbps on the web), which is the highest Spotify bitrate. Other variables such as a user’s hearing and a user’s audio/sound system could also make a difference.  ABX offers a page to test whether a user’s system is “ready for lossless sound” on Spotify here: http://abx.digitalfeed.net/spotify-hq.html

The point and difference about Spotify Connect is that it offers the convenience of being able to listen to music on different speakers around the home using Wi-Fi.

More Tips

Here are some other tips for getting the most from Spotify:

– On a mobile, in Spotify’s Settings (upper right of the app), scroll to find ‘Audio Quality’.  This gives the option of setting the quality to ‘Very High’.  In reality this decision should be balanced against a user’s data and storage space allowances.

– On the Web app, whereas a free version of Spotify plays at a 128kbps bitrate, Spotify Premium plays at 256kbps which may sound better.  The web app also uses the more efficient AAC, which may contribute to a better sound than the desktop and mobile apps.

– On the desktop and mobile apps, leaving the ‘Normalize Volume’ control on helps to keep the volume/even up the different volumes of different songs so that user hears them all at one level (songs are mastered at different output volumes). This can be very helpful with playlists where there may different songs from different albums and different artists. Premium subscribers have the option of setting the Normalisation to ‘Quiet’, ‘Normal’, or ‘Loud’. The ‘Normal’ setting covers the dynamic range for most music and ‘Quiet’ offers the largest room for variations in dynamic range (e.g. for listening in a quiet setting).

In Summary

There are many variables at work in getting the most out of Spotify or, indeed, many other music streaming services. Paying for services where there are higher bitrates and lossy compression, delivered with strong Wi-Fi signal and played through high quality audio equipment appears to the way to increase the possibility of getting a better listening experience.  However, the ability for each individual to clearly hear the difference between the quality offered by different types of compression on audio is something that’s open to discussion.

Tech Tip – Open All Tabs At Once

If you’re using Microsoft’s Edge browser, a handy organising feature means that you can easily get a full, instant view of every window you have open and quickly tab between them. Here’s how:

– Press Alt + Tab.

– Holding down Alt, click Tab to move between the windows and to select the one you want.

– To configure you’re the settings or turn off the feature, go to Settings > System > Multitasking, and see the dropdown menu for options of what Alt + Tab can do.