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NCS looks beyond government, Singapore for ‘transformation’ growth



Singtel’s wholly-owned subsidiary and systems integrator NCS wants to move beyond its 40-year history that is steeped in government contracts, into the enterprise space, focusing on verticals such as healthcare and finance. It also is looking for a “strategic reset” to become a pan-Asia digital and technology services player, where it eyes further expansion in Australia and Greater China. 

“We want to pivot NCS from a traditional ICT company that’s largely based in Singapore, to become a digital and technology services company in Asia-Pacific,” NCS CEO Ng Kuo Pin said in a video interview with ZDNet. 

The move was triggered in large by growing customer demand for digital transformation, fuelled by the mass migration online amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ng, who assumed the CEO role in August 2019.  This momentum toward digitalisation was evident not just in Singapore, but also in global markets such as China and Australia, he added. 

NCS was keen to tap these opportunities and leverage its strengths in the public and telecommunication sectors, the latter of which was thanks to its Singtel parentage, to “redefine and grow”. 

The need to do so was further driven by the aspirations of its employees to work on projects that went beyond Singapore’s public sector, according to Ng.  

Marking its 40th anniversary this year, NCS was established in 1981 to drive the government’s ICT initiatives. It was restructured as a commercial entity and later acquired by Singtel in 1997

Ng said NCS would look to transform its people, too, which was necessary to ensure the company could put forward a strong proposition as a pan-Asia-Pacific player. This would require skills specialisation and transforming its culture to become a “learning organisation”, he said. 

He also would be looking to add 2,000 new roles over two years across the organisation, including its core business, global markets such as China and Australia, and its foray in the enterprise space. 

He noted that plans for this already had been in place over the last 18 months and the company was starting to see initial success into several enterprise verticals, including banking, utilities, and telecommunications. 

NCS has earmarked six key sectors to drive its growth into the enterprise space, namely, healthcare, transportation, financial services, industrial, commercial, as well as communications, media, and technology. 

A new services organisation, called NCS Next, also was established internally just under two years ago to drive its new focus on digital, cloud, and platform services. Next complemented NCS’ core services, namely, applications, infrastructure, engineering, and cybersecurity, and enabled the company to provide more comprehensive customer offerings, Ng said.

Under the Next business, NCS had launched an innovation centre in Shenzhen and acquired 2359 Media, a Singapore-based mobile app digital consultancy. It also subsumed Singtel’s analytics unit, DataSpark.

In addition, two new business groups would be created to further scale its existing business, he added. The first, Gov+, would look to build the company’s digital government offerings and boost its footprint in the public sector as well as smart cities across Asia-Pacific. 

The second business group, Telco+, would be a joint initiative between Singtel and NCS that aimed to help telecommunication customers with their digital transformation. In particular, Singtel’s 5G capabilities alongside NCS’ digital and technology services would enable the group to build up a “full stack” of 5G-enabled service offerings. 

For now, the government sector still accounted for the largest portion of NCS’ revenue, which tipped at SG$2.14 billion last year. 

Asked how much of this did he want tilted towards the enterprise sector, Ng declined to share its internal target because the company had just kicked off its transformation journey and plans to expand regionally. “As we pivot into the enterprise space, we’ll be looking and adjusting this target over the next year or so,” he said, adding that he would then share what this target was. He also noted that it was important for tech vendors to strike a balance between its customers from the private and public sectors. 

Tri-market focus on Singapore, China, and Australia

Ng, though, was specific about focusing the company’s regional expansion plans on three key growth markets of Singapore, Australia, and Greater China. 

Last December, NCS Next was launched in Australia through a partnership with Optus Enterprise to service the country’s enterprise market and deliver ICT and digital services. 

NCS also was planning to grow its footprint in Australia both organically or inorganically, to build up its cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. 

Elaborating on potential acquisitions, Ng said he was keen on two categories, including companies that could provide market access, which would otherwise take too long to build in size and growth organically. Here, he would look to candidates specifically in Australia, Greater China, and Southeast Asia. 

He also would be keen to make acquisitions to gain specific digital capabilities, including niche players that were specialised in specific cloud services or technologies such as AI or blockchain. 

He added that NCS currently was “actively looking” at possibilities in these two categories. 

Ng also pointed to the company’s Next “innovation triangle” where its innovation centres in Singapore, Melbourne, and Shenzhen focused on developing digital and cloud capabilities. Each of these facilities was set up to tap the market’s respective strengths.  

Its Chinese site, for instance, looked at innovating in three key areas comprising 5G, blockchain, and digital twin, the latter of which was in high demand in China, he said. 5G and blockchain skillsets also were widely available in the Chinese market, which he added could benefit other markets in which NCS operated. 

Its Melbourne innovation centre focused on cloud, he noted. A cloud excellence centre also would be launched in the Australian city next month, leveraging the country’s high cloud adoption and strong cloud talent base, he said. 

NCS’ Singapore innovation centre focused on AI, analytics, and mobile apps development, he added. 

The company this year also began operations as an autonomous unit within Singtel, which Ng explained meant he now reported directly to the group’s CEO Yuen Kuan Moon, instead of its enterprise business unit.

As part of the transformation, NCS also unveiled a rebrand that included a new logo. 


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New AI tools aim to improve live-stream content moderation



While Facebook, Twitter, Google and other popular web-service providers are busy deploying legions of people to mitigate online toxicity in the forms of hate speech, bullying, and sexual/racial abuse, two lesser-known companies have come together in a new research and development project to try and resolve these problems in the live-streaming video industry.

The Meet Group, which develops software for interactive dating websites, and Spectrum Labs, which makes an AI-based audio-content moderation platform, on July 27 announced an expansion of their partnership to include a significant R&D commitment into voice moderation aimed at protecting users from online toxicity in TMG’s live-streaming applications.

The Meet Group owns several mobile social networking services including MeetMe, hi5, LOVOO, Growlr, Skout, and Tagged. The company has registered millions of mobile daily active users and facilitates tens of millions of conversations daily. Its mobile apps are available on iOS and Android in multiple languages.

Hate and personally abusive speech are increasing in many channels, as social-networking companies have reported. Voice moderation is currently a major challenge because recording all content is not possible nor privacy-friendly in an ephemeral live-streaming video context, TMG said. Existing methods of AI voice moderation are slow, tedious, and cost-prohibitive, because they require voice content to be transcribed before the text AI can be applied.

Recording, analyzing content at the right time

The Meet Group and Spectrum Labs are partnering to record content at the right time and proactively and cost-effectively detect toxicity, improve accuracy for moderators, and expand safety measures for users, TMG said.

“The method of monitoring live streaming video today is twofold,” TMG CEO Geoff Cook told ZDNet. “One is algorithmic sampling of the stream every five to seven seconds, analyzing it, and taking actions accordingly. The other is the report side; we have 500-plus moderators who are staffing this and putting eyes on the stream in less than a minute after that report button is tapped. We want to record and transcribe that content, analyze it based on what’s going on, index it potentially in some kind of category, take action on it, then make that transcription or recording available to the moderator.

“This R&D project is concerned with being more thoughtful about filling in the gaps in the existing moderation.”

Voice tracking will begin recording from two different triggers: The first happens when a report button is tapped; the tool will begin recording the voice track and automatically send it for analysis. The second trigger will begin voice recording automatically based on comments in the video. If an issue is believed to exist in the video based on the comments in the chat, the live stream proactively will be reported.

If a content violation is believed to exist, the recording, along with the behavior flag and transcription, in addition to the live stream itself, if still in progress, will be sent to one of The Meet Group’s 500+ human moderators, who will review the content under the company’s Content and Conduct policy to see if a policy was violated. 

Live-streaming usage increasing on social networks

Social, dating, and gaming companies are increasingly moving into live streaming video to improve community engagement, Spectrum Labs CEO Justin Davis told ZDNet. 

“With that shift comes a growing demand for effective moderation for voice,” Davis said. “With a billion minutes spent in its live-streaming platform per month and nearly 200,000 hours of content broadcast per day, The Meet Group is a fantastic partner with whom to work in deploying Spectrum’s toxic-voice detection and moderation platform to deliver best-in-class user safety controls for their moderation team and consumers alike.”

“User safety is fundamental to what we do, and effective moderation of live-streaming video requires effective moderation of all aspects of the stream, including voice, text chat, and video,” Cook said. “The combination of Spectrum’s technology and moderation solutions with our safety standards and processes create what we believe is a model that others in the live-streaming video industry may look to follow.”

The expanded partnership announced July 27 also includes algorithmic moderation of all chats sent within The Meet Group’s live-streaming solution and AI private-chat moderation.

The algorithmic chat moderation which will be available to The Meet Group apps as well as the company’s expanding list of vPaaS partners will be screening the nearly 15 million daily chats within the live-streaming feature for hate speech, sexual harassment, and other code-of-conduct violations, TMG said.

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Apple says supply constraints to worsen this quarter, impact iPhone sales



Following much better-than-expected fiscal Q3 results this afternoon from Apple, the company’s CFO, Luca Maestri, told Wall Street analysts on a conference call that sales growth this quarter will be affected as the impact of the global supply chain on Apple’s business worsens from what it was the previous quarter.

“We expect very strong double-digit year over year revenue growth during the September quarter,” said Maestri, adding “we expect revenue growth to be lower than our June quarter year-over-year growth of 36%, and for three reasons.”

Explained Meastri,

First, we expect the foreign exchange impact on our year over year growth rate to be three points less favorable than it was during the June quarter. Second, we expect our services growth rate to return to a more typical level then the growth rate during the June quarter, which benefited from a favorable comparison as certain services were significantly impacted by the Covid lockdown a year ago. And third, we expect supply constraints during the September quarter to be greater than what we experienced here in the June quarter, the constraints will primarily impact iPhone.

Asked whether the supply chain impact will persist into Apple’s December quarter, CEO Tim Cook said “I don’t want to predict that today, we’re going to take it one quarter at a time.” Asked if Apple was absorbing higher costs, Cook said the cost of global freight has risen for the company. “We’re paying more for freight than I would like to pay,” he said. But chips and other ingredients are not driving up costs, he suggested. “Component costs continue in the aggregate to decline,” said Cook. 

The earnings report initially sent Apple shares up slightly in late trading, though the stock quickly gave up gains and turned down by almost 3%. 

Revenue in the three months ended in June rose 36%, year over year, to $81.4 billion, yielding a net profit of $1.30 a share.

Analysts had been modeling $73.33 billion and $1.01 per share.

Within the categories of revenue, Apple’s sales of iPhone rose by 50%, year over year, to $39.6 billion.

Maestri’s forecast for “strong double-digit growth” compares to Wall Street consensus for growth of 26.4%, totaling $81.79 billion. Hence, if sales growth is expected to be below the 36% of last quarter, it could still be higher than that consensus outlook.

Tech Earnings

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Google announces new bug bounty platform



Google announced a new bug bounty platform as it celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its Vulnerability Rewards Program (VRP). The program led to a total of 11,055 bugs found, 2,022 rewarded researchers and nearly $30 million in total rewards. 

Jan Keller, technical program manager for Google’s VRP, said that in honor of the program, they are unveiling a new platform:

“This new site brings all of our VRPs (Google, Android, Abuse, Chrome and Play) closer together and provides a single intake form that makes it easier for bug hunters to submit issues,” Keller said. 

Keller added that the platform will have gamification features and offer more chances for interaction or competition. There will be per-country leaderboards and chances to acquire awards or badges for specific bugs. 

The company is also creating a more “aesthetically pleasing leaderboard” as a way to help those using their achievements in the VRP to find jobs. There will even be more chances for bug hunters to learn through the new Bug Hunter University.

“We know the value that knowledge sharing brings to our community. That’s why we want to make it easier for you to publish your bug reports. Swag will now be supported for special occasions (we heard you loud and clear!),” Keller wrote. 

The blog post notes that more people should take advantage of other VRP features like the ability to submit patches to open-source software for rewards and potential rewards for research papers on the security of open source. 

Some open-source software may even be eligible for subsidy, Keller explained. 

“When we launched our very first VRP, we had no idea how many valid vulnerabilities — if any — would be submitted on the first day. Everyone on the team put in their estimate, with predictions ranging from zero to 20,” Keller said. 

“In the end, we actually received more than 25 reports, taking all of us by surprise. Since its inception, the VRP program has not only grown significantly in terms of report volume, but the team of security engineers behind it has also expanded – including almost 20 bug hunters who reported vulnerabilities to us and ended up joining the Google VRP team.”

Keller went on to thank the Google bug hunter community for their work and urged them to give feedback about the new platform. 

Hank Schless, senior manager at Lookout, said his company has reported nearly 600 malicious apps found in the Play Store and commended Google for “essentially crowdsourcing their bug and vulnerability reporting.”

“Google has always taken a more open approach to its software than comparable companies. Android, for example, is built on open-source technology that enables more customization of the OS,” Schless said. 

“Relying on others to help report on issues is a key part of creating a secure customer experience that can continue to improve. This type of community-based knowledge only serves to make the world a more secure place.”

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Microsoft Teams hits 250 million monthly active user milestone



Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft officials say the Teams collaboration platform has hit the 250 million monthly active user milestone, up from the 145 million daily active user total it hit in April this year. Microsoft execs shared the new number as part of the company’s Q4 FY21 earnings announcement on July 27.

Kyle Vikstrom, Director of Microsoft Investor Relations, shared the new Teams usage number with me ahead of the Q4 FY21 analyst call. The new metric Microsoft now is using is monthly, not daily, active users.

On Microsoft’s earnings call, officials said that Microsoft has nearly 80 million monthly active Teams Phone users. They added that 124 organizations now have more than 100,000 users of Teams and nearly 3,000 have more than 10,000 users.

In April 2020, Microsoft was at 75 million daily active users with Teams. Microsoft officials have said the rapid growth of the product is in large part fueled by the need for remote work during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Teams is part of Microsoft’s “Commercial cloud” category and also is part of its office commercial products and cloud services revenue category. Teams began as a group-chat platform but Microsoft has been turning it into an almost operating-system-like product over time by extending its capabilities and features.  Microsoft officials said “commercial cloud” revenues — Office 365, Azure, Dynamics 365 and other cloud services — hit $19.5 billion in Q4, compared to $14.3 billion a year ago.

Microsoft is trying to grow Teams beyond its established business base by adding consumer features to the product. Microsoft is integrating a Teams Chat button into the Windows 11 taskbar in the hopes of getting more people to try Teams’ consumer capabilities.

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