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Apple is great, but no ecosystem

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One of the most common myths of pairing smartphone and computer choices is the idea of needing to buy into an ecosystem. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK explains the fallacy.

You hear it most commonly from iPhone users: “All my gadgets are from Apple, because they are all compatible and work together so seamlessly.”

Usually, they are referring to the combination of iPhone, iPad and MacBook. Usually, they are delighted with their choice of ecosystem, as there are few brands that produce as consistently excellent products as Apple across all categories. And, because of this delight, they usually also fall completely for the marketing hype about the ecosystem.

The reality is that there is almost no difference in the ecosystem experience of an iPhone user or Android phone user who also uses a MacBook, whether an Air, Pro or plain vanilla version of the iconic notebook.

Full disclosure: I’ve been an enthusiastic MacBook Air user for at least the past six years. It is the ultimate machine for long trips, ultra-portability and instant access: it is so thin and light, has amazing battery life on the other, and goes instantly from sleep to work mode merely by opening the lid.

The significance of the battery life is that I have never been on an international flight where I have run out of power. Even on the longest single-leg flights from South Africa, which would be up to about 16 hours, I would be sleeping or have the device packed away during meal times more than half the time, meaning that I can work on the machine for the entire rest of the flight.

This is a massive benefit in countering the loss of productivity that results from international travel.

Even taking aircraft out of the equation, one often finds that local events like conferences are not planned with notebook computers in mind, and one can often go a full day without access to a power point.  The MacBook Air is the only device that has allowed me to remain connected and fully productive throughout such events.

But the magic of the device does not extend to the ecosystem within which it functions. Its operating system, the Mac OS, is so ancient, it is still resting on the laurels of the 2001 launch of Mac OS X. What was described back then as a “radical departure” is now an old revolutionary pulling the wool over the eyes of acolytes with its fading activist credentials

The acolytes are caught up in a reality distortion field similar to the trance into which Steve Jobs was able to place anyone trying to argue with him about Apple products – or almost any other issue. Reality, for them, is less important than their perception of reality.

That perception is fuelled by the fact that the iPhone and iPad are indeed deeply integrated, completely symbiotic and compatible to the extent that the very same app version can sometimes be used on both. Working on one device allows seamless transition, in the same app, to the other. The experience of the iOS operating system is almost identical on the two.

Like that seamless transition, perception also makes a seamless transition across to the MacBook, which is believed by many to integrate equally tightly with the iPhone. The reality is that it’s an entirely different operating system, one that is a decade overdue for an overhaul, and one that requires work-arounds for true compatibility. Just as it does with Android devices.

Yes, Apple’s iCloud for backup and syncing is seamlessly accessible on all three categories of product. But then so is Microsoft’s OneDrive and Google Drive. Apple’s horrible Mail client can sync across all three, but then so does Google’s more evolved Gmail.

Here’s the real dirty secret of device ecosystems: the mortal enemies, Microsoft and Google, have better software ecosystems than Apple and, aside from their operating systems, are almost totally device independent.

This means that the Microsoft Office suite as well as its OneDrive cloud service, can be experienced with almost full functionality on any Apple, Android or Windows machine. Apple’s productivity suite can only be used on Apple devices – or via a Web browser, meaning it is a limited experience.

The last shot from Apple fans is usually the fact that the FaceTime and Messages video, voice and chat apps are also compatible across all three categories of device. This is one area where Android and Windows cannot compete, as the apps are not available on other platforms.

But that is equally a negative: it means that users of those apps are locked out of the rest of the device universe. Users of WhatsApp, Skype and other non-denominational chat apps, on the other hand, can find kindred souls on any mobile device.

It’s not that it’s a mistake to stick to the Apple family of products. Mostly, the experience will only be good. But the bottom line is that you don’t have to be locked into Apple to have a satisfying device family life.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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