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Can you take the weather with you?

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The technology for forecasting the weather has been getting more and more local in recent years. Now it’s personal, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When Crowded House, one of the rock sensations of the late 20th century, sang the lyrics, “Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you,” they weren’t referring to a gadget. But their song about the effect of one’s attitude on one’s environment is an apt metaphor in a world of smartphones, apps and gadgets that can monitor every element of the human and natural elements.

For a few years now, we’ve had a semblance of carrying the weather with us, thanks to apps like AccuWeather, which have become a standard feature on smartphones.

Two years ago, a company called Netatmo took the concept a step further, when they launched a personal weather station at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It comprised two tubular devices, one for indoor and a weatherproof one for outdoor monitoring, with the two connecting to each other and to a smartphone or computer via Wi-Fi.

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It’s surprising that, for a weather-obsessed country like South Africa, it has taken so long for the device to arrive here. It’s now being distributed locally by the Core Group, meaning it will be available in all iStores. Eventually, all electronics outlets should stock it.

The big question will be, of course, whether it does much more than AccuWeather. Will consumers be able to justify a gadget costing more than R2500, when they can instead have a free app that does the job reasonably well?

The answer lies in how much more Netatmo offers, and how easily it does so. We ran it through the Gadget Five-question User Test to answer these and other questions consumers will have before reaching for their wallets.

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  • Ease of use

It’s easy enough to set up, although it requires a number of steps, some of which don’t quite live up to the ease-of-use promise. For example, the outdoor module requires batteries to be fitted into a decidedly unfriendly battery compartment, which uses screws to be fitted in place. A lot like they used to do in the mid-20th century. However, the ease of set-up, either via a downloadable application on a computer or an app on a smartphone, more than makes up for this. The two modules integrate seamlessly with a home Wi-Fi network. Once set up, the app and application deliver vital statistics seamlessly and without further intervention.

  • General performance

The weather station begins monitoring the environment the moment set-up is complete, and starts delivering data on aspects of the home and its immediate surrounds that might never have been considered before. From actual humidity level to what the humidity probably feels like to noise levels to carbon dioxide concentration in the home, it is almost a case of too much information, but that would be a matter of the needs, interests and benefits that the user perceives.

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  • Add value to your life

Whether the weather and environment in tiny detail adds value is a question of how much data you want about the world around you. This will become very much a matter of what kind of data personality you are. Those who love activity monitors like the Fitbit are the most likely candidates, as it will add yet another layer of data on all the health and activity information being monitored, collected and analysed.

From a weather forecast and monitoring point of view, the device will come into its own for anyone with specialist weather or temperature monitoring needs. It would be exceedingly useful for all the South African restaurants that serve red wine at room temperature due to their lack of understanding of what the term actually means for wine (it’s in fact average European room temperature, 16 degrees, rather than any temperature to which a room is heated). More likely, though, it would be used for people looking for an extra edge in keeping a cigar or wine collection in perfect conditions. Serious gardeners may also find it gives them an extra edge. No doubt, there are numerous specialist purposes that will see the device succeed in niche markets.

  • Innovation

The level of innovation in the device lies in the extent to which it integrates environmental measurements that cannot be offered or matched by local weather stations. Carbon dioxide levels in the air inside the house and the noise level in the environment are the two key variables that will enter the user’s life once the Netatmo Weather Station is activated. Of course, that also means the user has to learn what terms like ppm (particles per million, in reference to carbon dioxide levels) and db (decibels) really mean.

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My home showed a measure of 315ppm, compared to a general carbon dioxide concentration level in the Earth’s atmosphere reaching 400ppm this year, according to NASA. 350ppm is regarded as an upper safety level, which suggests the air is cleaner indoors than outdoors. So much for convincing the kids how much healthier it is to be outdoors!

More seriously, what it does reveal is that so-called greenhouse gases are not evenly distributed. If someone regards these measure as important, the Netatmo will help them make key decisions about their living and working environments.

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  • Value for money

The Netatmo Weather Station for Smartphone is not cheap. In the USA it retails for between $140 and $170, so that a poor Rand exchange rate means it makes for a seriously expensive set of devices in South Africa. However, for those who already are inveterate gadget geeks, or have strong professional or hobbyist reasons for having this kind of data at their fingertips, it is well worth the investment.

In summary, not only can you now take the weather with you, but your entire environment.

* 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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