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LG makes early running at Mobile World

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LG is the surprise front-runner in new technology roll-outs at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Barcelona has come to be associated with great football, great food and, for a few days a year, great technology. When the Mobile World Congress comes round every February, the world watches to see where the technology road map will take their smartphones, apps and digital identities.

For the last few years, the technology has been almost as predictable as the food and football, with no surprises as the usual football teams, restaurants and technology brands – think FC Barcelona, the Moments two-Michelin-star restaurant and Samsung Galaxy devices – has continued to dominate the popular imagination.

It therefore comes as shock when a follower – say Espanyol’s football team or a local tapas bar – takes any honours. Or, say, a technology brand like LG.

That’s exactly what happened when the big guns of mobile technology began rolling out their latest products in a series of spectacular launches across the city.

The first brands out of the gate were LG and Huawei, but it was the former that seemed likely to cross the finish line first as it broke with numerous conventions – its own and those of others – in the design of the new LG G5 smartphone.  It has dispensed with the curved screen that tended to be a curiosity rather than a benefit in the G4, and has reduced screen size from the 5.5” phablet format to a more petite 5.3”display. That means it has a deliciously thin form factor: a mere 7.7mm, and dramatically down from the 9.8mm predecessor.

The battery is only slightly smaller, at 2800 mAh compared to 3000 in the G4, One rear camera boasts the same 16Megapixels and 2160p resolution, but a second 8MP camera on the back opens numerous creative options. RAM goes up from 3GB to 4GB, while a more powerful Snapdragon processor – the 820 instead of the 808 – drives the phone.

The standout element is not one specific feature, though, but the overall design: it is a modular phone that allows components to be removed, replaced and added. While it is a “unibody” full-metal device, it allows the bottom to slide out to access expansion card slot and replace the battery – a feature that seems to have become anathema to Apple and Samsung. An optional camera grip, the LG Cam Plus, with battery and hardware controls, can slide in here to turn the phone into a full digital SLR camera.

An add-on co-designed with Bang & Olufsen, the HiFi Plus DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) module, provides high-resolution audio and puts the device in a sound class of its own.

The clue to the potential of the device lies in the repetition of that Plus brand: aside from the Cam Plus and HiFi Plus, we can expect to see many more plus-one modules not only from LG, but also from other developers.

The phone would have been enough to confirm LG’s ascent to new innovation heights, but it has clearly been hard at work across various technology categories. It also unveiled the surround-view LG 360 Cam and a the LG 360 VR, a pair of lightweight virtual reality goggles that link to the phone. The devices are part of a new family of devices called LG Friends, which includes the remote-controlled Rolling Bot robot. It seems almost frivolous alongside the rest of the technology, but has serious applications in home monitoring.

The latest offerings from Samsung, revealed a few hours later, were almost tame in comparison. The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge appear to be almost rthe same devices as last year’s S6 and S6 edge, except more powerful and energy efficient.

Samsung has also backtracked in response to user demands, restoring the SD card slot that allows for expanded storage. It was inexplicably removed from the previous editions, despite the fact that the need is greater than ever before as users generate more high-resolutuon content than ever before. Apple remains the only major hold-out in this regard, but the return of SD to Samsung may just force Apple’s hand as well, the way Samsung did with the success of larger displays.

Samsung’s new phones offer one more feature that put them on the same level as LG: an always-on display that allows notifications, time, date and other inmformation to be viewed even while the phone is in sleep mode.  According to LG, this mode uses less than 1% of battery capacity.

The main shift in the design of the Samsung S7 and S7 edge is in restoring the dust-proof and water-proof feature offered in the S5. An IP 68 rating means it compares well with the market leaders in this particular category, Sony’s Xperia devices.

The latter has also led in camera technology in recent years, but was unable to set the market alight with its Xperia Z-series phones. This week, it unveiled the first “X: series devices, with an Xperia X, Xperia X Performance and Xperia XA. Their main differentiator builds on Sony’s strengths, with what it calls a “next-generation camera”. 

A feature called Predictive Hybrid Autofocus lets users choose a subject and then predicts its motion, so theyu can capture action without blurring.

Sony also builds on a less-well known strength, namely superior batter management. It takes this a step further with Adaptive Charging technology, which promises two full days of usage.

Like LG, it launched the phone with a family of products carrying a unified naming convention, with the likes of the Xperia Ear wireless ear-piece powered by voice technology, the Xperia Eye wearable wide-angle lens camera that can be attached to clothing, and the Xperia Projector for projection on any clear surface of an interface that responds to touch, voice and gestures as if it is on the smartphone screen.

Samsung, for its part, also launched a new virtual reality (VR) product, with the Gear 360 spherical camera, which can capture VR content for viewing on the Gear VR headset.

Some will debate whether LG or Samsung is playing catch-up here, but the real story is the continued innovation by all brands across all areas of mobile technology.

* 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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