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Mobicel is changing the mobile game

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It’s a South African brand that is little known in higher income segments, but Mobicel is about to break out of the entry-level mould, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

South Africa has a long history of unknown mobile brands that start off catering for entry-level phone users, briefly threaten to challenge the big names, and then fizzle out like a fading signal from a derelict cellular mast.

Barely a year ago, for example, AG Mobile was the big story in local branding. It had sold millions of feature phones and low-cost smartphones, through mass-market retail chains like Jet and Pep. It was designed locally, manufactured in China, imported, and packaged for local tastes. It was a decade-long success story.

But then it overreached, produced a series of phones aimed at both low and middle-income segments, all the way up to mid-range smartphones. Not only that, but it flooded the market with handsets in the hope of replicating its success at the low end.

Overnight, the business collapsed as sales failed to keep up with the heady pace of imports. In a matter of days, the brand vanished from the shelves.

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Meanwhile, a second South African brand had been replicating AG’s success at the entry level. The decade-old Mobicel catered for every budget, if that budget was below R500 to buy the phone outright. At the top end of the market, where that amount and more is spent every single month on contracts, Mobicel was completely unknown.

Soon, that may change. Mobicel is about to venture on the path treaded by AG Mobile when it ventured outside its comfort zone.

There is one fundamental difference, however, said founder and CEO Ridhwan Khan: not only are quantities being carefully managed, but Mobicel is not committing itself to manufacturing capacity that cannot be covered by existing resources, and it is hitting the market with what it calls premium phones, at reasonable prices.

Mobicel founder and CEO Ridhwan Khan

Mobicel founder and CEO Ridhwan Khan

The Mobicel R9 and R9 Plus, launched last week, are rare examples of devices that really can change the mobile game.

The R9 Plus is an Android phone that sports not only a 5.7-inch touch screen, but also edge-to-edge display. Samsung has pioneered the concept with its flagship phones for a number of years, with Apple following suit in its latest iPhones this year. Only LG, with its Q6 released a few months ago, had introduced edge-to-edge screens in a mid-market phone.

So is this a mid-market phone? Perhaps a new category is needed. In a sense, Mobicel is following the lead of Chinese brand Xiaomi, which markets its mid-range smartphones as “high value, affordable devices”. But, at a price of R2 999, the Mobicel R9 Plus probably represents the best value-for-money yet in terms of features versus cost.

The truly remarkable feature of the phone, which does not appear to have been adopted by any other major manufacturer, is that it has flipped the traditional approach of having a premium camera on the rear of the phone and a lower-quality lens on the front for selfies.

With the R9 Plus, the selfie takes pride of place, with a dual front camera. One lens comes in at 20 Megapixels and the other at 8 MP. Mobicel describes it as the “Super Selfie” dual lens camera. It also offers a 120 degree wide angle view, along with “Super Low Light capability”.  And, like most mid- to –high-end phones, it sports a fingerprint sensor.

The slightly stripped down sibling of the Plus, the R9 Lite, will come to market at just under R2000. Both offer a 24-month warranty.

“We’ve created a handset with exceptional build quality, offering the latest technology, and the kind of features only ever before seen on handsets that cost four times as much,” said Kahn.

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Mobicel founder and CEO Ridhwan Khan

“We’ve used our experience, our understanding of the customer base and our economies of scale to offer them an opportunity to migrate from whatever device they’re using to our premium smartphone.”

Mobicel’s stratetic advantage is that it distributes through more than four thousand retail outlets, ranging from the smallest store to large discount chains. It will begin selling the new devices from the beginning of next month, both through retailers and online via Takealot.com.

“There is a big void between phones like the Vodafone Smart Kicka at R399, and the feature-rich smartphones from Samsung and Huawei,” Kahn said in an interview after the launch.

“No one’s filling that massive gap, almost indoctrinating consumers to the idea that if you really want a nice device you have to pay R6000 upward. There’s a massive opportunity. If we can play in the space between R1 500 and R3 000, we will start filling the void.

“Our biggest challenge is making the user experience an awesome one so that when people buy and use the device, whatever reservations they had about the price point is gone. We want people to experience the brand, so we are keeping margins very thin, and a big part of our margin is being put into building a local brand.”

This is uncharted territory for a businessman who entered the cellphone industry in 2002 by bringing in refurbished handsets from the United Kingdom. He would clean them up, and sell them as demo units. By  2007, demand had exceeded supply, and he realised there was a massive market waiting for him.

The first Mobicel handset, back in 2007, was the M404, a1.8-inch dual-SIM feature phone. That’s the year Apple launched the iPhone and sparked the smartphone revolution. It’s taken a decade for Mobicel to break out of the feature phone market, and now it wants to spark an equivalent revolution in the South African mass market.

Said Kahn, “The end game is to provide powerful smartphones without the hefty price tag.”

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

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Gadget goes to Hollywood

Gadget visited the Netflix studios last week. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK talks to CEO Reed Hastings.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is no stranger to Africa. He has travelled throughout South Africa, taught maths in Swaziland for two years with the Peace Corps, and visits close family in Maputo. As a result, he is keenly aware of the South African entertainment and connectivity landscape.

In an exclusive interview at the Netflix studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, last week, he revealed that Netflix had no intentions of challenging MultiChoice’s dominance of live sports broadcasting on the continent.

“Other firms will do sport and news; we are trying to focus on movies and TV shows,” he said. “There are a lot of areas that are video that we are not doing: sports, news, video gaming, user-generated content. We don’t have live sport.

Reed Hastings at the Netflix studios in Hollywood last week. Pic: ADAM ROSE

“We’re not replacing MultiChoice at all. Their subscriber growth is steady in South Africa. They serve a need that’s independent of the Internet, via low-price satellite. There is no intention of capturing that audience. If they’re growing, it’s because they serve a need.”

While Reed ruled out any collaboration with MultiChoice on its satellite delivery platform, despite its collaboration with another pay-TV service, Sky TV in the United Kingdom, he did not close the door. He stressed that Netflix saw itself as an Internet-based service, and would pursue the opportunities offered by evolving broadband in Africa.

“If you look in other markets like the USA, how Comcast carries us on set-top boxes with their other services, it could happen with MultiChoice, the same as with all the pay-TV providers.

“We’re really focused on being a service over the Internet and not over satellite. Our service doesn’t work on satellite. Where we work with Sky is on Internet-connected devices. We’re happy to work on Internet-connected devices. We tend to work on smart TVs, but need broadband Internet for that.

“Broadband is getting faster in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa – we can see the positive trendlines – so it’s more likely we will work with broadband Internet companies.”

Hastings is a firm believer in the idea that one content provider’s success does not depend on pushing another down.

“HBO has grown at the same time as we have, so can see our success doesn’t determine their success. What matters is amazing content with which the world falls in love.”

Click here to read about Netflix’s international expansion, and how the streaming service selects content for its platform.

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Take these 5 steps to digital

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By MARK WALKER, Associate Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Digital transformation isn’t a buzz word because it sounds nice and looks good on the business CV. It is fundamental to long-term business success. IDC anticipates that 75% of enterprises will be on the path to digital transformation by 2027. 

However, digital transformation is not a process that ticks a box and moves to the next item on the agenda – it is defined by the organisation’s shift towards a digitally empowered infrastructure and employee. It is an evolution across system, infrastructure, process, individual and leadership and should follow clear pathways to ensure sustainable success.

The nature of the enterprise has changed completely with the influence of digital, cloud and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and success is reliant on strategic change.

There is a lot more ownership and transparency throughout the organisation and there is a responsibility that comes with that – employees want access to information, there has to be speed in knowledge, transactions and engagement,” he adds. “To ensure that the organisation evolves alongside digital and demand, it has to follow five very clear pathways to long-term, achievable success.

The first of these is to evaluate where the enterprise sits right now in terms of its digital journey. This will differ by organisation size and industry, as well as its reliance on technology. A smaller organisation that only needs a basic accounting function or the internet for email will have far different considerations to a small organisation that requires high-end technology to manage hedge funds or drive cloud solutions. The same comparisons apply to the enterprise-level organisation. The mining sector will have a completely different sub-set of technology requirements and infrastructure limitations to the retail or finance sectors.

Ultimately, every organisation, regardless of size or industry, is reliant on technology to grow or deliver customer service, but their digital transformation requirements are different. To ensure that investment into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, knowledge engines, automation and connectivity are accurately placed within the business and know exactly where the business is going.

The second step is to examine what the business wants to achieve. Again, the goals of the organisation over the long and short term will be entirely sector dependent, but it is essential that it examine what the competitive environment looks like and what influences customer expectations. This understanding will allow for the business to hone its digital requirements accordingly.

The third step is to match expectations to reality. You need to see how you can move your digital transformation strategy forward and what areas require prioritisation, what funding models will support your digital aspirations, and how this tie into what the market wants. Ultimately, every step of the process has to be prioritised to ensure it maps back to where you are and the strategic steps that will take you to where you want to go.

The fourth step is to look at the operational side of the process. This is as critical as any other aspect of the transformation strategy as it maps budget to skills to infrastructure in such a way as to ensure that any project delivers return on investment. Budget and funding are always top of mind when it comes to digital transformation – these are understandably key issues for the business. How will it benefit from the investment? How will it influence the customer experience? What impact will this have on the ongoing bottom line? These questions tie neatly into the fifth step in the process – the feedback loop.

This is often the forgotten step, but it is the most important. The feedback loop is critical to ensuring that the digital transformation process is achieving the right results, that the right metrics are in place, and that the needle is moving in the right direction. It is within this feedback loop that the organisation can consistently refine the process to ensure that it moves to each successive step with the right metrics in place.

There is also one final element that every organisation should have in place throughout its digital evolution. An element that many overlook – engagement. There must be a real desire to change, from the top of the organisation right down to the bottom, and an understanding of what it means to undertake this change and why it is essential. This is why this will be a key discussion at the 2019 IDC South Africa CIO Summit taking place in April this year. With this in place, the five steps to digital transformation will make sense and deliver the right results.

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