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Next big Switch is coming to gaming

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The first major new gaming console brand in many years arrives in South Africa next week. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK previews the Nintendo Switch.

Computer games could comfortably be called the new music. The industry has long surpassed music sales, and live gaming tournaments have spawned a sub-industry all of its own, called eSports, which pulls in tens of millions of dollars in prize money globally.

Little wonder, then, that such intense competition exists between the world’s two leading console platforms, Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. Every year sees a new version, a new level of graphic excellence, and fans clamouring for new versions of powerful gaming titles.

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This is the context in which Nintendo, which practically invented the concept, is making its return to the console wars. The now-primitive Game Boy was the first handheld console to go truly mass market in the late 1980s, and resurrected the ailing video game industry. It set the scene for Nintendo to dominate the market for a decade before the arrival of the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox at the turn of the century pushed it down the rankings.

The massive success of the Wii – it sold more than 100-million units from 2006 to 2012 – brought Nintendo back into contention. However, its successor, the handheld Wii U, is today regarded as a flop. Among other, it was brought down by too much complexity and too little versatility.

The outrageous if brief popularity of Pokemon Go, the augmented reality game for smartphones, reminded the world that Nintendo was still around. The company pulled off a masterstroke by getting Apple to showcase the Mario Super Run mobile game during the iPhone 7 launch in September, and set the stage for the unveiling of its new console.

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The Nintendo Switch is the first major new gaming console brand in many years, and has seen levels of enthusiasm among the game buying public that is normally associated with the hottest new smartphones.

It arrives in South Africa on 3 March, and is already expected to walk off the shelves. The only holdback is likely to be the initial recommended retail price of R5 999, but that is expected to come down significantly thanks to exchange rate improvements and retailer discounts.

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The beauty of the Switch is that it is several gaming devices in one. At first sight, it is merely a handheld console, albeit a few generations advanced over the Wii U: it houses a 6.2-inch, multi-touch capacitive touch screen and offers a display resolution of 1280 x 720. The console can also be connected to a TV, underlining its competition to the PlayStation and Xbox.

The controllers on either side of the screen can also be removed, to become two separate devices that allow two players to challenge each other on the same system. Called Joy-Con, the devices can be deployed in single- or two-controller mode, and can be used vertically or sideways, with motion controls or button.

This is a level of versatility never seen before in gaming devices.

The sophistication of these seemingly humble controllers becomes apparent in games that use both motion control and force feedback – which Nintendo calls HD rumble, a vibration feature built into each JoyCon.

Up to eight controllers can be used with one Switch system, allowing for games like Splatoon – first made popular on the Wii U in 2015 – to enter the eSports arena.

Parental Controls allow parents to use a smart device app to set time limits – both in duration and time of day – as well as parameters for what games can be played by which kids. Even posting screenshots to social media – nowadays a standard feature of gameplay – can be  controlled by parents.

Possibly the most significant innovation of the Switch is in the gaming experience itself, and is heavily driven by the extent to which games take advantage of the technology built into the Joy-Con. This is exemplified by Snipperclips, a deceptively simple game that demands close collaboration between two players, each using a Joy-Con. It turns out to be engrossing, fun and even a bonding experience. One cannot say that of many computer games!

Many people buying the Switch, however, will be coming back for Legend of Zelda, a long-time Nintendo favourite that has sold more than 75-million games in the last two decades. The new edition, Breath of the Wild, drew the longest lines during Switch demos in Johannesburg last weekend.

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It is clear that it will ensure the continued longevity of that specific franchise, as well as underpin the success of the Switch itself. Microsoft and Sony might not take their eyes off their own controllers for now, but they are no longer the only games in town.

  • 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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