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Samsung goes large – again

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In the wake of declining market share, Samsung faced a big challenge for its latest product launch. It had a big answer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When Samsung launched its Galaxy S6 edge phone in February, it dazzled the market with a curved glass edge that seemed to rewrite the rules of phone design. However, it did not manage to dazzle the market equally with sales figures for the device. Ironically, demand was high, but supply was constrained by the complexity of manufacturing the curved screen.

Its more basic sibling, the S6, was too similar to the previous S5 and even S4 to capture customers’ imagination.  It was no surprise, then, that Samsung focused on the devices that made a difference when it staged its latest Galaxy Unpacked event in New York last week.

It unveiled a larger version of the edge, the S6 edge+, pushing it into the “phablet” space with a 5.7-inch screen – up from 5.1-inch on the smaller edition. At the same time, it announced the Note 5, the latest in a series that has redefined the market for larger smartphones.

The original Note, released in 2011, carried a mere 5,3-inch display, but was mocked as being absurdly big. Samsung had the last laugh, selling 10-million units in less than a year, and heralding the dawn of both the “phablet” and demand for larger screens. In a rare misstep, Apple initially dismissed the trend, but eventually succumbed with its iPhone 6 Plus last year.

The next two versions of the Galaxy Note each had a bigger screen, until it maxed out at 5.7-inches, where the new Note 5 has also settled. That appears to be the sweet spot for phablets, and the battle is now one for differentiation rather than format.

At the launch, Samsung Electronics President and CEO JK Shin made a point of reminding the audience of the legacy of the device: “The Note created a category.  Some said we were crazy, but we saw a problem we could solve.”

This time round, the problem was Samsung’s own: “What does it take to stay ahead of the curve?” The answer, he said, was to “start with the rules and bend them”.

The result is two phablets aimed at two entirely different markets. The Note series captured an audience of professional users looking for more productivity from a handset, in particular through the introduction of the S-Pen that allows for handwriting recognition and drawing on a phone.

“The Pen is to the Note what the mouse is to the PC,” Shin explained. The Note 5 plays hard to this strength, with a “more solid, more precise and sensitive” S-Pen, which Shin says feels “like writing with a ballpoint pen”.

The S6 edge+, on the other hand, is aimed firmly at the consumer multimedia market, with an emphasis on content, sharing and consumption.  It improves dramatically on the functionality of the original S6 edge, which only allowed for inclusion of contacts on the secondary side screen. The edge+ allows any apps to be added to the side screen, bringing the notion of a phone edge into its own. This functionality should eventually be rolled out to the original edge phones as well.

The most significant innovation on the edge+ is not entirely on the handset itself. It’s called Live Broadcast, and allows users to share moments directly from the phone, as video.

“Sure there are other video apps that can do that,” said Shin, “but your friends and family have to be signed up with the same platform. With Live Broadcast, you can broadcast directly from the phone to YouTube, and people can watch live or catch up on the feed later.”

Wireless charging based on industry standards means the devices can now be charged in any location where standard wireless pads are provided, such as some Starbucks outlets in the United States. These are expected to become widespread in the near future.

According to Craige Fleisher, Samsung’s Director for Mobile Communications in South Africa, the enhancements to the devices represented a more significant change than the market realised, as they “bring our design innovation to the large screen format”.

Dealing with the power demands of large displays has also represented a major challenge, he said.

“Understanding that power in terms of battery consumption and recharge is a key consideration in terms of consumer purchases, I see Samsung bringing innovation to this environment as we have historically to camera and screen technology.”

Fleisher says the S6 edge+ will arrive in South Africa in the first week of September, while the Note 5 will be released in November.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets

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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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