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2017 the year of reinvention

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It is well into 2017 and companies are coming up with trends that they forecast for the year. LEE NAIK, CEO of TransUnion Africa, discusses the tech trends that matter to local businesses.

It’s well into 2017 and you’ve been bombarded with more trends pieces than you know what to do with. From the many articles covering the CES and Davos to the analyses by the likes of Accenture, McKinsey, Deloitte and other major consultancies, there’s a lot to absorb.

I’d like to apply a more strategic viewpoint. Sound business decisions should not be made on a whim, adopted every time a new, innovative technology claims to be the future of enterprise. To make these decisions easier, I’ve closely researched the predictions of big analysts, cross-referenced it with TransUnion’s extensive bank of data, and put together a shortlist of the innovations that should be at the top of any South African executive’s priority list.

AI becomes part of our everyday lives

Artificial intelligence (AI) came of age in 2016 and will continue to steal the limelight this year. While you may not quite be able to visit an AI-powered theme park just yet, at least you’ll be able to order a pizza while you watch Westworld.

In 2017, Chatbots will dominate headlines, as companies like Starbucks and Domino’s roll out virtual baristas, with retail and banks leading the early adoption charge. Here at home, Mercedes Benz and Absa are just two of the companies that have already bought into this new technology. But before you go all in on chatbots for your organisation, just remember that the technology’s not quite yet at a level to deliver a seamless customer experience by itself.

Less discussed (though hugely significant) will be the enterprise and industry use of AI. Most common will be the use of messaging platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams, incorporating some form of automation and chatbot functionality. And this is just the start: from reporting to research, the automation of knowledge work is already well under way. IBM’s Watson is streamlining cancer diagnosis and treatment, for example.

The Internet of Things comes home (but might bring a nasty surprise)

The advances in machine learning are set to have another big impact – on the mainstream realisation of the Internet of Things (IoT) in the home. The likes of Alexa, Siri and other virtual assistants are nothing new, but we saw a record number of companies at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – from Ford to Whirlpool – bring out compatible products. Smart home devices have always lacked a single unifying platform, but the number of Alexa-compatible devices set to come out this year suggests we might soon have one. The competition is not too far behind either: Google Assistant is already arriving pre-installed on the Google Pixel, and Microsoft’s Cortana is expected to be included in a variety of gadgets released in 2017.

The flipside of the IoT coin will be the challenge of securing intelligent devices from opportunistic cybercriminals. From automation to as-a-service models, hackers have embraced digital innovation as eagerly, if not more so, as legitimate businesses. And the IoT revolution doesn’t just offer a whole new army of hackable devices, but connected business processes that can be exploited as well.

Gartner believes the need for an adaptive security architecture will arise in 2017. What that architecture might look like will be the question that preoccupies many enterprises this year, but it’s likely that it will be powered by machine learning, gathering actionable intelligence in real-time from a variety of sources and adapting as threats evolve. Think next-gen authentication platforms that can tell who you are, simply by analysing behaviour patterns.

Blurring the lines between digital and physical

The PlayStation VR may be the latest virtual reality headset to hit the market, and a sensation at technology trading shows, but experts agree that it’s augmented reality you should be keeping an eye on in 2017. If IDC’s prediction that 3 out of every 10 consumer Fortune 5000 companies will experiment with Augmented Reality (AR) or Virtual Reality (VR) is anything to go by, it’s clear the greatest innovation will be found at the juncture between physical and digital.

Companies will find new ways to use digital technologies to enhance real-world experiences. Take Carnival Cruises, which is rolling out the same technology behind Disney’s MagicBand onto its cruise liners. Or BMW, who’s partnered with Google to allow buyers to check out any of its cars, even if it isn’t in stock, using a virtual showroom. We’ll also see the rise of enterprise IT, as businesses explore using AR tech to boost operational efficiency. With manufacturers such as Lenovo starting to create devices aimed at the enterprise market, we’ll see more and more businesses make use of AR and VR for scenarios such as training and remote stock-taking, and general collaboration.

Betting money on Africa’s FinTech market

It’s important not to focus so much on the headline-grabbing tech – the darlings of CES and Davos – that we ignore the disruptions outside of the American and European bubbles. McKinsey & Company predicts that up to 3 billion people will connect to the digital world – a large portion of that from emerging markets.

With many in these markets still unbanked, a need has arrived for solutions that can turn them into fully digital consumers. As a result, we’re likely to see a convergence of FinTech aimed at financial inclusion and convenience that could allow emerging markets to leapfrog the West.

Keep an eye out for money transfer, POS, microfinance, and mobile payment services to emerge out of Africa this year. As for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the continent will prove a fertile testing ground for alternatives to paper money. This year sees Senegal launch its own digital currency, for example.

Stop thinking big data, start thinking smart data

For years now, businesses have been acquiring more data than they know what to do with. But even with considerable investments in analytics, companies are failing to realise the true value of their data. And a shortage of data science capabilities means businesses are seeking alternate means of securing and using information.

Cue the rise of systems and partners designed around smarter, value-driven data analytics. More and more, businesses will use platforms like Hadoop and Spark to work around their lack of data science expertise. Business Intelligence applications like Power BI and QuickSight should also gain in popularity. At the same time, we’ll see more resources spent on high-level data strategy, as businesses work out ways to use their information as the basis for new services, experiences and models. In 2017, we will see more businesses partner with specialist service providers and original equipment manufacturers (OEM) in order to accelerate the extraction of value from vast data sets.

The reinvention of corporate culture

With all these new game-changing technologies hitting us, never has the task of digitisation been more urgent. In 2017, businesses must continue to find new ways to challenge their current operational models, or run the risk of lagging behind.

There is, of course, the task of adapting to a service-based economy. Not only are we going to see businesses continue to redefine their existing models, but we’ll also see largescale changes to what we think of as corporate culture. From the gig economy and on-demand enterprise to process automation and as-a-service models, these changes will support more elastic, people-centric cultures. Whatever form these changes take, they will all be centred around one thing: unlocking human potential and creativity to be able to innovate and thrive.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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