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7 Ages of data

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The Mobility 2012 research findings released last week uncovered the age divide in mobile data use in South Africa. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK drills down.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, broadband beauty is in the eye of the downloader. Or rather, the age of the beholder.

It turns out that, the older you are, the less data you use, and the younger you are, the less satisfied you are with data download speeds.

This is one of the more intriguing findings from our Mobility 2012 research project, conducted in June this year. The most important overall finding was that South African cellphone users are using more of their phone budget on data and less on voice than 18 months ago. At the end of 2010, data made up 8% of average spend on cellphones. At the end of June 2012, that had gone up by half, to 12%. Voice spending dropped from 77% of average phone budget to 73%.

Within those statistics, however, lurked a fascinating trend: the proportion of spend is directly related to age the younger the user, the higher the proportion. This doesn’t mean that younger users spend more Rands on data. In fact, it may well be less, as their overall spending on their cellphones is lower than for older users.

For example, those aged 16-18, on average, spend 17% of their phone budget on data, while those aged 46 and over spend only 11% – but of a much larger budget. For this reason, the networks have not yet felt the full effect of this trend in terms of declining voice revenues. But they are feeling the effect all the same.

In its recent annual results, Vodacom announced that voice revenues grew by less than 3% over the past year, while data revenue grew by a massive 28%.

The new findings, however, should be a wake up call to networks that they cannot treat all users the same, and have to start bundling, packaging and marketing voice and data services differently to different market segments.

In particular, they need to appreciate the differences between the 7 ages of data. It looks something like this, backed up with a few statistics from our research:

1. Infancy (under 12): Gimme games, gimme games. Oh wait, look, a new game! Gimme!

2. Teenager (12-15): Data costs nothing, because mom or dad pays for it. And I need it to chat with my friends, because they’re all on WhatsApp, Mxit and BBM.

3. The pre-adult (16-18): Data is what I do. Voice? Oh yeah, some people still expect that. 20% of phone spend is on data, 17% on SMS (any text is good text), only 58% on voice.

4. The young adult (19-24): 17% of phone spend is on data, but only 11% on SMS. You have to watch those student budgets in case of dating emergency, you know? 66% goes to voice.

5. The rising star (25-35): 14% of phone spend is on data. Why use my own if I can use the company’s? SMS gets 12% of my budget, and voice 72%.

6. Settling down (36-45): 11% of phone spend is on data, and most of it is my kids showing me how this app download thing works. 13% on SMS, because that’s the kind of messaging I know. 74% on voice, but it’s a big 74% because I have more disposable income than any of those data-hugger kids.

7. Past all that (46+): 6% of phone spend is on data, but that was by accident. Oh, you mean e-mail uses data? Oh well, then. And 11% on SMS, because I grew up with it. 81% on voice, because I don’t need my reading glasses to talk. But it’s my talking that keeps the networks’ voice departments in the money.

Of course, these are averages, so you do get the odd 18-year-old who doesn’t know how to optimize a WiFi access point, and you do get the occasional 60-year-old geek who is addicted to Angry Birds Space.

But in general, how old you are, how much you have to spend, and how you spend it will dictate what phone as well as what voice and data package is best for you. One size sure doesn’t fit all ages.

* For more on the Mpobility 2012 project, visit http://www.worldwideworx.com

* Follow Arthur Goldstuck on Twitter on @art2gee

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The hacker, the scrapheap, and the first Apollo computer

Three years ago, a Tshwane computer engineer tracked down the “lost” first Apollo space flight guidance computer. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK retells the story on Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary.

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It’s not often that a YouTube video on a technical topic gives one goosebumps. And it’s not often that someone unpacking a computer makes history.

Francois Rautenbach, a computer hardware and software engineer from Tshwane, achieved both with a series of videos he quietly posted on YouTube in 2016, and shared by Gadget.

AS-202 launch (2)
Flight AS-202 lifts off on 25 August 1966.

It showed the “unboxing” of a batch of computer modules that had been found in a pile of scrap metal 40 years ago and kept in storage ever since. Painstaking gathering of a wide range of evidence, from documents to archived films, had convinced Rautenbach he had tracked down the very first Guidance and Navigation Control computer, used on a test flight of the Saturn 1B rocket and the Apollo Command and Service Modules.

SAMSUNG CSC
The Rope Memory Modules from Flight AS-202’s Guidance Computer.

Apollo-Saturn 202, or Flight AS-202, as it was officially called, was the first to use an onboard computer – the same model that would eventually take Apollo 11 to the moon. Rautenbach argued that the computer on AS-202 was also the world’s first microcomputer. That title had been claimed for several computers made in later years, from the Datapoint 2200 built by CTC in 1970 to the Altair 8800 designed in 1974. The AS-202 flight computer goes back to the middle of the previous decade.

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The Apollo lunar module, flown to the moon using the same Guidance Computer model that had been successfully tested on Flight AS-202.

His video succinctly introduced the story: “On 25th August 1966,  a very special computer was launched into space onboard Apollo flight AS-202. This was the first computer to use integrated circuits and the first release of the computer that took the astronauts to the moon. Until recently, the software for the Block 1 ACG (Apollo Guidance Computer) was thought to be lost…”

One can be forgiven for being sceptical, then, when he appeared on screen for the first time to say, “I’ve got here with me the software for the first microcomputer.”

Then he unwrapped the first package and says: “Guys, these modules contain the software for the first microcomputer that was ever built, that was ever used.”

The goosebumps moment came when he revealed the NASA serial number on a device called a Rope Memory Module, and declared: “These modules are the authentic flight AS-202 software modules. These were found on a rubbish dump, on a scrap metal heap, about 40 years ago … and we are going to extract the software from this module.”

In a series of three videos, he extracted the software, showed how the computer was constructed, and used a hospital X-Ray machine to inspect its insides. The third video started with the kind of phrase that often sets off the hoax-detectors in social media: “Okay, so you guys won’t believe what I’ve been doing today.” But, in this case, it was almost unbelievable as Rautenbach took the viewer through a physical inspection of the first Apollo guidance computer.

How did an engineer from Tshwane stumble upon one of the great treasures of the computer age? He tended to avoid the limelight, and described himself as “a hardware/software engineer who loves working on high-velocity projects and leading small teams of motivated individuals”.

In an interview with Gadget, he said: “I am the perpetual hacker always looking for a new challenge or problem to solve. I have experience in designing digital hardware and writing everything from embedded firmware to high-level security systems. Much of the work I did over the last five years revolved around building new and creative payment solutions.”

The breadth of his work gave him the expertise to investigate, verify, and extract the magic contained in the AS-202 computer. A global network of contacts led him to the forgotten hardware,  and that is when the quest began in earnest.

“I got interested in the Apollo Guidance Computer after reading a book by Frank O’Brien (The Apollo Guidance Computer: Architecture and Operation). Most of us grew up with the fallacy that the AGC was less powerful than a basic programmable calculator. I discovered that this was far from the truth and that the AGC was in fact a very powerful and capable computer.

“I started communicating with experts in the field and soon realised that there was a wealth of information available on the AGC and the Apollo space program in general.

“One day I received some photos of AGC Rope Memory modules from a friend in Houston marked ‘Flight 202’. After a little googling, I realised that these modules contained the software from Flight AS-202. As I learned more about AS-202, I discovered that this was the first time the AGC was used in an actual flight.”

Rautenbach eventually tracked down the source of the photos: a man who had picked up the entire computer, with memory modules, at an auction, as part of a three-ton lot of scrap metal.

“At one point he opened up to me and said he had other modules. He admitted he had a full Apollo guidance computer, and my theory was that it was used to develop the Apollo 11 guidance computer.  He sent me more information, and I thought he had THE computer.

“He’s got all this junk in his backyard. He started selling stuff on eBay and one day got a visit from the FBI wanting to know where he got it. He was able to find the original invoice and showed it to them and they went away. But it scared him and he didn’t want to tell anyone else in the USA what he had. Not being from America was an advantage.”

Rautenbach flew to Houston last year, opened the sealed packages and filmed the process.

“This was the first microcomputer. I opened it and played with it.  I realised this was the first computer that actually flew. I also found Rope Memory modules that said Flight 202, and he didn’t know what that was. I found it was from AS-202, and I said we can extract stuff from this.”

Rautenbach paid a deposit to borrow the units and have them sent to South Africa, so that he could extract and rebuild the software. He also made contact with Eldon Hall, leader of the team that developed the Apollo guidance computer and author of the 1966 book, Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer.

The correspondence helped him verify the nature of the “scrap”. The Apollo command module from flight AS-202 was restored and is now on permanent display on the USS Hornet, the legendary aircraft carrier used to recover many Apollo command modules and now a museum. However, the computer parts were sold as scrap in 1976. And NASA never preserved a single copy of the software that had been used on its first guidance computer.

Fortunately, a sharp-eyed speculator realised the lot may contain something special. He sold off some of the scrap over the years, until that visit by the FBI. He still preferred to remain nameless.

In August 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of AS-202, Rautenbach quietly began posting the evidence online. He also announced that the raw data he had extracted would be made available to anyone who wished to analyse it.

His videos on the unboxing of the AS-202 computer and the extraction of the software can be viewed on YouTube at http://bit.ly/as202, where he also planned to post instructions for accessing the software.

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

NASA’s description of flight AS-202 can be found at: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=APST202

Technical specifications of the Apollo Guidance Computer can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Guidance_Computer

Apollo comes back to Pretoria

Francois Rautenbach pointed out that South Africa played a prominent role during the 93 minutes of flight AS-202: “Pretoria is mentioned no less than three times in the post-flight report. The AS-202 flight actually reached it’s highest point above South Africa. The telemetry data from the flight were recorded on computer tape at Hartebeesthoek and later shipped back to NASA.”

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Cloud makes business magic

A cloud summit conference last week illustrated the dramatic way the cloud can transform an organisation’s capacity.

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What do the movies have in common with banks? Aside from the billions of rands and dollars that flow through both industries, they seem worlds apart. Yet, in the world of cloud computing, they are suddenly close neighbours.

It’s not just that both now tend to host their services in the cloud, accessible from any connected device anywhere in the world. Now, they can take advantage of the lessons, systems and strategies that each has adopted in the cloud.

One of the best-known examples of leveraging the cloud for global impact is Netflix, which hosts its content in the data centres of Amazon Web Services (AWS), the world’s largest cloud computing service. Along with videos and movies, it also uses applies regional licensing frameworks via this cloud platform, meaning it can instantly launch new services and videos worldwide that comply with local regulations in every country.

At last week’s AWS Summit in Cape Town, it became clear just how powerful the cloud can be for South African organisations. One of South Africa’s oldest insurance companies, one of the country’s largest universities and the country’s newest bank all took to the stage to share case studies of how the cloud had transformed their operations.

That is probably all that Old Mutual, the University of Pretoria and TymeBank have in common, but they slotted in neatly to a bigger story: the cloud is available to any institution or business, large or small, old or new. This is the underlying secret to the astonishing growth of TymeBank, South Africa’s first fully digital bank, and the first entity to receive a banking license in this country in 19 years.

Launched earlier this year, it currently brings 100,000 new customers on board every month. To achieve this, it uses no less than 54 distinct services available on the AWS platform, says Dieter Botha, chief information officer of the bank.

“We’ve got so many services in the ecosystem. From a security point of view, every single one of our customers’ conversations with banks comes into the AWS world via a security layer, a content delivery network, web application firewall and AWS’s Advanced Shield, so we are pretty resilient from cyber attacks. The primary purpose is to make sure our face to the world is protected from attack.”

The most fascinating aspect of their ability to leverage the AWS cloud, however, was the fact that they were able to piggyback on processes and systems that streaming video giant Netflix had created for its own services in the cloud.

“They’ve got what we call the Netflix stack, a set of tools they put together that makes it easier to manage microservices, small elements of computer processes that run in what are called containers.”

Netflix built its own application containers, on top of an open-source platform, meaning that anyone could use and adapt the systems it had developed. However, that was only a starting point while TymeBank was pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.

“This is where we say, if you take a step back, this stuff is very cool, but it translates into an element of risk. From a risk point of view, rather than using that scaffolding, we said let’s take our microservices container, and get an animal like AWS to run it for us. So we’re effectively replacing the Netflix stack with AWS and its native services.

“Now our techies can just focus on the code inside our operations rather than build the heavy scaffolding we had to worry about. The documentation is so good on AWS, because they have real technical gurus who understand the systems, that it de-risks our services.”

Netflix wasn’t the only everyday consumer service that played its part on building TymeBank. It turns out that many of the global giants have made their systems and learnings available to anyone on the world. The bank turned to a product from none other than Facebook to help build its Web presence.

“When you look under the hood of our Internet banking product, the programming language is JavaScript, but Facebook has packed it into a framework for building their pages. They then open-sourced it, and called it React, which makes it easier to use it. Our Internet banking product is built using the Facebook React framework. In the exact same way, Netflix are also releasing frameworks to the Open Source community all the time.”

As TymeBank refines its services and migrates deeper and deeper into the Amazon cloud, it has also been able to cut costs dramatically.

“We found as we’ve grown and become more comfortable in that cloud and more skilled in the use of the cloud, we began consuming more native services, meaning they are designed to run in the cloud. That’s a really big deal for us. That’s when you see the benefits of the cloud ecosystem. One native service can trigger another, because they talk to each other well.

“This includes a set of services that help you manage your life and bills in the cloud. People forget about costs. Now we can tag a lot of our services in the AWS cloud to understand exactly what is driving cost points, and we are able to manage costs right down to the level of the techies.

“Traditionally, if you sign a contract with a big supplier, it gets filed away, and the techies don’t even know what is driving costs. By tagging services in the cloud, you’re giving cost knowledge to your techies, and it’s in their power to push it up and down. You give them the power to understand costs and manage them. That’s never been possible before.”

This partly explains why TymeBank is able to bring the monthly cost of having a bank account to exactly zero. It is only when one starts using its services that banking fees kick in.

However, the fact that a 174-year-old insurance company like Old Mutual and a 156-year-old like Standard Bank are also rapidly migrating to the AWS platform is a clear message that the cloud is not just for newcomers.

Both institutions began offering their services in the middle of the 18th century, when the concept of technology barely existed. Yet, the constant evolution and falling price of cutting-edge tech like cloud computing has meant they can not only survive, but even thrive, in the presence of young upstarts like TymeBank.

  • 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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