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AI no new kid on block

Artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be the new kid on the block, but the truth is it is not, and many think it is just a hype but AI is here to stay, says BRENDAN MCARAVEY, Country Manager at Citrix South Africa.



Artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be the new kid on the block. Everybody is talking about it, and there is a flood of IT products that feature some variety of AI, from machine learning (ML) algorithms to neural networks and deep learning. In this situation, it is tempting to think of AI as just more hype, a fad that will go away in a few months. For various reasons, though, AI is here to stay.

First of all, it’s important to remember that AI isn’t actually new, the technology dates back to the 1950s when a computer learned to develop its own board game strategy. The 1980s saw a wave of expert systems designed to support human professionals in various fields, while in the 1990s and 2000s, AI-based systems were utilised for business-related data mining and medical research, among other things.

The current peak of interest in AI is caused by two recent developments. First, compute power and storage capacities have become incredibly inexpensive. In the 1950s, for example, storage hardware that could hold 3.75 MBytes of data – enough storage space for just one present-day low-resolution photograph – was so big it had to be moved by forklift truck. Today, one can buy a USB stick that can store thousands of high-resolution pictures – and you can easily move it in your pocket, no need for a forklift. At the same time, cloud service providers, especially the hyperscalers, have made seemingly limitless compute power and storage capacities available for always-on private and commercial use.

The second important trend is IoT. A huge variety of devices – from mobile gadgets to factories and facilities – are now equipped with sensor technology, often even with multiple sensors. These sensors generate a steadily increasing flood of data that needs to be processed, analyzed, and acted upon.

The interplay of these data feeds has become so complex that the consequences tend to escape the human eye. For example, analysis of sporadic variations in a machine’s behavior might indicate that maintenance will soon be required, a monitoring approach named ‘predictive maintenance’. Today, these kinds of ‘needle in a haystack’ data discoveries can be performed much faster and more accurately with modern AI-based technology than by humans.

Compute power and storage will continue to become cheaper and more powerful. At the same time, the need for analysis of complex data relations will escalate. This is why AI will become increasingly entrenched in IT and IoT management.

In this context, AI isn’t just for academic research or business trend analysis anymore. For example, it can be used for managing and securing digital workspaces, as it can detect suspicious deviations from users’ normal behavior. Specialised, AI-driven software will alert security teams as soon as, for example, users suddenly start to download files from a server they had never accessed before, and for which they have no access rights. This kind of behavior, potentially a sign of a compromised end user account, can be incredibly hard to detect by manual log file screening – yet it is a routine task for AI-based security analytics software.

In a similar way, AI will soon assist in improving the digital workspace user experience by correlating performance indicators across the chain of apps, services, and network connections that end users need for their daily work. Just like the predictive maintenance scenario in a factory, AI will soon correlate and analyze all components of a digital workspace, informing IT staff about looming quality-of-service degradation.

New software solutions and cloud services will soon make AI a commodity – something that is integrated into all kinds of products and services, in the consumer market as well as in the enterprise. Yet for the foreseeable future, AI will not be able to replace humans in IT management and security, as it lacks human intuition. When a mother scolds a child saying, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”, the child knows the answer is supposed to be: “No”. An artificial intelligence would answer: “Yes!” – for if everybody does it, it must be alright. However, AI is very good at finding the proverbial ‘needle in the haystack’, at repetitive, extensive data analysis – tasks which are very hard for humans. So, in spite of its limitations, AI-based IT management tools provide a big leap forward in making digital workspaces and cloud environments more secure, efficient, and reliable for end users – while saving the IT team time and money.


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.



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, 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.



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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