Amazon has showcased a line-up of new Echo devices that gives Alexa users more ways to interact with its Alexa voice assistant, in a variety of settings. At its hardware unveil event in Seattle, Amazon also announced new Alexa features, smart home experiences, developer tools, and devices and services from Eero, Ring, and other device makers.
The new Echo devices won’t be available directly from Amazon in South Africa, but will be available to those who import it or buy it from online stores who bring product in themselves. To make up for this, Gadget is giving away a second-generation Echo Dot to a winner who enters our competition on Twitter (link).
Users of the Echo devices in South Africa may have to jump through some hoops to get it working. The simplest way would be to activate an Echo device using a computer. One can plug in an Echo device and set it up with a browser by going to alexa.amazon.com .
For those wanting to use the Alexa app, one would need to create a US Google Play or US Apple App Store account and sign in with that to get the app. We do not recommend sideloading the Alexa app from sources other than Google Play or the App Store.
At the launch event, Tom Taylor, Senior Vice President of Amazon Alexa, said: “We love hearing feedback from customers about how they use Alexa throughout their day—whether that’s listening to music, dropping in on a loved one, trying out a new recipe, or playing a game with the family. We hope these new Echo devices will give customers even more ways to access Alexa — whether that’s through the best-sounding Echo device yet, Echo Studio, a reimagined Echo and Echo Dot, new designs like Echo Show 8 and Echo Flex, or new experiences for Alexa on-the-go with earbuds, glasses, and a ring.”
The new Echo features an updated fabric design, with colour options that include Twilight Blue, Charcoal, Heather Grey, and Sandstone. It has the same audio architecture as the Echo Plus, including a 3-inch woofer and increased back volume so the bass feels stronger, and the mids and highs are clearer. It is still being sold for $99, the same price as the previous generation at launch.
At $25, the Echo Flex is a very affordable way to add Alexa to more spaces in the home. It plugs directly into a standard electrical outlet, making it great for those places where cords can be a hassle, like a hallway, garage, or places without a table for the device. It also has a built-in USB port so one can charge a phone or add an optional accessory, like a Smart Night Light or Motion Sensor.
The new Echo Dot features an LED display for displaying the time, which can be useful on a nightstand or countertop. The LED display automatically adjusts based on the brightness of the room, so the lighting shouldn’t be harsh when looking at it at night and should be bright enough to read in brighter daylight conditions. It also adds a sensor to the top of the device to recognise taps, which can be used to snooze an alarm, among other functions.
The Echo Show 8 is a new smart display that features an 8-inch HD display, crisp and powerful audio, and a built-in camera shutter. With the display, one can ask Alexa to call up TV shows on Amazon Prime Video or, through a new integration with Food Network, one can watch a video recipe when using Echo in the kitchen. Food Network Kitchen subscribers will also be able to take live and on-demand cooking classes from Food Network chefs, get step-by-step cooking instructions, and have access to tens of thousands of recipes.
Click here to read about the new Alexa-enables professional sound devices, earphones, glasses, among many others announced at the Amazon event.
The shape of the SME future
What does the future of technology look like for South Africa’s SMEs? COLIN TIMMIS, general country manager of Xero SA and a professional accountant, looks into the tech crystal ball
Over the past decade, technology has radically changed the way businesses operate. Now, even small businesses have access to powerful tools that were previously expensive or complicated.
The pace of change has been rapid – and it’s unlikely to slow down. Businesses must keep up with technology to stay competitive. According to research conducted by Citrix, 92% of companies across South Africa’s key industries agree that digital adoption directly affects company profits. However, 54% still feel unprepared for the future.
So, what does the future of technology look like for South Africa’s small businesses? How can the other 46% of companies prepare?
5G and WiFi 6 – faster internet speed
In the foreseeable future, we will see a rapid increase in the use of fibre across South Africa. According to Xero’s State of Small Business Report produced with World Wide Worx, 49% of small businesses surveyed used ADSL connections and only 37% used fibre. When asked to describe their internet connections, 45% said they were ‘great’, while 43% said they were ‘okay but not 100% reliable’. 57% of those who said their connection was ‘great’ were fibre users.
South Africa is still playing catch-up in terms of internet connectivity and speed. However, WiFi 6 is set to improve the way routers distribute traffic to connected devices and increase the transfer speeds by around 30%. For when you’re on the go, 5G is the next generation of mobile data standard. It’s already being trialed by South African carrier Rain, and a broader rollout is expected in 2020.
Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence – more efficient software
Even if you aren’t aware of it, you’re probably already using smart software which leverages machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) in your business. While only a tiny proportion of respondents (0.25%) from Xero’s State of Small Business Report say they are using them, most businesses are aware of how important they are.
AI and ML are great at taking large amounts of data and spotting patterns that humans might miss. They help businesses cover some of the more routine tasks so they are freed-up to focus on the most important priorities. For example, tedious tasks like bank reconciliation, can now be completely automated.
Blockchain – safer, more secure transfers
If you hear ‘blockchain’ and think ‘cryptocurrency,’ you’re not alone. However, the technology also has something to offer when it comes to existing payment technologies. Through its complexity and high level of encryption, integration with blockchain can make transferring valuable assets more secure. It can also be used for more effective fraud prevention and other security-focused tasks.
The cloud – access data everywhere
Cloud computing is starting to become a standard part of life for many small businesses in South Africa today. According to Xero’s State of Small Business report, 19% of respondents surveyed make use of cloud technology. Of these respondents, 98% reported a significant increase in profit thanks to adopting this technology – and 99% identified an increase in efficiency.
The trend towards cloud adoption is likely to continue as we see the development of technologies, like faster speed through fibre, WiFi 6, 5G, and machine learning powering it.
Integrated financial software
When it comes to accounting in a small business, these new technologies will enable much smarter ways of working. Take bank reconciliation, for example, where cloud storage and machine learning will search through documents and expenses on your behalf to compile reports.
Eventually, we will be able to access everything we want in one integrated, seamless hub. We can see this development through the use of app integration. Xero has 800+ apps already compatible, which enables small businesses to automate, gain better insight and grow their businesses all through one ecosystem of partners.
Access to capital
Open banking, the process of banks and financial services opening their APIs to the market, will shape how businesses access funding. By sharing their financial data instantly, potential investors have immediate access to a company’s revenue, profits and cashflow – enabling them to make fast, informed decisions.
Platforms like Xero keep all of a company’s financial data up to date. That way, when the company needs to file for a loan their documents are ready to go. Xero is also continuously pursuing new partnerships to help fuel small business growth. Earlier this year Xero partnered with three new alternative lenders, to help improve access to funding.
Digital adoption offers an island of stability in the volatile South African economy. Technology allows businesses to run more efficiently, remain globally integrated, and maximise their profits. Companies which keep up with the latest technology, from incorporating it into their processes to training staff, will have a real advantage over their competitors.
Cash is here to stay, and other trends shaping payments
As we enter the next decade, local and African merchants should support payment methods that suit their customers, rather than following global trends just for the sake of it. Peter Harvey, MD of payment service provider, DPO SA, looks at five trends we can expect over the next few years.
- Cash is here to stay – for now
Despite common perceptions, South Africa still has more than 11 million unbanked individuals and cash remains the preferred payment method for these and many other customers.
Harvey says: “As we enter 2020, we can expect a host of new digital payment technologies that sound like excellent options – and they may well be for some – but merchants need to carefully monitor their customer behaviour before they rush to try the latest gadget or fad.”
According to Harvey the banks and card companies like Visa and Mastercard will be placing a large focus on enticing consumers to move from cash to card-based payments in the coming years.
“Overcoming the reliance on cash will take a fair amount of time and effort,” says Harvey. “For merchants trading in a cash-based community, depositing money into a bank that tracks your spending, charges you to store your money, and then charges you again to withdraw it can seem unattractive. At the end of the day consumers will make their decision based on convenience, cost and risk.”
Card payments are expected to morph over the coming years. In South Africa the tap and pay method is becoming more commonplace. Harvey believes this and other near field communication (NFC) methods of card payments will continue to grow in use as shoppers become more trusting of the technology and retailers see the efficiency benefits of moving customers through their purchase cycle more quickly and easily.
- Mobile is still king
There is no doubt that the means to facilitate most digital payments in Africa will depend on mobile technology.
According to South African communications regulator, ICASA, South Africa has a smartphone penetration of 80%. In Sub-Saharan Africa meanwhile, the mobile phone penetration is 50% and the GSMA expects smartphone penetration to grow from around 40% to 66% in 2025.
Harvey says smartphone technology and wearable technology will allow for the growth in some of the newer payment tech, like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, but these payment methods will remain in the hands of the top LSMs and have little effect on the bottom of the pyramid customer base.
“For the moment USSD technology will still underpin the majority of mobile payment methods. Until smartphones increase in penetration, payments like m-Pesa will continue to dominate. Customers know and trust the solution and its these types of offerings that will need to be beaten by any new entrant over the next two to three years at least.”
- New decade, new banks
Harvey is upbeat about the new digital-only bank offerings like Tyme Bank, Bank Zero and Discovery Bank.
“It appears that 20Twenty was two decades too soon,” says Harvey. “The local markets are now finally ready for a new digital offering without the fuss and cost of the traditional offering. These banks stand a good chance of making an impact and making headway towards financial inclusion in the country.”
Harvey believes, that in order to boost the number of people using digital payments, the banking institutions, merchants and payment service providers need to start incentivising consumers to make the switch. Loyalty and Rewards will start playing an even bigger role in the near future.
- New services for the payment ecosystem
Based on demand, Harvey believes forward thinking payment service providers will work closely with their banking partners to focus on providing their mutual merchants with a ‘fully managed service’. This service includes: instant sign-up; a full suite of payment products; risk screening; account reconciliation; anti money laundering checks; access to shopping cart plugins; and a variety of other value-added services in the online digital payment space.
These services will enable digital retailers to quickly and easily start selling their services online, while protecting them from the associated risks.
The service benefits the banks as well as the broader digital ecosystem, as the payment service provider actively monitors and manages merchants and transactions, removing risk from the process and facilitating ‘good’ transactions.
- Identity technology takes centre stage
Looking at newer technologies, Harvey believes biometrics will continue to be the key focus.
Harvey says voice and facial recognition are set to take off in South Africa in 2020 and 2021 and he believes the key driver in this regard is the increasing use by the government.
“Banks and Home Affairs teaming up for the renewal of ID documents and passports is a major win for the average citizen,” Harvey says. “This falls neatly into the ‘convenience’ motivator and as people use and trust the biometrics used by the banks for this service, they will become less afraid to try it for payments.”
As technology rapidly improves, the payments ecosystem can expect some exciting advancements over the coming decade. Chat commerce and even augmented and virtual reality developments will almost all come with payment features. However, Harvey cautions against over exuberance.
Harvey says “Make sure you cater for what your customer actually wants, not what you think they should want. If working closely with African merchants, banks and customers has shown us anything, it’s that the fastest way to drive away business, is to dictate how customers pay. Provide the options and let them choose.”