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How apps boost SMEs

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Small business owners looking need to increase productivity and profits need to change their outlook on technology and should even start making use of mobile apps, writes COLIN TIMMIS, SA Head of Accounting, Xero.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), labour productivity in South Africa has trended downwards since 2011 – and, in the 47 years between 1967 and 2014, it’s declined by 41%. While this is concerning, it hasn’t hampered

South Africa’s thriving small business community as confidence is running high: according to research recently conducted by Xero and WWW, some 58% of small business owners anticipate growth within the next year.

To drive growth and make immediate, impactful improvements to productivity, small businesses should focus on technology: it plays a crucial role in maximising efficiency and generating profits. It’s encouraging that many South African small businesses already recognise this: 47% consider it “very important”, while 19% go as far as to call it “essential”. However, we still have some way to go, as 26% consider PCs to be necessary business tools, and only 6% consider their internet connection to be crucial. A mere 4% of respondents believe smartphones to be essential – and 10% don’t have one at all.

So if you’re a small business owner looking to increase profits and efficiency, your top priorities should be to rethink your approach to technology and, in particular, consider how mobile apps might revolutionise the way you run your business.

Which apps can help me simplify my business?

40% of South African small businesses rely on paper records and spreadsheets, and research suggests that 88% of these spreadsheets contain errors. When you’re handling sensitive data, it’s important that it’s done quickly and accurately.

The age of the app has given rise to more SME-friendly tools. It’s now possible to automate and consolidate functions like payroll, bookkeeping, training, and marketing – and if you take advantage, you’ll spare yourself a big headache.

Within the mobile Salesforce dashboard, for example, you can manage customer relationships, monitor employee work performance, and send marketing material with Pardot – much easier than logging in and out of several different applications.

What’s the most cost-effective option?

Some 39% of the businesses we surveyed reported cashflow concerns, which have a direct influence on whether or not the business can afford the tools it needs. An increase in labour productivity only matters if you’re making money – which becomes exponentially more difficult if the tech you’re using is unaffordable.

Where enterprise software can be exorbitant on a perpetual license, tools like Slack, CamScanner and Evernote offer unlimited free plans for smaller teams. If you need to scale up, you can usually upgrade to premium for a reasonable monthly fee – significantly cheaper than an outright purchase.

Which apps can give my team more flexibility?

The modern employee demands flexibility, and modern apps can give it to them. Project management software like Trello and Asana make it possible to keep track of individual tasks and assignees, while the cloud-based hosting service of Dropbox allows you to access whatever you need from anywhere across the globe.

What’s more, you don’t lose anything by allowing your employees to work in their preferred way: it actually has a positive effect on their productivity.

That said, adopting technology isn’t just a means of improving labour productivity. It’s a chance for South Africa’s SME community to give itself a shot in the arm. The analogue world is receding further into the distance. We are in the age of the app, the smart device, and the

hot desk. Soon enough, we’ll be in the age of the ‘Internet of Things’.

If small businesses make strategic use of the right apps, they’ll not only improve productivity and profits: they’ll carve out a place for themselves in a bright – and not-so-distant – future.

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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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