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On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a fridge

Why can’t experts predict the weather accurately? That’s one of the modern world’s longest-running jokes and even Simon Gear, South Africa’s most popular meteorologist, often admits that even he gets it wrong.



But at the very least, it can help us pack a jersey or motivate for that extra round of golf by pointing at the forecast for sunshine. In some cases, such as the Capetonian drought, it’s even more relevant.

Suffice it to say, we talk about the weather a lot and, armed with modern weather apps, we have made it more parcel to our lifestyles than ever before – even if predictions aren’t always on the money. Yet recently the weather became a much more active part of my world when it joined my connected reality.

I have a rather substantial garden, one that demands its own levels of attention including watering. For that, I relied on a standard controller that would periodically open the taps to the sprinklers. But recently it was replaced with a new controller, one we’ve taken to call ‘Diamond,’ because my wife loves it so much. Diamond can do what my previous controller did, then goes much further. A true Internet of Things (IoT) gadget, it has smarts that changed the way I water my garden.

Once Diamond connected to my wifi, it asked for my location, as well as the type of plants found in the different watering zones, and the watering times. It then devised a smart metering schedule which can be dynamically informed by the predictions from Simon and his peers. That’s right, by using an online connection, Diamond is aware of any afternoon precipitation and will thus avoid doing any watering. While the rest of us murmur on about the weather, Diamond makes it a central part of its life without any instruction. Costing on the lower end of a few thousand Rands, Diamond will pay for itself in no time through water savings.

Diamond is a simple example of the IoT phenomenon. When you hear predictions about billions of connected devices and how they will change the world, Diamond is a contributor to that reality. From doorbells that send photos of the visitor to your phone, to industrial equipment that alerts operators that they require repairs: such devices will provide us with many new ways to engage with, and manage, our society.

Consider electricity consumption; I recently spent some time with Prof. Willie Cronje and his team from the Wits’ School of Electrical & Information Engineering. They are doing exceptional work on pico-grids, interoperable with multiple electrical sources; and storage devices such as solar panels, wind generators, batteries, and the like. They are also working on IoT devices that will regulate electricity consumption and spending. These make decisions such as switching other devices on and off at the optimal time. One example is a simple fridge unit that will cause fridges and freezers to “overcool” when electricity is cheaper.

Smart devices are getting smarter, and cheaper, by the day. In addition, their ability to make micro decisions in split seconds based on accurate information is mind-blowing. What the impact will be on our world is still impossible to predict. Some go so far as to imply a luxurious utopia for all. That’s far too naive for me, but there is no denying the massive potential hidden in this new era. That also implies new areas of uncertainty which is why we should debate and weigh the potential of smart devices around us. Whatever the future will be, rest assured it will be written through the influence of a smart, connected world. It’s not a topic anyone in a position to make decisions should ignore or take for granted.

What possibilities do these devices pose for tomorrow? That’s a topic all on its own. In the next instalment of this series, I will comment more on the prevalent economic and cultural dynamics of this convergence.

But in the meantime, my garden looks great, my water bill is lower, and my wife is very impressed with this new controller. In just a few swift changes it’s made my previous system look like a relic from prehistoric times. Pretty soon that experience will resonate in systems and services all around us. Your fridge will no longer be a fridge. It will be a connected decision-maker, acting in our interest. But online, it will be just one of the billions of IoT devices changing how we run the world.

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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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