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The shape of 2018

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The next wave of digital technologies like chatbots and augmented reality are on their way and the promise to change our lives as dramatically as the smartphone did, says ERNST WITTMANN, Regional Manager – Southern and East Africa at TCL

We’re seeing technologies such as chatbots, augmented reality and video that has transformed the way we use our mobile devices. Here are a few of the mobile and digital trends that are likely to unfold during 2018.

  1. Artificial Intelligence and chatbots

Artificial intelligence and chatbots will continue to mature next year, making it easier than ever for people to interact with technology and to carry out complex tasks. Powered by machine learning (computer systems that learn from experience without being programmed) and Artificial Intelligence, natural language processing allows us to speak or type to computers in our usual sentences, simplifying our interface with devices and apps.

Robo-advisors are already a hot trend in financial services—these are smart bots that give wealth management advice on a website or mobile app. Gartner forecasts that such chatbots will power 85% of all customer service interactions by 2020. Virtual assistants that live on your smartphone are also becoming increasingly popular. One example is Google Assistant, which lets you ask for directions to the nearest Chinese restaurant, send messages, check appointments, and so on, using your voice.

We’ll use voice recognition and chatbots for applications as diverse as seeking technical support for a new washing machine to making a mortgage application to seeking investment advice. And virtual assistants on mobile phones will become ever more powerful and allow us to automate more tasks. For example, what if Google Assistant could not only tell you where the Chinese restaurant is, but also make a booking for you?

  1. Augmented and virtual reality

IDC forecasts that global spending on augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) will nearly double from $9.1 billion in 2017 to $17.8 billion next year. AR/VR traffic on the Internet will increase 20-fold between 2016 and 2021, according to Cisco. Both technologies have been around in some form for several years, but companies have struggled to find practical uses for them.

When it comes to consumer VR, the technology remains expensive and gaming dominates the landscape. Consumers today need to buy expensive, dedicated hardware to get a true VR experience. Prices of this equipment are likely to fall in 2018, while smartphone VR headsets will also get cheaper and better.  Apps will become more diverse—we’ll see a healthy mix of educational, simulation, virtual tourism and entertainment applications come to market.

AR captures the world through a mobile device camera and puts a digital overlay on the video and image the user sees on the display. Applications are numerous—from seeing how furniture you’re browsing on a retailer’s website might look in your lounge to providing labels and information about the parts in your car when you’re trying to find out why it won’t start in the morning.

In 2018, the technology looks set to build on the popularity of crazes such as the Pokemon Go AR game a couple of years back, and AR lenses for Snapchat. Cool apps are starting to come to market—there’s a great AR feature in the Google Translate app that lets you point your camera at text in a foreign language (a street sign, for example) and view the translation on your display.

We can expect to see great strides in 2018, for applications ranging from marketing to corporate learning and training. Google’s ARCore tools for building AR apps for Android will help fuel growth—every Android smartphone beyond Nougat with a camera is essentially ready for advanced AR apps. ARCore is a platform that simplifies the development of augmented reality apps on Android. It uses:

·         Motion tracking to understand and track the phone’s position relative to the world.

·         Environmental understanding to detect the size and location of flat horizontal surfaces like the ground or a coffee table.

·         Light estimation allows the phone to estimate the environment’s current lighting conditions.

  1. The Internet of Things

Gartner estimates that there are more than 8.4 billion “Things” available on the internet today, up more than 30% from a year ago. Sensors and devices are taking over in smart homes, cities, offices, cars and factories, ranging from control instrumentation to streetlights to smoke detectors.  These devices can monitor themselves and the environment around them (temperature or GPS location, for example), and share this data with other devices and services.

They can use this data to automate actions—for example, a shelf sensor could request inventory when stock is running out—and provide humans with real-time data for better decision-making—for example, a shop floor manager can get info about machine uptime and potential maintenance issues in a factory. This enables companies to drive down operational costs and improve productivity.

  1. Visual search

This trend is closely related to the growing maturity of technologies such as image recognition. With visual search, you simply point your smartphone’s camera at a work of art, a building, a household appliance or even a part for your car. The visual search app will be able to identify the object, and possibly even direct you to sites where you can purchase it online if it’s for sale or find more information.

Google is currently trialling visual search in its Google Lens feature. Pinterest also has a similar feature called Pinterest Lens, and Amazon’s CamFind can helps shoppers locate a real-world item in Amazon’s inventory by snapping a photo.

  1. More and more video

People will increasingly watch more video content online—especially on their mobile devices—in the years to come. Cisco’s research indicates that IP video traffic will be 82% of all consumer Internet traffic by 2021, partly driven by a doubling of video-on-demand traffic between 2016 and 2021. Live Internet video will enjoy especially strong growth, growing 15-fold from 2016 to 2021 and accounting for 13% of Internet video traffic by 2021.

Social media networks such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram have all launched live streaming video, and adoption is rapidly growing among consumers and brands alike. People are beginning to share experiences such as concerts and holidays in real-time with their friends and families; companies are likely to use live video to supplement brand activations, for virtual launch parties and even candid behind-the-scenes looks at their offices and factories.

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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.

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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 Amazon.com, 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.

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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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