Month: April 2012

Does technology dictate our lives?

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Here is an interesting question – do we have a choice to use technology or not?  This may seem like a silly question that has no meaning.  But …

There are two basic ways of thinking about this – technology is inevitable, it is a progression over which we have no choice.  We must accept it.  It is human nature to want to innovate and improve the way we live. We want more efficiency in our lives.  We want a better standard of living.  Let me present an example.  If you are reading this blog, you have access to a computer or smart-phone, internet connectivity and probably a telephone.  Think about looking for employment.  You would probably Google “job seeker” (or something like that), search on LinkedIn or Facebook, search different job listing sites and even register with some of them.  You find an opportunity.  How do you communicate with the employer?  Email, telephone, Skype maybe.  You are connected.  You can gain access to hundred of thousands of jobs.

Shift your perspective a bit.  You don’t have access to the internet or a smart-phone.  Now look for a job.  Would you go back to the telephone book? Buy a newspaper hoping to find a position and hope for a phone number, instead of an email address or web link? It would probably be harder to get a job but at least you can still phone.

Shift your perspective even more – now you don’t even have a telephone.  You need to walk door to door in the hope you get lucky and find a job.

This thought experiment highlights the issue.  Your probability of getting employment diminishes with each step that reduces your access to technology.  The less you have the less opportunity you have to find a job.

The supporters of the idea that technology dictates the way we live, think about technology as inevitable.  This inevitability means that ultimately we think we are making a choice, but the choice we actually make is inevitable.  If you don’t have a smart-phone or an internet connection, then you limit your opportunities.  Sure you can elect not to use them but the reality is that you will struggle to actually get that job.  Improving your odds of getting a job require you to be as connected as possible.  So what does this mean for you as a person?

In Africa, poor and disconnected communities have very little choice.  Opportunities are scarce and the government carries responsibility for creating these opportunities.  We pay taxes right? So why do we have any reason to contribute to change this?

My point of view is a little different.

Governments in Africa are often corrupt and if not corrupt then they lack funds.  They lack skills and sometimes even the will to change society for the better.  Some governments look at the recent events in places like Libya and get scared.  It cannot be left to governments alone.  We all need to make a change for the good. So each of us need to contribute.  If we stand together we can create the technology for Africa to transform and to change.  We can give all people opportunities and guess what, if governments don’t like it, fear it or try  to stop it, we should all still just do it.

I mentioned that there are two basic ways of thinking about the question whether we have a choice to use technology or not; I believe that the inevitability  of technology is not something I am willing to accept.  I want to have a say about what technology means in my life, how and when I want to use it.  I am not sure how yet, but I know it needs to change.

What do you think?

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Blackberry saved by Africa!

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This may seem like a strange hypothetical headline of the future.  Maybe it will be.

It is conceivable that the manufacture (RIM) of Blackberry smartphones is saved by the African market.  Why?

Here is my take on it.

I think it is safe to say that Apple, Nokia and Samsung (and possibly others) may have a better device with more services than Blackberry.  (I can hear the howls from the Blackberry execs already – hey this is my opinion.)  But there is a big difference between Blackberry and the other smartphones.  Let me lay it out.  The Blackberry proposition to the customer is that you pay a fixed fee every month.  For this you get the usual cellular services, calls and SMSing.  But you also get internet browsing and instant messaging with BBM.  This cost is defined and you can do everything you need to; Facebook, Tweet watch YouTube and so on.  The cost is fixed.  The other devices offer the same service but for these services you need to purchase a data bundle which is not necessarily fixed.  So the value in the offering from the other providers has potentially a larger cost to the consumer.

This is definitive – the consumer.  The African consumer has less purchasing power than any other consumer in the world.  Cellular services compete with the little pleasures of life like cold drinks (Coke and Pepsi) and luxuries like beer and cigarettes.  I don’t mean compete in the Western sense of competing. We choose how we manage our budget with thoughts like “I will buy less beer and get more data”.  Often the choice to the African consumer is I have 2USD – “I buy beer or airtime – I dont have a choice to cut back”.  For the African consumer this is an either or choice and they have to give up lots just to be connected to the world, an experience many of us don’t comprehend.

So enter the Blackberry proposition – a fixed cost with unlimited chat, no SMSing required, less phone calls and still connected to social hubs.  The value in the Blackberry proposition to the consumer is there.

I started out by stating that maybe this is a hypothetical headline of the future.  For RIM, I hope it is reality, but the problem facing RIM and the Blackberry offer is that the device will still have to improve as will the accessibility to the apps. They have time to still do this.  But Africa is moving; living standards are improving and more importantly, there is a massive telecommunications roll-out.  Costs are starting to come down.  If the costs get as low as they are in say India, then the cost of bandwidth may not be an issue for the African consumer.

Getting back to my point.  Africa may save them but they had better  move fast.  Improve the apps and build a proper development community, improve the device and innovate. Do it or we may never see the future of Blackberry anywhere!

Mike Backeberg – April 2012

South Africa lacks technology infrastructure.

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The latest World Economic Forum “The Global Information Technology Report” (2012) places South Africa in 71st position along with Colombia.

As a country ranked in the top 25 in terms of GDP South Africa clearly lacks the will to improve the technology infrastructure.  This is a brave statement, so why make it?

Technology infrastructure accessibility has been shown to bring competitive benefits to the economy and open up new economies for workers traditionally excluded from mainstream economic activity.  As an example, to build a competitive call centre industry in an economy requires access to affordable labour and reduced IT costs.  Telecommunications and the infrastructure associated for this at a cheap price is key to this success. South Africa lacks both.

Addressing poverty by opening the economy to more people requires the will on the part of the government to make it happen.  This is not only related to the technology industries but all industries.  With technology, business and consumers are acutely aware of this though.  With poor infrastructure and a national carrier protected by the government the ability for businesses to compete on a global stage is hampered.  Is this reality though?  In Mozambique, a country further down the ranking than South Africa with a massive expansion programme, a 4mb ADSL line costs the equivalent of (USD 118) R920 per month.  The equivalent offering in South Africa is 3 times that price. In addition, IT labour costs are at least 30% cheaper in Mozambique than they are in South Africa.  Sure Mozambique is a smaller economy but building a services business that relies on new technologies specifically linked to technologies such as cloud or mobile where the technology can be housed anywhere, makes you wonder how long it will be before businesses in South Africa move more services off-shore.  South Africa has already shifted technical skills to the Asian sub-continent primarily due to the lack of adequate training in South Africa, highlighting even further the lack of government desire to truly sort this problem out.

This is of course an opinion, but as a business we experience poor service and inadequae support all the time.  We have regular telecommunications outages, so much so that we are now required to use two suppliers to ensure we have a back-up service available.

It is difficult to see how small tech businesses in South Africa can build a global footprint and compete internationally when the key to the industry is so poor.

To see the full report – http://www.weforum.org/reports/global-information-technology-report-2012.

Mike Backeberg – April 2012

Is technology the key for Africa to catch-up and pass the rest of the world?

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When Getrude, gathers water and firewood to prepare her meagre family meal, she lives in a world of technology isolation.  She has no idea of how her life can change and she has no way of improving her life.  Gertrude is an imaginary person who lives rural Africa.  She has multiple children and she struggles to feed them, every day is just survival for her.  Her children attend a poor school with limited resources and she lives in a country with few opportunities for her family.  The government is struggling to deliver services to her and the community in which she lives.  Constrained by funding and infrastructure, the government has very limited means to change this in a traditional model of development.  She has no access to business opportunities or access to commercial services like banking.  Can this change?

There are 2 technologies which may be game changers for Africa – businesses and governments.  Cloud computing can shift infrastructure, data and business critical applications to stable environments allowing African companies to compete on a global scale.  Social media and the platforms that support these – i.e. tablets and smart-phones can deliver business-to-business solutions, business-to-employee enablement and business-to-consumer solutions.

Implementing these solutions, delivering content via a mobile phone and using the limited skills available in country, a limited budget and by sweating the cloud can provide opportunities to make in-roads in these rural communities.  A focused approach to building niche skills in some centres as areas of technology focus can transform the way technology is used.  A technology industry can be started without necessarily requiring thousands of skills.

The benefit is if one country gets it right, the service can be sold to their neighbours and progressively a regional IT hub can be developed. To focus and build cloud and mobility channels is the way for under-developed states to catch up and even get ahead.  Technical resources earn less, real-estate is affordable and the technology can be quickly deployed.  Watch out Asia, Africa may be on the rise.

Mike Backeberg – April 2012