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All posts by Hilton Tarrant: Columnist

  • Building the next Mxit: where is South Africa’s next big mobile business?

    Isn’t it a sad indictment on everyone involved in the tech/mobile/start-up industry in South Africa that the most exciting mobile business to emerge from the country is roughly a decade old (in its current incarnation as messaging app)? A decade?! I look at list after list of startups to watch and there’s nothing that stands out as ‘wow’. There’s the inevitable grouping of half-baked clones of services and products that exist in foreign markets. Is copying and pasting an idea from the US going to make you wildly successful and able to cash out and hardly ever work again? Probably not....

  • Apple’s Healthbook may change the game, but does it move the needle?

    As we hurtle towards Apple’s flagship WWDC conference in June, the rumour mill is in overdrive. (But not hyperdrive, yet. That part comes in the weeks before the event…) There’s tons of speculation about what will (and won’t) be announced as part of iOS8’s unveil three months from now. What has become a foregone conclusion is Apple’s entry into the health and fitness vertical. There are dozens of clues that add up: chief among those is the M7 motion co-processor, debuted in the iPhone 5s. That solves the big problem of tracking steps (and distance), movement as well as calories...

  • Apple’s CarPlay… just how big a deal is it?

    Nine months after being unveiled by Eddy Cue at Apple’s 2013 WWDC event, CarPlay (neé iOS in the Car) is ready for launch. Except its not strictly available yet. Nor has it “launched” in the true sense of the word. It will be (in certain Ferrari, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo models). Soon. Hype aside, CarPlay’s launch is embarrassingly short on detail. This is strange, especially given that it commands its own feature page on apple.com. The delay in shipping iOS 7.1 is likely also due to the CarPlay integration (there’s no other conceivable reason that beta testing has taken...

  • The Nokia X Android fork… smart move or dead-end?

    Unexpected? Probably not. This was one of the worst-kept secrets in mobile. Speculation that Nokia would ship an Android phone has been swirling for at least a year. And that makes sense. Any serious move to ship Android devices would’ve had to start about 18-24 months ago, way before Microsoft had conjured up a deal to buy Nokia (or, more correctly, way before Nokia was about to run out of cash and hit the wall). Of course, there’s now confusion about what Microsoft will do – will it kill Nokia X? How could it let Nokia ship an Android...

  • Life after Koos Bekker: where to next for Naspers?

    There’s a quote from outgoing Naspers chief executive Koos Bekker buried right at the end of Sunday’s City Press article that tells you an awful lot about the man. In a note to staff, (as the newspaper points out) his humility is stark: “We screwed up frequently, but we had a great deal of fun and I couldn’t imagine another job that would have fitted my limited talents better, that would have given me more pleasure.” Bekker is acutely aware of his limitations. Perhaps that’s why he’s decided to step down now? But it hasn’t been the smoothest and most...

  • Huawei’s sub-$70 smartphone shows MTN’s $50 Steppa gamble’s already paying off

    If MTN needed any vindication that its gamble to launch a sub US$50 MTN-branded smartphone will pay off, here it is: Chinese manufacturer Huawei has confirmed it will price its Ascend Y220 device at R449 (US$41) on MTN in South Africa. First, MTN’s move was not that unusual to begin with. Globally, operators often launch branded-handsets to fill obvious gaps in the market. Typically this is at the lower end. What operators end up doing -- practically -- is driving the cost of a particular entry-point or segment down by “using” some of the OEM margin that is left on...

  • At what point does HTC stop making phones, shut down and return money to shareholders?

    Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC believes the middle-market will help it return to profitability this year. But the signs aren’t pretty. Sales have fallen year-on-year for 27 consecutive months. (What is that saying about ‘the trend being your friend’?) In 2011, it sold one in every 10 smartphones worldwide. Today, that number is below two percent. Shares on the Taiwan Stock Exchange are down 90% from the peak in April 2011. Back then, HTC was a world-beater... Investors and analysts ignored the fact that just years earlier it was nothing more than a contract manufacturer for companies like HP and Palm. For...

  • MTN’s $50 Steppa smartphone changes (almost) everything

    It’s been astonishing to see how quickly mobile operator MTN’s Steppa smartphone has been written off, when the devices have hardly made it to retail stores. This is a sub-$50 smartphone. A phone that retails for R499. By comparison, the BlackBerry Curve, a phone that South Africa was (and still is) addicted to, sells for closer to four times as much. The newer 9320 (which has 3G) sells for a little more, while the original 8520 – the most popular phone in South Africa at one stage – sold for a little bit less. By comparison, Nokia’s entry-level Asha 210 device retails...

  • We’re all using Google less for search… and it’s petrified of that

    Billionaire Mark Cuban -- who famously sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo at the very peak of the original dotcom bubble -- asks in a blog post: "Is search changing?" Think about it. When last did you search on Google? And when last did you do another search elsewhere – probably without even realising you were searching for something? How do those two stack up? We search for products on Amazon. Or Takealot. Or Kalahari. When we’re trying to find out what other movie that actor’s been in -- or what the movie is in the first place -- we tap the IMDB...

  • Facebook is the new Yahoo, and that’s why it simply has to unbundle its products and apps…

    It's not surprising that Facebook is planning a series of standalone apps to be released this year. In fact, it's already unbundled some services (whether deliberately or by accident is unclear) with its Facebook Messenger, (failed) Poke and Instagram apps. To understand why it's taking this approach, it's first important to understand what Facebook (on the web) is. In his latest Fast Company column, Om Malik makes the prescient observation that Facebook is today what Yahoo was in the 1990s – a “grand aggregator”. Facebook is number one because it successfully aggregated our social lives (Yahoo, of course, aggregated content...

  • Computer makers (and Microsoft) are in much bigger trouble than they (and we) realise

    Having had the (mis)fortune of helping someone shop for a new laptop this holiday, I’m not surprised that worldwide sales have cratered. Laptops (and desktops) are still sold by their “specs”. You’ll find yourself in a ridiculously poorly stocked store staffed by salespeople who can rattle off Ghz numbers and hard drive sizes like they’re reciting the alphabet. And the average consumer is petrified by this experience. Give them the choice, and they’ll keep an ancient PC running Windows XP because they don’t want to learn something new. Or endure the experience of actually buying a new PC. They’ll end...

  • Twitter wants to be a messaging app, Instagram wants to be Snapchat. And that’s missing the point…

    Of course Snapchat turning down a US$3-billion offer from Facebook has made everyone sit up and take notice. That’s real money, even for the Valley. Is it a surprise that Twitter last week moved direct messaging to the timeline? Is it a surprise that it's added photo messaging to DMs? Is it a surprise that Instagram launched private (‘Direct’) messaging? No. No. No. And it's also not a surprise that those two companies unveiled these features within a day of each other. It's a fight for attention. Right now, there’s no winner takes all. Even WhatsApp (ironically the least innovative...

  • Forget NFC payments, iBeacon could change everything

    I’ve lost count how many (hardly-working, rickety) demos I've seen on how NFC is going to change commerce and payments as we know it. The problem with NFC, of course, is that it is a solution looking for a problem. It’s going to solve every possible payment problem in the world. Yet, when rolled out on an industrial scale -- as is the case on London’s Underground -- the issues with the technology become patently obvious. Bank cards in the same wallet as (the Tube’s) Oyster cards being charged for journeys, two or more cards being charged… But teething issues are...

  • Here’s the problem with research that shows BlackBerry is still growing

    The Mobility 2014 survey, released at the end of November, showed that BlackBerry had overtaken Samsung in South Africa. BlackBerry users had increased from 18% to 23% of the market since 2012, while the number of Samsung users had stayed pretty much constant at 19% (up from 18%). Of course, this has elicited some proper OMG/WTF-type reporting from sites like BGR and ZDNet. That kind of dramatic market share increase is actually logical and easy to explain. Any research of this type is – by definition – backward looking. The fieldwork for this survey would’ve surely been done closer...

  • How does Facebook remain relevant in a mobile world?

    I noticed something over the weekend. I can’t recall the last time I visited Facebook.com on my laptop. Even though I sit at a desk, like hundreds of millions of drones every workday -- well, most of it, anyway -- my Facebook experience is primarily in its iPhone app (ditto for Twitter, in case you were wondering). The problem for Facebook is not so much how well it ‘monetizes mobile’... That’s Wall Street’s problem (and, by all accounts, it's doing significantly better than anyone expected.) On a daily basis, Facebook averages 728-million users (as at September 2013). Of that, 507-million are...