That was 2015 in tech


After last week’s astounding firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, it’s no surprise that President Jacob Zuma’s bizarre and inexplicable antics have featured in two of Facebook’s top five most talked about topics.

First was “Jacob Zuma”, followed by “Rugby World Cup,” “Eskom Electricity Crisis,” “Mayweather / Pacquiao fight,” and in fifth: “Nkandla Scandal”

On Twitter, the top five news-related hashtags were all reflections of Zuma’s chaotic reign, which The Economist described as “a one-man demolition job“. They were #FeesMustFall, #SONA2015, #NationalShutdown, #AskMmusi, and #Loadshedding. My own hashtag about Zuma (#Presidunce) has not been listed.

It’s been a tumultuous year for the world, not just in South Africa’s increasingly dysfunctional political sphere as a powerless ruling party watches their leader take the country to the brink of a fiscal cliff.

Globally, this hashtag lists sadly similar, as human tragedy (Syrian and African refugees dying in locked trucks and leaking boats respectively), the rise of ISIS, the insanity of Donald Trump’s verbal diarrhoea, as well as #JeSuitCharlie, #FeesMustFall, #ParisAttacks. It was a profound year for hastags.

And, South Africans are hoping, #ZumaMustFall will become a reality.

In the local tech industry, the biggest – and longest running – story has been the long-delayed upgrade to digital terrestrial television (DTT). A trainwreck in slow motion that has continued to slide off the rails as Zuma’s hapless and incompetent Communications Minister Faith Muthambi veers from one disaster to the next.

The delay around the the set-top boxes remain mired in controversy, while video streaming – the next generation of video consumption (for the middle classes at least) – has hit South African shores in a big way. First there was the launch of ShowMax (Stuff’s app of the year 2015), then launched, followed by Ericsson’s NuVu, MTN’s rebranded FrontRow to Vu (pronounced ‘view’) .

Mobilegeddon and ad-block-calypse also happened, underlining how important mobile have become in our world. Facebook opened its first office in Africa, in Johannesburg; and immediately announced it has 120m users on the continent, 80% (or 96m) were using mobile.

The concept of a unicorn – a startup worth $1bn or more – was still in its infancy when Fortune ran a February cover story about “The Age of Unicorns”. Now Forbes counts “140 unicorns globally, up from 75 at the end of last year…. Taken as a whole, the 93 firms based in the US (Americorns?) are worth $322bn, 14% less than Microsoft and a bit more than Intel and Cisco combined.” Bubble, what bubble?

Meanwhile, the established tech firms who were once mighty gods of the IT industry are facing enormous challenges as the internet-enabled world shifts into different gears.

HP, once the largest maker of computers and printers, and which bought up Compaq, consulting firm EDS and Autonomy, this year split into two companies. Another one-time number one computer seller Dell bought another giant, data storage provider EMC, for $67bn, the largest tech deal ever.

Those tech firms that have embraced cloud computing – specifically Amazon, Google and Microsoft – have prospered. Microsoft launched its much-needed Windows 10 upgrade, as CEO Satya Nadella chose Nairobi as the destination for launch day, which was two decades after Windows 95 was unveiled. Nadella’s “cloud-first, mobile first” strategy seems to have early traction.

Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has started up another front, this time against Elon Musk’s SpaceX by launching and then landing a rocket. But Bezos only stole a (publicity) march on Musk’s more mature rockets, by landing his Blue Origin rocket after a sub-orbital flight on land, as opposed to the scifi-named barges in the middle of the ocean as Musk as been trying to do. Blue Origin’s real competitor appears to be Virgin Galactic, which suffered setbacks this year.

Musk’s year has shown as brightly as the Falcon 9 rockets that ae now the only link with the International Space Station, launching a sexy, all-electric SUV, Tesla Model X, to rapturous applause. Musk also unveiled larger Tesla-branded wall-mounted batteries that could kickstart a solar revolution.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has taken off as predicted, churning its way up the Gartner hype cycle. What does it mean? Everything electronic can now be connected to the internet. What does it mean for you? Not quite sure yet. Check in next year when your fridge will finally be able to order orange juice when it runs out.

Fibre has begun taking off, as I correctly predicted at the beginning of the year, but a lot slower. But what a difference it makes. My 100Mbps Fibrehoods fibre line costs me less and is significantly faster than the 4Mbps ADSL line that was considered broadband until the suburb of Parkhurst appointed Vumatel to begin this consumer-led revolution. My service provider, Vox, offers 300 Giagabytes of data a month, with 1GB of cellular broadband; and a 1 Terabyte of data when you sign up. All for R750 a month. And its fast. Really fast. Uploading Stuff magazine to the printers is usually a 3-4 hour process, using our previous ADSL line. With Fibrehoods-Vox, to upload a 216MB batch of PDFs, it took us two minutes and two seconds. Yip 122 seconds. That fast.

This year also saw ride-hailing service Uber’s valuation surge (pun intended) to $50bn, eclipsing the previous most valuable start-up, Xiaomi; which began selling its high-end but cut-price phones in Africa in November.

The third largest smartphone maker in the world behind Samsung and Apple, it is using the same online model that saw it become the biggest smartphone vendor in China. Xiaomi eschews the profit on handsets by directing its buyers back to tis own servers where it makes the bulk of its revenue from apps, content and music. Clever business model, suing Android as an operating system but knowing Google doesn’t operate behind the Great Firewall of China.

In South Africa, the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) market kicked off with the launch of FNB Connect, Homo Naledi was unveiled, and sadly Mxit announced it was closing.

Sony will also stop Betamax production next year.

There have been many candidates for tech moment of the year: including US President Barack Obama’s shout out to Kenyan tech entrepreneurs in July; and Jack Dorsey returning as Twitter CEO, while still being CEO of Square which listed this year, albeit for significantly less than expected.

But tech moment of the year must go to Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan for pledging to donate 99% of their Facebook shares, worth $45bn, to making the world a better place. Moment of madness for the year goes to all those morons who somehow contrived to argue that this generosity was a bad thing. It’s been the bright end to an otherwise tumultuous year in tech.

* This column originally appeared in the Financial Mail.


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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