The end of an era, headlines have proclaimed in the last week. It was seemingly in reference to the final announcement that BlackBerry was no longer making its own handsets. Or was it in reference to the final mission of the comet-orbiting Rosetta spacecraft that complete its 12-year mission to investigate this planetary body for clues of the universe’s origins.
Maybe it was about the latest pronouncement from Telecommunications & postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele about the long-awaited national integrated ICT policy white paper, which was published on Monday. This came just days after Cwele successfully sued his own regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), for trying to get eh ball rolling with a wireless spectrum auction.
Personally, I’m much more interested in the comet. We’ve been watching BlackBerry spiral through its death throes for years and this is the best move for the once-dominant early smartphone maker, whose market value was once US$80bn. App makers have abandoned its otherwise excellent BlackBerry 10 operating system; and while consumer handset sales have slowed, its secure corporate clients (law enforcement, military, diplomatic and plain old nostalgic) aren’t enough to sustain it. Instead, CEO John Chen quite rightly points out that software makes more profit, and it will now focus on device management and security.
BlackBerry will go down in history as the apocryphal case study of how to throw away a significant head start with corporate arrogance and executive hubris.
Cwele’s latest proposal will take at least a year to be resolved into anything approaching reality; especially as the white paper proposes Icasa and the Film and Publications Board (end of an Apartheid error) be replaced with more current bodies. During this time, there are bound to be a few court cases and disputes about spectrum, and the internecine power struggle between Cwele and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi will eclipse any meaningful work to advance ICT policy. I’ll bet that by the time the next general election comes about, South Africa will still be squabbling about whether to encrypt digital terrestrial television (DTT), the related set-top box rollout, and this ICT white paper. She’ll probably still be defending the indefensible in Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the Homer Simpson of broadcasting. Unlike the lucrative mining sector, government doesn’t understand how to get rich from telecoms.
Meanwhile, Rosetta’s successful mission to get close to the eccentrically named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, arriving after a decade of intricate flight paths to release the Philae lander down onto the surface. The landing in August 2014 was intended to result in years of data, but the Philae lander bounced into shadow when it touched down, mitigating it using its solar panels to run itself. Even so, it’s an extraordinary achievement, slinging a satellite halfway across our solar system and landing a sensor-laden science robot on its 5km by 3km surface.
Comets originate from the birth of the universe, some 4.6bn years ago, and hold keys to the history of the universe and our own planet, which Rosetta has added to after it discovered the amino acid glycine (which is found in proteins) and phosphorus (an essential component of DNA). This adds fuel to the theory that comets might have helped populate Earth with life and water.
As Rosetta’s mission manager Patrick Martin said afterwards: “This is the culmination of tremendous scientific and technical success for this mission. It was historic, it was pioneering and it is revolutionising how we see comets. Farewell Rosetta, you’ve done the job: that was space science at its best.”
Back on Earth, we’re still obsessed with our smartphones – as the great author Douglas Adams noticed in the 1970s about digital watches – and shouldn’t have to worry about the lack of decent and cheap wireless broadband in our little patch of the universe.
This column first appeared on Financial Mail