by Mwangi Githahu

Communication

Leaders in the smartphone revolution

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We live in a world where most of our communication with others is at the mercy of technology. If you don’t believe this, try and recall the last time you left home without your cell phone or forgot to check your emails.

Throughout Africa, the rise of the smartphone has led to a convergence of technology, trade and urbanisation that continues to power growth and future potential. As a result, competition in the smartphone market is very tough and a phone maker’s reputation is only as good as it’s last model.

South Africa is one of the continent’s biggest markets for smartphones and increasingly the big names in the industry are experiencing excellent growth in their market share. For instance, Sony announced a couple of years ago that they were re-entering the market and with a documented 79% year-on-year increase in smartphone sales, they appear to be well on their way back to being the powerhouse they once were.

In an interview for this article, Christian Haghofer, Sony Mobile South Africa Country Manager, wouldn’t comment on market share, but said, “We will continue our high value-added strategy, and will differentiate ourselves from other companies through Sony’s expertise in cameras, audio and television technologies and designs, as well as Sony’s unique in-house developed technologies.”

With the the mobile phone having become increasingly pervasive and indispensable, and with consumers the world over enthusiastically embracing its potential, I asked Haghofer what he saw as some of the key trends driving mobile use and consumer activity in Africa, and South Africa in particular. He replied, “Over the years, smartphones have gotten a little staid. Advances have generally come in the form of gradual improvements to popular features that are now standard among manufacturers and models. Technological advancements are definitely among the most awaited enhancements that users look forward to.”

Haghofer added, “Sony Mobile has been in the lead in terms of launching the latest technologies in their smartphones from the super-slow motion - which was first introduced to the world in the multiple award winning Xperia XZ Premium - to Sony’s 3D Creator. We are keen to combine Sony’s technological expertise with the latest audio and visual technologies to offer entertainment to the extreme, which embodies the company’s DNA.”

After a number of years during which it was replaced, or at least outshone, by rivals such as the iPhone and Samsung, I wanted to know if with the introduction of 5G services next year Haghofer foresaw a situation where Sony might retake its position as the market leader.

Diplomatically avoiding any mention of market rival brands, Haghofer said, “Given that Sony is committed to the electronics business, we believe that the mobile business has continued strategic value, both from an R and D [research and development] perspective through combining cutting-edge technologies such as 5G communications, IoT [Internet of Things], and 3D sensing, and due to the fact that it represents hardware that is at the closest point to our customers.”

He explained, “By enabling high-speed communication, low-latency and simultaneous connectivity, 5G is a technology which we view as having immense potential, since it can connect all portable devices to the cloud. In order to fully utilise this leading-edge technology, we need to retain our fundamental, in-house research capability to create related applications. By continuing to work on 5G in our smartphone business, we are aiming to develop 5G technology as a competency that can be used across the Sony Group.”

Asked what worried but excited him about the future of the industry in Africa, Haghofer said, “At the rate at which new, innovative technologies are becoming more available, it becomes challenging for businesses to rapidly develop and launch products that are unique and competitive. Businesses need to structure their organisations that allow this R and D process to take place but at the same time, maintain quality and value to the end user – we have this vision at the centre of our business as we enter the next financial year.”

As our interview took place during Women’s Month, I felt it was appropriate to ask Haghofer why it was that, with mobile technology so deeply embedded in all our lives that from a consumer perspective there really is no gender divide, women are underrepresented in the tech world? His views on the situation and how to change it were refreshing.

Haghofer said, “In South Africa specifically, we [Sony Mobile] believe females in tech offer the same value and insight as their male counterparts. Although traditionally this industry has been predominantly male focussed, we now have a host of forums, blogs and media channels specifically dedicated to females in tech, which continue to grow. By continuously empowering females to be at the coal-face of product announcement activity, we encourage proactive female representation in our market through our communication programmes, platforms and our product offerings.”

The intense competition in the market can be observed in the fierce contest at the entry-level market for smartphones and the speed at which the minimum specs of lower cost smartphones is constantly improving.

According to the global technology research and consulting firm International Data Corporation’s (IDC) Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker results for the first quarter of this year, South Africa is one of the continent’s most developed markets for smartphones. With consumers rapidly migrating to smartphones, sales of traditional mobile phones continued to decline, down 1.6% year-on-year to around 2 million for the quarter.

However, a large proportion of the market still centres around low-end to mid-range devices priced below R2 500. Affordable smartphones that fall into this price range have seen a lot of growth over the last two years. With disposable income limited for the majority of consumers, most spending on mobile devices takes place in Q4, leading to an inevitable drop-off in Q1.

Meanwhile, according to point of sale data from market research firm, GfK South Africa, smartphone sales in South Africa grew by 12.4% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2018, reaching around 3.2 million units for the period. However, the value of the smartphone segment increased by 22.8% as sales of entry-level devices to low- and mid-income consumers continued to drive the market.

The introduction of popular, new mid-tier devices by several leading vendors is helping to drive higher retail revenues in the telecoms market.

GfK say they expect the migration from ordinary feature mobile phones to smartphones to increase in the next year and this where the smaller names in the industry such as Yekani Technology come into the picture.

Yekani Technology is an innovative South African ICT manufacturing company. In isiZulu, the name means “stop complaining and do your thing” and they are certainly living up to their name. Yekani manufactures, among other electronic devices, the DStv Explora HD decoders, Teac television sets, set-top boxes and tablets. Part of the Yekani Group, a holding company incorporated in 1998, Yekani is in the process of launching new cell phone devices on the market in September this year.

The company also unveiled an electronics factory in East London last year, which will not only create jobs for the East London community, but for the Eastern Cape Province as a whole. At that function, Yekani’s Chief Operating Officer, James Munn, told journalists: “We have the capacity, we have the quality, we have the capability and, most importantly, we have the people and the sheer will to build world-class products, which is what Yekani is all about. We will be able to provide a smartphone equal to the very best you can find in the world, using the best components and engineering practices used globally.”

Munn has quite the track record in the industry having worked for Samsung South Africa’s mobile division where he spearheaded sales and marketing operations and played a leading role in growing Samsung’s regional market share by more than 20 percent. He also spent 10 years at Ericsson where he served as the South African director of consumer products for Sony Ericsson (now Sony mobile) as well as in the European arena for Matsushita Communications (Panasonic) during the time when Europe started to migrate from analog to digital networks.

Munn doubles up as vice president of business development in Sub-Saharan Africa for Johannesburg-based Qualcomm Incorporated where he manages Qualcomm’s strategic relationships with the company’s regional customers, including network operators/carriers, mobile handset vendors and software developers. In an interview with Leadership Magazine he explained, “Yekani has partnered with Qualcomm Inc. and one of Qualcomm’s leading ODMs [Original Design Manufacturers] in China in order to access some of Qualcomm’s high end mobile reference design platform. These platforms house Qualcomm’s leading Snapdragon chipsets [a suite of system on a chip semiconductor products for mobile devices designed and marketed by Qualcomm Technologies Inc.] and guaranteed to provide leading edge performance as seen with global brands using Qualcomm Snapdragon today.”

He said, “By taking this approach, Yekani have been able to secure highly competitive and capable models, designed and build with quality components.

Key considerations such as camera performance, scorching CPU and GPU speeds, 4G advanced features as well as excellent battery life, to name a few, are fundamental aspects which simply reflect the Yekani brand values to be found in its product. Quality and performance without compromise.”

When I suggested that with Yekani entering the smartphone manufacturing space they were entering a market that has well established names in it such as the iPhone, Samsung etc., and would have to have a unique selling point, Munn replied, “One size does not fit all. Yekani has taken the best technology partners and repurposed these to deliver its own models for this market with a local touch. If you can get better performance for less and know that the engine inside your phone is the same, or better, than that found in popular global brands, then why not?”

As far as some of the key trends driving mobile use and consumer activity in South Africa, Munn was of the opinion that “at a mobile network macro level we will see the continued improvement in speed, coverage and user experience of the 4G networks as well as more and more competitive data packages to enjoy these improvements with. This will in turn trigger a strong demand for better, faster and more capable 4G devices which will most likely be well supported by the mobile networks as these more advance devices also provide network performance capacity gains; win-win all round.”

He predicts that “The older 4G devices which are mostly CAT4 [Category 4 cable] only, may start to find their way to the back of your sock drawer as the older, slower technology starts to lag. So migration will continue not only towards 4G devices, but more advanced devices; hence our partnership with Qualcomm.”

Munn reckons, “The smartphone has become the central control point for most people’s lives, in both business and private, and as such the capability must keep up accordingly. Going forward with such great and forward think partners, Yekani will always be in a position to effectively offer new innovations locally as they come out of developed markets such as advanced security features and Blockchain [the technology the underpins digital currency].”

Munn is of the opinion that, as a region, Africa could benefit considerably from the acceleration in the issuing of 4G spectrum across the low, mid and high bands (between 800 and 2600). In simple terms, these will enable mobile networks to offer Gbit speeds, whilst lowering their cost per bit, lowering the data cost to the end user even further as well as paving the way for 5G.

However, he fears that “Without more spectrum access for the incumbent mobile operators to aggregate, 4G will never show its true value or how it was designed to run.” He suggests that “We are behind the rest of the world and need to leapfrog if we are to benefit from the true 4G economy.”

Looking to the future Munn says, “As a region I see the next big growth path coming from IoT, or rather the exhaustive number of applications and services under development to help increase efficiency and save costs through IoT. Smart cities, smart schools, smart universities, smart homes. As a nation and region we face growing costs of basic utilities due to growing pressures on these infrastructures, yet we have the technology to save so much of it, it now just a question of implementation.” 

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