Looking back at 2008

It is traditional at the time of the year for columnists to look back and remember the highlights and disappointments which were experienced.

The launch of a new version of Apple’s iPhone during the year was not a cause for celebration as far as I was concerned. There was nothing wrong with the phone itself, but I felt that the pricing for the unit and/or the monthly contract was overly extortionate.

I compared the prices that users overseas would pay for the product and found that South African consumers, once again, receive far less value for this and, it must be said, all other brands of high-end handsets.

My column on the subject was also published in the Independent Online (iol.co.za) and it attracted a fair amount of comment, including from some who felt that I had been unduly critical of our cellphone industry. It just goes to show that there are many shades of opinion out there including those who seeing nothing wrong in mobile phones costing as much as decent laptops.

Once again, I needed to set up an online payment facility on a website that I was working on for a friend. I have tried this on and off over the years and found that it is still difficult and costly for South Africans to obtain facilities for receiving credit card payments over the Internet. Visiting an online discussion forum devoted to South African IT and online issues, I discovered that there are American organisations that are not reluctant to do business with South African website owners.

One I found was 2checkout.com which only charges a once-off setup fee of $50 and a percentage of each transaction; no monthly charges or anything like that. I managed to track down someone who had been using the system and who said that there had never been a problem, that 2Checkout paid like clockwork and that he had been entirely happy with their service.

To my mind, the world is now essentially a much smaller place and our local suppliers and service providers should take note that businesses based overseas might just grab a share of their customers while they are still operating in the belief that they have a captive market which can be exploited at will. I know plenty of people who have started ordering stuff over the Internet and are happy doing business that way.

One unhappy anniversary that occurred in May when spam e-mail turned 30. I must say that the number of spam messages received in my Gmail spam bucket is an awful lot less than it used to be just a year ago, but I’m still getting over 1600 of them a month, and it is very irritating.

On the credit side of the ledger, an important anniversary occurred on April 3, which was the 15th anniversary of the occasion that the creators of the World Wide Web put the technology in the public domain, so that everyone can use it for free. Later, in May, we had the 25th anniversary of the first commercial telephone call using a portable cellphone.

Organisations offering online services such as word processors, spreadsheets, picture manipulation and storage, web design programs, e-mail, and whatever have you, seemed to gain in popularity. This is the concept of cloud computing, where you can log on from anywhere, using any computer you choose, and still be able to access your documents, pictures and all the other bits and pieces that make up your digital life.

An organisation called G.HO.ST. and another called JOOCE, were both offering free virtual PCs to anyone who wanted them and other organisations, such as Google, offers Google Docs, an online office suite. Other services I experimented with during the year were Adobe’s Buzzword online wordprocessor and their Photoshop Express online photo manipulation and storage service.

I also played with a number of website development services which offer anyone free hosting space for websites and online tools to make them easy to build. These included Google Sites, the local Tank.com and an excellent easy tool called Jimdo.com.

One interesting development in the telecommunications scene in Durban, was the launch by Neotel of their services to consumers in the city. It turned out that their prices were only slightly less than those charged by Telkom, but as I remarked at the time, at least folk in their coverage area now have a choice of provider.

In the past year, I have made some major advances in my personal computing life. The first of these was when I started using speech recognition software that I got with a voice recorder. In the past two months, I have done little typing but have dictated to the computer and later edited whatever it was I was working on.

So, that’s pretty much what my digital life was like in 2008, and I’m expecting more of the same this year. One major new development that is going to take place, is the completion of the Seacom undersea cable which will link Europe and the east coast of Africa, including South Africa, to the Wurope and India.

It’s going to be great to have another player in the Internet bandwidth market, apart from Telkom, and I sincerely hope that we consumers start to benefit from the competition. Experience has tended to show that competition doesn’t necessarily drive down the prices of services in South Africa, but there is always the hope that this time will be different.

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