Archive for Emerging Technologies from South Africa

A vision of 2019: Interface eye candy

by on May 21, 2009 at 3:11 pm

It’s a vision of the future from Microsoft Office Labs. If you’re into interfaces and devices — and how they may look in the future, you’ll love the video below:

(You can watch a crisper version too)

tags: future interfaces, interfaces, Microsoft, Microsoft Office Labs

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Will Facebook eventually replace the Windows & Mac desktop?…

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The meaning of it all, in XML

by on March 4, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Here’s a relatively new web service for publishers and developers that’s a different spin on the semantic web. Amplify is mostly a semantic web service, although it tries to differentiate itself from other semantic services by saying it focuses on understanding content rather than classifying content — which is what the semantic web has been […]

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Amazing keyboardless laptop introduced by Apple

by on February 16, 2009 at 6:42 am

tags: apple, Mac, onion

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The power of information (0)
The perfect Mac mini home theatre setup (11)
The great convergence sideshow (0)
SA’s web stands up and gets counted (3)
Rumour: ‘SA #3 in line for 3G iPhone’ (1)

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‘Imagine being able to read a newspaper on your computer’

by on February 1, 2009 at 1:43 pm

A report from the 80s. Really funny.
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Mobile, social media & what’s next

by on January 26, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Here are some answers to questions in a recent Moneyweb interview Mandy De Waal did with me a while back.
1. What role does social media play in 24.com’s strategy?
Social media plays a key role in 24.com’s strategic thinking. Internationally, it’s the social media sites like You Tube and Facebook that are dominating the web rankings […]

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South Africa’s Joule Electric Car

by on December 5, 2008 at 6:04 am

joule.jpg

Optimal Energy CEO Kobus Meiring Presenting the Joule Electric Car

Who Killed the Electric Car? is a 2006 documentary which shows the roles of American automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, and the US government in stopping production of electric cars in the US, specifically the General Motors EV1 of the 1990s. That turned out to be bad news, both for General Motors and American consumers, but it also opened up opportunities for electric car manufacturers abroad.

Optimal Energy, a Cape Town-based company, is trying to position itself as a leader in the field with its Joule all-electric vehicle, which was first unveiled two months ago at the 2008 Paris Motor Shop.

We visited Optimal Energy’s offices – scattered throughout an upscale shopping plaza – earlier this week to see a business presentation by CEO Kobus Meiring. He made a convincing case for the Joule, which was summed up nicely by fellow blogger Chris Morrison.

The car itself didn’t really do it for me – I am a much bigger fan of public transportation projects, like South Africa’s 2010 public transport plan, than any mere personal automobile. But what did fascinate me is how Meiring’s career evolution – from developing military helicopters to telescopes to electric cars – is representative of the evolution of South Africa’s engineering field. Now that South Africa is no longer ruled by a White nationalist government focused on strengthening its military, the country’s engineers are able to work on projects and start companies that make a positive social impact.

Going back to my question of trade versus aid, what is the social benefit of investing in a company like Optimal Energy? On the surface such an investment seems promising. Nearly 100 engineers are given jobs to design the cars. South African construction companies are employed to build manufacturing plants. And hundreds of semi-skilled workers are given decent paying jobs to manufacture the vehicles. This largely explains why Optimal Energy’s largest investor is the Department of Science and Technology of the South African government.

But a question by Graeme Addison, a veteran science journalist and one of the organizers of our tour, revealed an obstacle to South Africa’s multicultural integration of engineers and other professionals. In not so many words Addison essentially asked Meiring how many of his engineers are Black South Africans. We didn’t get a figure, but I would assume only a handful. The Black Economic Empowerment program of February 2007 set a quota system which ensures that a certain percentage of managerial and directorial positions are given to non-White South Africans. Addison later told me that this often means that young Black South Africans straight out of university are given managerial positions without ever going through the apprenticeship and training programs which lead to real skills development.

Meiring, however, said there has been a recent increase in the number of Black engineers graduating from universities and thinks that integration in the field of engineering is progressing. Still, I think that so-called philanthro-capitalist foundations could do a great thing by investing in Optimal Energy, but with the clause that they must hire and train more Black and female engineers. Such an investment could derive both a large social and economic return.

And Optimal Energy sure wouldn’t mind the extra capital. A post written last month by Domenick Yoney says the recent financial collapse has stalled the Joule’s launch and that Meiring and company will need to raise another $130 million before they are able to build an assembly plant and get their product on the road.

You can listen to an MP3 of Meiring’s entire presentation on the Brand South Africa Blog.

Africa joining the electric car craze, with Optimal Energy’s Joule

by on December 1, 2008 at 8:48 am

The entire world hopes to start driving electric cars soon, and Africa, despite its reputation for poor economies, is no exception. Luckily, a South African company called Optimal Energy is working to release a vehicle in 2010.

And unlike the many attempts to make electric cars as small and cheap as possible, the vehicle, called the Joule, will be a highway-speed, multi-passenger model aimed at the same people that buy full-priced four door vehicles, making it a good fit for Europe and the United States.

Optimal has the benefit of strong support from its government, which has put money into the company through a research investment fund. Having such backing gives Optimal the time to pay close attention to its engineering and design choices.

That has resulted in some some uncommon bonuses for buyers, like an optional solar panel integrated with the roof that will help charge the car, and varying seat designs — the standard model will have six seats, three front and three back, but North Americans would likely be more comfortable with four.

One interesting design choice affects both the physical car and its business model. The Joule will have an adjustable chassis that can fit a variety of battery types and sizes, so the company won’t be tied to using a particular technology. The battery will also be offered on a separate lease, to help ease the pain of simultaneously paying for the vehicle and, effectively, several years worth of fuel. Customers will also have the choice of paying for a smaller or cheaper battery to save money.

But even without the battery included in the price, the car won’t be cheap by local standards. While Optimal’s CEO, Kobus Meiring, isn’t ready to set a firm price yet, he says vehicles in the same class go for about 220,000 South African Rand, about $22,000 dollars. Compare that to the Tata Nano, sold in the same market. The Nano’s lowest price is around $2,200 – and it is still far out of reach for the poorest South African families.

That leaves plenty of potential buyers, but focusing only on the local market would be a mistake, says Meiring. “You really have to be a global player,” he says. “There isn’t a manufacturer in the world that remains successful by staying only in its own country.”

So far, the company has completed much of the design, and recently showed off the vehicle at a popular Paris auto show. It was well received, according to Meiring. That’s not a hard claim to believe; up close, the prototype model comes across as sleek and modern, and the car is supposed to have a robust range of almost 250 miles, and top speed of about 80 miles per hour.

While Optimal is also working on a three seat design and a truck, the Joule is furthest along, and the company is bulking up rapidly to reach production. It currently has 79 employees, primarily engineers, and is planning to open a manufacturing facility near its headquarters in Cape Town, or in another South African city.

What the company still needs is money, although perhaps less than companies based in countries with more expensive labor. It also needs international partners to begin selling the car, once it’s in production. Meiring says he’d be interested in forming partnerships similar to the one Think, a Norwegian electric car maker, set up with two American venture capital firms.

With any luck, the pieces will all fall into place — it’s not hard to imagine a Joule parked in an American driveway.

South African Startup Has Joule of an EV

by on December 1, 2008 at 2:00 am

This morning’s blogger tour of South Africa included a stop off at the Capetown headquarters of startup electric car maker Optimal Energy.

The three-year old company is developing the Joule, a six-passenger all electric car that is scheduled to begin low-volume production at the end of 2010. CEO Kobus Meiring said the vehicle will have a maximum range of about 200 km, but the trunk has space for a second battery pack to double the range. The top speed for the car, aimed at city drivers, will be 130 km/hr.

The Joule is designed to compete with mainstream vehicles, not electric cars, Meiring said. He didn’t give specifics about the price, but said that without the batteries (which will be leased separately), the price will be in the range of 220 Rand (or around $25,000). The batteries will have a useful driving life of around 200,000 km.

The cost of the batteries is uncertain as the company has not selected a lithium ion battery partner yet, and Optimal Energy may lease batteries at multiple price points. (This is consistent with EV and plug-in hybrid makers in the U.S., who are similarly scrambling to identify batteries that meet their performance requirements). For EVs, batteries are a considerable amount of the cost, and the technology is still being tested and developed.

(For me it’s a little unsettling for car companies such as GM and Optimal Energy to be touting the wonders of a car when the major driving force–the batteries — are an unknown quantity. It’s like HP promising a wonderful new computer without knowing which CPU they’d use.)

Executive Marketing Manager Diana Blake said the company is considering batteries from 20 companies including those from China, the U.S. and Japan, and is also looking at ultracapacitors — the costly but durable solid state devices that can supplement batteries. Third-party battery companies, such as Better Place, which is setting up operations in Israel and the U.S., would be welcome to compete in battery leasing, according to Meiring.

Optimal Energy is targeting South Africa’s 700,000 units per year vehicle market. The Joule is designed to meet European safety regulations so that exporting to the north can also be an option.

The motivation to start the company included issues familiar to Americans — energy security (Meiring claimed 90 percent of all wars in the past 50 years were over energy), reducing carbon emissions, and increasing local jobs. However, the company has not yet studied the carbon impact in switching from South Africa’s diesel fuel derived from coal (nearly the entire market) to electricity from coal. Meiring said that electric batteries are five times more energy efficient than internal combustion engines, but transmission and energy losses in transferring energy to and from the batteries will lower the relative benefit. Since coal-to-liquids is about as carbon and energy intensive transportation around, the bar is pretty low for the vehicles to have a positive carbon impact.

While South Africa is currently under producing electricity to meet demand (and is therefore building more coal power plants), Meiring says the power grid has more than adequate power to accommodate overnight recharging even if the entire 7 million vehicle fleet switched to electrics.

Optimal Energy has several advantages in launching an electric fleet without impacting the grid over U.S. auto companies. First, the South African government’s Department of Science and Technology is a shareholder. Also, the state utility Eskom provides 90 percent of the electricity for the country, so introducing the vehicles requires dealing with a single entity, as compared to the U.S.’ mishmash of local private and public power providers.

Also, the country is on a single time zone, so night time recharging administration could be consistent through the nation. Meiring says introductory talks have begun with Eskom (which “has bigger fish to fry” because of insufficient power generating capacity), but they haven’t done demonstrations like are being done in the U.S. to test the impact of the vehicles on the grid. Meiring said the company plans on having the vehicles automatically recharge only at night, but an override would allow daytime charging.

Optimal Energy’s management include several engineers who developed helicopters for the government. Meiring said the company has outsourced much of the research and development to universities. He said that South Africa had been a leader in lithium battery technology until 1994 (when the government changed), and he believes that they could return to prominence in that area. Availability of lithium should not be an issue as nearby Zimbabwe has considerable untapped resources, according to Meiring.

The field for a full-time electric vehicle remains wide open as much-hyped Tesla Motors continues to have problems. While Optimal Energy did not mention selling the U.S. market, if the company can provide a hit in South Africa with locally-produced vehicles, the world may come calling.

(The blogger tour and meeting with Optimal Energy is being sponsored by the South African International Marketing Council).

How to approach content in the digital age

by on November 9, 2008 at 3:53 am

The phrase “User Generated Content” (UGC) has always been a troubled notion. At its heart it emphasises a divide between the user and the professional, with the implication that users have their place, and the professionals have theirs.
Perhaps the aversion to this phrase stems from the fact that it is so simplistic. It doesn’t […]

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Data shows US mobile data usage ready to pass the UK

by on August 26, 2008 at 6:43 am

Before long, the United States may become the world’s top user of the web on mobile devices, according to analytics and billing firm Bango. The company is releasing figures this morning showing the US at almost 19 percent of the world total, just short of the top country, the United Kingdom, which has about 19.4 percent.

In terms of absolute growth in each country, the US is growing much more quickly than the UK, so it should be surpassing its old colonial master in yet one more area soon. Bango estimates that might happen within several weeks, as the trend picks up pace in the States.

Mobile data is difficult to gather, and the numbers often aren’t dead-on. The indicators seem clear, though: Customers in the US are finally getting good options for using the web, from handsets like the iPhone, to better unlimited data plans, to the roll-out of better third generation networks.

Bango’s numbers also corroborate data released earlier this year, including Google’s report that mobile web usage of its sites is increasing.

The question left unanswered is where the usage ceiling lies for the US. While the UK has long been considered a fairly mature market, having had options for browsing available for years, the US has been behind in the race. Now that the technology is catching up, its larger population should make it easy for it to draw ahead, but it’s difficult to tell from this point how far mobile usage will penetrate into non-premium markets.

It seems reasonable to assume, however, that devices will continue to innovate (or copycat, as with the Instinct, Samsung’s version of the iPhone), and prices for both devices and data will edge down as carriers compete. Applications and services also tie in; for more on how they’re helping expand mobile web usage, check out our article on five trends driving the mobile web.

In case it’s of interest, here are the runners-up that Bango listed: India had almost 11 percent of total usage, South Africa was approaching 9 percent, and Indonesia had 4 percent.

 

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