Monthly Archives: October 2012

Minecraft, Startups and Margaret Thatcher.


I recently started playing Minecraft. For those who don’t know Minecraft, it’s a game where the objective is to use the available resources to build things, while avoiding various enemies trying to kill you. You mine resources and combine or craft them into materials, which you use in your construction. What you build and how you choose to do it is entirely up to you. There are essentially two formats to the game: creative and survival.

In creative mode, there are no resource constraints and no enemies. You’re free to simply build the most fantastical structures your mind, and patience, can conjure up. In survival mode however, resources need to be acquired almost on a 1:1 basis and basic survival techniques, shelter and food, need to be adhered to. The obvious choice when starting the game is to play in creative mode and just build away. Some people have come up with truly amazing creations. The problem though is that this very quickly gets boring and most people opt instead to play in survival mode, a fact that confuses me. If, as human beings, we’re at our best when we’re free of our constraints, resources abound and we’re able to focus on the task at hand, why then would we choose the harder survival mode. Is it that we crave challenge and hardship? I don’t think so. My theory is that as humans our greatest skill is problem solving. This is arguably where we are at our most creative. We prefer to work through maximizing available resources to achieve a required objective.

Solutions without problems

To some extent this applies also to general economics, and I think we’re starting to see this more so in the “startup” industry than in any other. Andy Hadfield recently gave a talk at SXSW, which I admittedly dismissed at first. However, I think he may be onto something. In the US, where resources are arguably unlimited (being capital, bandwidth, engineers, programmers, facilities etc) we’re seeing an interesting pattern. I call it the pattern of non-problem solving; Solutions without problems. Scarily, obscene amounts of resources are being ploughed into these “startups” purported to be “the next big thing”. In essence, they’re minecrafting in creative mode. Fun at first, but also a little pointless.

Survival Mode

Contrast this with Africa, where resources for startups are severely constrained. Bandwidth, investment, and human capital: all of these are hugely in demand and massively under supplied. We also have one further “advantage”. In Africa, we have big problems, problems looking for solutions. I don’t think it’s coincidental that FNB recently won most innovative bank, or that companies like Snapt are finding alternative was of cost effectively providing the same solutions enterprises typically pay millions for. (Snapt famously sold a $3Billion solution to a massive US agency for $300). MPESA and Ushahidi et al are all solving real world problems, under contained resource environments while still turning a profit and keeping themselves afloat (something US startups are notoriously bad at).

Margaret Thatcher once said of socialism, “it’s great, but eventually you run out of other peoples money”. I think the same can be said for VC.

My prediction: the next big thing is coming out of Africa, the real innovators.

Apple EarPods: First Thoughts

I haven’t had a new iDevice in about a year, and so last night at the iPhoneography event, I splashed out and picked a pair of Apple’s new headphones, the EarPods. Now I’ve read some pretty scathing reviews about the earphones, but after having watched Apple’s infovideo on the Earpods and hearing the work (over 124 prototypes and 600 different ears) that went into creating them, I felt the need to try them out for myself.

Before we go further, please note that I’m no audiophile.

So far, I’m super impressed. I think where the reviews of the Earpods have gone wrong is in the assumption that Apple was trying to make the best quality headphones on the market. On that mark, they’ve failed. What they’ve managed to do though is make the most comfortable in-ear headphones, which still produce great sound, that I’ve ever used. A few people mentioned that they feel as though they’re about to fall out at any second, and that’s exactly it; they’re just barely touching the ear, but still directing the sound into all the right places. I literally don’t feel as though I’m wearing them, yet I still get the same quality sound as from my regular headphones. These I feel I could wear the entire day, where as my Skullcandy in-ears (with their silicon cups) become uncomfortable after more than an hours use.


The Real Problem with Apple Maps

Earlier this year I travelled to Hong Kong. I’d never been there before and I wasn’t 100% sure about making my way around the city. I knew that I wouldn’t be there long enough to warrant getting a local data SIM and I’m not crazy enough to try roaming data on my Vodacom contract, either of which would be necessary if I wanted to use Google Maps. So it turns out I was wrong. By simply loading up Hong Kong city on Wifi before my flight, I was able to use the GPS to navigate around the city. As long as I didn’t reload the App I was fine.

When Apple announced iOS 6 vector based maps, I was over the moon. This meant that I could do exactly the same thing, but on a much bigger scale with all the tiny details included which were missing from Google’s tile based maps system without refreshing the page. Awesome.

Now there’s been a ton of bad press regarding Apple Maps, but frankly I think this has been blown way out of proportion. Apple maps for Johannesburg are about on a par with its Google counterpart.

That being said, there’s still a huge problem with Apple Maps and that is that you, for some absurd reason, require a data connection to plot a route. Why!? If I have the downloaded map, my current location (via GPS) and my destination, why would I need a data connection to simply connect those dots?



Science Fiction as a Future Modeller

I’ve always been a big fan of Sci-fi films. Like many a geek, I grew up with the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek. These worlds fascinated me from a young age, creating an expectation and excitement about what I could expect from the future.  As I got older, science fiction of the more philosophical kind – The Matrix, Minority Report, Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner – started becoming more interesting to me. The politics, socioeconomics and ethics of these fantastical worlds enthralled me, many a university evening was spent debating the pros and cons of each.

It wasn’t until recently though that I realised that the genre not only entertained and intrigued, but also built models –  theories about what the future might look like, what technological advancements we’ll make and how we might live. What Sci-Fi films do is take these ideas and models them into a “working” demo. We can almost use Sci-Fi films to test how technology would work in practice before investing time and resources in creating it. For example, the user interface in Minority report, while beautiful and reminiscent of a conductor leading an orchestra, clearly wouldn’t really work in reality from a practical point of view. Waving your arms around is going to get tiring very quickly. The Gap scene, however, where John Anderson walks into the department stores and is offered discounts based on past purchasing history by a holographic sales attendant, is another story altogether. This is a “real world” demonstration of how a future store could look and function.. and I like it.

We’ve already developed many forms of technology based on what we’ve seen in Sci-Fi film and brought them to life. The iPad, the Mobile Phone, Google Glasses.. all of these were envisioned and demonstrated in film long before the technology caught up. And we’re still doing it.. the famous Star Trek medical device – the Tricorder – is currently in development. Flying cars, personal robots, video calls.. all envisioned in Sci-Fi.  Hell, we’re even making mistakes based on things we’ve seen in movies. The idea of a transparent monitors comes straight out of Sci-Fi. It’s a cinematography tool designed to show both actor and screen at the same time, yet there are multiple companies dedicated to bringing these to life, despite its obvious impracticalities.



…On Mobile Payments

A credit card is tiny, it pays for anything around the world and people should spend more time getting parking machines to accept credit cards than a cellphone replacing a slice of plastic with a slab of plastic.

Hit the nail on the head. Add car guards to the list, and we could well get rid of cash altogether.