Your children are making billions for these companies, and you're paying for it.

Free to play is never free, there's a premium on your kid's attention and gaming companies have found a way to unlock that value.

“More than 1 250 developers made at least $10 000 in 2020 through virtual sales in their Roblox games,” highlights CNBC in their roadmap charting the platform’s growth to a $30-billion company. That developer spend (money paid from Roblox to devs) represents a 200 percent increase from 2019 and represents only around 25 percent of what the company raked in through in-game purchases.

Roblox is a platform where players can find games to play. You can also upgrade your avatar using Robux, the in-game currency that costs actual money. There’s a monthly subscription plan that offers exclusive items and a Robux allowance. Developers earn Robux - which can be converted into cash - by creating items and games and then claim almost a third of the income the items generate.

RBLX entered the New York Stock Exchange with a suggested price of $45 and closed the day at $69,50, an impressive performance for the first direct listing of 2021. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and BofA Securities are advising the company on the listing.

For every Rand that Roblox earns on iOS and Android, 25 cents goes to Apple and Google. Robux and in-game purchases cost the same on all platforms, so the company is presumably taking the mobile app losses on the chin to not go the Fortnite route and get kicked out of the various app stores.

Epic Games has recently jumped onto the anti-Google train in Australia by initiating legal action against the search giant in that country’s federal court. Epic is arguing against the tax it needs to pay to Apple and Google for in-game purchases and launched its own marketplace. With around 90 percent of Android apps in Australia being downloaded from Google’s Play Store, Epic is also betting on a monopoly argument.

Fortnite is readying the sixth season of Chapter 2 that really saw the game find its stride out of the Mech chaos that closed out Chapter 1. The game can now be accused of catering to inexperienced players with the gold bar economy creating side quests and introducing more opportunities to get ahead, but it is a move that keeps the game accessible to new users.

Launching Fortnite Creative Mode was a masterstroke because the game is now breeding its next generation of developers on its own tools, similar to what Roblox is doing. Creative Mode is being updated to Unreal Engine 5 in 2021.

In many circles Minecraft is considered to be the natural competitor to Roblox, but Fortnite is competing for the same parent wallets and developing different revenue streams. Microsoft has built Minecraft into a powerhouse in the education space and grew its user base by 25 percent during the pandemic.

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My read: My kids are on Minecraft and Lego City because I feel that those games don’t put as much of an emphasis on in-game purchases with crazy marketing drives. Roblox and Fortnite are free to play, so development costs need to be covered from other revenue streams.

Gaming is becoming more of a consumption activity and the true lesson being taught is how to use a credit card to buy progress instead of earning it. I remember having to run command code to play California Games back in the early 90s.

Consumer culture is pushed from a very young age and parents must be weary of the terms of the value transaction. I’m not comfortable with children’s content listing on the stock market.


Something you should know about:

Huawei is pushing forward with its smartphone strategy and will be unveiling the upcoming P50 shortly. P50 will be the company’s first device to launch with Harmony OS and not the Android-based EMUI software the company has built its brand on. On the hardware side we’re expecting a 1-inch camera sensor and a further evolution on the P-series design language, but the software is where things get interesting.

Huawei South Africa held a media session to introduce the new regional CEO and reaffirm its commitment to bringing premium mobile connectivity experiences to South Africans. Arstechnica described Harmony OS as having “no discernable difference” between it and Android which, once again, calls into question the brand’s honesty.

The local representatives were quick to point out that the new OS could come to our shores on a different device built by a different manufacturer before it reaches smartphones, which could signal the imminent arrival of Honor TVs. Honor was of course sold off to a consortium Shenzen Zhixin New Information Technology Co., Ltd.


A number that may only interest me:

10

The number of hours Sonos claims its new Roam portable wireless speaker can play music from a full charge. If you’re unfamiliar with Sonos, it’s an audio brand that specialises in connected speakers. The company is synonymous with multiroom audio, although Google sued the company for infringing on patents after Sonos first accused Google of the same. Roam syncs with the Sonos system over your home WiFi and can be used as a surround sound extension, plays audio over Bluetooth, connects to Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, is water and dust resistant and is said to sound incredible. It’s almost too good to be true, but you can pre-order from takealot.com in April for R4 000.


A quote that seemed profound when I first heard/read it:

“I don’t do exams in my class because exams make for lazy teachers and students.” - Prof Bill Tucker

Context: I interviewed Prof Tucker, who is moving from UWC to University of Stellenbosch after 23 years of computer science lecturing, for a forthcoming issue of TECH magazine and he was commenting on the education system in South Africa. He relies on regular tests and quizzes which contribute to the final mark instead of concentrating on regurgitating information for one big exam at the end of the year. It’s a novel approach that has gained traction in a pandemic affected academic year.

Data privacy for all, but only those who can afford it.

Google and Apple are boldly proclaiming to be beating back the scourge of third-party tracking, but these are only small steps to make the world better for consumers.

In January 2020 Google made an important announcement about phasing out third party cookies in a Chromium blog post. This news was buried under the avalanche of the pandemic, but as the world’s biggest web engine it was a significant step towards better privacy protection on the internet.

There was a two-year deadline placed on making third party obsolete in Chrome, but the language used left a door open for a possible replacement service. On 3 March 2021, Google shut that door with a satisfying *THUNK*.

David Temkin, Director of Product Management, Ads Privacy and Trust, stated explicitly that Google “will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.”

This move is in response to the erosion of trust between consumers and service providers with over two thirds of people feeling that everything they do online is being tracked by advertisers and technology firms. The figures cited from a Pew Research Center study also reveal that four out of every five Americans believe that the potential risks of data collection outweigh the benefits.

So what does this mean? Well, Chrome will be rolling out new user settings to limit invasive data collection as early as April. Google is also testing a Federated Learning of Cohorts algorithm (FLoC) that can group anonymous users together and deliver ads based on common interests.

In 2017 I met a gentleman in a lobby at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. He was from a company called Drawbridge that specialises in the kind of anonymous tracking Google is using FLoC for. He explained that third party cookies would soon become obsolete and be replaced by tracking methods that do not need to know your name to target you across all of your devices.

While there is a lot of debate in the Big Tech circles around data tracking, the only way we get value out of the AI conveniences is by telling the machines what our preferences are.

Apple is trying to explicitly warn its customers about what type of data is being collected by the services and apps they install on their iPhones, iPads and Macs. And then taking things a step further by trying to limit the amount of data that gets shipped off the device to servers by making Siri smart enough to handle some requests directly on your iPhone.

“This charade of consent has made it obvious that notice-and-choice has become meaningless. For many AI applications … it will become utterly impossible.”

These token gestures from the biggest consumer technology providers are small, but important changes that indicate an interest in the digital wellbeing of their customers. A Brookings Institution report highlights the challenges these companies face in protecting privacy while trying to advance AI capability.

Meanwhile Facebook is still fighting as hard as it can against these data tracking restrictions because charging companies to target ads at relevant consumers is the social media giant’s primary revenue stream.

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My read: Online content is a pay to play market and, unfortunately, that payment is for our data. I respect Facebook for being upfront about it by opening the post boosting tools to ordinary users and not hiding everything behind the corporate curtain.

While I’m comfortable with handing over my browsing habits and search data to Google in return for a web experience that is optimised to my user profile, I have yet to encounter a personalised ad that was useful.

My targeted ad experience is dominated by the same high-priced retailers trying to sell me things I bought for cheaper somewhere else. I’m not a child, I can search for what I need on my own.

But when I’m offline I do love the convenience of asking a voice assistant to play some music while I’m cooking or find the quickest route home in peak hour traffic. Unfortunately, those users who can’t afford expensive iPhones or to pay for subscription services will have to pay for cheap devices that are subsidised by the ads that get served or the data that is tracked.

I stopped using Chrome as my browser a long time ago because I don’t like the way it slowly chokes systems to death. Will a commitment to privacy bring me back? No. But the Chromium-based browser I do use will also benefit.

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CORRECTION! I incorrectly said that the Under Armour Flow Velociti Wind wasn’t equipped with a Bluetooth connected module. I was wrong, as pointed out by my new favourite running shoe YouTuber.


Something you should know about:

Uber drivers in South Africa are fighting for their constitutional rights. I’m a fan of this move because I’ve been in conversation with too many Uber drivers who are being exploited by agencies that have corrupted what I believe are the founding philosophy of these ride sharing platforms.

You can hear my thoughts about it in the latest episode of the OverclockedZA podcast - while you’re there, please subscribe… I removed the podcast from my Substack feed because it was causing havoc with data tracking.


A number that may only interest me:

2040

The year that Volvo plans for its car production operations to be completely carbon neutral. This begins by selling only EVs by the end of this decade, starting with the XC40 Recharge plug-in hybrid coming to SA later this year and the newly announced, jaw droppingly beautiful C40 Recharge.


A quote that seemed profound at the moment I heard/read it:

“If I get Covid, what will happen to my children?” - Anonymous

Context: The words of a single mother who has sheltered in place since the beginning of the pandemic and continues to practice physical distancing. Friday 5 March 2021 marks 365 days since South Africa recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case and the country has since lost over 50 000 citizens to this disease.

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5G information superhighway to hell.

Smartphone manufacturers and network carriers have failed society by feeding us marketing hype instead of educational resources, and now we look to social media to save us...

South Africans are searching for information about the dangers of 5G an average of 13 780 times a month. That level of skepticism puts our geographically named nation at number eight in the world according to a Prolifics Testing research report where the company used Ahrefs tools.

The USA tops the list with citizens of the land of the free generating 374 700 searches about 5G and its implications outside of data connection per month. Unsurprisingly that’s almost 300 000 more searches than the next most skeptical country, the UK.

What does this mean? If we assume that each search represents one person, then 0.1 percent of the American population is ignorant about 5G. Which is ironic because the US network carriers are bullish about the positive effects 5G will have on education in rural communities.

We did see early COVID-19 outbreaks blossom around cities with 5G infrastructure, but not necessarily around 5G sites. This was because the prime locations for 5G rollout are also higher density urban areas with more potential for transmitting a virus that spreads through human contact.

Other supporting data that conspiracy theorists used was the China connection, implying that Chinese firms like Huawei installed 5G equipment before the viral outbreak. While these conspiracies have been debunked and proven to be false numerous times, there is still a worrying amount of skepticism among consumers.

To be clear: there is no connection between 5G rollout and COVID-19.

There is a danger to more rapid forms of data transfer, though, and that is in the faster spread of misinformation. Content moderation on social media platforms will never be sufficient to curb the spread of misinformation, with an NYU study highlighting Facebook’s woeful incompetence - especially with regards to its approach to policing the feeds of at-risk countries like on the continent of Africa.

At the core of this “at-risk” status is the general level of education of citizens. Higher average education means that more citizens are inclined to question statements, but a distrust of the media and government is breeding ground for further skepticism. For now, content moderation is all we have.

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My read: I believe that news media giving a platform to the peddlers of disinformation is a self-defeating practice. We do not need to represent the other side of the argument if that side is objectively, factually wrong.

Education is the only way we win this war and that will require less marketing hype and more useful information coming out of the smartphone manufacturers and network carriers who are making financial gains from the 5G rollout.


Something you should know about:

Ford debuted its FordPass Connect service on the new Ranger FX4. Instead of equipping every new Ranger bakkie with an embedded SIM (eSIM) like Mercedes-Benz has done in the past, Ford Motor Company South Africa is relying on an LTE dongle that users plug into the ODB-II port - much like Mercedes-Benz have done in the past. I’ve linked to my buddy Papi Mabele’s coverage over on twfld.com for the details.

Vehicle connectivity is great for things like geofencing - where you can set an operating area and get alerted if the car goes beyond it - and emergency calling. Ford is also promising better OTA software update support, a traditional strength of the Ford SYNC 3 infotainment system. FMCSA also pioneered the MyKey function where you can set speed limits and other car settings which are tied to a specific key in our market.

We may not be getting a full suite of EVs in Mzansi, but the connected car is coming and it’s refreshing to see a manufacturer target the luxury/recreational vehicle segment that’s truly relevant to the South African consumer.


A number that may only interest me:

7

The average percentage speed improvement seen by MapMyRun users who connected Under Armour HOVR shoes to the service. I’m a fan of UA’s relentless advancement of textile technology, and now the running shoes are finally beginning to catch up. UA Flow Velocity Wind strips away the rubber outsole - a traditional weakness for the brand - which dramatically reduces weight and doesn’t include the Bluetooth module.

It’s quite curious that Under Armour chose to exclude its performance tracker from its most performance-focused shoes, instead deciding to rely on its textile tech prowess (in partnership with DOW Chemicals) to create the Flow cushioning. Play to your strengths, I guess.


A quote that sounded profound when I read/heard it:

“Being comfortable with being uncomfortable starts with your face.”

— Whiteboard Daily

Context: the most important lesson Crossfit has taught me is how to handle intense stress. Don’t forget to smile.

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Technology should have more staying power.

Is it only me who thinks it's weird how our phones got bigger, but the battery life got worse. Not improving endurance before increasing demand is a human problem.

By the time you read this, Perseverance will have already touched down on the surface of Mars. We call it the Red Planet because it’s, well, red as the soil on the Highveld, but that often gets confused with heat. The average temperature on Mars is -53 degrees Celsius, with Mercury rarely climbing above 20. That’s terrible conditions to operate batteries in.

Percy, like Curiosity before it, is powered by a nuclear energy called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). The heat from the plutonium-238 core is transferred to a metal plate that is at a colder temperature and that creates an electron flow.

That’s called a thermocouple and you can read more about the MMRTG system in this excellent coverage.

Importantly, Percy’s generator is designed with an operation life of 14 years - which is about 4x the 3-year mission - starting at about 110W and the Pu-238 decaying each year until depletion. The electricity is stored in two lithium-ion rechargeable batteries with a total capacity of 43Ah.

Heat from the MMRTG keeps everything functioning optimally in the frigid Martian climate with Li-ion cells losing about 10 percent capacity at freezing, and only reducing discharge capacity/rate of flow from that point (dropping to 50 percent at -18 Celsius).

The problem isn’t actually discharging, which can remain functional at up to around 40-below, but rather when electron flow is reversed during charging. With less heat energy the electrons slow to a crawl and fall below the charging threshold.

Back on Earth our EVs aren’t fitted with nuclear generators and rely on batteries alone to provide the energy needed for forward propulsion. Porsche pushed the industry forward a little with 800V architecture for more consistent performance and less weight from the associated reduced wiring volume. High voltage also allows for faster charging time.

My arguments for the iPhone 12 Mini included declaring the battery endurance as fine because 15-hours operating time is more than adequate. Unfortunately, I had a blind spot in my analysis with complaints starting to come in of battery health dropping quicker than usual.

That 15-hour endurance leaves the battery at under 20 percent charge by around 20h00, which is slightly below the preferred charge levels for Li-ion chemistry. Charging from below 20 percent eats up a bigger chunk of a charge cycle than if you keep it in the mid-range charge.

Driving the Porsche Taycan hard, because that’s what the marketing says it can do consistently, will leave you in the same situation. This is a brand that is built on performance and, sadly, instead of an EV follow-up to the headline grabbing Taycan, we get yet another petrol-powered 911 to start 2021.

Apple is allegedly halting iPhone 12 Mini production to support its better selling, bigger siblings during a global chip shortage.

What does this have in common with Perseverance? Well, the current Mars mission is to collect samples which will be gathered and returned to earth in the far future. To be fair, there’s also in the Ingenuity drone which will be our first flight on another planet…

Percy is another massive leap for humanity without first building the required safety net of sustainability. Just like the Porsche pursuit of performance left it with the same old battery problems we’ve had before, rendering the current Taycan immediately obsolete when the next big battery breakthrough happens.

Of course, dedicated EV manufacturer Tesla already has an eye on the next generation of batteries and announced the carbon architecture that will support the shift to Lithium-Sulphur batteries. When you produce the batteries and the car your R&D investment is split between it. Legacy carmakers buy in batteries and design cars around it.

My read: Nasa benefits from the kind of vertical integration that is keeping Tesla ahead of the chasing EV pack. Percy will, effectively, poop out sealed soil samples on its explorations and the next generation is tasked with retrieving it to study back on earth.

While I’m not a fan of littering other planets with now five rovers and three other man-made objects since the 70s, I see the human advancement point. But does it give us the right? In the same vein, does Porsche deserve praise for producing yet another fossil fuel slurping performance machine when that development could’ve been spent on making better batteries?

Jaguar is set to become an EV exclusive auto brand by 2025, which at least shows a real commitment to sustainable forms of motoring and not merely compliance-focused marketing stunts.

Humans are very bad at seeing beyond the immediate future these “breakthroughs” create. Then, like with climate change, future generations are left to pick up the pieces. We should do better.


Something you should know about:

The current cold storms running through Texas have caused numerous power outages and forced loadshedding/rolling blackouts to counter the problem. The State of Texas doesn’t have a federal (national) power grid and is served by private players who, in the pursuit of profit, neglected some maintenance and necessary winter upgrades that was mandated on the federal level.

Hopefully this serves as a warning for the Western Cape’s ambitions to go independent with its power generation. Privatising is not necessarily the answer if there isn’t sufficient oversight.


A number that may only interest me:

11’22”

The time it takes light from Mars to reach Earth. That means while the Nasa JPL crew was celebrating a confirmed touchdown, Perseverance had already been on alien soil for about five minutes after negotiating the Seven Minutes of Terror completely autonomously.


What is the price of a cashless society?

Convenience always comes at a cost or, at least, a compromise. As the world turns digital we’re running a surprising bill and someone has to pay.

The credit card vendor formerly known as Virgin Money has rebranded as SPOT Money and is now an all singing, all dancing financial service offering.

At its core there’s what is effectively an eWallet and a QR code scanning payment app that combines the powers of MasterPass and WiCode. Payment options will be expanded to NFC tap-to-pay in the near future with compatible Android phones.

Reports about this move started in 2019 and Absa officially cut ties with the Virgin Money credit card at the close of 2020 with cards ceasing to function at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. This is one of many small steps the Virgin Group is taking to simultaneously move into the fintech space and divest in its South African operations.

Then there’s the added benefits. No, not the rewards you get from shopping at Spot partners. The service will happily act as a broker for loan applications or insurance products. There’s a brief explanation on the website (linked a couple paragraphs earlier) that says SPOT earns a finder’s fee when you agree to terms.

This product joins TymeBank and Bank Zero in a crusade to offer financial services with simplified sign-ups, no monthly fees and a strong focus on electronic transactions by leveraging smartphone technology and the app ecosystem. The real money is made through the interest that these banks earn while holding your money.

It’s a similar idea that drove Starbucks into one of the the biggest banks in the world: you load money onto a Starbucks card/app to buy coffee more conveniently, but you can’t withdraw the cash and can only buy coffee. That leaves Starbucks with a stack of capital to invest how it sees fit because the credit transaction is paid in coffee, not cash.

You deposit cash into your account for the convenience of not paying monthly fees, using smart digital payment methods and, in the case of SPOT, peer-to-peer money transfer. You then pay small fees on “cash outs” and transactions beyond a certain threshold.

More traditional transaction services vendor and the original fintech peddler MasterCard will soon be welcoming cryptocurrency into its payment options. This move comes as no surprise since crypto is just another way to bank wealth, so naturally MasterCard has been sniffing around for a simple way to throw itself onto the blockchain.

That announcement and Tesla’s $1,5-billion Bitcoin purchase (currency, not the, erm… company?) should drive the price up and make Bitcoin traders – sorry, I know dangerously little about crypto and investing – very rich. It will unfortunately also inspire a boom in Bitcoin mining activity.

Mining Bitcoin consumes a lot of energy and with the tide of extra interest in crypto lifting the entire market, mining activity for other cryptocurrencies will increase as well. That means crypto miners here in Mzansi will be drawing even more electricity from the already shaky national grid, which means more coal and diesel is burnt to cope with the demands.

A recent study revealed that the pollution from fossil fuel consumption is the root cause of 1-in-5 deaths worldwide. Increased energy use only pumps more deadly clouds into the sky.

Mass adoption of electronic/digital banking means that smartphones need to be charged more frequently to meet the demands of the lifestyle change, and vendors need to devote more resources to powering additional devices to manage the electronic transactions or digital side of the business.

My read: While I’m an advocate for the convenience of cashless transactions and a dedicated Samsung Pay user, the reality of not having change to toss to a car guard or homeless person is not lost on me, especially during this pandemic.

It’s far easier for the NSRI or Medecins Sans Frontíères stands in shopping malls to coax a spare R20 out of your pocket than to convince you to do an electronic transaction. Those organisations also cannot justify the extra spend on Yoco POS machines or SnapScan licenses because the return on investment isn’t there.

Removing cash from society cuts off income for many people and it’s the homeless and informal vendors (fruit and flower sellers) who lose potential customers because of it. Ironically, the people who lose the most are the target demographic for the growth and long term sustainability of these new digital financial services.

Getting more people into the banking economy is a nett good for society, but we should also offer solutions for the ultimate losers in this incessant march to digital transformation.


Something you should know about:

Audi launched the e-Tron GT this week and it’s pretty much a rebadged Porsche Taycan with Ingolstadt styling cues. I’m hypercritical of the VW group’s forays into the electric vehicle market because as the world’s biggest car manufacturer I expect them to be leaders in the pursuit of a better future and the long term survival of the auto industry.

Instead the cars that have been pushed out from the group have been luxury vehicles that do nothing more than pay lip service to a promised move away from the internal combustion engine.

While I understand the labour challenges the company faces in its native Germany, the people’s car manufacturer should be making moves to get the people into better alternatives.

A network effect of a market shift to EVs will mean mass unemployment because electric cars use very little consumable fluids, are less mechanically intricate with fewer points of failure and require less mechanic intervention. Entire industries are at risk of disruption and it probably isn’t in the world’s biggest carmaker’s best interest to dramatically reduce its potential income from internal combustion engine maintenance.

There are many forces at play slowing the progress and mass adoption of EVs.


A number that may only interest me:

0.1

The percentage of the South African population that will have died as a result of COVID-19 when we celebrate the anniversary of our country’s first documented infection (this assumes that we lose lives to this disease at the current rate of 350 a day). More than half of the over 47 000 deaths to date were recorded during the second wave.

Testing, contact tracing and community screening/education programmes remain a challenge in South Africa with strong resistance to participation in the electronic measures like downloading and using the COVID Alert SA app that is zero rated on all networks. Alongside mask wearing, physical distancing and regular hand washing, contact tracing and widespread testing is the only way we can get ahead of the pandemic.


A quote that seemed profound when I read/heard it:

“If we ever had to pay her back, the whole earth would be broke…”

– Chance the Rapper

Context: It’s the final line of his guest verse on the new Vic Mensa track Shelter which also features vocals and production by Wyclef Jean. The song offers some scathing commentary on the US government response to the multitude of challenges facing Black and Hispanic communities during this pandemic and also highlights the wrongful arrest of Julius Jones.

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