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The missing channel at CES

Gadgets and innovation galore, but why do so few of the products on show in Las Vegas never reach South Africa’s stores?

CES: Dreamland for distributors

The scale of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has always been one of its main talking points. This year, for example, more than 3 800 companies showcased more than 20 000 new products in early January.

This sounds like dreamland for distributors, who can barely walk 20 steps without coming across a product that would have instant appeal for resellers. Among the 175 000 visitors, with almost a third from outside the USA, a high proportion were scouring the exhibits for the next big thing, or the next very small thing.

It’s a surprise then, that the South African channel is all but invisible at CES. If its people are there, it barely shows in the products that eventually make landfall locally. In terms of visible product, the stands at CES and the shelves of South African electronics and computer stores and warehouses could be on different planets.

But there are good reasons for this, and it often has little to do with the local channel.

“A lot of the product at CES is either targeted at Americans and you never see it released in South Africa, or it’s still early days,” says a regular attendee at CES, Dimitri Tserpes, chief technology officer, Mustek. “A year later you see it rolling out, but not as a result of being seen at CES.”

Two of the biggest product categories at CES this year, drones and virtual reality, were so commonplace, and available in such a wide variety of formats and prices, it could have been expected to clog up the local channel within weeks.

Arthur Goldstuck Arthur Goldstuck
The truth is, numerous obstacles lie in the way, from government red tape to uncertainty about the regulatory environment. For example, the South African Civil Aviation Authority has issued guidelines on drones, or what it calls Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems – but these may well conflict with pre-drone regulations from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

“Realistically speaking, you’re not allowed to sell a single drone in this country because, the way I understand it, according to Icasa regulations they’re using too much power on the WiFi channel,” says Tserpes.  “You’re using radio channels so, even though you’re on free-to-air channels, there are still rules governing these, and they’re not in compliance.

“That’s why a lot of people aren’t bringing drones in. When you’re a big listed entity, you can’t break the law.”

And then there are government obstacles. The most pernicious of these is the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications, ostensibly designed to promote “public health and safety, environmental protection and ensuring fair trade”. Instead, the so-called Letters of Authority it issues have become a bureaucratic nightmare that holds back the entire electronics sector, holding the channel down even when it does find promising products.

Despite this, innovative products do eventually get here. Tserpes points out that 3D printers that have been arriving in South Africa in the last couple of years were first identified at CES. In the coming year, he expects Mustek to make a play for intelligent home security systems.

The real excitement, he believes, lies in the invisible.

“The main reason I go every year is to get a feel for the industry. What I saw going big at CES this year was not the hardware and gadgets. It was the services behind the hardware. It’s in the cloud, or it’s the artificial intelligence (AI) behind it all.

“You can have all-singing, all-dancing robots, but if you don’t have AI behind it, you’re lost. So if you go to a local trade show and get excited by a singing, dancing robot, you’re a little behind the curve.”

Arthur Goldstuck is the founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @art2gee 

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