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INTERVIEWS
By 30 October 2009 | Categories: interviews

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Best business blog for 2008, co-founder of amatomu.com, founder of Webby Honouree and SA blog of the year Thought Leader… the list goes on. You could make a rather dense tag cloud with your roll of achievements thus far in your career. What’s the secret?

It’s passion for what you do that keeps you striving for more. I’m rarely completely satisfied with a project, so it motivates you to push higher and harder. It’s a sum total of the team of people around you, equally motivated and passionate, and the community out there using the applications we make, that makes the magic happen. It drives us.

What do you think is the most exciting and most frustrating thing about the online space in South Africa?
Exciting: We’re an early-adopter nation with some inspiring world-class Web entrepreneurs both here and abroad. Frustrating: Without a doubt the size of the Internet market and throttled state of our bandwidth. Deregulation and the new undersea cables give us hope. But beyond the cost and regulatory issues we know so well, people often forget that the greatest challenge to the growth of our market remains the inequitable socio-economic circumstances in our country – an issue beyond the scope of the Web.

Where will newspapers find themselves in five years time?

Well I remember that in the mid 90s there was a popular phrase that went something along the lines of “newspapers will be dead in ten years time”. That never happened. I think in five years or even 10 years newspapers will still be around. I think the death of print has been greatly exaggerated. It’s also not a homogenous market, for example newspapers in emerging markets are doing exceedingly well and will be around for many years to come.

In fact, saying newspapers will die is akin to us saying in the 1960s that we’ll no longer have fireplaces in our houses because we’ve invented electric heaters. Yes, electric heaters come on at the flick of a switch and are less messy – but they just don’t have the charm and feel-good feeling of a roaring fire. It’s an irrational lifestyle thing. Just because the digital medium is more efficient, it does not automatically mean people will ditch papers for it en masse.

There’s no doubt newspapers will be under pressure however. Some will close, some will niche, some will boom. Expect cover prices to go through the roof as they become “luxury items”.

Tell us a bit about 20FourLabs and you role in The Hub.

20FourLabs is the innovation division of 24.com. It’s a startup in a corporate of around 30 or so top talents in the organisation aiming to capture some of the entrepreneurial flair and attitude you find in Web start-ups which make them good places for rapid development and innovation. We’re currently working on about 35 projects of which roughly about 14 have launched.

My specific role in The Hub involved the conceptualisation of it and then workshopping and debating it with our product managers, who wire-framed and refined it. The design phase has been completed and it’s now in development.

The theory behind The Hub is that online publishing sites like news24.com (and pretty much all others) have natural networks around them. Now what these sites, in particular, do badly is formalise and realise those networks. Some do it better than others. For example, user comments below articles are a crude form of social networking in a publishing context. Social networks on a basic level would also include a user submitting and publishing stories or photos to a Website. These create small, crude and “unrealised” networks. Publishers are good at connecting with users, but could go further when it comes to connecting users with each other. So this is where The Hub comes in. The idea is to inject a layer of social sophistication into the key areas where users are commenting, debating and interacting. Then it takes things further and enriches user interaction: users are profiled, they can see activity feeds, they can follow each other, then can IM each other, they can create dynamic groups or “Hubs” to take the debate further and network some more.

What’s your next big project at 20FourLabs?

The Hub is probably the most ambitious of all the projects, because it’s an untested idea and will be wrapped around the whole 24.com network, which is the biggest in the country. Other projects include flirtaroo.mobi and flirtaroo.com (micropayment-based, locative dating site), mobiganic.com (mobile cms), Letterdash.com Phase 2 (Social blogging), and our cross-platform widget-based homepage at 24.com and 24.mobi. We’ve also built News24 iPhone, Android and J2me apps.

One of your discussion points in a blog post about your vision of Augmented Reality was “Goodbye to privacy.” Do you think our perception of privacy just needs to change or is privacy soon to be extinct beyond our own thoughts?

I’m often (rightly) accused of neglecting the dystopian view. It may be too idealistic to suggest that a loss of privacy as a result of the Web and the social networking revolution would be ok because it would mean we’d evolve into a “transparent” and “accountable” society. While persuasive, this may be too idealistic.
We could also become a paranoid and distrustful society, always worrying about what our friends and neighbours will find out about us from a Web or social network search. A comforting thought is that 1) to some extent you’re in control by limiting your profile information on most networks and failing that the “delete” button looms large; and 2) everyone will mostly be in the same boat.

However, you won’t be in control of all the information about you there. We have still to develop the legal and moral framework to cope with this and there may be a backlash from society.

Maybe there’s a business opportunity here too?

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