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Chicken and Egg

Which came first, the telephone or the skyscraper?Give up? The answer is the telephone. Think about it: without a telephone, who would want to live or work on the 50th story of a high-rise building? How would you get anything done? No-one has this kind of time. Without a telephone we would all be running up and down the stairs all day long. We would all need our own lifts. All business would be done on the street, at ground level.

The telephone liberated us. It allowed us to live vertically.

Think of a flea market. Who at a flea market has a sophisticated PABX system installed? Of course they don’t, otherwise they would be in a fancy office somewhere.

So the argument works both ways. But jokes aside, it is the phone and the PABX that allowed companies to expand vertically into high-rise office buildings.

And the Internet has taken this liberation to another level. Between e-mail and the Web people are working from airplanes, island retreats and the polar caps.

What is so cool about this communications technology is that it has a very short history. It is pretty straightforward to trace the start of all this liberation from birth to today.

Did you know, for example, that the word “hello” was invented after the telephone? Think about it. You got this new invention, the phone, and it rings, and you pick up and say – what? So a new word was invented to help us deal with this new technology.

Have you ever wondered who bought the first fax machine?

This always intrigues me. Perhaps it is my Internet background. When I was out there evangelising the Internet in South Africa, when Internet Solutions (IS) first started back in 1993, I always used to ask people this question.

To whom would they send a fax? And who would they be receiving a fax from? The egg before the chicken?

And then came the Internet. At IS, we used try to persuade people to go online. But why? Whom were they going to e-mail? Well, for starters, I would e-mail them. And they would e-mail me back.

Probably the first fax someone received was their bill from the fax company for their new fax machine. Imagine how they must have felt to have received a payment reminder on their new miracle machine. I am being silly now, but you get the idea.

After last week’s column about the paradox of progress I thought I would take you back to the start of all these digital distractions. Let me end with a story about telecommunications in Australia.

So a guy goes to the Australian phone company in the 1950s and says he is going to invest in rolling out “tiekieboxes” throughout pubs and restaurants in Australia. He reckons he will split the profit with the phone company.

So he spends millions deploying these phone boxes only do discover that the profit was very small. You see, they had a similar phone system in the 1950s in Australia to what we had here in South Africa up to about 15 years ago.

They had the flat rate unit system, which means you could make a call and stay on the phone all day without any usage charges. These days, the more you talk the more you pay (talk is not cheap any more).

So our panicked entrepreneur goes back to the phone company and says that he is in trouble. He tells them that they need to roll out the unit system because the flat rate billing is killing him.

But this was not their problem. The deal was that our entrepreneur was going to absorb the risk of rolling out the callboxes. So he was in trouble.

And do you know what he did? He went and put a few pounds of led in every handset of each of the tiekieboxes he rolled out. And the revenues rolled in. I guess people just aren’t into heavy conversations!

Technology is changing everything. And it is a funny business. The only place that doesn’t seem to change is the ’ol post office. Ironically, the only people not obsessed with pushing the envelope are postal employees.

And on that note, I better get back to work. The footskaters are keeping me busy at the moment; they just launched their new web site.

Yes, yes, that is a blatant punt, but forgive me; this column has been all over the map.

  • Ronnie Apteker is one of the founders of Internet Solutions, the country’s largest corporate Internet service provider. He is also a movie producer, an author of two books and sometimes a stand up comedian.

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Posted in the category: Insight

The progress paradox

By Ronnie Apteker

You know, all technology has ever meant to do is save us time. All these great advancements and innovations are meant to make our lives better, easier, and more exciting. And yet, with each incredible leap forward we seem to go backwards in our souls. This is the paradox of progress.

Yes, we get more stupid with each smart invention. Crazy how the world works like this. As George Carlin once pointed out, in this day and age we have more degrees but less common sense.

Take email for example – you got to love it. It is fast, it is simple, and it costs practically nothing to use. Once you are online you can email as much as you like. But, are you really being effective with this cold, dull medium? Efficient yes, but effective, no.

I have heard so many people lecture me on the uses of email. And I am always amazed at how insecure these people turn out to be. No one builds real relationships via email. Yes, you can share information, you can send technical notes, and you can set up meetings. But you can’t really establish trust via email. You can’t build bridges via email. You can’t really connect via email. Email is about speed. And relationships are about time.

The same goes for cellphones. I love it when someone goes on at me about their new cellphone. Who cares about that stupid device? The only thing that matters is who is calling you. I would rather have quality calls than a quality phone.

I also love it when I call someone up and they say: “Sorry, I can’t talk to you, I am in a meeting.” You’ve got to laugh. Why are they answering their phone if they can’t talk? Seriously, technology really is making us stupid.

The problem with all these technologies is that we keep getting interrupted and we find it hard to focus. We find it harder and harder to listen. Imagine going to talk to someone and while you are sharing something important their cellphone rings and they take the call. At this point you have lost faith, and trust, in that person. At this point you might as well talk to the wall. The problem with all this technology is that we are meant to be more in control, but alas, it is in fact controlling us. This is what the message of that movie the Matrix was about.

I know this column is a bit of a departure from my usual ramblings, but I have been going through some soul searching recently and I am trying to get my head, and heart, around the fundamentals. I am exploring the curious paradox of progress once again, and I am trying to examine the continuous struggle we all face when it comes to quality versus quantity.

I would rather trade all those silly emails for one meaningful conversation. But, let’s not forget the power of email. One simple email could set up a time and a date for that meaningful conversation, with someone you care about. So, let’s leave it right there for now.

Yes, this would be a good place to stop – I think I am going to email a special friend of mine and make a time to get together with them for a good heart to heart, and a bit of a laugh. The friend I am talking about here has the most wonderful laugh and I have not heard it in a while – I hope I hear it again soon.

  • Ronnie Apteker is one of the founders of Internet Solutions, the country’s largest corporate Internet service provider. He is also a movie producer, an author of two books and sometimes a stand up comedian.

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Posted in the category: Insight

The Reeker is coming

The Reeker is coming down south, to a cinema near you. Scary stuff. I mean, how do these cinemas know where you are?

But what is seriously even more scary is Reeker itself. It’s one cool horror movie and it is being released in South Africa at the end of September (this month!) exclusively on the Nu Metro circuit.

What is so fascinating about this particular film is that it is the first purely wide digital release in South Africa. The film was made in America and has been released all around the world on traditional 35 mm reels, but here in South Africa it will be released on a digital platform, which represents an exciting departure for all our local film makers.

Nu Metro has 26 cinema complexes and each has a state-of-the-art digital projector. That means that 26 Reekers will be unleashed on the public soon and result is going to make for an important case study in the local film arena.

Reeker is about a bunch of young strangers who get trapped in an eerie travel oasis in the desert. These youngsters start to unravel the mystery behind their visions of dying people being preyed upon by a decaying creature. (Have a look at for details about this indie film.)

Reeker has received compelling reviews around the world. Variety magazine said, “Both a nightmare and a scream, Reeker earns a top spot among those horror films that are as self-aware as they are creepy, spooky, mysterious and kooky. There’s nothing vaguely mild about this movie.” Ain’t It Cool News said, “Reeker has a fun vibe, cool effects, and doesn’t ever take itself too seriously. Check this one out!”

The film was shot in the visually stunning and haunting desert of Southern California. For the opening sequence, special make-up effects wizard Monster FX used 70 gallons of fake blood. There are more than 300 visual effects shots in the film.

The film stars hot newcomer Arielle Kebble – who was the lead in American Pie 4 and is now going to be seen in Aquamarine and John Tucker Must Die. Then there is Eric Mabius from Resident Evil, and veteran actor Michael Ironside from Top Gun and Total Recall.

The magic behind the movie lies with the writer/director Dave Payne, who says, “I’ve been missing the sense of fun from the current crop of horror films. You’ve got the over-stylized, too serious, almost purposely vague PG-13 studio fare, you’ve got the sub-budget direct to the bottom shelf of the video store drivel, you’ve got the popcorn C-movie monster flicks on cable – and there isn’t much else in between. My favourite horror films have always been scary, smart and funny. So basically I set out to frighten the pants off people, make them laugh, and give them a story thick enough to chew on, but easy enough to swallow.”

Payne has directed a host of interesting films, including the Addams Family Reunion. Reeker is his own creation.

I have a personal interest in this film. The truth is, I am one of Dave Payne’s partners. I met Dave and his actor/producer wife, Tina, in Los Angeles many years ago when I was living there and this is the result of a good collaboration and a lot of inspiration.

Reeker is a humble and magical production that has pushed the envelope when it comes to innovative and creative film making. The part I am so thrilled about is that we are getting to test the waters on a wide digital release.

I have seen a test of a 35mm print projected against the digital system and I couldn’t tell the difference. My gut feel is that horror fans are going to be delighted with this and I am hoping that our efforts here will set an important precedent for all those film entrepreneurs who get overwhelmed at the expensive exercise that is film distribution.

A digital platform is just what is needed in our local film industry. If the release is successful (and we are quite bullish on this venture) then it will demonstrate that one can release a film on a digital platform with no loss in quality and with a massive reduction in distribution costs. We will know the results soon enough. Watch this space – Reeker is coming!

  • Ronnie Apteker is one of the founders of Internet Solutions, the country’s largest corporate Internet service provider. He is also a movie producer, an author of two books and sometimes a stand up comedian.

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Posted in the category: News

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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