Huawei’s in-house mobile OS is a very long shot

This story includes additional reporting from Jamie Davies.

In response to the threat of an imminent Android ban Huawei has started banging on about its own mobile OS, but who would want to use it?

Huawei’s mobile business boss Richard Yu was reported by the South China Morning Post as saying “The Huawei OS is likely to hit the market as soon as this fall, and no later than spring next year.” From the report this seems more like a fork of the open source Android core OS, with novel apps and a Huawei app store, much as Amazon has done with its Fire devices range.

While this is pretty much the only option available to Huawei if Google does withdraw access to licensed parts of Android, such as the Play Store, it’s hard to see it as a viable solution. The Amazon Fire phone offers perhaps the best precedent to draw upon. The premium device ticked all the hardware boxes but used a forked version of Android without the Play Store and as a result found a new use as a paperweight across Washington state.

Huawei will be able to continue using Android, it is open source after all, though technical support is only supplied to licenced partners, while any updates are rolled out through the open source much later than for the licenced one. This will have notable impacts not only on performance, but security. The most recent WhatsApp spyware issues were corrected through such an update, though unlicensed partners would still be exposed to the risk.

The issue Huawei faces is in the ecosystem. Wang Chenglu, President of the software engineering segment of the consumer business, told media in September developing the OS wasn’t a particularly complicated issue, but getting apps, services and products into the ecosystem is.

Smartphones are no-longer communications devices. These devices, which are millions of times more powerful than the computers which sent spacecraft to space in the 60s, are the focal point of our lives. If calling and texting was all we did, there would not be an issue, but asking for directions, collecting loyalty points, watching movies, playing games, signing into work, paying bills… everyday more functionality is being put onto the devices, and all these apps will have to be migrated to the Huawei OS.

Without apps smartphones are no longer smart. Yes, you can use the internet browser to access most services that also have an app but the user experience is significantly diminished. Huawei has the resources to ensure a lot of the top apps are ported to its own OS, but not all of them. Ultimately, in a largely undifferentiated Android smartphone market, there’s no reason for consumers to accept any compromise whatsoever.

There have also been numerous reports that Huawei was shocked by the Google decision but, in hindsight, that was an inevitable consequence of being put on the entity list, which in turn followed from US President Trump’s executive order. Maybe it was the Trump decision that surprised Huawei but since the US has been steadily increasing its hostility towards it for months that too seems a tad naïve.

Appropriately enough for something that could be Huawei’s last hope this OS is reportedly called Project Z. This has apparently been on the back-burner for a while, but largely designed for the Chinese market where a lot of Android features are blocked anyway. While we can safely assume it has now been given top priority, Project Z is reportedly still miles away from completion.

Even if Huawei completed the development of its own OS today, that wouldn’t make much difference for the reasons previously stated. Chinese smartphone vendors have benefitted enormously from having access to Android, but their reliance on a third party operating system and platform was always a precarious position. The likes of Xiaomi and Oppo will be watching Huawei’s struggles carefully.

US supply ban threatens to cripple Huawei’s global business

Another day, another escalation as Google heads a stampede of US companies apparently refusing to do business with Huawei.

As escalations go, however, this is a pretty big one. Reuters was the first report that Google has suspended some business with Huawei in response to the company being put on the US ‘entity list’, which means US companies need explicit permission from the US state before they’re allowed to sell anything to them. It seems that permission has been denied.

For Google this means denying access to those bits of Android Google licenses – mainly the Play Store and Google’s own mobile products such as the Gmail and Maps apps. Huawei can still access the core Android operating system as that has an open source license but, as companies such as Amazon have discovered, that’s pretty useless without all the other Google goodies.

We recently wrote that Huawei’s addition to the entity list is the most significant consequence of Trump’s executive order and here we have an immediate illustration of that. It looks like pretty much all other US companies are also rushing to comply with the new regulations, with Bloomberg reporting that Qualcomm and Intel are among others cutting of business with Huawei and others will presumably follow. Nikkei even reckons German chip-maker Infineon has joined the stampede.

Huawei already has an extensive chip-making operation of its own, so arguably it can cope without the likes of Qualcomm, but what about the millions of other bits and bobs that get crammed into a smartphone such as screens, cameras, memory, sensors, etc? A lot of these could be supplied by non-US companies like Samsung and, of course, Chinese ones, but there must surely be some areas in which Huawei is entirely reliant on the US supply chain.

But Google’s licensed mobile products and services are unique. An Android phone that doesn’t provide access to the Play store is massively diminished in its utility to the end user and Google Maps is the market leader. Google also has a near monopoly with YouTube and millions of people are reliant on things like Gmail, Google Pay, Play Movies. When there are so many great alternative Android smartphone vendors, why would anyone now buy a de-featured Huawei one?

In response to these reports Android moved to stress that it will continue to support existing Huawei Android phones in the following tweet.

Meanwhile Huawei issued the following statement. “Huawei has made substantial contributions to the development and growth of Android around the world. As one of Android’s key global partners, we have worked closely with their open-source platform to develop an ecosystem that has benefitted both users and the industry.

“Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products covering those have been sold or still in stock globally. We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally.”

Huawei has reportedly been working on its own smartphone OS in anticipation of this sort of thing happening but, as Microsoft, Samsung and others have found, there seems to be little public appetite for alternative to Android and iOS. Huawei may be able to sell a proprietary platform in China, where the Play Store is restricted anyway, but internationally this move will surely see Huawei smartphone sales fall off a cliff.

“If the US ban is permanent, we predict Huawei’s global smartphone shipments will tumble -25% in 2019,” Neil Mawston of Strategy Analytics told Telecoms.com. “If Huawei cannot offer Android’s wildly popular apps, like Maps or Gmail, Huawei’s smartphone demand outside China will collapse.

“If the US ban is temporary, and lifted within weeks, Huawei’s global smartphone growth will return to positive growth fairly swiftly. Huawei offers good smartphone models at decent prices through an extensive retail network, and it should recover reasonably well if it is allowed to compete.”

“We still don’t have a clear understanding of what Google has told Huawei and what elements of the Android operating system may be restricted, so it remains unclear what the ramifications will be,” said Ben Wood of CCS Insight. “However, any disruption in getting updates to the software or the associated applications would have considerable implications for Huawei’s consumer device business.”

There have been very few official statements on the matter from US companies, so Wood is right to tread carefully at this stage, but it’s hard to see this news as anything other than catastrophic for Huawei. Its consumer business, which is the most successful unit in the company, relies largely on Android to run its products and will surely be severely diminished by the Google move.

And there’s no reason to assume the damage will be contained there. Last year Huawei’s contemporary ZTE was almost driven out of business by a ban on US companies doing business with it. Huawei may have hedged its position regarding networking components suppliers more effectively than ZTE but it will presumably suffer greatly once those companies follow suit.

Huawei is one of the biggest companies in the world and has become so in spite of being largely excluded from the US market. The Chinese state will do everything it can to support Huawei, but at least some of its US suppliers offer unique products. At the very least this puts Huawei in a weak negotiating position with potential replacement partners and international customers, but the implications of this latest development are potentially existential.

Apple is facing complaints from developers for removing competing apps

Apps that help users control screen time have been removed or been demanded to curtail their features after Apple rolled out similar features.

Many app makers have claimed that their parental control and screen time alert apps have either been removed by Apple or have been asked to change the features, shortly after Apple rolled out similar features on iOS, reported The New York Times. 11 out of the 17 most downloaded apps of this category have been taken down, according to the research by the app analytics firm Sensor Tower and the NYT.

Apple included screen time control tools when iOS 12 was unveiled at the WWDC event in June last year, integrated in the Settings menu when the new OS was officially launched. They enabled parents to control how much time their kids can spend on iPhones and iPads, as well as alert users the time they spend on their iOS devices. But they are not as feature rich as some specialised 3rd party apps, the developers told the NYT. They were also not terribly robust. Only a few days after the new iOS was released to the public, many kids already found ways to bypass the control, according to the parents who shared their experiences on Reddit.

Apple’s official response claimed that these apps were removed to help “protect our children from technologies that could be used to violate their privacy and security.” Its spokesperson also denied that the apps were removed for competition reasons, saying, “we treat all apps the same, including those that compete with our own services.”

However, both the timing and the reasons given by Apple would raise some eyebrows. While its defence of limiting the device management features for enterprise use is plausible, as was detailed in the response to MacRumor by Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP for Worldwide Marketing, some other key features that have been in place for years and have been repeatedly approved by Apple are being asked to be removed, some developers told the newspaper. For example, these apps support device level blocking of certain content while Apple’s tool only blocks content inside the Safari browser.

At least three of the app developers, Kidslox, Qustodio, and Kaspersky Lab have filed complaints at the EU’s competition commission.

It is less likely that Apple purges the competing apps for the revenue. On one hand, Apple does not directly get revenue from their screen time apps, it is included in the phone price. On the other hand, by taking down these apps Apple is losing its share of the payment the apps receive (30%). A more plausible reason to trigger the Apple action is these apps can be used cross-platform, which means parents on iPhone can control their kids’ screen time on Android. It is not entirely out of the question that Apple may be using some feeble excuses to lock in as many users as possible.

This is another example that Apple is taking its role as platform and curator of apps too far, and inadvertently lending support to the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic presidential candidate for 2020, when she said, without naming Apple, that “either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time.” These complaints also sound similar to Spotify’s accusation that Apple is being both the referee and a player.

Android officially endorses AT&T’s 5GE thing

Now that AT&T has got the all clear the Android Open Source Project has decided to embrace 5G Evolution.

The news comes courtesy of XDA Developers, which spotted a recent addition to the Android Open Source Project site headed ‘Add 5G evolution icon’ and supported with the instruction to ‘…add the 5GE icon to the system UI for specific carriers LTE CA network.’

Right now we have no reason to assume those specific carriers are any other than AT&T but, since the implied threshold for being able to display that icon is nothing more than an LTE signal with a bit of carrier aggregation sprinkled on top, in principle anyone else could jump on the bandwagon if they felt like rebranding their LTE-A as 5G-adjacent.

The apparent failure of Sprint to get any legal support for its claim that 5GE is misleading to consumers, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that people think the presence of a 5G icon on their phones might mean they’re getting 5G, presumably emboldened Android to endorse it. This could end up backfiring on AT&T, however, when it tries to convince customers who already think they’re getting 5G to pay more for an upgrade.

Apple under more antitrust scrutiny in Europe

The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has launched an investigation into whether Apple is abusing its power through the App Store, favouring its own apps over rivals.

The Dutch regulator has reported back after receiving several complaints regarding Apple’s behaviour surrounding the App Store, suggesting there might be some foul play afoot. The initial foray has led the ACM into a larger investigation to understand whether Apple, and Google for that matter, are abusing dominant positions in the app economy to drive more favourable positions for their own apps and services.

“To a large degree, app providers depend on Apple and Google for offering apps to users. In the market study, ACM has received indications from app providers, which seem to indicate that Apple abuses its position in the App Store,” said Henk Don, an ACM board member. “That is why ACM sees sufficient reason for launching a follow-up investigation, on the basis of competition law.”

The news will not be welcomed by Apple, which is also under investigation at European level following disagreement with music streaming app Spotify. Spotify is suggesting Apple deliberately disadvantages other app developers, and while the complaint lodged with the European Commission is confidential, it has created a website listed the five ways Apple does not play fair in the app economy:

  1. The 30% fee which is applied to in-app purchases
  2. Apple won’t allow developers to communicate deals and promotions directly to customers
  3. Users cannot upgrade to premium services in app
  4. Apple rejects app enhancements for unknown reasons
  5. Spotify cannot be installed on all devices in the Apple portfolio

Some of the reasons might sounds a little moany but Apple does not seem to be laying the same rules on its own apps and services. For example, Spotify cannot be played on the Homepod, but iTunes can. This point might be of interest to the Dutch authorities.

While the original complaints received by the Dutch regulator have mainly been directed towards Apple and the App Store, the ACM also notes the dominant position Google is currently in for the Android app ecosystem. This investigation will be wide enough to assess the position of both companies and their knock-on activities in the developing ecosystem.

The initial investigation, which the ACM admits has not been in-depth enough, has uncovered some worrying elements of the business, we can’t imagine it will be difficult to dig up much more dirt on the pair.

Although both the App Store and Play Store are critical gateways in connecting developers to millions of consumers, that doesn’t mean developers need to be happy about the terms. Many are becoming increasingly frustrated with conditions, notably the 30% commission, with the larger developers looking to avoid working with the pair entirely.

There are few titles which have the brand recognition to achieve success without the reach of the App Store or Play Store, but Fortnite is one. Last August, Fortnite announced it would only offer downloads through its own website as opposed to the app stores. Estimates suggest it would save the firm $50 million in commission paid to Apple and Google.

The ACM has been keen to point out it has not come to a conclusion, despite some worrying findings in the initial investigation, and it may well find no antitrust violations. Despite pleas of impartiality, Apple and Google should certainly be worried; Europe has been pretty hot on antitrust cases recently.

Europe fines Google another €1.5 billion after belated Android concession

US search giant Google has received yet another fine from the European Commission, this time for abusing its dominant position in online advertising.

Specifically this ruling refers to ads served against Google search results embedded in third party websites. The EC doesn’t like the way Google used to go about this and, having reviewed loads of historical contracts between Google and these other websites, found the following:

  • Starting in 2006, Google included exclusivity clauses in its contracts. This meant that publishers were prohibited from placing any search adverts from competitors on their search results pages. The decision concerns publishers whose agreements with Google required such exclusivity for all their websites.
  • As of March 2009, Google gradually began replacing the exclusivity clauses with so-called “Premium Placement” clauses. These required publishers to reserve the most profitable space on their search results pages for Google’s adverts and request a minimum number of Google adverts. As a result, Google’s competitors were prevented from placing their search adverts in the most visible and clicked on parts of the websites’ search results pages.
  • As of March 2009, Google also included clauses requiring publishers to seek written approval from Google before making changes to the way in which any rival adverts were displayed. This meant that Google could control how attractive, and therefore clicked on, competing search adverts could be.

EC google ad graphic

Taken at face value this would appear to be a clear abuse of Google’s dominant position and it seems to have got off pretty lightly, since it got a much bigger fine for abusing Android’s dominant position last year, on which more below. The EC has been pretty consistent in its position on dominant US tech players deliberately seeking to restrict competition, just ask Microsoft and Intel, so none of this can have come as a surprise to Google.

“Today the Commission has fined Google €1.49 billion for illegal misuse of its dominant position in the market for the brokering of online search adverts,” said Commissioner in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager. “Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anti-competitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules. The misconduct lasted over 10 years and denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate – and consumers the benefits of competition.”

As the quote indicates, Google isn’t doing this anymore, but only packed it in once the EC flagged it up in 2016, so that’s still a decade of naughtiness. For some reason Google also chose today to show some belated contrition for one of the things it got fined for last year: forcing Android OEMs to preinstall Google Search and the Chrome browser.

In a blog post amusingly entitled Supporting choice and competition in Europe, Google SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker started by stressing there’s nothing he loves more than healthy, thriving markets. Having said that he went on to make it clear that its most recent move to improve competition was taken solely to get the EC off its back.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” wrote Walker. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones. This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

How touching. Presumably today was some kind of deadline for Google to comply or else. The matter of browser choice is highly reminiscent of Europe’s case against Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. The prime beneficiary of that was, you guessed it, Google, which now accounts for around two thirds of European desktop browser share (see chart), achieved through merit rather than cheating. How sad then, so see history repeating itself on mobile.

So that takes the total amount Europe has fined Google to €8.25 billion. In response to a question after her announcement (below) Vestager revealed the EC has some kind of fine ceiling of 10% of annual revenues so, since Google brought in around €120 billion last year that still leaves plenty of room for further fines if Google keeps getting funny ideas. Incidentally she also revealed that the fines get distributed to member countries, not trousered by the EC itself, which is reassuring.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Browser Market Share

Qottab, Quindim or Quesito? Google releases Android Q beta

Every year Google releases a new version of Android, and while it is marginally entertaining to guess what sweetie it will be named after, it also provides a very useful roadmap for the future of mobility.

In controlling roughly 74% of the global mobile Operating System (OS) market share, Android is in a unique position to dictate how the ecosystem develops over the short- and medium-term. This year’s update appears larger and more wide-ranging than previous iterations, perhaps representing the significant changes to the industry in recent months.

“In 2019, mobile innovation is stronger than ever, with new technologies from 5G to edge to edge displays and even foldable screens,” said Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android. “Android is right at the centre of this innovation cycle, and thanks to the broad ecosystem of partners across billions of devices, Android’s helping push the boundaries of hardware and software bringing new experiences and capabilities to users.”

Privacy updates, gaming enhancements, features to accommodate for new connectivity requirements and addressing the foldable phone phenomenon, there is plenty for developers to consider this year.

Privacy as a product

New demands are being placed on developers around the world when it comes to privacy, but in truth, they have no-one to blame for the extra work than themselves.

This is not to say all developers have abused the trust of the consumer, but numerous scandals over the last 18 months and the opaque manner in which society was educated on the data-sharing machine has created a backlash. Privacy demands have been heightened through regulation and consumer expectations, meaning these elements are slowly becoming a factor in the purchasing process.

There are numerous privacy and security updates here which suggests Google has appreciated the importance of privacy to the consumer. Privacy could soon become a selling point, and Google is on hand with many of the updates based on its Project Strobe initiative.

Perhaps one of the most important updates here is more granular control of the permissions for individual apps. Users will not only have more control on what data is shared with which apps, but developers can no-longer request for consent for a catch-all data hoovering plan, while Google is also cracking down on un-necessary permissions. The team is updating its User Data Policy for the consumer Gmail API to ensure only apps directly enhancing email functionality have authorisation, while the same is being done for call functionality, call logs and SMS.

Data Privacy Survey

Source: GDMA: Global data privacy: What the consumer really thinks

Aside from the permissions updates noted above, users will also have more control over when apps can get location data. While some developers have abused the trust of users by collecting this data when irrelevant as to whether the app is open or not, users will now have the power to give apps permission to see their location never, only when the app is in use (running), or all the time.

There are other updates to the permissions side including audio collections, access to cameras and other media files. All of these updates represent one thing; privacy is a real issue and (theoretically) the power is being handed back to the consumer.

That said, Ovum’s Chief Analyst Ed Barton notes the critical importance of privacy features today, however, as Google could be considered one of the main contributors to the root problem, you must question how much trust the consumer actually has.

“It is noteworthy that privacy is something one might reasonably assume to have in most situations in modern life except in one’s digital life where the default expectation is that a vast digital platform knows more about you than your life partner and immediate family,” said Barton. “It is these circumstances which enables the concepts of privacy, personal data control and trust to be highlighted and used as marketing bullets.

“Privacy in something like an OS is meaningless unless you can trust the entity which made it so with Android Q the question, as always, is ‘how much do you trust Google’?”

Gaming enters the mainstream

Another major update to Android Q looks to target the increasingly popular segment of mobile gaming.

“Gaming remains one of the most popular genres on the app stores, while smartphones have allowed the industry to connect with the masses,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“This has led to emergence of new games providers and a surge in casual and social gamers, while the arrival of 5G will open further opportunities for cloud based multiplayer games due to faster and more reliable connections and low latency. Mobile devices will be key in this new wave that also promises to bring virtual and physical worlds closer together providing users with immersive experiences.”

Capture

Source: KPMG: The Changing Landscape of Disruptive Technologies report

Here, there are two main updates which we would like to focus on. Firstly, Vulkan and ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) to improve more immersive experiences. And secondly, improved connectivity APIs.

Starting with the graphics side, Android Q will add experimental support for ANGLE on top of Vulkan on Android devices to allow for high-performance OpenGL compatibility across implementations. The team is also continuing to expand the impact of Vulkan on Android, with the aim to make Vulkan on Android a broadly supported and consistent developer API for graphics.

In short, this means more options and greater depth when it comes to creating immersive experiences.

On the connectivity front, not only has Google refactored the wifi stack to improve privacy and performance, developers can request adaptive wifi in Android Q by enabling high performance and low latency modes. There are of course numerous usecases for low latency throughout the connectivity ecosystem, but from a consumer perspective, real-time gaming and active voice calls are two of the most prominent.

Gaming has slowly been accumulating more support and penetrating the mass market, and some of the features for Android Q will certainly help this blossoming segment.

Foldable phones; fad or forever?

Considering the euphoria which was drummed up in Mobile World Congress this year, it should hardly come as a surprise the latest edition of Android addresses the new demands of the products.

“To help your apps to take advantage of these and other large-screen devices, we’ve made a number of improvements in Android Q, including changes to onResume and onPause to support multi-resume and notify your app when it has focus,” the team said in the blog announcement.

There are of course a number of useful features which come with the increased real-estate, one of which is being able to run more than one app simultaneously without having to flick back and forth, as you can see from the image below.

Google Update

There are of course advantages to the new innovation, but you have to question whether there are enough benefits to outweigh the incredible cost of the devices. The power of smartphone and the astonishing tsunami of cash in the digital economy is only because of scale. With Samsung’s foldable device coming in at $1,980, and Huawei’s at $2,600, these are not devices which are applicable for scale.

Google is preparing itself should the foldable revolution take hold, but mass adoption is needed more than anything else. The price of these devices will have to come down for there to be any chance of these devices cracking the mainstream market, and considering recent trends suggesting the consumer is becoming more cash conscious, they will have to come down a lot.

The price might also impact the development of the subsequent ecosystem. Developers are under time constraints already, and therefore have to prioritise tasks. Without the scale of mainstream adoption, few developers will focus on the new form factor when creating applications and content. With little reward, what’s the point? Price will need to come down to ensure there is appetite for the supporting ecosystem to make any use of this innovation.

We’ve been complaining about a lack of innovation in the devices market for years, so it is a bit cruel to complain when genuine innovation does emerge, but a lot of work needs to be done to give foldable screens as much opportunity for widespread consumer adoption.

Apple slaps Google and Facebook on the wrist

One day after Facebook had its enterprise developer certificates revoked by Apple, Google ran into similar troubles with the iOS and App Store owner.

It turned out that Facebook was not the only naughty player attempting to circumvent Apple’s rules to forbid apps developed under enterprise certificates to be distributed outside of the company. Google was found to have distributed a data monitoring and survey app called Screenwise Meter. The app comes with Apple’s enterprise developer certificate granted to Google and has been distributed to a “panel” selected and maintained in partnership with the research firm GfK. The panel may include users as young as 13, or with the parents’ consent, those under 13 though the data monitoring method will be modified.

It is not clear if it was a reaction to the revocation of Facebook’s certificates, but Google stopped the distribution of Screenwise Meter before Apple acted. “The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize,” Google said in a statement on Wednesday. “We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in the app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”

However, Google’s developer certificates were still made invalid by Apple on Thursday, reported first by The Verge. This resulted in Google’s pre-release beta apps as well as employee-only apps, for example those for using Google’s shuttle bus or coffee shops, stopping working. (One cannot help but wondering how many employees in Google, which controls Android and releases its own Pixel smartphones, are using iPhone as their primary devices.) The tone from Apple, however, was much reconciliatory. “We are working together with Google to help them reinstate their enterprise certificates very quickly,” said the statement from Apple to BuzzFeed.

In comparison, Apple was much sterner when pulling the plug on Facebook. “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple.”

To look at the two cases together, there are two types of issues Apple needs to deal with. To borrow the economics jargons, one is normative, i.e. based on principles, another is positive, i.e. based on facts. On the normative side, Apple should clarify whether Facebook and Google were punished for launching apps gathering users’ private data or for distributing the apps under the wrong type of certificates and through unofficial channels, i.e. not using the App Store.

Although most media coverage was focused on the Facebook app gathering user data, it looks that Apple was more annoyed by the fact that Facebook (and Google) has abused its enterprise developer certificates. It said in the statement related to Facebook: “Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case (of Facebook) to protect our users and their data.”

However, what drove Facebook to distribute “Facebook Research”, the app in question through unorthodox channels, looks to be that Apple has banned apps to gather user data as detailed as app history, private messages, and location, from being listed in the App Store. In its “App Store Review Guidelines”, Apple stated “5.1.1 Data Collection and Storage: (iii) Data Minimization: Apps should only request access to data relevant to the core functionality of the app and should only collect and use data that is required to accomplish the relevant task. Where possible, use the out-of-process picker or a share sheet rather than requesting full access to protected resources like Photos or Contacts.”

The rule above would be caught in a paradox in cases where the “core functionality” of an app is to gather detailed user data and is explicit with it. That was the case with “Facebook Research”. Facebook said in its statement: “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

As an aside, despite the repeated furore towards Facebook recently, neither users nor advertisers seem to be deterred. The Q4 results recently published showed that in Europe, where GDPR went into effect mid-2018, Facebook’s monthly active users went up from 375 million in Q3 to 381 million, and the average revenue per user in Europe jumped from $8.82 in Q3 up to $10.98.

If Apple was unhappy with companies distributing apps developed under enterprise certificates to users outside of the enterprises, there would come the positive side of the issues, i.e. related how Apple implements the rule. Whether Apple was punishing Facebook and Google as a deterrent to other companies that have or might have distributed apps externally using enterprise certificates, or it will go after all offenders, remains to be seen.

If it was the former tactic, an old Chinese saying that goes “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” would summarise it well, though the two chickens Apple has put the knife in are much fatter than most monkeys. On the other hand, if Apple were true to its word that it would act on “any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers”, it may find a long line of chickens (or monkeys) standing in the line. Alex Fajkowski, a Twitter user and iOS app developer, suggested that both Amazon and DoorDash were distributing apps to recruit temporary deliverers. Then a longer list of companies suspected of doing the same thing was drawn up, including companies like Square and Sonos (though Sonos looks to have removed the page recently).

Looking at it either way, it is clear that Apple is tightening the control over its already tightly controlled ecosystem. With Services becoming increasingly important, Apple would not want to see any loss of revenues from iOS apps distributed outside of App Store, nor would it want to be seen complacent or even complicit in any comprise of users’ privacy. Or, standing up to the internet giants which have been on the receiving end of much anger, could score a PR victory for Apple.

Both Facebook and Google had their enterprise certificates restored by Thursday evening.

Google is expanding eSim reach beyond Fi

With connectivity taking a more prominent role, Google has tied more partnerships to support eSim on the Pixel 3, taking the business into international markets.

While the eSim functionality on Pixel 2, claimed by Google to be “the first major smartphone with eSIM”, only worked on Google’s own MVNO, Project Fi (now Google Fi), the internet giant just announced it has built more support for eSim on its new Pixel 3 phones. The partners listed in the Google statement included Sprint in the US, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone in Germany, EE in the UK, and Airtel and Reliance Jio in India. Also included are Truphone and Gigsky, two MVNOs that operate in multiple markets.

After Apple threw its weight behind eSim with its latest products, projections of the penetration of eSim have been raised. ABI Research now predicts 420 million eSim compatible phones will be shipped by 2022, 100 times higher than the four million sold in 2017. Established mobile operators may still view eSim with suspicion, as it makes churn so much easier. But, like new technologies in the past, from VoIP to OTT services, it would be hard to hold back the tides of progress. Moreover, it does force operators to be more innovative and customer centric, in addition to helping improve operational efficiency. On the other hand, consumers will benefit from the flexibility and easy roaming arrangements that eSim enables.

This trend has certainly been embraced by MVNOs too. Ralph Steffens, CEO of Truphone, one of Google’s partners, said in a statement, “This new technology signifies a massive shift in the telecommunications industry. It’s having an impact on everyone from phone providers to chipset manufacturers to mobile network operators. But most importantly, it directly impacts businesses and consumers by offering them more flexibility over their mobile connectivity.”

Pixel has never been one of the best sellers, and Google needs to get the whole Android ecosystem behind it to build the eSim momentum. To this end Google is rallying the Android OEMs.

“To enable a consistent and simple experience across the ecosystem, we’re also creating a program that allows Android device makers to build eSIM-capable smartphones. We look forward to continuing our work with our partners on the potential benefits of eSIM—whether that’s getting you connected to a phone, watch, tablet, or laptop—in the future,” Google said in the announcement.

Xiaomi the difference: Chinese smart device maker vows to disrupt UK market

Xiaomi launched Mi 8 Pro, the first time it has unveiled new products outside of Greater China, a sign of its ambition to expand in more mature markets.

At a Hollywoodian event (as almost all smartphone launches are nowadays) in Barbican Centre on Thursday, Xiaomi became the latest Chinese smartphone maker to introduce their latest products in London, following recent launches by Huawei and OnePlus. The company unveiled Mi 8 Pro, an upgrade version of its Mi 8 model launched earlier in China.

After registering impressive growth in India and other markets in Asia, as well as consolidating its position in China, Xiaomi, like some other Chinese brands, is eyeing the mature markets for new growth. Western Europe is an attractive option as the market is not flooded with hundreds of smartphone brands as in India and China, and there is a sizeable open market that is easier for new brands to set a foot in instead of having to crack the carrier market as in the US.

“Today we witness a new chapter in Xiaomi’s global expansion journey, underpinned by our global ambitions. We are thrilled to make great strides by announcing our arrival in the UK,” said Wang Xiang, Senior Vice President of Xiaomi Corporation.” By bringing a range of our amazing products at honest pricing we want to offer more choices and let everyone in the UK enjoy a connected simple life through our innovative technology.”

The newly launched Mi 8Pro and its predecessor share exactly the same hardware and software, powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 CPU, 6.21” AMOLED display (yes, need to go to the second decimal digit), 8GB RAM and 128GB onboard memory,12MP+12MP AI dual camera on the back, and 20MP selfie camera, Dual 4G SIM, Dual frequency GPS (to minimise coverage dead zones, like near tall buildings), infra-red facial recognition (to unlock with facial ID in the dark).

On the software side, Xiaomi overlayed a light MIUI skin on top of the latest Android release, plus a couple of its own preloaded apps (browser, messaging, etc.). Presumably the main point is not how many people will use its apps but rather to gather usage data. The Xiaomi executives did stress the number of active MIUI users in the world and in Europe (its products are already being sold in Spain, Italy, and France). It has also preloaded a MS Office suite, one of the first offers Microsoft made to the Android ecosystem back in 2016.

Under the spotlight was its photography technologies including the so-called “4-in-1” super-pixel, that is combining 4 pixels into 1 to take in more light, therefore to capture more details even in low light environment. Also being boasted is the speed the phone focuses (using the so-called Double Pixel Auto Focus, DPAF, technology, demonstrated in a video as faster than both the iPhone XS and the Samsung S9+). Nowadays, no presentation of smartphone cameras is complete without talking AI, and Xiaomi is no exception. The main talking point here was on the analytics capability to separate foreground from background, making post-shot processing easier.

The only genuine upgrade the Mi 8 Pro offers over the Mi 8 looks to be the fingerprint reader. It is at the back of the phone on the Mi 8, but is upgraded to on-screen reader on the Mi 8 Pro.

All the bells and whistles aside, what Xiaomi most wanted is to stand out in two areas: design and price. It is clearly successful in one, maybe less so in the other. Xiaomi claimed to go down the minimalist route for its design, claiming that it was inspired by the exhibits at the Helsinki Design Museum. It even got the director of the museum to go on video to endorse an earlier product. But what it got to show its innovative design on the new product is a transparent back-cover where the upper part of the inside of the phone is visible. But to those of us old enough to remember the 1990s, this is more a retro than inno. Swatch’s Skeleton series, anyone?

Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro_Front resized Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro_back resized

But when it comes to pricing the strategy is much bolder and more likely to succeed. Xiaomi broke through in the device market in China in 2011 by offering smartphones with decent specs at a very affordable price. This strategy has carried them through ups and downs all the way to London. The Mi 8 Pro will be retailed at £499.99. This is vastly lower than other smartphones with comparable hardware specs. Xiaomi is clearly targeted at the so-called “affordable premium” segment.

On the distribution side, Xiaomi started in China exclusively using online distribution channels. There have been followers with mixed success, but at the same Xiaomi is also diversifying to brick-and-mortar retail outlets in markets like India, Malaysia. Xiaomi also aims at a mixed channel strategy in the UK, it opens its own online shopping channel, getting online and offline channel partners (Amazon, Currys, Carphone Warehouse, Argo, John Lewis, etc.) on board, as well as opening its own authorised retailer in southwest London on 18 November. It also tied a partnership with 3UK, though Xiaomi executives would not tell more details of the terms or the packages 3 plans to offer.

Also introduced to the UK market at the event are a smart wristband (Mi Band 3, main feature being its display larger than previous generations) and an electric scooter, to deliver the “ecosystem” story—the executive stressed Xiaomi is more than a smartphone company. On display in the experience area were also smart speakers, set-top boxes, smart kettle, and smart scale.

Our overall feeling is that, the Mi 8 Pro smartphone is decent but not fantastic. However the price point Xiaomi sets it on is disruptive. This strategy has worked for the company in China and other Asian and European market, taking them to commendable market positions and financial success. It may stand a chance.

Xiaomi event pic2