Apple eyeing up $1bn Intel smartphone chip purchase – sources

Reports emerged about Apple’s interest in Intel’s smartphone modem business a few weeks back, and now the rumour mill is back up-and-running as more sources suggest conversations.

According to The Washington Post, a deal worth $1 billion, including various patents and staff, is entering advanced talks. Apple has always been a business which wants to control its ecosystem and such a deal would take it one step closer to developing critical components for its devices.

Although the Intel smartphone business unit has been viewed as somewhat of a failure in recent years, it is certainly more developed than Apple’s in-house capabilities. This is an area which is a significant focus for Apple and incorporating the Intel smartphone business into its own operations could help save it years of development work.

This is of course not the first push into the semiconductor world by Apple. Not only has it announced plans to open a 1,200-strong research facility in San Diego, but it effectively ended its relationship with GPU firm Imagination Technologies in 2017. Apple said it would begin to phase out Imagination Technologies in favour of its own GPU components.

For Apple, this seems like a logical move considering the squeeze which is being placed on smartphone manufacturers worldwide. There are several reasons smartphone shipments are declining year-on-year, but the increasing price is certainly a powerful factor.

The iPhone has consistently underpinned profits at Apple, though the global slowdown and challenge to market share from Chinese brands threaten this. Apple is regularly being undercut by rivals, while entry into new markets such as India has been challenging because of the price of devices. Owning more elements of the supply chain, especially components, can help the iLeader reduce the price of handsets and become more competitive in the era of innovation mediocrity.

This is also a slight change in mentality when it comes to Apple’s acquisition strategy. Rarely does the iChief go for the big-ticket acquisitions, preferring to swallow up smaller providers in pursuit of innovation, but it does appear context is ruling above in this instance, assuming the reports are true of course.

For Intel, this would appear to be a very satisfactory exit from a challenging segment. Although the team has always had ambitions in the smartphone segment, it has never been able to make it work. The unit has consistently undermined profits and recent R&D efforts have focused on 5G in other device segments. This transaction would appear to be a win-win for both parties.

Apple CEO triggered by reports of design decline

When Apple’s famous head of design decided to call it a day last week, there was widespread speculation around what may have caused such a move.

The most Juicy gossip came from the Wall Street Journal, which wrote a piece contending that Jony Ive started the process of clearing off long ago and that it was motivated, at least in part, by CEO Tim Cook’s relative disinterest in the design process. This in turn demoralised Ive who, according to the account, became an increasingly distant figure at Apple Towers.

Tim Cook has always been known as an operations specialist with a particular talent for managing an efficient supply chain. Since he took over from the more creative, mercurial Apple founder Steve Jobs in 2011, these talents have ensured the company has gone from strength to strength in terms of revenue and profitability, but there has always been speculation that this has come at the expense of innovation.

That last truly disruptive move from Apple came with the launch of the iPad in 2010, but it looks like Ive was hoping the Apple Watch launch in 2015 would be a similar inflection point. While Apple has flogged quite a few of them and doubtless trousered a pile of cash in the process, there’s very little that differentiates the Apple Watch from its competitors and the category itself has failed to set the technology world on fire.

So it’s easy to see why a narrative that contends innovation at Apple is being suffocated with him in charge might trouble Cook somewhat, which seems to be confirmed by his response to the WSJ piece. Uncharacteristically he publicly took issue with the story via a statement sent to NBC News, in which he asserted it was at odds with his own perception.

“The story is absurd,” wrote Cook. “A lot of the reporting, and certainly the conclusions, just don’t match with reality. At a base level, it shows a lack of understanding about how the design team works and how Apple works. It distorts relationships, decisions and events to the point that we just don’t recognize the company it claims to describe.”

Grizzled Journalists soon recognised this as the kind of non-specific denial companies often send out when they want to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a story without calling out any specific inaccuracies. Cook is essentially saying he disagrees with the conclusions but then he would, wouldn’t he?

Ive’s departure doesn’t seem to have done Apple’s share price any harm, but it does increase the pressure on the company to prove it can still be a consumer technology trailblazer without him. While Apple hasn’t shown much evidence of this for a while, that lack of differentiation was largely put down to the maturity of the smartphone form factor and the openness of the component supply chain. If Apple still hasn’t invented anything revolutionary in a few years’ time, people now might pin the blame on Cook.

Apple’s design chief decides to call it a day

Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, has announced that he is leaving the company at the end of the year and will set up LoveFrom, his own creative business, with Apple as its first client.

Sir Jonathan “Jony” Ive has been instrumental in giving the world a string of iconic Apple products over the last two decades. Among them the most influential ones should be the iPod, which turned the recorded music industry upside down, the iPhone, which redefined what mobile handsets are and do, and the iPad, which practically created the tablet market. In addition, he was also behind the Mac computers and the Apple Watch, the success of which has been more muted.

Ive stressed that his departure from the company does not mean he will stop working with Apple. “While I will not be an [Apple] employee, I will still be very involved — I hope for many, many years to come,” Ive told the Financial Times in an interview. “This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change.” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, believed the company would continue the success of the Ive era, and was looking forward to the collaboration with Ive’s new venture. “We get to continue with the same team that we’ve had for a long time and have the pleasure of continuing to work with Jony,” Cook told the FT. “I can’t imagine a better result.” Apple will not announce a successor to fill Ive’s CDO position immediately. Instead, the managers of the design teams will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s COO.

Ive’s decision to leave should not appear to have come out of the blue to those that have followed the industry, and the company, closely. He was the late Steve Jobs’ closest ally and, among other things, had been an active presence at product debuts, through video links. After Jobs passed away this patterned continued, up to the point when the Apple Watch was launched. Ive would appear at the events on pre-recorded videos, unveiling the products, in particular talking about the details. That has not happened since. In a 2015 feature by the New Yorker magazine, Ive said he had been “deeply tired”. In May that year he was appointed CDO, a position that would rid him of the day-to-day responsibilities to run the design team.

More recently it appears Ive has expand his interest beyond sleek consumer products. For example, his team were heavily involved in designing Apple’s new headquarters. This is also a vision he gives his new business. “There are products that we have been working on for a number of years,” Ive told the FT. “I’m beyond excited that I get to continue working on those, and there are some new projects as well that I’ll get to develop and contribute to.” He also denied that the weakened appeal of the iPhone, which has not been helped by the trade war with China, is a contributing factor to his decision. To tell from his reduced involvement in products over the last few years, the decision seems to have been long in the making.

Before he was knighted for “services to design and enterprise” by the Queen in 2012, Ive had already been hailed by Stephen Fry as one of the two Englishmen alive to have the most profound impact on people’s lives. The other, according to Fry, is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Apple considering a Chinese exit amid international tensions

It seems Apple does not consider itself immune from collateral damage, as whispers about a China exit are becoming louder and more plentiful.

For China, and those Chinese citizens who are dependent on Apple for their livelihood, the news will come as a shock, but this is a development which some have been expected for a while. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Apple is considering moving 15-30% of its production capacity out of China.

This is a trend which we are starting to see pretty much everywhere. Supply chain management is a very difficult aspect of an international business, and while it might have looked attractive to take advantage of cheap labour in developing markets during yesteryear, it seems a concentration of operations is getting Apple executives twitchy today.

The quoted sources are suggesting diversification of the supply chain is a sensible way to manage some tensions floating back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.

In terms of the clues this development was on the horizon, it is worth looking back a couple of weeks. Foxconn executives have already said 25% of production is already located outside of China, and there is enough capacity to meet the demands of Apple as a customer should tensions have a negative impact on the Apple business. This appeared to be a largely unprompted statement, but perhaps the conversations were already happening behind closed doors.

What is also worth noting is that Foxconn certainly has some incentive to bend to the will of Apple executives; if it doesn’t have the capacity, a smart idea might be to spend some cash buying a company outside of China sharpish. Although not confirmed, Apple supposedly accounts for roughly half of Foxconn total revenues. If Apple wants to move production capacity out of China, Foxconn should quickly learn the moves to the new dance.

For the Chinese employees in the supply chain, this will be a very worrying time. Five million workers rely on Apple’s presence in the country, with Apple only employing 10,000 directly. Interestingly enough, there are now more named suppliers in China than in the US (41 Chinese firms vs. 37 US suppliers). What is worth noting is that China will remain the centre of Apple’s supply chain for the foreseeable future; shifting such a complex and monstrous operation would take a considerable amount of time, investment and planning.

Other countries would of course want to woo Apple, but China is a very attractive base for the iLeader. Not only does it have the necessary infrastructure, it has the skilled workers in place. 90% of Apple’s products are currently manufactured in China and replicating this successful operation will not easily be done elsewhere.

Although this would be a precautionary move from Apple, the threat is genuine. Huawei and ZTE have already shown there are heavy consequences if supply chains are too concentrated in a single market, and due to the aggressive actions of the White House it would surprise few to see retaliation from the Chinese Government.

On the supply chain side of things, Apple has been making other efforts to shift around operations. The firm has been working to move the production of some premium handsets to India in an effort to avoid the 20% import duties in the country. Apple has continued to struggle in India, partly due to the price conscious nature of consumers. Anything which can be done to reduce the price of handsets will be explored to improve market share.

Whatever your thoughts of President Donald Trump, you cannot argue the Oval Office is having a much more profound impact on the technology industry than previous administrations. Perhaps his actions will lead the Chinese semiconductor market grow, while the manufacturing and assembly operations will be spread into other Asian markets. Another couple of years and the segment could almost look unrecognisable.

Apple said to be sniffing around Intel’s modem business

Having recently ditched Intel’s modem business like a bad habit, gadget giant Apple is reportedly now thinking of buying it.

The rumour comes courtesy of The Information, which says it got the scoop from no less than four unnamed people who we’re told have been briefed on the discussions between Apple and Intel. Specifically Apple is said to be interested in Intel’s German modem operations, which is where much of the 5G R7D will have taken place.

Intel found itself as an unwitting pawn in Apple’s legal battle of will with mobile chip giant Qualcomm. Apple wasn’t happy with what Qualcomm was charging for its modems and took to the courts to do something about it. This was always just a form of negotiation, a crucial part of which was Apple’s insistence that it could just walk away from Qualcomm if it didn’t lower its prices.

The problem with this is that there are very few 5G modem players in town and even fewer that aren’t affiliated to a smartphone competitor of Apple’s. One of those was supposed to Intel, which found itself constantly defending its ability to deliver a competitive 5G modem in the face of understandable scepticism from the industry and, increasingly, from Apple itself.

Eventually the Emperor was revealed to be naked and Apple was forced to settle with Qualcomm once it became clear Intel wasn’t able to deliver. Intel wasted little time in throwing in the towel entirely on 5G modems once their only customer had ditched them and promptly retreated into the shadows, vaguely muttering about IoT.

But that doesn’t mean its efforts to deliver a 5G modem were entirely wasted. Through acquisition and organic R&D Intel must have picked up a thing or two about delivering 5G radio over the years. While Apple is forced in the mid term to rely on the loathed Qualcomm, it ultimately aspires to modem self-reliance. Since Intel’s 5G unit is presumably available at a knock-down price following its public humiliation it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Apple snap it up, if only for a laugh.

DoJ antitrust chief readies for battle against big tech

There have been plenty of whispers in the back alleys of Silicon Valley of the antitrust boogeyman and now the nightmares are turning into reality.

Speaking at an industry conference in Israel, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim outlined his views on competitiveness in the technology industry. Those who were anticipating an antitrust battle in the US can feel suitably vindicated, as Delrahim effectively confirms he has Google and Apple firmly in the crosshairs.

“The digital economy is a fact of life, but it is not all things to all people,” said Delrahim. “There has been robust public discussion about whether the broader economy, undoubtedly transformed by digital technologies, is working well for everyone.”

Although this is not necessarily shocking news, it is a nuanced confirmation of the up-coming assault against big tech.

Last week, the US took the first tentative steps towards addressing the influence of technology on today’s society. The House Antitrust Subcommittee announced the launch of a bipartisan investigation into competition in digital markets, potentially offering a threat to solid foundation of the technology giants. Diluting the dominance of big tech is going to be a very difficult task, but it does appear the groundwork is being laid.

In this speech, Delrahim is effectively outlining the Department of Justice’s plan, as well as the justification for tackling big tech.

“Where there are credible concerns that a transaction or business practice is anticompetitive, timely and effective antitrust enforcement is imperative,” said Delrahim.

“…After all, the government’s successful antitrust case against Microsoft arguably paved the way for companies like Google, Yahoo, and Apple to enter the market with their own desktop and mobile products.”

Microsoft’s dominance of the technology world in the 90s should not be underplayed and perhaps can be very accurately likened to Google’s influence today. Although the US Government was not successful in breaking-up Microsoft as an organization, it did manage to dilute its power and broaden the spread of wealth. When a company starts to dictate play in the way Microsoft did, the US Government starts to get a bit twitchy.

This is the issue which the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple are facing today. Such is the success of the business, through the creation of best-in-class products and strategic acquisitions to stutter the progress of competitors, the fortunes of the technology industry are incredibly concentrated. This is what Delrahim and his colleagues want to address.

Specifics are often lost in such conference speeches, but an interesting point raised by Delrahim focused on “network effects”. In short, an organization has such control over the supporting ecosystem competition is suffocated before it has any genuine chance to be competitive. Perhaps this is done through acquiring nascent competitors or manipulating the ecosystem.

Although there have been some hints of strategy from Delrahim, the specifics are still evading the industry. That said, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US Government wants to dilute the power and influence of big tech.

Enhanced privacy protection is now at the core of Apple

At its 2019 developer conference Apple introduced new measures to strengthen user privacy protection, as a point of differentiation from other big tech companies.

Apple is hosting its 2019 edition of Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in California. On the first day the company announced a number of new products including the iOS13, new version of MacOS (called “Catalina”), the first version of iPadOS, and WatchOS6. At the same time, iTunes, which has been around for nearly two decades and has been at the vanguard of Apple’s adventure into the music industry, is finally retired. At the event, Apple also unveiled the radically revamped Mac Pro. Instead of looking like a waste basket (as the 2nd generation did), the new top end desktop computer looks more like a cheese grater.

One key feature that stood out when the new software was introduced was Apple’s focus on privacy, in particular the new “Sign in with Apple”.  It will be mandatory for apps which support 3rd-party log in to also include this new option, in addition to, or as Apple would like it, instead of, Facebook and Google. Although Tim Cook, in a post-event interview with CBS claimed “we’re not really taking a shot at anybody”, Craig Federighi, Apple’s software chief, was pulling no punch when introducing the feature. After showing the current two options to sign in apps or websites, he declared Apple wanted to offer a better option, which will be “fast, easy sign-in without all the tracking.”

In practice this means Apple will act as a privacy interlocutor. A user can log in to an app or a website with his or her Apple ID. Apple will then verify the email addresses, make dual-factor authentication, then send developers a unique random ID, which Apple asks developers to trust. Users can also choose to use TouchID or FaceID for authentication. In addition to the Apple products (iPhone, iPad, Watch, etc.), and it can also work on browsers built on other platforms (Windows, Chrome, etc.).

In addition to Sign in with Apple, the company also updated its Maps, so that apps that track users’ location would need to ask for permission every time it is activated. On MacOS, all apps need to request permission to access the user’s files on the computer, while Watch users can approve security requests by tapping the button on the side.

Although both Facebook and Google have been talking up about their focus on privacy, these companies have an intrinsic conflict of interest: their business model is built on monetising user data. Apple, on the other hand, makes money by selling products and services. Therefore, it is in Apple’s own interest to guard user privacy as close as possible, to enhance current and future consumers’ trust. By making privacy protection its differentiator, or as TechCrunch called it, delivering “privacy-as-a-service”, Apple is elevating the match to a level Google, Facebook, and other internet companies will be challenged to match.

Wearables are on the up – IDC

Global shipments of wearable devices are increasingly healthily increasing, according to IDC estimates, up 55% to 49.6 million over the first three months of 2019.

Wearables are a tricky segment for the technology and telco world. So much is promised, a new revolution in digital society, but for years it has failed to deliver on the potential. That said, the last couple of quarters have looked a lot more promising.

“The elimination of headphone jacks and the increased usage of smart assistants both inside and outside the home have been driving factors in the growth of ear-worn wearables,” said Jitesh Ubrani Research Manager for IDC Mobile Device Trackers.

“Looking ahead, this will become an increasingly important category as major platform and device makers use ear-worn devices as an on-ramp to entice consumers into an ecosystem of wearable devices that complement the smartphone but also offer the ability to leave the phone behind when necessary.”

This was perhaps the watershed moment for wearables; standalone connectivity. Smart watches, the flagbearer for the segment on the whole, struggled to gain traction due to a lack of standalone connectivity. These certainly weren’t fashion accessories in the early days and tethering the devices to a smartphone largely undermined the selling points.

With standalone connectivity there is now attention on the devices, and the increasing adoption of voice user interface, the devices more appealing for a wider range of applications. That said, the fitness niche is still proving to be a profitable one.

“Shipments of wristwear – including watches and wristbands – grew 31.6% year over year, and continue to dominate the wearables landscape,” said Ramon Llamas, Research Director for Wearables at IDC.

“While the functionalities and capabilities have grown and changed, the one common thread is the relentless focus on health and fitness. This has resonated strongly with users and health insurance companies alike, and new health and fitness insights attract a larger audience.”

Brand Shipments (million) Market share Year-on-year growth
Apple 12.8 25.8% 49.5%
Xiaomi 6.6 13.3% 68.2%
Huawei 5 10% 282.2%
Samsung 4.3 8.7% 151.6%
Fitbit 2.9 5.9% 35.7%
Others 18 36.3% 26%

Interestingly enough, over the last few quarters the top five manufacturers have been consolidating their position in the market, with the ‘others’ category claiming less and less. Like the smartphone space, this is increasingly looking like a market which will be tough for new-comers to crack, with market preferences shifting towards those who have an established brand in the space.

NYC public transport finally gets the mobile payments memo

Despite the US being the leading voice in the technology industry, adoption of some pretty well-established technologies has been lagging across the country.

That is about to change in New York before too long, as the public transport system gets a much-needed upgrade to include Near-field communication (NFC) payments. Last week, Google announced it had integrated its payments system into the New York public transport system, and now Apple is getting in on the movement.

The contactless payment revolution has been sweeping the globe in recent years, drastically changing the way we work, play and get around. In London, for example, you can almost hear the groans of waiting customers when the now “old fashioned” chip and PIN method of payment is used. But contactless payments are now much more wide-spread than a speedy round of beers down the pub.

Contactless payments were first introduced on London buses in December 2012, and later extended to Underground and National Rail services in September 2014. The Oyster Card system is quickly becoming a thing of the past, with Transport for London (TfL) now claiming more than 50% of journeys are completed using contactless payments. In fact, TfL believes it is saving between 9-14% on fare collection because of the introduction of contactless payments.

Of course, London is not the only city which is making use of the new technology. Globally, there are now more than 100 cities making use of contactless payments, including the likes of Sydney (introduced in 2018), Moscow (2017) and Madrid (2017).

What is worth noting is there are different types of systems. Madrid, for instance, requires you to buy a specific ticket as opposed to using your debit of credit card, while Sydney only upgraded to NFC mobile payments earlier this year. That said, progress is progress.

And the benefits are more than just operational efficiencies for the public transport systems. It is substantially quicker than traditional means, a very important factor when you consider how many people are moving out of the countryside and into the cities nowadays. According to the UN, 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050, up from c.55% today. There will be considerable strain placed on public transit systems before too long.

In New York, this is an upgrade which is long-overdue. Google is introducing its mobile payments systems to the Subway from May 31st, as will Apple. The tap-to-pay system will only be available on the 4/5/6 lines between Grand Central Station in Manhattan and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center in Brooklyn to start with, as well as the buses in Staten Island. This is only the beginning however, as the plan is to rollout the system across the entire public transport network over the next few months.

Over time this system will begin to improve. Google has already said it will continue to work with The Metropolitan Transportation Authority to bring more features with Google Maps and Google Assistant, much like it does with many other cities around the world.

Welcome to the digital world New York!