Telenor and Axiata pull the plug on mega-merger

Operator groups Telenor and Axiata had intended to merge their Asian operations but have now decided it’s just too much hassle.

The proposed merger was announced back in May. “We are on the verge of making a new history,” said Axiata Group CEO Tan Sri Jamaludin Ibrahim, at the time. “This proposed mega merger of equals would create a Global Champion, headquartered right here in Malaysia.”

But by the time we got to Axiata’s quarterlies last week, there was talk that the move was set to fall through. Ibrahim wasted little time in scotching those rumours, insisting that the talks were still on track, but that they were always bound to take a while due to the complexity of the deal.

Well now it looks like that priced-in complexity is the reason for the whole deal collapsing, respite recent reassurances to the contrary. “Over the last four months, both parties have been working on due diligence and finalising transaction agreements to be completed within the third quarter of 2019,” said the short announcement. “Due to some complexities involved in the Proposed Transaction, the parties have mutually agreed to end the discussions.”

This is pretty embarrassing for both companies. Of course due diligence needs to be followed but what could have taken them four months to uncover? No more details have been revealed but you have to assume that either some corporate skeletons in the closet were uncovered or one of the parties involved has gone off the whole idea for some reason.

Huawei claims 50 5G commercial contracts worldwide

At its Asia-Pacific Innovation Day Huawei announced it has now signed 50 commercial 5G contracts globally and shipped 200,000 5G modules.

Huawei loves to host its own commercial events, at which it can control the message and invite partners to come on stage and talk about how great it is to work with Huawei. This kind of event is more important than ever for the company now that it’s fighting a running PR battle with the US government and strives to convince everyone else not to abandon it.

While US allies such as Australia and Korea feel compelled to largely go along with whatever sanctions the US imposes on Huawei, the rest of the APAC region is crucial to its fortunes. Obviously China will always support it, but very populous countries such as India and Indonesia are of crucial strategic significance and have to obvious reason to pick a team in the US/China trade war.

Huawei positions these events as general telecoms get-togethers that it’s happy to host and pay for out of a desire to help everyone progress. It therefore keeps the more aggressive corporate propaganda under wraps most of the time and largely contents itself with nebulous aspirational pronouncements about the potential of technology and the importance of cooperation among the global telecoms community.

“5G is arriving at the right time,” said William Xu, Huawei Director of the Board and President of the Institute of Strategic Research. “More specifically, 5G can provide wide coverage, large bandwidth, and low latency on the basis of traditional connections. It can also provide slicing for different applications. This new feature makes it adaptable to a variety of complex industrial applications. With the advancement of 5G, there will be many 5G-enabled applications that will change the world. At the same time, 5G, AI, IoT and cloud are improving everyday life and nature, making the world a better place.”

Having said that, he was still keen to stress how well Huawei, specifically, is doing in this drive to make the world a better place. Those 50 (unspecified) deal wins compare with 42 Announced by Nokia in June, with 22 of them named, and 24 named 5G contracts published by Ericsson. So it seems to be broadly level-pegging between the three networking giants and, while Huawei doesn’t appear to have been crippled by the US hostility, it’s reasonable to speculate it would have a significant lead over its rivals under normal circumstances.

WhatsApp making progress on WeChat emulation ambitions

Facebook has been promising some sort of payments solution for WhatsApp, and it seems to be making a bit of progress in Indonesia.

According to reports from Reuters, Facebook is in discussions with several potential partners to offer a mobile payment feature in the app in Indonesia. Although this is not Facebook’s first venture into mobile money, there is a stuttering initiative in India, the Indonesian experiment will focus on creating a digital wallet to tap into one of the worlds’ fastest growing eCommerce markets.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested to investors a wander towards mobile money was an ambition of the business, though this should actually surprise few. When you consider the success of Tencent-owned WeChat in diversifying the offering of the messaging app, Facebook is playing catch-up.

For those who haven’t used WeChat, what you can actually do is quite remarkable. The app was solely focused on messaging to start with, but now you can send images, make phone calls, peer-to-peer payments are included, as are in-store purchase via NFC and paying utility bills. Soon enough, cards could become redundant, such is the growing usage of mobile payments through digital wallets and WeChat.

If Facebook could capture a slice of this success, WhatsApp might start to begin paying off the $19 billion Facebook had to fork out during the acquisition.

The original purchase of WhatsApp was seemingly a means to capture a messaging application which was taking the world by storm. However, the data which WhatsApp would have offered the Facebook advertising machine would have been very beneficial. The team has found integrating the two platforms very difficult to date, though mobile money is certainly a way of creating additional revenues.

In Indonesia, the Facebook team is in discussions with several partners to tap into the eCommerce platform, though in India it is focusing on peer-to-peer payments in-app. There are several reasons for the differing approach, regulatory barriers being one, though experimenting with two ideas could offer two new features for a global rollout.

Interestingly enough, something which might get the White House twitchy is the alleged conversation with one of the potential partners; mobile payments firm DANA, which is backed by Ant Financial, an affiliate company of the Chinese Alibaba Group. Considering the current relationship between Washington and Beijing, these must be interesting conversations.

Globally, this is a very good move from Facebook. According to data from Sensor Tower, WhatsApp was the most downloaded application during the first quarter, with 223 million new installs, taking the total north of an estimated 1.5 billion users worldwide. This is a massive addressable audience, representing huge potential if the team can get all the moving parts to align.

China plummeting and India soaring but Apple just can’t get a break

IDC had a stab at smartphone shipments in two of the worlds most lucrative markets, and it does not make pleasant reading for Apple.

As the Apple management team has now decided against dishing out the specifics on iPhone shipments in the quarterly statements, analysts are the closest we’re going to get for sales figures. Here, IDC is suggesting a sluggish market overall in China, with iPhone sales dropping considerably, while the Indian market is booming, but Apple can’t claim a slice of the action.

Starting with the Indian market, IDC estimates 142.3 million units were shipped across 2018, demonstrating a 14.5% year-on-year increase, though the final quarter saw a 15.1% sequential decline. This might not look as bad as it originally sounds however, as Q4 actually increased year-on-year 19.5%, suggesting the third quarter was just exceptionally positive.

“Amongst the big highlights of 2018 were the online-focused brands that drove the share of the online channel to an all-time high of 38.4% in 2018 and a whopping 42.2% in 2018Q4,” said Upasana Joshi of IDC. “This was primarily driven by several rounds of discounts by e-tailers driving affordability through various financing options, cashback offers and buyback schemes.”

The Jio effect is clearly sustainable across the country as Indian consumers appetite for the digital economy continues to grow. With the disruptive telco promising further expansion, greater digital inclusivity and additional services over the coming months, more consumers might be encouraged to upgrade to more premium devices. As Joshi notes, the premium end of the market was the fastest growing price segment, demonstrating 43.9% year-on-year growth.

What will be worrying for the iLeader is the inability to get a foothold in the market and capture the attention of Indian consumers. India is traditionally a market driven by low-end devices, however the encouraging growth of handsets priced north of $500 should offer some traction for Apple.

Xiaomi led the market, having recently overtaken Samsung, with 28.9% of total shipments, a healthy 58.6% increase from 2017. Samsung collected 24.7% of Indian devices sales, while Vivo had 10%, Oppo 7.2% and Transsion with 4.5% completes the top five vendors. The remaining 27% of shipments were shared through multiple vendors, Apple included, though the bundled peloton chasing the leading five saw total sales drop by 10.7% year-on-year.

With sales across the world seemingly declining for Apple, the booming Indian market is one it can ill-afford to miss out on. Last year, it announced it was moving manufacturing into the country, with partner Foxconn aiming to be up and running in early 2019, while there are also plans to expand the retail footprint. The team reportedly plan to open three massive stores in both Delhi and Mumbai, owing to the success of retail operations elsewhere around the world.

While India might be a headache due to the iLife indifference of the locals, China is turning into a full-blow migraine for completely separate reasons.

IDC estimate Apple’s smartphone shipments have declined by 19.9% in China, while the home favourite Huawei saw its own shipments grow by 23%. Apple’s loss is Huawei’s gain, though it does appear the iChief is losing its prestige badge in the market.

These figures are of course estimates, as Apple has decided against telling anyone about specific shipment numbers, though the revenues over the last quarter give a decent idea. During the last quarterly results, revenues for the Greater China region declined by roughly 26% from $17.9 billion to $13.1 billion. In years gone, Apple used to be able to simply release a new colour variant of flagships and China consumers would be queuing out the door, but the bonanza is over for the moment.

The big question is why? Of course, there will be a preference from some for local brands, and there will of course be the cash-conscious. But ultimately you have to wonder whether Apple is living up to the brand promise which it spend so many years cultivating; where is the innovation?

Over the last decade, Apple has crafted a brand which is built on the principles of innovation and technological supremacy. Steve Jobs was the figurehead of this image, and many Apple enthusiasts were prepared to pay the premium on devices because of this identity. However, in recent years, Apple has done little to differentiate its devices and justify the pricing premium which is placed on products. Of course, this is not just Apple, innovation has stuttered across the segment, but gone is the assumption Apple immune to market trends.

With revenues declining across the international markets, and Apple set to sit out the initial 5G devices euphoria over the next couple of months, 2019 is starting to look like a very uncomfortable year for Apple.