Huawei US ban metastasizes to ARM – where next?

The BBC is reporting that mobile chip designer ARM is the latest tech company to suspend its business with Huawei.

An ARM internal memo leaked to the Beeb instructed all employees to cease “all active contracts, support entitlements, and any pending engagements” with Huawei and made it clear that this was as a direct result of the recent US decisions to put Huawei on a list of companies US companies aren’t allowed to do business with.

ARM is based in the UK but is now a subsidiary of Japanese conglomerate SoftBank. However the memo apparently states that since ARM designs contain technology that originates from the US, ARM is cutting ties just in case that causes problems. Since these are probably design and software patents this move introduces the prospect that any company with even a trace of US intellectual property in its products may feel compelled to shun Huawei.

Huawei’s smartphone business is already in a lot of trouble thanks to its reliance on Android, but this ARM move will mean it can’t make its own chips either, which renders talk of OS alternatives redundant. It’s surely impossible to make a viable smartphone that contains no US intellectual property whatsoever and that may also be true of networking equipment.

The ARM business model involves licensing its semiconductor designs to third parties, who then incorporate them into their own chips. ARM’s designs are so effective, especially in power constrained environments, that they’re ubiquitous in the mobile world. The appear in not just processors and modems but IoT sensors and countless industrial applications, including a lot of networking gear. It’s hard to see how Huawei can function without access to them.

Here’s Huawei’s statement on the matter: “We value our close relationships with our partners, but recognise the pressure some of them are under, as a result of politically motivated decisions. We are confident this regrettable situation can be resolved and our priority remains to continue to deliver world-class technology and products to our customers around the world.” ARM doesn’t seem to have made a public statement yet.

Elsewhere it’s being reported that the US is mulling over the next tranche of Chinese companies to put on its blacklist. Next in the crosshairs are those that make surveillance gear, which isn’t too surprising. The way this is headed there seems to be no limit to the scope of this US ban. Only companies that do absolutely no business whatsoever with the US seem safe at this stage.

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.

Qualcomm banks almost $5 billion from Apple and that’s just the start

In its latest quarterly earnings announcement Qualcomm revealed just some of the cash it’s trousering from Apple after winning their legal fight.

“On April 16, 2019, we entered into settlement agreements with Apple and its contract manufacturers to dismiss all outstanding litigation between the parties,” said the relevant bit of the report. “We also entered into a six-year global patent license agreement with Apple, effective as of April 1, 2019, which includes an option for Apple to extend for an additional two years, and a multi-year chipset supply agreement with Apple.

“While we continue to assess the accounting impacts of the agreements, our financial guidance for the third quarter of fiscal 2019 includes estimated revenues of $4.5 billion to $4.7 billion resulting from the settlement (which will be excluded from our Non-GAAP results), consisting of a payment from Apple and the release of our obligations to pay or refund Apple and the contract manufacturers certain customer-related liabilities.

“In addition, our financial guidance for the third quarter of fiscal 2019 includes estimated QTL revenues for royalties due from Apple and its contract manufacturers for sales made in the June 2019 quarter.”

Fiscal Q3 for Qualcomm is equivalent to financial Q2, so it covers all the initial payments Apple will make to Qualcomm as a result of their settlement. If you factor in the June quarter sales royalties that wouldn’t otherwise have been paid that should mean Qualcomm’s current account will be around $5 billion better off by the Summer.

There didn’t seem to be any details revealed about the new patent licence agreement, but the two-year backlog points to a historical rate of around $200 million per month. Given the apparently dominant negotiating position Qualcomm will have been in regarding access to its 5G products it’s easy to believe Apple will be handing over a fair bit more than that for the foreseeable future.

There was one other comment of interest in Qualcomm’s outlook. “Our financial guidance for the third quarter of fiscal 2019 also includes $150 million of QTL revenues from Huawei, which represents a minimum, non-refundable amount for royalties due by Huawei while negotiations continue. This payment does not reflect the full amount of royalties due under the underlying license agreement.”

While this is essentially a restatement of the announcement Qualcomm made a quarter ago, it implies the dispute still isn’t resolved. Aside from all this Qualcomm’s Q1 revenues were roughly in line with expectations but a relatively downbeat general outlook drove its shares down a couple of percent.

Samsung’s profit crashes on weak semiconductor sales

Samsung Electronics reported a net profit decline of 57% in Q1, with total revenue going down by 14%. The semiconductor unit suffered the worst.

Samsung’s quarterly revenue went down from KRW60.56 trillion ($52 billion) a year ago to KRW52.39 ($45 billion) in Q1. The gross margin level came down from 47.3% to 37.5%. The operating profit dropped to KRW6.23 trillion ($5.3 billion) from KRW15.64 trillion ($13 billion), a decline of 60.2%. The net profit came down by 57% to KRW5.04 trillion ($4.4 billion).

 Samsung 2019_1Q_income

On business unit level, Device Solutions reported a 27% drop in revenue, the sharpest decline among all the business units. Inside the unit, Memory chips declined by 34%. Samsung attributed the weakness to “inventory adjustments at major customers”, indicating its customers including other smartphone makers, have been selling slower than expected.

IT & Mobile Communications, Samsung’s largest business unit by sales, the business was more stable. Revenue from the handset business dropped by 4% from a year ago, but grew sequentially by 17%. Samsung saw strong demand for its Galaxy S10 products, but the de-focus of mid-range and lower products limited the volume growth. The recent debacle of S10 fold, high profile as it may be, should not have had any material impact on Q1 as it was scheduled to launch in Q2. Samsung’s network business, though small in comparison to its competitors, reported a strong revenue growth of 62% to reach KRW1.28 trillion ($1.1 billion), benefiting from the “accelerating commercialization of 5G in Korea”.

Samsung 2019_1Q_BU

Samsung gave cautious lift to its outlook for Q2 but more optimistic with the second half of the year. It foresees the memory chip market stabilising in Q2 and stronger growth in the second half due to seasonality and product line refreshing. On the mobile side, Samsung sees growth in shipment in Q2 thanks to continued demand for the S10 products and positive market response to its new mid-range A series. It sees the 5G products and the fold form-factor making material contribution in the second half.

Apple starts to count the casualties of its poor 5G campaign

It looks like one of Apple’s most senior wireless engineers has cleared off, just days after the company lost its fight with Qualcomm.

The Information has reported that Rubén Caballero, a VP of Engineering in charge of wireless stuff at Apple, has left the building. One of its mystery sources said Caballero was ‘leading Apple’s charge into 5G’, which is especially appropriate considering his surname. Since that charge was resoundingly defeated by Qualcomm’s big guns Apple seems to have decided to discreetly disband its 5G light brigade.

As is its way Apple hasn’t offered any comment on the scoop but The Information says his work emails are bouncing back and his work phone has been disconnected so the circumstantial evidence is strong in this one. Additionally Apple Insider did a bit of sniffing around of its own and got another anonymous source to confirm Caballero’s departure.

Both stories feature a fair bit of speculation about why Caballero may have galloped off after 14 years at Apple, but to us the most likely reason for any wireless casualties at Apple must be the utter farce of its attempted collaboration with Intel. Since Intel was clearly hopelessly inadequate as a 5G modem partner, Apple CEO Tim Cook must have a pretty low opinion of any of his execs that told him otherwise.

Intel admits losing Apple caused it to ditch 5G modems – well duh

Chip giant Intel silenced the non-speculation about it bailing on its much heralded 5G modem project by admitting it was due to losing Apple as a customer.

The scoop comes courtesy of the paywalled WSJ and passed on by The Verge. Intel CEO Bob Swan apparently fessed up to the WSJ saying “In light of the announcement of Apple and Qualcomm, we assessed the prospects for us to make money while delivering this technology for smartphones and concluded at the time that we just didn’t see a path.”

That comment was only a minor elaboration on what Swan said on Intel’s recent earnings call. “As you know, we recently sharpened our 5G focus,” said Swan, in textbook earnings call language. “When it became apparent that we don’t have a clear path to profitability in 5G smartphone modems, we acted. We are now winding down that business and conducting a strategic assessment of 5G modems for the PC and IoT sectors while continuing to meet our current 4G customer commitments.”

Now it’s debatable how much profitability Intel would have derived from its 5G modem sales to Apple if some commentators are to be believed, so the ‘path to profitability’ bit seems like a massive euphemism for ‘likelihood that we will ever deliver a competitive product’ to us. To be fair to Swan there’s no nice way of publicly admitting abject failure so he’s entitled to dance around the issue a tad.

Since it’s now clear that Apple was the only significant customer for its 5G modem and it has apparently deemed it too much of a liability to stick with it’s worth reviewing Intel’s historical pronouncements on the matter.

Intel reckons it has the first global 5G modem

Chip-makers embark on pre-MWC 5G virtue-signalling frenzy

Intel continues to insist it’s really good at 5G

Intel triggered into joining Qualcomm Apple spat

Intel brings forward ‘launch’ of 5G modem in bid to silence doubters

In hindsight it’s all a bit tragic isn’t it? While we don’t doubt Intel genuinely wanted to compete in the modem market it also seems to have been played like a fiddle by Apple. The fruity gadget giant used Intel as a pawn in its hostile negotiations with Qualcomm and dropped it like a bad habit as soon as that became convenient. Cold.

Intel had so little faith in the product of what must have been billions of dollars of effort put into 5G modem development that as soon as its sugar daddy went back to its former partner it pulled the plug immediately. It must surely have seen this coming for a while with all the talk of Apple trying to develop its own modems, so it was just a matter of when it owned up to its 5G failure.

To be honest 5G modems seem to be the least of Intel’s problems right now so it may have been grateful to have ditched that distraction. Swan was forced to also admit Intel was revising down its full year revenue outlook by a whopping $2.5 billion on the earnings call, driving Intel’s shares down 8% at time of writing.

“Our conversations with customers and partners across our PC and data-centric businesses over the past couple of months have made several trends clear,” said Sawn. “The decline in memory pricing has intensified. The data center inventory and capacity digestion that we described in January is more pronounced than we expected, and China headwinds have increased, leading to a more cautious IT spending environment.

“And yet those same customer conversations reinforce our confidence that demand will improve in the second half. So we’ve reassessed our ’19 expectations based on the challenges we’re seeing. Our full year outlook is now $69 billion in revenue, down 3% year-over-year and down approximately $2.5 billion from our previous estimate.”

We had a chat about the Apple/Qualcomm/Intel thing on the most recent podcast, which you can access here.

Samsung delays launch of foldy phone after bad reviews

Korean electronics giant Samsung was due to launch the Galaxy Fold this week but after a few of them broke in the hands of reviewers it has changed its mind.

Exactly how long that delay will be hasn’t been revealed, but Samsung will presumably take as long as it needs to perform the stress testing and due diligence it should have performed before handing over review units. As we previously reported, at least three different kinds of major flaw were uncovered almost immediately by some reviewers so this could take a while.

Samsung’s announcement were a case-study in marketing speak and general turd polishing. “While many reviewers shared with us the vast potential they see, some also showed us how the device needs further improvements that could ensure the best possible user experience,” it said. “To fully evaluate this feedback and run further internal tests, we have decided to delay the release of the Galaxy Fold. We plan to announce the release date in the coming weeks.

“We will take measures to strengthen the display protection. We will also enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer so that our customers get the most out of their Galaxy Fold. We value the trust our customers place in us and they are always our top priority. Samsung is committed to working closely with customers and partners to move the industry forward.”

In other words: people don’t want their two-grand devices to break within days so we’re going to make sure it doesn’t before we put it on sale. That’s totally fair enough but once the legal and marketing departments have got through with it we get the above. It looks like Samsung has also canned a couple of launch events, so it’s all rather embarrassing, but infinitely better than actually selling a dodgy device as Samsung knows well.

 

Reviewers report major faults with Samsung’s new foldy screen

A number of tech reviewers have reported the screens of their Galaxy Fold review units breaking soon after they started using them.

Reviewers for The Verge, CNBC and Bloomberg all had major problems with the groundbreaking foldable screen soon after they got their hands on it. The Bloomberg case seemed to result from the removal of a protective film over the screen, which it wasn’t made clear shouldn’t be done. The other two don’t seem to have made that mistake, however, and report different faults, which must be seriously worrying for Samsung.

Here’s the statement Samsung gave those sites: “A limited number of early Galaxy Fold samples were provided to media for review. We have received a few reports regarding the main display on the samples provided. We will thoroughly inspect these units in person to determine the cause of the matter.

“Separately, a few reviewers reported having removed the top layer of the display causing damage to the screen. The main display on the Galaxy Fold features a top protective layer, which is part of the display structure designed to protect the screen from unintended scratches. Removing the protective layer or adding adhesives to the main display may cause damage. We will ensure this information is clearly delivered to our customers.”

That all seems fair enough but, given the catastrophe that was the Galaxy Note 7 Samsung must be getting some traumatic flashbacks. The screen itself seems to be holding up so long as you don’t peel the film off, but some of the underlying circuitry and structure seems to be struggling. If these cases turn out to be isolated then they will all be forgotten but if any more such reports emerge then the launch of the Galaxy Fold is in a lot of trouble.

 

 

 

Apple capitulates to end war with Qualcomm

Qualcomm and Apple agreed to settle all the ongoing litigations with the iPhone maker paying the chipset maker an undisclosed amount and signing a six-year licensing agreement.

On Monday, Qualcomm and Apple went to court over the allegation that Qualcomm has been abusing its monopoly position to over-charge for its chips. The stakes could have run up to tens of billions of dollars, with the OEMs Foxconn and Pegatron already demanding compensation of $9 billion dating back to 2013. The case at the Southern District Court of California in San Diego was meant to last for five weeks.

On Tuesday, the two companies released a brief statement to announce a settlement. “Qualcomm and Apple today announced an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm. The companies also have reached a six-year license agreement, effective as of April 1, 2019, including a two-year option to extend, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.”

This is definitely good news for the two companies especially for Qualcomm, and good for the industry and consumers. Specifically, for Qualcomm it means its business model will remain intact and the company can put an end to a multi-year legal saga; for Apple, in addition to avoiding the punitive $31 billion penalty, this settlement will be able to quicken its steps to launch a 5G iPhone, making up the gap already expanding between itself and the leading pack.

A few hours later, Intel announced that it intends “to exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices. Intel will also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business. The company will continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but does not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020.”

It must have been a blow to Intel’s mobile ambition, especially after it announced only late last year that it would bring the launch of its first 5G modem forward by half a year to the second half of this year, an act to prove the doubters wrong. That originally planned 5G modem to be launched in 2020 referred to in the announcement, presumably a second generation, was supposed to power the first 5G iPhone, after Apple all but officially declared that it would enter into an exclusive relationship with Intel.

Putting the two things together it may be reasonable to infer that Apple agreed to settle after it had realised that it does not have other options than coming back to Qualcomm for the supply of 5G modems (assuming Intel had updated Apple about its imminent decision to withdraw from the market).

In addition to leaning in on Intel, Apple has also been reported to be strengthening its in-house modem development capability, ultimately aiming to rid itself of reliance on external suppliers. Based on the terse announcement released together with Qualcomm, it looks Apple does not believe the home-grown modems will be good enough to compete with Qualcomm in the next few years. Huawei is another supplier that has launched its own 5G modem, but it may be safe to estimate that the chance of Apple going for Huawei chips is slim.

In keeping with the normal practice of settlement cases like this, the companies did not disclose the amount Apple will pay. However, Qualcomm updated the SEC shortly after the settlement announcement was made, as the settlement would have material impact on the earnings. The company expected an EPS incremental of about $2 “as product shipments ramp” without giving a specific timespan. As a reference, in the quarter ending 30 December 2018, Qualcomm delivered an EPS of $0.87 on the back of a total revenue of $4.8 billion. Therefore, assuming Qualcomm’s operational efficiency remains largely constant, the payment Apple will make could run into the $10 billion range.

Payment aside, there must be some soul-searching going on inside Apple, including by Tim Cook, the CEO, who came from a supply chain management background: how could Apple have let itself be cornered so badly in the first place? It’s hard to view this as anything other than complete humiliation for Apple, especially when you consider how aggressively it pursued this case.

On top of the millions it will have paid to lawyers Apple’s negotiating position in arriving at this settlement, considering what was widely assumed about its 5G modem situation, must have been very weak. So it’s quite possible Apple has ended up paying considerably more for Qualcomm’s chips than it would have if it had never initiated this war. Having said that, Apple’s share price seems completely unaffected by the news, probably indicating offsetting relief that it’s back in the 5G game. Qualcomm’s share’s however, surged 23% on the news.