Global slowdown gives China a chance to leapfrog US and Europe in 5G race

Much has been made about the ‘Race to 5G’, and while much of it is little more than posturing, there are certainly economic and political rewards for accelerated deployments.

COVID-19 is a reality we will have to get used to for at least the immediate future. The outbreak is showing signs of slowing down, but that is only the first stage of recovery. It will be months until some semblance of normality returns to many parts of the world.

That said, China is reopening for business, and according to many reports, the 5G rollout is back on-track. This global pandemic, which is causing chaos in every facet of society, offers China an opportunity to make a challenge for 5G leadership, and it could result in a very difficult, divergent and discordant telecommunications industry.

Before we get into the guesswork and assumptions about the future, lets set the scene in Europe, North America and China.

Starting in Europe, the coronavirus outbreak has devastated the continent. The majority of countries are under some form of self-isolation regime, while telecoms operators are directing their attention towards improving resilience of broadband and 4G networks. These projects are seemingly forcing operators to refocus capital and resource away from 5G deployments, while the postponement of spectrum auctions will leave some operators short of the valuable airwaves critical to a 5G proposition.

In North America, the impact of coronavirus is perhaps several weeks behind Europe and other Asian regions, though it is now aggressively wrecking chaos. In the US, many citizens are under self-isolation measures, and the FCC delayed a spectrum auction for the mid-band spectrum which could make a considerable difference to 5G performance.

Both of these regions are staring at a recession in the mid-term, meaning customer demand for 5G, both consumer and enterprise, will be lessened, and while the high street is closed, device sales will take a material hit. With dampened consumer demand for 5G and telco attention being drawn elsewhere, the deployment of 5G networks will likely suffer.

Now over to China. Across the country, many regions are returning to normality as the lockdown lifts. Some presumed there would be a second wave of COVID-19 as the hustle and bustle returned to the streets, but so far there is little evidence of this. China appears to be returning to normal, which is of course an encouraging sign for the rest of the world.

That said, this is an opportunity for the Chinese telcos to ramp up 5G deployments as others slow down. And perhaps more encouraging for the Chinese telcos, there appears to be consumer demand as China Mobile boasted of 15 million 5G subscriptions during its last earnings call. The pieces seem to be falling into place.

The longer Europe and North America are in lockdown, the more of an opportunity the Chinese telcos have to close the gap on 5G network deployment, overtake and potentially create a leadership position as the new era of connectivity heads into the mainstream.

But realistically, having the biggest 5G network or the most 5G subscribers means very little on the surface. Politicians might like such soundbites, but it doesn’t translate into influence on the global stage unless China can capitalise on this transition to build a 5G enabled economy behind the posturing numbers. This is the very reason the US dominated the 4G era.

Although the first 4G networks were introduced in 2009, the democratised mobile internet did not really hit the mainstream until 2012/13.

4G subscription numbers (2010-14) during development years
  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
USA 215,000 6,578,300 38,604,462 96,489,109 157,907,002
Japan 1,200 1,139,400 13,186,000 39,022,400 64,789,201
Germany 100 141,400 794,498 3,696,688 12,242,447
UK 0 0 250,000 2,866,000 19,309,727
China 0 0 0 800,000 98,130,800

Data curtesy of Omdia’s World Information Series (WIS)

As you can see from the table above, the US very aggressively pushed into the 4G era, while Japan followed quickly. Europe was slow to gain traction, while China arrived very late, but quickly scaled. Again, on the surface these are nothing but numbers, but you have to consider what they inspire.

4G brought about a new type of business model through the democratization of mobile internet services. What we take for granted today would never have seemed possible in 2012 as the concept of digital became a significant driver for economies. Today, the biggest digital fortunes are being captured by the early adopters, and many of them are located in the US or China.

By aggressively investing in scaling 4G networks, innovators had an opportunity to test out new ideas, products, services and business models on the domestic market. They collected revenues, fine tuned the idea and built a war chest for expansion into international markets. The entrepreneurs in markets where 4G was slow to scale did not have the same opportunities, and while these digital economies did eventually scale, the international pecking order had been established.

This is why scaling 5G networks faster than other nations is so important. 5G will bring about a new generation of products, services and business models, but in which country with the internationally dominant players be located? And where will the ecosystems to support these new ideas be concentrated?

Silicon Valley and Seattle are two regions which have hoovered-up the cash thanks to the likes of Facebook, Uber, Microsoft, Google and Amazon dominating the 4G era. And down another level, the ecosystems supporting all of these internet giants are prospering, and more likely to be in areas close to Silicon Valley and Seattle.

Let’s say a 5G ecosystem was to develop in Cambridge thanks to three random companies being the dominant forces in the 5G era, tomorrows Facebook, Amazon and Google. The faster these companies grow at the expense of others around the world, the more likely neighbouring innovation hubs are likely to appear as the supporting ecosystem/suppliers to these companies, bringing more jobs. Other companies will create their own R&D facilities in the surrounding areas as well, bringing more employment and prosperity.

Alongside these technology hubs, supporting industries such as legal and finance will blossom, as will construction to build homes, restaurants to feed people and high streets for shopping. It might sound simple but cultivating a growth industry offers a surge to the overarching economy.

In terms of numbers, if Silicon Valley was a country, it would be considered the second-most profitable country worldwide with $128,308 per capita in annual gross domestic product (GDP). Only Qatar is higher, while the Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates this tech hub accounted for $275 billion in GDP, which is more than Finland.

The benefits of the 4G era has spread throughout the world now, but there are still regions were the greatest prosperity is evident.

Annual revenues of internet giants (2012-18)
  2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Facebook 5,089 7,872 12,446 17,928 27,638 40,653 55,838
Amazon 68,090 74,450 88,990 107,010 135,990 177,870 232,890
Google 50,180 55,510 65,67 74,540 89,980 110,550 136,360
Uber 0 100 500 1,500 6,500 7,500 11,300
Microsoft 73,200 77,850 86,830 93,580 85,320 98,950 110,360

Total revenues in millions (US$)

5G will offer the same, and it looks like China has a chance to steal a bigger slice of the profit pie thanks to events today slowing down 5G network deployments in Europe and North America.

But what could this mean outside of an uplift to the economy?

Firstly, perhaps this is a lucky break for Huawei. It will of course collect profits through the sale of 5G base stations and 5G smartphones, but it will also create an opportunity to bed its Harmony operating system into the hearts and minds of a scaled 5G capable userbase, which would in turn encourage more developers to create services and products for this OS as well as Android and iOS. Without Android’s 5G users scaling at the same pace, Harmony OS might look like an attractive proposition to developers.

This is a very dire consequence for Google and can be traced directly back to the decision to place Huawei on the US Entity List, banning it from working with US partners and suppliers. China is a significant userbase, as are some of the nations who are closed allied with the Chinese Government or reliant on the country for trade, where Harmony OS could also blossom.

In the future, we could see three dominant mobile operating systems. Android and iOS in the West and Harmony OS in the East.

The second potential consequence of China taking the lead in the 5G stakes is further fragmentation in the global 5G ecosystem.

Should China push forward and accelerate the development of a 5G ecosystem based around its own companies and userbase, the political climate could threaten a wedge being driven in between the East and the West. You do not have to stretch the imagination too far to believe President Trump would take aggressive action to halt a Chinese leadership position in the technology world, therefore it is not out of the question to imagine two separate ecosystems, one based around the US technology industry and a second based around China.

This would be a disastrous outcome for the technology world, which has seen the consequences of fragmentation before. The globalised economy is benefiting many, though politics has for many years, and will continue for many years to come, threatened to splinter industries as isolationist policies in pursuit of patriotism become ever more popular.

And what would this mean for Europe? Forever caught between a rock and a hard place, this scenario would make for some very difficult international relations.

What is worth noting is that the final section of this article is very much theoretical. It is the worst-case scenario, but a realistic outcome. It shows what the power of 5G is to an economy and a nation’s influence on the global political stage.

China is going to scale 5G very quickly, but whether the 5G ecosystem benefits it more than other nations in the future is partly dependent on how much of a crippling effect COVID-19 has on 5G deployments and the ability of innovators to scale ideas.

Telefónica doubles down on the smart home

Telefónica has created a global unit, known as the Chief Digital Consumer Office (CDCO), which will champion new digital products and services, paying particular attention to the smart home.

Led by Chema Alonso, the team will aim to drive forward the Aura AI digital assistant, as well as continue the creation of the ‘fourth platform’. The initiative will help take Telefónica into the digital era across several areas, but there does seem to be particular attention being paid to the smart home ecosystem.

José Montalvo will become Chief Data Officer, with a primarily focus on the development of the fourth platform project, including integrating new products and services such as Aura onto the platform. David del Val will become Director of Core Innovation, with a particular focus on edge computing. Antonio Guzmán is the Director of Digital Home, tasked with overseeing the development of the smart home and digital services ecosystem.

These are only a few of the names, but it does appear Telefónica is hoping to create a standardised smart home ecosystem for the markets which it currently operates in. This is an incredibly intelligent approach to creating value in the future, and with its global presence, Telefónica can provide competition to other players who are attempting to create a platform to control the smart home ecosystem.

This initiative builds on progress being made in the smart home following the announcement of a partnership with Microsoft at Mobile World Congress last year.

Alongside Microsoft boss Satya Nadella, Telefónica CEO Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete launched the fourth platform initiative in attempt to own the smart home ecosystem, seemingly learning from the ‘walled garden’ business model which has been so successful for the likes of Facebook.

In this model, Telefónica leverage its relationship with the users, creating a platform for third parties to offer products and services. Telefónica will of course offer its own services, such as content, but why not create revenue by monetizing the link between the user and other companies in the digital economy.

While the smart home is still emerging as a viable segment in the digital economy, this is a very intelligent move from Telefónica . Connected objects are becoming more common, as there will need to be a focal point to manage this ecosystem, but also guarantee security. Telefónica has a trusted relationship with the consumer, a recognised digital assistant and the power of Microsoft as a partner. This is not a guarantee, but at least Telefónica is trying something new under the threat of the connectivity industry becoming commoditised.

Huawei builds the case for its own OS ecosystem

If US-Chinese tensions continue to remain as they are today, a separate Huawei mobile operating system looks to be a certainty but being competitive with Android is not a simple task.

Building the OS, which will be known as Harmony, is the simple part of the venture. In fairness, nailing the science and experience is anything but simple, but the complexities pale in comparison to the realities of building the supporting ecosystem and credibility. This is where Huawei will struggle, but today it has set out an interesting case at a London Huawei Developer Day.

“Today’s announcement concerning our Huawei Mobile Services offering, highlights our ongoing commitment and support for UK and Irish businesses and developers,” said Anson Zhang, MD of Huawei UK’s consumer business.

“In recent years we have grown significantly and owe our success to the consumers and partners who have chosen and believed in us. As a sign of that support and commitment to the UK and Irish market, we have announced our £20 million investment plan to recognise and incentivise our partners; so that jointly we can build an outstanding ecosystem together.”

Irrelevant as to whether Huawei has the best phones on the planet and the smoothest running OS, if there are no compatible games in the app store, few consumers are going to have an interest in purchasing the device. Huawei has to engage the developer community and convince them it is in their interest to make a third version of the app on top of efforts for Android and iOS.

Back in September, Huawei said it would be investing $1.5 billion to build-out its developer ecosystem. At today’s event, Zhang highlighted £20 million would be set aside specifically for the UK, while any developer which can publish its app on the Huawei App Gallery before January 31 would be entitled to a £20,000 incentive payment.

This is perhaps the most important and difficult job for Huawei over the coming months. The company does not have the same scale, or credibility, as its OS competitors in Apple or Google. It might well claim to have 600 million users worldwide currently, 4 million alone in the UK, but how many of these users are engaging Huawei by choice?

Your correspondent has a Huawei Mate 20 device, and presumably is one of the 4 million Huawei Mobile Services users in the UK, but the Google Play Store, YouTube, Chrome and Gmail are still used exclusively over the Huawei alternatives. Google’s services are not on new Huawei devices, and at the moment, that would certainly stop your correspondent from buying any Huawei products in the future.

This is the chicken and egg situation in play. Huawei needs to convince both the consumer and the developer ecosystem to put faith in it. Consumers will not come without apps and apps will not be developed without consumers. Some might, but nothing in comparison to the scale of the Google app ecosystem.

And so, the Huawei pitch begins, and there some very good ideas.

The first interesting idea presented by Huawei is the idea of more intelligent contextualisation. The different segments in the ecosystem are linked, allowing for a recommendation engine to offer more interesting results. If a user is a big Terminator fan, for example, the video store will recommend relevant titles, but then the music store will factor in this preference and the app store will start pushing first-person shooting games up the listings. It is taking context one step further, which does sound appealing.

Another idea to improve user acquisition is to develop customisable themes and backgrounds for the user which can be linked to apps and content. Jaime Gonzalo, VP Consumer Mobile Services, highlighted there are between 4,000 and 6,000 new apps published each month. To cut through this digital noise, there needs to be a more intelligent approach to user engagement and acquisition.

One very attractive point made by the team is the opportunity for scale which Huawei can offer. China is one of the most lucrative markets around for any app developer, and Huawei, as the telecom champion of China, can potentially offer access to the users in a way Google or Apple could not compete with. This is a very attractive carrot for the developer community.

Another final point on the business side, is the idea of local engagement. Huawei has said each market will have a local business development and operational team to aid the local developer community. Gonzalo claims to be the only business which can offer this USP, demonstrating the importance of this initiative.

Huawei is throwing money at the situation, almost making the creation of a deep developer ecosystem a loss-leader, because it recognises how critical it is to ensure the consumer business survives internationally. This might sound like a dramatization of the status quo, but as long as Huawei remains on the US Entity List, and banned from working with Google, its device business is in a very precarious position.

Looking at the more technical side, Andreas Zimmer, who works in strategy team, highlighted there are currently 24 software development kits (SDK) available for developers in the ecosystem, with plans to launch more in the coming months. Interesting enough, Zimmer claims only one is needed to make the very simple translation from Android and into the Huawei developer ecosystem.

The majority of the SDKs are as one would expect, but there were a couple which Zimmer wanted to push forward for attention.

Firstly, the Machine Learning SDK. This kit allows developers to integrate new AI components into the app, such as face detection, landmark recognition, emotion detection or object detection. Another Zimmer pushed forward was the Awareness kit. This SDK allowed the app to have greater contextual awareness, for example, understanding what time of the day it was, whether a headset is plugged in or the location of the user.

Both of these SDKs are very useful for enthusiastic and creative developers, but the question remains is whether Huawei has done enough to convince the developer community.

The Huawei consumer business is facing a serious threat. If it wants to continue to be an international brand, the Harmony OS needs to work and for this to happen, it needs to be embraced by the developer community. Consumers are tied to Android today, and it will take a serious swing for Huawei to crack this dominance in the Western markets.

Huawei’s OS will almost certainly be a success in its domestic Chinese market, and others were there are strong political ties. But the Huawei ambition is bigger than simply being a dominant domestic champion. As long as the US remains hostile to China and Huawei stays on the Entity List, the international future of the consumer business relies on the success of Harmony OS and the developer ecosystem.

Huawei pledges $1.5 billion to its new developer program

Huawei has announced that it will invest $1.5 billion in the next five years to boost its developer ecosystem for the Kunpeng and Ascend computing platforms.

SDKs were also released at the same event when its Developer Program 2.0 was unveiled.The announcement was made at the 2019 version of the Chinese vendor’s annual Huawei Connect event in Shanghai. According to Patrick Zhang, CTO of Cloud & AI Products & Services at Huawei, the new program will cover five key areas:

  • Building an open computing industry ecosystem based on Kunpeng + Ascend computing processors
  • Establishing an all-round enablement system
  • Promoting the development of industry standards, specifications, demonstration sites, and technical certification system
  • Building industry-specific application ecosystems and region-specific industry ecosystems
  • Sharing Kunpeng and Ascend computing power, making it available to every developer

The focus areas are related to cloud computing and artificial intelligence. The applications and services the ecosystem aims to support are for server level, either in the centralized cloud or on the edge. To enable the ecosystem development, Huawei also published Kunpeng Developer Kit and ModelArts 2.0 AI development platform.

Despite that x86 architecture is still dominating the server market, ARM has worked to break the monopoly, and Huawei is one of ARM’s leading licensees. Earlier this year Huawei released Kunpeng 920, its CPU based on ARMv8 design. Huawei aims to expand its share in the server market with Kunpeng’s superior computing power claimed by Huawei, most likely starting from the market in China.

But Huawei’s ambitions go way beyond moving more boxes. Its cloud service has been promoted for its strong AI capability, supported by the Ascend AI chips. The Ascend 910, the latest version, was released in August, which the company claimed is the world’s most powerful AI processor.

By enriching its ecosystems, Huawei hopes it will be able to deliver a full suite of solutions, including supporting digital transformation undertake by increasing numbers of telecom operators.

This is the second iteration of Huawei’s Developer Program. The Developer Program 1.0 was launched in 2015.

Vodafone pumps Manchester for 5G ecosystem development

In a few weeks’ time, Vodafone will become the second telco in the UK to switch on its ‘5G’ network, but up in Manchester, the team is focusing on ecosystem development.

At an event dubbed ‘Go Beyond’, the Vodafone team launched its Digital Innovation Hub in an attempt to help the next-generation. This is perhaps one of the important facets of 5G which is missed in general discussions; 5G isn’t just about speed, its about offering new tools to innovators to create services which would not be deemed possible on 4G networks.

“The Digital Innovation Hub is an example of how we are empowering today’s start-ups and small businesses with the expertise and technologies to help turn their blueprints into reality,” said Anne Sheehan, Business Director at Vodafone UK. “Our 5G services can help UK start-ups become global leaders in their fields.”

For the telcos, being first to launch 5G offers a competitive edge in the utilitised world of connectivity, and also bragging rights, but there is a bigger win for the economies and societies which drive forward the fastest; the opportunity and ability to get a jump start to create services which will define the technology world of tomorrow.

This would appear to be one of the objectives behind the innovation hub opened here by Vodafone; put the technology in the hands of start-ups and entrepreneurs.

“Such investment and commitment from the private sector supports our ambition to make Salford one of the world’s most attractive cities for digital enterprises,” said Paul Dennett, City Major of Salford.

“It will also boost the local economy and help attract new jobs and opportunities for the people of Salford, Great Manchester and beyond. This commitment also further strengthens Salford’s Innovation Triangle connecting MediaCityUK with the University of Salford and Salford Royal Foundation Trust, our outstanding and leading hospital in the City.”

Think about the impact which 4G had on yesteryear and today. Many of the countries who were the first to launch 4G networks created some of the most influential technology companies in the industry today. Prior to 4G, Uber, Spotify, Tencent, Alibaba or AirBnB didn’t exist (or did but weren’t anywhere near at full scale), but with the new connectivity buzz, new jobs, wealth and segments were carved out.

Arguably the UK missed out on this craze. It was the 28th country to launch 4G networks, and while it maintains a healthy position in the technology standings today, other nations who were quicker to the finish line reaped greater benefits.

5G isn’t just about going faster, it is about having the opportunity to create services which are not conceivable today. But to do that, the networks need to up and running. With all four of the MNOs planning to launch 5G this year, and each taking a slightly different geographical rollout plan, the UK has an opportunity to capture the new revenue created through the upgraded networks.

The UK currently accounts for around 35% of all European unicorns created over the last few years, while the technology sector has outpaced average GDP growth by 4X since the European referendum. The technology sector is on the up in the UK, but 5G launches and scaled deployment are critical to ensure this position is not eclipsed by other nations.

Google has another run at the AR world

Google is taking another crack at the growing augmented reality segment with the launch of Glass Enterprise Edition 2.

While the first enterprise product has seemingly trundled along without fanfare, Google will be hoping the segment is ripe enough to make the desired millions. Although this is a technology area which promises huge prospects in the future, sceptics will suggest society, networks and the supporting ecosystem isn’t quite ready to make this dream a reality.

“Over the past two years at X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, we’ve collaborated with our partners to provide solutions that improve workplace productivity for a growing number of customers – including AGCO, Deutsche Post DHL Group, Sutter Health, and H.B. Fuller,” said Jay Kothari Project, Lead for Glass. “We’ve been inspired by the ways businesses like these have been using Glass Enterprise Edition.

“X, which is designed to be a protected space for long-term thinking and experimentation, has been a great environment in which to learn and refine the Glass product. Now, in order to meet the demands of the growing market for wearables in the workplace and to better scale our enterprise efforts, the Glass team has moved from X to Google.”

This is a massive step for any Google idea. Graduating from the moonshot labs to be listed as a genuine brand in the Google family is a sign executives think there are profits to be made now, not in the future. Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen the likes of Loon and Fi make their way into the real world, and now it is time for Glass to hit the big time.

Google Glass was first brought to the market in 2013, though this wasn’t exactly a riveting success. Perhaps it was just a sign of the ecosystem and society at the time; people just weren’t ready for this type of innovation. However, Google is a company which often demonstrates innovation leadership and it was never going to completely give up on this idea. The products were taken back to the labs and refined.

What you have now is an enterprise orientated product which has the potential to run into the mass market. This makes sense for two reasons; firstly, there are more immediate usecases for the enterprise world, and secondly, businesses have more money to spend on these types of products than the consumer.

What remains to be seen is whether Google has any long-term interest in the hardware space or whether this is a game-plan to generate momentum in an embryonic segment.

When you look at the smart speaker segment, Google was always set to make more money in software and services than the hardware space. As soon as the traditional audio brands got the idea, its products were going to come up short. However, selling the hardware cheap to gain consumer buy-in while simultaneously demonstrating market appetite to the traditional brands was an excellent move.

Now there are more mainstream brands starting to develop their own smart speakers, Google can create partnerships to ensure its virtual assistance is exposed to the consumer and make money through means which are embedded in its corporate DNA; third-party relationships and online advertising.

Google might well have ambitions to take a leadership position in the AR glasses space, but you can also guarantee it has bigger plans to make profits through the supporting software and services ecosystem.

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.