Google doubles down on India

Google has announced that use of its Google Pay platform has tripled to 67 million users in India.

In a series of announcements Google renewed its commitment to the Indian market, which probably represents its greatest growth opportunity despite the relatively low disposable income of most of its inhabitants. The internet giant has been investing heavily in India for a few years and seems to be happy with the returns.

With a population of over a billion, 67 million users is a relatively small proportion, but it’s likely to keep growing rapidly as the Indian government tries to phase out cash in a bid to tackle the black economy. The growth in Google Pay use also coincides with a boom in smartphone ownership in the country as companies like Xiaomi manage to offer them at the right price point.

Another Google investment unique to India is a free phone line launched in partnership with Vodafone-Idea that allows even those people who can only afford 2G basic phones to use Google. When you call the number you get through to a Google Assistant service that understands both English and Hindi, which you can ask for the weather forecast, sports scores or whatever.

Google has become the company it is by giving digital services away for free and then monetizing the resulting user base. There’s no reason to believe this approach will be any less effective in India, but Google has concluded some unique offerings are required to break into the mainstream. It will be interesting to see how the company manages to coexist with Jio, which has put digital services at the core of its strategy too.

Huawei: the king of the incremental gain

Despite having some nifty 5G features to shout about, a tsunami of incremental upgrades dominated the launch of the Mate 30 series in Munich.

Many commentators have been suggesting the 5G euphoria will lead the smartphone segment into a new refreshment cycle, however the headlines will likely be dominated by any one of the numerous incremental upgrades Huawei has been boasting about in Germany.

A lack of innovation might be one of the reasons smartphone shipments are decreasing but hasn’t scared the Chinese manufacturer. This device looks to be the same but better than previous iterations, but to be fair to Huawei, there are enough incremental gains to perhaps turn some heads.

Firstly, lets start with the 5G plug. Richard Yu, CEO of the consumer business unit at Huawei, pointed to a few interesting elements of the device. Firstly, Yu is claiming this is the first device on the market which will work with both non-standalone and standalone 5G architectures. To the general consumer, this will mean very little, though it will be of interest to the technology enthusiasts.

“This is not only for today, but to support the community of tomorrow,” Yu said.

Inside the device, Yu has pointed to a total of 21 antennas, 14 of which are 5G. This is an impressive number, especially consider the most any rival has current is 6. With this much antennae technology inside the device, the Mate 30 Pro can support 8 different 5G frequency bands.

Engineering a product of this nature can lead to some serious download speeds. A video was shown demonstrating the device can reach speeds up to 1.5 Gbps. This of course sounds very impressive, and while there is no need for download speeds this high just yet, that will not deter any of the marketers in the technology and telco world.

A final 5G element of the device which is worth paying attention to is the dual SIM capabilities. This is where the technology enthusiasts will also be paying attention, as there is not currently support for VoLTE on 5G. With dual SIM support, one could be a SIM dedicated to 5G data, while the other could be for VoLTE and data on 4G.

What is worth noting is this was a very small part of the overall presentation.

Another element which will surprise few is the omission of Google. It has been widely reported that Huawei is in a tricky situation thanks to the US Entity List, and today confirmed that there will not be any Google apps installed on the device as default. Huawei’s own products will be the default, and Yu has also plugged a $1 billion fund designed to attract app developers to the Huawei ecosystem.

The operating system will be EMUI 9.1, Huawei’s custom mobile operating system that is based on Android 9. Note, this is not the latest version of Android, though this should have perhaps been expected.

This is the biggest challenge which Huawei will face moving forward, a future without Android. Despite all the flashy features, which we are about to discuss, Huawei will have to lure consumers away from the trusted and market-leading Android product, and onto its own, which is based on an older, opensource version of Android.

So, let’s start on the incremental gains this device offers. Despite consumers craving genuine innovation, the mobile industry is yet to be able to offer anything novel. Incremental upgrades have arguably led to longer refreshment cycles for devices, but that has not deterred Huawei here.

The introduction of 5G components will certainly can some attention, though for mass marketing purposes, Huawei needs something ‘sexier’ to talk about, even if these features aren’t really new.

The design of the device has undertaken somewhat of a rethink, with the cameras being shifted towards the centre of the device, making it look more like a traditional camera. The edges are once again rounded off and new materials have been worked into the back cover to reduce ‘slippage’. “Sleek” was the word often used by Yu during the presentation, and if that is your thing, it does look like an attractive device.

The battery is slightly bigger, with the Mate 30 Pro now 4500 mAh. An AI power management feature has been introduced to improve battery life and efficiency. Tweaks have also been made to the wireless charging elements to decrease charging time. These are nice features, but only incremental gains.

Then there is the camera. Much of the advertising will likely be based around the functionality and performance of the camera, so this is an important element. When taking a photo, the shutter button can be moved for personal preference, while there have been gains in the slow-motion features and general performance of the camera. It is a good camera, but again, incremental gains from previous devices.

The gesture control is a very useful perk of the device, a new user interface which will gradually become more apparent as the voice user interface gains more prominence. Smart rotate is another for those who get irritated by the auto-rotate feature. The software has been taught to follow the user’s eyes, meaning the angle of the phone does not necessarily dictate the orientation of the screen. Useful features, but incremental gains.

The multi-screen element is attractive, allowing devices to be more seamless (and wirelessly) linked with PCs, though we suspect all phones will have this functionality in the very near future. The Mate 30 Pro also pays homage to the connected car, with software designed to allow the user to control in-car functionality through the phone. A step-forward to the inter-connected digital economy, but an incremental gain.

There were of course other features, elements and components which we haven’t discussed here, but you get the idea. Incremental gains, not revolutionary strides into the future. The only two aspects which were genuinely new, 5G and the omission of Google, were briefly mentioned or completely ignored.

But then again, enough incremental upgrades could justify the cost if there enough of them. This is perhaps the issue many consumers have been facing over the last few years; do new devices justify the expenditure? Smartphone shipments numbers would suggest not. With the prices of the devices ranging from €799 for the Mate 30, €1199 for the Mate 30 Pro 5G and €2095 for the Porsche designed device, the same question will be asked again.

NTT Docomo set to ditch Huawei phones over Android fears – report

Japanese operator group NTT Docomo will not offer Huawei smartphones when it launches its 5G network next year, according to a report.

The scoop comes courtesy of Nikkei Asian Review, which chatted to some NTT execs that preferred to keep it on the QT. The reason for this sudden reticence is fairly simple: if Google pulls the plug on Android support for Huawei phones the operator doesn’t want to be stuck with thousands of very expensive bricks that nobody wants to buy.

If this is true then it sets a very alarming precedent for Huawei, especially if the other Japanese operators follow suit. Japan was apparently Huawei’s fifth largest market last year and is right in the middle of the geopolitical arm wrestle between the US and China that has forced Google’s hand when it comes to Android support for Huawei phones.

The Nikkei Asian Review is on good form today, having also learned that Softbank is hoping to launch its 5G network two years ahead of schedule. How great an achievement this is, however, is open to debate, since many 5G networks around the world are already live. If the original projection by Softbank was that it wasn’t going to get its 5G act together until 2022 then it just as well it has belatedly pulled its socks up.

HTC taps Orange for new CEO

Struggling Taiwanese device maker HTC has finally found a full-time CEO by tapping into the European telecoms scene.

Former Orange exec Yves Maitre (pictured, no relation) takes over as CEO with immediate effect. He replaces owner and Chairwoman Cher Wang, who stepped in as CEO more than four years ago after deciding to throw in the towel on smartphones.  Wang has spent that time pivoting HTC towards virtual reality and the Vive headset, as well as some other connected devices.

Maitre was most recently EVP of Consumer Equipment and Partnerships at Orange was well as being a member of Orange’s innovation technology group, with a focus developing disruptive revenue opportunities, so his appointment is consistent with HTC’s new direction. Wang and the HTC board have clearly committed the company’s future to emerging mobile devices.

“When I took over as CEO four years ago, I set out to reinvent HTC as a complete ecosystem company and lay the foundations for the company to flourish across 5G and XR,” said Wang. “So, now is the perfect time to hand over the stewardship of HTC to a strong leader to guide us on the next stage of our journey.

“I am truly delighted that Yves is taking the reins; he has a long association with our company, and he shares our passion for innovation. I firmly believe Yves is the right leader to continue to lead HTC to its full potential.”

“HTC has long been a bellwether for new technology innovation and I’m honoured to be selected by the Board of Directors to lead the next phase of HTC,” said Maitre. “Across the world, HTC is recognized for its firsts across the mobile and XR space. I am incredibly energized to grow the future of both 5G and XR alongside HTC employees, customers and investors.  We will set out immediately to continue the transition from building the worlds’ best consumer hardware to also building complete services around them to make them easy to manage and deploy.”

XR refers to mixed reality, which covers all forms immersive digital experience, including augmented reality. The advent of 5G is a potential boon for this kind of tech, especially when the low-latency stuff starts to kick in, as it will enable wireless VR without the kind of lag that makes people throw up. Recruiting someone from the operator side appears to be an acknowledgement of that.

HTC was arguably the most successful Android smartphone maker initially, establishing close ties to Google and shipping in impressive volumes a decade ago. But then much bigger players like Samsung and Huawei got their acts together and HTC simply couldn’t compete with their deep pockets and economies of scale. It will attempt to replicate that feat with XR and hopefully will have a better strategy for fending off the big guys next time.

Apple finally gets the memo on sacrificing margin for market share

By making its entry-level new phone cheaper than last year’s one and only charging a fiver for its new video service, Apple is further compromising its premium image.

The roman numerals experiment is over, which means no more X in the iPhone nomenclature. Now we have the entry-level iPhone 11, the iPhone 11 Pro that has additional wide-angle and telephoto cameras on top of the regular one, and the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which is the same as the Pro but bigger. The most significant change, however, is the pricing of the 11, which is $50 less than the XR was last year at $699, which is also $100 less than the Google Pixel 3. The price of the other two phone remains the same.

On top of that the pricing of the new Apple TV+ SVOD service, which will launch on 1 November, has been announced at $5 per month, a lot cheaper than the standard Netflix package that costs $13 per month. The latter is a sensible acknowledgement that Apple TV+, which will only have original content, won’t have a fraction of the amount of stuff you can get from Netflix, while the phone pricing must surely be in response to increasing competitive pressure from the sub-premium market.

“With the tight integration between hardware, software and services, the advancements in iPhone 11 bring an unparalleled user experience at an affordable price to even more customers,” said Apple marketing boss Phil Schiller. “Apple TV+ is an unprecedented global video service with an all-original slate,” said Jamie Erlicht, Apple’s head of Worldwide Video. “We look forward to giving audiences everywhere the opportunity to enjoy these compelling stories within a rich, personalised experience on all the screens they love.”

The pricing angle has caught the attention of the commentariat. Bloomberg notes that not only is the iPhone 11 price cut significant, but the XR has had $150 knocked off it. “We view this as an admission that Apple stretched too far with the price points at last year’s launch,” Chris Caso, an Analyst at Raymond James & Associates, is quoted as saying in the Bloomberg piece.

On top of the aggressive price point for Apple TV+, anyone who buys a new iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac or iPod gets a year’s subscription for free, which is not just a great way for Apple to seed TV+ into its existing customer base, but provide a strong incentive for new sales too, so this is a smart move. Having said that it’s further evidence of Apple’s sudden willingness to sacrifice margin at the altar of market share.

We spoke to Ed Barton of analyst firm Ovum to get his take on the TV+ move. “The price point and a free year of access for new Apple device buyers are aggressive moves which will help drive early growth and usage,” said Barton. “But it’s still, by volume of content, a very limited video service with no catalogue content wholly reliant on new, untested intellectual properties.

“The strength of the Apple hardware and services ecosystem means that it practically can’t fail and a lot depends on how effectively and frequently Apple drops new shows to maintain viewers’ interest levels. Apple’s $6 billion production investment and its ability to surface and promote Apple Video content to a global audience of hundreds of millions throughout its tightly integrated hardware and software ecosystem give the service huge potential.”

On top of the phone and telly stuff Apple also unveiled the latest versions of its Watch and iPad in a mega-launch that it would previously have scattered throughout the year. Just as with the phones the new devices are largely spec upgrades, but we were reminded what a relative bargain the iPad is at just $329 (Apple is still charging $130 for a modem, for some reason, and it’s hard to see why anyone would pay that when they can just tether).

One other announcement was Apple Arcade, a gaming subscription service that Apple has been banging on about for a while. Just like TV+ it costs a fiver a month (although there’s no free subscription offer) and offers a smallish selection of exclusive games. People are less impressed with the games service though.

“It’s difficult to get excited about the games subscription, it does include some exclusive, new titles which didn’t appear particularly noteworthy from a gaming perspective,” said Barton. “Most of the games included didn’t sell well on a standalone basis so it’s difficult to see who this will appeal to. Perhaps there is a casual gamer segment which appreciates the simplicity of a subscription for a heavily curated selection of mobile games, but I won’t hold my breath.”

Since smartphone innovation has been stagnant for the best part of a decade, Apple decided to seek revenue and margin growth from flogging services to its installed base. Apple TV+ is a major step further in that direction, but the decision to be more aggressive on pricing is also a sensible strategy when it comes to expanding that installed base and thus the addressable market for its services.

Huawei reportedly reckons it has an Android ban workaround

At a recent trade show a Huawei exec indicated that there may be a way to enable its future smartphones to access Android apps despite Google being banned from working with it.

The goss comes from Android Authority, which attended the launch of the Huawei P30 Pro at IFA in Germany. At the launch the head of Huawei’s consumer business group Richard Yu apparently told reporters he has a cunning plan to get around the catastrophic consequences of not longer having google support for Android.

While Android itself is open source and anyone is free to install their own take on it, the Play Store and Google apps such as Gmail. Maps, etc are all licensed from Google and can’t be installed on a phone without that license. If and when the US stops suspending the sanctions that come with Huawei being put on its entity list, Google will be barred from entering into further licensing agreements with Huawei.

An Android phones without Google apps and the Play Store is not worth having. There are already signs of Huawei having to adapt to that eventuality, with the P30 Pro featuring the EMUI 10 user interface that is ‘based’ on Android 10. The extent to which it deviates from Android 10 to the detriment is unclear.

In reference to the imminent launch of the flagship Mate 30 smartphone, Yu said Huawei is working on a way of letting users install Google apps on the non-official version of Android. He even went so far as to say that the process would be quite easy for users, without going into details. Even if that’s true, however, with there being so little to choose between flagship Android smartphones when it comes to hardware specs, there would still be little incentive for punters to accept any user experience compromise, so even this hope may be forlorn.

LG doubles down on games and multi-tasking with new dual-screen

LG first started touting its smarts with a dual screen at Mobile World Congress in February, but at IFA it has launched the LG G8X ThinQ, an updated version of the concept.

Although this is not a product which will be applicable to everyone, its an idea which we like. There aren’t too many updates here, but the fact LG is persisting with this form factor indicates there is appeal to the niche audiences it has been targeting. Perhaps this is the step-change in form factor the industry has been searching for.

“LG Dual Screen is now a proven form factor, highly regarded for its practicality and the world of multitasking possibilities it opens up,” said Brian Kwon, President of LG’s Mobile Communications and Home Entertainment business units. “We’ll continue to expand the LG Dual Screen ecosystem through strategic partnerships and upgrade our innovation in meaningful ways to bring consumers a differentiated user experience.”

The concept is relatively simple. Thanks to a connectable module, the LG device folds open into two, separate and potentially independent screens. One device can be removed from the module, to take phone calls for example, and a smaller screen has been introduced to the outside of the module so users can see messages, battery charge and the time without opening the device, similar to notifications which pop-up when screens are locked nowadays.

This device will have its critics. Some will question the point, the size, weight and bulkiness, and also the price. However, this device has not been designed for those naysayers. Instead, it has been produced with multi-taskers and gamers in mind. And we like it.

The mobile space has been crying out for something new for years. Some might suggest one of the reasons smartphone shipments have been slowing recently is down to a lack of innovation. Manufacturers are asking for more money off cash-strapped consumers without offering anything new to shout and scream about.

Each time the launch of a new flagship device approaches, there seems to be more of a focus on creating a sense of brand. This is of course a reasonable approach to marketing and engagement, though it might also be explained by the fact there are no new features to shout and scream about. At the launch events, it becomes tedious to listen to executives plug incremental gains on cameras, battery or screen size; it’s boring.

Like the foldable phone, this is genuine innovation. It is a slightly different twist on the foldable devices, but it perhaps does address some of the issues which the manufacturers have been facing.

If there are problems with the joint in foldable devices, the separation of screens will address this. If it is too bulky, you can pop-out one of the screens in the LG device to take phone calls. It also has independent screens.

This is a genuine USP will creates a talking point and will appeal to a niche audience. Those who like to watch content on their commute to work while also answering emails. Multi-taskers are a niche, but they are becoming increasingly more common, just have a look at how many people are on their phone while watching TV. It also puts a new twist on gaming, with developers now able to separate the control and gameplay functions onto two separate screens.

And it couldn’t have been launched at a better time.

Huawei has recently unveiled the details of its new flagship device, and it will be functioning without any of the Google applications and services. There will be numerous smartphone users around the world who will turn their back on Huawei now, customers without a cause. This void will create opportunities for the Android smartphone manufacturers. Huawei’s loss is of course a gain for rivals.

This is an interesting device, and while it will not be for everyone, perhaps the days of mass market innovation to drive new appeal are over.

Samsung unveils its first 5G integrated chipset for smartphones

Samsung Electronics introduced Exynos 980, its first 5G integrated mobile chipset for the mainstream market. Mass production will start by the end of the year.

Samsung’s 5G devices have so far been using separate modem and APE solutions, including its own Exynos 9820 and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chipsets teamed up with the Exynos 5100 and Snapdragon X50 modems. The new 5G integrated chipset announced today is Samsung’s first. With an 8nm footprint, the chipset combines the 5G modem and APE processors using 8nm FinFET process.

“With the introduction of our 5G modem last year, Samsung has been driving in the 5G revolution and paved the way towards the next step in mobility,” said Ben Hur, VP of System LSI marketing at Samsung Electronics. “With the 5G-integrated Exynos 980, Samsung is pushing to make 5G more accessible to a wider range of users and continues to lead innovation in the mobile 5G market.”

The chipset’s key specifications include:

  • Modem: supports 5G NR Sub-6GHz with max 2.55Gbps downlink and 1.28Gbps uplink speeds. It is also backward compatible with LTE, 3G, and 2G.
  • CPU: one 2.2GHz Dual-core based on Cortex-A77, and one set of 1.8GHz Hexa-core based on Cortex-A55. It may be worth noting that Samsung’s high-end Exynos 9820 can go up to a max speed of 2.73 GHz.
  • Camera support: single-camera up to 108Mp, or dual-camera 20MP+20MP. Samsung also stresses the integrated AI capability to support photo taking.
  • Video support: 4K UHD 120fps encoding and decoding with HEVC(H.265), H.264, VP9

Samsung said in the announcement that the mass production of Exynos 980 is expected to start by the end of this year, indicating Samsung 5G smartphones and tablets based on this new chipset will hit the market in the first half of 2020, if not the first quarter.

One day earlier, Samsung announced Galaxy A90 5G, a mid-range 5G smartphone, based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 platform, which is aimed at taking 5G to the mainstream users. The new Exynos 980 is likely to power the next generation of mid-range devices.

The 5G momentum in South Korea, Samsung’s home market, has been going strong. After registering 1 million subscribers by the beginning of June, government data showed that by the end of July the total number of 5G subscribers, from all three operators combined, already topped 2 million.

Here is Exynos 980’s promotion video:

 

Nokia found to be best brand for prompt Android updates

There is significant variation in the performance of the leading Android smartphone makers when it comes to updating Android, according to new research.

Counterpoint has crunched the numbers and concluded that among all Android handset brands Nokia (manufactured by HMD Global) is the quickest and best at rolling out new versions of Android to its users after Google has issued them. Samsung Xiaomi and Huawei also do a decent job of serving their customers on this matter, but after them there’s a significant drop off.

Counterpoint android update chart

“Operating system and security updates are an aspect of Android smartphones that get relatively little attention,” said Peter Richardson of Counterpoint. “In our experience researching the industry, we have seen a few brands focusing on this. And perhaps because manufacturers are not talking about it, consumer awareness is also low. It doesn’t appear among the ten features consumers say they care about most, in our research.

“Unsurprisingly, therefore, little effort is expended by the top manufacturers in focusing on regular updates to the operating system and device security, despite it being a critical element in the continued safe performance of the smartphone. Many of the key features including battery life, processor, camera and memory are linked to the performance of the underlying operating system. We believe it is important to the overall consumer experience and is likely to become more widely recognized as such.”

This is a good point – what incentive is there for Android smartphone makers, who already operate on very thin margins and see Google and other OTTs hoover up most of the subsequence service revenue, to invest in something that has little apparent effect on sales? The main commercial answer would have to be brand reputation and things like NPS. Presumably prompt updates to yield some ongoing brand benefits and at least increase customer loyalty to some extent.

“High-priced devices are often updated first, but having the latest software is as important to mid- and low-priced products as it is to flagship devices,” said Abhilash Kumar of Counterpoint. “We, therefore, looked at manufacturers’ performance at updating software across all price tiers. By this analysis, Nokia stands out, again, as the brand most likely to update its full portfolio quickly.

Xiaomi and Lenovo also rank high in this metric. Brands like Alcatel and Tecno are the laggards. This is because these brands have broad portfolios, mostly in the sub-US$200 segment, and the lifecycle of their models tends to be short. Their products often transition from launch to end-of-life in as little as six months, which means they have less incentive to provide long-term updates.”

It seems likely that most brands are fairly prompt in updating their flagship devices but many drag their feet when it comes to the cheaper ones. As well as the reasons detailed above there’s the fact that the cheaper a device the more commo0ditised it is, making anything other than the core hardware feature set even less of a factor in purchasing decisions. That makes Samsung’s performance especially impressive since it has such a large device portfolio across all price tiers.