Huawei all smiles with $1.5bn developer plug amid the chaos

At its Connect Conference in Shanghai, Huawei executives attempted to put themselves on the front-foot with a $1.5 billion commitment to lure developers into its computing platforms.

This is one of the more notable challenges the business will face if it has to shift over to new operating systems. The technology might be fantastic, but if there isn’t the developer community and application ecosystem to back it up, there is little value. This is a massive consequence of Huawei’s entry onto the US Entity List, banning it from working with US suppliers, and should not be under-estimated.

The smartphone is the most obvious area to discuss, but there are others such as PCs and the developing IOT ecosystem. If Huawei is banned from using popular operating systems in these areas, its own version, Harmony OS, will have to suffice. If Harmony OS is to succeed, it needs developers to create products and applications which are compatible with it. With the additional funds, Huawei is aiming to increase the pool of developers it works with from 1.3 million to 5 million.

Looking at the rumours with the latest flagship smartphone, the Mate 30, it has been suggested the device will be delivered without any Google applications pre-loaded on the device. We’ll all find out in a matter of hours, though Huawei seems to be getting around the ban by including an open-source version of the Play Store on the device. This is not a long-term solution for Huawei, but it might suffice while it works on making the Harmony OS software and ecosystem battle-ready.

This is of course only one element of the Huawei business strategy moving forward. It is anticipating aggressive growth in the ‘Intelligence’ segment, and it does appear its enterprise business is going to get a supercharge moving forward.

This would appear to be a very sensible move for Huawei, as while it has dominated the network infrastructure market and made significant progress for consumer devices, it is little more than an ‘also-ran’ for enterprise. With numerous businesses becoming increasingly driven by digital models and technology, as well as the telcos aggressively promoting the promise of connectivity for future fortunes, there is a significant opportunity for growth.

“In terms of Huawei’s investment, they’re equally important,” Rotating Chairman Ken Hu said. “In the past, we mostly talked about connections. Today I’d like to focus on computing.”

If you are talking about autonomous driving, astronomy, and weather forecasting, the demand for compute power is only going to increase. Intelligence is going to be embedded on an increasingly large number of products moving forward, not simply limited to the cloud. And soon enough, the computing ecosystem is going to have to be a lot more collaborative.

All of these areas offer a lot of promise for those who can create solutions, cost effectively, to enable businesses to make money in the digitally-defined economy. For Huawei, this means new products in the semiconductor market, shifting to a more virtualised business model, opening up hardware products for customisable solutions and creating an opensource ecosystem to back-up the business.

Anyone reading these comments from Hu might think the business has just given up on telecoms infrastructure due to pressure from the US. This will never be the case, but often enough pressure forces innovative companies to find new ways to make money. We suspect this is the case at Huawei.

‘Five Eyes’ align security objectives but where does this leave Huawei?

After a meeting in London, the members of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance has released a communique to reinforce the relationship and outline quite generic objectives.

As with all of these communiques, the language sounds very impressive, but in reality, nothing material is being said. In this document, the UK, US, New Zealand, Australia and Canada have committed to countering online child sexual exploitation and abuse, tackling cybersecurity threats and building trust in emerging technologies.

Although nothing revolutionary has been said, the reinforcement of this alliance leaves questions over Huawei’s role in the aforementioned countries.

“There is agreement between the Five Countries of the need to ensure supply chains are trusted and reliable to protect our networks from unauthorised access or interference,” the communique reads. “We recognise the need for a rigorous risk-based evaluation of a range of factors which may include, but not be limited to, control by foreign governments.”

Government officials will never be so obvious as to point the finger at another nation, at least not most of the time, but it isn’t difficult to imagine who this statement is directed towards.

So where does this leave Huawei? Banned in Australia and the US, denied work in New Zealand and on thin ice in Canada. The only market from the ‘Five Eyes’ where is does not look doomed is the UK. But can the other members of the intelligence club trust the UK while Huawei is maintaining a presence in the country’s communications infrastructure?

The US has already spoken of withholding intelligence data should the partner nation allow Huawei to contribute to 5G networks, and this alliance is already very anti-Huawei. In re-affirming its position to the alliance, the UK is certainly sending mixed messages only a week after a statement which suggested Huawei might be safe.

Of course, this might mean very little in the long-run, but it is another factor which should be considered when trying to figure out what Huawei’s fate will actually be.

For its own part, Huawei is doing as much as possible to disprove collusion and security allegations. Aside from the cybersecurity centres opened to allow customers and governments to validate security credentials, it has recently signed up to the Paris Call.

“The quest for better security serves as the foundation of our existence,” said John Suffolk, Global Cyber Security & Privacy Officer at Huawei. “We fully support any endeavour, idea or suggestion that can enhance the resilience and security of products and services for Governments, customers and their customers.”

The Paris Call is an initiative launched by the French Government in November 2018. It is a call-to-action to tackle cybersecurity challenges, strengthen collective defences against cybercrime, and promote cooperation among stakeholders across national borders. To date, 67 national governments, 139 international and civil society organizations, and 358 private-sector companies have signed up to the collaborative initiative.

Although we are surprised it has taken Huawei so long to sign up to the initiative, it is another incremental step in the pursuit to demonstrate its security credentials and build trust in the brand.

Even with this commitment from Huawei, you have to question how the UK can continue to be a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance and work with the Chinese infrastructure vendor. The concept of the alliance is to align activities and this communique talks about managing risk individually but also about supporting the efforts of other partners.

It does appear the UK is attempting to have its cake and eat it too. We suspect there will be pressure on the newly-appointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fall into line before too long, and it will be interesting to see how the newly formed Cabinet manage expectations externally with international partners and internally with British telcos who rely on Huawei.

Virgin Media gives some smarts to wifi

Virgin Media has unveiled a new, ‘intelligent’, router which it claims will bring faster speeds to more areas of the home.

With the telco world becoming increasingly utilitised, and advertising authorities rightly cracking down on the ‘creative’ marketing claims, new ideas will certainly be needed to capture the attention of the increasingly demanding consumers. And in fairness to Virgin Media, this is not a bad attempt.

“Delivering ultrafast broadband to help make Britain faster is what we do best at Virgin Media but making sure this translates into reliable in-home connectivity is just as important,” said Richard Sinclair, Executive Director of Connectivity at Virgin Media

“Intelligent WiFi will allow our customers to make the most of their broadband while also helping to easily overcome any connectivity conundrums around the home. With families using more devices than ever before, it’s vital they can all be online whenever needed. Whether it’s streaming UHD movies on Netflix, playing the latest games online or video conferencing, Intelligent WiFi has your back.”

Starting with the intelligence side of the router, should the software work the way it’s supposed to, this could prove to be a very interesting addition. Firstly, Channel Optimisation allows the router to choose the least congested channel to decrease the likelihood of traffic jams. Secondly, a Band Steering feature allows devices to switch between 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequency to optimise performance. Finally, Airtime Fairness suggests bandwidth will be allocated between devices depending on the demands of that device.

The term ‘intelligence’ is thrown around relatively flimsily nowadays, though should the performance of these features be at the desired level, this could prove to be a very useful product.

 

And while the ‘intelligence’ aspects are more likely to enthuse those consumers who are more geekily orientated, a new app to manage the wifi experience is answers a lot of the simple bugbears and first-world problems of connectivity.

One example is sharing wifi passwords. It might not seem like a revolutionary idea but being able to log into the app and simply send the wifi password to a friend or guest will save customers from the inevitable digging around behind the TV. This is not necessarily a feature which will win customers for Virgin Media, but enough of these little quirky features will improve the customer experience and loyalty.

Another area which the app addresses is ubiquitous connectivity. Being connectivity everywhere and all-the-time is a necessity nowadays, though consumers are becoming increasingly cash conscious. Through the app, Virgin Media customers can now connect to any Virgin Media wifi hotspots, of which there are 3.5 million around the UK.

Most importantly for Virgin Media, this take the brand outside of the customers home, and allows the company to support customers through the entire day. This is Virgin Media adding value into the customer’s lives, going beyond the assumed perimeters of a home broadband provider.

“UK consumers have an insatiable appetite for data across a wide range of devices that will continue to grow over time,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight. “As well faster download speeds, consumers want a better and reliable connection in all parts of their home. This is starting to be a highly sought after service among users.”

BT has been playing in this market for some time, which offers Virgin Media a blueprint for success. Patchy performance and an irritating log-in process perhaps gave the BT wifi play a bad name, though progress has been made across the public wifi space in recent years. Hopefully Virgin Media will have learned these lessons.

With connectivity increasingly heading towards the dreaded limitations of utility, it is becoming increasingly important for telcos to prove they can add value to other aspects of the customers life. This is certainly an interesting play from Virgin Media and should the features work, Virgin Media goes some way in proving it is more than just a utility.

Maybe the Chinese espionage rhetoric is more than political hot air

Evidence has reportedly been found of China spying on more than 30 US companies, suggesting the anti-China rhetoric might be more than political posturing.

To date, little hard evidence has been displayed in the public domain regarding Chinese espionage, but that might be about to change. According to Bloomberg, a three-year old investigation has uncovered tiny microchips nestling on the motherboards of servers used not only in private corporations, but Department of Defense data centres, the CIA’s drone operations, and the onboard networks of Navy warships. These chips can be traced down the supply chain to a Chinese subcontractor used by SuperMicro.

While espionage has focused on locating and exploiting vulnerabilities in software in recent years, compromising hardware can be more effective. It is more difficult to do, but due to the life-cycle of these products, it can be longer until the issue is uncovered. Compromising hardware can be done in two ways; firstly, devices can be manipulated when on-transit between the supplier and the customer, or the nefarious activities can be conducted at the beginning of the manufacturing process. This is an example of the latter.

The microchips were first discovered after Amazon sought to acquire a company called Elemental. Elemental makes software for compressing massive video files and formatting them for different devices, but also provides expensive servers for customers installed on their sites to handle the video compression. These servers were assembled by SuperMicro, which in turn outsourced some processes to the Chinese subcontractor. These microchips allowed the controller to create stealth doorway into any network that had servers hooked up to it.

To conduct this sort of espionage is incredibly difficult. Not only does the microchip need to be small enough to avoid detection, and powerful enough to perform the desired actions, implanting the device would require an intimate knowledge of the products design. Considering how much of the worlds telecommunications manufacturing is done in China, the country is in an incredibly unique position to master the complex and intricate task. Sources states the microchips were inserted by operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army, the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China and Communist Party of China.

Amazon has stated it had no knowledge of such a saga, though Bloomberg notes this is contradicted by its own sources. While the scale of such espionage activities are unknown for the moment, it is believed more than 30 companies could have been victims, including Apple which had planned to purchase servers from SuperMicro as part of the companies data centre expansion plans.

For the US government, this might just prove to be the justification it needs to chase Chinese companies off the shores. It has been battling to rid the country of Huawei and ZTE, though as little evidence has been released to the general public, a sceptic might suggest this was little more than anti-communist propaganda.

Unfortunately, this might simply compound the pressure which is being applied to China, instead of creating a resilient security framework. A whitepaper from the Rural Broadband Alliance entitled Domain5 suggests a supply chain can be compromised at any point and concentrating on one country might not be the best solution. Operatives are capable of infiltrating a manufacturing plant, in theory, irrelevant as to where it is, therefore concentrating too intently on one country might weaken the security protocols elsewhere.

This should not undermine what is perhaps the most damning evidence of Chinese espionage in recent years however. Various intelligence committees and sub-committees have pointed the finger of dodginess at China for years, though this is the most compelling evidence which we have seen.

5G could open us up to digital terrorism – GCHQ

Connecting our toothbrush to the internet might sound like a futuristic dreamland, but are we fast becoming the architects of our own downfall.

Writing for the Sunday Times, Head of GCHQ Jeremy Fleming has aired his concerns about the digital economy. Yes, it has the potential to create a sophisticated and efficient society with opportunity for all, but also runs the risk of a new form of danger with terrorists hijacking the very same 5G networks which are supposed to make our lives so wonderful. He even managed to drop China in, hinting at the threat of allowing the country to provide the majority of our critical communications infrastructure.

“They will transform healthcare, create smart, energy-efficient cities, make work lives more productive and revolutionise the relationship between business and the consumer,” Fleming writes. “But they also bring risks that, if unchecked, could make us more vulnerable to terrorists, hostile states and serious criminals.”

While it might sound very doom and gloom, Fleming is of course correct. The internet is a scary place with dark corners. New ideas are created every single day, some of them are a force for good, some of which will be utilised by nefarious individuals. The more light which is shed into these unexplored corridors of the web, the more we realise how exposed we are.

Unfortunately, Fleming is raising an argument which is not original; incorporating security into the building blocks of services and products, not simply treating it as an add-on. This should be the approach for making the digital economy secure, though this is rhetoric which we have been hearing for years. The more often it is said, the less impactful it becomes. Perhaps we are blindly wandering down the path to destruction purely because it is easier than tackling the difficulties of making consumers secure.

Another interesting point is collaboration. Again, this is not a new argument, but Fleming seems to be attempting justification for increased access to our digital lives. Using friendly words such as ‘collaboration’ or ‘public debate’ and ‘open co-operation’ should not put a smile on the face of an campaign which has been going on for years.

“We believe some principles allowing industry and governments to demonstrate responsible access that protects privacy are within reach,” Fleming states. “These do not require unfettered access for governments through so- called ‘back door’ or global ‘skeleton key’ schemes. But they do require public debate and close, open co-operation and agreement with technology companies. And when these solutions exist, they also require modern legislation and strong oversight to maintain public confidence.”

Fleming is right though. There does need to be a mechanism to ensure intelligence and police services can ensure our safety, but there is yet to be a sensible solution which offers security, accountability and justification. Last year, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd tried to scare us into submitting to government snooping by suggesting paedophiles use the same services as you and me. It didn’t work, though current Home Secretary Sajid Javid is yet to reveal his ambitions here. The encryption debate has been too quiet in recent months, perhaps another onslaught is on the horizon.

The dark corners of the web are full of nightmares which we are yet to discover. By connecting everything, we are making the digital dream a reality, but exposing ourselves more than ever before.