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.

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.

AT&T will stick with 5GE after settling with Sprint

US operator Sprint has settled the case it brought against AT&T for unfair competition with the 5GE marketing gimmick with apparently little to show for it.

The legal trade publication Law360 reported that Sprint and AT&T have reached a settlement of the case Sprint brought to a federal court in New York in February. A short statement was mailed to the media, “The parties have amicably resolved this matter,” it said. A source told Law360 that AT&T will continue to use “5G Evolution” or 5GE in its marketing and ads materials. No details on the terms of settlement have been disclosed.

In the court case, Sprint complained that AT&T was conducting false advertising, therefore misleading consumers, and in turn, directly harming Sprint’s business interest. In addition to the law suit, Sprint also took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in March to warn consumers “Don’t be fooled. 5G Evolution isn’t new or true 5G. It is fake 5G.”

The other big US operators were not holding back from attacking AT&T’s antics either. Verizon’s CTO wrote an open letter calling on the industry “to commit to labeling something 5G only if new device hardware is connecting to the network using new radio technology to deliver new capabilities,” as well as promised that Verizon “won’t take an old phone and just change the software to turn the 4 in the status bar into a 5.” T-Mobile, on the other hand, in keeping with its CEO’s maverick spirit, uploaded a video showing someone taping over the LTE indicator on the phone with a sticker labelled “9G”.

Even the OEMs would not let go the chance to mock AT&T’s shenanigans. Xiaomi, when launching its 5G smartphone before MWC in Barcelona, pointedly highlighted the 5G network by Orange it used for the demo was real 5G, “not fake 5G”.

A few days before the announcement of settlement AT&T defended itself at the court that consumers were not fooled into believing the 5GE is actually 5G. On the other hand, for the purists like the EU-backed 5G Infrastructure Association or Qualcomm, none of the 5G networks launched so far in Korea and the US can be called “real 5G”.

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.

Qualcomm moves to the edge with Cloud AI 100 chip

Mobile chip-maker Qualcomm reckons all the stuff it has learned about processing AI in smartphones will come in handy in datacentres too.

The Qualcomm Cloud AI 100 Accelerator is a special chip designed to process artificial intelligence in the cloud. Specifically Qualcomm seems to think it has an advantage when it comes to ‘AI inference’ processing – i.e. using algorithms that have been trained with loads of data. This stands to reason as it has its chips in millions of smart devices, all of which will have been asked to do some inference processing of their own from time to time.

“Today, Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile platforms bring leading AI acceleration to over a billion client devices,” said Qualcomm Product Management SVP Keith Kressin. “Our all new Qualcomm Cloud AI 100 accelerator will significantly raise the bar for the AI inference processing relative to any combination of CPUs, GPUs, and/or FPGAs used in today’s datacentres. Furthermore, Qualcomm Technologies is now well positioned to support complete cloud-to-edge AI solutions all connected with high-speed and low-latency 5G connectivity.”

The datacentre chips in question will largely be provided by Intel, although Nvidia has done a great job of converting its struggling mobile chip efforts into a successful AI processing operation. Qualcomm claims a 10x performance per watt advantage over incumbent AI inference chips and, while it didn’t call out any competitors in its press release, the predominance of their names in the headlines of other stories covering this launch makes it likely that has been the angle behind the scenes.

Nokia-branded phones sent personal data from Norway to China

Norwegian media is reporting that private data of Nokia 7 Plus users may have been sent to a server in China for months. Finland’s data protection ombudsman will investigate and may escalate the case to the EU.

Henrik Austad, a Nokia 7 Plus user in Norway, alerted the Norwegian public media group NRK in February when he noticed every time he powered on his phone it would ping a server in China and batches of data would be sent. The data included the phone’s IMEI numbers, SIM card numbers, the cell ID of the base station the phone is connected to, and its network address (the MAC address), and they have been sent unencrypted. Investigation by NRK discovered that the recipient of the data is a domain (“http://zzhc.vnet.cn”) belonging to China Telecom.

Nokia 7 Plus pinging China server

Because HMD Global, the company behind the Nokia-branded phones that was set up by former Nokia executives and has licensed the Nokia brand, is a Finland-registered company, the news was quickly brought to the attention of Reijo Aarnio, Finland’s data protection ombudsman . “We started the investigation after receiving the news from the Norwegian Broadcasting Company (NRK) and I also consulted our IT experts. The findings showed this looks rather bad,” Aarnio said.

When talking to the Finnish state broadcaster YLE and the country’s biggest broadsheet newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (HS), the ombudsman also raised a couple of serious concerns he said he would seek clarifications from HMD Global early next week:

  • Are the users aware that their personal data are being transferred to China?
  • On what legal ground, if any, are personal data transferred outside of the EU?
  • Have corrective actions been taken to prevent similar cases from happening again?

Earlier when writing to NRK, Aarnio said his first thought was this could be a breach of GDPR, and, if true, the case would be brought in front of the European Union. (Although Norway is not a EU member state, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, the three EEA countries which are not part of the EU, agreed to accept GDPR two months after it came into effect in the EU.)

Replying to Telecoms.com’s enquiry, HMD Global, through its PR agency, sent this statement:

We can confirm that no personally identifiable information has been shared with any third party. We have analysed the case at hand and have found that our device activation client meant for another country was mistakenly included in the software package of a single batch of Nokia 7 Plus. Due to this mistake, these devices were erroneously trying to send device activation data to a third party server. However, such data was never processed and no person could have been identified based on this data. This error has already been identified and fixed in February 2019 by switching the client to the right country variant. All affected devices have received this fix and nearly all devices have already installed it.

Collecting one-time device activation data when the phone is taken first time into use is an industry practice and allows manufacturers to activate phone warranty. HMD Global takes the security and privacy of its consumers seriously.

Jarkko Saarimäki, Director Finland’s National Cyber Security Centre (Kyberturvallisuuskeskus), which offered to support the ombudsman if needed, raised another point while talking to YLE, “In cases of this kind, the company should report the case to the Office of the Data Protection Ombudsman (tietosuojavaltuutetun toimisto) and inform the customers of the data security risk.” It looks what HMD Global has done is exactly the opposite: it quietly fixed the issue with a software update.

What exactly happened remains unclear, but the investigation from NRK may shed some light. Further research into the data transfer took NRK investigators to GitHub, where they discovered a set of code that would generate data transmission similar to that on the Nokia 7 Plus in question, and to the same destination. This code resides in a subfolder called “China Telecom”. On the same level there are also subfolders for China Mobile, China Unicom as well as other folders for different purposes. Henrik Lied, the NRK journalist who first reported the case, shared with Telecoms.com this subfolder structure that he captured on GitHub:

GitHub snapshot

Closer analyses of the code in question on GitHub by Telecoms.com seem to have given us a bit more insight. This is what we assume has happened: HMD Global or its ODM partner sourced the code from a developer by the GitHub username of “bcyj” to transfer user data when a phone on China Telecom network is started. But, by mistake, HMD Global has loaded this set of code on a number of Nokia 7 Plus meant for Norway (“our device activation client meant for another country was mistakenly included in the software package of a single batch of Nokia 7 Plus”). When it realised the mistake by whatever means HMD Global released a software update to overwrite this code.

Incidentally it looks the code was originally written for a Chinese OEM LeEco (which is largely defunct now) whose product, e.g. the Le Max 2, was running on the Snapdragon 820 platform with the MSM8996 modem. The modem was later incorporated in the mid-tier platform Snapdragon 660 which powers the Nokia 7 Plus.

There are still quite a few questions HMD Global’s statement does not answer.

  • How many users have been affected? And in what countries? The award-winning Nokia 7 Plus is one of the more popular models from HMD Global, and it is highly unlikely a batch of products were specifically made for the Norwegian market with its limited size. Could the same products have been shipped to other Northern European markets too?
  • Is China Telecom the only operator in China that requires phones on its network to be equipped with a software that regularly sends personal data? We do not find similar programmes under the China Mobile or China Unicom subfolders on the same GitHub location.
  • Is HMD Global the only culprit? Or other OEMs’ products on China Telecom network and on the same Qualcomm modem are also running the same script every time the phone is powered on, but they have not made the same mistake by mixing up regional variants as HMD Global did?
  • On what ground could HMD Global claim that the recipients of the data or any other parties who have access to the data (as they are sent unencrypted), will not be able to identify the individuals (“no person could have been identified based on this data”)? To defend itself, in its statement to NRK, HMD Global referred to the Patrick Breyer vs Bundesrepublik Deutschland case when the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that whether a certain type of data would qualify as “personal data” should generally need to be assessed based on a “subjective / relative approach”. In the present case HMD Global seems to be arguing that the recipients of the data sent from the phones are not able to establish the identities of the users. It may have its point as China Telecom (or other identities in China that receive the data) does not have the identity information of the users. However, this is a weak defence. The CJEU sided with the German Federal Court of Justice because the point of dispute was dynamic IP only, and the court deemed “that dynamic IP addresses collected by an online media service provider only constitute personal data if the possibility to combine the address with data necessary to identify the user of a website held by a third party (i.e. user’s internet service provider) constitutes a mean “likely reasonably to be used to identify” the individual”, as was summarised by the legal experts Fabian Niemann and Lennart Schüßler. In the HMD Global case, however, a full set of private data were transmitted, not to mention transmitted unencrypted.
  • On what evidence did HMD Global claim that the data transmitted has not been processed or shared with third parties?

To be fair to HMD Global, this is not the first, and by no means the biggest data leaking incident by communication products. For example the IT and communication system at the African Union headquarters, supplied and installed by Huawei, was sending data every night from Addis Ababa to Shanghai for over four years before it was uncovered by accident. Huawei’s founder later claimed that the data leaking “had nothing to do with Huawei”, though it was not clear whether he was denying that Huawei was aware of it or claiming Huawei was not playing an active role in it.