Huawei launches a very expensive foldy phone with no Google Play support

As is the fashion this week, Huawei converted its MWC press conference into a ‘virtual’ one and unveiled a phone that it’s hard to imagine anyone buying.

The Huawei Mate Xs is an evolution of the Mate X, the launch of which last year was muted to the point of being apologetic. Like its predecessor it’s a foldy phone that, somewhat counterintuitively, has its screen on the outside of the hinge. It’s also slightly asymmetrical, with a 6.6-inch main screen and a 6.38-inch secondary one that combine to form an 8-inch screen thanks to the magic of trigonometry.

As you would expect Huawei is ascribing all manner of bells and whistles to its new shiny thing. They include its most advanced chip, the octa-core Kirin 990 5G, a super-duper camera and even a specially designed cooling system called Flying Fish that has microscopic crevices and everything.

There’s just one problem, well two actually. The biggest problem is that it runs on Huawei’s in-house operating system: EMUI 10, which is derived from the Android kernel, but isn’t full-fat Android and isn’t supported by Google. That means it doesn’t run proper Google apps, including the play store itself, which is where you get all the others.

EMUI may well be a fine OS in its own right but, to paraphrase Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, it’s deficient in the Play Store division to the tune of one. Even if the apps Huawei has encouraged its own ecosystem to develop are comparable to Google ones, why would anyone choose to take such a leap into the unknown when there are plenty of other vendors that can offer excellent phones with the full Android experience?

There is a small market for simple phones with stripped-down Oss in some developing economies, but this phone is very much at the other end of that spectrum. In fact Huawei wants us to shell out no less than £2,299 for this substandard app experience. Even if the Mate Xs folded into an origami swan, that price would be hard to justify.

Apparently in anticipation of this launch Google published an Android support document entitled Answering your questions on Huawei devices and Google services. “Due to government restrictions, Google’s apps and services are not available for preload or sideload on new Huawei devices,” it explains, warning users away from trying other means of getting Google apps on their Huawei phones. The usual security reasons are given.

This feels like a symbolic launch. Huawei can’t be expecting more than a handful of people to drop over 2k on a compromised phone, so this seems to be a statement of defiance. Huawei is saying it’s business as usual and it’s not going to let its persecution at the hands of the US government cramp its style. We respect Huawei’s spirit in that respect, while at the same time calling into question its judgment in doing so in such an expensive and futile way.

Apple takes double hit in China due to coronavirus

Gadget giant Apple has downgraded its quarterly forecast due to greater than expected supply and demand constraints caused by the coronavirus outbreak in China.

Referring to it by its official new name – COVID-19 – Apple said the outbreak has had a double negative effect on its business in China. On the supply side most (if not all) of Apple manufacturing is done in China. Massive manufacturers, such as Foxconn, have had their operations severely limited by the Chinese government as it tries to limit the spread of the disease, which means they haven’t been making stuff. These restrictions have been greater than Apple previously reckoned.

On the demand side, loads of shops have also been closed, meaning sales of iPhones, etc have apparently dropped off a cliff in China. Once more the restrictions to the retail sector seem to have been greater and more prolonged than Apple had anticipated. There were no specific numbers offered in the investor update, but Apple shares fell by 3% on the news.

“Outside of China, customer demand across our product and service categories has been strong to date and in line with our expectations,” said the update. Note there was no comment about Apple’s ability to fulfil that demand, what with Foxconn on a go-slow and all that. Apple famously likes to keep a very lean supply chain so it seems unlikely there’s much redundancy built into it.

Having said that, Apple customers are very loyal and if they have to wait a few weeks for their next fix of silicon loveliness then they probably will. So while Apple’s (and presumably their competitors’) Q1 2020 numbers may take a hit on the coronavirus disruption, they’ll probably compensate the following quarter and we’ll be back to business as usual. Which in Apple’s case means accumulating more money than it knows what to do with.

Essential’s attempt to reinvent the wheel has predictably failed

When Android creator Andy Rubin started a new company, big things were expected, however it now appears the ideas were far too glorious to have any basis in reality.

Essential has announced it has taken its ideas as far as it can, and it will now cease operations.

In years gone, Rubin was known as a revolutionary. The founder and creator of Android was held in high esteem, with a reputation which grew each year the operating system become more dominant in the mobile world. This was the enthusiasm which was placed in Essential, but it has been a disastrous journey.

The company was founded in 2015, with funding from Playground Global, and in 2017 Rubin revealed the company was working on a new smartphone which was dubbed the Essential Phone. The delivery of this device was full of chaos thanks to the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities, supply shortage, a customer data leak and accusations of trade secrets theft. But this was only the beginning of the disaster.

Despite the rocky start, it was reported that Amazon, Tencent and Foxconn had invested in the company in August, valuing it at more than $1 billion. The belief was there, but it wasn’t until October 2018 that Rubin teased the world with the launch of another device, known as Project GEM. Unfortunately the world had to wait a year for any more information, and it was not good.

The device attempted to reinvent the shape of the smartphone, creating a device which was much slimmer. The smartphone was also designed to be more of a voice-interface device, a novel idea but perhaps miles ahead of what is technically capable or what the consumer wants.

This is the issue which Essential seems to have been facing. Rubin tried to invent a device which he believed was revolutionary rather than listening to what the consumer wants. Sometimes you have to ignore popular opinion to redefine an industry, Henry Ford famously said “if I was to listen to my customers, I would be breeding faster horses”, but this is not one of those cases.

Video consumption and mobile gaming are two of the biggest trends of the mobile world today, especially for the younger generations, those more likely to spend the big bucks on devices. However, Rubin’s devices ignore these trends, not offering enough screen real estate for such content to be relevant.

Essential’s vision got in the way of understanding what the consumer actually wants, and now the company will soon be non-existent. This should perhaps be a lesson to the innovators in Silicon Valley; revolutionary ideas have to be built on the realities of today.

Benign brother has got your back: China launches coronavirus app

China’s government bodies and businesses have jointly launched a mobile app to help detect if people have been in close contact with those suspected of carrying the novel coronavirus.

The app has access to multiple official holders of private data. By registering with his or her name and Chinese ID number, a smartphone user can use the app, called “Close Contact Detector” to check if he or she has been in proximity of those who are later either confirmed or suspected to have the virus. Such close contacts include travelling in the same train carriage or sitting within three rows on the same flight with those carrying the virus.

One registered user can check the status of up to three users by inputting their ID numbers and names. One ID number is limited to one check per day. The app will then return an assessment of which category the individual in question falls into: Confirmed case, Suspected case, Close contact, Normal. Xinhua, one of the major official propaganda outlets, reported that over 105 million checks have been made by users three days after the app was launched.

The app development was led by the government organisations responsible for health which was joined by China Electronics Technology Group, one of the country’s largest state-owned enterprises, as well as the leading smartphone makers Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo. The backend data comes out of the National Health Commission, the Ministry of Transport, China State Railway Group Company, the state owned enterprise that operates all the rail transport in China, and the Civil Aviation Administration, the aviation regulator.

The fact that private travel data is made readily available to business entities without explicit consent from the individuals involved may raise plenty of eyebrows in places like Europe, but the attitude in China is different. “From a Chinese perspective this is a really useful service for people… It’s a really powerful tool that really shows the power of data being used for good,” Carolyn Bigg, a Hong Kong-based lawyer, told the BBC.

“Close Contact Detector” has been pushed out by the smartphone brands as a priority app to their users in China. It is unclear how or if promoting to users of other smartphone brands, iOS users, or non-smartphone users, will be conducted. Nor is it clear if there are plans to extend the coverage to residents without a Chinese ID number, such as foreign nationals staying in China.

Telecoms.com has learned that over the last few weeks there have been other online tools to help concerned users check if they had unknowingly come into contact with confirmed victims of the new coronavirus. The key difference from the new contact detector is that, in the earlier attempts, backend data was crowdsourced from publicly available information including the flight and train numbers of the confirmed cases published in the media.

Neither is contact detector the only use case where user data is playing a role. A recent video clip making rounds on social media shows a drone flying a blown-up QR code that drivers can scan to register before they enter Shenzhen after the long Chinese New Year break. The method is deployed presumably to prevent cars and drivers registered to the major disease hit regions from going through, as well as reduce human-to-human interaction. Xinhua reported that the Shenzhen Police, which is responsible for managing the local traffic and owns the automobile and driver data, is behind this measure.

Samsung gets aggressive as rivals sit in 5G purgatory

With MWC 2020 quickly becoming a dud, Samsung didn’t hang around to unveil three new 5G smartphones, a foldable device and its latest earbuds.

If there was ever a time for Samsung to go big and noisy with a product launch, now is it. Huawei’s smartphone division is sprinting into the realms of irrelevance while Apple is unlikely to make waves until the end of the year. Aside from a few outliers, Samsung effectively has a monopoly on the consumers attention when it comes to tier-one smartphone launches.

At its ‘Unpacked’ event in San Francisco, Samsung released the Galaxy S20 series (S20, S20+ and S20 Ultra), a foldable device known as the Galaxy Z Flip and the new Galaxy Buds+, as well as a number of interesting partnerships.

“Samsung has a huge start over rivals in 5G with a broad range of devices,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“There has been no better time for Samsung to increase its market share given Huawei’s current woes and Apple yet to release a 5G iPhone. Support for sub-6Ghz, mmWave technology and dynamic spectrum sharing ensures that its 5G devices will appeal globally. This is paramount as mmWave is being positioned as the ‘best’ of 5G, a topic that will emerge as a strong theme throughout 2020 as telcos roll out networks.”

As with many of these launches, there isn’t a huge amount of innovation in the phone aside from incremental change. Sure, it has 5G which is faster than 4G, 8K which is better than 4K, an AI-supercharged camera which is better than a normal one, but it is bells and whistles which would more likely fall into the ‘best in class’ category as opposed to innovation.

That said, you have to give credit where it is due, the team has launched a series of devices which beat rivals to the punch, look good and are generally receiving positive reviews. In the absence of genuine innovation, Samsung seems to have created an excellent product, an adequate substitute.

Looking at the development of the ecosystem, there are a number of interesting announcements, including Netflix and Google.

“In the coming months, Samsung mobile users will have access to a whole host of new and exciting bonus content based on some of your favourite Netflix Originals, accessible through Samsung Daily and Samsung channels,” said Netflix’s Chief Marketing Officer, Jackie Lee-Joe.

“Thanks to 5G, the video calls are higher quality, and that makes you feel more connected to the person you’re talking to,” said Hiroshi Lockheimer, SVP of Platforms and Ecosystems at Google. “Also, with Duo built right into Galaxy’s native apps, we can help people connect much more seamlessly, without interruption.”

Neither of these partnerships will create a buying position alone, but this is all about the incremental gains. An excellent camera, 5G, 8K video, original and unique content, and a better software experience all add-up to make a compelling product. Another interesting element is the focus on gaming.

“Another key emphasis for Samsung on the Galaxy S20 is gaming performance. The new devices are using a display with an extremely high refresh rate of 120Hz with a 240Hz input sensor which, when coupled with 5G, would give gamers the quickest reactions of any mobile gaming solution,” said Daniel Gleeson, Principal Analyst, Consumer Technology at Omdia.

“Samsung is so confident in the gaming capabilities of the new Galaxy S20 that they have announced a partnership with gaming company, Forza Street, with cross play with PC gamers enabled.”

Gaming is quickly becoming mainstream as more immersive and complex titles are moved onto or designed for the mobile platform. The segment is growing rapidly, and OEMs and telcos alike have to be paying much more attention to how experiences can be customised for gaming.

While there are incremental gains to consider across all areas of the device, 5G included, interesting partnerships and a homage to the rising popularity of gaming, this does not appear to be a product launch which is out of the ordinary. We imagine Samsung’s competitors will create a product which is incredibly similar. The difference will be marketing dollars.

The ‘Unpacked’ event is a marketing exercise learned from Apple to cultivate the brand, while Samsung also has an opportunity to capitalise on the Huawei woes and steal Android customers. Xiaomi and OnePlus might have something to say about this, but thanks to an early launch date, Samsung has an excellent opportunity to make a march on market share and consolidate its market leading position. It just has to be clever and bold with marketing campaigns. Money speaks more than innovation currently.

Loads of Brits plan to buy 5G phones but they’re not sure why – Amdocs

New research from telecoms software vendor Amdocs found 35% of UK plan to buy a 5G phone this year, but that most of them don’t really know why it’s better than 4G.

Well, it’s one louder isn’t it? The Amdocs research seemed to have been conducted to see if Brits were getting the message on 5G and the answer seems to be ‘to some extent, yes’. The fact that over a third of us are prepared to shell out for a 5G upgrade in only its first full year of availability show that we’re at least tempted to find out what all the fuss is about.

Apparently only 5% of Brits haven’t heard of 5G (presumably infants and the highly elderly), but 55% of reckon we know what it is, but can’t put our finger on why we should care. That leaves 40% of people who are able to regurgitate 5G buzzwords such as ‘low-latency’ on demand. Having said that most respondents still said it’s all about the internet, which implies it’s all about speed to the average punter.

“Consumers’ first experience of 5G will be a faster, more responsive and consistent experience for the types of things we do today – internet access, streaming video, accessing and storing photos in the cloud,” said Angela Logothetis, CTO, Open Networks at Amdocs. “We will see service providers start to bundle and monetise these popular applications and content as part of 5G. The more futuristic services – driverless cars, VR and AR technology – will take time – although we are seeing interest in early capabilities – like augmented reality street maps.

“Our experience in Asia and North America shows that 5G plans for minutes, text and data are priced competitively with 4G plans as service providers race to grow their 5G subscriber base. Over time, service providers will look to differentiate their 5G services. Service providers won’t just want to be the fastest network – they will want to be the fastest network for streaming video, or the most responsive network for multiplayer gaming.

“Being able to deliver and monetise this quality of service will be key to revenue growth. Amdocs’ research indicates that half of UK consumers would consider bundling 5G with their home internet packages, and 25 per cent with OTT video services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.”

The fact still remains that most people who buy a 5G phone this year will probably be disappointed by how infrequently the magic number pops up at the top of their display and how little difference it makes to their experience on the rare occasions it does. Having said that, if we assume that around half the country are due a handset upgrade this year anyway, they might as well get a future-proofed one.

Q4 2019 smartphone market: Apple bounces back as Huawei retreats

The Strategy Analytics numbers for the Q4 2019 global smartphone market are out and a couple vendors fared much better than the rest.

The overall market contracted for the second year running, but less so than in 2018, perhaps indicating a 5G-fuelled recovery. For the quarter the big success story was Apple, which reversed its declines in previous quarters and delivered its best shipment numbers for a couple of year. Similarly Xiaomi rescued its year with a massive 27% increase in smartphones out the door.

The big loser in Q4 2019 was Huawei, which saw the end of a two-year growth spurt by shipping 7% few phones than it did a year ago. How much of this down to all the hassle it’s getting from the US is unclear, but it can’t have helped. The long tail also contracted by 13% at the global smartphone market continued its consolidation towards the big six.

“Worldwide smartphone demand remains mixed for now, with sharp declines in China balanced by strong growth across India and Africa,” said Linda Sui of SA. “Full-year smartphone shipments hit 1.41 billion in 2019, dipping 1 percent from 1.43 billion in 2018, due to mild inventory build in the second half of the year. Looking ahead, US trade wars and the China coronavirus scare will be among barriers to growth for smartphones in 2020.

“Xiaomi had a great quarter in Western Europe and held steady in its biggest market India. Xiaomi is pushing hard into the 5G smartphone category and this will be a solid growth area for the vendor in 2020. Oppo is expanding hard into Western Europe, with new models like the Reno 5G, but it remains under persistent pressure from giant Huawei at home in China.”

“Apple is recovering, due to cheaper iPhone 11 pricing and healthier demand in Asia and North America,” said Neil Mawston of SA. “Samsung’s global marketshare stayed flat at 18 percent, the same level as a year ago. Samsung continues to perform relatively well across all price-bands, from the entry level to premium models such as Galaxy Note 10+ 5G.”

The chances are Apple will carry that momentum into this year and will probably experience a spike when it enters the 5G market in Q4. Demand for 5G phones seems to be exceeding expectations, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the whole market return to growth in 2020.

 

Early 5G smartphone market all about Samsung and Huawei

Research firm Strategy Analytics has been looking at last year’s 5G smartphone shipments and found most of them were accounted for by just two vendors.

SA says there was more demand for 5G smartphones than it expected. It looks like operators jumped on the future-proofing bandwagon, even though any 5G devices they sold would probably only get a 5G connection in their own HQ, and even then only if you were actually sat on a base station. As a consequence SA says around 19 million 5G phones were shipped, with almost three quarters of those made by Samsung or Huawei.

“Global 5G smartphone shipments grew from zero in 2018 to 18.7 million units in 2019,” said Ken Hyers of SA. “Demand for 5G smartphones is higher than many expected. Fierce vendor competition in China and heavy carrier subsidies across South Korea have been the main drivers of 5G demand. Other regions, like the US and Europe, are lagging behind Asia, but we expect them to close the gap later this year.”

“Almost all Huawei’s 5G smartphones were shipped in China, where US sanctions have made relatively less impact,” said Ville-Petteri Ukonaho of SA. “Popular 5G models for Huawei include the Mate 20 X 5G and Mate 30 Pro 5G. Samsung is number two and shipped 6.7 million 5G smartphones worldwide during 2019, capturing a healthy 36 percent marketshare. Samsung’s 5G smartphone shipments are international and span a wide spread of countries, from South Korea to the UK to the United States. Popular 5G models for Samsung include the Note 10 5G and S10 5G.”

“Upcoming 5G models from Apple iPhone and other big brands mean 5G will be the hottest part of the worldwide smartphone market this year,” said Neil Mawston of SA. “However, the recent coronavirus scare is currently restricting trade in some parts of China and this may well cause a slowdown in 5G supply or demand across Asia or worldwide during the first half of 2020. Industry players should be prepared for bumpy 5G sales in some markets.”

A couple more of them piped up too, but we figure you got the message. The presumed launch of 5G iPhones will definitely take 5G hype into the mainstream and will also put pressure on operators to deliver a network and service that offers something more than 4G. These numbers largely follow the broader smartphone market, given Apple’s early absence thanks to its feeble efforts to strong-arm Qualcomm. It is interesting to see how much of a jump Huawei seems to have got in the Chinese market, however.

 

Global 5G Smartphone Shipments by Vendor (Millions of Units) 2018 2019
Huawei 0.0 6.9
Samsung 0.0 6.7
Vivo 0.0 2.0
Xiaomi 0.0 1.2
LG 0.0 0.9
Others 0.0 1.0
Total 0.0 18.7
     
Global 5G Smartphone Marketshare by Vendor (% of Total) 2018 2019
Huawei 0.0% 36.9%
Samsung 0.0% 35.8%
Vivo 0.0% 10.7%
Xiaomi 0.0% 6.4%
LG 0.0% 4.8%
Others 0.0% 5.3%
Total 0.0% 100.0%
     
Source: Strategy Analytics

Motorola gets its Razr screen apologies in early

Ahead of shipping in a couple of weeks, Motorola has published some vids highlighting features of the pricey foldyphone, but also how to take care of it.

We’re distraught to have to inform you that Moto has followed Apple’s lead in dispensing with the definite article when referring to its products, as if they were a person or at least a fondly regarded domestic animal. Hence we get the video below, entitled ‘Caring for razr’, invoking the image of an enfeebled relative or instructions to a dog-sitter.

Razr is a delicate little petal, you see, and can’t just be manhandled as if it’s just some slab of circuitry egested from an indifferent production line. Razr has feelings, which will be hurt if you don’t treat it like the special, unique snowflake it is. Especially fragile, it seems, is its defining bendy screen, which we’re told is inclined to acquire ‘lumps and bumps’.

Now, before you scoff, let they who are without sin cast the first stone. Are you entirely free of lumps and bumps yourself? Because if not then who do you think you are judging Razr? Yes he/she/they cost a grand and a half and the upside of his/her/their deliberate Achilles Heel is far from obvious, but Moto urges those who adopt Razr to be gentle.

Smartphone democracy precedent to be set in Seattle

A Washington State NGO is going to allow online voting in the election of its new board supervisor, which could set a precedent that will transform how democracy functions.

The agency in question is called the King Conservation District and its stated aim is to ‘promote the sustainable use of natural resources through responsible stewardship.’ Since the worst that could probably happen if the wrong person is made its board supervisor is that a relatively small amount of public money is poorly allocated, this seems like a low-risk place to dabble with novel methods of voting.

While the move has been reported as a first for smartphone voting in the US, a look at the KCD website reveals that it’s a broader electronic voting system, accessible via a browser on any connected computing device. But even that seems to be a first, so imagine how disruptive it will be when democracy apps start appearing.

It looks like the whole project is being driven by VC firm Tusk Ventures, that specialises in helping startups disrupt established industries by providing money and expertise on taking on vested interests and political inertia. Shaking up the electoral system seems to be one of its pet projects, in part because low voter turnout tends to favour incumbents over disruptors.

“Today, we’re announcing that all 1.2 million residents of King County (Seattle) will be able to vote in a local election on their phone,” tweeted Tusk Ventures founder Bradley Tusk. “This is the biggest test of mobile voting ever and the biggest innovation in democracy in decades.”

Inevitably there is considerable disquiet among the commentariat about this move, principally surrounding the matter of ballot box integrity. The fear is that electronic voting is much more vulnerable to fraud than using bits of paper, and that’s hard to argue with. But since we can now manage all our personal affairs using a smartphone, including banking, the technology presumably exists to ensure a high degree of security and integrity.

Having said that, it’s hard to imagine the announcement coming at a worse time, given what we’re learning about the phone hack of one of the richest people in the world, and broader anxiety about election meddling. Electronic voting seems inevitable, but the main obstacle will be cultural inertia. Only a large portfolio of successful experiments and pilot projects will legitimise it in the eyes of the public, so it’s good to see that process get started.