Vodafone announces strategic virtue-signalling partnership

Operator group Vodafone will be flogging the Fairphone 3 to its European customers from next year.

As the name implies, the Fairphone aspires to be fairer than other phones. “Fairphone builds a deeper understanding between people and their products, driving conversations about what ‘fair’ really means,” explains the company’s website. Those conversations are apparently still ongoing as we could find no definition of the term on the site other than a regular insistence that it’s something everyone should be striving towards.

Nebulous platitudes aside, the substantial differentiator for Fairphones lies in their ecological credentials. There is an emphasis on renewable materials and sourcing, which presumably means the manufacture and distribution of a Fairphone somehow does less damage to the environment than that of regular phones. But this doesn’t seem to be enough for Fairphone, which has also adopted a broader social agenda. “It’s no secret: we’re out to change the world,” declares the website.

Without, for one second, questioning Vodafone’s commitment to fairness and that sort of thing, its newly-announced partnership with Fairphone does provide some rather convenient, off-the-shelf corporte virtue-signalling. Future Vodafone Group presentations will doubtless be replete with photos of happy, healthy, developing world, rare-earth metal miners and idyllic, unspoilt wildernesses.

“This partnership with Fairphone aligns with Vodafone’s purpose to improve the lives of 1 billion people while halving its environmental impact by 2025,” said the press release. “This commitment by Vodafone includes halving its carbon footprint and purchasing all electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and Vodafone has committed to reuse, resell or recycle 100% of its network waste and help customers extend the lives of the devices they already own.”

“At Vodafone, we’re working hard to build a digital future that works for everyone and this strategic partnership between Vodafone and Fairphone brings together our expertise as Europe’s leading and largest converged technology communications company with the recognised expert in sustainable smartphones,” said Vodafone Group Chief Commercial Operations & Strategy Officer Ahmed Essam.

“Fairphone is showing that there is a market for more ethical phones to inspire the rest of the industry to produce more ethically,” said Fairphone CEO, Eva Gouwens. “Working with a large operator such as Vodafone helps to bring sustainable electronics to the mainstream market and therefore this is one of the strongest signals we can send to the rest of the industry.”

Fairphone seems to have its messaging a bit confused. It’s hard to find fault with its eco aspirations, but conflating those with ill-defined, subjective concepts such as ethics and fairness is at best a distraction. The phone itself charges a premium for all this virtue, which is fair enough (see what we did there?), but we doubt many people will decide they’re virtuous enough to pay it.

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.

Facebook moves to distance itself from Huawei

Social media giant Facebook is blocking the preinstallation of all its apps on Huawei phones according to a report.

Reuters got the exclusive, but seems to actually have official confirmation from Facebook rather than the ‘people familiar with the matter’ that are so common these days. The company told Reuters that it won’t be allowing the preinstallation of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram on Huawei phones.

The move doesn’t apparently extend to stopping people installing the apps themselves or somehow trying to prevent their use if they do, which would have set an interesting precedent. There’s also no mention of geographical parameters, implying Facebook has gone for a global ban just to make sure it doesn’t upset the US government. A person familiar with the matter was finally dug up to add weight to the sense that this is a global ban.

This just the latest metastasis of the heat the US has been laying on Huawei, superficially over concerns about security and industrial espionage, but more deeply as a proxy in the broader geopolitical dispute between the US and China. Any company that’s keen to stay on the right side of US authorities is now under pressure to ostracise Huawei and it would be surprising if other US tech companies didn’t follow suit.

China’s smartphone market plunged by 11% in 2018

The smartphone market in China declined by 11% in Q4 2018 and by similar magnitude the whole year, according to numbers from the research firm Strategy Analytics.

Quarterly shipments of smartphones in China dropped from 121 million in Q4 2017 to 108 million in the last quarter of 2018. The annual volume in 2018 came down to 409 million from 460 million the previous year. The market registered a fifth consecutive quarter of contraction, largely due to longer replacement cycle and weak consumer spending, according to the quarterly update from the firm. In 2018, China’s economic growth came to the lowest annual rate since 1990, reported media recently.

No everyone suffered equally though. Huawei beat the competitors as well as the market by shipping 30 million smartphones in the quarter, capturing 28% of the market, giving it a clear market leadership position. “Huawei’s growth soared 23% annually and it is now the clear market leader. A strong product portfolio, famous brand and extensive retail channels were among the main success factors,” commented Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics.

While Samsung, the global leader in smartphone market, has long underperformed in China and is nowhere to be seen on the leader board, Apple’s woes also continued. It is now occupying the number four position on the chart, with 10% market share. “iPhone shipments dropped 22% annually and this was the firm’s worst performance since early 2017. Apple iPhone has now fallen on a year-over-year basis in China for 8 of the past 12 quarters,” said Linda Sui, Director at Strategy Analytics. Similar to what we have seen in India, the majority of the Chinese consumers, faced with the abundant choices offered by the Android products, do not see enough value for money in the iPhone. “Apple is in danger of pricing the iPhone out of China,” Sui added.

The intense competition in China is driving some local brands to look elsewhere for new opportunities. Xiaomi, which just dropped below Apple in the latest quarter in the Chinese market, is eyeing Europe and Latin America for new growth. OnePlus is another Chinese brand trying to gain a foothold in the mature markets with strong specs at appealing price level. However they may find the consumers in these markets less receptive to new brands. For example, a recent research done by Tappable, a UK mobile app developer, suggests only 34% of consumers would consider purchasing from less known brands.

SA China smartphone market 4Q18

Deloitte predicts 50k 5G smartphone in the UK by 2019-end

While the vast majority will have to wait some time before experiencing the euphoria of an extra ‘G’ Deloitte is predicting there will 50,000 early adopters in the UK.

After several years of slugging, the glorious 5G world is upon us. First in the US and South Korea, though pockets are starting to emerge everywhere else as well. San Marino is live while it won’t be long before countries like China and Japan start hitting the green button.

“The introduction of 5G handsets expected this year will look a lot like 2010, when 4G phones first entered the market,” said Dan Adams, Head of Telecommunications at Deloitte.

“There will be a lot of noise in the first year from vendors vying to be first to market, and relatively little action from consumers. We’re not talking about an overnight switch to faster connectivity with lower latency, we will see 5G used by consumers in hotspot locations in the next two to three years, with mass adoption by 2025.”

The first devices are likely to be with us in Q2, though this year’s Mobile World Congress will almost certainly be a shouting contest between the main smartphone manufacturers. It’s already rumoured Samsung will be launching a foldable-phone (albeit not 5G) prior to the event, while LG and Motorola are also in the running to produce a 5G compatible phone.

In total, Deloitte predicts roughly 20 handset brands will launch 5G-ready handsets across 2019, with shipments totalling one million. This is still a tiny fraction of the 1.5 billion smartphones which will be sold through the year, though 50,000 of them could be heading to the UK.

Looking at the networks, there might not be much to choose from across the UK. EE has confirmed it will launch 5G across 16 cities in 2019, though these will only be in the busiest locations. Vodafone will also launch this year, though it is being coy as to when. Three is telling the same story, while O2 has confirmed its customers will have to wait until 2020. One thing is clear, these will be incredibly limited deployments and it will be years until coverage reaches what the demanding user would consider adequate.

Whether this justifies the hype, or the extortionate amount handset manufacturers will inevitably charge the glory-seekers for the new devices, we’ll leave you to decide, but it will take years for the devices to be considered mainstream. Deloitte expects worldwide 5G smartphone sales to represent 1% of the total smartphone sales by the end of 2020, with 2-3 million Brits getting their hands on the devices. As Adams points out above, 2025 is when the team expect 5G devices to hit mass adoption.

Another interesting growth area the Deloitte team is keeping an eye on is the smart speakers segment.

“Smart speaker adoption has seen phenomenal growth in recent years,” said Paul Lee, Global Head of Research for TMT at Deloitte

“With improvements continuing to be made, demand for smart speakers could be in the many billions of units, possibly even higher than for smartphones. In the future, smart speakers have the potential to be installed in every room in a house, hotel, office, school and even beside every hospital bed.”

Smart speakers are the flashy product which will attract a lot of the consumer market, but the power of the virtual assistants is what could take the segment to the next level. We’ve long anticipated the breakthrough of artificial intelligence in the workplace, but perhaps the slightly sluggish resistance has been down to the delivery model of the applications.

Should smart speakers be adopted in hotel rooms, hospitals and offices in the way which Deloitte anticipates, the world is opened up for industry specific applications of virtual assistants. One area which might help this adoption is the price point.

While smart speakers were initially an expensive appliance for the home, the normalisation of the product in the eyes of the consumer has peaked the interest of traditional consumer electronics manufacturers. With more manufacturers, including those with the ability to produce goods at greater scale, entering the fray competition will increase, bringing prices down, while advertising will also grow, fuelling interest in the bellies of the consumer.

Deloitte anticipates the marker for internet-connected speakers with integrated digital assistants will be increase to £5.6 billion in 2019, selling 164 million units at an average selling price of £34. This would represent a 63% growth rate, making smart speakers the fastest-growing connected device category worldwide, leading to an installation base of more than 250 million units by the end of the year.

This is a price point which would make enterprise adoption of the devices more interesting, and as time moves on, it will get cheaper. The increased introduction of industry-specific virtual assistant and AI applications will certainly help this segment also.

After years of promises and false-dawns, 2019 might prove to be a blockbuster year after all. There’s still a lot which could go wrong, but here’s to hoping.

Judge says no to police forcing phone unlocks with face

A judge in the District Court for the Northern District of California has denied the police a warrant which would force suspects to open their phones through biometric authentication.

While it might seem like somewhat of an unusual scenario, we’re sure many of you are imagining a man pinned to the ground with a phone being waved in his face, it is important to set precedent in these matters. Just as law enforcement agencies cannot be granted a warrant forcing an individual to hand over his/her password, suspects or criminals cannot be forced to open devices through the biometric sensors according to the ruling.

The case itself focuses on two individuals, who are suspected of attempting to extort money from a third person through Facebook Messenger. The pair are threatening to release an embarrassing video of the third person should the funds not be transferred.

Northern California Federal District Judge Kandis Westmore ruled the authorities did not have probable cause for the warrant, perhaps due to the reason said messages and threats could be read through the third persons account, and the request was too broad. This is another example of authorities over reaching and not being specific, leaving too much room for potential abuse.

While this case might sound odd, the world should be prepared for more such rulings in the future.

“The challenge facing the courts is that technology is far outpacing the law,” the ruling from Judge Westmore states. “In recognition of this reality, the United States Supreme Court recently instructed courts to adopt rules that ‘take account of more sophisticated systems that are already in use or in development’.

“Courts have an obligation to safeguard constitutional rights and cannot permit those rights to be diminished due to the advancement of technology.”

In short, the rules and regulations of the land are not in fitting with today’s technology and society, but this does not mean law enforcement authorities can take advantage of the grey areas. This is perhaps an obvious statement to make, but it does hammer home the need for reform to ensure rules and regulations are contextually relevant.

While progress has been slow, there have been a few breakthroughs for privacy advocates in recent months. Last June, the US Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter versus US case that the collection of mobile location data on individuals without a warrant was a violation of data privacy and the Fourth Amendment of the US constitution.

The issue which many courts are facing is precedent. Lawyers are arguing for certain cases and warrants using precedent which is from another era. Theoretically, these rules can be applied, but when you consider the drastic and fundamental changes which have occurred in the communications world, you have to wonder whether anything from previous decades is relevant anymore.

As Judge Westmore points out, technology is vastly outpacing the pace of change in public sector institutions. This presents a massive risk of abuse, but slowing innovation is not a reasonable option. A tricky catch-22.

A bunch of telecoms predictions for 2019

It’s that time of year again and before we set about the food, booze and pressies with shameless abandon we decided to collate some predictions from the cognoscenti of our industry.

2019 will be the year of rhetoric – William Webb, Telecoms Consultant

A lot of talking, not much doing. Everyone will be talking about their 5G deployments but many will be trials, not many handsets will be available, and there will be many teething problems with initial deployments. With 5G taking up so much attention, the industry will not be looking at alternative business models, hetnet concepts, or pushing for mergers. Current trends will continue – more fibre will be laid, more wifi connectivity provided, data requirements will continue to grow. Oh, and academics will start to talk up 6G….

Fixed Wireless Access put the revenue back in 5GBengt Nordstrom, CEO of Northstream

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) has evolved into a separate 5G use case, especially by Verizon in the US. Of all the suggested 5G use cases – including eMBB and mIoT – it is FWA that provides the most tangible revenue growth opportunity over the next five years, for both the US and in specific markets in Europe. Furthermore, operators can use their existing physical network assets and competencies for FWA. In 2019, FWA will emerge as a mainstream 5G revenue opportunity beyond the US, and particularly in Europe.

The 5G hype bubble will inevitably burst, revealing its true value – Jennifer Kyriakakis, VP of Marketing at Matrixx Software

As operators battle each other to out-hype their consumer 5G offerings, the breathless mania will surely run into the hard reality of the consumer marketplace. The roll-out of next-generation capabilities will be lengthier than consumers expected, device manufacturers will be slow to adopt the standards, and a whole host of other challenges to 5G enthusiasm will surely arise. While initially painful, this bursting of the hype bubble will provide the impetus necessary for operators to pivot away from today’s heavy focus on speed, coverage and price, and refocus their businesses on monetization opportunities for new and emerging technologies. By embracing innovation as a way to help pay for their substantial network investments in the near term, it will afford Telcos breathing room for the consumer ecosystem to catch-up and fully leverage the new capabilities that 5G will offer in the long run.

Smartphone market to revive in 2nd half with 5G volume – Wei Shi, Telecoms.com Intelligence Manager

The smartphone market has registered the first 4-quarter recession by the end of Q3 this year, and is likely to continue into the first half of the next. The market needs a stimulus for revival, and that should come from 5G. With the first commercial 5G chipset launch by Qualcomm, the enthusiastic smartphone makers, led by Samsung and the Chinese OEMs and, will ride on the wave of excitement to bring a strong line-up of 5G enabled products to the market in the second half of the year. This will provide another impetus for replacement in addition to the normal Galaxy-iPhone driven cycle. However most users who buy 5G phones will not be able to use 5G services overnight.

Telcos scale back efforts in content and media – Paolo Pescatore, Tech, Media and Telecoms Analyst

Cost of premium content rights continues to escalate. In part driven by new bidders such as the online giants. This will force telcos to rethink their current strategies towards investing in content. Some telcos like AT&T and Telefonica will continue to invest heavily. While others like BT will scale back their own ambitions and take a different approach in this landscape such as partnering more closely with providers like Amazon and Apple.

Amazon will acquire DAZN to create a global sports TV challenger – Ed Barton, Analyst at Ovum

Sport is the missing piece of the content puzzle for the tech giants – but not for much longer if Amazon continues to bid for distributors with existing rights deals, such as Fox’s regional sports networks in the US. By acquiring DAZN, Amazon would gain strong sports rights in key global markets including Germany and Japan. DAZN is committed to the sports market but might find the support and growth acceleration offered by Amazon – and its huge existing subscriber base – too alluring to resist.

We will finally get the message on RCS – Mary Clark, CMO of Synchronoss

2019 is actually going to be the year of carrier sponsored RCS – some 12 years or more since the technology was introduced. Between the launch of the operator led solution in Japan and the many other operators we are talking to about this around the world, I think by the end of 2019 we will see multiple launches of interoperable RCS messaging within countries and across countries, allowing for an improved customer experience as well as commerce.

Bringing people and things closer together with applications – Patrick Joggerst, CMO and EVP of Business Development for Ribbon Communications

2019 will be the breakout year for applications that combine people and things, communicating with each other, whether through voice activated commands (“Alexa, call Mum”), or messaging alerts (“A stranger is on your doorstep.”) The lines will blur and tremendous value will be created when companies design applications, connected on secure networks, that make it as easy to develop a relationship with your smart car, smart home, or smart campus as it is to develop a relationship with human beings. The impact will be substantial and meaningful, with applications that leverage sensors to help us age at home more safely, to get to and from work more conveniently, and to generally reduce the “friction” in life that can lead to exhaustion and despair. Look for major changes to the contact center industry, as virtual and human assistants help millions of people navigate this brave, new hyperconnected world, and look for value creation in securing communications throughout.

Rise of SIM-only contracts could be bad news for operators – Kevin Gillan, Europe MD at SquareTrade

Expect to see the slump in smartphone sales continue, and subscribers increasingly turn to SIM-only contracts in 2019. Operators will need to think carefully about alternative revenue sources to combat the unavoidable slump in contract sales. Additional services such as music, TV or device insurance that will retain customers and improve subscriber engagement, while driving new revenue, will be critical.

Operators fully embrace eSIM for devices and the IoT- Bengt Nordstrom, CEO of Northstream

After years of concern about the impact on their businesses, operators are coming to realise the considerable benefits of eSIM technology. These include simpler provisioning, reduced logistic costs and lower barriers for new use cases. Thanks to the rising number of eSIM use cases plus the launch of major handsets equipped with GSMA-based eSIMs, 2019 will be the year that operators in Europe and North America properly embrace eSIM for both handsets and IoT use cases.

The first sixth/seventh play bundle – Paolo Pescatore, Tech, Media and Telecoms Analyst

Most converged telcos already offer a portfolio of multiplay services including fixed line broadband and pay TV. These telcos include the likes of Deutsche Telekom, Comcast, Orange, and Telefonica. Expect these providers to launch the first sixth/seventh play bundle. This will consist of but not limited to other services such as banking, financial services, utility services and other connected services. Orange is likely to lead the race with its march into financial services.

Microsoft is to finish 2019 as the world’s most valuable company – Wei Shi, Telecoms.com Intelligence Manager

Microsoft has been delivering stellar performances in recent quarters, and has weathered the market gloom better than its main competitors. The strategy shift to becoming a platform and to focusing on cloud and gaming will continue to power its resurgence. Meanwhile, its main competitors on the top of the world’s most valuable company table are seeing their share prices being depressed for different reasons. Apple’s overreliance on iPhone makes it vulnerable when the market sniffs weakness in the shipment of its latest products; Amazon’s AWS is growing slower than Microsoft’s Azure; Alphabet is still a one-trick pony: advertising through Google, which continues to throw the company into troubles. As a matter of fact, Microsoft did briefly become the most valuable company in late November. Next time this crossover happens it may last longer.

Now that they’ve got to actually do it everyone gets bored of 5G and starts banging on about 6G – Scott Bicheno, Telecoms.com Editor

So 5G just ended up being about capacity, efficiency and industrial applications. How boring is that? Once the first couple of 5G conversational gambits at MWC fall flat, people will soon realise it’s much more fun to focus on more distant technology, about which they can make all sorts of utopian predictions without fear of being called out. There will be talk of a wireless neural network connecting everyone and everything to a hive mind overseen by benign artificial super intelligence. What they won’t say is that the ultimate aim of 6G will be to erase all traces of individuality in order to create a global AR/VR Borg that will combine Chinese social credit, American cultural puritanism and European imperiousness to free us all from the burdens of disappointment, inconvenience and choice. Happy New Year!