Baidu Light App could help developers crack China….eventually

baidu logoOn Thursday Baidu made a pretty major announcement in the mobile apps space which wasn’t covered in a lot of detail by the international press, but I reckon this one could be a biggie for developers everywhere in time.

Light App is Baidu’s answer to what CEO Robin Li described as a “fundamentally flawed” app store system, whereby less than 0.1 per cent of apps account for 70 per cent of downloads.

It’s bad for the user and it’s bad for the developers ultimately, as not many can practically and efficiently reach large number of content consumers.

No problem, says Baidu. Alongside your basic mobile app, simply design a web app which can run on Light App and it will be made available to users hassle free, without the need for download and install, via a Baidu service.

Logging into Light App, users can search for ‘new apartments’, for example, and it will call up all the apps that may fit the bill – ie ones offering local listings and alerts. They may never have found these apps otherwise and certainly would use them so infrequently as to not warrant the hassle of downloading them.

It might seem a bit rich for Baidu, which has just spent $1.9bn on buying app store firm 91 Wireless, to complain about flawed app stores, but what it’s trying to do does make sense, and can be seen as another attempt by the firm to gain another foothold in China’s lucrative mobile internet.

It’s still very early days for this one, and success or failure will depend on how the developer community takes to it, but I reckon it could be particularly useful in time for devs outside the Great Firewall.

Baidu has been taking baby steps with engagement with non-Chinese devs in recent months and if Light App resources are eventually made available in English, it could be a real boon – helping otherwise virtually undiscoverable applications reach the attention of Chinese users.

Mark Natkin, MD of Beijing-based consultancy Marbridge Consulting reckons so too. He told me the following:

I think the new Light App platform should be beneficial to all developers, both domestic and foreign, in that it makes it easier for users to try an app without having to download and install it, allows users to search for apps not only by the app’s name but also by its content (which improves the ability of long-tail searches to find the type of app that most closely matches the user’s needs), and allows apps to more easily integrate a variety of functionality developed and provisioned by Baidu (like voice input, etc.).

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Forcing out rooms – Japan’s dirty secret

exitOver the weekend a New York Times story had some interesting insights into the continuing labour problems at Japan’s once proud electronics giants.

It alleged that workers who are unable to be sacked are often sent to oidashibeya or “forcing out rooms” where they are made to perform menial or repetitive tasks in a bid to make them resign out of shame and boredom.

It’s not particularly nice but it’s a situation that seems to have been forced upon multinationals such as Sony because of Japan’s relatively strict employment laws which make it hard to sack staff without good reason.

These firms simply can’t be as agile as their international rivals because they can’t downsize or strip out waste in specific areas. In the technology industry especially, skills can quickly become outdated.

As Gartner analyst Hiroyuki Shimizu told me, these laws should take the majority of the blame for the decline of Japan’s electronics industry on the global stage.

“In these 20 years, the goal for the company executives in almost all the Japanese electronics companies were to make much use of (or not to leave idle) their own excessive resources including workers and assets,” he said.

“In the global electronics market, companies focus on their differentiators. However, Japanese companies focused on the segments where they have plenty of human resources and large assets.”

This is a major failing of Japanese technology firms but not the only one.

Large scale job cuts are starting to appear, at firms including NEC, Sharp and Sony, although more are probably needed. However, this stripping out of dead wood needs to go hand in hand with enhancing traditional areas of technical weakness, said Shimizu.

It’s also true that there’s more to Japan’s well-charted decline on the technology front than just some stubborn employment laws.

“There are several reasons for each Japanese company for losing power such as commoditisation of electronics products, severe competition with Korean or Taiwanese companies or exchange rates,” he told me.

“But we consider that the deep-seated reason is the employment policy of Japanese companies.”


When is a ban not a ban? Ask the Australian Department of Defence

chinaWell that was a messy week, made significantly messier by news that broke in Australia that I covered for The Reg on Lenovo. This story has taken enough twists and turns in the past few days to satisfy even the most ardent F1 fan.

The original piece in the well-respected Australian Financial Review claimed that intelligence agencies in the “Five Eyes” allied countries of US, UK, Oz, New Zealand and Canada had banned Lenovo from top secret networks since the mid-2000s (when the firm acquired IBM’s PC biz) after finding serious backdoor vulnerabilities.

Although it didn’t claim Lenovo was in cahoots with the Chinese government, or that it had used such vulnerabilities to spy on foreign powers, the article rightly stated that the PC giant’s biggest shareholder is part-owned by Beijing.

Although it used unnamed sources to corroborate the ban across intelligence agencies like GCHQ and the NSA, the story also quoted an Australian Department of Defence spokesman as saying Lenovo “never sought accreditation” for use of its kit in secret and top secret networks at the department.

Now, whether the firm didn’t seek accreditation because it knew it wouldn’t get it is conjecture at this stage, although IBM servers and mainframes are accredited for such use.

In a carefully worded statement, Lenovo said it was “not aware of any sort of a restriction of sales”, and bigged up its “strong relationship” with the Australian government. Strange then that it didn’t seek accreditation for use on the department’s most secure networks.

The story got more murky when a Lenovo spokesperson emailed me a couple of days later with a hard-to-find link to a Department of Defence statement on the story which said the following:

Reports published on 27 and 29 July 2013 in the Australian Financial Review allege a Department of Defence ban on the use of Lenovo computer equipment on the Defence Secret and Top Secret Networks.‪ ‪

This reporting is factually incorrect. There is no Department of Defence ban on the Lenovo Company or their computer products; either for classified or unclassified systems. ‪

As we reported in an update at The Reg, the original AFR story didn’t claim a department-wide ban had been instituted at all, only that Lenovo hadn’t sought accreditation. The ban piece related to the Five Eyes intelligence and security agencies – a different entity altogether.

Just why the DoD decided to release a statement contradicting an assertion no-body made remains to be seen.

It’s possibly just down to plain old incompetence and human error – after all it’s easy to misread a sentence which refers to “multiple intelligence and defence sources in Britain and Australia” as instituting a ban, but then goes on to clarify that in the case of Australia’s defence department it is just the “non-accreditation” piece that was officially confirmed.

However, the conspiracy theorists will claim it did so after pressure from Beijing, after all the DoD statement was not widely publicised – it appeared to have been filed away on a little visited part of the site – but Lenovo was very quick to alert journalists to it.

I also understand that Fairfax Media, which owns the AFR, has received complaints from senior Chinese officials in the past over a certain controversial story.

The AFR has quite rightly written a follow-up piece to clarify the mix-up, which includes clarification from “subject matter experts” stating that intel agency the Defence Signals Directorate doesn’t use Lenovo kit, despite having previously used IBM gear.

Aside from all of this though is another question: if intelligence officials in the UK and elsewhere knew something about serious backdoor vulnerabilities in Lenovo gear, whether deliberate or accidental, did they share such information with the private sector and if not why not?

That kind of information could seriously hurt a company’s bottom line, although Lenovo remains the world’s biggest PC vendor.

This is exactly the sort of thing the UK government’s much lauded Cyber Security Strategy launched in 2011 was meant to promote – improved information sharing between public and private sector. GCHQ should be an asset exploited for the benefit of UK PLC.

China, where the links between government and private business are more secretive and certainly more pervasive, remains streets ahead in this regard.