China ready to lift the Great Firewall. Maybe. In part of Shanghai

chinese flagReports emerged from China today that at first sight seem almost unbelievable: the Communist Party about to lift the Great Firewall and unblock access to Facebook, Twitter and a host of other banned sites.

Then the small print. If the anonymous government sources are speaking the truth, it will be only be relevant to Shanghai Free Trade Zone, a 28 sq km pilot project designed to encourage greater foreign investment in China and open its economy up to the international markets.

“In order to welcome foreign companies to invest and to let foreigners live and work happily in the free-trade zone, we must think about how we can make them feel like at home,” one government source told the South China Morning Post.

“If they can’t get onto Facebook or read The New York Times, they may naturally wonder how special the free-trade zone is compared with the rest of China.”

Now while that seems fair enough, the Communist Party isn’t known for its love of unfettered access to the internet – after all the free flow of information online is precisely the sort of thing which it knows will lead to its demise.

So what’s this all about? Well, a few things sprung to mind:

  • China is in the middle of one of the worst crack downs on online freedom anyone can remember, so don’t expect this localised liberalisation to spread anywhere else in the Middle Kingdom. The party is very much still for the suppression of any discussion it deems “harmful”.
  • Even if the Great Firewall is lifted in the Shanghai zone, doing so from a technical standpoint will take time, according to Forrester analyst Bryan Wang.

“The network within the free trade zone will exist something like an intranet, which is connected to the international backbone without going through the Great Wall firewall,” he told me. “Current infrastructure will not be enough to support the future development. China Telecom or Unicom will need to lay out new fibre in the free trade zone.”

  • The Party giveth and it taketh away. Nothing is confirmed yet, and until state-run media reprint the story, we can probably take it as just a rumour, possibly one designed to increase international publicity for the zone, which is a pet project of new premier Li Keqiang.

    The whole free trade zone itself is only a pilot, so we can expect Beijing to bring the Great Firewall crashing back down on the region if its censorship-free internet policy backfires.

On a side note, how will Hong Kong react to the free trade zone?

If the Shanghai pilot is successful, more of them could spring up across China, effectively stealing its thunder as the only truly outward facing, economically liberalised, online censorship-free region in the Middle Kingdom.

Although a free and unfettered internet may soon no longer be a differentiator for Honkers, however, it’s likely that its superior IP protection regime, rule of law and business friendly visa system will still tip the balance in its favour for most MNCs.


Microsoft’s Windows Phone challenge: selling Nokia-less Lumias in India

lumia 520A couple of weeks ago I wrote how Asia would be the key to Microsoft’s success with its soon to be acquired handset business and Windows Phone. Well, new IDC stats out this week confirmed the importance to Redmond of one of Asia’s biggest markets, India, but also that it may struggle without the Nokia brand.

India is now rated by many analysts as the fastest growing smartphone market in the world.

The numbers speak for themselves. The largest democracy on the planet has a population of over 1.3 billion but smartphone penetration of only around 10 per cent – in this it’s some way even behind China and has huge growth potential.

The question is who’s going to capitalise? Well, at the moment it’s the same old story of cheap, local Android handset providers. In India Karbonn and Micromax are two of the most prominent.

Windows Phone was a surprise second place in Q2, however, with a market share of 5.3 per cent, according to IDC. Granted, this is way behind Android’s 90+ per cent, but still above iOS and BlackBerry and remember that percentages translate into 500,000+ units.

The key to success going forward, however, will be how it handles the Lumia, according to IDC analyst Kiranjeet Kaur.

She told me that although Nokia sells  the Lumia 520, 620, 625, 720, 820, 920 and 925 in India it has been the 520’s low price point of around Rs 10,000 (£100) which has made it popular.

Microsoft can’t rely on the Lumia range to continue attracting buyers in the future though, because the all important Nokia brand will soon be removed.

“People buy the Lumia because they’ve had an association with Nokia for many years and see it as a good brand,” she said. “But if the [acquisition] deal goes through in the next few months I’m not sure how quickly Microsoft can do the rebranding.”

Time will tell whether this makes a big difference. It has to be said that Nokia was far from coasting in India. Despite winning the country’s Brand Trust Report for the third year in a row in February, it has been mired by tax problems and slowing sales.

Still, India remains Nokia’s second largest market after China, according to IDC, so the next 12 months will be a key test of whether Microsoft can continue the momentum and take on the likes of HTC and Samsung in the mid-range as well as stealing a bit of share from domestic players at the lower end.

It will be an uphill task.


No news is bad news for Apple in China

chinaSo there it is. Apple’s much publicised Beijing iPhone launch event ended. With no news.

It appears that the fruit-themed company, while claiming that China will be its biggest market soon, does not believe it’s THAT important. At least yet. All the poor hacks were offered was a video of last night’s US launch. Ouch.

More importantly for Cupertino, the prices it has stuck on its new 5C and 5S devices will mean only the most hardy fanboys and girls will want to buy them. The iPhone 5C is definitely not budget, so it will fail to appeal to the mass low-end market currently consuming smartphones in China and India like there’s no tomorrow.

A 5C will retail for between 4,488 and 5,288 yuan ($733-864, £466-549). Compare this with the price for the high-end 5S in the US ($649-849) and you can see why some commentators reckon it will fail in the PRC.

It’s certainly not enough to beat Xiaomi’s impressively spec’d Mi-3 at 1,999 yuan ($326).

Forrester analyst Bryan Wang told me that it needs to come down to 2,999-3,499 yuan in order to “eat up the market share” of the likes of Huawei, Lenovo and Meizu, but that at present prices, the local Android players will be “really relieved”.

However, Apple is likely to have left itself some breathing room. It’s plan? Test the market out with these inflated prices and then “lower the price after a couple of months”.

Apple’s other hope of gaining much needed market share in China come from a possible tie up with the world’s largest operator, China Mobile, which has over 700 million subscribers.

No announcement was made at the Beijing press “conference” today but Wang believes it will come, when the carrier has a 4G network to announce. The reason? The 5C and 5S both support TD-LTE, a standard China Mobile helped to build.


APAC the key to Micr-okia success

asiaIt was Microsoft and Nokia’s big week this week and I’m sure the two will be hoping to hog the headlines going forward as much as they did over the past seven days. Now some might have unkindly described the alliance as “the sounds of two garbage trucks colliding”, but I’ve been getting the low down on why the deal should matter to APAC, or more realistically, why APAC should matter to Microsoft.

Let’s get one thing straight, APAC is essential to Microsoft’s future success in the smartphone space, not just because it has the world’s largest and fastest growing market – China and India respectively – but because Nokia has a really good legacy footprint there thanks to its feature phone biz.

The problem for Redmond, however, is that we’re not talking about feature phones any more, but smartphones. These markets are increasingly demanding smartphones, albeit low-end handsets, not feature phones. It’s why local players like Huawei, ZTE, Micromax and others are growing at such speed.

Nokia’s stock is greatest in India, where it has been voted most trusted brand for two years in a row, despite on-going tax problems with the authorities. Yet according to IDC’s Melissa Chau its relationship with operators isn’t particularly great anymore, so to large extent Microsoft is going to have to start from scratch here.

Building a budget Lumia will be vital and Chau told me Microsoft could do two things to help achieve this:

  • Remove licensing charges – at the moment it’s built into the cost of the phone – which would wipe about $10 off per handset
  • Use its combined internal expertise now with software and hardware to tweak Windows Phone so that it can run on hardware specs more suited to a lower price point.

It also needs to sort out Asha, she told me, starting with making the handset more attractive by sticking some Microsoft apps on it, and then hopefully in time transitioning those customers to a low cost Lumia.

This ain’t gonna be easy. The competition is fierce out there and with Nokia’s star waning and a severe lack of apps in the ecosystem the best Redmond can probably hope for is cementing it in third place behind the deadly duo of iOS and Android. With four of the Lumia’s top selling markets in APAC (including no. 1 and 2) however, it must make the region a priority.

Time will tell how successful it is, of course, but time, as we all know, is probably something Micr-okia doesn’t have.


Come in Agent Elop, your work is done

nokia eventIt’s finally happened. Microsoft today announced it is buying most of Nokia’s mobile phone business for a bargain €5.44bn (£4.62bn) in cash.

The deal will see Redmond snap up the Finnish giant’s Devices and Services business for €3.79bn (£3.2bn), license Nokia’s patents for €1.65bn (£1.4bn).

It’s a dramatic last roll of the dice for outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer and neatly brings back former Redmondite Stephen Elop into the fold.

He’ll be stepping aside as Nokia boss to become EVP of Devices and Services, but must be one of the favourites now to succeed Ballmer. If so, this will be one of the most expensive pieces of headhunting in corporate history.

Nokia’s chairman of the board Risto Siilasmaa will take the reins as interim CEO while the deal goes through the usual shareholder and regulatory approvals. Microsoft said it expects the transaction to close in Q1 2014, all being well.

For Microsoft the deal is proof if any were needed that it’s no longer a software company, that it sees success in the smartphone space as crucial to its future and that it can’t rely on a partner like Nokia to deal with the hardware side of things.

A few things occur to me:

  • HTC and RIM will be pretty disappointed – who are they going to get to buy up their failing businesses now?
  • Agent Elop has now been recalled after 2 years out in the field persuading Nokia’s board to sell to Microsoft. Job done – you may now progress to Microsoft CEO.
  • China’s up and coming smartphone poster child Xiaomi was recently valued at $10bn, nearly $2bn more than Nokia at this sale. Surely over-inflated.
  • This deal, while it could theoretically ensure phones get out faster to market, is not going to make life any easier for Microsoft or its new Nokia Devices and Services division. Especially in Asia. Its lack of apps will still hold it back.
  • Is Nokia still Europe’s largest technology firm? Over 30,000 staff will now be Microsofties but it still has over 50,000 employees on its books working on the reasonably profitable NSN biz and location services. It should be in pretty good shape.

IDC analyst Bryan Ma told me that the deal would give Microsoft a shortcut or “jump start” into the hardware space, but could end up alienating OEM partners.

“It’s got device, manufacturing, economies of scale, and channels to sell into which would have all take it longer to grow organically, as well as valuable patents,” he argued.

“My concern is as much as this can help it doesn’t solve the biggest problem facing Windows Phone and Windows 8 on tablet and PC – it doesn’t have enough apps to make a compelling platform.”

Tellingly, Microsoft only devotes one bullet point on the app ecosystem in a mammoth 27-slide presentation explaining its strategic rationale, he pointed out.

Ma added that the deal could end up alienating more OEM partners.

“The whole debate Microsoft got into when it released Surface was that its hardware partners like Acer said it was stepping on their toes. This will raise questions over whether this is more salt in the wounds for them.”

As for smartphone OEMs well Windows Phone has very few of those beyond Nokia anyway so it will step on fewer toes, he said.

However, I’d agree with Canalys VP research Rachel Lashford that it’s not exactly going to attract any more into the fold either.

“It reminds me of a decade ago when Nokia owned Symbian and tried to license it out but it didn’t work out,” she told me. I can’t think of many OEM vendors would fancy going head-to-head with Microsoft on Windows Phone now.

As for Asia-specific repercussions, well I’ll be taking a look at those – and there should be some given Nokia’s legacy in India and Microsoft’s desire to crack China – in my next post.