Apple’s shipment struggles as market share sinks in China

iphoneLast Friday I reported how China’s smartphone market had hit its first major slowdown in 27 months, as the growth engine of Asia slowly matures.

Well, I’ve been back to the analyst house where those stats came from to ask specifically who the biggest handset winners and losers are in China at the moment.

Unsurprisingly Samsung remains number one with a market share of 19 per cent, followed by local players Lenovo (13 per cent), Coolpad (11 per cent) and Huawei (10 per cent).

Apple rounded out the top five with a 7 per cent share – which various reports have shown was a one per cent improvement on the previous quarter and signs that things are picking up in China for the US giant.

Well, I’m not quite so sure. IDC senior research manager Melissa Chau told me that the biggest year-on-year movers were actually Lenovo (+57%), Coolpad (+36 per cent) and Huawei (+26 per cent). Samsung posted not unimpressive 20 per cent growth, but Apple’s year-on-year share actually dropped 2 per cent.

By comparison, its nearest rival, home-grown star Xiaomi, notched impressive 91 per cent growth to take sixth place with 6 per cent of the market.

So will Apple be worried? Well yes and no, according to Chau.

On the one hand the Cupertino giant has always been a high margin business, making way more money on handsets than Xiaomi and most of its Chinese rivals. To that extent it doesn’t need to shift smartphones in volumes quite so great.

However, the counter argument is that Apple needs to be seen as an attractive, popular platform, for the sake of its ecosystem.

“It is relevant to look at shipments because they affect Apple’s market power; it’s ability to attract developers,” Chau explained.

“Apple must walk a fine line making sure it doesn’t drop so far down that Android is the only ecosystem in China. It won’t be a risk it’s taking this or next year but it needs to watch [this trend]. That’s why it makes sense to launch a lower cost model there.”

You can’t argue with this logic. With Xiaomi’s low margin, high volume strategy potentially lifting it above Apple the last thing Cupertino wants is to be left floating outside of the leading pack, even if it is still hovering up revenue in one of its biggest markets.

Much has been written about the potential sales lift Apple’s recently announced deal with China Mobile – the world’s largest operator by subscriber numbers – will give it. However, as Chau told me, this might have been overplayed by some commentators – after all, we’re not talking about a new iPhone model here.

“Given the model has been out for some time I’m not sure the bump will be as significant as people are making out,” she argued. “The bump will come with the next iteration of the iPhone.”

All at Apple will be hoping that creates more buzz than its last major launch here. Or it could seriously be time to go back to the drawing board.


Tizen bulks out, but still no handsets

tizenA few of you may have seen that last week I wrote about improving momentum behind mobile OS project Tizen.

Well now I have a bit more detail from some of the key players involved.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Tizen is an open source alternative to Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Begun in 2011 by the Linux Foundation, it’s already got the backing of Samsung, Huawei, Intel Vodafone, Orange and NTT Docomo.

However, as of yet there are still no handsets, despite much expectation to the contrary.

Unruffled, last week the Tizen Association announced an impressive 15 new members, which bodes well for the on-going prosperity of the platform..

On second glance, though, it’s not as positive a news story as it seems.

First up there are only four major mobile names among the 15 – ZTE, Softbank Mobile, Sprint and Baidu – with the rest a group of smallish mobile game and software makers, few of which I’d heard of.

I asked the firms whether their joining the association meant we could finally expect a handset to have a look at, but sadly even this prospect is unlikely.

A spokesman for Japanese operator Softbank said that “currently nothing is decided on the future development of Tizen OS smartphones”.

He added:

SoftBank Mobile joined the Tizen Association Partner Program to study the platform technology. Unlike some of the board members (like NTT DOCOMO), we are not taking an active role in developing or promoting Tizen. We have participated in developer conferences in the past, too.

Then this came in from ZTE:

ZTE’s membership is consistent with the company’s multi-platform approach to product development. ZTE’s comprehensive line-up of mobile devices includes products that support different platforms including Android, Windows and Firefox OS.

Hardly a ringing endorsement from either party then.

So will we ever see a Tizen phone? NTT Docomo has backtracked on plans to launch this spring, apparently stating that “the market is not big enough to support three operating systems at this time”.

That said, the invites have already been sent out to hacks attending Mobile World Congress of a Tizen press conference in which the association is said to be finally showing off some actual hardware.

It better be good. Even with Samsung on board, time’s running out and the market is barely big enough for Windows Phone – not to mention the likes of Firefox OS, Sailfish and others –  let alone a fourth name.


Intel Outside: the story behind Edison

edisonI’ve just written up for The Reg a news story based on one of the most interesting interviews I’ve done since moving here to Hong Kong: Intel Labs China’s chief scientist, Randolph Wang.

There wasn’t enough time to put everything in that piece so here’s the unabridged version (unfortunately without pics as most of the gadgets mentioned here have never formally been shown to the public).

Wang joined the labs around three and a half years ago but spoke about the recent launch of Intel’s SD card-sized computer Edison with the zeal and excitement of a start-up founder.

This is probably pretty accurate, since he told me the labs function “more like a start-up” than part of a global chip behemoth.

He walked me through the process by which Edison was developed in those labs, by as few as 10-20 people on average, with the focus on “creating something new”, not reliant on preconceived notions on buzzwords; of “going to work, playing around and having fun”.

It started life apparently as an actual smart SD card which they plugged into an off-the-shelf camera and went about seeing what applications they could run on it.

The idea of a “slave device” soon became limiting, however, but they decided to keep the size, pluggable form factor and self-contained design and work with that.

“Over time we got rid of the constraints, so the SD card could be born to tell the device about it – to be a master not a slave,” he said. Eventually they got rid of the final constraint by building devices (30-40 odd of them) themselves to fully exploit the potential of Edison.

At this time the idea was not just to build simple, box-like prototypes but, in partnership with Tsinghua university’s industrial design department, to “build something beautiful”.

He told me about a pair of “crystal speakers” made of a transparent material where the light inside responds to the music being played, or of a smart bird feeder – as described in The Reg article – which recognises which bird lands on it, takes and pic and sends an alert out to the owner if it’s an interesting breed.

Another project he was keen to promote was the porcelain cup demoed by CEO Brian Krzanich on stage at CES last month.

“There’s an LED matrix embedded in the cup wall that allows the cup to display subtle info or alerts. At CES, our CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated that the porcelain cup was working with the baby monitors (also powered by Edison) developed by Boston area start-up, Rest Devices,” he explained.

“If the baby’s respiration or temperature info is abnormal, the cup displays alert info. Alternatively, one can put applications in the cup so that it displays current temperature, or current Intel stock price, or as I was saying, with a pair of cups, the boyfriend cup lights up when the girlfriend puts coffee in her cup.”

What excited him so much was that the cup was made in a town called Jingdezhen, which has been making ultra-thin, high quality porcelain for over 1,700 years. Being so thin enables the light to shine through better, he explained.

Wang continued:

This is a remarkable story of marrying 2000 year old craftsmanship with the latest silicon technology. But it’s more than that. The town, though famous, is located in an impoverished area. One of the things talked about by the proponents of the “Maker revolution” is the idea of spawning new industries and generating new wealth at the most unlikely places, because the democratising effect of the “Maker phenomenon”. There’s a local “porcelain research institute” that we’re collaborating with, who see great potential in producing a new line of porcelain married with the latest cutting edge Intel technology to open new markets, thus breathing new life into an ancient local industry.

This kind of thing is not the end but the beginning for Edison, and with true SoCs, in which everything including Flash and DDR memory is on-die, set to land in a couple of years there’s the potential for the micro-computer to be made even smaller and cheaper in future.

The strength of the project will, however, depend on how developers take to it, Wang concluded.

“Each Edison-powered device is meant to house multiple applications that users can download into them and third-party application writers could write for. And these things can work together,” he said.

“We’ve tried to do something with the best intentions but I’m fairly certain that the best is yet to come and probably not from inside but outside.”

From Intel Inside to Intel Outside in a few short decades.


Then there were three: Lenovo prepares to join the US smartphone race

lenovoI’ve been doing a bit of work researching a piece on the latest Lenovo bombshell to hit the tech world – its $2.9bn bid for Motorola Mobility. Now, in my innocence, I reckoned there might be quite a few hurdles for Lenovo on this one, but the analysts I spoke to were pretty upbeat on the deal.

Remarkably, most were pretty confident this was a good buy and that it’ll help propel the firm to third in the global smartphone stakes in a matter of a couple of year.

It’s easy to see why on paper. Here’s what Canalys APAC MD Rachel Lashford told me were the main benefits for Lenovo:

·         Immediate entry to the US market, Motorola’s major market, as well as key markets in Western Europe and Latin America.

·         A unique relationship with Google.

·         Credibility with operators and consumers worldwide.

·         Existing US operator relationships and a handful of global ones.

·         Additional experienced phone sales teams.

·         Additional and highly rated phone engineers.

·         Additional tablet and phone shipments, as it becomes the key manufacturer of Google’s Nexus line.

Hard to argue with that lot. It’s also hard to see how Lenovo could have done better than Motorola – there wasn’t much choice out there, after all (BlackBerry? HTC?). Except that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. Although it has high brand recognition in the US, Motorola is a fading star, with neither innovative designs or huge volume sales to its name.

I wonder then if it’s really going to give Lenovo that huge leg-up into the US smartphone space it desperately wants. I’ll be even more surprised if Lenovo merges the two brands, as various analysts told me will happen eventually, unless Plan A has succeeded perfectly.

The thing I imagined would cause the biggest potential roadblock is a US political backlash. Lawmakers can be a pretty obstinate bunch, especially when they feel their country is being invaded by ‘foreign hordes’.

It’s certainly right to say that Lenovo has a better relationship with the US government – where ThinkPads are still used – than most Chinese firms, and that consumer smartphones are hardly a national security matter, unlike telecoms infrastructure (sorry Huawei, ZTE). But I still think there’s the potential for a unwelcome bit of political interference here, especially if some more news comes to light on Chinese spying and state links to tech firms.

Given the stakes, it’s not surprising Lenovo has apparently hired some big name attorneys, some of whom have worked for the CIA and Homeland Security, to help it lobby the deal through.

Lashford even speculated that “announcing two deals in one month will ease its progress, not complicate it”. I suppose we’ll all have to wait and see on that one.

One thing’s for certain: Motorola employees will be a happy bunch. I wonder how may will be queuing up for Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing’s annual $3m employee bonus giveaway?