Can Surface Rescue Microsoft’s Mobile Plans?

windows mobile handsetWhat is Microsoft’s future in the mobile space? It’s a question that’s generated more than a few column inches over recent years. Now with Redmond agreeing to sell the feature phone division to Foxconn and licence the Nokia name, things have perhaps started to get a little clearer.

First, the bad news. IDC is predicting Windows Phone’s market share for 2016 will stand at just 1.2% this year – that’s down from 2% last year, 2.7% the previous year, and 3.3% in 2013. The firm is clearly not getting any OEMs on board for future devices anytime soon, and there was no mention of new Lumias in the Foxconn announcement – just that it would support current devices. From this – and speaking to a few experts for an upcoming feature – I think the smart money’s on a Surface handset.

Surface has done pretty well in the tablet/laptop space – albeit after a few iterations. And a high-end Surface handset would show off the best features of Windows 10 Mobile, as Microsoft finally harmonises its OS across all platforms. It could have crack at competing with the Samsung Galaxy range and potentially the iPhone. Whether this is enough to prop up Microsoft’s mobile hardware business is unsure, however, and more job cuts could be on the way.

A Surface smartphone could appeal in particular to business executives and the like, according to IDC analyst Susana Santos. “It’s a strategy that makes sense, but it takes time. It’s too early to say if it’ll work or not. It certainly won’t help with its volumes. These devices are more expensive and not as easy to sell,” she told me.

With the business market set to rise only to 20% of the global smartphone market, according to IDC, this is also a concern if Microsoft can’t persuade those BYOD consumer/employees to migrate away from their iOS or Android handsets. It’s been said many times before, but Microsoft is in many ways still a victim of its lack of vision a decade ago, which let Apple and Google steal the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers.

And what of its chances of getting those sought-after OEMs on board?

“Of all companies, Microsoft knows the value of a developer and application ecosystems, but has been poor to drive this agenda in the mobile realm. I’d expect it to continue with Windows phone, but play mostly in the higher-end,” Quocirca’s Rob Bamforth told me by email. “The words it has used seem to indicate an interest in mobile computing devices, with telephony capabilities, rather than emphasis on ‘handsets’, so I think that means higher-end pricing and positioning – and perhaps a closer connection to Lync/Skype for Business and Skype Meeting. Perhaps we might be looking for a Skype Surface.”

The question is whether Redmond can maximise its IP and engineering talent in this space, “gluing the bits together in a way that Apple seems to mange elsewhere”, according to Bamforth. If it can, it’ll be the greatest comeback in the history of computing.

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Will Apple’s China pivot come back to haunt it?

chinese flagApple had a rip-roaring second quarter, as I’ve just reported here for IDG Connect. But the financials were about more than putting yet more dollars in the bank. In years to come, the quarter may well be seen as a tipping point – the point when the Cupertino giant came to rely way too much on China.

Although sales in China have yet to surpass the Americas, that point is not too far away. But the quarter did see iPhone sales from the Middle Kingdom overtake the US, and it also witnessed total revenue from China leapfrog that of Europe – two pretty significant milestones.

Apple is in a position that its American rivals and counterparts – Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook etc – would dearly love. They’ve all been either banned or investigated for anti-trust dealings – in other words harangued by the authorities. These firms face an uncertain future in the world’s soon-to-be largest technology market. But while Apple is largely loved by consumers still in style-obsessed China, its days too could be numbered.

Certainly the government has been making life difficult for US tech firms over the past year or two. The revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has given it the perfect excuse to request stringent security checks on products destined for the public sector market. It’s a de facto ban for many providers. Beijing is trying to do the same with the banking industry. And it will get its way, eventually.

Kowtow time

What does it mean for Apple? Yes the firm is a large investor in the country. But that won’t count for much if or when Beijing wants to apply some pressure. Apple has already been forced to comply with its unpalatable censorship demands, withdrawing apps from its store. It was notably silent when the authorities launched a Man in the Middle attack on iCloud last year. And CEO Tim Cook was forced to make a grovelling apology when a state TV-led witch hunt found issues with its customer service in the country. Cook has reportedly also agreed to give the government access to its source code in a bid to pacify regulators and ensure its devices are approved. This in itself could backfire if Beijing uses that intelligence to create backdoors to spy on Apple users outside the country.

Then there’s the issue of growth. China is not necessarily the license to print money many think it is for Apple.

IDC analyst Xiaohan Tay told me smartphone growth will begin to slow in the country over the coming years.

“Most of the growth in the smartphone market will come from the lower end segment of the market. As Apple is a high-end product in the China market, most of its growth will come from replacement users which are the Apple fans, as well as those who may be using the higher end Android phones at the moment,” she added.

“The new iPhones were a hit in the Chinese market as consumers were awaiting the release of the larger screen sized phones from Apple for the longest time, and this helped to drive growth in the past two quarters since the new iPhones were launched in China.”

Growth will continue, but at a slower rate, although the Apple Watch represents a great opportunity to arrest that slide, she added.

“The die-hard Apple fans as well as the middle and upper-middle class consumers in the cities will help to sustain the growth,” said Tay. “I believe that Apple’s high prices actually makes its phones more desirable for the consumers. Owning an iPhone represents a status symbol that the average consumer wants to work towards.”

Plenty of positives for the future for Apple in China, then. But what the Middle Kingdom giveth it can also taketh away. In my opinion, Cupertino had better disperse its eggs into other BRIC baskets if it wants to avoid a nasty surprise down the road.


Have we been mis-sold a mobile malware ‘epidemic’?

iphoneJust finished an interesting story from security firm Damballa on mobile malware.

Breaking ranks with most of the rest of the industry, the vendor suggests in its new report that the amount of mobile malware on US networks is actually pretty minimal, and that if most users stick to the official app stores they should steer pretty clear of danger.

Indeed, it found in its analysis of half of the mobile traffic in America, only 0.0064% – or 9,688 devices out of 151 million – contacted a domain on the mobile black list.

This was even down on the 0.015% that did so in 2012.

Now the caveat is that this is just in the US, and only focusing on malicious network traffic rather than installs, but it’s still a pretty interesting piece of research.

It tends to fly in the face of the picture painted by many anti-malware companies, some of which perhaps are talking slightly disingenuously about malware epidemic on Android.

There undoubtedly is an awful lot of malware designed for Android. But how much of it actually makes its way on users’ devices? Especially if those users only stick to the first party app stores.

I’ve a feeling that if you took China and Russia out of the equation, for example, the Android malware problem wouldn’t be even remotely as acute.

“I do not know when if ever mobile malware (as we see it on the PC) will become a problem on mobile devices. I really think the app stores can control distribution of ‘money-making’ malware,” Damballa CTO Brian Foster told me by email.

“The risks and threats of around insecure cloud apps or insecure access to cloud apps are already here. The risk of losing your device and giving a 3rd party inappropriate access to your data is already here.”

It is those latter risks that IT managers would do well to get a handle on, says Foster.

Another part of the research worth mentioning is that only 1.3% of mobile hosts weren’t also in the set of hosts contained by historical non-cellular traffic.

This means that mobile apps are using the same hosting infrastructure as desktop applications and, as such, IT security teams can apply the same network-based security to spot domains with bad reputation scores etc.

F-Secure security advisor, Sean Sullivan, agreed that most Western netizens would be safe sticking to the authorised channels.

He admitted to me too via email that the mobile malware epidemic had been “overstated by *some* in the AV industry”.

However, he felt justified in sharing threat intelligence on new mobile malware, given that F-Secure’s customer-base stretches far and wide globally.

“We don’t just sell mobile AV – we sell mobile security with multiple security features and sell/bundle it with our other services in our cross-platform ‘SAFE’ offering,” he explained. “When you buy our PC software, you also get Android software – it’s all part of the package.”

That’s completely understandable and I think even if Vendor A doesn’t sell into markets where mobile threats are higher risk (like Asia, for example) they still have a responsibility to reveal major new discoveries.

However, unfortunately it doesn’t take much for responsible disclosure of threat intelligence to turn into FUD-y marketing hyperbole.


The Future of Google (Spoiler: It’s Pretty Bright)

google logoI’ve just finished a piece on Google’s uncertain future. Bit odd, you might think, given it’s one of the world’s biggest and most profitable companies.

Well, the initial brief was based on the web giant missing analyst expectations for Q4 2014. Which it didn’t do by a long way, but there you go. Although it has since bounced back with a storming start to 2015, there’s still enough latitude to ask where the firm might be headed over the next decade. Where are its core strengths, and how it will cope with the slow down in ad spend, increasing competition from the likes of Facebook and the move of more ad dollars into mobile, etc etc.

Google is in a lot of ways a company of two parts: the shiny, innovative, envelope-pushing start up putting huge amounts of cash into cutting edge technology projects that could transform the world in years to come; and the cash-hungry advertising behemoth. The problem it has is that the former relies on revenue from the latter to continue, although this is declining. The key I think will be Google’s ability to pull in more revenue from new streams going forward.

One of these will be video.

“I think for Google YouTube will remain a key strategic play and over the long term a strong source of revenues. YouTube combines two major digital advertising channels into a single location – search and video,” Ovum analyst James McDavid told me.

“Ovum’s forecast data shows that search is still the single largest segment of digital advertising spending but video is the fastest growing. Google having market leading plays in both sectors bodes pretty well for their future.”

Another key area is likely to be mobile, and Android is well placed with a market leading share. Google has a great opportunity to increase sales of services, ads, licenses and devices as well as peeling off a healthy cut of app sales. Only the huge market of China, where Play is locked out, and the potential fragmentation of the OS, threaten it here.

Quocirca founder Clive Longbottom agreed that Android represents Google’s best opportunity platform wise going forward.

“Chromebooks have been a bit of a disaster: a hell of a lot of work is required to make Chrome into an OS that works effectively and brings all the other Google services together in a way that really works,” he told me.

“Android, however, has been a runaway success – it is probably better for Google to concentrate on Android as the OS with a Chrome layer on top in a looser way than it has tried to date.”

I’ve only just had time to scratch the surface here; there’s also a great opportunity in cloud services, IoT and wearables and more for Google. It’ll just be interesting to see how it gets there – and whether any others can realistically challenge the Mountain View giant over such a wide sweep of product and service areas in the future.


China’s mobile cyber crime underground…and me on the Beeb

chinese flagI was on BBC Newsday, a World Service breakfast programme, on Wednesday talking about the Chinese cyber mobile underground story I wrote up for The Reg this week.

It’s based on a Trend Micro report The Mobile Cybercriminal Underground Market in China – published this week by its Forward Looking Threat Research Team, which reveals once again the sophistication and commercialisation of the underground networks via which cyber criminals trade goods and service.

Although the report itself doesn’t throw up a huge amount of new data it’s interesting to see evidence that such networks exist in China, selling common attack kits like premium service abusers, SMS Forwarder Trojans and spam.

Typically, being broadcast journalism we were kept strictly to 5 minutes of short, sharp soundbursts by the BBC which allowed for little meaningful discussion of the topic besides “what’s the Dark Web”? “How do I get on it?” and Who’s behind these attacks?”. I had a better chat with the researcher the night before.

That said, it’s an important topic to air publically.

Although we didn’t cover this in as much detail as I’d have liked, the real message to listeners of the program – which apparently has among the highest audience numbers on the planet – is to be more vigilant when downloading apps online and make sure they install basic AV on smartphones.

In China, where unregulated third party Android stores are the norm and mobile AV is rare, the cyber criminals have it made.

The only light I can see on the horizon in this part of the world is for the government to follow through with its planned regulation  of the mobile app space. This would force industry to self-regulate and clamp down on malicious apps either pre-loaded onto phones or uploaded to web stores.

The only problem is that any new regulations are also likely to restrict content deemed “offensive” to Beijing – in other words censorship by the back door.


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.


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.