News emerged a few days ago that Foxconn had effectively laid off 60,000 workers in China and replaced them with robots. “So what?” you might think. And to be honest, if it keeps the cost of our tech devices down, then good for Foxconn, right? Well, unfortunately it’s not that simple.
The changing dynamics of the Chinese labour market could have a profound effect on us here in the West, and even portend similar disruption to our own workforce in the not-too-distant future.
These stories have been doing the rounds for years because – well – contract manufacturers like Foxconn and others have been investing significant sums into robotics for years. Why? The answer’s pretty simple, according to IHS analyst, Alex West.
“Robots don’t need to stop working, but they don’t get drowsy, distracted or depressed either, so quality and consistency of manufacturing is enhanced. With the developments in AI and predictive analytics, robots are also far less likely to get ‘sick’, reducing downtime,” he told me.
To that I’d add that they don’t go on strike, commit suicide or complain to the papers about poor working conditions – all problems Foxconn for one has encountered. But robots can also add value in other ways, such as helping firms win business from their rivals, according to West.
“Robots are evolving, becoming more intelligent as AI solutions help them to ‘learn’ on the job, but also becoming far easier to program and integrate on production lines,” he continued. “Collaborative robots are also making robotic solutions safer and easier to install without the additional safety concerns and equipment.”
There’s clearly a drive for this in China, the tech manufacturing centre of the world. The Chinese government has made investment in robotics a priority in its 13th Five-Year Plan, with IHS forecasting a 30% CAGR. But this threatens to create social instability as human workers are shelved in favour of machines. Foxconn and others claim bots are only used for repetitive tasks that humans don’t want anyway. But there’s no guarantee that there are enough skilled roles to fill the gap.
“Dull, repetitive jobs on the plant floor will be replaced by a range of higher-skilled positions such as robot/systems integrators, programmers, and data scientists supporting enhanced AI,” argued West.
“However, there will be less of these more advanced roles, and some of the type that existing workers will not have the skillsets to be able to transition to.”
This might seem a long way from the UK. But our workforce is also facing a robot invasion – not from these industrial bots, but service robots like Softbanks’ Pizza Hut-serving Pepper. In fact, a Deloitte study has claimed that 35% of UK jobs have a high chance of being automated in the next decade or two.
Robots still only account for 0.3% of all machinery produced in China last year, according to West, so there’s still a long way to go. But it’s probably time to start getting nervous in the UK.
What 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.
What will the smart home of the future look like? Despite drawing the crowds at CES this year, it’s clear that the industry is still in its very early stages. Yes, the big boys are all involved – Amazon, Apple, Google et al. – but at the moment it’s a messy hotchpotch of competing standards, point products and exaggerated claims.
I may be biased of course, as my house is about as dumb as you can get – save for a couple of Sonos speakers dotted around the place.
But where I see things really coming together over the next few years is when we start to get more industry alliances, partnerships and/or M&A to consolidate competing platforms. At CES more than 10 smart home vendors announced integration with Amazon’s Echo/Alexa, for example, which begins to tie together a bunch of disparate tools for the smart home. Apple’s HomeKit, Google’s Nest ecosystem and Samsung SmartThings all have similar potential.
Strategy Analytics’ senior analyst, Joe Branca, claimed the biggest challenge facing the industry as a whole is finding a business model that works for vendors and their customers.
“The price point for solutions offered by traditional security companies helps to prevent a lot of consumers from buying into the smart home concept,” he told me when I interviewed him for a recent feature article.
“Our data shows, however, that there’s a strong interest in the benefits offered by security and smart home solutions – not to mention digital health and elderly care solutions – but at a lower price point than what’s available in the market at present.”
However, there may be other ways to subsidise the cost for consumers – for example, by getting insurance companies and marketers on board. The latter would be prepared to access user-generated data while the former benefit from more safe and secure houses, he claimed.
“Other big challenges have to do with customer service and installation,” Branca added.
“With multiple product and service offerings part of a single smart home ecosystem, consumers want to know who they will speak to when they need assistance. With regard to installation, DIY products have gotten a lot of praise, but we believe that to succeed with a mass market offering, installation by trained professionals is key.”
That’s a problem the Silicon Valley giants may need to partner up on to solve.
So what of the future?
Branca reckons more personalised, seamless, user-friendly experiences. I’d agree, but I think the usability and interoperability problems will still mean homes full of point products rather than smart ecosystems. As for the vendors, he argued that firms will end up transitioning to service-based business models.
“The real opportunity for smart home is in services that generate recurring revenue, and not simply the sale of hardware,” he concluded. “In the US, the security model is well-established. However, there is both an opportunity for security services that don’t fit the traditional mould – i.e., services that are lower cost and/or are a better match for renters or apartment owners – and services outside of security, including home maintenance and repair, for example.”
Long story short: I can’t wait for the smart home of the future, but I think I’ll be forced to for several years yet.
Apple 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.
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.
This week news emerged that the Indonesian government is planning to levy a 20 per cent luxury goods sales tax on all smartphones made outside the country. It’s an old fashioned piece of protectionism which could hit mobile phone makers in the region pretty hard and is unlikely to have the desired outcome.
As I mentioned in my story for The Register, Indonesia is a growing smartphone market with massive potential – as the world’s fourth most populous nation.
Firms that might be particularly dismayed by the tax include BlackBerry, which counts Indonesia as one of its few remaining strongholds, and Apple, which only recently restarted iPhone 4 production to target budget conscious locals.
If the rumours are true it can be seen less as an attempt to spur local handset makers, of which there are few, and more as a means to persuade more global manufacturers to locate facilities in the country.
Foxconn has already stolen a march on its rivals here by announcing a $1bn investment in facilities there.
Canalys analyst Jessica Kwee told me that, seeing as most domestic smartphone makers are focused on cheap, low-end handsets it’s unlikely that high-end users will be persuaded by the tax to buy local.
“What I think is more likely to happen is that the extremely wealthy would continue to buy their premium phones as is,” she said.
“Then other users will resort to the grey market to source their high-end phones – either via grey importers, by buying when they travel to nearby countries like Singapore or Malaysia, or by requesting from their friends etc. The latter would certainly not benefit the government.”
It’ll be interesting to see whether the government follows through with its plans. After all, at one stage it was mooting the tax only on handsets over Rp 5 million (£260), which I still reckon is the most likely outcome.
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.
Last 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.