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.

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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.


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.


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.


Apple taking one for the team in new labour rights abuse report

foxconn workerOne of the biggest stories of the past week I’ve covered in the Asia technology space was the latest report from China Labor Watch into alleged rights abuses at Apple supplier Pegatron.

In terms of the abuses uncovered by the rights group, they’re pretty similar to those detailed at Foxconn over the years which led to a landmark agreement between Apple, the Fair Labor Association and the Taiwanese manufacturer to sort out conditions at its plants.

When I say “similar” I mean things like overworking and underpaying staff, breaking local employment laws through discriminatory hiring, excessive overtime and the like and subjecting employees to sub-standard living conditions.

You can usually gauge the seriousness of the allegations by the speed of the tech giant in question’s response and the length of its statement. So it was that Apple came back within a few hours with a long response claiming it had undertaken 15 audits at Pegatron and that it had been “in close contact” with CLW investigating findings highlighted by the group.

It added:

Their latest report contains claims that are new to us and we will investigate them immediately. Our audit teams will return to Pegatron, RiTeng and AVY for special inspections this week. If our audits find that workers have been underpaid or denied compensation for any time they’ve worked, we will require that Pegatron reimburse them in full.

One para that was lopped off my story referred to the fact that Pegatron facilities, including the ones mentioned in the report, produce gear for a raft of big name technology brands besides Apple. Microsoft, Dell, HP, Nokia and Asus have all had kit made by the Taiwanese headquartered manufacturer in the past.

Beyond Pegatron too there have reports of various rights abuses, in Samsung suppliers, and Chinese manufacturers making kit for firms including Telstra, Sony and Phillips.

However, the fruity-themed Cupertino giant, unfortunately for it, now has a reputation which makes it easier for hacks like me and rights groups like CLW to build a compelling narrative around such incidents.

For better or worse that’s the way it is but hopefully with Apple taking a lead, as it is certainly appears to be trying to do, on improving labour rights among its suppliers, others will follow. We mustn’t forget Apple boss Tim Cook used to be the firm’s COO and so will be well aware just how big a task it is to clean up the supply chain.

This is a process which will take years, not months, but it’s reassuring to an extent that stories like this still make the headlines, because once they stop then the whole process of improving the rights of shop workers in countries like China is likely to grind to a halt too.


Don’t worry Cisco, you’re not getting kicked out of China

cisco logoA lot of media reports have been flying around this past week or two predicting that US tech firms will find life increasingly difficult for them in China following the various revelations leaked by Edward Snowden.

It’s a compelling narrative and on one level makes quite a bit of sense.

If, as the PRISM whistle-blower has claimed, the NSA really is spying on foreign targets including China and Hong Kong and even allies like the EU, then the logical next step would be to assume it could be doing so with the acquiescence of US technology providers who have managed to establish a firm foothold in the country.

After all, wasn’t it US lawmakers who branded Huawei and ZTE a national security threat due to the perceived risk of the firms being forced by Beijing to modify systems to enable state-sponsored eavesdropping?

No wonder then that Chinese state-run media including the English language Global Times have called for US companies including Cisco to be replaced by domestic providers. China Daily even sourced an anonymous “industry insider” who claimed: “There is a terrible security threat in China from US-based technology companies including Cisco, Apple and Microsoft.”

There’s good reason to believe that Cisco et al won’t be overly concerned about such claims, however.

For one thing, although its kit is all over China’s network infrastructure, the market there accounts for less than 5 per cent of turnover.

Huawei is probably Cisco’s biggest Chinese competitor, especially in the telco edge router market, and has certainly been taking market share from the venerable US giant, but a rip-and-replace policy of the sort advocated in the Chinese media is simply not practical.

“I would say a few vendor replacements had considerations beyond the offerings themselves, for example for certain clients with high security sensitivity,” Gartner analyst Tina Tian told me. “But much more of it would be purely a market decision.”

As for the other US technology providers, the likes of Google Android, Microsoft and Apple between them control just about the entire mobile and desktop operating system market in China.

For that reason and the lack of strong domestic alternatives (for the time being) we’re just not going to see wholesale changes here, which could even work in Cisco’s favour, according to Tian.

“Even if China could replace all the networking equipment from foreign vendors, their data would still need to be handled by IBM, Oracle, HP, EMC, Intel and also Microsoft,” she said.


Huawei the crouching tiger ready to bare its enterprise fangs

huawei campus shenzhenI spent the first part of the week at Huawei’s global analyst summit just across the border in sunny Shenzhen. There wasn’t an awful lot of news per se, but a good many bold financial predictions from the fast-growing firm, which is trying to manage the unheard of triple whammy of success in carrier, enterprise IT and consumer device markets.

No firm has managed to succeed in all three, but Huawei is certainly going the right way about it. The firm stands third in the worldwide smartphone market, is breathing down Ericsson’s neck in the carrier space and has big plans to grow its enterprise business. On that front we heard the firm expects 45 per cent growth this year, and a CAGR of around the same to reach $10bn in revenue by 2017.

It’s not all hunky dory at the Shenzhen headquartered vendor though. Alternate CEO and EVP Eric Xu effectively said at the event that it had given up on the US as a potential growth market. Now that’s not to say it wouldn’t like that to change in the future, but given the intractable stance of Congress on this it’s not likely. So where’s the enterprise growth to come from?

Analysts told me developing markets like Indonesia and Myanmar represent potential but not immediate revenue growth at the moment – for that it needs to tap developed regions. China still represents the major slice of the enterprise pie for Huawei and that’s all dandy, but there are mutterings that local government spending may tighten in the near future, which would be bad news for the firm.

“In enterprise, Huwaei is strong in the networking and infrastructure segment. It also has other products around unified communications, contact centre and security, but overall market share is very small outside China,” Frost & Sullivan analyst Pranabesh Nath told me.

“Like the Japanese firms of the post-world war era, it is mostly positioned as a value oriented player, but is trying to improve its products to move up the value chain.”

A potential roadblock on this journey is a perceived lack of clarity around its product lines, according to IDC’s Ian Song. He said the Fusion datacentre brand in particular has caused some confusion amongst the analyst community, which view Huawei’s enterprise message as a “work in progress”.

That said, its technology is sound, R&D spend is massive and it’s got a great base to start with its strength in the carrier space. IBM, Cisco, HP et al won’t be breaking into a sweat just yet but they’d be foolish not to see the crouching tiger hidden in plain sight.

On the device front, we heard from CMO Shao Yang about Huawei’s plans to shift 60 million smartphones this year. This won’t exactly propel it into the top two among Samsung and Apple, but it’s a pretty clear statement of intent. In this industry, brand perception is all-important, and it’s something Huawei, which didn’t really have a brand until it launched the Ascend line last year, has historically struggled in.

That said, it’s learning fast and the high-end handsets its coming out with are pretty slick, so expect a whole lot more on the marketing front this year and an increasing number of Huawei-branded devices to manage as part of your BYOD strategy.