China 2014: The Empire Strikes Back

chinese flagIt’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least, if you’re an IT commentator or a vendor with “end of year round-up/next year predictions” stories to sell in to the media.

As a hack whose inbox has been deluged with this kind of dross for weeks now, I’m going to look ahead to 2014 with a more focused question, namely: “how will Western companies fare in China next year, and vice versa?”

Well, first up the signs aren’t looking good for US tech firms. Washington has turned up the anti-China rhetoric fiercely in 2013 and with high profile reports like Mandiant’s finally tying Beijing to cyber espionage, things were already looking tricky for US firms in China.

Then Edward Snowden happened – a gift from heaven for the Chinese government which can now portray itself as victim of spying, not a perp, with an even straighter face.

Expect the backlash to come from Beijing, partly because of this, but also because China has some world class companies of its own now, especially when it comes to networking equipment (Huawei and ZTE), PCs (Lenovo) and mobile devices (all of the above plus Xiaomi, Oppo, Meizu, Coolpad, etc etc), so it can afford to be more self-reliant.

IBM and HP have both announced they’re shedding jobs in the PRC, despite the strategic importance of the market.

IBM just announced a new cloud partnership which will see it team up with Azure partner 21 Vianet to provide managed private cloud capabilities to business customers there, however it admitted in October a 22 per cent sales slump in China. Ouch.

Cisco has seen a recent 6 per cent sales slump in China with John Chambers admitting on a November earnings call: “China continued to decline as we and our peers worked through the challenging political dynamic in that country.”

Then there’s Qualcomm, which counts China as a $1bn market, has worked with countless local OEMs to support their products and yet now finds itself at the centre of an anti-monopoly investigation which could see it fined in excess of $1bn.

The rule in Beijing seems to be; if you can’t beat ‘em (and China still has some way to go before its chip makers are world class), fine ‘em.

Expect more of the same next year.

So what of the great Chinese invasion? I spoke recently to Deloitte TMT partner William Chou about this.

In the hardware space historically only the likes of ZTE, Lenovo and Huawei had a chance to grow their offerings abroad, but with VC firms now splashing the cash, more innovative local firms will be able to invest in R&D and expand their footprint internationally, he argued.

Coolpad, Meizu and Xiaomi, to name but three, could be names to watch for 2014.

“There are a lot of these smartphone manufacturers but the ones which will be winners are  not really the handset manufacturers but the ones which can combine hardware, software and internet services, like Xiaomi,” Chou told me.

Others he mentioned included a Shenzhen-based handset firm looking at JVs in France and South Africa and an unnamed private company “aggressively” looking to expand in the European market.

On the internet side there are fewer potential breakaway global brands which could make a real impact in 2014.

Tencent’s WeChat is definitely one of them, although Chou argued that Google-beater Baidu will struggle as it seeks to “re-engineer its business model from search to mobile internet”.

There are also a host of little-known software and online firms under-the-radar ready to pounce, including one of the China’s online travel giants which is looking to acquire in Germany, Chou revealed.

In fact, the recently announced Deloitte Fast 500 list of fastest growing APAC start-ups had more companies from the Middle Kingdom than any other represented, although none made the top ten.

Going into 2014 entrepreneurs who are able to “apply technology to other industries” will stand the best chance of success, Chou said.

“China has an ageing population and a one-child policy so healthcare is a serious problem, so how you apply e-health will be a trend,” he explained. “Another major challenge is pollution, so clean tech will be a major area for entrepreneurs to consider as well.”

Whatever happens, things are never quiet in this part of the world. Let’s see what you’ve got 2014.

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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.


The truth about PRISM (no, honestly)

big dataJust a short post this week because it has quite frankly been a quiet week apart from one massive story that has dominated the headlines worldwide, except quite notably mainland China: PRISM and the IT whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

By far and away the most balanced most informative and least hyperventerlatingly hyperbolic piece was over at El Reg, where Duncan Campbell picked through the actual facts about PRISM so far to conclude that, actually, most of it is legal and definitely not tyrannical.

My key observations from his piece are as follows:

  • Prism is nothing compared to the powers the UK government was asking for in its draft Communications Bill – now shelved for the time being. It is also pretty similar to what goes on in police offices and other agencies all over the country where officers act on RIPA requests to collect comms data.
  • The NSA has numerous other similar schemes including direct Deep Packet Inspection, which have been going on in the background and arguably are more intrusive on personal freedoms.
  • The scheme costs around $20m year and as such is definitely small fry in terms of the extent and type of surveillance involved. NSA’s overall budget is an estimated $10 BILLION.
  • The number of requests disclosed by Microsoft, Google et al via PRISM are even far lower than the government requests they’ve disclosed not associated with the scheme
  • Where Microsoft is concerned, at least, most requests (2%) were for non-content data – ie just account details but not the content of messages. I imagine the same is true of other web service providers.
  • These providers may have said they didn’t known about PRISM because it is just an internal codename used by NSA.

What people should REALLY be worried about here is not PRISM per se but the other Guardian scoop – that Verizon was issued with a secret warrant “requiring wholesale delivery of all call data records from their entire system”. That and the doubtless other similar requests which other comms providers have been issued with are more insidious and certainly warrantless compared with PRISM.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the future “scoops” which The Guardian promises will focus on these. I for one would be interested to see whether UK operators have been subject to similar orders from GCHQ.