As Washington Investigates Huawei, is it Time for US Tech CEOs to Get Nervous?

huawei campus shenzhenHere’s a version of a piece I wrote for IDG Connect recently about the escalating tech trade war between the US and China. While Trump is blowing hot and cold on what to do with ZTE, an even  bigger potential problem is looming.

A full-on trade war between the United States and China just got another step closer after Washington opened an investigation into whether Huawei broke US sanctions on Iran. The Department of Justice (DoJ) has already slapped tariffs on $60bn worth of Chinese steel and aluminium, but this turn of events could have arguably more serious repercussions.

On the one hand it could cause panic in US tech boardrooms if China ends up banning sales of electronics components made in the Middle Kingdom. But in the longer term, this could accelerate China’s push towards self-sufficiency, locking out US firms like Qualcomm for good.

A seven-year ban?

The Justice Department investigation is said to have stemmed from a similar probe into whether Shenzhen rival ZTE broke US sanctions by exporting kit with American components in it to Iran. It was found guilty not only of breaking the sanctions, which resulted in an $892m fine, but of breaking the deal’s terms by failing to punish those involved. The resulting seven-year ban on US firms selling to ZTE will severely hamper its growth efforts, especially as it relies on chips and other components from the likes of Qualcomm and Micron Technology.

The probe of Huawei, which is said to have been ongoing since early 2017, could result in a similar punishment if the firm is found guilty of breaking sanctions. Washington has belatedly realised that the US is being supplanted by China as the world’s pre-eminent tech superpower and that has meant increasing roadblocks put in the way of the number one telecoms equipment maker and third-largest smartphone maker in the world. National security concerns have been used to keep Huawei down, first in 2012 when it and ZTE were de facto banned from the US telecoms infrastructure market after a damning congressional report, and more recently when AT&T and Verizon were lent on to drop plans to sell the latest Huawei smartphones, and Best Buy stopped selling its devices.

Like ZTE, Huawei could be severely restricted if it is hit with a US components ban. But is Washington shooting itself in the foot with this heavy-handed approach?

A global problem

First, China and its new leader-for-life Xi Jinping is more than ready and willing to fight back against what it sees as unfair trade practices by the Trump administration. It has already fired back with retaliatory tariffs on US food imports and will do so again if a mooted additional $100bn in tariffs from the US goes through. By the same rationale, could China respond to orders banning sales of US components, by banning the sale of China-made components to US tech firms?

Potentially, believes China-watcher Bill Bishop.

“The US-China technology war may run much hotter than the overall conflict over trade. Xi continues to make clear that China can no longer rely on foreign technology and must go all out to end its reliance on it,” he wrote in his popular Sinocism newsletter. “Technology CEOs the world over with supply chain dependencies in China — so probably all of them — should be increasingly nervous and focused on their firms’ efforts to have viable contingency plans for a US-China technology cold war.”

Beijing-based Forrester principal analyst, Charlie Dai, told me the potential for disruption to US supply chains could be “significant”.

“It’s hard to find effective contingency plans and the only way is to have everyone, especially the US government, to realise the importance of collaboration,” he added.

“In a world where the global supply chain and value ecosystem have already become critical drivers for the business growth of large countries like US and China, any further action like ZTE’s case will hurt the economic relationship between the US and China, which is the last thing that companies and customers want to see.”

Towards self-reliance

In the longer term, this could be the reminder Beijing needs that it must become self-reliant in technology to achieve its “rightful” place at the global number one superpower. This has been a goal of Xi’s for years. In fact, that’s what the controversial Made in China 2025 initiative is all about – reducing reliance on foreign suppliers.

“Heavy dependence on imported core technology is like building our house on top of someone else’s walls: no matter how big and how beautiful it is, it won’t remain standing during a storm,” Xi said as far back as 2016. The Chinese government has already set up a fund which aims to raise up to 200 billion yuan ($31.7bn) to back a range of domestic firms including processor designers and  equipment makers. But although chips are the number one target, China’s efforts to become self-sufficient in tech expand to other spheres. It has long been trying to nurture a home-grown rival to Windows, although efforts so far have not been hugely successful.

It’s not just Chinese firms the US must be wary of, according to James Lewis, SVP at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The seven-year ban on US components will only encourage foreign suppliers to rush into the space vacated by US companies,” he said of the ZTE case. “It will reinforce the Chinese government’s desire to replace US suppliers with Chinese companies. And it will lead others to begin to make things they did not make before, causing permanent harm to the market share of US companies.”

One final word of warning to US tech CEOs: if China is looking to close the gap on technology capabilities, be prepared for a new deluge of cyber-espionage attempts focused on stealing IP. Innovation may be the first of Xi’s “five major concepts of development”, but that hasn’t stopped the nation pilfering in epic quantities in the past to gain parity with the West.

“It’s impossible for most countries, if not all, to be self-sufficient in all tech components,” claimed Forrester’s Dai. “One chip relates to many different hardware and software components. It requires continuous investments which are hard to realise in the short-term.”

That may be so, but bet against China at your peril. If any country has the resources and now the determination to do it, it’s the Middle Kingdom.

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Is a Full-Blown US-Sino Trade War on the Cards?

chinaThe US and China have rarely seen eye-to-eye. But with years of appeasement getting it nowhere fast, the US is now not only talking tough on trade with its biggest rival but also taking steps to harm the business interests of Chinese firms. Here’s my latest for IDG Connect:

This month a deal between Huawei and AT&T to sell its smartphones in the US collapsed after pressure from senators worried about unspecified security concerns. It was a major blow to the world’s third largest device maker and could result in tit-for-tat retaliation by Beijing. In China, Apple announced it would be handing over management of iCloud services to a local government-owned partner — in order to comply with Chinese laws created as a result of escalating tensions and protect its revenue stream in the Middle Kingdom.

These two tech giants are at the center of what could well become a major trade dispute between the world’s pre-eminent superpowers. If it continues to escalate, it could spell disastrous news, not just for IT buyers, but the global economy.

A long time coming

It’s a battle that’s been brewing for years. On the one side, US firms — and technology players in particular — are desperate to access China’s vast market of over one billion internet users. To do so, they’ve been prepared to put up with strict Chinese laws which demand partnering with domestic firms, and technology transfers which can expose IP to the local partner. Along with out-and-out IP theft in the form of cyber espionage — carried out with the blessing or perhaps even backing of the government — this has helped Chinese firms catch up fast in the technology stakes over the past few decades. Censorship of various US platforms — think Twitter, Facebook and Google — also helped to provide a useful vacuum for local players to thrive.

China’s new Cybersecurity Law (CSL) may overlap with GDPR, but could still deliver the opposite effect from the intended one. How will China’s GDPR-like Cybersecurity Law impact business?

Now the US is hitting back. The first big move came when lawmakers effectively banned Huawei and ZTE from touting for telecoms infrastructure contracts in the US, citing national security concerns. Then came the NSA leaks and revelations from the portable USB drives of Edward Snowden, describing how US intelligence had been spying on China for years by intercepting and bugging US-made Cisco routers. That was all Beijing needed to escalate its own policy of prioritising homegrown products and putting yet more roadblocks in the way of US firms.

Huawei rival Cisco was hardest hit, seeing its China market share reportedly plummet over 30%. But some reports suggest that the number of government-approved foreign tech firms in China fell by a third between 2012 and 2014, while those with security-related products fell by two-thirds.

Microsoft has also been singled out, with Windows 8 banned for government use, while Qualcomm was hit with an anti-trust fine of nearly $1bn. Then China introduced a rigorous new Cybersecurity Lawwhich — although seemingly designed to improve baseline security for local organizations — could also provide a legal basis for forcing US firms to hand over source code during national security ‘spot checks’.

This law is the reason Apple has been forced to transfer local iCloud operations to partner Guizhou on the Cloud Big Data (GCBD). It claims to have “strong data privacy and security protections in place” and says that “no backdoors will be created into any of our systems”. But experts are sceptical. Threat intelligence firm Recorded Future previously claimed that the law could give the government “access to vulnerabilities in foreign technologies that they could then exploit in their own intelligence operations.”

That’s not all. By handing over local control of iCloud accounts to a Chinese partner, Apple may be putting at risk the privacy and security of employees of US firms operating in China.

“This latest move by Apple to essentially cede control and operation of its cloud services in China to the Chinese government is part of a larger and disturbing trend by Western technology companies to limit user privacy in exchange for continued access to the Chinese market,” Recorded Future director of strategic threat development, Priscilla Moriuchi, told me.

Hackers could have a head start on researching exploits that US firms have not yet caught wind of. Why does China spot security vulnerabilities quicker than the US?

“Per Apple’s security procedures, GCBD would have access to metadata about Chinese users’ iCloud documents, as well as complete access to any unencrypted @icloud email activity.”

While it’s not clear if this is the case for foreign firms operating in China, the vagueness of the CSL certainly makes it possible.

The big freeze

Now the speculation is that President Trump could escalate what is already a de facto tech Cold War by imposing unilateral sanctions on China in retaliation for claimed IP theft and forced tech transfers. So is a full-blown trade war looming?

China-watcher Bill Bishop is pessimistic of future US-Sino relations. In his popular Sinocism newsletter he had the following:

“I think the forced termination of the Huawei-AT&T deal significantly raises the likelihood that a major US consumer electronics firm with meaningful operations in China will be smacked down at the first sign of a real US-China trade war.

“Beijing assumes the US government is so paranoid about Huawei because it uses US firms to do what it says Beijing does with Huawei, and the Snowden revelations confirmed many of those suspicions. If anything, Beijing has been remarkably tolerant of some US consumer electronics firms given the treatment of Huawei and what we learned from the documents Snowden stole.”

Given the large percentage of US tech firms with manufacturing facilities in China, a trade war would have a catastrophic impact on global supply chains, making parts and products more expensive, reducing choice for IT buyers in the West and devastating parts of the US economy. If the revenue made by large multi-nationals in China were to dry up, jobs would be lost — not only in those firms but all their partners, suppliers and local economies.

Canalys analyst, Jordan De Leon explained just how reliant on foreign suppliers both Chinese and US organisations are.

“In the US Lenovo is the fourth-largest PC vendor and has a massive installed base. It also has key clients in its datacentre business in the US. Similarly, in China, Dell is number two and HP is number four in PCs,” he told me by email.

“In the event of a trade war, though unlikely, these three brands will be impacted. The extreme scenario is if there is legislation that is made to totally ban US-products in China and vice versa, which means businesses in those markets have to comply. China is also an important market for Apple, not to mention the fact that China is a vital manufacturing base for Apple.”

However, Forrester principal analyst, Andrew Bartels, believes strong opposition from big business could be enough to prevent Trump from creating such a scenario.

“A US-China tech war is more likely than US-China trade war, despite Trump’s periodic Tweets, because there are strong institutional forces built around supply chains that would cause big businesses to resist through legal and political action any imposition of trade barriers,” he told me by email.

“The US-China tech war is kind of in an uneasy truce, with the US government tacitly accepting that the Chinese government is favouring its own technology developments and vendors in China, and the Chinese government tacitly accepting that the US is going to put up barriers periodically to Chinese firms buying US companies.”

Ultimately, this dynamic should be enough to temper the policies even of a dogmatic populist like Trump. This is a numbers game, and China has the numbers — both in the size of its domestic market, and the $340bn+ surplus it’s running with the US. Acting tough with Beijing can be a dangerous game to play, and the tech industry is first in the firing line.


Huawei Top Dog in Chinese Smartphone Market – So What Now?

huawei campus shenzhenHuawei has leaped over local rival Xiaomi to take number one spot in China’s much prized smartphone market, according to Canalys. I covered the news for IDG Connect and asked Canalys VP analysis, Rachel Lashford, whether she thought the Middle Kingdom now belonged to domestic players.

She argued that the market has actually decelerated slightly of late (1% from 1H14 to 1H15) which has increased the pressure on all vendors – but Apple and Samsung are still flying the flag for the Rest of the World.

“Apple still has a very powerful brand in China and we expect to see the latest product launches to continue its popularity,” Lashford told me.

Samsung, meanwhile, has dropped from the top spot of a 15% share in 1H14 to fourth place (9%) a year later.

“But it is recovering in the high end and has really focused on investing in localised marketing messages,” Lashford added, by email. “Combined with recent restructuring of its channels, focusing on large retail and operators, it should be well equipped to keep the pressure up on its local competition.”

So what of Huawei and Xiaomi? The former’s rise has come on the back off a steady building out of online channels over the past two years and a focus on its offline channel presence. Aiming squarely at the mid-range ($200-500), it has increased investment in the brand to good effect, concentrated on quality and kept momentum with regular product updates.

Xiaomi, on the other hand, may have taken its eye off the ball by concentrating on wearables, TVs and other smart home kit. It will need a “refreshed flagship” in time for Chinese New Year to wrest back momentum, she claimed.

And what of the two vendors’ plans for international expansion? Well, half of Huawei’s sales already come from outside the massive China market. But Xiaomi will need more help to get it competing beyond the Great Firewall.

“Many vendors are hindered by the lack of patents and having the difficulties and expense of licensing those in order to enter markets like the US and Western Europe where these are adhered to, so this needs to be overcome,” claimed Lashford.

“As does the adoption of a successful channel strategy. Xioami’s focus has been directly online, but it will still likely need the expertise of distributors mobility businesses – like Tech Data and Ingram Micro – in order to navigate the complexities of bringing those products to market.”


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.


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?


Why Lenovo can’t launch its phones in the US yet

lenovoLenovo is the number one PC maker in the world and rapidly gaining popularity in the smartphone space, where it’s second in China, yet it’s been forced to delay its planned entry into the US mobile space by up to 3 years.

Reports from CES last week had Lenovo execs lowering expectations in front of the media rather than the usual ambitious predictions and bravado that characterise the world’s biggest consumer electronics show.

As I reported on The Reg, CEO Yang Yuanqing predicted last May that the firm would launch a phone Stateside within a year.

However, at CES Lenovo’s Americas president Gerry Smith told journalists it could be another 2-3 years, and that the firm was waiting for the “right time”, the “right product” and looking to boost marketing/branding spend first.

It’s certainly a given the firm will eventually take on Apple in its own back yard, but with PC sales tanking globally, why such a long lead time?

I spoke to some local analysts to find out.

IDC’s Melissa Chau argued that it comes down to brand recognition and industry partnerships.

“The biggest challenge any smartphone player has in breaking into the US has to do with partnerships. Even Nokia found it a problem building the right relationships with carriers and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lenovo is finding the same,” she told me.

Lenovo needs also to find a unique selling point – something to differentiate it from the likes of Huawei, ZTE and others which have already shown they can produce decent handsets for US punters at low cost.

Canalys analyst Jessica Kwee was more optimistic, arguing that Lenovo already has good brand recognition thanks to its Thinkpad laptop line.

“Lenovo is one of the most well-known Chinese brand with a good brand image even in the US, which may help it do better than some of its Chinese peers when it does launch its smartphones there, although there are plenty of other reasons that will help determine its success, such as the products, channels, marketing and timing,” she told me.

In the end there’s nothing wrong with a company like Lenovo taking its time before launching into an important market.

But I have a feeling that it will make a move sooner rather than later. Giving your rivals – especially Chinese ones like Huawei – a 2-3 year head start is never wise, let alone in a fast-moving and highly competitive space like the US smartphone market.