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.


Is Groupon Doomed to Fail?

groupon logoDaily deals giant and one-time darling of Silicon Valley, Groupon, is having a hard time of it. An IPO in 2011 raised a whopping $700 million, apparently more money at the time than any US firm since Google. But more than four years after the flash deals specialist was valued at nearly $13 billion, there’s very little to celebrate.

In September, the firm announced over 1,000 job cuts as part of its ‘One Playbook’ plan to cut debt and kick-start growth. Its CEO has moved across to chairman and the firm is quitting several markets including Morocco, Panama, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Thailand and Uruguay. In November the firm’s shares plummeted 27% after it forecast 2016 revenue of $2.75 billion-$3.05 billion, below analyst estimates.

So what went wrong? I’ve been chatting to analysts for a piece in IT Pro (Hong Kong) about this and the general consensus is that it shouldn’t have IPO’d when it did. IDC Retail head of Europe, Spencer Izard, told me that the firm simply can’t keep up with the demand for high quality deals on a daily basis, so it’s failing in turn to meet the insatiable growth demands of shareholders.

For Gartner’s Sandy Shen, it’s a vicious circle. Groupon is not coming up with consistently good deals, so customers are leaving. Merchants see these falling customer numbers and the fact that most are only after that one deal and aren’t returning, so they also lose interest.

For Miya Knights, global technology research director at Planet Retail, there’s simply too much competition for the firm these days, and not just from bricks and mortar stores, which have lowered their prices to match the web.

“Groupon was first to the flash deals party, but has certainly not been the last. The space it occupies has been filled with direct, global and local competitors that offer deals across a wide range of categories, like Wowcher in the UK. More niche, specialist deal sites, for hotels, holidays, and home furnishings etc. have also emerged to fill the space,” she told me by email.

“Groupon’s figures, however, show it still has a loyal customer base and that revenues are strong. It’s just that its business model is broken: it does not generate enough revenue from its daily deals, which is where the margin lies, and relies too heavily on selling goods at discount prices, where the margins are tiny.”

So is there any hope for the site? It’s now trying to rebrand as an online marketplace, but with the likes of Amazon and eBay also playing in that space, the future doesn’t look too rosy.


What’s the Real Value of Smart City Projects?

singapore at nightIDC recently released the results of a competition it ran to find the best smart city projects in Asia. As alluded to in my IDG Connect piece, I was keen to find out if these competitions, and the projects they seek to promote, are really very helpful at all.

My suspicion is that we can’t really use these competitions to judge whether one country is more “innovative” than another when it comes to IT. And I also have a feeling that in many cases, the smart city banner itself is little more than a handy, headline-grabbing way for self-aggrandising local and national politicians to attract foreign investment and talent, score geopolitical points and bolster their reputation as ‘visionary innovators’. It’s also pretty clear that Asia is far from leading the world when it comes to smart cities, despite pockets of excellence like Singapore.

IDC program manager for government insights, Gerald Wang, admitted that the picture was mixed across the region, and that the lack of legacy technology alone has not been enough to propel developing Asian countries forward.

“While it is true many cities in developing nations and emerging economies have  been able to leapfrog the digital divide to what IDC coins the ‘3rd Platform’ landscape, they also lack the long-term experiences required in managing enterprise-wide ICT solutions,” he explained by email.

“This means these cities have to tread very carefully with their investments into new (sometimes untested) territories without the proper governance processes and manpower talents in fund-seeking, information management, standardisation and consolidation expertise, and building resilient environments that that withstand cyber attacks, etc.”

Leading by example

Singapore is an exception of course, in Asia and the world. Its size, relative wealth and tech savvy administration have helped produce the Smart Nation initiative, launched last year. Infocomm Development Authority executive deputy chairman, Steve Leonard, told me the goal was to improve the quality of life and opportunities of Singaporeans, especially given the rapidly ageing populous.

But he was also quite open about the initiative’s role as a tool for attracting foreign investment.

“Singapore has the unique assets that makes it easier for tech start-ups and talent to build and grow their business from here to serve other markets. Working on big enough shared global challenges that make an impact to people’s lives will inspire more entrepreneurs and talent to come to Singapore to test their ideas, and more big corporates to set up their innovation labs or ventures here,” he argued.

“It starts a virtuous cycle – talent attracts more talent, more ideas and start-ups are established, the excitement builds on itself and we get more breakthroughs. Investment capital naturally gravitates to where there’s a high concentration of great talent and business opportunities.”

So smart cities in Asia could actually be good news for western tech investors, from start-ups through to large corporates. But what about the other way round? Are local leaders also signing off projects with a view to exporting technology and/or services one day? Not quite, according to Leonard.

“Our goal is for Singapore to be a node on the global network. Different countries are doing different things and we can all learn from each other’s experience,” he said. “The challenges we are working on in Singapore are not unique to us, other countries face similar challenges. We believe if you can make it work in Singapore, you can have the opportunity to adapt and apply to other contexts.”

Nice idea. But I’ve got a feeling that more countries will be learning from Singapore than the other way round over the next decade.


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.


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.


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.


China’s Yulong Coolpad: One to watch for 2014?

coolpad logoIn the world of Chinese smartphone makers the name on everyone’s lips at the moment is Xiaomi, but how many of you have heard of Yulong?

Well, it’s a name which may well become more familiar to tech-watchers in 2014 if its sales predictions for the year turn out to be more than the usual new year marketing hype.

The Shenzhen-based firm, which is slightly better known under its Coolpad brand, said it’s hoping to shift 40 million 4G handsets this year in China, in addition to 20m 3G devices.

Some local media reports have the company claiming this will help it topple global leader Samsung in the 4G stakes, even though the Korean giant is currently way out in front in the Middle Kingdom with a market share of nearly 20 per cent – almost double that of Yulong.

They would appear to be a combination of mis-reporting and vendor hype, though, as Samsung told me it hasn’t even released any predictions on how many 4G handsets it will sell this year.

A Lenovo spokeswoman, meanwhile, said: “It’s not our practice to comment or make prediction on unannounced products.”

That aside, however, Coolpad has been gradually creeping up the smartphone rankings in its home country over the past few years, largely without the media attention that has greeted Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo and, of course, Xiaomi.

That might be because it has neither Xiaomi’s flair, Huawei’s big bucks, nor ZTE’s propensity to court controversy.

It’s currently third in the rankings just behind Lenovo, according to IDC stats for Q3 2013. If it’s to continue to climb it’ll need to make sure it’s competitively priced relative to Samsung, around the 1-2,000 RMB mark, IDC’s Bryan Ma told me.

Apart from that, “speed to 4G” will also count, he added. To this end, Yulong has already struck a deal with China Mobile to sell its TDD/FDD-LTE handset the Coolpad 8920 and there’ll certainly be more to follow.

So will the firm join Huawei, ZTE and others in aggressive overseas expansion? Well, it already is selling in markets like the US, but headway there has been more difficult given its low brand recognition.

It might have overtaken Apple in the Middle Kingdom last year but 2014 will be a tough year for Yulong and its parent company China Wireless to make an impact abroad – that is, outside of emerging markets where the appetite for cheap smartphones is greater.