North Korea: business as usual for IT supply chain

kim jong unThere’s a great deal of ambulance chasing that goes on in the IT press. Spot any major geopolitical news event and some vendor will try and shoehorn in a thinly veiled sales pitch for their products and services in the most blatant way possible.

There are certain events which do bear closer analysis, though, and I think the situation in North Korea is one of them. Given the impact of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan 2011 and the Thai floods of that same year, on the ICT supply chain, it’s clear that major events in Asia can have knock-on effects.

The major impact of a possible conflict in Korea would be on Samsung, which is the world’s largest supplier of LCD panels, Flash and DRAM and a major producer of lithium-ion batteries and chips. However, if China were brought into the conflict, this may also spread risk to the huge number of tech manufacturers in the People’s Republic.

So are suppliers getting twitchy? Are staff and assets being moved around to minimise risk? Are customers spending their money on cans of tinned food and bomb shelters rather than Galaxy Notes?

Well, as I reported in The Reg, none of that so far actually. The main message has been one of “business as usual”, with a caveat of continued monitoring of the situation.

“We didn’t observe any significant drop in consumer sentiment so far and don’t expect any major changes unless North Korea really launches a missile. There has been no big changes in Korea’s import, export and sales activity but tourism and foreign capital inflow could be impacted,” IDC analyst YoungSo Lee told me.

“The tension in Korea won’t ease that quickly and there are people who have started stocking up on daily necessities and even pulled out some money from the banks. There is talk of some foreign vendors making plans to send senior executives back to their home countries but there is no concrete evidence of that yet. All of the above are sensible precautions in response to continued uncertainty over how the crisis might develop.”

That said, just because there is widespread public apathy towards the kinds of threats being uttered daily by Pyongyang doesn’t mean nothing will happen – it only takes one piece of military or political misjudgement to spark a full-on confrontation which could impact IT channels.

“There are low expectations of anything serious happening, perhaps only a minor skirmish in disputed seas between the North and South,” Canalys APAC MD Rachel Lashford told me. “But of course low expectations does not mean that the risk is definitely zero.”

So, long story short – no panic yet, but worth keeping an eye on for future developments. One thing North Korea is not known for is it’s predictability.


Chinese firm builds prototype Android e-ink smartphone

Have been doing a bit of digging on an interesting new handset from Chinese e-reader firm Onyx International – what could be the world’s first Android-based smartphone with an e-ink display.

Frustratingly the only source we have for this is a brief demo of the prototype device on geek site armdevices.net.

What we can see, however, is it’s a pretty fully functioning smartphone, albeit running a slightly old version of Android, with web and email capabilities, a capacitive touchscreen and ARM Cortex-A5 processor.

The benefit of e-ink of course is that the screen is not made of glass and so is thinner and lighter, and not prone to cracking. It also makes the phone really easy to see in direct sunlight – something LCD displays singularly fail to do, especially under the glare of the summer Hong Kong sun.

It also slurps less battery, and so could apparently last on a single charge for around a week, and the lack of a glass display means it can really lighten the whole device – this one is said to be under 100g.

On the minus side, e-ink currently only really works in greyscale and screen refreshes take a lot longer than LCD displays – video is impossible and even basic tasks can take an age compared to what impatient smartphone fans are used to.

So what’s the ideal use case for this kind of smartphone? Well, the elderly perhaps, or emerging markets.

The problem E-ink, and indeed Onyx will have will be the budget Android smartphones from the likes of ZTE, Lenovo and others and indeed scores of lesser-known Chinese handset makers.

These vendors are increasingly targeting that sub-1000 yuan end of the market with LCD display devices which may be unreadable in direct light, but are a hell of a lot more responsive and, unlike e-ink, are the type of device Android is actually designed to work with.

One potential solution would be in re-architecting Android to largely deal with e-ink’s limitations – ie on-screen refreshes – but there is still the colour problem.

I’ve been so far frustrated in my attempts to find out exactly what kind of developer magic this would entail – and if it’s even feasible at all – but will update if I hear back.

My hunch is that it’s still at a very nascent stage development-wise and there’s only a limited amount of people working on it. For now at least, the best chance for e-ink to get onto a smartphone is for secondary displays on the rear of devices.