In today’s globalised business world, what happens in Shenzhen or Singapore may be just as important as trends closer to home. To that end, I recently offered IDG Connect the following round-up of the past year in APAC, and a few notes on what we can expect from the months ahead. As Apple’s dire performance in China has shown, Asia increasingly matters to Western tech firms, their customers, shareholders and partners:
Asia’s technology market had more global exposure in 2018 than in many recent years. There’s just one problem: most of it was negative. President Trump has begun a de facto trade war with China which has now morphed into a full-fledged stand-off on several fronts, with cyber-espionage and perceived unfair Chinese trading practices at the heart of US grievances. As we head into 2019 expect tensions to increase, with other south-east Asian nations potentially benefitting as US firms pull their supply chain operations from the Middle Kingdom.
It could be an extremely nervy time for Silicon Valley CEOs.
The trade war continues
The tit-for-tat trade war started in 2018 might have so far steered largely clear of tech goods, although some firms have begun to warn of an impact on profits. But the industry has certainly been at the heart of the stand-off between the world’s superpowers. In January a deal between Huawei and AT&T to sell the former’s smartphones in the US collapsed after pressure from lawmakers worried about unspecified security concerns. Then came a seven-year ban on US firms selling to ZTE — the result of the Chinese telco breaking sanctions by selling to Iran, and then lying to cover its tracks. Although part of the ban was subsequently lifted temporarily, it highlighted to many in the Chinese government what president Xi Jinping had been saying for some time: the country needs to become self-sufficient in technology. It was reinforced when Huawei became the subject of a similar investigation.
This is about America, and Trump in particular, fighting back against what it sees as years of unfair trading practices by China. The argument goes that the Asian giant has been engaged in cyber-espionage on an epic scale to catch up technologically with the West, and unfairly forces IP transfers on foreign firms as the price for access to its huge domestic market. Thus, the coming year will see a ratcheting up of tensions. China on the one side will look to increase its espionage in areas like mobile phone processors to accelerate plans to become self-sufficient. And the US will continue to find ways to crack down on Chinese firms looking to access its market — probably citing national security concerns. There are even reports that the US has considered a total ban on Chinese students coming to the country over espionage concerns.
“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,” wrote China-watcher Bill Bishop in his Sinocism newsletter. That could spell good news for other ASEAN nations like Vietnam, where Samsung has made a major investment in facilities — although few countries in the region boast the infrastructure links and volume of skilled workers China does.
Cybersecurity takes centre stage
As mentioned, cybersecurity and online threats are at the heart of the Sino-US stand-off. The stakes got even higher after a blockbuster report from Bloomberg Businessweek which claimed Chinese intelligence officers had implanted spy chips on motherboards heading for a US server maker. Although the claims have been denied by Apple, Amazon and the server maker in question, Supermicro, they will confirm what many have feared about supply chain risk for a long time and accelerate efforts in 2019 to move facilities out of China. Further fanning the flames is a US indictment alleging Chinese spies worked with insiders including the head of IT security at a French aerospace company’s China plant to steal IP.
In a move likely to enrage China, the US also recently arrested and charged a Ministry of State Security (MSS) operative with conspiracy to steal aviation trade secrets. A major backlash is likely to come from Beijing. But more could also come from Washington after a combative congressional report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission called for a clampdown on supply chain risk and warned of China’s efforts to dominate 5G infrastructure and IoT production.
Aside from state-sponsored attackers, there’s a growing threat from Chinese cyber-criminals, according to one security vendor. Western firms suffer millions of attacks per year from financially motivated Chinese hackers, according to IntSights. Expect that to increase in the future as the state encourages criminals to focus their efforts outside the country, or even to team up with hacking groups at arm’s length. Also expect the country’s Cybersecurity Law to have a growing impact on how Western firms do business there. Ostensibly meant to vet such firms for interference by the NSA and CIA, the law could also serve as a pretext for Chinese officials to access sensitive IP and source code belonging to Western firms operating in China.
For other countries in the region, improving cybersecurity is vital to their efforts to attract more foreign IT investment and nurture start-up friendly environments. Although there are pockets of good practice, APAC is thought to be among the least mature regions worldwide. AT Kearney has called on ASEAN nations to increase cybersecurity spending to around $170 billion, warning that they are in danger of losing $750 billion in market capitalisation otherwise.
The threat from Chinese spies and local hackers is compounded by the growing danger posed by North Korea. Its state-sponsored hackers are acting with increasing impunity. FireEye recently identified a new group, APT38, which was responsible for the attacks on Bangladesh Bank and other financially motivated raids. Expect more attacks aimed at raising funds for the regime, as well as destructive campaigns and politically motivated information theft.
Taking a lead
On a more positive note, APAC is increasingly seen as a leader in emerging digital technologies: led by the two regional giants of India and China but also mature nations like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Microsoft believes that digital transformation will inject over $1 trillion to APAC GDP by 2021, with artificial intelligence (AI) a key catalyst for growth.
AI continues to be major focus for the region. Singapore is a leader in AI thanks to heavy government investment in schemes such as AI Singapore (AISG) and its AI Speech Lab, while government-owned investment company SGInnovate has recently unveiled its Deep Tech Nexus strategy. India is also is also poised to become “one of the most active centres of expertise in AI” according to experts, thanks to government backing.
Asia is leading the way on smart city projects. Investment in initiatives was set to reach $28.3 billion in 2018 in APAC (ex Japan), and is forecast to reach $45.3 billion in 2021 — partly out of necessity. The region’s cities are forecast to add another one billion citizens by 2040, which will require up to 65% of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal targets to be met.
India’s Modi government has led the way with an ambitious plan to transform 100 cities, although 2019 will be a crucial year, given that recent reports claim 72% of these projects are still only at the planning stage. Many more examples are springing up all over the ASEAN region, however, from flood awareness programmes in Danang to a free public Wi-Fi and CCTV camera network in Phuket. IDC celebrates some of the best examples each year, showing the breadth of innovation in the region.
However, governments will need to do better in 2019 to tackle major barriers to digital transformation identified by the UN. These include excessively top-down approaches; security, privacy, and accountability problems; and digital exclusion. It claimed just 43% of APAC residents were internet users in 2016. There’s plenty of work for governments and the private sector to do next year.
We’re currently working our way through three of the four stages of industry evolution mapped out by Gartner. It claimed in a December report that efforts to integrate mobile and cloud-based apps into the car are almost complete – that’s one stage down. Then, up until 2024 it’ll be all about “digital lifestyle convergence”.
The report explained:
“This convergence means that consumers want to be able to communicate with friends and family members, remain productive to their workplace, and to be entertained with the content that they also access outside of the automobile. Users will also expect an automotive connectivity experience that is similar to other device experiences they are increasingly accustomed to, such as remote, over-the-air software updates and content/services upgrades.”
Microsoft has a good chance to capitalise on this shifting focus, with its new Connected Vehicle Platform. One of the five main pillars outlined by EVP of business development, Peggy Johnson, at CES, is “improved in-car productivity” via tools like Cortana, Dynamics, Office 365, Power BI and Skype for Business.
“For instance, imagine that Cortana seamlessly connects you whether you’re at home or in your car,” she explained. “Let’s say you’re on your phone at home and tell Cortana to set up a meeting for you and your colleague the next morning at a coffee shop. The next time you get in your car, Cortana reminds you of the morning meeting and starts navigation to get you to that coffee shop.”
With its heritage in the office productivity space, Microsoft obviously has an edge in these scenarios over connected car rivals like Apple, Google and Amazon, although its Azure-powered platform will also cover predictive maintenance, advanced navigation, customer insights and autonomous capabilities.
The platform’s open, partnership-based approach could also play well with consumers who are sick of many current systems, according to Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom.
“Users are increasingly frustrated with in-car technology,” he told me. “Even new models tend to be based on old, proprietary technology; technology that is impossible to swap out and replace with something more up to date and flexible.”
The Redmond giant knows the industry better than most, continued IHS Markit principal analyst Egil Juliussen.
“The auto industry is among those global industries which adds numerous requirements for how connected cars are treated (i.e. privacy, data storage locations, etc.),” he told me via email. “All of these complexities make it expensive and time-consuming for any auto manufacturer (even the largest) to develop, update and maintain cloud and software platforms to manage their network of connected cars.”
Partners on board
And therein lies the opportunity for Microsoft and others. The firm has also announced partnerships with Volvo, Daimler, Nissan-Renault, BMW and Toyota which will see each use its cloud-based tech to create their own unique platforms. This ability to customise is another obvious benefit of its platform for carmakers.
So where are we headed? Well, autonomous vehicles of course. Gartner reckons that by 2030 self-driving tech might even have created a new car ownership model – where we simply “hire” on-demand driverless cars for our journeys rather than own a vehicle outright. Already a third of Americans the analyst surveyed said they’d forgo purchasing a new vehicle if they could pay for such a service.
Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto are certainly major contenders for the connected car crown, especially in terms of integrating the car into the whole mobile experience. But Microsoft’s cloud-based approach, which is flexible enough to incorporate new technologies as it goes, has a decent chance of winning more carmaker minds and driver hearts.
Confession time: I’m one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t played Minecraft yet. But researching the digital Lego phenomenon for an upcoming feature yielded some interesting analyst insights I thought I’d share.
Minecraft hit 100 million users recently – not bad for a title many thought Microsoft was a little ill-advised to pay $2.5bn for two years ago.
For IDC gaming research director, Lewis Ward, the purchase was made with one eye on showing off the Windows 10 OS – then in development.
“The ulterior motive was the idea of Windows 10-based Universal Apps, and this idea of Xbox Play Anywhere (XPA) games on Windows 10,” he told me. “Minecraft is a living example of how Microsoft’s new OS can support apps with the same codebase that works on multiple terminals, including PCs, game consoles and mobile devices. So it’s become Microsoft’s poster child in gaming for these types of apps and I think that was a big part of what led Microsoft to buy the company.”
There’s also plenty of debate at the moment about the future of Minecraft. Redmond recently signed a deal with Netease to license its mobile and PC versions, which could increase the game’s user base exponentially. There are also major opportunities in the AR and VR space. The synergies with Microsoft’s HoloLens AR platform and its ambitions in the education sector are obvious, according to Ward.
“If Lego helped me learn as a kid how to build stuff with others while having fun and being creative, and I remember playing with Lego all the time in first grade and crying when my parents forced me to sell my big bag of Lego around fourth grade, then Minecraft is the modern day equivalent and has a place in early education,” he argued.
“It’s a very accessible game and one that stresses the positive things in life; one that has truly universal appeal. I’m sure there are lots of great minds up in Redmond thinking about how the franchise can be used in certain vertical markets and business-centric scenarios.”
Microsoft released an Education Edition of the game earlier this year – a statement of intent if ever there was one. Minecrafters will be watching eagerly to see what it’s next play will be.
What 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.
What does the future of virtual reality hold? I’ve got to say it’s not a question that has particularly bothered me from a corporate IT perspective – a feeling I’m sure shared by many CIOs out there. But the truth is that VR – and its slightly more sensible cousin, augmented reality – is already beginning to transform the way organisations work and engage with their customers.
Putting together a recent feature for IT Pro in Hong Kong, I spoke to several experts about the kind of use cases that VR and AR might best fit, and some of the key challenges facing manufacturers.
It’s pretty clear from most of the analysts I spoke to that those smartphone-based VR headsets like Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard are going to get end user traction much quicker than the high-end Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and others.
“Everyone has a smartphone so it makes the entry barrier for VR very low and affordable,” IDC European associate director, Chrystelle Labesque, told me. “Does it offer the best experience? Maybe not. But it does give people the chance to have their first VR experience.”
From a manufacturer’s point of view, each major player in the space – and virtually all of the world’s biggest tech companies have a stake in VR/AR – faces a difference set of challenges according to their commercial priorities, argued IHS Technology head of games research, Piers Harding-Rolls.
Samsung, for example is using VR to drive sales of its premium smartphones, he told me.
“We have already seen Samsung diversifying further with the Gear 360 camera to build of its VR ecosystem offer and to continue to differentiate as more and more smartphone vendors bring their own VR headsets to market,” Harding-Rolls added.
“Samsung is now using the Gear VR as a promotional and bundling tool to sell more phones, but the value of this offer may become diluted over time. So for Samsung the challenges centre on staying differentiated and building out the ecosystem successfully in the face of additional competition.”
As for those high-end players, it’s all about trying to drive down their prices to appeal to a broader market.
“Oculus has courted developers for over two years, but still does not have the scale of distribution and user base of Valve’s Steam or Sony’s PlayStation Network, so must build its own content and compete from a less established position,” he claimed. “As you can see the challenges differ from platform to platform.”
But this is talking about VR/AR from a consumer-focused perspective. The truth is that it’s already being used both inside companies and to create differentiated experiences for customers.
Labesque referenced a British Museum project last year that allowed visitors to experience the Bronze Age through Samsung Gear VR headsets, for example.
The Marriott hotel chain has also been an early adopter – using the power of Oculus Rift VR to transport users to far flung destinations, and in so doing build its brand and even drive potential sales.
When it comes to internal use cases, AR has the edge, according to the experts. Digital overlays can help with training, working to meet strict compliance requirements, and collaboration, among other things, Labesque explained.
On this front, Microsoft’s Hololens already has some impressive big name case studies to brag about.
So there you have it. If you’re a CIO and have the money and motivation – VR/AR is probably something you should be considering right now as part of a multi-year innovation project. If not, it won’t be long till your CEO is knocking at your door to find out why.
Still, it’s always good learning about new areas of technology, so here’s what I have surmised over the past few days:
- Sony and Microsoft rule the roost. Nintendo will never gain parity as long as its selection of third party titles is so poor.
- Sony’s PS4 won 2014, but Xbox One hit back in the last two months of the year thanks to discounted pricing
- Both of the big boys have copied each other’s strategy at times; in engaging with the gamer geek and “bedroom coder” community and in trying to tie up exclusive third party title deals.
- There’s pretty much nothing to separate the two hardware wise, which is why there’ll be some increasingly aggressive deal-making going on with third party developers in the coming years.
- As IDC Retail Insights head of Europe, Spencer Izard, told me, there are only two things gamers really care about: “how many of your friends are using my console and am I getting the best content.”
- The future will eventually shift towards online downloads, although not until there’s a critical mass of users. Only then will the console giants feel they can take retailers on and undercut them on price with downloads.
- In developing regions this shift will take far longer, as broadband infrastructure simply isn’t up to the hefty downloads necessary.
- However, last year actually saw “a significant increase” in spending on digital transactions for games, according to IHS head of games, Piers Harding-Rolls. “Part of this is to do with the early adopters who are currently very active digitally on the latest consoles, part of this is to do with the day and date release of new releases alongside boxed product in the retail channels and part of it is to do with the ability to use more efficient monetisation models in the digital space,” he told me. “In this context we have seen more open ended spending opportunities emerge on consoles during the last few years driving up monetisation.”
- The rise of smartphone and tablet-based gaming represents a real challenge to the console players
- In China, like Korea, Sony and Microsoft have just been too late to make a difference. The market is either swamped with pirated clones or dominated by PC gaming. Regulators will also be hard to please in terms of software content.
And there you have it. All you need to know about console-based gaming in a few media friendly sound bites.
Here’s an interesting new idea from Microsoft – a radical solution to the problem of buggy code.
The new paper, posed by Redmondian Andrew Begel and a group of Zurich university boffins, suggests managers monitor programmers via EEG, EDA and eye-tracking sensors. These will alert them when the individual is struggling and therefore likely to introduce flawed code.
Now, it sounds like a pretty good idea in theory, and in practice has apparently performed pretty well. But one security expert I spoke to had some major misgivings.
Imperva co-founder and CTO Amichai Shulman argued that it might stray outside the boundaries of what could be construed “reasonable”.
“I think constantly monitoring the psychological status and the physical conditions of programmers, seems tremendously intrusive and probably strays way off from what I consider to be ‘reasonable means’,” he told me.
“However, I think that even if we review this in the cold eyes of a software professional there are some doubts about the usefulness of this method in general and its application to security vulnerabilities in particular.”
The first doubt he had relates to the tremendous commercial pressure coders are under to release “more functionality in less time”.
“On their way to achieving higher rates of LOC/sec, programmers as well as their employers are willing to sacrifice other attributes of the code such as efficiency, readability and also correctness – assuming that some of these will be corrected later during testing cycles and some will not be critical enough to be ever fixed,” he explained.
“If we introduce a system that constantly holds back on programmers because they are stressed for some reason we will effectively introduce unbearable delays into the project which will of course put more pressure on those who perform the job when schedule becomes tight.”
This is not to mention the fact that programmers should, at times, be “over” challenged to keep them sharp and happy with their roles.
“Additionally, there’s a big question of whether we can have a system like that can make a distinction between making a critical mistake or a minor one, which again impacts its ability to have a positive effect on the software development process in general,” said Shulman.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of what kinds of flaws the system will root out.
“I think that most security related mistakes are introduced inadvertently as a consequence of the programmer not having the faintest idea regarding the potential implication of some implementation decision,” he argued. “This is the case with SQL injection, XSS, RFI and many more vulnerability types.”
So, bottom line: nice idea Microsoft, but it’s probably not going to solve the problem of poor coding anytime soon. Until something genuinely revolutionary comes along we’ll probably have to stick to the usual suspects to reduce risk: security tools, patching, better QA and testing.