The last time Western sanctions hit Russia after it annexed Crimea, President Vladimir Putin turned to Huawei to rebuild and upgrade the territory’s communication infrastructure. Now, the controversial Chinese technology company is positioned to aid the Putin regime on a much larger scale, despite the threat of Washington hitting it with more sanctions.
In Crimea, Russia “ripped out Western telecom gear in the heavily militarized territory and replaced it with Huawei and ZTE,” said Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, a telecoms expert at the European Centre for International Political Economy. If Nokia and Ericsson do fully exit Russia, Moscow would “need Chinese companies more than ever, especially Huawei,” he said.
Despite an initial plunge in phone shipments, Huawei has been an early winner from the Ukraine war. Its phone sales in Russia rose 300 percent in the first two weeks of March, while other Chinese brands Oppo and Vivo also recorded triple-digit sales increases, according to analysts at MTS, Russia’s largest mobile operator.
The Lithuanian National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) recently published a security assessment of three recent-model Chinese-made smartphones—Huawei’s P40 5G, Xiaomi’s Mi 10T 5G, and OnePlus’ 8T 5G. Sufficiently determined US shoppers can find the P40 5G on Amazon and the Mi 10T 5G on Walmart.com—but we will not be providing direct links to those phones, given the results of the NCSC’s security audit.
The Xiaomi phone includes software modules specifically designed to leak data to Chinese authorities and to censor media related to topics the Chinese government considers sensitive. The Huawei phone replaces the standard Google Play application store with third-party substitutes the NCSC found to harbor sketchy, potentially malicious repackaging of common applications.
Huawei’s P40 is still stuck on Android 10, while Xiaomi ships with 10 but can be upgraded to 11. Only the OnePlus 8T shipped from the factory with Android 11 installed. (credit: Lithuanian NCSC)
The OnePlus 8T 5G—arguably, the best-known and most widely marketed phone of the three—was the only one to escape the NCSC’s scrutiny without any red flags raised.
The scale of the tech industry’s spending to influence the European Union’s tech policy agenda has been laid out in a report published today by Corporate Europe Observatory and Lobbycontrol — which found hundreds of companies, groups and business associations shelling out a total of €97 million (~$115M) annually lobbying EU institutions.
The level of spending makes tech the biggest lobby sector in the region — ahead of pharma, fossil fuels, finance, and chemicals — per the report by the two lobbying transparency campaign groups.
The EU has a raft of digital legislation in train, including the Digital Markets Act, which is set to apply ex ante controls to the biggest ‘gatekeeper’ platforms to promote fair competition in the digital market by outlawing a range of abusive practices; and the Digital Services Act, which will increase requirements on a swathe of digital businesses — again with greater requirements for larger platforms — to try to bring online rules in line with offline requirements in areas like illegal content and products.
At the same time, enforcement of the EU’s existing data protection framework (GDPR) — which is widely perceived to have been (mostly) weakly applied against tech giants — is another area where tech giants may be keen to influence regional policy, given that uniformly vigorous enforcement could threaten the surveillance-based business models of online ad giants like Google and Facebook.
A small number of tech giants dominant EU lobbying, according to the report, which found ten companies are responsible for almost a third of the total spend — namely: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Huawei, Amazon, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm and Vodafone — who collectively spend more than €32M a year to try to influence EU tech policy.
Google topped the lobbying list of Big Tech big spenders in the EU — spending €5.8M annually trying to influence EU institutions, per the report; followed by Facebook (€5.5M); Microsoft (€5.3M); Apple (€3.5M); and Huawei (€3M).
Unsurprisingly, US-based tech companies dominate industry lobbying in the EU — with the report finding a fifth of the companies lobbying the bloc on digital policy are US-based — although it suggests the true proportion is “likely even higher”.
While China (or Hong Kong) based companies were only found to comprise less than one per cent of the total, suggesting Chinese tech firms are so far not invested in EU lobbying at anywhere near the level of their US counterparts.
“The lobbying surrounding proposals for a Digital Services pack, the EU’s attempt at reining in Big Tech, provides the perfect example of how the firms’ immense budget provides them with privileged access: Commission high-level officials held 271 meetings, 75 percent of them with industry lobbyists. Google and Facebook led the pack,” write the pair of transparency campaign groups.
The report also shines a light on how the tech industry routinely relies upon astroturfing to push favored policies — with tech companies not only lobbying individually but also being collectively organised into a network of business and trade associations that the report dubs “important lobby actors” too.
Per the report, business associations lobbying on behalf of Big Tech alone have a lobbying budget that “far surpasses that of the bottom 75 per cent of the companies in the digital industry”.
Such a structure can allow the wealthiest tech giants to push preferred policy positions under a guise of wider industry support — by also shelling out to fund such associations which then gives them an outsized influence over their lobbying output.
“Big Tech’s lobbying also relies on its funding of a wide network of third parties, including think tanks, SME and startup associations and law and economic consultancies to push through its messages. These links are often not disclosed, obfuscating potential biases and conflicts of interest,” the pair note, going on to highlight 14 think tanks and NGOs they found to have “close ties” to Big Tech firms.
“The ethics and practice of these policy organisations varies but some seem to have played a particularly active role in discussions surrounding the Digital Services pack, hosting exclusive or skewed debates on behalf of their funders or publishing scaremongering reports,” they continue.
“There’s an opacity problem here: Big Tech firms have fared poorly in declaring their funding of think tanks – mostly only disclosing these links after being pressured. And even still this disclosure is not complete. To this, Big Tech adds its funding of SME and startup associations; and the fact that law and economic experts hired by Big Tech also participate in policy discussions, often without disclosing their clients or corporate links.”
The 14 think tanks and NGOs the report links to Big Tech backers are: CERRE; CDI, EPC, CEPS, CER, Bruegel, Lisbon Council, CDT, TPN, Friends of Europe, ECIPE, European Youth Forum, German Marshall Fund and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies.
The biggest spending tech giants were contacted for comment on the report. We’ll update this article with any response.
We have also reached out to the European Commission for comment.
The full report — entitled The Lobby Network: Big Tech’s Web of Influence in the EU — can be found here.
A milestone for Jolla, the Finnish startup behind the Sailfish OS — which formed, almost a decade ago, when a band of Nokia staffers left to keep the torch burning for a mobile linux-based alternative to Google’s Android — today it’s announcing hitting profitability.
The mobile OS licensing startup describes 2020 as a “turning point” for the business — reporting revenues that grew 53% YoY, and EBITDA (which provides a snapshot of operational efficiency) standing at 34%.
It has a new iron in the fire too now — having recently started offering a new licensing product (called AppSupport for Linux Platforms) which, as the name suggests, can provide linux platforms with standalone compatibility with general Android applications — without a customer needing to licence the full Sailfish OS (the latter has of course baked in Android app compatibility since 2013).
Jolla says AppSupport has had some “strong” early interest from automotive companies looking for solutions to develop their in-case infotainment systems — as it offers a way for embedded Linux-compatible platform the capability to run Android apps without needing to opt for Google’s automotive offerings. And while plenty of car makers have opted for Android, there are still players Jolla could net for its ‘Google-free’ alternative.
Embedded linux systems also run in plenty of other places, too, so it’s hopeful of wider demand. The software could be used to enable an IoT device to run a particularly popular app, for example, as a value add for customers.
“Jolla is doing fine,” says CEO and co-founder Sami Pienimäki. “I’m happy to see the company turning profitable last year officially.
“In general it’s the overall maturity of the asset and the company that we start to have customers here and there — and it’s been honestly a while that we’ve been pushing this,” he goes, fleshing out the reasons behind the positive numbers with trademark understatement. “The company is turning ten years in October so it’s been a long journey. And because of that we’ve been steadily improving our efficiency and our revenue.
“Our revenue grew over 50% since 2019 to 2020 and we made €5.4M revenue. At the same time the cost base of the operation has stablized quite well so the sum of those resulted to nice profitability.”
While the consumer mobile OS market has — for years — been almost entirely sewn up by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, Jolla licenses its open source Sailfish OS to governments and business as an alternative platform they can shape to their needs — without requiring any involvement of Google.
The case for digital sovereignty in general — and an independent (non-US-based) mobile OS platform provider, specifically — has been strengthened in recent years as geopolitical tensions have played out via the medium of tech platforms; leading to, in some cases, infamous bans on foreign companies being able to access US-based technologies.
In a related development this summer, China’s Huawei launched its own Android alternative for smartphones, which it’s called HarmonyOS.
Pienimäki is welcoming of that specific development — couching it as a validation of the market in which Sailfish plays.
“I wouldn’t necessarily see Huawei coming out with the HarmonyOS value proposition and the technology as a competitor to us — I think it’s more proving the point that there is appetite in the market for something else than Android itself,” he says when we ask whether HarmonyOS risks eating Sailfish’s lunch.
“They are tapping into that market and we are tapping into that market. And I think both of our strategies and messages support each other very firmly.”
Jolla has been working on selling Sailfish into the Chinese market for several years — and that sought for business remains a work in progress at this stage. But, again, Pienimäki says Jolla doesn’t see Huawei’s move as any kind of blocker to its ambitions of licensing its Android alternative in the Far East.
“The way we see the Chinese market in general is that it’s been always open to healthy competition and there is always competing solutions — actually heavily competing solutions — in the Chinese market. And Huawei’s offering one and we are happy to offer Sailfish OS for this very big, challenging market as well.”
“We do have good relationships there and we are building a case together with our local partners also to access the China market,” he adds. “I think in general it’s also very good that big corporations like Huawei really recognize this opportunity in general — and this shapes the overall industry so that you don’t need to, by default, opt into Android always. There are other alternatives around.”
On AppSupport, Jolla says the automative sector is “actively looking for such solutions”, noting that the “digital cockpit is a key differentiator for car markers — and arguing that makes it a strategically important piece for them to own and control.
“There’s been a lot of, let’s say, positive vibes in that sector in the past few years — new comers on the block like Tesla have really shaken the industry so that the traditional vendors need to think differently about how and what kind of user experience they provide in the cockpit,” he suggests.
“That’s been heavily invested and rapidly developing in the past years but I’m going to emphasize that at the same time, with our limited resources, we’re just learning where the opportunities for this technology are. Automative seems to have a lot of appetite but then [we also see potential in] other sectors — IoT… heavy industry as well… we are openly exploring opportunities… but as we know automotive is very hot at the moment.”
“There is plenty of general linux OS base in the world for which we are offering a good additional piece of technology so that those operating solutions can actually also tap into — for example — selected applications. You can think of like running the likes of Spotify or Netflix or some communications solutions specific for a certain sector,” he goes on.
“Most of those applications are naturally available both for iOS and Android platforms. And those applications as they simply exist the capability to run those applications independently on top of a linux platform — that creates a lot of interest.”
In another development, Jolla is in the process of raising a new growth financing round — it’s targeting €20M — to support its push to market AppSupport and also to put towards further growing its Sailfish licensing business.
It sees growth potential for Sailfish in Europe, which remains the biggest market for licensing the mobile OS. Pienimäki also says it’s seeing “good development” in certain parts of Africa. Nor has it given up on its ambitions to crack into China.
The growth round was opened to investors in the summer and hasn’t yet closed — but Jolla is confident of nailing the raise.
“We are really turning a next chapter in the Jolla story so exploring to new emerging opportunities — that requires capital and that’s what are looking for. There’s plenty of money available these days, in the investor front, and we are seeing good traction there together with the investment bank with whom we are working,” says Pienimäki.
“There’s definitely an appetite for this and that will definitely put us in a better position to invest further — both to Sailfish OS and the AppSupport technology. And in particular to the go-to market operation — to make this technology available for more people out there in the market.”
Columbus, Ohio-based Finite State, a startup that provides supply chain security for connected devices and critical infrastructure, has raised $30M in Series B funding.
The funding lands amid increased focus on the less-secure elements in an organizations’ supply chain, such as Internet of Things devices and embedded systems. The problem, Finite State says, is largely fueled by device firmware, the foundational software that often includes components sourced from third-party vendors or open-source software. This means if a security flaw is baked into the finished product, it’s often without the device manufacturers’ knowledge.
“Cyber attackers see firmware as a weak link to gain unauthorized access to critical systems and infrastructure,” Matt Wyckhouse, CEO of Finite State, tells TechCrunch. “The number of known cyberattacks targeting firmware has quintupled in just the last four years.”
The Finite State platform brings visibility to the supply chains that create connected devices and embedded systems. After unpacking and analyzing every file and configuration in a firmware build, the platform generates a complete bill of materials for software components, identifies known and possible zero-day vulnerabilities, shows a contextual risk score, and provides actionable insights that product teams can use to secure their software.
“By looking at every piece of their supply chain and every detail of their firmware — something no other product on the market offers — we enable manufacturers to ship more secure products, so that users can trust their connected devices more,” Wyckhouse says.
The company’s latest funding round was led by Energize Ventures, with participation from Schneider Electric Ventures and Merlin Ventures, and comes a year after Finite State raised a $12.5 million Series A round. It brings the total amount of funds raised by the firm to just shy of $50 million.
The startup says it plans to use the funds to scale to meet the demands of the market. It plans to increase its headcount too; Finite State currently has 50 employees, a figure that’s expected to grow to more than 80 by the end of 2021.
“We also want to use this fundraising round to help us get out the message: firmware isn’t safe unless it’s safe by design,” Wyckhouse added. “It’s not enough to analyze the code your engineers built when other parts of your supply chain could expose you to major security issues.”
Finite State was founded in 2017 by Matt Wyckhouse, founder and former CTO of Battelle’s Cyber Business Unit. The company showcased its capabilities in June 2019, when its widely-cited Huawei Supply Chain Assessment revealed numerous backdoors and major security vulnerabilities in the Chinese technology company’s networking devices that could be used in 5G networks.
If efforts by states and cities to pass privacy regulations curbing the use of facial recognition are anything to go by, you might fear the worst for the companies building the technology. But a recent influx of investor cash suggests the facial recognition startup sector is thriving, not suffering.
Facial recognition is one of the most controversial and complex policy areas in play. The technology can be used to track where you go and what you do. It’s used by public authorities and in private businesses like stores. But facial recognition has been shown to be flawed and inaccurate, often misidentifies non-white faces, and is disproportionately affects communities of color. Its flawed algorithms have already been used to send innocent people to jail, and privacy advocates have raised countless concerns about how this kind of biometric data is stored and used.
The pushback against facial recognition didn’t stop there. Since the start of the year, Maine, Massachusetts, and the city of Minneapolis have all passed legislation curbing or banning the use of facial recognition in some form, following in the steps of many other cities and states before them and setting the stage for others, like New York, which are eyeing legislation of their own.
In those same six or so months, investors have funneled hundreds of millions into several facial recognition startups. A breakdown of Crunchbase data by FindBiometrics shows a sharp rise in venture funding in facial recognition companies at well over $500 million in 2021 so far, compared to $622 million for all of 2020.
About half of that $500 million comes from one startup alone. Israel-based startup AnyVision raised $235 million at Series C earlier this month from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 for its facial recognition technology that’s used in schools, stadiums, casinos, and retail stores. Macy’s is a known customer, and uses the face-scanning technology to identify shoplifters. It’s a steep funding round compared to a year earlier when Microsoft publicly pulled its investment in AnyVision’s Series A following an investigation by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder into reports that the startup’s technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.
Paravision, the company marred by controversy after it was accused of using facial recognition on its users without informing them, raised $23 million in a funding round led by J2 Ventures.
And last week, Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition startup that is the subject of several government investigations and multiple class-action suits for allegedly scraping billions of profile photos from social media sites, confirmed to The New York Times it raised $30 million from investors who asked “not to be identified,” only that they are “institutional investors and private family offices.” That is to say, while investors are happy to see their money go towards building facial recognition systems, they too are all too aware of the risks and controversies associated with attaching their names to the technology.
Although the applications and customers of facial recognition wildly vary, there’s still a big market for the technology.
Many of the cities and towns with facial recognition bans also have carve outs that allow its use in some circumstances, or broad exemptions for private businesses that can freely buy and use the technology. The exclusion of many China-based facial recognition companies, like Hikvision and Dahua, which the government has linked to human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, as well as dozens of other startups blacklisted by the U.S. government, has helped push out some of the greatest competition from the most lucrative U.S. markets, like government customers
But as facial recognition continues to draw scrutiny, investors are urging companies to do more to make sure their technologies are not being misused.
In June, a group of 50 investors with more than $4.5 trillion in assets called on dozens of facial recognition companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba and Huawei, to build their technologies ethically.
“In some instances, new technologies such as facial recognition technology may also undermine our fundamental rights. Yet this technology is being designed and used in a largely unconstrained way, presenting risks to basic human rights,” the statement read.
It’s not just ethics, but also a matter of trying to future-proof the industry from inevitable further political headwinds. In April, the European Union’s top data protection watchdog called for an end to facial recognition in public spaces across the bloc.
“As mass surveillance expands, technological innovation is outpacing human rights protection. There are growing reports of bans, fines, and blacklistings of the use of facial recognition technology. There is a pressing need to consider these questions,” the statement added.
The hype, however, is real — and somewhat understandable. Nothing founder Carl Pei has a good track record in the industry — he was just 24 when he co-founded OnePlus in 2013. The company has done a canny job capitalizing on heightened expectations, meting out information about the product like pieces in a puzzle.
We spoke to Pei ahead of the upcoming launch to get some insight into Ear 1 and the story behind Nothing.
TC: I know there was a timing delay with the launch. Was that related to COVID-19 and supply chain issues?
CP: Actually, it was due to our design. Maybe you’ve seen the concept image of this transparent design. It turns out there’s a reason why there aren’t many transparent consumer tech products out there. It’s really, really hard to make it high quality. You need to ensure that everything inside looks just as good as the outside. So that’s where the team has been iterating, [but] you probably wouldn’t notice the differences between each iteration.
It could be getting the right magnets — as magnets are usually designed to go inside of a product and not be seen by the consumer — to figuring out the best type of gluing. You never have to solve that problem if you have a non-transparent product, but what kind of glue will keep the industrial design intact? I think the main issue has been getting the design ready. And we’re super, super close. Hopefully, it will be a product that people are really excited about when we launch.
So, there were no major supply chain issues?
Not for this product category. With true wireless earbuds, I think we’re pretty fine. No major issues. I mean, we had the issue that we started from zero — so no team and no partners. But step by step, we finally got here.
That seems to imply that you’re at least thinking ahead towards the other products. Have you already started developing them?
We have a lot of products in the pipeline. Earlier this year, we did a community crowdfunding round where we allocated $1.5 million to our community. That got bought up really quickly. But as part of that funding round, we had a deck with some of the products in development. Our products are code-named as Pokemon, so there are a lot of Pokemon on that slide [Editor’s note: The Ear 1 was“Aipom.”]. We have multiple categories that we’re looking at, but we haven’t really announced what those are.
Why were earbuds the right first step?
I think this market is really screaming for differentiation. If you look at true wireless today, I think after Apple came out with the AirPods, the entire market kind of followed. Everybody wears different clothes. This is something we wear for a large part of the day. Why wouldn’t people want different designs?
We’re working with Teenage Engineering — they’re super, super strong designers. I think true wireless is a place where we can really leverage that strength. Also, from a more rational business perspective, wireless earbuds is a super-fast growing product category. I think we’re going to reach 300 million units shipped worldwide this year for this category. And your first product category should be one with good business potential.
“Screaming for differentiation” is an interesting way to put it. When you look at AirPods and the rest of the industry, are aesthetics what the market primarily lacks? Is it features or is it purely stylistic?
If we take a take a step back and think about it from a consumer perspective, we feel like, as a whole, consumer tech is quite, quite boring. Kids used to want to become engineers and astronauts and all that. But if you look at what kids want to become today, they want to be TikTokers or YouTubers. Maybe it’s because technology isn’t as inspiring as before. We talked to consumers, and they don’t care as much as a couple of years ago either. If you look at what what brands are doing in their communication, it’s all about features and specs.
Listen, it’s probably not the best sign when a show feels like it’s running out of steam on its first day. Mobile World Congress’ opening salvo was headlined by Samsung in an event that touched on some partnerships and spent equal time teasing an upcoming event where it will actually launch some hardware. It’s hard to get too down on the GSMA, and I really ought to preface all of these by reiterating that – even in a normal year – running an event is hard as hell. Canceling its flagship show last year had to be gut-wrenching, and deciding to go forward with this one must have also been – albeit for dramatically different reasons?
It’s not like the show didn’t come with some wins. What’s that? Elon Musk videoed in? That’s a pretty massive get by any measure, with all of the standard “whatever you think about the guy” preambles. Love him or hate, you’ve heard about him and probably have extremely strong feelings about the dude, one way or another.
The High Priest of Dogeking beamed in to talk SpaceX StarLink. “To be totally frank, we are losing money on that terminal right now,” Musk said in the interview. “That terminal costs us more than $1,000, so obviously I’m subsidizing the cost of the terminal.” Good thing he’s got deep pockets.
He promised a new version of the company’s satellite next year, “which will be significantly more capable.”
Huawei thus far has focused much more on networking than consumer – it’s important to caveat this by adding that MWC is as much, if not more, a networking show, in spite of all of the press that tends to focus on consumer device launches. The company launched a bunch of 5G networking hardware, including several MIMO products.
Speaking of networks, I totally forgot to include this bit from TechCrunch parent co (you know, for now). Verizon trotted out a bunch of robots with 5G branding. The company was making a point about the importance of cellular for future robotics communication.
Here’s CSO Rima Qureshi, quoted by Reuters, “5G will make it possible for robots to connect with other robots and devices of all kinds in a way that simply wasn’t possible before.”
Image Credits: Huawei
Let’s be honest, though, mostly robots make for cool stage fodder. From what I can tell, the Boston Dynamics-esque quadruped was this bot from Ghost Robotics, which Verizon also trotted out (well, it trotted itself out, I suppose) at CES in January:
Given the choice, would I have put on an in-person event in Barcelona in the summer of 2021? No. Nuh-uh. No way. Did the GSMA feel like they had a choice financially or otherwise? That’s a much more difficult question to answer. When you’re a company that runs on events and partnerships, even canceling a single big show is a shock to the system.
I’m going back and forth on whether I’ll be doing any more of these roundups as the show progresses through Thursday. Definitely if some more interesting stuff shows up, or if there’s like video of Elon hoverboarding through the sparsely populated convention center halls or something. But I’m not holding my breath.
More signs of the global market righting the ship after a disastrous 2020. New figures from Gartner point to 26% increase in global sales year over year for the first quarter of 2021. The overall increase is an impressive one, though it comes after a couple of years of market slow down, followed by a step drop amid the pandemic.
Manufacturers got hit from all sides last year. 2020 kicked things off with a manufacturing slowdown, as China and greater Asia were the first to be impacted by the effects of Covid-19. In the following months, global demand slowed, as shutdowns were instated and job loss and economic issues massively hampered sales.
Image Credits: Gartner
The new Gartner numbers maintain the same global top three manufacturers as this time last year. Samsung’s overall market share grew from 18.4- to 20.3%, courtesy of budget devices, returning to the number one spot.
Apple had managed to push its way to number one in Q4, on the strength of its belated 5G push. The company dropped down to number two for the first quarter – the same position it held this time last year. Overall, its market share is up around 2% y-o-y to 15.5, according to the figures. The top five are rounded out by three Chinese manufacturers — Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo – as Huawei’s struggles continue.
Thus far, global chip shortages appear to have had little impact on shipments.
Think you’re living in a hyper-connected world? Huawei’s proprietary HarmonyOS wants to eliminate delays and gaps in user experience when you move from one device onto another by adding interoperability to all devices, regardless of the system that powers them.
On Wednesday, Huawei officially launched its proprietary operating system HarmonyOS for mobile phones. The firm began building the operating system in 2016 and made it open-source for tablets, electric vehicles and smartwatches last September. Its flagship devices such as Mate 40 could upgrade to HarmonyOS starting Wednesday, with the operating system gradually rolling out on lower-end models in the coming quarters.
HarmonyOS is not meant to replace Android or iOS, Huawei said. Rather, its application is more far-reaching, powering not just phones and tablets but an increasing number of smart devices. To that end, Huawei has been trying to attract hardware and home appliance manufacturers to join its ecosystem.
To date, more than 500,000 developers are building applications based on HarmonyOS. It’s unclear whether Google, Facebook and other mainstream apps in the West are working on HarmonyOS versions.
Some Chinese tech firms have answered Huawei’s call. Smartphone maker Meizu hinted on its Weibo account that its smart devices might adopt HarmonyOS. Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi, who are much larger players than Meizu, are probably more reluctant to embrace a rival’s operating system.
Huawei’s goal is to collapse all HarmonyOS-powered devices into one single control panel, which can, say, remotely pair the Bluetooth connections of headphones and a TV. A game that is played on a phone can be continued seamlessly on a tablet. A smart soymilk blender can customize a drink based on the health data gleaned from a user’s smartwatch.
Devices that aren’t already on HarmonyOS can also communicate with Huawei devices with a simple plug-in. Photos from a Windows-powered laptop can be saved directly onto a Huawei phone if the computer has the HarmonyOS plug-in installed. That raises the question of whether Android, or even iOS, could, one day, talk to HarmonyOS through a common language.
The HarmonyOS launch arrived days before Apple’s annual developer event scheduled for next week. A recent job posting from Apple mentioned a seemingly new concept, homeOS, which may have to do with Apple’s smart home strategy, as noted by Macrumors.
Huawei denied speculations that HarmonyOS is a derivative of Android and said no single line of code is identical to that of Android. A spokesperson for Huawei declined to say whether the operating system is based on Linux, the kernel that powers Android.
Several tech giants have tried to introduce their own mobile operating systems to no avail. Alibaba built AliOS based on Linux but has long stopped updating it. Samsung flirted with its own Tizen but the operating system is limited to powering a few Internet of Things like smart TVs.
Huawei may have a better shot at drumming up developer interest compared to its predecessors. It’s still one of China’s largest smartphone brands despite losing a chunk of its market after the U.S. government cut it off critical chip suppliers, which could hamper its ability to make cutting-edge phones. HarmonyOS also has a chance to create an alternative for developers who are disgruntled with Android, if Huawei is able to capture their needs.
The U.S. sanctions do not block Huawei from using Android’s open-source software, which major Chinese smartphone makers use to build their third-party Android operating system. But the ban was like a death knell for Huawei’s consumer markets overseas as its phones abroad lost access to Google Play services.
Alibaba’s cloud computing unit is making its Apsara operating system compatible with processors based on Arm, x86, RISC-V, among other architectures, the company announced at a conference on Friday.
Alibaba Cloud is one of the fastest-growing businesses for the Chinese e-commerce giant and the world’s fourth-largest public cloud service in the second half of 2020, according to market research firm IDC.
The global chip market has mostly been dominated by Intel’s x86 in personal computing and Arm for mobile devices. But RISC-V, an open-source chip architecture competitive with Arm’s technologies, is gaining popularity around the world, especially with Chinese developers. Started by academics at the University of California, Berkeley, RISC-V is open to all to use without licensing or patent fees and is generally not subject to America’s export controls.
The Trump Administration’s bans on Huawei and its rival ZTE over national security concerns have effectively severed ties between the Chinese telecom titans and American tech companies, including major semiconductor suppliers.
Arm was forced to decide its relationships with Huawei and said it could continue licensing to the Chinese firm as it’s of U.K. origin. But Huawei still struggles to find fabs that are both capable and allowed to actually manufacture the chips designed using the architecture.
The U.S. sanctions led to a burst in activity around RISC-V in China’s tech industry as developers prepare for future tech restrictions by the U.S., with Alibaba at the forefront of the movement. Alibaba Cloud, Huawei and ZTE are among the 13 premier members of RISC-V International, which means they get a seat on its Board of Directors and Technical Steering Community.
In 2019, the e-commerce company’s semiconductor division T-Head launched its first core processor Xuantie 910, which is based on RISC-V and used for cloud edge and IoT applications. Having its operating system work with multiple chip systems instead of one mainstream architecture could prepare Alibaba Cloud well for a future of chip independence in China.
“The IT ecosystem was traditionally defined by chips, but cloud computing fundamentally changed that,” Zhang Jianfeng, president of Alibaba Cloud’s Intelligence group, said at the event. “A cloud operating system can standardize the computing power of server chips, special-purpose chips and other hardware, so whether the chip is based on x86, Arm, RISC-V or a hardware accelerator, the cloud computing offerings for customers are standardized and of high-quality.”
Meanwhile, some argue that Chinese companies moving towards alternatives like RISC-V means more polarization of technology and standards, which is not ideal for global collaboration unless RISC-V becomes widely adopted in the rest of the world.
SoftBank has picked its bet in China’s flourishing industrial robotics space. Youibot, a four-year-old startup that makes autonomous mobile robots for a range of scenarios, said it has notched close to 100 million yuan ($15.47 million) in its latest funding round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia, the Seoul-based early-stage arm of the global investment behemoth.
In December, SoftBank Ventures Asia led the financing round for another Chinese robotics startup called KeenOn, which focuses on delivery and service robots.
Youibot’s previous investors BlueRun Ventures and SIG also participated in the round. The startup, based in Shenzhen where it went through SOSV’s HAX hardware accelerator program, secured three financing rounds during 2020 as businesses and investors embrace industrial automation to minimize human contact. Youibot has raised over 200 million yuan to date.
Founded by a group of PhDs from China’s prestigious Xi’an Jiaotong University, Youibot develops solutions for factory automation, logistics management, as well as inspection and maintenance for various industries. For example, its robots can navigate around a yard of buses, inspect every tire of the vehicles and provide a detailed report for maintenance, a feature that helped it rack up Michelin’s contract.
Youibot’s “strongest suits” are in electronics manufacturing and electric power patrol, the company’s spokesperson told TechCrunch.
The startup is also seeing high growth in its semiconductor business, with customers coming from several prominent front-end wafer fabs, which use the firm’s robots for chip packaging, testing, and wafer production. Youibot declined to disclose their names due to confidentiality.
Chinese clients that it named include CRRC Zhuzhou, a state-owned locomotive manufacturer, Huaneng Group, a state-owned electricity generation giant, Huawei, and more. China currently comprises 80% of Youibot’s total revenues while overseas markets are rapidly catching up. The firm’s revenues tripled last year from 2020.
Youibot plans to spend the fresh proceeds on research and development in its mobile robots and propietary software, team building and market expansion.
China expressed concern on Wednesday over India’s move to not grant any Chinese firm permission to participate in 5G trials in the world’s second largest internet market as the two neighboring nations struggle to navigate business ties amid their geo-political tensions.
Among those who have received the approval include international giants such as Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung that will collaborate with Indian telecom operators Jio Platforms, Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and MTNL for the trial.
Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese companies, that have been operating in India for several years, haven’t received the approval from the Indian government to participate in the upcoming trial. The Indian ministry said earlier this week that it granted permission to those firms that had been picked by the telecom operators.
Wang Xiaojian, the spokesperson of Chinese Embassy in India, said in a statement on Wednesday that the nation expresses “concern and regret that Chinese telecommunications companies have not been permitted to conduct 5G trials with Indian Telecom Service Providers in India.”
“Relevant Chinese companies have been operating in India for years, providing mass job opportunities and making contribution to India’s infrastructure construction in telecommunications. To exclude Chinese telecommunications companies from the trials will not only harm their legitimate rights and interests, but also hinder the improvement of the Indian business environment, which is not conducive to the innovation and development of related Indian industries,” added Xiaojian.
Last year, Airtel (India’s second-largest telecom operator) had said that it was open to collaborating with global technology firms, including those from China, for components. “Huawei, over the last 10 or 12 years, has become extremely good with their products to a point where I can safely today say their products at least in 3G, 4G that we have experienced is significantly superior to Ericsson and Nokia without a doubt. And I use all three of them,” Sunil Mittal, the founder of Airtel, said at a conference last year.
In the same panel, then U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross had urged India and other allies of the U.S. to avoid Huawei.
India’s move earlier this week follows similar decisions taken by the U.S., U.K. and Australia, all of which have expressed concerns about Huawei and ZTE and their ties with the Chinese government.
“The Chinese side hopes that India could do more to enhance mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries, and provide an open, fair, just, and non-discriminatory investment and business environment for market entities from all countries, including China, to operate and invest in India,” wrote Xiaojian.
Indian telecom ministry on Tuesday said it has granted several telecom service providers permission to conduct a six-month trial for the use and application of 5G technology in the country. New Delhi has granted approval to over a dozen firm spanning multiple nationalities — excluding China.
Among the telecom operators that have received the grant include Jio Platforms, Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and MTNL. These firms, the ministry said, will work with original equipment manufacturers and tech providers Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and C-Dot. Jio Platforms, additionally, has been granted permission to conduct trials using its own homegrown technology.
In a press note, the Department of Telecommunications didn’t specify anything about China, but a person familiar with the matter confirmed that Chinese giants Huawei and ZTE aren’t among those who have received the approval.
The Indian government branch said it gave permission to telecom service providers, who chose their own priorities and technology partners. The experimental spectrum is being given in various bands which include the mid-band (3.2 GHz to 3.67 GHz), millimeter wave band (24.25 GHz to 28.5 GHz) and in Sub-Gigahertz band (700 GHz). Technology service providers will also be permitted to use their existing spectrum owned by them (800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2500 MHz) to conduct of 5G trials.
“The permission letters specify that each TSP will have to conduct trials in rural and semi-urban settings also in addition to urban settings so that the benefit of 5G Technology proliferates across the country and is not confined only tourban areas. The TSPs are encouraged to conduct trials using 5Gi technology in addition to the already known 5G Technology,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The objectives of conducting 5G trials include testing 5G spectrum propagation characteristics especially in the Indian context; model tuning and evaluation of chosen equipment andvendors; testing of indigenous technology; testing of applications (such as tele-medicine, tele-education, augmented/ virtual reality, drone-based agricultural monitoring, etc.); and to test 5G phones and devices.”
Last year, Airtel had said that it was open to the idea of collaborating with global firms for components. “Huawei, over the last 10 or 12 years, has become extremely good with their products to a point where I can safely today say their products at least in 3G, 4G that we have experienced is significantly superior to Ericsson and Nokia without a doubt. And I use all three of them,” Sunil Mittal, the founder of Airtel, said at a conference last year. In the same panel, then U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross had urged India and other allies of the U.S. to avoid Huawei.
Huawei’s smartphone rivals in China are quickly divvying up the market share it has lost over the past year.
92.4 million units of smartphones were shipped in China during the first quarter, with Vivo claiming the crown with a 23% share and its sister company Oppo following closely behind with 22%, according to market research firm Canalys. Huawei, of which smartphone sales took a hit after U.S. sanctions cut key chip parts off its supply chain, came in third at 16%. Xiaomi and Apple took the fourth and fifth spot respectively.
All major smartphone brands but Huawei saw a jump in their market share in China from Q1 2020. Apple’s net sales in Greater China nearly doubled year-over-year to $17.7 billion in the three months ended March, a quarter of all-time record revenue for the American giant, according to its latest financial results.
“We’ve been especially pleased by the customer response in China to the iPhone 12 family,” said Tim Cook during an earnings call this week. “You have to remember that China entered the shutdown phase earlier in Q2 of last year than other countries. And so they were relatively more affected in that quarter, and that has to be taken into account as you look at the results.”
China’s plan to introduce its digital currency is getting a lot of help from its tech conglomerates. JD.com, a major Chinese online retailer that competes with Alibaba, said Monday that it has started paying some staff in digital yuan, the virtual version of the country’s physical currency.
China has been busy experimenting with digital currency over the past few months. In October, Shenzhen, a southern city known for its progressive economic policies, doled out 10 million yuan worth of digital currency to 500,000 residents, who could then use the money to shop at certain online and offline retailers.
Several other large Chinese cities have followed Shenzhen’s suit. The residents in these regions has to apply through selected banks to start receiving and paying by digital yuan.
The electronic yuan initiative is a collective effort involving China’s regulators, commercial banks and technology solution providers. At first glance, the scheme still mimics how physical yuan is circulating at the moment; under the direction of the central bank, the six major commercial banks in China, including ICBC, distribute the digital yuan to smaller banks and a web of tech solution providers, who could help bring more use cases to the new electronic money.
For example, JD.com partnered up with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) to deposit the digital income. The online retailer has become one of the first organizations in China to pay wages in electronic yuan; in August, some government workers in the eastern city of Suzhou also began getting paid in the digital money.
Across the board, China’s major tech companies have actively participated in the buildout of the digital yuan ecosystem, which will help the central government better track money flows.
Aside from JD.com, video streaming platform Bilibili, on-demand services provider Meituan and ride-hailing app Didi have also begun accepting digital yuan for user purchases. Gaming and social networking giant Tencent became one of the “digital yuan operators” and will take part in the design, R&D and operational work of the electronic money. Jack Ma’s Ant Group, which is undergoing a major overhaul following a stalled IPO, has also joined hands with the central bank to work on building out the infrastructure to move money digitally. Huawei, the telecom equipment titan, debutted a wallet on one of its smartphone models that allows users to spend digital yuan instantaneously even if the device is offline.
Tesla is working on vehicles tailored to Chinese consumers as complaints about the quality of its electric vehicles send shock waves through the internet in the country.
The American EV giant is mulling new products that will be designed from the ground up for China, Grace Tao, a vice president at Tesla, told 21st Century Business Herald, a Chinese business news outlet, during the Shanghai auto show this week. The vehicles developed in China will also be sold globally, she added.
At the same auto event on Monday, a woman showed up at Tesla’s booth, climbing atop a Tesla car and shouting allegations of faulty brakes made by the company. The person was later detained for damaging the vehicle, and Tesla said on microblogging platform Weibo that her car had crashed due to exceeding the speed limit, not quality issues.
Nonetheless, the protestor won widespread sympathy when videos of her spread online. Many users joined in to vent about their Tesla problems. Posts with the hashtag “Tesla stand turned into a stage for defending rights” garnered over 220 million views on Weibo within two days.
“We have since the start been willing to work with national and authoritative third-party organizations to thoroughly inspect the issues raised by the public. By doing this, we wish to win assurance and understanding from consumers,” Tesla China said in a statement posted on Weibo in response to the incident.
“But we still haven’t fulfilled this wish, mainly because our ways of communicating with customers may be problematic. Secondly, we indeed can’t decide for our customers how they want to resolve these issues.”
Like in the West, Tesla has fostered a cult-like following in China. And along with Apple, it’s one of the few American tech giants that have gained a firm foothold in China. Last year, Tesla shipped nearly 500,000 vehicles globally and China contributed 20% to its revenues.
But the company also faces mounting competition from Chinese homegrown challengers. Xpeng, Nio, and Li Auto, the well-funded startups, as well as old-school carmakers, with help from high-tech firms like Huawei, are ready to take a slice of Tesla’s market. The designed-in-China vehicles are already finding a spot among the more patriotic crowds.
It doesn’t help that the Chinese government is placing more scrutiny over Tesla. In January, the firm was summoned by local regulators over quality concerns, shortly after it recalled several tens of thousands of vehicles in the country. The government restricted the use of Tesla by military facilities over national security concerns, The Wall Street Journal reported in March. Elon Musk later said his company would be shut down if its cars were used to spy.
One after another, Chinese tech giants have announced their plans for the auto space over the last few months. Some internet companies, like search engine provider Baidu, decided to recruit help from a traditional carmaker to produce cars. Xiaomi, which makes its own smartphones but has stressed for years it’s a light-asset firm making money from software services, also jumped on the automaking bandwagon. Industry observers are now speculating who will be the next. Huawei naturally comes to their minds.
Huawei seems well-suited for building cars — at least more qualified than some of the pure internet firms — thanks to its history in manufacturing and supply chain management, brand recognition, and vast retail network. But the telecom equipment and smartphone maker repeatedly denied reports claiming it was launching a car brand. Instead, it says its role is to be a Tier 1 supplier for automakers or OEMs (original equipment manufacturers).
Huawei is not a carmaker, the company’s rotating chairman Eric Xu reiterated recently at the firm’s annual analyst conference in Shenzhen.
“Since 2012, I have personally engaged with the chairmen and CEOs of all major car OEMs in China as well as executives of German and Japanese automakers. During this process, I found that the automotive industry needs Huawei. It doesn’t need the Huawei brand, but instead, it needs our ICT [information and communication technology] expertise to help build future-oriented vehicles,” said Xu, who said the strategy has not changed since it was incepted in 2018.
There are three major roles in auto production: branded vehicle manufacturers like Audi, Honda, Tesla, and soon Apple; Tier 1 companies that supply car parts and systems directly to carmakers, including established ones like Bosch and Continental, and now Huawei; and lastly, chip suppliers including Nvidia, Intel and NXP, whose role is increasingly crucial as industry players make strides toward highly automated vehicles. Huawei also makes in-house car chips.
“Huawei wants to be the next-generation Bosch,” an executive from a Chinese robotaxi startup told TechCrunch, asking not to be named.
Huawei makes its position as a Tier 1 supplier unequivocal. So far it has secured three major customers: BAIC, Chang’an Automobile, and Guangzhou Automobile Group.
“We won’t have too many of these types of in-depth collaboration,” Xu assured.
Arcfox, a new electric passenger car brand under state-owned carmaker BAIC, debuted its Alpha S model quipped with Huawei’s “HI” systems, short for Huawei Inside (not unlike “Powered by Intel”), during the annual Shanghai auto show on Saturday. The electric sedan, priced between 388,900 yuan and 429,900 yuan (about $60,000 and $66,000), comes with Huawei functions including an operating system driven by Huawei’s Kirin chip, a range of apps that run on HarmonyOS, automated driving, fast charging, and cloud computing.
Perhaps most eye-catching is that Alpha S has achieved Level 4 capabilities, which Huawei confirmed with TechCrunch.
That’s a bold statement, for it means that the car will not require human intervention in most scenarios, that is, drivers can take their hands off the wheels and nap.
There are some nuances to this claim, though. In a recent interview, Su Qing, general manager for autonomous driving at Huawei, said Alpha S is L4 in terms of “experience” but L2 according to “legal” responsibilities. China has only permitted a small number of companies to test autonomous vehicles without safety drivers in restricted areas and is far from letting consumer-grade driverless cars roam urban roads.
As it turned out, Huawei’s “L4” functions were shown during a demo, during which the Arcfox car traveled for 1,000 kilometers in a busy Chinese city without human intervention, though a safety driver was present in the driving seat. Automating the car is a stack of sensors, including three lidars, six millimeter-wave radars, 13 ultrasonic radars and 12 cameras, as well as Huawei’s own chipset for automated driving.
“This would be much better than Tesla,” Xu said of the car’s capabilities.
But some argue the Huawei-powered vehicle isn’t L4 by strict definition. The debate seems to be a matter of semantics.
“Our cars you see today are already L4, but I can assure you, I dare not let the driver leave the car,” Su said. “Before you achieve really big MPI [miles per intervention] numbers, don’t even mention L4. It’s all just demos.”
“It’s not L4 if you can’t remove the safety driver,” the executive from the robotaxi company argued. “A demo can be done easily, but removing the driver is very difficult.”
“This technology that Huawei claims is different from L4 autonomous driving,” said a director working for another Chinese autonomous vehicle startup. “The current challenge for L4 is not whether it can be driverless but how to be driverless at all times.”
L4 or not, Huawei is certainly willing to splurge on the future of driving. This year, the firm is on track to spend $1 billion on smart vehicle components and tech, Xu said at the analyst event.
A 5G future
Many believe 5G will play a key role in accelerating the development of driverless vehicles. Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom equipment maker, would have a lot to reap from 5G rollouts across the globe, but Xu argued the next-gen wireless technology isn’t a necessity for self-driving vehicles.
“To make autonomous driving a reality, the vehicles themselves have to be autonomous. That means a vehicle can drive autonomously without external support,” said the executive.
“Completely relying on 5G or 5.5G for autonomous driving will inevitably cause problems. What if a 5G site goes wrong? That would raise a very high bar for mobile network operators. They would have to ensure their networks cover every corner, don’t go wrong in any circumstances and have high levels of resilience. I think that’s simply an unrealistic expectation.”
Huawei may be happy enough as a Tier 1 supplier if it ends up taking over Bosch’s market. Many Chinese companies are shifting away from Western tech suppliers towards homegrown options in anticipation of future sanctions or simply to seek cheaper alternatives that are just as robust. Arcfox is just the beginning of Huawei’s car ambitions.
The UK government has intervened to trigger public interest scrutiny of chipmaker’s Nvidia’s planned to buy Arm Holdings.
The secretary of state for digital issues, Oliver Dowden, said today that the government wants to ensure that any national security implications of the semiconductor deal are explored.
Nvidia’s $40BN acquisition of UK-based Arm was announced last September but remains to be cleared by regulators.
The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) began to solicit views on the proposed deal in January.
Domestic opposition to Nvidia’s plan has been swift, with one of the original Arm co-founders kicking off a campaign to ‘save Arm’ last year. Hermann Hauser warned that Arm’s acquisition by a U.S. entity would end its position as a company independent of U.S. interests — risking the U.K.’s economic sovereignty by surrendering its most powerful trade weapon.
The intervention by Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) — using statutory powers set out in the Enterprise Act 2002 — means the competition regulator has been instructed to begin a phase 1 investigation.
The CMA has a deadline of July 30 to submit its report to the secretary of state.
Commenting in a statement, Dowden said: “Following careful consideration of the proposed takeover of ARM, I have today issued an intervention notice on national security grounds. As a next step and to help me gather the relevant information, the UK’s independent competition authority will now prepare a report on the implications of the transaction, which will help inform any further decisions.”
“We want to support our thriving UK tech industry and welcome foreign investment but it is appropriate that we properly consider the national security implications of a transaction like this,” he added.
At the completion of the CMA’s phase 1 investigation Dowden will have an option to clear the deal, i.e. if no national security or competition concerns have been identified; or to clear it with remedies to address any identified concerns.
He could also refer the transaction for further scrutiny by instructing the CMA to carry out an in-depth phase 2 investigation.
After the phase 1 report has been submitted there is no set period when the secretary of state must make a decision on next steps — but DCMS notes that a decision should be made as soon as “reasonably practicable” to reduce uncertainty.
While Dowden’s intervention has been made on national security grounds, additional concerns have been raised about impact of an Nvidia take-over of Arm — specifically on U.K. jobs and on Arm’s open licensing model.
Nvidia sought to address those concerns last year, claiming it’s committed to Arm’s licensing model and pledging to expand the Cambridge, UK offices of Arm — saying it would create “a new global center of excellence in AI research” at the UK campus.
However it’s hard to see what commercial concessions could be offered to assuage concern over the ramifications of an Nvidia-owed Arm on the UK’s economic sovereignty. That’s because it’s a political risk, which would require a political solution to allay, such as at a treaty level — something which isn’t in Nvidia’s gift (alone) to give.
National security concerns are a rising operational risk for tech companies involved in the supply of cutting edge infrastructure, such as semiconductor design and next-gen networks — where a relative paucity of competitors not only limits market choice but amps up the political calculations.
Proposed mergers are one key flash point as market consolidation takes on an acute politico-economic dimension.
However tech companies’ operations are being more widely squeezed in the name of national security — such as, in recent years, the U.S. government’s attacks on China-based 5G infrastructure suppliers like Huawei, with former president Trump seeking to have the company barred from supplying next-gen networks not only within the U.S. but to national networks of Western allies.
Nor has (geo)political pressure been applied purely over key infrastructure companies in recent years; with Trump claiming a national security justification to try and shake down the Chinese-owned social networking company, TikTok — in another example that speaks to how tech tools are being coopted into wider geopolitical power-plays, fuelled by countries’ economic and political self-interest.
Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.
Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.
“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.
“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”
Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.
The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.
“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.
By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.
“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”
The lidar camp
Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.
“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.
“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.
The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.
Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.
Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.
In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.
While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.
Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.
Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”
Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.
“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.
“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.
“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”
Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.
“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”
5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.
Huawei, the crown jewel of China’s tech industry, is reeling from a financial one-two punch delivered by US chip sanctions and a campaign aimed at cutting international markets.
But with Huawei rapidly expanding into new markets and the Chinese government investing heavily to gain technological independence from the West, that leverage may not last for long.
The US government has targeted Huawei over alleged espionage and ties to the state, claiming that the company’s 5G wireless equipment poses a security risk. The rise of Chinese companies is viewed by many in the West as linked to the Chinese government’s power and its brand of techno-authoritarianism.
Huawei’s struggles amid U.S.-China trade tensions are driving it to seek opportunities in other smart devices, setting itself up against a raft of hardware makers at home and abroad.
The Chinese tech giant recorded sluggish revenue growth in 2020, climbing just 3.8% to 891.4 billion yuan ($136 billion), as its net profit grew 3.2% to 64.6 billion yuan. The results were in line with Huawei’s forecasts, the company said Wednesday at its annual report day in Shenzhen, a rare occasion to get a glimpse into the private entity’s financials.
To put the numbers in comparison, Huawei’s revenues were up 19% and 19.5% in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
The slowdown in 2020 was primarily due to a slump in Huawei’s overseas smartphone sales after U.S. export controls cut the firm off core chipsets and Google services critical to consumers. But the challenge has also sped up the firm’s pace to diversify and offset losses from its phone business.
For the past two years, Huawei’s has been ratcheting up efforts in a multitude of smart devices, including AR/VR headsets, tablets, laptops, TVs, smartwatches, speakers, headphones and in-car systems.
Huawei’s foray into the automotive industry has in particular attracted much limelight as the global smart vehicle industry booms. Reuters reported recently that Huawei would be producing its own branded cars, which the company denied. At today’s event, the firm’s rotating chairman Ken Hu reiterated that Huawei would play to its own strengths and only be supplying certain car components and services, such as the in-car operating system and smart cockpit.
Huawei’s matrix of connected products is reminiscent of Xiaomi’s IoT strategy built around its smartphones and operating system, with the difference being that Huawei is also a telecom infrastructure supplier.
Despite moves by a few countries, such as the United Kingdom, to exclude Huawei from their 5G rollout plans, Huawei’s carrier segment in 2020 generated revenues on par with the year prior. The COVID-19 pandemic was a boon to the bsuiness, Hu said, which saw global demand in network solutions rise as people worked and learned from home.
Huawei’s IoT push has shown some early traction but competition is fierce. Smartwatches, it said, was one of its major revenue drivers from last year.
Globally, Apple held onto its leading position in wearables with 34.1% of the market in 2020, according to research firm IDC. Huawei ranked third at 9.8%, trailing its domestic rival Xiaomi which accounted for 11.4% of total shipments last year.
Overall, Huawei was leaning heavily on its home market to sustain growth in 2020. China accounted for 65.5% of its total revenues, growing by 15.4% year-over-year. Meanwhile, revenues fell 12.2% in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, was down 8.7% in the rest of Asia and down 24.5% in the Americas.
Huawei plans to start charging big smartphone-makers like Samsung and Apple royalties for use of its various 5G-related patents, according to CNBC.
Huawei is seeking to make up some of the losses it has experienced as a result of the US government’s moves to sanction the company and limit its ability to sell products in the American market. The US government says national security concerns have driven the policy.
Apple and Samsung would each have to pay up to $2.50 per smartphone sold, with Huawei promising to cap it there and keep rates lower than competitors like Qualcomm or Nokia. For example, Nokia has capped its licensing rate at around $3.58 per unit.
Huawei’s first foldable feels like a distant memory. Announced in 2019, the company went back to the drawing board prior to release, as Samsung ran into its own much publicized issues with the innovative form factor.
The Mate X was well-received among journalists — I had the opportunity to spend some time with it at the company’s HQ in China and was impressed with the build quality. But for various reasons, it never made its way outside of China. And there’s some reason to believe that the newly announced X2 will suffer a similar fate.
The new handset has already drawn its share of comparisons to Samsung’s early models — and rightfully so, to be honest. The X2’s form factor appears to share much more in common with the Galaxy Fold from a design standpoint than its own predecessor. And while Samsung’s model got off to a rocky start or two, the company was also the first to get things fairly right after a bit of public trial and error.
And like Samsung, Huawei is leading with improvements to the hinge mechanism as a big selling point here. It’s the sort of meat and potatoes thing that would be glossed over in most other devices, but the hinge has proven one of the major pain points for these devices — and as much as a company might test behind the scenes, there’s no replacing real-world usage.
The primary, foldable display is eight inches, with a 6.45-inch screen on the outside — a bit more than the Galaxy Fold 2, in both cases (at 7.6 and 6.2 inches, respectively). In the rendering, the front screen occupies most of the device, with a bit of a bezel and a camera cut out. There’s 5G on board, too, paired with Huawei’s proprietary Kirin 9000 chip and a 4,400mAh battery.
The system is, of course, missing a pretty significant feature, courtesy of all of those blacklists. The company is pushing the presence of the Android 10-based EMUI 11.0 (Based on Android 10). Likely the device will also feature Huawei’s own HarmonyOS, in lieu of Android. The company’s been building out its operating system in recent years with the understanding that it would likely become a flashpoint in U.S./China tensions.
We have yet to see a full version of the software, but it’s hard to imagine it being as complete or robust as Google’s 12-year-old mobile OS — not to mention Google’s various apps.
The Mate X2 arrives in China on February 25, starting at around $2,800.
Earlier this week, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei spoke rather diplomatically about the company’s hopes of holding talks with the new U.S. administration. The hardware giant is also taking a less conciliatory route, challenging its FCC designation as a national security threat.
The company this week filed a suit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, calling the FCC ruling, “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion and not supported by substantial evidence.”
Questions have swirled around the smartphone maker’s ties to the Chinese government for years, but the U.S. greatly ramped up actions against Huawei during the Trump years. The federal government has taken a number of routes to essentially kneecap the company, including, notably, its addition to the Department of Commerce’s “entity list,” which effectively barred it from working with U.S. companies.
Huawei likely sees a change in U.S. governance as an opportunity to be reevaluated by the powers that be. The company has long denied spying and other security charges. “I would welcome such phone calls and the message is around joint development and shared success,” Ren earlier this week told the media that he was eager to speak with Biden. “The U.S. wants to have economic growth and China wants to have economic growth as well.”
In a statement offered to The Wall Street Journal, however, an FCC spokesperson stayed firm to the 2020 decision, stating, “Last year the FCC issued a final designation identifying Huawei as a national security threat based on a substantial body of evidence developed by the FCC and numerous U.S. national security agencies. We will continue to defend that decision.”
Thus far, the Biden administration hasn’t indicated any plans to soften restrictions on Huawei. Facing opposition from Republican lawmakers, Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo noted, “I currently have no reason to believe that entities on those lists should not be there. If confirmed, I look forward to a briefing on these entities and others of concern.”
The Biden administration does appear to be reviewing other actions against Chinese companies taken during the Trump administration. Notably, a planned forced sale of TikTok’s U.S. wing has been put on hold while the White House reassesses security concerns.
During a small gathering of journalists in China, Ren Zhengfei made his first public remarks since Joe Biden was inaugurated at the 46th President of the United States. The Huawei CEO struck a hopeful tone for those gathered around the table, in comments reported by CNBC among others.
“I would welcome such phone calls and the message is around joint development and shared success,” the executive said, noting a readiness to speak with the new administration in translated remarks. “The U.S. wants to have economic growth and China wants to have economic growth as well.”
Huawei’s future in the U.S. has been a major question mark hanging over the new administration. Under Trump, a number of high profile Chinese companies were added to the Commerce Department’s so-called “entity list” to various effects. Huawei has been among the hardest hit by the moves.
In addition to blocking sales in the world’s third-largest smartphone market, the company has been unable to work with key U.S. companies, including Google. That, in turn, has blocked access to key technologies, including the Android ecosystem and left Huawei scrambling. The company’s support among consumers has increased within China, but the move has been a big blow to the smartphone maker’s bottom line.
The incoming Biden administration has mostly been quiet on the matter. Though, facing mounting criticism from Republican lawmaker, Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo has since added that, “I currently have no reason to believe that entities on those lists should not be there. If confirmed, I look forward to a briefing on these entities and others of concern.”
While there haven’t been many positive signs for Huawei thus far, the company’s Chief understandably would prefer to make nice with the new administration.
“If Huawei’s production capacity can be expanded, that would mean more opportunities for U.S. companies to supply too,” Ren said in the translated comments. “I believe that’s going to be mutually beneficially. I believe that (the) new administration would bear in mind such business interests as they are about to decide their new policy.”
Rust, the programming language — not the survival game, now has a new home: the Rust Foundation. AWS, Huawei, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla banded together to launch this new foundation today and put a two-year commitment to a million-dollar budget behind it. This budget will allow the project to “develop services, programs, and events that will support the Rust project maintainers in building the best possible Rust.”
A large open-source project oftens needs some kind of guidance and the new foundation will provide this — and it takes a legal entity to manage various aspects of the community, including the trademark, for example. The new Rust board will feature 5 board directors from the 5 founding members, as well as 5 directors from project leadership.
“Mozilla incubated Rust to build a better Firefox and contribute to a better Internet,” writes Bobby Holley, Mozilla and Rust Foundation Board member, in a statement. “In its new home with the Rust Foundation, Rust will have the room to grow into its own success, while continuing to amplify some of the core values that Mozilla shares with the Rust community.”
All of the corporate sponsors have a vested interest in Rust and are using it to build (and re-build) core aspects of some of their stacks. Google recently said that it will fund a Rust-based project that aims to make the Apache webserver safer, for example, while Microsoft recently formed a Rust team, too, and is using the language to rewrite some core Windows APIs. AWS recently launched Bottlerocket, a new Linux distribution for containers that, for example, features a build system that was largely written in Rust.
Huawei’s status in the U.S. has been one of many question marks hovering over the newly minted Biden administration. The smartphone maker was one of a number of Chinese companies added to the Department of Commerce’s “entity list” during Trump’s four years in office.
Gina Raimondo, Joe Biden’s nominee for Commerce secretary, has offered what is potentially one of the clearest looks so far at how Huawei’s status might (or might not) evolve under a new administration. Responding to questions from Senate Republicans, former Rhode Island Governor Raimondo indicated that the Biden administration likely would not be in any hurry to remove Huawei from the blacklist.
Republican House members had previously raised concerns over Raimondo’s position on companies like Huawei, a stance she had yet to clarify. “We urge those Senators who have a history of calling for Huawei to remain on the Entity List to stick to their principles and place a hold on Ms. Raimondo’s confirmation until the Biden Administration clarifies their intentions for Huawei and on export control policies for a country that is carrying out genocide and threatening our national security,” they wrote.
Raimondo has since responded.
“I understand that parties are placed on the Entity List and the Military End User List generally because they pose a risk to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests,” the politician said, in a note reported by Bloomberg. “I currently have no reason to believe that entities on those lists should not be there. If confirmed, I look forward to a briefing on these entities and others of concern.”
The statement isn’t definitive in either direction (as is perhaps to be expected for a Cabinet nominee), but it certainly doesn’t point to a radical change from Trump’s position on the issue. The smartphone marker was added to the list in 2019, following longtime accusations over security and spying concerns. The company has also variously been tied to the Chinese government.
The DoC noted at the time:
Huawei was added to the Entity List after the Department concluded that the company is engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, including alleged violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), conspiracy to violate IEEPA by providing prohibited financial services to Iran, and obstruction of justice in connection with the investigation of those alleged violations of U.S. sanctions, among other illicit activities.
The Trump administration proved especially aggressive in regards to blacklisting Chinese tech companies, a fact that has already had a profound impact on Huawei’s bottom line. Drone giant DJI and AI company SenseTime have been added to the DoC list, while Xiaomi made a separate military blacklist in the waning days of the administration.
The impact of United States government sanctions on Huawei is continuing to hurt the company and dampen overall smartphone shipments in China, where it is largest smartphone vendor, according to a new report by Canalys. But Huawei’s decline also opens new opportunities for its main rivals, including Apple.
Canalys says Apple’s performance in China during the fourth-quarter of 2020 was its best in years, thanks to the iPhone 11 and 12. Its full-year shipments returned to its 2018 levels, and it reached its highest quarterly shipments in China since the end of 2015, when the iPhone 6s was launched.
Overall, smartphone shipments in China fell 11% to about 330 million units in 2020, with market recovery hindered by Huawei’s inability to ship new units. Even though demand in China for Huawei devices remains high, the company has struggled to cope with sanctions imposed by the U.S. government under the Trump administration that banned it from doing business with American companies and drastically curtailed its ability to procure new chips.
In May 2020, Huawei rotating chairman Guo Ping said even though the firm can design some semiconductor components, like integrated circuits, it is “incapable of doing a lot of other things.”
This left Huawei unable to meet demand for its devices, but gives its main rivals new opportunities, wrote Canalys vice president of mobility Nicole Peng. “Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi are fighting to win over Huawei’s offline channel partners across the country, including small rural ones, backed by huge investments in store expansion and marketing support. These commitments brought immediate results, and market share improved within mere months.”
Apple benefited from Huawei’s decline because the company’s Mate series is the iPhone’s main rival in the high-end category, and only 4 million Mate units were shipped in the fourth quarter. “However, Apple has not relaxed its market promotions for iPhone 12,” wrote Canalys research analyst Amber Liu. “Aggressive online promotions across ecommerce players, coupled with widely available trade-in plans and interest-free installments with major banks, drove Apple to its stellar performance.”
During the fourth-quarter of 2020, smartphone shipments in mainland China fell 4% year-over-year to a total of 84 million units. Even though it held onto its number one position in terms of shipments, Huawei’s total market share plummeted to 22% from 41% a year earlier, and it shipped just 18.8 million smartphones, including units from budget brand Honor, which it agreed to sell in November.
Canalys’ graph showing shipments by the top five smartphone vendors in China
Huawei’s main competitors, on the other hand, all increased their shipments at the end of 2020. Oppo took second place, shipping 17.2 million smartphones, a 23% increase year-over-year. Oppo’s closest competitor Vivo increased its quarterly shipment to 15.7 million units. Apple shipped more than 15.3 million units, putting its market share at 18%, up from 15% a year ago. Xiaomi rounded out the top five vendors, shipping 12.2 million units, a 52% year-over-year increase.
Huawei’s decision to sell Honor means the brand may rapidly gain market share in 2021, since it already has brand recognition, wrote Peng. 5G is also expected to help smartphone shipments in China, especially for premium models.
After a dismal year, the global smartphone market will slowly start recovering in 2021, predicts TrendForce. But Huawei won’t benefit and, in fact, will fall out of the research firm’s list of the world’s top six smartphone makers.
In 2020, global smartphone production dropped 11% year-over-year to 1.25 billion units. This year, TrendForce expects it to increase by 9% to 1.36 million units, as people replace old devices and demand grows in emerging markets. But even that slight recovery is contingent on how the pandemic continues to impact the economy and the global chip shortage that is currently causing production delays across almost the entire electronics industry.
In 2020, the top six smartphone brands in order of production volume were Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo. But this year TrendForce expects Huawei to slip out of that ranking, with the new top-six list comprising of Samsung, Apple, Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo and Transsion.
Those six companies are expected to account for 80% of the global smartphone market in 2021, while Huawei will come in at seventh place.
The main reason for Huawei’s drop is the divestment of its budget smartphone brand, Honor. Huawei confirmed in November that it is selling Honor to a consortium of companies to save the division’s supply chain from the impact of United States government trade restrictions.
The spin-out was meant to shield Honor from the sanctions that have hurt Huawei’s business. But “it remains to be seen whether the ‘new’ Honor can capture consumers’ attention without the support from Huawei. Also, Huawei and the new Honor will be directly competing against each other in the future, especially if the former is somehow freed from the U.S. trade sanctions at a later time,” said TrendForce’s report.
In a previous report published shortly after Honor’s sale was announced, TrendForce predicted that the deal, along with the global chip shortage, meant Huawei would take just 4% of the market in 2021, compared to the 17% it held in 2019, and estimated 14% in 2020. Apple is expected to take away some market share from Huawei’s high-end smartphones, while Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo will also benefit. TrendForce expects the newly spun-out Honor to take 2% market share in 2021.
A long-awaited COVID-19 relief bill finally received congressional approval over the weekend. Top-line efforts include plans to bolster a population feeling intense strain after nine months of shutdown. The $600 direct payment has, understandably, grabbed the most headlines, but there’s a ton to dig into amidst the $900 billion package.
Most relevant for our coverage is several billion earmarked for broadband-related issues, including $7 billion set aside to increase broadband access for low-income Americans. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer issued a release noting that the money will go to “help[ing] millions of students, families and unemployed workers afford the broadband they need during the pandemic.”
Internet access has been one of countless pain points, as schools across the country have shutdown in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Lack of a solid internet connection can severely hamstring remote schooling.
Also notable is the $1.9 billion set aside to “rip and replace” ZTE and Huawei equipment, according to reporting from Reuters. Huawei in particular has been a long-time target for the U.S. government. The Chinese technology giant was added to the Department of Commerce’s so-called Entity List last year. Precisely what such moves have meant for companies like Huawei and ZTE has been something of an evolving picture in subsequent months.
More legislation earlier this year officially barred U.S. companies from purchasing networking equipment from either, followed by plans to begin the process to “rip and replace” existing services. Part of the new bill, it seems, will involve the purchasing of equipment to replace those being removed from U.S. networks.
A Huawei spokesperson earlier noted, “to force removal of our products from telecommunications networks. This overreach puts U.S. citizens at risk in the largely underserved rural areas – during a pandemic – when reliable communication is essential.”
The future status of companies like Huawei and ZTE under the incoming Biden administration, however, remains to be seen. Notably, the Commerce Department recently added an additional 77 names to the Entity List, including prominent Chinese firms DJI and SMIC.