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.
Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), China’s top chipmaker, is under mounting pressure as reports of its CEO’s looming departure and a potential U.S. sanction concern investors.
The U.S. Commerce Department is looking to add dozens of companies, mostly Chinese and including partially state-owned SMIC, to its trade blacklist, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. The move would effectively restrict SMIC from buying key components from U.S. suppliers to build advanced chipsets.
Telecoms equipment and smartphone making giant Huawei, which counts SMIC as a supplier, has been struggling with phone production after the Trump Administration added it to the trade blacklist and cut off its key chip access.
Last month, the U.S. government reportedly added SMIC to its defense blacklist, which would bar American investors from buying securities from the company.
SMIC and the Commerce Department cannot be immediately reached for comment.
The reports arrived amid SMIC’s management shakeup and what appears to be internal politics at the chipmaking firm. SMIC recently appointed Chiang Shang-Yi, formerly a co-chief operating officer at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), as vice-chairman. Days later an alleged resignation letter from Liang Mong Song made rounds online, and in it, the co-chief executive of SMIC said he was unaware of Chiang’s appointment and the hiring had prompted him to quit.
The fate of SMIC and TSMC is tightly linked to that of Huawei. TSMC, once an important supplier to Huawei, reportedly halted orders from the Chinese firm following new U.S. export controls. There were hopes that SMIC could be a replacement, but industry observers have long argued that the Chinese chipmaker is years behind its Taiwanese rival on making state of the art chipsets for phones.
The rise of U.S.-China tensions has accelerated the bifurcation of global technology, with the two superpowers each working on their own tech systems. While the rift might be discouraging cross-border investment and business expansion between the rivals, the countries that are in-between — like those in Southeast Asia and Europe — are still finding opportunities.
Sweden’s Dirac is such an example. The 15-year-old firm has been licensing sound optimization technology to mobile, home entertainment, AR/VR, automotive, and other businesses where sounds are critical. The geopolitical complications “have not impacted” the company at all, its founder and chief executive Mathias Johansson told TechCrunch in an interview.
Based in the university city Uppsala of Sweden, Dirac has deep ties to China, offering solutions to the country’s smartphone leaders from Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi, to Africa-focused Transsion. More than 50% of its revenue come from China today.
Dirac’s interest in China stems in part from the founder’s early fascination with the country. When Johansson visited China for the first time through his PhD program two decades ago, he was impressed by the “rapid evolution” in the tech industry there.
“The audio industry put a lot of manufacturing in China first, but then more and more on development and design. We realized this is a market that’s absolutely key for the entire consumer electronics ecosystem,” Johansson said.
The entrepreneur had since been traveling to Asia, especially Japan and China where electronics were flourishing. In 2010, he hired Dirac’s first China manager Tony Ye, who previously worked for Swedish software firm IAR Systems in Shanghai. At the time, the revolutionary iPhone 4 was making waves across the world, but Johansson and his team were also bullish about China.
“We thought that China is going to be the leader in smartphones eventually. We thought that with Android and with Arm processors [China] is going to be a very different market. So we really went in there and focused on the market. And we thought that [Chinese] would be more hungry, more interested in trying out new things, simply because they were newcomers just like we were pioneers,” the founder said.
“It turned out to be the right bet.”
Though the Chinese government has been advocating for technological autonomy, the national efforts are prioritizing strategic areas like 5G and AI. In smaller and less politically charged fields, imported technologies are still seeing demand. These solutions are often cutting-edge and built upon years of research and development, but they are too niched for big corporations to invest the money and time. That is true for certain video enhancement solutions (see TechCrunch’s profile of Imint, also an Uppsala-based company), or advanced sound optimization in the case of Dirac.
Johansson began researching the audio technology behind Dirac some 20 years ago during university, which made it harder for latecomers to catch up, the founder asserted. Dirac fixes audio like how glasses correct vision. Its team would first send out a test signal through the target speaker system, records it with a microphone, generates a digital fingerprint of audio, and measures the acoustic information. It then makes an exact “mirror universe” of the distortions created by the system, sends pre-distorted audio back to the speakers and the users will eventually get the distortion-free version of the sound.
The research and development cycle at Dirac is long, but working with Chinese companies has forced the Swedish firm to adapt.
“It challenged us to come up with new, more efficient ways of doing the same thing and to keep that innovation pace ahead of the competitor, whether it’s domestic Chinese, or the U.S., or wherever,” the founder admitted.
Dirac maintains its cashflow by licensing its intellectual property to clients and charges royalty fees per unit of device shipped. It also operates a B2B2C model, whereby the end-user can upgrade the sound system of a device, say, a speaker, by paying a fee, which is then divided between Dirac and its client, i.e. the device maker. Its latest big-name customer is the Chinese electric carmaker BYD, a deal that the company sees as an important step in furthering its automotive ambitions.
“Traditional carmakers are being challenged and the whole ecosystem is changing,” Johansson observed. “With software upgrades, cars are becoming something very different. They’re becoming much more like mobile phones and much more software-centric. The whole entertainment aspect and the audio experience in cars are becoming almost the most important part of the car because the noise is so low, the car is so quiet and you’re maybe driving a self-driving car. The audio experience you will get from cars will be outstanding in a couple of years.”
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest big news, chats about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here — and don’t forget to check out last Thursday’s edtech deep dive from our own Natasha Mascarenhas.
Right, now through the first of America’s national Q4 feast days, it’s time to get back to business. Namely, the business of VC and startups. Here’s what we got into this morning:
It’s Cyber Monday, which means that the Internet is going to be annoying today, but the fake-holiday is boosting ecommerce players like Etsy. That should be good news for payments processors incumbent and startup, as well as other ecommerce businesses, again large, small, and even platform-focused.
The UK government has squeezed the timetable for domestic telcos to stop installing 5G kit from Chinese suppliers, per the BBC, which reports that the deadline for installation of kit from so-called ‘high risk’ vendors is now September.
It had already announced a ban on telcos buying kit from Huawei et al by the end of this year — acting on national security concerns attached to companies that fall under the jurisdiction of Chinese state surveillance laws. But, according to the BBC, ministers are concerned carriers could stockpile kit for near-term installation to create an optional buffer for themselves since it has allowed until 2027 for them to remove such kit from existing 5G networks. Maintaining already installed equipment will also still be allowed up til then.
A Telecommunications Security Bill which will allow the government to identify kit as a national security risk and ban its use in domestic networks is slated to be introduced to parliament tomorrow.
Digital secretary Oliver Dowden told the BBC he’s pushing for the “complete removal of high-risk vendors”.
In July the government said changes to the US sanction regime meant it could no longer manage the security risk attached to Chinese kit makers.
The move represented a major U-turn from the policy position announced in January — when the UK said it would allowed Chinese vendors to play a limited role in supplying domestic networks. However the plan faced vocal opposition from the government’s own back benches, as well as high profile pressure from the US — which has pushed allies to expel Huawei entirely.
Alongside policies to restrict the use of high risk 5G vendors the UK has said it will take steps to encourage newcomers to enter the market to tackle concerns that the resulting lack of suppliers introduces another security risk.
“This 5G Diversification Strategy is a clear and ambitious plan to grow our telecoms supply chain while ensuring it is resilient to future trends and threats,” he writes. “It has three core strands: supporting incumbent suppliers; attracting new suppliers into the UK market; and accelerating the development and deployment of open-interface solutions.”
The government is putting an initial £250 million behind the 5G diversification plan to try to build momentum for increasing competition and interoperability.
“Achieving this long term vision depends on removing the barriers that prevent new market entrants from joining the supply chain, investing in R&D to support the accelerated development and deployment of interoperable deployment models, and international collaboration and policy coordination between national governments and industry,” it writes.
In the short to medium term the government says it will proritize support for existing suppliers — so the likely near term beneficiary of the strategy is Finland’s Nokia.
Though the government also says it will “seek to attract new suppliers to the UK market in order to start the process of diversification as soon as possible”.
“As part of our approach we will prioritise opportunities to build UK capability in key areas of the supply chain,” it writes, adding: “As we progress this activity we look forward to working with network operators in the UK, telecoms suppliers and international governments to achieve our shared goals of a more competitive and vibrant telecoms supply market.”
We’ve reached out to Huawei for comment on the new deadline for UK carriers to stop installing its 5G kit.
The company has continued to reject security concerns attached to its business.
The Federal Communications Commission has rejected ZTE’s petition to remove its designation as a “national security threat.” This means that American companies will continue to be barred from using the FCC’s $8.3 billion Universal Service Fund to buy equipment and services from ZTE .
The Universal Service Fund includes subsidies to build telecommunication infrastructure across the United States, especially for low-income or high-cost areas, rural telehealth services, and schools and libraries. The FCC issued an order on June 30 banning U.S. companies from using the fund to buy technology from Huawei and ZTE, claiming that both companies have close ties with the Chinese Communist Party and military.
Many smaller carriers rely on Huawei and ZTE, two of the world’s biggest telecom equipment providers, for cost-efficient technology. After surveying carriers, the FCC estimated in September that replacing Huawei and ZTE equipment would cost more than $1.8 billion.
Under the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, passed by Congress this year, most of that amount would be eligible for reimbursements under a program referred to as “rip and replace.” But the program has not been funded by Congress yet, despite bipartisan support.
In today’s announcement about ZTE, chairman Ajit Pai also said the FCC will vote on rules to implement the reimbursement program at its next Open Meeting, scheduled to take place on December 10.
The FCC passed its order barring companies deemed national security threats from receiving money from the Universal Service Fund in November 2019. Huawei fought back by suing the FCC over the ban, claiming it exceeded the agency’s authority and violated the Constitution.
Following weeks of rumors surrounding a potential sale, Huawei has reportedly struck a deal to divest itself of its Honor brand. A new report out today from Reuters notes that the embattled hardware maker will sell the budget unit to a consortium of buyers that includes the government of the city of Shenzhen and Digital China, a phone distributor.
The report, which cites “people familiar with the matter,” puts the price tag for the Honor unit at $15.2 billion. Honor’s new owners will reportedly keep much of the brand’s 7,000 employees (management included) in tact, with plans to take the company public in around three years. The Honor brand has largely focused on low-cost devices, with sales in China, Europe and the U.S. This deal would likely find Huawei focusing more exclusively on high-end products under its own brand.
While the deal has been rumored for some time now, its seeming conclusion comes in the wake of Joe Biden’s presidential election win. It seems clear from Huawei’s decision to press on with the all-cash deal that the company doesn’t believe its international fortunes will change immediately under a new U.S. president.
The news comes in the wake of ongoing difficulties tied to U.S. sanctions. Huawei’s inability to access technologies from companies like Google have proven to be a major hit for the world’s second largest phone maker. While the company has managed to maintain solid sales in its native China, even those have taken a hit amid its struggles.
China was the first major global smartphone markets to rebound from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stringent lockdown measures were able to help the country recover from the virus relatively quickly during the first wave, as sales started to return well ahead of other areas.
In Q3, however, things have taken begun to decline again. New numbers from Canalys point to an 8% drop between quarters — and a 15% drop, year-over-year. The firm chalks much of the slow down to longtime market leader Huawei’s on-going issues with the U.S. government. The problems had a kind of cascading effect that served to impact the number two companies, Vivo and Oppo.
Image Credits: Canalys
“Huawei was forced to restrict its smartphone shipments following the August 17 US sanctions which caused a void in channels in Q3 that its peers were not equipped to fill. Huawei is facing its most serious challenge since taking the lead in 2016,” analyst Mo Jia said in a release. “If the position of the US administration does not change, Huawei will attempt to pivot its business strategy, to focus on building the [Harmony] OS and software ecosystem, as the Chinese government is eager to nurture home-grown alternatives to global platforms.”
Huawei dropped 18% in Mainland China, year-over-year. Vivo and Oppo posted similar declines at 13 and 18%, respectively. Xiaomi was able to make up ground at third place, gaining 19% y-o-y per the figures. Apple, meanwhile, remained relatively stead, in spite of the delated launch of the iPhone 12. Huawei’s continued struggles could provide a vacuum for the competition to fill.
Analyst Nicole Peng notes that the arrival of the 5G handset put the U.S. company in a strong position, looking forward, “iPhone 12 series will be a game changer for Apple in Mainland China. As most smartphones in China are now 5G-capable, Apple is closing a critical gap, and pent-up demand for its new 5G-enabled family will be strong.”
Huawei announced earnings results today showing that its growth has slowed significantly this year as the Chinese telecom equipment and smartphone giant said its “production and operations face significant challenges.”
While Huawei did not specify trade restrictions in its brief announcement, the company has been hit with a series of commercial trade restrictions by the U.S. government. The full impact of those policies haven’t been realized yet, because U.S. government has granted Huawei several waivers, including one that will delay the implementation of a ban on commercial trade with Huawei and ZTE until May 2021.
During the first three quarters of 2020, the Chinese telecoms and smartphone giant reported revenue of 671.3 billion yuan (about USD $100.7 billion), an increase of 9.9% year-over-year, with a profit margin of 8%. The company said those results “basically met expectations,” but it represents a huge drop from its performance during the same period last year, when Huawei reported 24.4% growth with a profit margin of 8.7%.
Huawei is a privately-held company and its announcement did not break down its results in terms of smartphone or telecoms equipment sales, or other detail.
The company wrote that “as the world grapples with COVID-19, Huawei’s global supply chain is being put under pressure and its production and operations face significant challenges. The company continues to do its best to find solutions, survive and forge forward, and fulfill its obligations to customers and suppliers.”
Other U.S. restrictions include one that would ban Huawei from using U.S. software and hardware in certain semiconductor processes, forcing it to find other sources for chips.
In addition to the U.S., Huawei is also facing scrutiny by other countries, including the United Kingdom, which is planning to implement a new poicy that will bar telecoms from buying new 5G equipment from Huawei to ZTE and require them to remove any parts from those companies that’s already been installed in UK 5G networks by 2027.
Replacing Huawei equipment also presents costly challenges for telecoms, because Huawei is one of the biggest suppliers in the world. Last month, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said it would cost $1.837 billion to replace Huawei and ZTE networking equipment, with rural telecom networks facing the most financial pressure.
But 2020 has had a few bright spots for Huawei. In July, a report from Canalys found that Huawei overtook Samsung as the leader in global smartphone shipments during the second quarter of 2020, a major milestone because it marked the the first time in nine years that Apple and Samsung didn’t take the top spot on Canalys’ charts. This was partly because smartphone shipments in general have been hurt during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Huawei was helped by sales within China, its domestic market.
Besieged by U.S. tech sanctions, Huawei may be looking to shake up its smartphone business that has taken a hit after losing core semiconductor parts and software services.
The Chinese giant is in talks with Digital China Group to sell parts of Honor, its low-end, budget phone unit for 15-25 billion yuan ($2.2-3.7 billion), Reuters reported on Wednesday.
A Hong Kong-listed firm, Digital China is a spinoff from the Legend Group (later Lenovo) and a major distributor and close ally of Huawei.
Smartphone sales and other consumer-facing electronics today make up the bulk of revenue for Huawei, which began by selling telecommunications gear in the late 1980s.
The news came days after a Chinese tech news blogger claimed Huawei is planning to sell Honor. Respected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo also noted in a report that it’s in Huawei’s benefit to divest Honor so the business could be free of trade restrictions and Huawei gets to focus on high-end phones under its namesake brand.
Sources close to Huawei denied the planned sale of Honor, Tencent News reported last week. A Huawei representative contacted by TechCrunch declined to comment.
Huawei rolled out independent brand Honor in 2011 as Xiaomi’s low-budget phones were taking China by storm. Like Xiaomi, Honor started out by focusing on online sales and young consumers. BBK Group’s Oppo, Vivo and Realme have since made significant inroads into the budget phone market.
Honor’s brand, research and development capabilities and related supply chain management business could be for sale, sources told Reuters. The tech news blogger said Honor will operate and procure independently after the sale.
Other bidders include Xiaomi and TCL, according to Reuters, as well as Gree and BYD, according to the tech news blogger.
According to the Bloomberg report Trump said, “I have given the deal my blessing,” as he left the White House for a campaign rally in North Carolina on Saturday.
“I approved the deal in concept,” Trump reportedly said.
The spinout of TikTok’s U.S. operations from its parent company Bytedance was something that Trump administration had demanded on the grounds that the company’s data handling policies and popularity in the U.S. posed a national security threat.
That said, the U.S. has been looking to curtail the operations of several Chinese technology companies on the grounds that they pose security threats to the U.S. Indeed, the Presidential order that demanded TikTok’s spinout also called for the discontinuation of the U.S. operations of the messaging service WeChat, which is owned by Tencent — one of China’s largest technology companies. And the U.S. government has also put a target on the telecommunications and networking technology developer, Huawei.
“This order violates the First Amendment rights of people in the United States by restricting their ability to communicate and conduct important transactions on the two social media platforms,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, in a statement on Friday.
All of this could be exceptionally bad for U.S. technology businesses, as Instgram’s chief, Adam Mosseri pointed out in a series of Friday tweets.
“A US ban of TikTok would be meaningful step in the direction of a more fragmented nationalized internet, which would be bad for US tech companies which have benefited greatly from the ability to operate across borders,” Mosseri wrote.