Qualcomm Seeks iPhone Sales and Manufacturing Ban in China (Oct 13, 2017)
Qualcomm has announced that it’s filed lawsuits in China seeking a ban on iPhone sales and manufacturing in the country, the latest salvo in the ongoing dispute between the two over patent royalty payments. Qualcomm previously requested the International Trade Commission to ban the import of Intel-based iPhones into the US, and importantly the Chinese government earlier fined Qualcomm on antitrust grounds, so it’s not necessarily disposed to siding with it in this case. However, Qualcomm has been among a set of companies looking to curry favor with the Chinese government, so it’s possible that the Chinese government might look more favorably on such a request. On balance, though, I think it’s unlikely that Qualcomm will prevail here given its history not only in China but elsewhere around these antitrust issues, though of course a successful ban would be a huge blow to Apple in China, so it’s understandable why Qualcomm would seek it as a way to gain leverage in the case.
Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has announced that it will double its R&D spending over the next few years, with the main focus of its $15 billion investment in three areas: AI, the Internet of Things, and quantum computing. Though the Bloomberg piece here suggests this is another front in its competition with Amazon, the reality is that the two compete for very little business, mostly competing against other western and Chinese companies respectively in their major markets, with Alibaba dominant in China but negligible in the US. Rather, this is part of a much broader competition between big tech companies in aiming for leadership in several key new research categories, AI chief among them. That’s a competitive dynamic that has now taken on geopolitical overtones, with the US and China emerging as the likeliest leaders in AI, itself considered critical to future competitiveness in not just business but cyber warfare and other areas. Alibaba is, of course, already growing dramatically as a company, and the increase in planned R&D spending is therefore not wildly out of whack with its overall growth, but it makes for a great press release as the company seeks to burnish its innovation credentials.
China Effectively Blocks WhatsApp (Sep 25, 2017)
It appears that the Chinese government has effectively blocked WhatsApp entirely in the country through some fairly sophisticated and subtle means, making it more or less unusable for the population, an escalation over earlier partial censorship of certain content types. This is obviously a big blow to Facebook – we don’t know how many monthly active users WhatsApp has in China, and it’s clearly not as dominant there as in certain other markets given the popularity of the local messaging services, but it’s still an important market for WhatsApp given its popularity in Asia in general, and WhatsApp has also been about the only property Facebook has that’s operated in China even as the rest of the company has been shut out. The context here is the broader crackdown by the government against western tech companies and especially those that foster open communication at a time when the government is clamping down on dissent.
via New York Times
Facebook Quietly Tests Chinese App Waters with Moments Clone (Aug 11, 2017)
Huawei Smartphone Reportedly Coming to AT&T (Aug 4, 2017)
I’ve had a few items recently about Huawei, including an item earlier this week about global smartphone market share, and you’ll hopefully have sensed that I think it’s a fascinating company to watch. But one of the other consistent themes about Huawei is that it’s been successful in much of the world with one big exception: the US, where the major carriers haven’t sold its phones. Fellow Chinese smartphone maker ZTE has been more successful in getting its phones ranged by US wireless carriers, especially in the prepaid space, but Huawei has been absent. And it’s worth noting that when it comes to the postpaid market that dominates the US, there are really just three big brands: Apple, Samsung, and LG, in that order. Every other vendor has under 5% of the total US smartphone installed base, with Motorola and HTC rounding out the top five. With all that as context, the fact that The Information is reporting Huawei is working with AT&T for a launch, possibly built around its next flagship, is kind of a big deal. Given the flagship focus, this almost certainly means it’s coming to AT&T’s postpaid service, which is arguably an even bigger deal, and follows on from earlier reporting that AT&T was certifying Huawei’s chipset. Between this and the availability of the Motorola Z2 Force on all four major carriers, we’re potentially entering the first real phase of expansion in the US smartphone lineups offered by major carriers in quite some time, following a period of simplification and focus. That’s yet another sign of both maturing smartphone markets and a maturing wireless market in the US, which is going to force carriers to get creative in how they attract and retain customers.
via The Information
Apple reported its fiscal third quarter / calendar second quarter results today, and they came in at the high end of its guidance and beat analyst estimates. One of the biggest surprises was strong iPad unit growth year on year after four years of declines, and just the second quarter of revenue growth for iPads during that period, thanks largely to sales of the lower-priced $329 iPad introduced earlier this year. But Apple said all its product categories saw year on year revenue and unit growth, with Apple Watch reportedly growing 50% year on year, and Mac and iPhone unit growth up modestly, while the Services business continued on its recent tear, driven largely by the App Store, but also to an extent by Apple Music and iCloud storage plans. iPhone ASPs were up modestly year on year driven by stronger sales of the latest Plus models, and would have been up more if not for the fact that the company sold down its inventory significantly, with almost all the reduction being made up of more expensive phones.
Perhaps more significantly for the longer term outlook, the company provided guidance for the September quarter which essentially guarantees new iPhone hardware in September. I would guess that at the very least Apple will have the successors to the current phones on sale in the usual timeframe and in the usual volumes, while my hunch is that the new higher-end model will also go on sale at the same time but be even more heavily supply-constrained than new iPhones usually are.
Apple continued to talk up performance in mainland China as distinct from the Greater China region it reports, where sales were down 10% year on year, the best result in nearly two years, but still a drag on overall results with other regions all growing, all but Japan at double digit rates. Tim Cook also addressed the issue of VPNs in China which I wrote about yesterday, and defended Apple’s stance, which is a combination of following the law in each country where it operates, and believing that it’s better to engage and stay in a country than leave, even where it disagrees with policy (my notes on this portion can be seen here).
Overall, Apple’s management on the call seemed as bullish as they have for some time, clearly looking forward to what they expect to be a strong finish to the year in both product and financial terms. Tim Cook wasn’t drawn the slightest bit on new iPhones, but did hint at new products this fall, talked about the role of autonomy beyond vehicles and Apple’s big project in this area, raved about ARKit and the potential of AR, among other things. There’s clearly a good mix of products coming to market in the near term and investment for the long term which Apple’s management is also happy about. That’s no guarantee of a strong performance in the September or more importantly the December quarter, but I continue to be pretty bullish on what’s coming over the next few months from Apple.
Apple Removes VPN Apps from Chinese Version of App Store (Jul 31, 2017)
Apple has removed VPN apps from the Chinese version of its App Store for iOS devices, in compliance with the Chinese government’s edict that VPNs have to be licensed to be able to operate. This is yet another example of the difficult line foreign tech companies have to walk in China, complying for the most part with local regulations, even those designed to enable censorship, while preserving freedom of speech in other markets around the world. This is a gray area that Apple hasn’t had to deal with as much as content-centric companies like Facebook and Google, both of which eventually exited China (one forced out, the other choosing to leave rather than submit to censorship requirements), but that’s been starting to change. In the past year and a half, we’ve seen some of Apple’s content offerings like iBooks, individual apps like the New York Times, and now categories such as VPNs blocked, while the government has also forced cloud service providers to work through local companies for data centers. As I’ve said before, so far Apple can simply say it’s complying with local laws and regulations as it does elsewhere, and that will provide some cover, although it hasn’t insulated it entirely from criticism over this latest move. This move in particular further reduces the ability of users with Chinese App Store accounts to get access to otherwise blocked news and information, but a recent crackdown on VPN use makes that challenging anyway. But so far the Chinese government hasn’t forced Apple to break any of its own cardinal rules, including protecting user privacy and security. If and when the Chinese government ever does cross that line, that will be the real test for Apple and could end up being very bad for its business in China. So far, thankfully, it hasn’t come to that. Also worth noting in this context: Russia has just passed legislation that bans the use of VPNs in the country, and although it’s a far less important market for Apple than China, the company will have to deal with some of the same issues there once the law kicks in this November.