The two big Chinese players – Huawei and ZTE – have a low profile in Las Vegas. The troubles that the two companies have had this past year took a toll. ZTE was shutdown for a time by the U.S. government and a very senior Huawei executive was jailed in Canada, pending extradition to the U.S. Both companies have been accused of being too cosy with the Chinese government. Neither company held their usual media extravaganzas at CES this year.
Huawei hasn’t gone into stealth mode, though. At a separate event in Shenzen, China, Huawei unveiled a ARM-based chip that’ll power a new line of servers that target the high performance data center – aka big data – market. ARM is a chip architecture that is the alternative to Intel’s venerable x86 central processing units that trace their lineage back to the dawn of the personal computer. But it’s steadily losing market share to ARM-based chips, which are the core technology inside smartphones and tablets. Qualcomm, Apple and many other companies make chips based on ARM architecture, and it has made steady inroads into the server market.
Huawei has long partnered with Intel to make great achievements. Together we have contributed to the development of the ICT industry. Huawei and Intel will continue our long-term strategic partnerships and continue to innovate together,“ said William Xu, Director of the Board and Chief Strategy Marketing Officer of Huawei.
”At the same time, the ARM industry is seeing a new development opportunity…We will work with global partners in the spirit of openness, collaboration, and shared success to drive the development of the ARM ecosystem and expand the computing space, and embrace a diversified computing era."
From barely a blip on the radar – 3 million units – five years ago, Huawei broke out of the pack in 2015 with 108 million smartphones sold and a 10% share of the global market. That keeps it in third place worldwide, behind Apple and market leader Samsung, which has a 28% share. Speaking at the company’s press conference at CES this morning, consumer business group CEO Richard Yu said they’re aiming to pass Apple – currently with a 12% global smartphone share – and move up a notch into the number two spot within two years. Overall, Huawei’s consumer division did more than $20 billion in business last year.
It’s not doing it with low end, mass production products alone. The head of Huawei’s handset business, Kevin Ho, demoed a $750 smartphone and a $450 tablet at the event.
Battery life is Huawei’s primary product differentiator, it seems. It’s leveraging its chipmaking capability to focus on extending big screen smartphone use time to two days, making it possible to spend a long, intensive day on power hungry 4G networks without recharging. Ho said that Huawei’s Kirin 950 ARM-based, 16 nanometer system-on-a-chip is optimised for power efficiency.
“We are the number three smart phone manufacturer in the world”, declared Colin Giles, executive vice president of Huawei’s consumer business group. “We’re moving more into a connected world, and the center of the connected world is the smart phone”.
Huawei splashed out at CES this morning with a tightly produced press conference where two overarching messages came through clearly: mobile products drive the consumer electronics industry – neither Giles or CEO Richard Yu talked about anything else – and Huawei intends to build a global brand on top of its mobile products and technology.
“95% of the products we ship worldwide have the Huawei brand on them”, said Giles, underscoring their successful transformation from a maker of products for other companies to a mobile and consumer electronics brand with growing recognition worldwide – more than doubling from 25% awareness amongst global consumers in 2012 to 53% in 2013. In 2014, “it’s going to be all about brand, we need to commit to developing our brand”.
Besides phones and related consumer products, Huawei also makes mobile telecoms infrastructure, claiming to have built 10% of the world’s LTE networks, including nearly half deployed in major cities. It’s diversifying within the mobile ecosystem, rather than across consumer electronics product lines. That’s a smart strategy, given that smart phones and tablets account for close to half of global consumer electronics sales by value and other product categories are slipping. As mobile devices take on more and more of the functions of computers, televisions and other CE products, diversification will happen organically.
Huawei might be the third ranking smart phone maker, but it’s only just edging out Lenovo and LG for leader of the 5% share club. It has a long way to go to get into Samsung’s and Apple’s league. But strength in China and experience in other developing markets, where most of the growth in consumer electronics sales will be, gives Huawei a plausible chance of getting there.
The 2014 Consumer Electronics Show opens next week in Las Vegas, with preview events beginning on Sunday and the exhibit floor opening on Tuesday. The show lacks last year’s changing-of-the-guard fascination, when mobile kingpins and rising giants held prominent places in keynote and featured sessions. Instead, it’s about reviving the brands that were shouldered aside in 2013.
But there’s always something new to see at CES, with three trends looking particularly interesting…
Wearables – CES exhibit halls promise to be packed with smart watches, eyeglass mounted video displays and cameras, and various other small, wearable devices – health and fitness related in many cases – that serve as smart phone peripherals or substitutes. The question to answer is whether the category will remain awash in marginally useful gizmos or will killer apps and dominant products emerge?
Chinese brands – Like Japanese and Korean manufacturers before them, Chinese companies are leaving bargain bin positioning behind, and building brand equity at an even faster rate. Aided by a huge internal market and a strong base in rapidly evolving mobile product categories, the likes of ZTE, Huawei and Lenovo will finally have the floor presence and brand recognition to match their market share. Prediction for 2015: one of the three will get a major keynote slot and the other two will figure prominantly at featured CES events.
Bitcoin – At least four companies built around this virtual currency are either in the show or on its periphery. One is a hardware play – it makes specialised Bitcoin mining equipment – and the others are online services. For many years CES got energy and edge from the adult content industry: maybe there’s hope a fresh libertarian wind will invigorate it again.
I don’t expect to see much mobile buzz or home automation system news. Devices of both sorts will be floating around, but it looks like the mobile industry is waiting for the Barcelona show next month and home automation is still searching for a mainstream business model. Let’s hope for surprises.
The “four elephants” of the mobile electronics industry – if not the entire tech world – are Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung, as Tae Hea Nahm, founding general partner of Storm Ventures put it at a recent Wireless Communications Alliance event. They’re prepared to do “whatever it takes to win.”
Samsung is positioned to take honors as lead bull at CES next week, if only by default. Apple and Microsoft won’t be there. Google is relying on partners like LG and, maybe, Intel to build buzz. But even if they were there, Samsung would still be the odds on favorite. CES is home turf.
So, which one of the remaining three is the likeliest candidate for the elephant’s graveyard?
It won’t be Apple. Their product sales and zeitgeist share are as strong as ever, recent share price turmoil not withstanding. Google has the mass market side of the mobile operating system business firmly under control and occupies commanding positions in other tech sectors. No signs of weakness.
Come the end of the year, it’s Microsoft that won’t be mentioned in the same breath as the rest. Speculation about its collapse is years premature, but it no longer controls its own future. Mobile carriers and manufacturers, computer makers and IT professionals will make the decisions and launch the innovations that will determine how small Microsoft’s eventual slice of the pie will be.
The more interesting question is who will take its place. LG isn’t giving an inch to Samsung. Amazon is a champion in both consumer technology distribution and core Internet services. They’ve scored one hit with the Kindle and might be ready to expand further into mobile devices. Or maybe it’s finally time for a Chinese player like Huawei to step up.
Watch for signs of someone making a move on the front of the herd next week.