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Huawei outsells Apple in 2019, becomes No. 2 global smartphone vendor

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Enlarge / Huawei’s logo at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona in November 2019.

Getty Images | SOPA Images

Market research firms Canalys and Counterpoint Research have posted their 2019 global smartphone market share reports. Both reports say the biggest mover is Huawei, which, thanks to a whopping 16-17 percent annual growth, claimed the No. 2 smartphone vendor spot in 2019, behind Samsung and ahead of Apple. Both firms have similar global market share numbers for 2019, with Samsung at around 20 percent, Huawei at 16 percent, Apple at 13 percent, and Xiaomi and Oppo at around eight percent each.

Counterpoint credits Huawei’s success in its home country of China for its success, saying, “This was the result of an aggressive push from Huawei in the Chinese market, where it achieved almost 40 percent market share.” According to the firm, China makes up 60 percent of Huawei’s shipments.

Is this “Peak Huawei?”

While holding onto the No. 2 spot is a big accomplishment for Huawei, the company’s future in the smartphone market currently looks pretty murky. The Trump Administration’s Huawei export ban means US companies can no longer do business with Huawei. Huawei should be OK when it comes to hardware, as the company has aggressively cut US components out of its hardware supply line. For software, however, it has a serious problem. No US products means the Google ecosystem is off-limits to Huawei, so Huawei phones don’t have access to Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, the Google Assistant, and the millions of apps on the Play Store. This seriously limits the appeal of Huawei phones outside of China.

The export ban happened around the middle of the year, but at the time it only affected new Huawei products. The company’s flagship smartphone for the first half of 2019, the Huawei P30 Pro, squeaked out the door in March just a few months before the ban. So it sells, even today, with Google apps. Huawei’s first product without Google apps is the Mate 30 Pro, which only launched mid-September, just a few days before the start of Q4 2019. If the lack of Google apps is going to crater Huawei sales, there hasn’t been a lot of time yet to really see an effect—consumers can still buy a P30 Pro with Google apps, after all.

For what it’s worth, Canalys has Q4 2019 as Huawei’s first quarterly decline—down seven percent from Q3—in two years, which it blames on the export ban. Together with the annual Apple Q4 surge thanks to the launch of a new iPhone, Huawei fell to third place again within that time period.

But again, this ban doesn’t affect Huawei’s marketability in its biggest market, China, where Google doesn’t do much business. Huawei has had its own software ecosystem in China for years, with the “Huawei AppGallery” store, cloud storage, a browser, and a theme store. With Google declared off-limits, really only the 40 percent of Huawei’s shipments that are outside of China are seriously threatened.

Huawei has been working on making its ecosystem viable outside of China, though. It has promised to invest $1.5 billion in its developer program over the next five years, in the hope of drawing (non-US) app developers to its app store. The company also licensed map data from the Dutch corporation TomTom presumably to build a Google Maps competitor. Apple Maps also started with TomTom map data, and to put it lightly, users found TomTom’s data to be lacking compared to Google Maps. For Apple, competing with Google Maps has meant doing the same thing Google does for map data: sending a fleet of LIDAR-equipped vehicles around the country (and soon, the world) sucking up data. TomTom’s data on its own is not nearly enough, so this is just a start for a mapping solution.

If the US and China don’t reconcile, or if they do reconcile and Huawei decides to go cold turkey from the Google apps anyway, it’s hard to imagine Huawei being successful outside of China. Huawei recently gave conflicting statements about whether or not it would use the Google apps in a scenario where the export ban was lifted, so the company seems to at least be thinking about the idea.

The US’s Huawei export ban has been extended three times now in 90-day intervals, and the next deadline is February 17, 2020.

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Paramount+ will carry new Star Trek series Strange New Worlds and Prodigy

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Enlarge / Key art for the new Star Trek series Star Trek: Prodigy.

ViacomCBS

In an online event for investors, ViacomCBS revealed several new details about CBS All Access replacement Paramount+, including pricing as well as two new Star Trek series that will premiere on the network. Also, the company announced that a much-anticipated Showtime show will end up on Paramount+ instead.

Paramount+, which was announced several months ago, will launch on March 4 in the United States, Canada, and 18 Latin American countries. As with CBS All Access, both an ad-supported and ad-free plan will be offered. In the US, the ad-supported one will cost $4.99 per month, while the ad-free plan will cost $9.99.

That $4.99 per month is $1 cheaper than the ad-supported version of CBS All Access. However, this cheaper plan will not include local CBS stations. The service is also expected to launch in Nordic countries within a few weeks and in Australia sometime later this year.

When it launches, Paramount+ will have 2,500 films and 30,000 TV episodes, according to ViacomCBS executives. That will include some original series, many of which will be available in 4K and Dolby Vision HDR.

Original series will include those we’ve already seen on CBS All Access, including the large slate of Star Trek shows such as Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks.

Two new Star Trek series have recently been announced: a CG animated kids’ show called Star Trek: Prodigy, and a spinoff about Captain Pike and Mr. Spock called Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Prodigy was planned for airing on Nickelodeon (which is owned by the Viacom part of ViacomCBS), and it will still air there— but only after appearing on Paramount+ first.

Additionally, it has been confirmed that the long-anticipated and much delayed series based on the video game franchise Halo will be delivered via Paramount+; it was originally planned as a Showtime series. Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on the show, which is planned to premiere in the first quarter of 2022. According to Deadline, shooting was well underway when the pandemic forced a shutdown. During the break, it was decided to move the show to the broad-audience Paramount+ service rather than “adult” and “sophisticated” Showtime. (Those descriptors were used by Showtime exec David Nevins to describe the network.)

Other content includes a Frasier reboot, as well as some 2021 theatrical film releases like Mission Impossible 7.

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Google’s Wear OS neglect has left voice activation broken for months

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Enlarge / A Wear OS watch.

Ron Amadeo

Poor, dying Wear OS.

Apparently, the Google Assistant on Wear OS has been broken for months, and until now, no one at Google has noticed. About four months ago, diehard Wear OS users started a thread on the public Android issue tracker saying that the “OK Google” hotword no longer worked on Wear OS, and several claimed that the feature has been broken for months. Recently, news of the 900-user-strong thread spilled over to the Android subreddit, and after 9to5Google and other news sites picked it up, Google has finally commented on the issue.

The Verge quotes a Google spokesperson as saying the company is “aware of the issues some users have been encountering,” and it will “address these and improve the overall experience.” Google didn’t give an ETA on how long a fix would take. Google offered a similar boiler-plate response back in that November thread, with a rep saying, “We’ve shared this with our engineering teams and will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available.”

Wear OS’ broken voice system is the latest in a long line of signs that Wear OS is a dead platform and that it has been abandoned by Google. Google’s last major update for Wear OS was in 2018, and many of Google’s newer services have opted to not support the platform. Google Play Music had a standalone offline music app for Wear OS, which was fantastic if someone was out jogging and wanted to leave their phone at home. Play Music is dead now, and its replacement, YouTube Music, supports the Apple Watch but not Wear OS. Google Hangouts is another dying Google app that had great support for Wear OS, but its replacement, Google Chat, doesn’t support the OS. Updates to Google Fit a few months ago killed the Wear OS weight training feature, which was one of the best parts of the platform.

Wear OS’ hardware has also been a disaster. Qualcomm suffocated the platform by letting it go six years without a significant SoC upgrade, leading to slow hardware that struggled to run the latest features. Every major hardware company that once supported Wear OS—brands like Samsung, LG, Motorola, Huawei, Asus, and Sony—has abandoned it. Wear OS devices are only sold by fashion brands now.

Google’s new fling in the wearables space is with Fitbit, a company it recently acquired for $2.1 billion. Years ago, Fitbit was a trailblazer in simple, cheap step counters, but today the company is an also-ran with single-digit market share. Fitbit hasn’t been able to adapt to low-end pressure from cheap Chinese fitness trackers and high-end competition from the Apple Watch. It’s not clear how combining Fitbit’s failing wearables company with Google’s failing wearables division will lead to any kind of success, but at this point, all we can do is wait and watch.

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Framework startup designed a thin, modular, repairable 13-inch laptop

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Enlarge / The Framework laptop certainly seems slim enough in this studio shot. Note the seams around the USB-C ports on the side—those are user-replaceable modules.

Framework

Laptops these days are slimmer, sleeker, and lighter than ever—but their repairability and configurability are taking enormous hits in the process. Framework is seeking to roll back the clock in a good way with its first product, the upcoming Framework 13.5-inch laptop.

Following the lead of companies like Fairphone, the startup is focused on respecting users’ right to repair by building systems focused on modular design, with components that are easily configured, replaced, and even upgraded.

Not some massive block

Although Framework’s raison d’etre revolves around modularity, the company clearly understands that it can’t sacrifice sleek, lightweight design if it wants to maintain a wide appeal. It describes its first product, the upcoming Framework laptop, as “similar to a Dell XPS… thin, not some massive block.” The early product shots and specifications seem to bear that out:

  • 13.5-inch 3:2 screen @ 2256×1504
  • 1.3kg (2.9lb) milled aluminum chassis
  • 15.9mm thick
  • configurable Intel Tiger Lake (11th gen) CPU
  • configurable Wi-Fi up to Wi-Fi 6E
  • configurable RAM up to 64GiB DDR4
  • configurable NVMe storage “4TB or more”
  • 1080p webcam @ 60fps
  • 57Wh battery

Framework’s off-the-cuff comparison seems pretty reasonable, with specs equivalent to or slightly better than those available on Dell’s XPS 13. It is 0.1kg heavier and 1.1mm thicker than the XPS 13—but we don’t think that’s going to be a dealbreaker for most people.

Modularity

You can go a long way toward making a laptop repairable by simply including standard sockets rather than soldering everything down to the board. I’ve been personally frustrated with the latter practice many times this year—soldered components not only prevent you from repairing laptops when they fail, but in many cases, they stop you from even configuring machines as you’d prefer.

Framework pledges to do away with all of that—specifications, product shots, and even video shown to us in confidence show easily accessible sockets for RAM, storage, and Wi-Fi. The company also pledges to offer future motherboard swaps to allow for upgrading the CPU without replacing the entire laptop—although frankly, we’re a bit extra skeptical about that claim until we see it in action; it’s difficult to predict how physical layouts and thermal needs will change with entire future hardware generations.

Beyond the standard sockets we used to expect from laptops, Framework will introduce the concept of configurable external ports. Instead of building the chassis with a specific port layout, the machine has been designed with four bays which fit what the company is calling “Expansion Cards”—these offer USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, microSD, and even 3.5mm headphone ports. With this system, users will be able to decide for themselves not only what ports they need but which side of the laptop to put them on.

Finally, the company pledges to make the Framework laptop user-serviceable by focusing on ease of replacement—and availability—of frequently replaced parts, including battery, screen, keyboard, and bezel. The company also pledges to open its hardware ecosystem up to third parties, which will be able to design, build, and sell compatible modules via a Framework Marketplace.

Too good to be true?

Framework is promising an awful lot in its very first product—”thin as an XPS 13, repairable as a custom-built gaming PC” is a pretty tall order to live up to. We very much want to believe, but it’s going to take a full Ars Technica teardown before we’re completely convinced.

Although we’re skeptical, we are hopeful—the fledgling company does have a pretty solid pedigree. Framework founder Nirav Patel was Oculus VR’s head of hardware from 2012-2017, and he was a Facebook director of engineering beyond that. The company’s team also includes design, engineering, and operations people hailing from Apple, Google, and Lenovo.

The Framework laptop is expected to become widely available this summer—and a company representative promised us a hands-on review unit as soon as one becomes available.

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