Huawei Mate X2 folds flatter than Samsung’s rival phone

Huawei has unveiled a revamped foldable smartphone, which it says has a much smaller internal gap when closed than that of its main rival Samsung.

Huawei Mate X2
image captionThe Huawei Mate X2’s large screen folds inside the device, unlike its predecessors

The Mate X2 marks a major redesign for the Chinese firm. When shut, the large display is now hidden inside the device rather than exposed over its exterior, as was the case with past generations.

But its price – about £2,000 ($2,800) – is likely to limit demand.

And US trade bans also threaten the firm’s ability to produce them.

The company’s consumer devices chief acknowledged the challenges it faced in his opening remarks about the new phone.

“US sanctions have posed great difficulties to our business operations and day-to-day work,” Richard Yu said in a video recorded at the firm’s headquarters near Shenzhen.

“However, thanks to the solid support of our partners, suppliers and in particular consumers around the world, we survived 2020.”

Richard Yu
image captionConsumer devices chief Richard Yu hosted the launch event

Unlike many of Huawei’s past high-profile launches, this event was hosted in Mandarin Chinese rather than English, reflecting the fact that its sales are still growing in its home market and falling elsewhere.

But the firm has posted a subtitled version on YouTube.

Water drop cavity

Huawei says it developed a new robust hinge mechanism to safeguard its tablet-like display.

When closed, part of the flexible screen folds into a “water drop-shaped” cavity to prevent it coming under strain at the crease.

Hauwei Mate X2 hinge mechanism
image captionHuawei says its design incorporates high-intensity steel and a carbon fibre support

Mr Yu said an added benefit of the patented innovation was that the crease was also less visible when the screen was opened.

By contrast, the Samsung’s Z Fold 2 angles its two halves to create an intentional gap along its spine.

Mr Yu also highlighted that Mate X2’s 8-in (20.3cm) main screen was larger than its rival’s 7.6-inch (19.3cm) equivalent, and claimed the dimensions of its exterior display – for when the phone is closed – was better suited for apps than its competitor.

In addition, he claimed the use of a new “nano-optical layer” meant the display was much less reflective.

Mate X2 v Z Fold2
image captionHuawei’s design reduces the risk of objects sliding inside the closed flexible screen

But one company watcher said it was an unavoidable fact that Huawei had followed its rival’s design lead.

“The original Mate X looked phenomenal with its soft flexible screen wrapped around the outside of the device, but it was instantly apparent that it was going to be extremely vulnerable,” commented Ben Wood from CCS Insight.

“And all the ones that I saw failed early in their life.”

He added, however, that the high cost of both companies’ foldables meant neither would be bestsellers.

“This is more about technology bragging rights, but it signals a real desire to find a new disruptive form factor.”https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.39.19/iframe.htmlmedia captionWATCH: Samsung’s Z Fold2 was released in September

Sales slump

The launch coincides with a report from market research firm Gartner that indicates Huawei sold 41% fewer handsets in final three months of 2020 than the same quarter of the previous year.

This is, in large part, down to it being unable to offer either the Play store or several of Google’s other apps – including YouTube, Maps and the Chrome browser – as a result of US trade sanctions.

Huawei's smartphone sales sink. October-December 2020 period.  .

Huawei offers similar software of its own, as well as the means to “side load” third-party products not listed in its App Gallery marketplace.

Even so, it has seen consumers switch to rival Android handsets, including those of Xiaomi.

“Outside of China, Google services are crucial to end users, and offering alternatives is not really going to work,” explained Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta.

“But in China, people don’t use Google services, and Huawei has a much stronger distribution network and brand there.

“And it’s been able to take share from competitors in its home market.”

Huawei screens
image captionHuawei claims the dimensions of its large and small screens are superior to Samsung’s

But even in China, Huawei faces a problem – it only has a dwindling number of its Kirin processors left to power its phones.

Huawei designs its own chips, but had been reliant on a Taiwanese firm, TSMC, to manufacture them. 

Only TSMC and Samsung have the expertise and equipment to manufacture the microprocessors involved. 

But the US has banned both from doing so on the grounds that Huawei poses a national security risk – something the Chinese firm denies.

Last week, Nikkei Asia reported that Huawei had notified its suppliers that its orders of other smartphone components would be more than 60% lower in 2021 than last year.

Kirin 9000 chip
image captionHuawei’s press materials boast of its chip’s prowess, but it cannot currently produce more of them

Huawei has already sold off its Honor brand.

But the company has denied reports that it is considering a similar move for its flagship brand, with its founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei telling the press he would “never” sell the division.

“Unless the restrictions are lifted or loosened, or Qualcomm and other chip-makers are given permission to supply Huawei, then I think it will run out of processors in a quarter or two,” said Mr Gupta.

Mr Yu said during the launch the firm had enough production capacity to meet demand for the Mate X2.

And when pressed about its wider smartphone business, a spokesman said: “We remain confident about the future.”

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

Huawei’s U.S. suppliers try to reverse Trump’s late sales denials

(Reuters) – Semiconductor firms are seeking extra time to appeal last-minute Trump administration moves to block sales to Chinese telecoms company Huawei, hoping against the odds that the Biden administration will reverse course, five sources said.

Several company executives who declined to be identified by name said they ultimately do not think the Biden administration will significantly soften the hardline position. “Everyone is deflated,” said one company executive.

Billions of dollars of U.S. technology and chip sales to Huawei hinge on how the Biden administration applies export restrictions the Trump administration put in place.

The companies hope that with more time to make their cases before an interagency panel and a potential policy shift at least some of the rejected Huawei sales will be allowed.

The Commerce Department did not respond to requests for comment. A Huawei spokeswoman said the company does not have any insight into the licensing process at Commerce.

Days before former President Donald Trump left office on Jan. 20, the administration notified Huawei suppliers, including chipmaker Intel, that the government was revoking certain licenses to sell to Huawei and intended to reject dozens of applications for others, Reuters reported.

The surprise flurry of “intent to deny” notices were among last-minute, tough-on-China moves aimed at boxing President Joe Biden into hardline polices against Beijing and cementing Trump’s legacy.

Among the decisions, the Trump administration denied 116 license applications worth $119 billion and approved four worth $20 million, according to a Commerce Department document dated Jan. 13 and seen by Reuters. Another 300 applications with stated values of $296 billion were pending, the document said.

Some companies whose license applications were rejected asked the Commerce Department for more than the standard 20 days to appeal their denials, the sources said. The department has granted 90-day extensions to some of the companies, the people said.

Huawei was placed on a trade blacklist by Trump in May 2019 over national security concerns after it was accused of being capable of spying on customers, as well as intellectual property theft and sanctions violations. Huawei has denied wrongdoing.

Since Huawei was blacklisted, the U.S. government approved about $87 billion worth of applications for sales to Huawei and denied $11 billion, according to the Commerce document.

‘UNTRUSTED VENDOR’

The Biden White House has described Huawei as an “untrusted vendor” and a national security threat. Biden’s nominee for commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, pledged to protect U.S. telecoms networks from Chinese firms but declined to commit to keeping Huawei on a trade blacklist.

To remove the company from the blacklist, the Commerce Department would have to certify to Congress that Huawei has mitigated the national security threat it poses and that the firm has resolved charges of sanctions violations under a 2019 law.

“I don’t think you will see a change in policy on Huawei,” said James Lewis of the security think tank CSIS. “I think (the Biden administration) is mainly signaling, ‘We are going to do the same thing, but try to do it in a more business friendly way.’”

The Biden administration is reviewing China policy, and sources say it is too early to know what path the president will take on Huawei.

Trump had an inconsistent approach to Huawei, opening the door to more sales when he was seeking a trade deal but then coming down harder as tensions began rising over the coronavirus and Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong last year.

But few companies expected the big batch of rejections in mid-January, including license requests for chips used in 4G phones.

Meng Wanzhou: Bullets sent in mail to Huawei’s finance chief

Top Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou has been sent bullets in the mail while under house arrest in Vancouver, according to court testimony.

It was one of several alleged death threats revealed on Wednesday by the company providing her security.

Ms Meng was detained in 2018 on charges relating to allegedly misleading HSBC about Huawei’s dealings in Iran.

Her case has created a rift between China and Canada, with Beijing repeatedly calling for her release.

The chief financial officer of Huawei was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on a warrant from the US, where she is facing charges of bank fraud and potentially causing HSBC to break US sanctions.

Days after she was released on bail, she was placed under house arrest in Vancouver. She has been fighting against her extradition to the US, which wants her to stand trial.

The threats were revealed at the British Columbia Supreme Court by Doug Maynard, chief operating officer of security firm Lions Gate Risk Management. 

He said Ms Meng received “five or six” threatening letters at her residence in June and July 2020 and that the letters were “easily identifiable by markings on the outside”. He added that “sometimes there were bullets inside the envelopes”.

The role of the Vancouver police and any investigations is unclear.

Ms Meng has been in court pushing for conditions of her bail to be loosened, including dropping the daytime security detail that constantly follows her.

She is permitted to leave home between 6am and 11pm and pays for a round-the-clock security detail. She also wears a GPS tracking anklet as stipulated by her bail conditions.

On Wednesday, immigration officials gave family members of Ms Meng permission to travel to Canada.

China backlash

Beijing detained two Canadians soon after Ms Meng’s arrest in December 2018 and has held them in prison ever since, subjecting them to interrogations.

Ms Meng’s defence lawyer has argued that Canada is effectively being asked “to enforce US sanctions”.

Huawei has been one of the main targets of the Trump administration’s attack on Chinese companies that it deems are security threats and pass data to the government.

The US has placed harsh restrictions on Huawei and has banned its 5G equipment from its networks. It also added 38 names linked to Huawei to a trade blacklist.

This week Huawei came under fire for technology that identifies people who appear to be of Uighur origin among images of pedestrians.

Huawei had previously said none of its technology was designed to identify ethnic groups.

Huawei patent mentions use of Uighur-spotting tech

A Huawei patent has been brought to light for a system that identifies people who appear to be of Uighur origin among images of pedestrians.

The filing is one of several of its kind involving leading Chinese technology companies, discovered by a US research company and shared with BBC News.

Huawei had previously said none of its technologies was designed to identify ethnic groups.

It now plans to alter the patent.

Forced-labour camps

The company indicated this would involve asking the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) – the country’s patent authority – for permission to delete the reference to Uighurs in the Chinese-language document.

Uighur people belong to a mostly Muslim ethnic group that lives mainly in Xinjiang province, in north-western China.

Government authorities are accused of using high-tech surveillance against them and detaining many in forced-labour camps, where children are sometimes separated from their parents.

Beijing says the camps offer voluntary education and training.

Uighurs in China's Kashgar City
image captionChina’s technology companies deny selling software that can be used to pick out Uighur people from the rest of the population by their appearance

“One technical requirement of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s video-surveillance networks is the detection of ethnicity – particularly of Uighurs,” said Maya Wang, from Human Rights Watch.

“While in the rest of the world, such targeting and persecution of a people on the basis of their ethnicity would be completely unacceptable, the persecution and severe discrimination of Uighurs in many aspects of life in China remain unchallenged because Uighurs have no power in China.”

Body movements

Huawei’s patent was originally filed in July 2018, in conjunction with the Chinese Academy of Sciences .

It describes ways to use deep-learning artificial-intelligence techniques to identify various features of pedestrians photographed or filmed in the street.

It focuses on addressing the fact different body postures – for example whether someone is sitting or standing – can affect accuracy.

But the document also lists attributes by which a person might be targeted, which it says can include “race (Han [China’s biggest ethnic group], Uighur)”.

A spokesman said this reference should not have been included.

“Huawei opposes discrimination of all types, including the use of technology to carry out ethnic discrimination,” he said.

“Identifying individuals’ race was never part of the research-and-development project. 

“It should never have become part of the application.

“And we are taking proactive steps to amend it. 

“We are continuously working to ensure new and evolving technology is developed and applied with the utmost care and integrity.”

‘Confidential’ document

The patent was brought to light by the video-surveillance research group IPVM

It had previously flagged a separate “confidential” document on Huawei’s website, referencing work on a “Uighur alert” system.

In that case, Huawei said the page referenced a test rather than a real-world application and denied selling systems that identified people by their ethnicity.

On Wednesday, Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee and leads the Conservative Party’s China Research Group, told BBC News: “Chinese tech giants supporting the brutal assault on the Uighur population show us why we as consumers and as a society must be careful with who we buy our products from or award business to. 

“Developing ethnic-labelling technology for use by a repressive regime is clearly not behaviour that lives up to our standards.”

Facial-recognition software

IPVM also discovered references to Uighur people in patents filed by the Chinese artificial-intelligence company Sensetime and image-recognition specialist Megvii.

Sensetime’s filing, from July 2019, discusses ways facial-recognition software could be used for more efficient “security protection”, such as searching for “a middle-aged Uighur with sunglasses and a beard” or a Uighur person wearing a mask.

A Sensetime spokeswoman said the references were “regrettable”.

“We understand the importance of our responsibilities, which is why we began to develop our AI Code of Ethics in mid-2019,” she said, adding the patent had predated this code.

Ethnic-labelling solutions

Megvii’s June 2019 patent, meanwhile, described a way of relabelling pictures of faces tagged incorrectly in a database.

Megvii patent
image captionLike Huawei, Megvii now plans to withdraw the original version of its patent

It said the classifications could be based on ethnicity, for example, including “Han, Uighur, non-Han, non-Uighur and unknown”.

The company told BBC News it would now withdraw the patent application.

“Megvii recognises that the language used in our 2019 patent application is open to misunderstanding,” it said.

“Megvii has not developed and will not develop or sell racial- or ethnic-labelling solutions. 

“Megvii acknowledges that, in the past, we have focused on our commercial development and lacked appropriate control of our marketing, sales, and operations materials. 

“We are undertaking measures to correct the situation.”

Attribute-recognition model 

IPVM also flagged image-recognition patents filed by two of China’s biggest technology conglomerates, Alibaba and Baidu, that referenced classifying people by ethnicity but did not specifically mention the Uighur people by name.

Alibaba responded: “Racial or ethnic discrimination or profiling in any form violates our policies and values.

“We never intended our technology to be used for and will not permit it to be used for targeting specific ethnic groups.”

Protest outside the White House
image captionProtests have been held across the world to highlight China’s treatment of Uighur people

And Baidu said: “When filing for a patent, the document notes are meant as an example of a technical explanation, in this case describing what the attribute-recognition model is rather than representing the expected implementation of the invention. 

“We do not and will not permit our technology to be used to identify or target specific ethnic groups.”

But Human Rights Watch said it still had concerns.

“Any company that sells video-surveillance software and systems to the Chinese police would have to ensure that they meet the police’s requirements, which includes the capacity for ethnicity detection,” Ms Wang said.

“The right thing for these companies to do is to immediately cease their sale and maintenance of surveillance equipment, software and systems, to the Chinese police.”

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

Huawei sells youth brand over tech restrictions

Chinese smartphone maker Huawei is selling its youth-focused budget brand Honor.

Huawei said Honor had been under “tremendous pressure” due to “a persistent unavailability of technical elements”. 

US government sanctions have restricted supplies to Huawei on the grounds that the firm is a national security threat.

Huawei said it would not hold any shares or be involved in managing the new Honor company. 

“This sale will help Honor’s channel sellers and suppliers make it through this difficult time,” the Chinese telecommunications giant said in a statement. 

Huawei said it will sell Honor to Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology, a new company set up for the acquisition. 

The company is a consortium of more than 30 agents and dealers of the Honor brand, and according to Chinese media, also includes the State-backed Shenzhen Smart City Technology Development Group. 

Huawei gave no indication of the sale price.

Bravado dented

By Karishma Vaswani, Asia Business Correspondent

When the US first targeted Huawei, as part of the broader US China trade war, founder Ren Zhengfei told me the ‘US cannot crush us’

Since then though, that defiance has been deflated. 

Honor’s phones rely heavily on Huawei technology, so selling the unit off is a sensible and strategic business decision. 

But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have hurt both Huawei’s bottomline, and its sense of bravado.

US restrictions placed on US firms selling equipment to Huawei has made it next to impossible for the Chinese firm to get access to much needed US tech – in particular chips that go into its smartphones. 

Some analysts say the reason why Huawei is selling its Honor business is to raise enough cash so that it can invest further in its own chip-making technology, which would in theory help it to become more self reliant, and depend less on US tech. 

But getting to that stage takes time, and in the interim there are competitors lining up to take Huawei’s place on the global smartphone stage. 

Equipment restrictions

The Trump administration has increased pressure on Huawei over the past few years, claiming the company is a threat to national security – a claim which Huawei consistently denies. 

The US department of commerce now requires foreign semiconductor companies to first get a permit before selling chips to Huawei if they are developed or produced using US technology. 

Although Huawei has stockpiled microchips in an effort to survive the restrictions, it said this latest move was an attempt to salvage a brand that has struggled as a result of US policies. 

“This move has been made by Honor’s industry chain to ensure its own survival,” Huawei said.

Huawei established the youth-focused brand in 2013, offering phones in the lower and middle price ranges. 

Honor ships 70 million units annually, according to Huawei. 

It sells smartphones through its own websites and third-party retailers in China. It also sells its phones in Southeast Asia and Europe

BT signs 5G deal with Ericsson to help ditch Huawei

BT has signed a deal to use Ericsson’s 5G radio antennas, base stations and other equipment to upgrade its EE mobile network.

BT said in time it expected 50% of all its 5G traffic to be transmitted via the Swedish company’s kit.

The move will let it ditch Huawei without becoming totally dependent on its other radio access network (Ran) equipment provider, Nokia.

It follows a government ban of the Chinese company’s products.

Ministers announced in July that all the UK’s mobile providers must stop buying new Huawei 5G telecoms infrastructure after 31 December, and must also remove any of its 5G equipment purchased before that date by 2027.

This was a result of sanctions imposed by Washington, which claims Huawei poses a national security threat – something the company denies.

BT is already in the process of using Ericsson products to replace Huawei’s equipment in its “core” – the most sensitive parts of its network that route data and voice calls across computer servers to get them to the right destination.

Huawei released a report earlier on Wednesday, claiming its UK ban could cost thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of lost economic benefits as a result of the 5G rollout taking longer to complete.

Chart showing how the mobile networks operate

The latest announcement had been widely expected, as BT and other mobile network providers typically use two Ran equipment vendors. This allows them to maintain a service if a problem develops in one of the provider’s systems, while still enjoying efficiency savings from not having to maintain and install a wider range of products.

Other companies, including NEC and Samsung, are also active in the sector. But it would have been more complicated to have tried to integrate their solutions.

Some industry leaders have privately expressed concern that Huawei’s exit from the market could reduce competition, resulting in the 5G upgrade becoming more expensive.

But in the longer term, another solution known as OpenRan is being explored.

This refers to a plan to eventually standardise the hardware used in radio access networks so that one supplier can be switched for another via software alone. This would avoid the need to rip out one firm’s customised equipment and replace it with another’s.