Get ready to learn how to pronounce a new Chinese brand name: Huawei.
The Chinese telecom firm had a surprise hit at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week with its stylish Huawei Watch. And that looks like only the beginning of a much bigger push to entrench itself in popular consciousness as a maker of consumer smartwatches and smartphones via "traditional advertising, online promotion and sports team sponsorships," as its U.S. spokesman told Reuters.
On top of that, Kevin Yang of iSupply’s China Research division claims (via CNET) that Google has tapped Huawei to make the next iteration of its Nexus smartphone line. If true—and if the resulting phone is a good one—that could give the company significant cred with tech-savvy shoppers.
In other words, there's suddenly a lot going on with Huawei. (Oh, and that pronunciation? Try WAH-way.)Who Is Huawei?
Though the buzzy Huawei Watch may be the first time U.S. consumers have heard of the company, Huawei has produced telecom equipment in China since the late 1980s. Founded in 1987 by a former engineer in the People's Liberation Army, the company was born of a Chinese government initiative to build up domestic technological infrastructure.
Much of Huawei’s early business centered on building phone and Internet infrastructure throughout the nation, making it a rough analogue to Cisco. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Huawei had started expanding operations into other territories, supplying technology for new mobile networks throughout Asia, Europe, and Australia.
In 2009, Huawei unveiled its first Android smartphone. Since then it’s built an impressive lineup of low- to mid-tier Android and Windows Phone handsets, although its efforts to gain a foothold in the U.S. market haven't gotten it very far yet.A Little Trouble From Big China
The company has faced other headwinds, particularly involving repeated—though never clearly proven—charges involving the security of its telecom equipment. In 2012, the House Intelligence Committee released a report accusing Huawei of providing the Chinese army's cyberwarfare unit access to its networking equipment.
Huawei denied those assertions, although suspicion that the company maintains surreptitious connections to the Chinese government continues to dog its U.S. business efforts. Ren even reportedly said in 2013 that Huawei planned to exit the U.S. market rather than be stuck "in the middle of U.S-China relations."
But that's all in the past. A White House review of allegations against the company found no clear evidence that Huawei had spied for China, and the company later backtracked on its threat to leave the U.S.
On a separate front, Huawei has run into intellectual property issues. Last year T-Mobile took Huawei to court over allegations that the Chinese company had stolen its cell phone testing technology. Prior to that, it's been hit with similar IP lawsuits from the likes of Motorola and Cisco, to name a few.Watch Out
Despite its turbulent relationship with the U.S., Huawei's recently revealed smartwatch could mark a turning point for the company. The Huawei Watch looks like a premium device and resembles nothing else on the market, although it's still not clear how well it works or how long its battery will last.
The Apple Watch is on its way this April, and it’s a beautiful piece of tech. The Huawei Watch, meanwhile, could give Apple a run for its money in terms of design and style. It boasts a popular round-face design, sapphire display, premium metal body construction, and a heart rate monitor. In short, the Huawei Watch looks like it’ll do everything the Apple Watch will do—just for Android.The Huawei Watch.
This is the first device to come out of Huawei that's made anyone look twice at the company. If it's priced reasonably and can actually make good on its promises, the Watch could change Huawei’s reputation as a maker of less-than-impressive devices. And it could give Google a shiny new weapon in the coming wearable war against Apple.
All in all, whether it’s behind the next Nexus or not, you’d better learn how to pronounce “Huawei.” You’ll be saying it a lot more pretty soon.
Photos and logo courtesy of Huawei
Dropbox gave developers another toy today, unveiling a new API to go with a new "groups" feature it has just formally introduced into its Dropbox for Business service.
The groups feature allows users to create of lists of users that get access to a set of files. Dropbox insists this makes for more efficient sharing with coworkers and is "especially great" with training new employees. It explains the feature this way:
Using groups, you can create and manage lists of members to share information directly with the group instead of adding each person individually. Any new member you add to a group will be automatically added to all shared folders that the group has been invited to. You can also manage the entire group’s permissions to what you’re sharing by granting editing or view-only access.
Dropbox said the groups feature was the function most requested by business customers. It's been in beta testing since November, when over 12,000 customers signed up for early access.The group feature of Dropbox for Business has been in beta testing for several months.
The groups API lets developers build the feature into their applications. Several Dropbox partners like CloudLock, Bitium, and Okta—which offer various combinations of security and user-identity management services—got early access to the API so as to extend their security options to ad-hoc groups of users.
It wasn't entirely clear what other features developers might implement using the groups API.
Photo by Joris Louwes
ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.
Even having a hit app isn't enough to stay independent in the digital-fitness business. The latest company to sell out: FitStar, a maker of workout apps. Fitbit, the maker of the most popular line of fitness trackers, announced Thursday it would buy the startup for an undisclosed amount.
As with Under Armour's still-fresh purchase of MyFitnessPal, I find the deal inevitable yet disappointing. There are fewer and fewer independent players in the fitness-app business, and those who remain seem likely to come under pressure from the generic but well-distributed health apps included with upcoming smartwatches and fitness devices.Fitness Buddies Working Out A Deal
FitStar's personal-training and yoga apps feature video workouts customized to users' fitness levels and past performance. Fitbit plans to integrate FitStar with its hardware and apps in various ways, from feeding FitStar workout data into the Fitbit app's activity feed, letting Fitbit users log into FitStar with their Fitbit account credentials, and eventually feeding heart-rate data from its Charge HR and Surge wristbands into FitStar to further tune workouts.
FitStar CTO Dave Grijalva and I have had long, ongoing conversations about the potential for integrating heart-rate data and other biological signals into the company's apps. Right now, FitStar customizes workouts based on users' perceived effort. As you work out, you report on whether a workout segment was too easy, too hard, or just right.
Heart-rate data can give a more objective evaluation of your performance. It can also alert an app that you're tired or overtrained, and hence need to dial it back. FitStar could customize rest-period duration, workout intensity, and even the sequence of moves based on such data.FitStar CTO Dave Grijalva
From that perspective, Fitbit's acquisition of FitStar starts to make more and more sense. Most consumers aren't capable of parsing their own heart-rate signals to take action and change their workouts, rest, or nutrition. FitStar can act as a virtual trainer for Fitbit tracker owners, allowing them to derive more value from the devices they bought.
Since FitStar charges users monthly or annual subscriptions for more fully-featured, customized workouts, it could provide another way to make money off those hardware owners. Fitbit has its own $49.99/year subscription plan, which provides more general training advice. Fitbit and FitStar may well fold their subscription offerings together, perhaps at a higher price point for a combined plan.Will FitStar Stay Open?
One key question: Will Fitbit close FitStar off to rival services? Right now, FitStar is a relatively open app, with connections to Fitbit rivals including Jawbone, Runtastic, and Apple. Fitbit, meanwhile, has pursued a more closed-off path. It has deliberately abstained from supporting Apple's HealthKit framework for allowing apps store and share fitness data on iPhones.
Fitbit could well decide to yank FitStar's HealthKit support—though that could have negative repercussions for FitStar's business, which has enjoyed prominent placement in Apple's App Store.A New Fitness-App Market Shapes Up
What's clear is that Fitbit wants to stay on top of the fitness-tracker market as the Apple Watch comes to market. Fitbit's main rival, Jawbone, is reportedly in bad financial shape after failing to raise the full amount of a promised $250 million investment round. It could well sell out to a larger player soon, or raise money from a strategic partner in a deal that limits its independence.
Even after the MyFitnessPal and FitStar deals, both the fitness hardware and app markets remain highly fragmented. Runtastic, an Austrian company, has a majority owner, Axel Springer—though it could likely be purchased for the right price. RunKeeper is another target. There's a host of lesser-known app makers, and a huge number of mostly lookalike fitness wearables.
The market needs consolidation. It will continue to happen horizontally, with companies buying up multiple apps, as Under Armour did with MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal, and Endomondo, and vertically, as Fitbit did with FitStar. The best companies will offer consumers hardware in the form of fitness trackers, software in the form of mobile apps, and subscription services—either premium features unlocked in the hardware and app, or new, customized experiences like FitStar's workout videos, or both.
FitStar was an interesting company to watch. But Fitbit is clearly in a better position to take some of its ideas to market, like mixing heart-rate signals with other data to create the perfect workout. The good news: Building hardware and apps keeps getting cheaper. There will be more new companies to write about. Let's just hope that they get to do what FitStar did—make a mark on the industry with their innovations before they get bought out.
Photos courtesy of FitStar
Last year, privacy-focused Blackphone got a dubious distinction: It became known as the locked-down phone that supposedly got hacked in just 5 minutes.
Things have changed. Now, it’s a whole mobile product line geared for companies (and perhaps paranoid individuals), a brand-new acquisition for encryption services firm Silent Circle, and a multi-million dollar enterprise with nearly $750 million in device sales.
The group introduced its latest devices this week at Mobile World Congress—the Blackphone 2 smartphone and its first tablet, currently dubbed Blackphone+. But what was really on display was the company’s uncanny knack for turning a well-publicized security flub into a win.Meet Blackphone 2 And Blackphone+
As far as upgrades go, the 5.5-inch Blackphone 2 looks like a decent successor to last year’s original 4.7-inch Blackphone.
Like most second-generation phones, version 2 offers several hardware improvements, including a faster 64-bit 8-core processor, more memory (3GB), a bigger battery and a larger display. The phone also ties into Citrix's Mobile Device Management, so IT departments can manage employees’ company-supplied or BYO (“bring your own”) phones. Blackphone 2 is priced at $630 (unlocked) and slated for a July release. Soon after, it will be joined by the company’s first tablet, the 7-inch Blackphone+, sometime this fall.The original Blackphone (left) and Blackphone 2 exhibition unit (right)
Both run Blackphone’s PrivatOS software, a variation on Android designed as an extra layer of protection between users and the big, bad outside world. When apps unnecessarily ask for personal data, like contacts or location, Blackphone can intercept the request, blocking or obscuring it. The software can even fool the app into thinking the user granted access, even if he or she didn't.
“You can take an Android device, you can root it, introduce [similar] features, and after months, you can have something like Blackphone,” said Javier Agüera, Blackphone’s founder and now a chief scientist at Silent Circle. “Or you can have an out-of-the-box device, with everything set up by security specialists, that’s enterprise ready and configured the way you need it.”
PrivatOS boasts new virtualization feature called “Spaces,” which offers separate “work” and “personal” modes, the ability to add profiles and an app store vetted by Blackphone. The technology's encryption protocols also save keys on the device itself, not some unknown remote server. The phone's price includes two years of security services that guards against unsafe WiFi networks, private browsing, and secure cloud file storage.
Sounds like a lot of protection, at least, it's more than most users are accustomed to getting. It all goes back to Blackphone's mission: The company wants to safeguard people. It seems sincere—even though a hacker actually did manage to breach those walls last year.Turning Hackers Into BFsPrivatOS running on last year's model
At hacking convention DefCon last year, CTO Jon “Justin” Sawyer of Applied Cybersecurity LLC told Blackphone that he managed to get past its security to root its device. What’s more, he tweeted the exploit, which landed on BlackBerry sites and other tech blogs.
Sawyer found a couple of weak spots in the software, including a hole in the remote wipe feature that let the security expert access the device and grant himself system privileges. He was able to give himself access to core parts of the phone. But what gets less attention, the execs said, is that the company had already patched the hole.
Sawyer essentially attacked an old, outdated version of the software. Even so, the incident and publicity could have humiliated Blackphone right out of the market. It didn't. Instead, the company is milking it.
The team thanked Sawyer for the discovery and sent him a bottle of wine. Then it enlisted others to scope out any other vulnerabilities.
According to Vic Hyder, Silent Circle’s chief strategy officer, Blackphone recently launched a bug bounty program to reward people for finding security glitches—from $128 to more, depending on the severity. (Bounties are fairly common in the tech industry; even big companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft offer rewards to bug hunters.)
“[It] makes them part of the solution, instead of part of the problem,” Hyder said. "It brings everybody in as a participant.” Even Sawyer, now a friend of Blackphone, helps out by looking for other vulnerabilities. The company publishes all of its source code, to help make it easier for people to find holes.
So far, Hyder estimates that the company has paid out about $15,000 to $20,000 in bounties.Throwing Shade
"Nothing is hack-proof,” admits Daniel Ford, chief security officer.
However, he says his company can help guard against certain types of attacks. “Targeted attacks are completely different than mass surveillance,” he said.” There’s little Blackphone or anyone can do against the former, such as last year’s breach at Sony Pictures—which may have been a specific retaliation for The Interview, a comedy that poked fun at North Korea.Sony's "The Interview" made fun of North Korea's regime, which may have been responsible for hacking the movie studio.
Ultimately, if a hacker wants your data badly enough—whether it’s a criminal or a NSA agent—he or she has innumerable tools that can help get it. No platform can hold up against that, he explained.
But when it comes to broader mass surveillance, Ford said Blackphone can step in and offer more protection. "This is where our commitment is: If there is a vulnerability that was disclosed publicly, we will fix it in less than 72 hours,” he said. “We have done so every time. That is our goal … the last time, it took only 6 hours.”
"Samsung had two critical vulnerabilities that was released two weeks ago,” he added, calling out one of his archrivals in the enterprise market, albeit for a vulnerability in its TV business. Still, he couldn't resist poking at Samsung's overall attitude toward security: "They have not even started to address it,” he said.
Photos by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite