MWC hangs by a thread after Nokia, DT and other big names back out

More big names are stepping Mobile World Congress, the world’s biggest phone and telecom trade fair, prompting the organizers to urgently decide what they wish to do going forward.

Nokia, one of the omnipresent firms at major tech trade conferences, won’t be attending this year’s Mobile World Congress. It cited health and safety concerns over coronavirus outbreak. Electronics giant HMD, which sells smartphones under Nokia brand, cited similar reasoning for its withdrawal, too.

The iconic Finnish firm, one of the cornerstone companies at MWC, and HMD have become the latest to back out of the trade fair. In recent days, scores of firms including Ericsson, Amazon, Vivo, LG, Facebook and Sony have withdrawn their participation from the world’s biggest smartphones-focused trade show.

German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom, BT, Britain’s biggest telecommunications group, and London-headquartered telecoms giant Vodafone have also backed out citing coronavirus outbreak, they announced on Wednesday. French-Italian semiconductor manufacturer STMicroelectronics is also not attending, it said.

However on Wednesday afternoon (CET) Orange denied a Reuters report it won’t attend, telling us it still hadn’t taken a decision on whether to pull out or not. “We are awaiting further communication from the GSMA regarding the event,” a spokeswoman for the operator said.

Orange CEO Stéphane Richard is the current GSMA chair.

MWC attracts over 100,000 attendees, abd thousands of companies and high-profile executives use this global platform to broker deals and unveil their upcoming gadgets and innovations to the world.

The trade fair also contributes to the bottom line of Barcelona city. This year, the four-day trade show was scheduled to take place from February 27.

“While the health and safety of our employees is our absolute priority, we also recognize that we have a responsibility to the industry and our customers. In view of this, we have taken the necessary time to evaluate a fast-moving situation, engage with the GSMA and other stakeholders, regularly consult external experts and authorities, and plan to manage risks based on a wide range of scenarios. The conclusion of that process is that we believe the prudent decision is to cancel our participation at Mobile World Congress,” Nokia said in a statement.

The high-profile no-shows should put more pressure on GSMA, the body that organizes the event, to cancel this year’s edition of the trade show. GSMA acknowledged the safety risks to attendees in an email on Sunday, but it ducked away from assuming any liabilities at the trade show. As my colleague Romain Dillet pointed out, the email appeared to have triggered companies to withdraw their participation.

On Tuesday, Spanish publication El Pais reported that the GSMA executives would meet on Friday and consider their next steps, which could include suspending this year’s event. A spokesperson declined comment to TechCrunch.

The GSMA executives have moved to have that talk today, according to a report. Earlier local press had reported the operator association had decided to go ahead with the event — but in a more recent update La Vanguardia reports the GSMA has called another meeting to discuss the future of MWC 2020.

The organization has previously declined to comment on internal meetings.

You can check out the full list of companies that have withdrawn from MWC so far this year below.

This report was updated with additional information about Orange and the developing situation at the GSMA

China Roundup: Apple closes a 4-year-old App Store loophole

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, Apple made some major moves that are telling of its increasingly compliant behavior in China where it has seen escalating competition, but investors are showing dissatisfaction with how it is approaching hot-button issues in the country.

Virus game gone

Plague Inc., a simulation game where a player’s goal is to infect the entire world with a deadly virus, was removed from the China iOS App Store this week. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in late January, Chinese users had flocked to download the eight-year-old game, potentially seeking an alternative way to understand the epidemic.

Data from market research firm App Annie shows that the title remained the most downloaded app in China from late January through most of February, up from No. 28 at the beginning of the year.

Ndemic Creations, the U.K. studio behind the game, said in a statement that the “situation” — the removal of Plague Inc. from the Apple App Store — “is completely out of our control.” The Chinese government provided an opaque reason for the takedown, saying the game “includes content that is illegal in China as determined by the Cyberspace Administration of China,” which is the country’s internet watchdog.

The incident has gotten plenty of attention in and outside of China. Some speculate that Apple has caved to pressure from Beijing, which could find Plague Inc.’s gameplay troubling. One sticking point is that its tutorial by default picks China as the starting country, although in the main game a user can begin anywhere in the world. The Information reported in 2018 that Plague Inc. actually applied for official permission to distribute in China but was turned down on account of its “socially inappropriate” content.

Others including Niko Partners games analyst Daniel Ahmad suggested that the Chinese authority might have taken issue with a December version update that allowed players to create “fake news,” which could mislead them in seeking advice in the midst of the health crisis.

Ahmad also suggested that the ban might have been linked to the ongoing crackdown of unlicensed mobile games in China. Notably, the Plague Inc. ban coincided with Apple’s announcement this week that would require all games in its Chinese app store to obtain government approval in the form of an ISBN number beginning in July. Few details have come to light about what this new regulatory process entails. Nor do developers know whether currently published games without official approval will be removed.

Apple investors are not sitting well with the firm’s app takedowns in China. 40% of its shareholders cast support for a proposal that would force Apple to uphold human rights commitment and be more transparent on how it responds to Beijing’s requests to censor apps.

Apple’s Delay

The gaming permit requirement is not new, though. In fact, Apple is just closing a regulatory loophole that had existed for years. Back in 2016, the Chinese government stipulated that video games — both PC and mobile — must apply for an ISBN number before entering circulation China. Within months, alternative Android stores operated by domestic tech giants swiftly moved to weed out illegal games. The official Google Play store is unavailable in China.

But Apple has managed to keep unlicensed titles in stock in the world’s largest gaming market, where content is strictly monitored. The American behemoth has many incentives to do so. Despite iPhone’s eroding share in China (to be fair, all Chinese phone makers but Huawei have recently suffered declining market share), iOS apps in China, especially games, remain an important revenue source for Apple.

So it’s in Apple’s best interest to clear hurdles for apps publishing in the country. Where there is a will, there is a way. Prior to 2016, publishing a game in China was relatively hassle-free. Following the regulatory change that year, Apple began asking games for proof of government license — but it didn’t go all out to enforce the policy. Local media reported that developers could get by with fabricated ISBN numbers or circumvent the rule by publishing in an overseas iOS App Store first and switching to China later.

This questionable practice did not go unnoticed. In August 2018, a Chinese state media lambasted Apple for its lousy oversight over App Store approvals.

Stepping up inspection on games will likely have little impact on China’s gaming titans who enjoy the financial and operational resources to secure the much-needed permit. Rather, their challenge is devising content that aligns with Beijing’s ideological guidelines, exemplified by Tencent’s patriotic makeover of PUBG.

Those that will be worst hit will most likely be small-time, independent studios, as well as firms that create “sockpuppet games” (马甲包), a practice whereby a developer exploits app stores’ loopholes to publish a troop of clones with similar gameplay and mask their appearance with altered names, logos and characters. Doing so can often help the publisher gain more traffic and revenue, but these sockpuppets will have a low chance of passing the authority’s strict scrutiny, which, as a Chinese gaming blog speculates, will potentially put an end to the surreptitious practice.

Chinese firms rush to bring 5G smartphones to India

India is unlikely to have any substantial coverage of 5G until at least the end of next year, with telecom operators in the country yet to participate in a spectrum auction. But that hasn’t stopped Chinese vendors Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi from bringing 5G-enabled smartphones to the world’s second largest handset market.

Xiaomi, Vivo’s sub-brand iQoo and Oppo’s sub-brand Realme have all moved in tandem to unveil their 5G smartphones in the last week. While Xiaomi, which has been the top handset vendor in India for more than two years, only showcased its recently unveiled 5G-enabled MiMix Alpha smartphone at several of its physical stores in the country, the other two companies have moved to launch new phones.

Vivo, India’s second largest phone vendor, launched the iQoo 3, which features a 6.44-inch display with screen resolution of 1080 x 2400 pixels, 4,440 mAh battery (with support for 55W fast charging ), and runs Android 10. It is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, coupled with 8GB of RAM and 128GB storage. It sports four rear cameras — 48MP main shooter, 13MP telephoto, 13MP ultra-wide and 2MP depth-sensor — and a 16MP selfie sensor.

The phone’s prices start at 36,990 Indian rupees ($515), which goes up to 44,990 ($627) Indian rupees for variants with additional storage and memory.

Realme, which is giving the top phone makers a run for their money in India, launched the X50 Pro 5G that features a 6.44-inch display of screen resolution and 1080 x 2400 pixels with support for 90Hz refresh rate. It is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 SoC, coupled with 12GB of RAM and a 4,200 mAh battery with 65W Super Dart charging support.

On the photography front, it houses a 65MP primary shooter, 8MP ultra-wide sensor, 12MP telephoto shooter and a 2MP portrait sensor. On the front is a setup of duo-selfie sensors of 32MP and 8MP.

The Realme X50 Pro 5G is priced at 37,999 Indian rupees ($530), which goes as high as 44,999 Indian rupees ($627) for variants with additional storage and memory.

Executives at the companies said that the rationale behind launching a 5G phone so ahead of time was to offer future-proof devices. Additionally, Qualcomm also requires phone vendors to use X55 5G modem if they want to use its flagship Snapdragon 865 SoC.

An executive with Poco, which recently spun out of Xiaomi, also chimed in:

Apple to begin online sales in India this year, open first retail store in 2021

For a decade, Apple has solely relied on third-party sellers, stores and marketplaces to sell its products in India. That will begin to change this year.

At the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, chief executive Tim Cook told investors that Apple will open its online store in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market, at some point this year, and set up its first flagship brick-and-mortar store next year.

“I’m a huge believer in the opportunity in India,” said Cook. “It’s a country with a vibrancy and demographics that are just unparalleled.”

TechCrunch reported last month that Apple was planning to open its online store in Q3 this year and was unlikely to be able to have its brick-and-mortar store ready in the country this year.

India, perhaps the last great growth market for American technology giants, has been a conundrum for Apple and several firms that sell premium items.

It’s a big market that continues to report growth, but most people in the country can’t afford Apple’s products. In fact, the vast majority of smartphones that ship in India carry a price tag of $150 or lower, according to research firm Counterpoint.

For Apple, the other challenge has been the heavy import duty that New Delhi levies on electronic items. This has made iPhone even more expensive for people in India, as the company passes the additional cost to customers.

Apple has attempted to broaden its appeal in India by looking to reduce prices of its handsets. For years, it urged the government to provide it with some tax benefits. When those talks did not materialize, Apple moved to do something that all the Chinese phone makers have done in India: assemble smartphones locally.

New Delhi provides several incentives to companies that assemble electronic items locally. Two years into the process, Apple contractors Foxconn and Wistron are assembling a range of iPhone models in India, and that has lowered the prices for a number of models (except those in the current-generation lineup.)

These moves have already proven useful for the company. Apple shipped close to 925,000 iPhone units in India in the quarter that ended in December, research firm Canalys estimated. That figure, up 200% year-over-year, was the iPhone-maker’s best year in the country to date, the research firm added.

Madhumita Chaudhary, an analyst with Canalys, said Apple’s decision to become more aggressive with pricing — partnering with banks to offer more incentives to customers — helped the company improve its position in a market with 99% Android smartphones.

Apple has also held discussions with content studios to bulk up its movie and TV show offerings for the Indian audience. Three years ago, for instance, it was in late stages of talks to acquire the Indian business of Eros Now for $300 million — something which has not been previously reported — with an option to expand its stake in the publicly listed global company, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told TechCrunch a few months ago.

But the deal did not materialize.

TechCrunch also reported last month that Cook may plan an India visit for the opening of the online store. Apple did not comment on that story.

India eased sourcing norms for single-brand retailers last year, which paved the way for companies like Apple to open online stores before they establish a presence in the brick-and-mortar market.

Bird is testing Bird Pay, which lets users purchase items from local businesses using its main app

Another on-demand transport app is making a move into payments to expand the existing relationship with its customers (and subsequent margins that it makes from serving them). Bird today announced the launch of Bird Pay, a service that will let people use its app to purchase items from local participating businesses alongside renting scooters. The service is being tested first in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, the company said.

Bird Pay will work by way of a QR code, which can be read via your app at the point of sale at participating businesses to make cashless purchases. (After scanning the code, you enter the amount you are charging and swipe up to complete the purchase.)

The company said that Bird Pay was created directly in response to requests from businesses themselves — who will be using the app to promote deals near to where Bird users pick up or drop off scooters. The link between local businesses and scooter rides is a strong one: Bird says it found that 58% of all the rides through its app start or end at a local business, and claims that businesses in all of its areas of operation — it’s now live in some 100 cities — say that the presence of Bird scooters outside their establishments have increased footfall.

“An early insight that emerged shortly after introducing Bird in Santa Monica was that it had the potential to not only allow people to avoid the chore of circling a block to find parking resulting in congestion and frustration, but it could also foster a more direct connection between people and local businesses,” said Travis VanderZanden, CEO and founder, Bird, in a statement. “Store owners in the community often tell me, ‘Birds outside bring business inside.’ This phenomenon paired with our commitment to community resulted in Bird Pay which helps drive even more customers to local businesses.”

Adding in payments to on-demand transport apps has become something of a tested and successful formula. In Asia, companies like Grab have built rather extensive payments operations on top of their transportation apps — businesses big enough to be raising hundreds of millions of dollars in their own right to expand. And several months ago, Uber also started to test the waters in this area with the launch of Uber Money.

Of course, services like Grab’s have a slightly bigger greenfield when it comes to winning business: in many of the regions where Grab operates, cash is often still king; therefore, having a relationship with a user, where a mobile app is already being identified with “virtual money” (with money either being preloaded into an app or linked to a payment card), gives the app publisher an easy opening to expanding that relationship, such as payments for local goods and services.

The challenge in the U.S., where Bird is based and operates primarily, is somewhat different: people are already used to plastic cards, and their phones may already have one or more payments apps active already. Both Apple Pay and Google’s Android-based offering have had strong take-up, as have alternatives from Samsung, PayPal and many others. That means a much more crowded playing field for Bird or any other new entrant.

On the other hand, we are creatures of convenience, and if we already have the Bird app open to open or close off a ride, that could just be the lower friction we need to use it to buy something. Time will tell if this particular bird will, indeed, fly.

Bird last October raised some $275 million at a $2.5 billion valuation.