BlackBerry and TCL will end their handset partnership in August 2020

Big changes are ahead for BlackBerry and TCL as the smartphone market continues to see slowing growth. The pair announced today that they would end their four-year brand licensing and tech support partnership in August 2020, with TCL ceasing to make new models of BlackBerry handsets after then. TCL — which has only a 1% share of the whole smartphone market today — will continue to support models that are already in the market until August 31, 2022.

“We… regret to share… that as of August 31, 2020, TCL Communication will no longer be selling BlackBerry-branded mobile devices,” says the note, posted BlackBerry’s Twitter account. “TCL has no further rights to design, manufacturers or sell any new BlackBerry mobile devices.”

The company has yet to follow up with any more details about what this means for new BlackBerry handsets after that point. (We have asked directly but have not heard back. People asking on Twitter are also not getting any responses.)

The announcement caps off what has been a tough four years for the two companies.

BlackBerry, making devices using its own operating system, was once a market leader and trailblazer in the world of smartphones, with its small, full-qwerty keyboard gaining a loyal following among professional users, “prosumers” and other early adopters. That popularity lead to the Canada-founded company controlling some 50% of the smartphone market in the US and some 20% globally at its peak.

That was, however, before the rise of the touchscreen. After the launch of Apple’s iPhone and a slew of Android -powered handsets, Research In Motion (as the company was called then) gradually saw its share start to decline as it failed to produce compelling enough handsets to fit changing tastes.

RIM/BlackBerry appeared to be ready to leave the smartphone market altogether to focus instead on security, enterprise services and systems for other kinds of “hardware” like connected cars, until TCL came along.

TCL’s announcement in December of 2016 that it would take over making handsets, with BlackBerry to provide security and apps, but not the operating system, which would be Android — not unlike the partnership that another once-huge but now ageing handset brand, Nokia, struck up with HMD, just months before that, to make smartphones built on Android — looked like a new lease of life for BB.

But the change may have been too little, too late. The last few years have seen a general slowing down of smartphone growth, in large part due to market penetration in many countries: meaning, it’s much harder to shift devices than it used to be. And on top of that, there have been an army of new handset makers out of Asia, and also building on Android, that are dominating sales, led by Huawei but also including the likes of Xiaomi and Oppo, making the sales funnel even more challenging.

The end result has been that TCL and BlackBerry have struggled to break through with significant sales — falling instead into the large, and largely fragmented, “other” category in smartphone market share reports.

StrategyAnalytics tells me that TCL has only a 1% share of the global smartphone market covering both its BlackBerry and Alcatel brands (the latter is another legacy mobile handset brand that TCL resuscitated).

More recently, TCL has been wading into the market with its own-branded devices alongside its efforts with BlackBerry and Alcate), and so the writing was, perhaps, already on the touchscreen, so to speak.

We’ve reached out to BlackBerry to find out if it can tell us any more on its plans for handsets going forward, of if this is really it. BlackBerry has inked some licensing partnerships in specific markets, such as this handset deal in Indonesia, so there may be yet more to come.


Android – TechCrunch

BlackBerry and TCL will end their handset partnership in August 2020

Big changes ahead for BlackBerry and TCL at a time when the smartphone market continues to see slowing growth. The two announced today that they would end their four-year brand licensing and tech support partnership in August 2020, with TCL ceasing to make new models of BlackBerry handsets after then, but continuing to support models that are already in the market for two years after, until August 31, 2022.

“We…regret to share… that as of August 31, 2020, TCL Communication will no longer be selling BlackBerry-branded mobile devices,” says the note, posted BlackBerry’s Twitter account. “TCL has no further rights to design, manufacturers or sell any new BlackBerry mobile devices.”

The company has yet to follow up with any more details about what this means for new BlackBerry handsets after that point. (We have asked directly but have not heard back. People asking on Twitter are also not getting any responses.)

The announcement caps off what has been a tough four years for the two companies.

BlackBerry, making devices using its own operating system, was once a market leader and trailblazer in the world of smartphones, with its small, full-qwerty keyboard gaining a loyal following among professional users, “prosumers” and other early adopters. That popularity lead to the Canada-founded company controlling some 50% of the smartphone market in the US and some 20% globally at its peak.

That was, however, before the rise of the touchscreen. After the launch of Apple’s iPhone and a slew of Android-powered handsets, Research In Motion (as the company was called then) gradually saw its share start to decline as it failed to produce compelling enough handsets to fit changing tastes.

RIM/BlackBerry appeared to be ready to leave the smartphone market altogether to focus instead on security, enterprise services and systems for other kinds of “hardware” like connected cars, until TCL came along.

TCL’s announcement in December of 2016 that it would take over making handsets, with BlackBerry to provide security and apps, but not the operating system, which would be Android — not unlike the partnership that another once-huge but now ageing handset brand, Nokia, struck up with HMD, just months before that, to make smartphones built on Android — looked like a new lease of life for BB.

But the change may have been too little, too late. The last few years have seen a general slowing down of smartphone growth, in large part due to market penetration in many countries: meaning, it’s much harder to shift devices than it used to be. And on top of that, there have been an army of new handset makers out of Asia, and also building on Android, that are dominating sales, led by Huawei but also including the likes of Xiaomi and Oppo, making the sales funnel even more challenging.

The end result has been that TCL and BlackBerry have struggled to break through with significant sales — falling instead into the large, and largely fragmented, “other” category in smartphone market share reports.

More recently, TCL has been wading into the market with its own-branded devices alongside its efforts with BlackBerry and Alcatel (another legacy mobile handset brand that TCL resuscitated), and so the writing was, perhaps, already on the touchscreen, so to speak.

We’ve reached out to BlackBerry to find out if it can tell us any more on its plans for handsets going forward, of if this is really it. BlackBerry has inked some licensing partnerships in specific markets, such as this handset deal in Indonesia, so there may be yet more to come.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Chinese apps are losing their hold on India to local developers

Apps from Chinese developers have been gaining popularity on Indian app stores for sometime. Last year, as many as 44 of the top 100 Android apps in India were developed by Chinese firms.

But things have changed this year as local developers put on a fight. According to app analytics and marketing firm AppsFlyer, Indian apps as a whole have recaptured their original standing.

41% of top 200 apps in Indian editions of Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store in Q2 and Q3 this year were developed by Indian developers and local firms, up from 38% last year, the report said. Data from App Annie, another research firm, corroborates the claim.

“This uptick happened chiefly at the expense of Chinese apps, which fell from their lead position to 38% from 43% in 2018. Altogether, Chinese and Indian apps make up almost four-fifths (79%) of the list,” the report said.

The shift comes as scores of Indian firms have launched payments, gaming, news, and entertainment apps in the last year and a half, said AppsFlyer, which analyzed 6.5 billion installs in the second and third quarters of this year.

But Chinese developers are not giving up and continue to maintain an “impressive” fight in each category, the report said.

India — which is home to more than 450 million smartphone users and maintains relatively lax laws to support an open market — has naturally emerged as an attractive battleground for developers worldwide.

Many Chinese firms including Xiaomi and ByteDance count India as one of their largest markets. TikTok app has amassed over 200 million users in India, for instance. Xiaomi, which leads the Indian smartphone market, is quickly building a portfolio of services for users in India. It launched a lending app in the country earlier this month.

Gaining traction among first time internet users, most of whom have lower financial capacity, can prove challenging. Those developing travel apps had to spend about 170 Indian rupees ($ 2.4) for each install, for instance. Food and drink app makers spent 138 Indian rupees ($ 1.9) per install during the aforementioned period, while games cost 13.5 Indian rupees.

Despite the marketing spends, retention rate for these apps was 23.4% on day 1, a figure that plummeted to 2.6% by the end of the month. (This is still an improvement over 22.8% day 1, and 2.3% day 30 retention rates from last year.)


Android – TechCrunch

Intel and Argonne National Lab on ‘exascale’ and their new Aurora supercomputer

The scale of supercomputing has grown almost too large to comprehend, with millions of compute units performing calculations at rates requiring, for first time, the exa prefix — denoting quadrillions per second. How was this accomplished? With careful planning… and a lot of wires, say two people close to the project.

Having noted the news that Intel and Argonne National Lab were planning to take the wrapper off a new exascale computer called Aurora (one of several being built in the U.S.) earlier this year, I recently got a chance to talk with Trish Damkroger, head of Intel’s Extreme Computing Organization, and Rick Stevens, Argonne’s associate lab director for computing, environment and life sciences.

The two discussed the technical details of the system at the Supercomputing conference in Denver, where, probably, most of the people who can truly say they understand this type of work already were. So while you can read at industry journals and the press release about the nuts and bolts of the system, including Intel’s new Xe architecture and Ponte Vecchio general-purpose compute chip, I tried to get a little more of the big picture from the two.

It should surprise no one that this is a project long in the making — but you might not guess exactly how long: more than a decade. Part of the challenge, then, was to establish computing hardware that was leagues beyond what was possible at the time.

“Exascale was first being started in 2007. At that time we hadn’t even hit the petascale target yet, so we were planning like three to four magnitudes out,” said Stevens. “At that time, if we had exascale, it would have required a gigawatt of power, which is obviously not realistic. So a big part of reaching exascale has been reducing power draw.”

Intel’s supercomputing-focused Xe architecture is based on a 7-nanometer process, pushing the very edge of Newtonian physics — much smaller and quantum effects start coming into play. But the smaller the gates, the less power they take, and microscopic savings add up quickly when you’re talking billions and trillions of them.

But that merely exposes another problem: If you increase the power of a processor by 1000x, you run into a memory bottleneck. The system may be able to think fast, but if it can’t access and store data equally fast, there’s no point.

“By having exascale-level computing, but not exabyte-level bandwidth, you end up with a very lopsided system,” said Stevens.

And once you clear both those obstacles, you run into a third: what’s called concurrency. High performance computing is equally about synchronizing a task between huge numbers of computing units as it is about making those units as powerful as possible. The machine operates as a whole, and as such every part must communicate with every other part — which becomes something of a problem as you scale up.

“These systems have many thousands of nodes, and the nodes have hundreds of cores, and the cores have thousands of computation units, so there’s like, billion-way concurrency,” Stevens explained. “Dealing with that is the core of the architecture.”

How they did it, I, being utterly unfamiliar with the vagaries of high performance computing architecture design, would not even attempt to explain. But they seem to have done it, as these exascale systems are coming online. The solution, I’ll only venture to say, is essentially a major advance on the networking side. The level of sustained bandwidth between all these nodes and units is staggering.

Making exascale accessible

While even in 2007 you could predict that we’d eventually reach such low-power processes and improved memory bandwidth, other trends would have been nearly impossible to predict — for example, the exploding demand for AI and machine learning. Back then it wasn’t even a consideration, and now it would be folly to create any kind of high performance computing system that wasn’t at least partially optimized for machine learning problems.

“By 2023 we expect AI workloads to be a third of the overall HPC server market,” said Damkroger. “This AI-HPC convergence is bringing those two workloads together to solve problems faster and provide greater insight.”

To that end the architecture of the Aurora system is built to be flexible while retaining the ability to accelerate certain common operations, for instance the type of matrix calculations that make up a great deal of certain machine learning tasks.

“But it’s not just about performance, it has to be about programmability,” she continued. “One of the big challenges of an exacale machine is being able to write software to use that machine. oneAPI is going to be a unified programming model — it’s based on an open standard of Open Parallel C++, and that’s key for promoting use in the community.”

Summit, as of this writing the most powerful single computing system in the world, is very dissimilar to many of the systems developers are used working on. If the creators of a new supercomputer want it to have broad appeal, they need to bring it as close to being like a “normal” computer to operate as possible.

“It’s something of a challenge to bring x86-based packages to Summit,” Stevens noted. “The big advantage for us is that, because we have x86 nodes and Intel GPUs, this thing is basically going to run every piece of software that exists. It’ll run standard software, Linux software, literally millions of apps.”

I asked about the costs involved, since it’s something of a mystery with a system like this how that a half-billion dollar budget gets broken down. Really I just thought it would be interesting to know how much of it went to, say, RAM versus processing cores, or how many miles of wire they had to run. Though both Stevens and Damkroger declined to comment, the former did note that “the backlink bandwidth on this machine is many times the total of the entire internet, and that does cost something.” Make of that what you will.

Aurora, unlike its cousin El Capitan at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, will not be used for weapons development.

“Argonne is a science lab, and it’s open, not classified science,” said Stevens. “Our machine is a national user resource; We have people using it from all over the country. A large amount of time is allocated via a process that’s peer reviewed and priced to accommodate the most interesting projects. About two thirds is that, and the other third Department of Energy stuff, but still unclassified problems.”

Initial work will be in climate science, chemistry, and data science, with 15 teams between them signed up for major projects to be run on Aurora — details to be announced soon.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Popular Android phones can be tricked into snooping on their owners

Security researchers have found several popular Android phones can be tricked into snooping on their owners by exploiting a weakness that gives accessories access to the phone’s underlying baseband software.

Attackers can use that access to trick vulnerable phones into giving up their unique identifiers, such as their IMEI and IMSI numbers, downgrade a target’s connection in order to intercept phone calls, forward calls to another phone or block all phone calls and internet access altogether.

The research, shared exclusively with TechCrunch, affects at least 10 popular Android devices, including Google’s Pixel 2, Huawei’s Nexus 6P and Samsung’s Galaxy S8+.

The vulnerabilities are found in the interface used to communicate with the baseband firmware, the software that allows the phone’s modem to communicate with the cell network, such as making phone calls or connecting to the internet. Given its importance, the baseband is typically off-limits from the rest of the device, including its apps, and often come with command blacklisting to prevent non-critical commands from running. But the researchers found that many Android phones inadvertently allow Bluetooth and USB accessories — like headphones and headsets — access to the baseband. By exploiting a vulnerable accessory, an attacker can run commands on a connected Android phone.

“The impact of these attacks ranges from sensitive user information exposure to complete service disruption,” said Syed Rafiul Hussain and Imtiaz Karim, two co-authors of the research, in an email to TechCrunch.

Hussain and his colleagues Imtiaz Karim, Fabrizio Cicala and Elisa Bertino at Purdue University and Omar Chowdhury at the University of Iowa are set to present their findings next month.

“The impact of these attacks ranges from sensitive user information exposure to complete service disruption.”
Syed Rafiul Hussain, Imtiaz Karim

Baseband firmware accepts special commands, known as AT commands, which control the device’s cellular functions. These commands can be used to tell the modem which phone number to call. But the researchers found that these commands can be manipulated. The researchers developed a tool, dubbed ATFuzzer, which tries to find potentially problematic AT commands.

In their testing, the researchers discovered 14 commands that could be used to trick the vulnerable Android phones into leaking sensitive device data, and manipulating phone calls.

But not all devices are vulnerable to the same commands or can be manipulated in the same way. The researchers found, for example, that certain commands could trick a Galaxy S8+ phone into leaking its IMEI number, redirect phone calls to another phone and downgrade their cellular connection — all of which can be used to snoop and listen in on phone calls, such as with specialist cellular snooping hardware known as “stingrays.” Other devices were not vulnerable to call manipulation but were susceptible to commands that could be used to block internet connectivity and phone calls.

The vulnerabilities are not difficult to exploit, but require all of the right conditions to be met.

“The attacks can be easily carried out by an adversary with cheap Bluetooth connectors or by setting up a malicious USB charging station,” said Hussain and Karim. In other words, it’s possible to manipulate a phone if an accessory is accessible over the internet — such as a computer. Or, if a phone is connected to a Bluetooth device, an attacker has to be in close proximity. (Bluetooth attacks are not difficult, given vulnerabilities in how some devices implement Bluetooth has left some devices more vulnerable to attacks than others.)

“If your smartphone is connected with a headphone or any other Bluetooth device, the attacker can first exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of the Bluetooth connection and then inject those malformed AT commands,” the researchers said..

Samsung recognized the vulnerabilities in some of its devices and is rolling out patches. Huawei did not comment at the time of writing. Google said: “The issues reported are either in compliance with the Bluetooth specification or do not reproduce on Pixel devices with up to date security patches.”

Hussain said that iPhones were not affected by the vulnerabilities.

This research becomes the latest to examine vulnerabilities in baseband firmware. Over the years there have been several papers examining various phones and devices with baseband vulnerabilities. Although these reports are rare, security researchers have long warned that intelligence agencies and hackers alike could be using these flaws to launch silent attacks.


Android – TechCrunch