On the same day Apple was holding its 2017 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in California, US, I was on the other side of the world talking software with Huawei in Shenzhen, China.
At first glance, there seems to be little in common between the two. Apple can rightly claim to have pioneered the modern smartphone market with the iPhone and its iOS platform, sweeping away the first-generation of devices and causing years of pain for many of the vendors which had previously ruled the roost.
Huawei, meanwhile, worked its way up from the bottom, to become an effective challenger in the premium market only within the last few years. And it is working with the Google-controlled Android platform, as are its key rivals both at home and abroad.
But there are some similarities, not least around machine learning and on-device intelligence. Machine learning was a topic which came up multiple times throughout Apple’s WWDC presentation, with the company’s CoreML technology giving developers access to on-device processing which will enable apps to “predict, learn and become more intelligent”.
Huawei took the same tack, noting how monitoring people’s preferences can be used to improve app performance – for example preparing WeChat for launch when the alarm rings in the morning, or pushing background apps to a low-power state to run in the background.
What was particularly notable about Huawei’s presentation was the focus on privacy.
Christophe Coutelle, VP of software marketing for the vendor, said: “It is important to say that it is running on the device. We are not learning about your habits in the cloud. We are not profiling you. We are running that on the device.”
While Huawei uses the same Android platform as rivals, it is one of the companies – alongside Samsung in the top tier – which also uses its own silicon.
“Because we control the native apps, the system, the chipsets, we have the capacity to run things on the device and not necessarily to upload information to the cloud,” Coutelle continued.
Privacy on parade
This ethos extends to some of Huawei’s apps. Its Highlights photo curation feature, for example, groups photos into collections, along the lines of Google Photos.
“We believe there may be some privacy concerns, and not everybody is OK to upload all their pictures to Google Photo, and then having suggested sharing. This may raise concerns,” Coutelle said.
“We believe there is value in running tagging and classification on the device. We are taking more the Apple route, I would say, rather than the Google one,” he continued.
Of course, as long as Huawei is running Android, Google will have a significant influence over the products and services offered by the device, which can make differentiation a challenge.
“I have to say, the relationship has improved a lot, and I can see over time the relationship getting more and more balanced, of course because of our market share, our presence in China. There are even some implementations that we have been doing in EMUI [Huawei’s UI platform] that have been influencing the way that Android has been developed,” the executive said.
“There is a dialogue, there are a few items on which they are willing to discuss, and others on which they are completely closed. It depends on their strategy. I think it’s quite easy to see what they are trying to push at the moment,” he continued.
Of course, any discussion with Huawei which includes a discussion about privacy needs to include the all-important China question. It is not that long ago that the company’s networks business was involved in a massive spat in the US over whether its equipment could be used in operator networks, for fear it could be used for nefarious purposes.
With Huawei touting its on-device processing capabilities as a competitive differentiator, I asked Coutelle whether the company was being so open about its activities around privacy as a way to cut-off any lingering doubts – or quash them before they begin.
“We are Huawei. We are a global brand, but we are very cautious, extremely cautious – even more maybe than other brands – about making sure there is no privacy concerns with us,” he said.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.