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Gartner reports first ever global decline in smartphone sales

Global smartphone sales have not been firing on all cylinders for several years now but Gartner’s latest figures record the first ever decline since the analyst began tracking the market all the way back in 2004. (Though it’s not the first analyst to call a decline.) Gartner’s figures peg sales of smartphones to end users in Q4 2017 at nearly 408 million units — a 5.6 per cent decline over its Q4 2016 figure. It says No.1 ranked smartphone maker Samsung saw a year-on-year unit decline of 3.6 per cent in Q4, while sales of Apple’s iPhones fell 5 per cent in the holiday quarter, though it says Cupertino stabilized its second-place marketshare. Gartner says two main factors led to the Q4 sales drop: A slowing of upgrades from feature phones to smartphones due to a lack of quality “ultra-low-cost” smartphones; and existing smartphone owners selecting quality models and keeping them for longer, lengthening the replacement cycle. Apple’s performance in Q4 was also impacted by the later availability of its new top-of-the-range iPhone X, which drove slower upgrades of its other two new smartphones, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. While component shortages and manufacturing capacity constraints also contributed to a long delivery cycle for the iPhone X. Gartner says it’s expecting a delayed sales boost for Apple in the first quarter of 2018, now that the flagship’s delivery cycle has returned to normal. It’s also expecting a boost for Samsung in Q1 as it unpacks its successor Galaxy flagships. For full year 2017, Samsung carved out a 20.9 per cent marketshare to Apple’s 14.0 per cent. Far East Last month analyst Canalys reported a first annual decline in smartphone shipments in China — which for years took up the baton on smartphone growth from saturated Western markets. But even Chinese buyers appear to be getting tapped out. It’s still a growth story for Chinese OEMs, though. And Gartner says the combined market share of Chinese vendors in the top five increased by 4.2 percentage points in 2017, while the market share of the top two, Samsung and Apple, remained unchanged. China’s Huawei and Xiaomi were the only smartphone vendors to actively increase their market shares in Q4, according to Gartner, with year-on-year unit growth in the holiday quarter of 7.6 and 79 per cent, respectively. The analyst credits Huawei’s uplift to broadening the appeal of its portfolio with new handset launches in the quarter. It also says Xiaomi’s “competitive” portfolio accelerating its growth in the emerging APAC market and helped it win back lost share in China. Huawei remained in third place in the global smartphone vendor rankings, taking a 9.8 per cent share in full year 2017 and shrinking the gap with Apple and Samsung. Overall, Gartner says total smartphone sales exceeded 1.5 billion units in 2017 — a year-on-year increase of 2.7 per cent. On the OS front, Google’s Android platform extended its lead in 2017, taking an 86 per cent share of the total market, up 1.1 percentage points from a year ago. While iOS took 14 per cent. (The “other OS” category shriveled to a nearly non-existent 0.1 per cent.) And as the world’s biggest mobile tradeshow, MWC, rolls around again, there will be some fresh Android-powered handsets being unboxed in the coming days — including from Samsung, Nokia-branded HMD and others.

People are trolling iPhone users with the ‘killer symbol’ that crashes their apps

Surprise! Assorted jerks on the internet have weaponized the unicode-based bug we reported yesterday to insta-crash apps running on an iPhone or a Mac. The result is somewhere between the old Alt + F4 trick and a script kiddie stunt and it ranges from being annoying to rendering a device unusable, depending on the tenacity of the troll. The bug causes many iOS and Mac apps to crash when rendering two characters in Telugu, a south Indian language. While anyone can avoid viewing the symbols themselves, problems arise when someone ill-intentioned starts spamming out the symbols or sending them directly to devices where they will be received as a notification. Droves of Twitter users have taken to tweeting the symbols out over the last day with messages like “read this to log off instantly” and “retweet this to crash anyone using an Apple device,” though luckily most of them don’t have many followers. Still, if the symbol shows up in your @ replies or in the handle of someone who likes one of your tweets, then it’s game over for whatever app you have open (Motherboard writer Joseph Cox learned this the hard way). From what we’ve observed, the only way to get an app working again is to reinstall it from scratch — a time consuming process, especially if a troll just crashes it all over again. As captured on Twitter, one security researcher added one of the symbols to his Uber handle as an experiment. “I suspect a crashed phone means you get routed to the next driver… who gets crashed too. Like an Uber routing worm” he wrote. We reached out to Uber to see if they’re aware of the issue and will update when we hear back. For now, most of the trolling seems to be on Twitter. A search on both Facebook and Reddit yielded conspicuously few signs of Telugu trolling, so it appears that those platforms may have taken steps to limit the fallout from the iPhone-killing unicode symbols. Meanwhile, a thorough blog post by a Mozilla engineer Manish Goregaokar suggests that the scope of the unicode bug could be broader than the two symbols we know. “… From some experimentation, this bug seemed to occur for any pair of Telugu consonants with a vowel, as long as the vowel is not ై (ai),” he wrote. His findings so far: “So, ultimately, the full set of cases that cause the crash are: Any sequence in Devanagari, Bengali, and Telugu, where: consonant2 is suffix-joining – i.e. र, র, য, and all Telugu consonants If consonant2 is र or র, consonant1 is not the same letter (or a variant, like ৰ) vowel is not ై or ৌ” TechCrunch has reached out to Twitter, Facebook and Reddit to see how those platforms are handling the bug, which is particularly destructive when blasted out on an open social network. We’ve also been in touch with Apple and they’ve confirmed that there is a “dot update” fix coming soon, though declined to confirm if it would be iOS 11.2.6. Apple noted that the bug is fixed in current betas of iOS, tvOS, macOS and watchOS. Featured Image: Jane_Kelly/Getty Images (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

Apple and Android are destroying the Swiss Watch industry

In Q4 2017 – essentially during the last holiday season – market research firm Canalys found that more people bought Apple watches than Swiss watches. Two million more, to be exact. Brian Heater has more data but this news is quite problematic for the folks eating Coquilles St-Jacques on the slopes of the Jura mountains. The numbers are estimates based on market data but they still point to a trend. In Q1 2016 Apple shipped 1.5 million watches to Switzerlands 5.9 million. The intervening quarters were about the same until the launch of the Apple Watch 3 in September 2017, just in time for holiday shopping. The boost of a new phone and a new watch at the same time meant a perfect storm for upgraders, driving the total number of Apple Watches sold past the Swiss watch sales numbers. This switch does not mean Apple will maintain that lead – they have one product while Switzerland has thousands – but comparing a single company’s output to an entire industry’s in this case is telling. Wearing watches is, as we all remind each other, is passé. “I check the time on my phone,” we said for almost a decade as phones became more ubiquitous. Meanwhile watch manufacturers abandoned the low end and began selling to the high end consumer, the connoisseur. Take a look at this chart: Sales of low- to mid-tier watches – and a mid-tier watch can range in price between $500 and $3,000 (and I would even lump many $10,000 watches in the mid-tier category) – were stagnant while the true cash cows, the expensive watches for the ultra-rich, fell slowly from a high in 2014. This coincides with falling purchases in China as what amounted to sumptuary laws reduced the number of expensive gifts given to corrupt officials. Sales are up as December 2017 but don’t expect much of a bump past the current slide. As a lover of all things mechanical – I did ruin a few years of my life writing a book about a watch – I look at these trends with dismay and a bit of schadenfreude. As I’ve said again and again the Swiss Watch industry brought this on itself. While they claim great numbers and great success year after year the small manufacturers are eating each other up while nearly every major watch brand is snooping around for outside buyers. There is no money in churning out mechanical timepieces to an increasingly disinterested public. As time ticks ever forward things will change. The once mighty Swiss houses will sink under the weight of their accreted laurel-resting and Apple will move on to embedded brain implants and leave watches behind. The result, after a battle that raged for more than four decades, will be a dead Swiss industry catering to a world that has moved on.

Apple moves iCloud encryption keys for Chinese users to China

Apple told Reuters that the company had to comply with Chinese authorities and move iCloud data to Chinese data centers. Not everyone’s data is moving to China. This is only going to apply to residents of mainland China who chose China as their main country when they created their Apple account (not Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan). The Chinese government can now ask Apple to decrypt iCloud backups much more easily. Human rights activists are concerned because it could lead to arrests of democracy advocates. Before this change, all encryption keys would be stored in the U.S. It means that authorities would have to go through the U.S. legal system to ask for user data stored on iCloud. Apple is partnering with a Chinese company for its Chinese data center. Apple has already complied with requests for iCloud data in the U.S. You might remember Apple’s fight with the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone 5c. This is different as the FBI was asking for a backdoor to unlock the phone as the shooter didn’t back up its phone to iCloud. Apple has always stored encryption keys for iCloud data. It means that data is encrypted on Apple’s servers, but Apple has a way to decrypt this data. This is useful if you forget your password for instance as Apple always has a way to recover data for you. If you’re wondering about iMessage in particular, the messaging protocol has been designed so that messages are encrypted on your phone and decrypted on the recipient’s phone. Apple has no way to access and read those messages. But, by default, Apple uploads a backup of your phone data to iCloud. This backup includes a database of all your iMessage conversations. Apple has been working on a way to store iMessage data on iCloud servers with end-to-end encryption. But it’s not available just yet. The company has sent notifications to Chinese users days before the change. Apple probably hopes that users with sensitive data disabled iCloud backups and iCloud data before the switch. Chinese authorities can now get a Chinese legal order and tell Apple to hand over user data. Apple will have no choice but to comply with the order. Apple’s statement to Reuters is quite telling. “While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful,” The company told Reuters. Apple simply couldn’t win this fight.

Facebook picks up half-hour dramedy series starring Elizabeth Olsen

Facebook isn’t one to be outdone by Apple’s recent big content spending: It’s purchasing a 10-episode, straight-to-series half-hour drama-comedy series produced and starring Elizabeth Olsen. The production also includes Lizzy Weiss on board as showrunner, Kit Steinkellner as creator and lead writer and Master of None‘s James Ponsoldt as a directly and executive producer for a number of episodes. Deadline reports that the series, previously titled Widow, is one fo the first of a series of planned acquisitions Facebook is doing to flesh out Facebook Watch with premium original content. Olsen, who will feature prominently in this summer’s upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, is obviously a high-profile get for the fledgling initiative at the social network. This comes in the wake of a number of straight-to-series orders from Apple, which is likely going to be going directly toe-to-toe with Facebook Watch. Both will of course also be competing with extant industry rivals including Netflix and Hulu, and it’s worth considering what this run on Hollywood talent and productions will mean in terms of fallout for traditional TV channels and delivery vectors. Featured Image: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

New cars from Fiat Chrysler and VW will come with up to 6 months...

Two major car manufacturers, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and Volkswagen, announced today they will begin to offer free Apple Music subscriptions of up to six months to customers purchasing new vehicles with CarPlay starting on May 1, 2018. The offers are meant to help boost Apple Music subscribers, and arrive shortly after rival Spotify filed to go public. In the U.S., FCA will offer customers up to six months free of Apple Music with the purchase of any new Chrysler, Dodge, FIAT, Jeep or Ram vehicle with standard CarPlay support. Customers who are new to Apple Music will receive the full six months free, while existing subscribers will get three months free. (Users receive individual memberships, not family plans.) The deal runs for a year, ending on April 30, 2019. FCA customers will then gain access to Apple Music’s 45 million songs and support for BeatsAudio sound, the company says. And with CarPlay, drivers can also make and receive calls and messages, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, get directions or updates on traffic conditions, and more, as usual. In Europe, Apple has teamed up with Volkswagen for a similar deal. Customers buying a new VW with CarPlay will also be given six months of Apple Music for free, if a new Apple Music subscriber, or 3 months, if existing. This is the first time Apple Music has offered deals like this for auto customers, though Apple Music itself offers free trials of three months. Acquiring music subscribers with a pre-installed service is not something that’s unique to Apple, however. Sirius XM regularly ships with new cars, already switched on for a period of time in order to entice drivers to later convert to paying subscribers. It’s a strategy that often works, but has perhaps an even better chance at succeeding given that Apple is specifically targeting customers who already own Apple products and are participating in its ecosystem. The Apple Music offers, notably, follow the news of Spotify’s filing to go public. Both Apple Music and Spotify are targeting customers who would rather pay by subscription for access to on-demand, streaming music, rather than pay for downloads. And it’s a zero-sum game, for the most part. If you choose to pay for Apple Music, you aren’t likely to also pay for Spotify – and vice versa. Spotify is currently ahead of Apple Music in terms of paid subscriptions. Its free service today has 159 million monthly active users, while its premium product has 71 million subscribers. That’s nearly double the number of Apple Music paid subscribers, which stands at 36 million global users, according to a February 2018 report from The WSJ. But Apple has something Spotify doesn’t: its own in-vehicle infotainment platform, CarPlay. And it’s clearly willing to leverage that.

A traveling frog exposes the fake app problem in Apple’s Chinese App Store

An app about a frog that likes to travel has exposed worrying signs that Apple isn’t doing enough to prevent fake apps from entering its App Store in China, the world’s largest smartphone market and Apple’s single largest country for app revenue. The story centers around ‘Tabi Kaeru’ — or ‘Travel Frog’ — a Japanese app that has become an… Read More

Sorry, Apple’s ‘Carpool Karaoke’ gets a second season

Despite its almost universally negative reception from critics, Apple has chosen to renew James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series for Apple Music for a second season. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves announced the renewal on the company’s earning call this week, as part of its commitment to producing more original content, according to a report from Deadline. The series, which is based on the recurring segment from “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” has been streaming on Apple Music since August 2017. It’s essentially an expanded format of what had previously been much shorter clips when it was aired on TV. It also doesn’t have Corden hosting, save for a couple of the episodes. In 20+-minute long videos, the Apple series has featured a cavalcade of guests like Will Smith, Alicia Keys, John Legend, LeBron James, Billy Eichner, Metallica, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Seth MacFarlane, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, John Cena, Shakira, Trevor Noah, and many others. Despite the big names, reviews for the show have not been kind. The Guardian, for example, called it “marginally more watchable than the feeble ‘Planet of the Apps,’” which is a low blow, considering how badly “Planet of the Apps” tanked. Variety said that by making the show a standalone series, its “weaknesses are magnified.” And TechCrunch’s Brian Heater said the show is “not a compelling reason to subscribe to Apple Music.” And yet, it will return – which must indicate that at least some people are watching. Deadline says, in fact, that “Carpool Karaoke” has been the most popular video content on Apple Music. (It didn’t say how it sourced this claim, however.) Of course, the series currently has very little competition, as Apple Music today features few other original series. That will soon change, however. Apple has upped its investment in originals, and now has a number of more promising shows in the works, including a Witherspoon-backed comedy starring Kristen Wiig and thriller starring Octavia Spencer, a documentary series about extraordinary homes, a revival of “Amazing Stories” exec-produced by Steven Spielberg, a new space drama from “Battlestar Galactica’s” creator Ronald D. Moore, called “See,” a scripted basketball show based on Kevin Durant’s life, and show from “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle.

Apple’s learn-to-code app Swift Playgrounds adds AR lessons

Amid a flurry of educational-related announcements at Apple’s press event this morning, the company also unveiled a new feature in its learn-to-code app Swift Playgrounds, that will help teach a younger generation of iOS developers how to build AR-enabled apps. Apple has been heavily pushing augmented reality and its ARKit for developers, as the technology is expected to usher in a whole new ecosystem of smarter apps that can interact with the real world – whether that’s Pokémon-style games, apps that help you pick out your next sofa by visualizing it in the room, apps that animate real-world objects, help you learn, or just entertain. Now Apple wants to encourage novice developers to get into AR, too. Swift Playgrounds was first introduced in 2016 as a new tool for teaching kids to code. The app ships with a number of basic coding lessons and challenges, but with a more graphical and engaging interface than some other learn-to-code apps had in the past. It’s also distributed as an iPad app – meaning it’s ready for schools where iPads are used in the classroom. Today, Apple highlighted AR-focused lessons in Swift Playgrounds. In one example shown on stage, kids could program an animated character to move through a 3D virtual world as a part of a game. AR would allow the animated character and virtual world to be placed within the real world, by way of the iPad’s camera. The addition of the AR module to app was part of a larger “Everyone Can Code” agenda highlighted several times throughout the event, with a focus on how Apple’s tools can help. The larger news from this morning was the launch of a low-cost iPad with support for Apple Pencil – the company’s effort to combat Google Chromebook’s growing traction in schools. Apple didn’t say when Swift Playgrounds would add the AR module, or if it already had ahead of the event.

Apple reportedly under investigation by SEC and DOJ for phone slowdown

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities Exchange Commission are jointly investigating Apple’s communications about the software update that slowed down older models of the iPhone, Bloomberg is reporting. Citing sources familiar with the matter, the government has reportedly requested details on the company’s communications about the software update. The Bloomberg report indicates that the two agencies are in very early stages of their investigation. We’ve reached out to Apple, the SEC and the DOJ for comment and will update when we hear back. For background, Apple got into a lot of trouble with customers who noticed that the performance of their older model phones was degrading over time. Apple was pushed to disclose that it had issued a software update that privileged power management over performance in older devices that had degraded batteries. There was, unsurprisingly, some pushback and Apple was forced to apologize for the way it handled the update. The U.S. isn’t the only country where people are pressing Apple for more information. Consumer advocacy groups around the world — from Europe to Asia — are pressing for an investigation into the slowdown.