23 Aug
2019

Chinese smartphone trio to collaborate on file sharing standard

This week Chinese smartphone makers Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi announced a collaboration on file sharing functionality to be rolled out in the end of this month. It will allow users to quickly and easily share images and other files across the three Android phone brands.

According to Chinese media accounts, the standard “Mobile Direct Fast Exchange” is based on WIFI P2P and Bluetooth, like Apple’s AirDrop functionality. It does not use up mobile data or require installing any third-party apps, and it supports a variety of formats including images, documents, files, audio and video at transfer speeds of up to 20 megabytes per second. Without a doubt, this ultimately benefits the companies’ consumers by removing the barrier and hassle for moving files among people with different brands of device.

While Oppo and Vivo have extensive links due to common ownership, this looks to be the first time the two have cooperated with independent brand Xiaomi on a technology project like this. Moreover, Xiaomi began by modeling itself on Apple, attracting young consumers with slim designs and trying to build its own proprietary ecosystem. So why are the three fierce commercial rivals choosing to collaborate now?  

Here are a few perspectives on the development that has China’s tech world buzzing this week.

Alternative to Google’s file share feature

Google introduced its Android Beam functionality years ago, enabling Android phones to share photos, contacts and documents. The feature was limited in terms of file format and speed, and did not become widely accepted. The search giant is now working on an alternative feature, Fast Share, in a renewed effort to provide an AirDrop alternative.

But the China market very often demands its own solutions, something all three of these companies have benefitted from. It makes sense for Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi (we have previously dubbed them the VOX companies) to be proactive in improving the Android system for users rather than wait for Google’s development.

There’s also the fact that Chinese manufacturers utilise non-Google versions of Android, and Fast Share reportedly will be a Google Play Services feature. VOX’s file share partnership could be a starting point, and it will be very interesting if we start to see further partnerships on cross-device features, or even operating systems.

Huawei

Huawei, the top Chinese Android vendor, is notable for its absence from this alliance. Sales data from the second quarter of 2019 shows that Huawei accounted for almost 40% of non-Apple smartphone shipments. During that same quarter, Huawei was the only player growing, as it squeezed market share out of other players.

Losing ground to Huawei may be a worrying trend for the VOX firms, and possibly they hope to use the features like their file-sharing standard to shore up their existing user bases, and maybe even attract Huawei users.

From Huawei’s perspective, it is in a position of strength with regards to domestic sales, so may not want to promote interoperability or place itself in the same tier as its smaller rivals. Even more important, the company’s long-term access to Android is in real question due to US export restrictions. The company will be making an all-in effort on its own Harmony operating system.

Prepare for possible OS wars

Some observers in China see potential conflict over operating systems brewing in China’s smartphone sector.

Here is one example, which I will paraphrase in English: Hypothetically, Huawei might use its self-developed Harmony OS operating system on its phones to replace Android, if it is indeed permanently shunned from Android system. In such a scenario, it is possible that the Chinese government would throw its full weight behind Huawei’s Harmony platform, and potentially even require Huawei’s competitors to adopt it.

Some commentators also think the sharp increase in Huawei Q2 China handsets sales was a result of government calls to support Huawei. The narrative is that consumers rushed to buy Huawei handset as an act of pride and patriotism in reaction to the US-led a global campaign against the company. Of course, we don’t know for sure. But it is a development that the VOX companies might view with unease, and that’s informing the portrayal of their file sharing platform as the possible beginnings of an alliance.

Moreover it’s good for Chinese manufacturers like the VOX companies to bear in mind that the hostility against Huawei could happen to them or any other Chinese brand as long as an unpredictable president like Trump sits in the White House. These companies would do well to plan ahead for a situation in which they lose access to Android support services.

Benefits and risks

The VOX trio state that they look forward to more vendors backing the new standard. This is another sign that Chinese companies increasingly value being at the centre of industry standards. Another recent example is the fast-charging technology developed by Oppo, which it has made the basis for an ‘open’ licensing programme. It will be interesting to see if the three companies here come out with any licensing arrangements around this solution.

There are also risks to think about. The file-sharing feature will be available in China at the end of this month, but it’s not clear whether it is coming to phones sold outside China. If it does, it may create some freedom to operate risks considering this is a similar feature to Apple’s AirDrop. AirDrop has been the subject of NPE campaigns – including one waged in the US by Uniloc – as well as an assertion against Apple by Japan’s Maxell.

Bing Zhao

Author | China editor

[email protected]

Bing Zhao