Huawei’s Walter Ji: ‘People are experiencing AI in their daily lives’

8 Mar 2018

Walter Ji, president, Huawei western Europe consumer business group. Image: John Kennedy

Walter Ji, the mastermind behind Huawei’s steady expansion in western Europe, provides key insights into the Chinese tech giant’s methodical takeover of the tech world.

It would be extremely foolish to discount or dismiss China’s ambitions for the tech world for even a second. At Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2018, the majority of smartphone devices and 5G innovations came from Asia and you really got the sense that the centre of gravity of the tech world – especially in terms of 5G – is shifting from Silicon Valley to Shenzhen.

In the smartphone market worldwide, names such as Huawei, OnePlus and Oppo are beginning to resonate more readily than Samsung or Apple with consumers who crave individuality rather than merely going with safe or homogeneous trends.

‘We invest heavily in R&D – more than $10bn a year – but we take our time to bring innovation to market and we rely on the word-of-mouth of consumers who use our products’

Seven years ago, Huawei was a Chinese manufacturer of telecoms equipment with a few budget phones in the marketplace. Today, it is the world’s third-largest smartphone maker after Apple and Samsung, and its Mate 10 and P10 devices have the sophistication and style to give either the iPhone 8 and X series or the latest Samsung S9 and S9 Plus series a run for their money.

According to the latest Strategy Analytics figures, Apple’s iPhone still commands the majority of revenues from the smartphone segment at 51pc. Samsung gleans 17.1pc of the revenues but the one to watch closely is Huawei, which now commands 7pc of global smartphone revenues and you get the sense that it is willing to capitalise on the perception that, with the S9, Samsung has dropped the ball from an innovation standpoint.

The Shenzhen tech giant is taking a methodical, serious and disciplined approach to its onslaught on the tech world, learning and assimilating key lessons with every release. Step by step, it is eating into Apple and Samsung’s hegemony of the smartphone market, learning from their mistakes as well as any of its own.

Speaking with the head of Huawei in western Europe, Walter Ji, that approach is a steady incremental journey that takes advances in R&D and couples this with insights on what customers want, allowing strategic marketing and word of mouth to deliver solid, almost predictable gains.

There are now two phases to Huawei’s annual mobile device roll-out schedule. There is the high-end Mate series – the latest being the Mate 10 Pro, which launched just before Christmas and which comes with a neural processing unit (NPU) to give it AI capabilities. And then there is the more consumer-oriented but equally high-end P series, which is about to get its latest generation P20 reveal at a swish launch in Paris later this month.

At MWC, the company also revealed its new MateBook X Pro notebook with a clever, hidden camera to show its stealthy grasp of the security challenge of our age as well as two new tablet devices.

All in all, it was an ambitious signal of intent to railroad over Apple and Samsung in markets where they are weak or complacent.

It’s the storm that came in from the Far East

Mate 10 is not a smartphone, it’s an intelligent machine, says Huawei

Mate 10 Pro smartphone. Image: Huawei

There is only one critical bastion that the Chinese manufacturer has yet to capture and that is the US market, where the company has been stalled in its efforts to get US mobile carriers to license its devices due to alleged spying concerns, which owe more to Cold War-era politics and alarmist xenophobia than any basis in reality.

Elsewhere, the Shenzhen company’s devices have been well received and are making a difference.

You could say Europe has been the making of Walter Ji and that he has been the making of Huawei’s onslaught into western Europe.

Ji is president of the Chinese company’s consumer business group for western Europe and has a proven track record in management and business operations at an international level. He started his career with Huawei in 2001 when he joined the R&D department.

He was appointed CEO of Huawei Nigeria in 2007 and, in 2011, came to Europe to head up the company’s operations in Spain and Portugal. He became vice-president of western Europe as well as president of the carrier network business group in western Europe in 2015, taking up his current role in 2016.

The hallmark of his leadership has been methodically increasing brand awareness in various countries to 80pc on average.

At MWC, amid the trappings of corporate pomp, he came across as relaxed and unaffected, striving to answer needling questions about upcoming launches and trends with insight, without giving too much away.

He said that the company’s commitment to 5G innovation is evident in the new Balon 5G01 modem chipset – with which it is working with more than 30 mobile operators worldwide, including Vodafone – as well as the new PC and tablet devices.

Responding to questions about the new P20 being revealed in Paris, Ji said: “From our understanding of the consumer market, although people are fine for photography in our cameras in the P9 and P10, they identified pain points: people want to be able to take high-quality photos at night, in action, and they are looking for more professional capabilities.

“To understand the consumer’s needs, what they are looking for, a key trend will be AI applications. People are experiencing AI in their daily lives and they are looking for high-quality photos.”

While this suggests that the NPU we saw in the Mate 10 Pro might also make an appearance in the P20, the hint from this is that Huawei wants to take on Apple and Samsung by making it easier and more natural for users to take high-quality photos without having to understand technicalities such as ISO settings.

Or maybe the P20 will be a phone that learns about you and the kind of photos you like to take? All will be revealed later this month.

How Huawei is fixing the broken PC business

Huawei’s Walter Ji: ‘People are experiencing AI in their daily lives’

Close-up of the new Huawei MateBook X Pro PC with its hidden camera for better security and privacy. Image: John Kennedy

Ji said that the PC industry is quite stale when it comes to innovation.

“We entered the PC industry last year for the first time and it was obvious that, for the most part, the smartphone industry developed really fast; it appears the PC industry does not develop in that spirit. Most innovative users change their smartphone every two years but, in the PC industry, it is every five years or so. And that’s because of a lack of innovation.

“With the MateBook X Pro, we intend to bring innovation in the form of longer battery life (14 hours), premium design, fast-performing CPU, and it will be targeted at the premium market because we believe people are looking for more of a premium experience from their PCs. There are two types of users: those who want to be more productive and efficient, but I also personally believe people want better hardware and an end-to-end experience from Windows.

“So, there are huge opportunities in the PC industry, which has been held back by a lack of innovation and a lack of premium user experiences. People are willing to pay for premium experiences.”

I asked Ji why the company is focusing on tablet devices such as the MediaPad M5 series when it is apparent that even Apple is struggling to sell iPads.

He replied that Huawei is driven by the need to improve things and it can do so by leveraging its own intellectual property and legacy in radio communications.

Bridging R&D with retail

And, in a sense, it is no accident that an executive who joined as a member of the R&D department 17 years ago is helping to bridge innovation with real consumer needs and expectations in Europe.

“We are doing things differently. We are leveraging the innovation of technologies in our final products with elegant design and world-firsts, such as the use of 2.5D touch glass. From our study of the market, we found that tablet users want to be able to walk and go, and we enhanced our product with a better screen, better audio technology because, for tablet users, a good experience of audio and video is important.

“Also, we added the ability to change from a tablet into a PC, and we improved the transfer of data and radio connections.

“In terms of Huawei’s history, we focused on connectivity for consumers but nowadays it is 5G and the internet of things, and last year we collaborated with major telecoms operators on 5G trials and now we are in the first wave of 5G deployment to the market.

“Based on our strengths of understanding user needs, year by year we reach our goals for smartphones to be number two in most global markets.

“The key is innovating products in a different way.”

At the same time, the company is conservative in its approach, preferring to win market share incrementally and in step with an improved product.

“Although we are ambitious to catch more market share, we are more focused on the product itself; from the P1 all the way to the P9 and P10, and you are going to see more of that with the P20.

“My conclusion is that although we are ambitious to win more market share, by addressing consumer needs based on our R&D investments and bringing out the most innovative product, eventually we are going to win the competition.”

That aspect of keeping insights on consumer needs in step with R&D capabilities is a methodical and careful approach, with each step almost guaranteeing critical gains.

“We invest heavily in R&D – more than $10bn a year – but we take our time to bring innovation to market and we rely on the word-of-mouth of consumers who use our products.

“It might take longer, but the strength of people knowing the product and brand means they will stick with it,” Ji concluded.

“We won’t win the 100-metre sprint but, in the long run, we will win the marathon.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years