Mobile World Congress, the mobile industry’s annual shindig, is next week but Xiaomi can’t wait reveal its newest top-end phone. The Chinese company instead picked today to unveil the Mi 9.
Once again Xiaomi’s design ethic closely resembles Apple’s iPhone with a minimal bezel and notch-like front-facing camera but Xiaomi has gone hard on photography with a triple lens camera.
There are two models available with the regular Mi 9 priced from RMB 2999, or $445, and the Mi 9SE priced from RMB 1999, or $300. A premium model, the Transparent Edition, includes beefed-up specs for RMB 3999, $595.
The phone runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chipset and the headline feature, or at least the part that Xiaomi is shouting about most, is the triple lens camera array on the back of the device. That trio combines a 48-megapixel main camera with a 16-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera and a 12-megapixel telephoto camera, Xiaomi said. The benefits of that lineup is improved wide-angle shots, better quality close-up photography and performance in low-light conditions, according to the company.
The premium Mi 9 model, the Transparent Edition, sports 12GB of RAM and 256GB internal storage and features a transparent back cover
There’s also a ‘supermoon’ mode for taking shots of the moon and presumably other night sky images, while Xiaomi touts an improved night mode and, on the video side, 960fps capture and advanced motion tracking. We haven’t had the chance to test these out, which is worth noting at this point.
Xiaomi also talked up the battery features of the Mi 9, which ships with an impressive 3300mAh battery that features wireless charging support and Qi EPP certification meaning it will work with third-party charging mats. Xiaomi claims that the Mi 9 can charge to 70 percent in 30 minutes, and reach 100 percent in an hour using 27W wired charging.
Alongside the Mi 9, it unveiled its third three wireless charging products — a charging pad (RMB 99, $15), a car charger (RMB 169, $25) and a 10,000mAh wireless power bank (RMB 149, $22.)
Xiaomi, as ever, offers a range of different options for customers as follows:
Mi 9 with 6GB and 128GB for RMB 2999, $445
Mi 9 with 8GB and 128GB for RMB 3299, $490
Mi 9 with 12GB and 256GB for RMB 3999, $595 (Transparent Edition)
Mi 9SE with 6GB and 128GB for RMB 1999, $300
Mi 9SE with 6GB and 128GB for RMB 2299, $342
Notably, the Mi 9 goes on sale February 26 — pre-orders open this evening — with the SE version arriving on March 1. As expected, the launch market is China but you can imagine that India — where Xiaomi is among the top players — and other global launches will follow.
There can be little doubt that 5G is going to take center stage at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. After years of hype without any real products, this is finally going to be the year that 5G — and especially 5G phones — will become available. 5G phones obviously need 5G modems, so maybe it’s no surprise that Qualcomm decided to get ahead of the MWC news cycle by launching its next-gen 5G modem and new mmWave antenna today.
As the company stressed throughout its press conference ahead of today’s announcement, it believes that the 5G rollout will be quite different from what we saw with 4G a few years ago. That launch, the company argues, was comparably slow, with only a few operators launching on a single band in a few select cities and with only a handful of available phones. The 5G rollout, however, is going to be global and will feature devices from plenty of OEMs and with support from more than 20 global operators.
Qualcomm announced its first 5G modem, the X50, in 2016. Today, it is launching the second generation of this technology, the X55.
The X55 is the world’s first announced 7 Gbps 5G modem, but what’s maybe more important for your day-to-day usage (once you get a device that uses it), is that it supports every recent technology from 2G to 5G and every spectrum band in any region. It’s a 7nm chip and it has one more important trick up its sleeve: 5g/4G spectrum sharing, which allows operators to support 5G and LTE on the same spectrum.
The company expects that OEMs will use the X55 for everything from standard smartphones to fixed wireless receivers, laptops and cars.
A modem doesn’t do you much good without an antenna to receive those signals, so Qualcomm also today announced a new mmWave antenna module. Nothing too exciting there (unless you really like antennas), but the antenna completes Qualcomm’s mmWave 5G lineup in addition to its existing sub-6 GHz antenna and other modules.
Two older iPhone models are back on sale in Apple stores in Germany — but only with Qualcomm chips inside.
The iPhone maker was forced to pull the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models from shelves in its online shop and physical stores in the country last month, after chipmaker Qualcomm posted security bonds to enforce a December court injunction it secured via patent litigation.
Apple told Reuters it had “no choice” but to stop using some Intel chips for handsets to be sold in Germany. “Qualcomm is attempting to use injunctions against our products to try to get Apple to succumb to their extortionist demands,” it said in a statement provided to the news agency.
Apple and Qualcomm have been embroiled in an increasingly bitter global legal battle around patents and licensing terms for several years.
The litigation follows Cupertino’s move away from using only Qualcomm’s chips in iPhones after, in 2016, Apple began sourcing modem chips from rival Intel — dropping Qualcomm chips entirely for last year’s iPhone models. Though still using some Qualcomm chips for older iPhone models, as it will now for iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 units headed to Germany.
For these handsets Apple is swapping out Intel modems that contain chips from Qorvo which are subject to the local patent litigation injunction. (The litigation relates to a patented smartphone power management technology.)
Hence Apple’s Germany webstore is once again listing the two older iPhone models for sale…
Newer iPhones containing Intel chips remain on sale in Germany because they do not containing the same components subject to the patent injunction.
“Intel’s modem products are not involved in this lawsuit and are not subject to this or any other injunction,” Intel’s general counsel, Steven Rodgers, said in a statement to Reuters.
While Apple’s decision to restock its shelves with Qualcomm-only iPhone 7s and 8s represents a momentary victory for Qualcomm, a separate German court tossed another of its patent suits against Apple last month — dismissing it as groundless. (Qualcomm said it would appeal.)
The chipmaker has also been pursing patent litigation against Apple in China, and in December Apple appealed a preliminary injunction banning the import and sales of old iPhone models in the country.
At the same time, Qualcomm and Apple are both waiting the result of an antitrust trial brought against Qualcomm’s licensing terms in the U.S.
Two years ago the FTC filed charges against Qualcomm, accusing the chipmaker of operating a monopoly and forcing exclusivity from Apple while charging “excessive” licensing fees for standards-essential patents.
The case was heard last month and is pending a verdict or settlement.
Artificial intelligence is widely heralded as something that could disrupt the jobs market across the board — potentially eating into careers as varied as accountants, advertising agents, reporters and more — but there are some industries in dire need of assistance where AI could make a wholly positive impact, a core one being healthcare.
Despite being the world’s second-largest economy, China is still coping with a serious shortage of medical resources. In 2015, the country had 1.8 physicians per 1,000 citizens, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That figure puts China behind the U.S. at 2.6 and was well below the OECD average of 3.4.
The undersupply means a nation of overworked doctors who constantly struggle to finish screening patient scans. Misdiagnoses inevitably follow. Spotting the demand, forward-thinking engineers and healthcare professionals move to get deep learning into analyzing medical images. Research firm IDC estimates that the market for AI-aided medical diagnosis and treatment in China crossed 183 million yuan ($27 million) in 2017 and is expected to reach 5.88 billion yuan ($870 million) by 2022.
One up-and-comer in the sector is 12 Sigma, a San Diego-based startup founded by two former Qualcomm engineers with research teams in China. The company is competing against Yitu, Infervision and a handful of other well-funded Chinese startups that help doctors detect cancerous cells from medical scans. Between January and May last year alone, more than 10 Chinese companies with such a focus scored fundings of over 10 million yuan ($1.48 million), according to startup data provider Iyiou. 12 Sigma itself racked up a 200 million yuan Series B round at the end of 2017 and is mulling a new funding round as it looks to ramp up its sales team and develop new products, the company told TechCrunch.
“2015 to artificial intelligence is like 1995 to the Internet. It was the dawn of a revolution,” recalled Zhong Xin, who quit his management role at Qualcomm and went on to launch 12 Sigma in 2015. At the time, AI was cereping into virtually all facets of life, from public security, autonomous driving, agriculture, education to finance. Zhong took a bet on health care.
“For most industries, the AI technology might be available, but there isn’t really a pressing problem to solve. You are creating new demand there. But with healthcare, there is a clear problem, that is, how to more efficiently spot diseases from a single image,” the chief executive added.
An engineer named Gao Dashan who had worked closely with Zhong at Qualcomm’s U.S. office on computer vision and deep learning soon joined as the startup’s technology head. The pair both attended China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, another experience that boosted their sense of camaraderie.
Aside from the potential financial rewards, the founders also felt an urge to start something on their own as they entered their 40s. “We were too young to join the Internet boom. If we don’t create something now for the AI era, it will be too late for us to be entrepreneurs,” admitted Zhong who, with age, also started to recognize the vulnerability of life. “We see friends and relatives with cancers get diagnosed too late and end up The more I see this happen, the more strongly I feel about getting involved in healthcare to give back to society.”
A three-tier playbook
12 Sigma and its peers may be powering ahead with their advanced imaging algorithms, but the real challenge is how to get China’s tangled mix of healthcare facilities to pay for novel technologies. Infervision, which TechCrunch wrote about earlier, stations programmers and sales teams at hospitals to mingle with doctors and learn their needs. 12 Sigma deploys the same on-the-ground strategy to crack the intricate network.
Zhong Xin, Co-founder and CEO of 12 Sigma / Photo source: 12 Sigma
“Social dynamics vary from region to region. We have to build trust with local doctors. That’s why we recruit sales persons locally. That’s the foundation. Then we begin by tackling the tertiary hospitals. If we manage to enter these hospitals,” said Zhong, referring to the top public hospitals in China’s three-tier medical system. “Those partnerships will boost our brand and give us greater bargaining power to go after the smaller ones.”
For that reason, the tertiary hospitals are crowded with earnest startups like 12 Sigma as well as tech giants like Tencent, which has a dedicated medical imaging unit called Miying. None of these providers is charging the top boys for using their image processors because “they could easily switch over to another brand,” suggested Gao.
Instead, 12 Sigma has its eyes on the second-tier hospitals. As of last April, China had about 30,000 hospitals, out of which 2,427 were rated tertiary, according to a survey done by the National Health and Family Planning Commission. The second tier, serving a wider base in medium-sized cities, had a network of 8,529 hospitals. 12 Sigma believes these facilities are where it could achieve most of its sales by selling device kits and charging maintenance fees in the future.
The bottom tier had 10,135 primary hospitals, which tend to concentrate in small towns and lack the financial capacity to pay the one-off device fees. As such, 12 Sigma plans to monetize these regions with a pay-per-use model.
So far, the medical imaging startup has about 200 hospitals across China testing its devices — for free. It’s sold only 10 machines, generating several millions of yuan in revenue, while very few of its rivals have achieved any sales at all according to Gao. At this stage, the key is to glean enough data so the startup’s algorithms get good enough to convince hospital administrators the machines are worth the investment. The company is targeting 100 million yuan ($14.8 million) in sales for 2019 and aims to break even by 2020.
China’s relatively lax data protection policy means entrepreneurs have easier access to patient scans compared to their peers in the west. Working with American hospitals has proven “very difficult” due to the country’s privacy protection policies, said Gao. They also come with a different motive. While China seeks help from AI to solve its doctor shortage, American hospitals place a larger focus on AI’s economic returns.
“The healthcare system in the U.S. is much more market-driven. Though doctors could be more conservative about applying AI than those in China, as soon as we prove that our devices can boost profitability, reduce misdiagnoses and lower insurance expenditures, health companies are keen to give it a try,” said Gao.
A former Magic Leap engineer believes the problem with most consumer-facing augmented headsets on the market is their bulky size.
“You wouldn’t want to wear them for more than one hour,” Xu Chi, founder and chief executive officer of Nreal told me as he put on a bright orange headgear that looked just like plastic Ray-Ban shades. Called Light and powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor, Nreal’s first-generation mixed reality glasses officially launched at Las Vegas’ tech trade show CES this week.
With a light-weight play, the two-year-old Chinese startup managed to bring in some big-name investors. Aside from debuting Light, Nreal also announced this week that it has raised $15 million in total funding to date. The proceeds include a Series A from Shunwei, the venture fund that Xiaomi founder set up, Baidu’s video streaming unit iQiyi, investment firm China Growth Capital, and others. According to Xu, R&D is his company’s biggest expense at this stage.
The financial injection bears strategic significance to Xiaomi and iQIYI. The former is best known for its budget smartphones but its bigger ambition lies in an Apple Home-like ecosystem that surely welcomes portable MR headsets. IQiyi, on the other hand, already has a channel dedicated to virtual reality, which is meant to immerse the end user in a completely digital environment. MR content may just be around the corner to provide an interactive experience of the real world.
Taking money from Shunwei rather than straight from Xiaomi is a thought-through choice. Xiaomi has backed hundreds of manufacturers to gain control over supply chains. Its portfolio companies, in turn, get access to Xiaomi’s retail channels, but they make comprises on various fronts such as product design and pricing.
Xu doesn’t want his freshly minted business to lose independence. “We don’t want to pick sides. We want to be able to work with Oppo and a whole lot of other brands. We want to be compatible with a wide range of devices — smartphones, laptops, PCs, and so on,” said the founder.
Founder and CEO Xu Chi holding Nreal Light’s glasses and chipset. Photo: Nreal
In early 2017, the Chinese entrepreneur started Nreal with his cofounder Xiao Bing, an optical engineer. The brand “Nreal” conveys the partners’ vision to bring users to spaces that fall between the real and unreal. Xu, who spent years working and studying in the US, decided to pursue his ideas back on his homeland for easier access to supply chains.
“We are combining our technological know-how from overseas with great resources in China’s manufacturing industry,” the founder said of his firm’s edge.
The 85-gram (about 3-ounce) Nreal Light isn’t as featherweight as regular glasses but it’s a significant improvement from the biggies it’s going after — Magic Leap One and Microsoft’s HoloLens. Nreal was able to shrink its gadget size because it uses a display solution that requires fewer cameras and sensors than its peers, Xu explained.
Furthermore, Nreal is fixated on the consumer market from the outset, unlike its bigger rivals which, in Xu’s words, are “building gadgets for the next five or even ten years.”
“They want to disrupt everything from cell phones, computers to televisions. They are not necessarily oriented towards consumers,” Xu added.
The smart glasses come in a variety of colors. Photo: Nreal
When it comes to performance, Light claims its display has a 52-degree field of view and a 1080p resolution, which my human eyes weren’t able to verify when I wore it to play an interactive shooting game. That said, I did experience minimum dizziness and latency on Light, as the company promised.
The only irritating part was I started to feel the weight of the specs on my nose bridge a few minutes into my session. Xu assured me that what I tried on was a prototype and that an assortment of nose pads and lenses for different facial features will be available. The glasses also come in a variety of flashy coral colors.
Where does that price tag leave Nreal in terms of profitability? It’s a matter of what kind of consumer hardware Nreal wants to become. “Do we want to be Apple or Xiaomi?” The founder asked himself rhetorically. He’s sure of one thing: As the MR industry matures in China, production costs will also come down. The company is already mulling its own factory so as to beef up supply chains and reduce costs, according to Xu.