Smartphone Sales Down In Japan, But Android Hurting Most

MMRI released their report for mobile phone sales in Japan for he first half of 2016, and the results were not good. 

  1. Total handset sales decreased by 10.9% YoY. 
  2. Smartphones decreased 8.4% YoY. 
  3. However, looking at iPhone sales, this decreased only 3.1%, resulting in an increased market share of 40.7% (including feature phones).
  4. Importantly, Sony which is 2nd in market share saw a 28.5% drop in sales, while Sharp which is 3rd in smartphone share fell off a cliff with a 46.4% drop. 
  5. The sharp decline has been attributed to the government decision to restrict what they consider excessive discounting of devices. The government thinks that by restricting discounting (some smartphones are sold for free by carriers if the purchaser agrees to a 24 month contract), carriers will eventually reduce the prices of their data plans. However, data plan prices have yet to come down, and are actually increasing depending on your usage pattern. 

What this suggests is that when customers are more exposed to the real price of smartphones, it is the Android users who either decide to buy cheaper devices, or hold on to their devices longer. The iPhone users seem to be less sensitive to price increases. 

In a nutshell, the Android market has a high level of price elasticity whereas the iPhone market does not. 

I believe that the iPhone markets and the Android markets are actually different despite both being smartphones. Customers buy each for different needs, and they are not interchangeable. This is similar to how Mercedes and BMWs do not share the same market as cheap cars; the role of luxury cars is not just transportation. 

Who Will Win The Next Big Thing?

Many people seem to think that the next big thing in tech will be artificial intelligence, and that Google is much better positioned to win than Apple. Other people think that VR/AR is the next big thing, and again, at least one of the companies that is currently announcing hot new VR/AR gadgets is going to win (and not Apple).

However, history has clearly shown that this discussion is without merit. In fact, when a next big thing does come along, the most unexpected company or a company that simply did not exist before, is the one that actually wins. Very rarely if ever, does the company that invests tons of money on the early stage research emerge as the victor.

Google did not exist yet when Yahoo, Lycos, Altavista and many others were first battling to become the telephone directory of the web. Apple was just a failed PC company that was finding success in music when Blackberry, Palm, Microsoft and Nokia were battling to bring smartphones to the masses. Again Apple was a company that was fighting a losing war against IBM when Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC which had invested heavily in next generation computing research. Compaq did not exist when IBM introduced the IBM Personal Computer. Microsoft was not even in the OS market when IBM knocked on the door looking for an OS for the x86 CPU.

Time and time again, history has shown that when something really new comes along, the companies that seem to have the strongest position from both market and technical standpoints, are rarely the ones that win in the end. The companies that do win are those that we would not even think about, or the ones that didn’t exist. This is what Clayton Christensen’s Disruption Theory is all about.

Therefore from a historical standpoint, if AI or VR/AR succeeds in disrupting tech, it is actually very unlikely that Google, Microsoft of Facebook would win in the end. These companies are in the exact same positions regarding AI and VR/AR as were Blackberry and Palm prior to iPhone, or as were Yahoo, Lycos and others were prior to Google Search. They have invested heavily into research and also into developing the early market. However, they have not yet discovered the formula that would propel them into the mass market.

No matter how unlikely it may seem today, history is actually quite unequivocal on this. The large and established companies that pioneer an early market, do not reap the rewards when disruption happens and the market goes mainstream. The odds are against Google for winning in AI, and the odds are against Microsoft and Facebook for winning in AR/VR (assuming though that AI and AR/VR do end up being disruptive technologies and not simply sustaining).

Although it is almost impossible to predict what will happen, I will just end this post highlighting a couple scenarios under which the Google might find itself vulnerable for illustrative purposes only.

  1. What if privacy became a block for AI penetrating the mainstream? What if consumers started to feel uneasy with the suggestions that Google’s AI made. What if a data breach at a major internet advertising company made it clear to mainstream customers that far more information was being collected about them than they had ever imagined? What if the technology emerged that made machine learning possible without compromising privacy? Would Google invest in this technology, or would it try to improve the AI results with its current privacy compromising methods? It is likely that Google will invest in the latter, which might be a bet on the wrong horse.
  2. AI could actually become the biggest threat to Google’s business model. What would happen if somebody came along with a good enough AI service which made web search obsolete, and which was combined with a monetisation scheme that was far less profitable than Google’s search advertising? Would Google copy that scheme, or would it wait until it found something that was at least as lucrative as the search business that it was cannibalising? What if this service took off, while Google was still looking for ways to maintain profits?

Twitter Grows 13% in Japan

Twitter Japan announced on the 2nd November that user growth had been 13% (+5 million) for the past 9 months, bringing the Japanese monthly active user count (MAU) to 40 million in September. This compares to Twitters MAU growth in the rest of the world, which is essentially flat.

In December 2015, Twitter Japan announced that 10% of MAUs were from Japan.

I have written on this topic several times on this blog. What I think is most important is that the features and characteristics of social media platforms are not dictated by what features they have and do not have, but instead are determined by the users themselves. Therefore, all the pundits that say Twitter should do this or Twitter should do that are essentially clueless because they only know how they or their close circles use Twitter, but are mostly blind to how other are using it. Analysing what features are available does not capture what people use a social service for, nor does it give you any idea of how people would use a new feature when available.

Social media needs social analysis. Furthermore, you need to analyse many societies and not one society.

BYOD And Hardware Sales Growth To Enterprise

In a recent article, Jan Dawson called the enterprise markets “The fastest-growing segment in mature smartphone markets”. Tim Cook had said in 2015 that enterprise markets had seen annual growth of 40% for Apple revenue, and this is indeed massive growth. The magnitude of the revenue was $25 billion annually, only 9% of total Apple revenues in the same period, but nonetheless huge. To put this into perspective, Dell’s peak revenue in 2012 was $62.1 billion annually.

The question is, if corporate adoption of mobile was driven by BYOD, wouldn’t Apple not see revenue growth? If all that was being done was adapting iPhones that the employees already owned to the corporate network, why would Apple see increased sales of iPhones to the enterprise?

My guess is that either of the following is happening in the marketplace;

  1. Despite continued popularity of BYOD, there is a significant portion of employees/employers who prefer to separate work and private devices. Hence purchases of company-owned devices.
  2. The popularity of BYOD itself may be on the decline, due to a shift towards corporate-owned-personally-enabled (CoPE) or choose-your-own-device (CYOD) scenarios.

Either way, it does not seem unreasonable to predict that within a few years time, Apple may be the largest IT hardware vendor to enterprise customers in the world.

Thoughts On Andromeda

It is widely expected that Google will announce their new Andromeda operating system next week on Oct. 4th. There is a lot of speculation on what the Andromeda OS might look like, and the original sources (1, 2) suggest some key points.

  1. Ambitious initiative that is being pursued via merging Chrome features into Android, not vice versa.
  2. Google plans to launch its forthcoming Andromeda Android/Chrome OS hybrid OS on two devices: a Huawei Nexus tablet and a “convertible laptop”.

All this suggests that Andromeda is mainly focused on tablets and convertible laptops, at least for the short-term. Without going into the details of what Andromeda is actually capable of, I believe that this is the core of the argument and what will dictate whether Andromeda will succeed or not.

Andromeda is aimed at Google’s weakness

Google has two separate operating systems for the PC and tablet markets. One is Chrome OS which has seen significant adoption in the institutional US education market, but has mostly failed to make any significant contribution to the general consumer or business markets. The other is Android which holds a significant share of the tablet market, but only for what is often labeled “media consumption” consisting largely of video viewing.

Unlike Microsoft which still commands the vast majority of the business personal computing market via PCs, Android tablets do not appeal to people who want to work on business documents. This is also true for the mass iPad market, and is the challenge for tablets as a whole.

It has also been often mentioned that there are very few Android apps that have been designed to take advantage of the tablet form factor. Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo examined 200 apps from Google Play’s “Top Apps” list and found the situation to be quite dire. (To be fair, the design of this analysis experiment is not very scientific. The choice of the “top free apps” list is arbitrary, and a control experiment with a similar list for iPad is necessary.)

Of the top 200 apps:

  • Nineteen were not compatible with the Pixel C
  • Sixty-nine did not support landscape at all
  • Eighty-four were stretched-out phone apps
  • Twenty-eight were, by my judgment, actual “tablet” apps

From the above, I think that it is safe to say that the markets that Andromeda is targeting (the PC and tablet markets), are the markets where Google is weakest.

Similarities to Microsoft’s attempt at the smartphone market

The above situation is similar to the predicament where Microsoft finds itself in with respect to entering the smartphone market. Android is very strong in the smartphone market, and Andromeda is an attempt to use that strength to push Google into the productivity tablet (a market that has yet proved illusive for the iPad as well) and PC market. Microsoft on the other hand has tried to use their dominance of the PC market to gain an entry into the smartphone market.

We know that Microsoft’s attempt has largely failed up till now. The smartphone market has matured and is split between iPhone and Android. Although newcomers have tried to break into the market, all have failed to date. Microsoft’s chance was during the early days when Android’s dominance was not yet secured, but they failed to deliver a compelling solution in time.

We can apply the same analysis to the PC market. The PC market has matured and is dominated by Windows. Although the Mac has tried to regain market share on the halo effect of the iPhone and has gained some market share, this has been a very slow process. The majority market is still dominated by Windows. Similarly, Andromeda will find it extremely challenging to break into a market which is highly mature, and where the major battles have already been fought decades ago.

The consumerisation of IT as a tailwind

The consumerisation of IT is a relatively new phenomenon, and favours players that are strong in the consumer IT arena over those in corporate IT. That is, if the consumerisation of IT is a strong tailwind and if Apple and Google ride this well, there is a possibility that they could challenge Microsoft’s dominance in PCs. Given the maturation and stability of Microsoft’s dominance, without some kind of strong tailwinds, Apple and Google cannot win. In other words, the consumerisation of IT is a new force that could change the balance of power in the PC market, and could create an opening for Apple and Google that they could not have pried open alone.

However if the reverse happens, that is if IT stops flowing from the consumer to corporate and instead starts flowing in the other direction, the direct opposite situation can happen. Jan Dawson has argued that this is indeed starting to happen. Therefore, instead of Andromeda gaining traction in the PC market, we might actually see the the reverse which is Windows gaining traction in smartphones.

The OS is not what matters most

When looking at a new OS like Andromeda, we must be careful to remember that the OS is not necessarily the most important piece of the puzzle. In fact, its importance may indeed be minor. More important is the market position that Google is currently in, their ability to execute a coherent strategy, the commitment of 3rd party developers to create software that makes use of the new OSes features, and the broad market trends that sweep across the industry.

As I have argued above, regardless of the features that Andromeda may have, other factors are not in Google’s favour. Furthermore, what I consider to be most significant and indeed pivotal is whether the consumerisation of IT continues, or whether this will be reversed. The fate of Andromeda hinges on this.

Conclusion

  1. Whatever features may be announced for Andromeda will not be the most important.
  2. Andromeda and Windows 10 are tackling the same problem from opposite ends and with inverse strengths & weaknesses.
  3. What will determine Andromeda’s fate is whether the consumerisation of IT will continue. Recent trends suggest that this is questionable.

Keyboards As Legacy Devices

One of the common arguments against the tablets as productivity devices, is that writing is an essential part of “content creation” and that long-form writing necessitates a keyboard.

I have strongly questioned the validity of both these assertions. I do not think that writing is an essential part of “content creation”, nor do I think that long-form writing needs a keyboard. Here I will focus on the second assertion and illustrate how the new generation might consider keyboards as legacy I/O.

Japanese students are faster with smartphones than with keyboards

A Japanese article in ITMedia tested how fast 16 Japanese students could enter text with smartphones and with PCs. The author found that many students could type up to 2x faster on smartphones, and that the fastest smartphone typer was faster than the fastest PC typer. They also found that the two students who were faster on a PC were using QWERTY keyboards on smartphone, instead of the flick input.

If we consider the comfortability of long-form text entry to be an essential part of a “content creation” device, then at least for the Japanese youth, smartphones are better than PCs.

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QWERTY is holding back Western languages

One might think that the above only applies to non-Western languages. However, I believe that we can also extend this argument to Western languages as well.

The issue is that Western language users still are using the inefficient and legacy QWERTY keyboard layout instead of something that has been designed for and optimised for smartphones (or even PCs for that matter). If Western users started to use a keyboard layout that was designed for smartphones, then maybe they wouldn’t need hacks like Swype to type faster. It is possible that what is holding tablet text entry behind is not the lack of a physical keyboard, but the lack of new ideas and the unwillingness to try a new input method.

Implications for the future

There is a possibility that the legacy of QWERTY keyboards is holding back innovation. The physical keyboards that Blackberry insisted on, prevented them from pioneering phones that had large touch-screen displays. The insistence on physical keyboards is probably a huge factor in keeping US schools from embracing the tablet form-factor (and is helping float the Chromebook market). If this continues, then it is very likely that innovation in the next wave of “content creation”, if it is to happen on tablets, will not come from QWERTY countries, but from non-Western language ones.

I see physical keyboards as legacy devices. They are slowing down innovation. Instead of discussing whether future “content creation” devices should have keyboards (like the 2-in-1 form factor), the real discussion should be how to create a better keyboard layout that is completely free of the century-old typewriter QWERTY legacy.

Appendix: About Flick Input

Flick input uses a keyboard like the one shown in the image below. There are 12 light grey keys that are used to enter characters. The Japanese phonetic writing system uses roughly 50 characters which is much more than the 12 grey keys. However, when you press one of the grey keys, you are presented with 5 different options. Flicking in the direction of any of these keys allows you to select one of these (no flicking selects the centre one). Therefore, from the 12 light grey keys, you can generate 12 x 6 = 60 different characters. Proficient users will memorise the flick direction, and will not need to wait for the options to appear on the screen. Instead, they will simply put their finger on any of the keys and immediately flick in the appropriate direction.

Since three Japanese characters contains about as much information as a single English word, you can see how efficient Flick input can be. Add the fact that the keys are much larger (fewer mistakes) and can comfortably be accessed with a single hand, and you can understand why Japanese youth are so fast with this.

Similar concepts are available for Western languages like MessagEase. One problem for Western languages may be that QWERTY is bad but not hurting enough to convince people to learn a new keyboard layout.

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Xiaomi Rethink

No so long ago, it was trendy to argue that Xiaomi was the next Apple, or at least a disrupter to the traditional hardware-based vendor model of which Samsung was the main incumbent. 

However, we now see Xiaomi losing market share, even in their home market of China. What happened?

The main arguments around Xiaomi were;

  1. They copy Apple and since Apple is a very aspirational brand, the Chinese flocked to Xiaomi. 
  2. They sell good quality and performance smartphones for a very affordable price. 
  3. They have a distinct UI, which makes their phones look much closer to Apple than their competitors. Furthermore, their UI is good and differentiates their products in a positive way. 
  4. They monetise on services, and that is why they can afford to not make profits on hardware. 

Most pundits were unanimously positive about the prospects for Xiaomi, at least in their home market. So what went wrong, or putting the blame on the pundit’s side, how did they get their predictions so wrong?

Fortune reported that 

Xiaomi, facing flattening revenues, launched efforts to bounce back with the opening of new retail outlets across China

IDC reported that;

In the past, Xiaomi started the trend of selling its phones online and other vendors soon followed suit and created their own online brand. After vendors witnessed OPPO’s success with its R9, they also started riding on the trend of hiring celebrity endorsers to represent their brand and appeal more to the young crowd.

Now, since I’ve started this post by hinting that the pundits were wrong, I have no intention of taking Fortune’s and IDC’s reports at face value. However, it is still notable how the argument has completely moved away from the software and services angle, and is now completely about marketing. 

The way it looks now is;

  1. Anybody can copy Apple given China’s hardware prowess. 
  2. Any major Chinese vendor can make good phones at affordable prices. 
  3. Distinct UI was not really a differentiator. 
  4. Services didn’t generate nearly enough revenue to allow Xiaomi to sell their phones at meaningfully lower prices. They made their profits on hardware
  5. Xiaomi’s strength was actually in their marketing tactics. However, like many other marketing stunts, it was just a fad. Losing their marketing power means losing almost everything. 

In general, tech pundits have a strong tendency to underestimate sales & marketing, and how it defines undifferentiated markets more forcefully than any new features can. Silicon Valley pundits assumed that services-based features and business models would define the smartphone market after hardware maturation. This is was not the case. It is likely that sales, marketing & distribution will be much more powerful. 

Apple’s Hidden Privacy Agenda

Is Apple being reckless?

One observation that some Apple pundits like throwing around is that Apple tends to add features with a broader future implementation in mind. For example, Apple added TouchID initially for unlocking your phone only. Then after a year or two, they added Apple Pay.

Although I think it would be wrong to expect Apple to be doing this for every feature, I do consider it very helpful to keep this in mind. That is, do not dismiss their actions unless you have throughly considered the possibility of a hidden agenda that will only reveal itself a few years into the future.

Apple’s stance on privacy is one of these actions.

  1. Most people have commented that Apple’s focus on privacy will strongly hinder, maybe even cripple their artificial intelligence efforts. This is very dangerous for Apple’s future because it is predicted that artificial intelligence will be a huge part of future personal computing.
  2. The plus side of a privacy focus is that it becomes a selling point for their products. However, we also know that today’s consumers do not care too much about privacy; at least, they seem to be happy to post photos on Facebook and search on Google.

Taking the two points above, it would seem reckless for any tech company to take the privacy position that Apple is holding today. The demerits are huge while the merits look benign. It looks like a totally irrational move for Apple that maybe enforced only because of Tim Cook’s personal beliefs in human rights. It does not make any sense, that is unless Apple has a larger agenda for the future; an agenda in which privacy plays an essential role.

Looking at Apple’s future markets

As I have mentioned previously, Apple cannot grow significantly larger than it is today without expanding into markets outside of tech. The market that tech can directly address, the market to which Apple can sell its current devices, is limited by the size of the economies in the countries which it sells to, and the amount of money each household is willing to spend on communications and entertainment. Apple has to move into different household buckets of spending. Furthermore, these buckets have to be large enough to drive revenue that can significantly contribute to Apple’s huge earnings.

Looking at what households actually spend their money on, one obvious contender is health. US households spend a huge proportion of their income on health, and for the countries which have an adequate healthcare system in place, health is a huge proportion of their government expenditure. There is a lot of money in health, and as populations in both developed and developing countries age, it is only going to get larger.

Apple is already actively involved in health. Not only does Apple have HealthKit, it also has ResearchKit which allows researchers to easily conduct large studies on patients and CareKit which allows patients to track and manage their own medical conditions. Importantly, privacy of health information is taken very seriously (unlike web history or location tracking data), and although I am no expert, it seems that there are rules and laws even in the USA for this.

For any company that seriously wants to get into health, data privacy is a hugely important issue. In particular, IT giants like Google or Apple will be held to higher standards, and expected to develop the necessary technologies if not yet available. They will be scrutinised by not only the authorities, but also by the regular press. If Apple wants to go further into health, prove the value of their services, and to extract revenue from this huge market, then they have to get the privacy issues sorted out first, and apply leading edge technology to protect patient privacy. This will be the prerequisite.

This is where I find Apple’s hidden privacy agenda. Apple does not need to have strict privacy to compete in the tech world against Google and Amazon. In fact, its privacy stance is detrimental for cutting edge artificial intelligence since server hardware will always be much more powerful than tiny smartphones for machine learning, and differential privacy will always negatively impact what patterns can be observed. However, to impact some key non-tech markets that Apple needs to venture into, privacy will be important and essential. Apple’s stance on privacy should be viewed not by which markets they are selling now, but on which markets they intend to sell to in the future.

Doing The Hard Things In Tech

When observing all the mega-hits that Apple has brought to the market the past 40 years, there is one consistent theme. Apple tries to do the things that are considered hard or even impossible at that time.

With the original Mac, they created a GUI-only computer that had a mere 128K bytes of memory. With the iPod, they synced 1,000 tunes (5GB’s worth) to your PC in an age where the predominant I/O (USB 1) was woefully inadequate (and tiny hard drives had just become available). With the iPhone, they shrunk a full blown PC into the size of a chocolate bar. With Mac OS X, they implemented a radically new graphical rendering system (Quartz Compositor) that taxed memory and CPU power and was unbearably slow on the hardware at the time, which only became usable years later with powerful new GPUs (MacOS X 10.2).

In all these cases, Apple was not shy to do something that most people at that time considered very difficult, if not impossible. Sometimes even Apple failed to do it well enough, and suffered the consequences of an inadequate product (low early Mac sales, super slow MacOS X 10.0, 10.1). But in the end, that is why they managed to differentiate, because others had not even started.

Apple’s approach to privacy can be seen in the same way. Whereas the common narrative was that you needed huge servers and massive data sets for good photo recognition, Apple has implemented machine learning on a smartphone that fits into your pocket. Of course they may be taking shortcuts, but so did the Mac 128K. What is important is that they took the challenge while everybody else was doing machine learning the old way (on powerful servers with less regard for privacy). Similarly, Apple has implemented a differential privacy approach which still has no guarantee of success. Even experts in the field are split and some say that the privacy trade-offs between machine learning effectiveness might result in a product that won’t work. Apple made the bet nonetheless. Apple chose to take the hard, possibly impossible way, by hobbling itself with the self-imposed shackle that is a privacy focus. They have thought different.

The simple reason why Apple’s approach has worked even once, is Moore’s law. Moore’s law is the central source of rapid technical progress and disruption, and it makes what is impossible today into something easy to achieve tomorrow.

No one who has seen the progress of silicon would doubt that Moore’s law will eventually make the processing tasks done exclusively on high power servers today, possible on the smartphones of tomorrow. We should also consider that the amount of data collected from smart devices must be growing even faster than Moore’s law (thanks to the shrinking size and ubiquity made possible by Moore’s law in the first place). Tomorrow, we will have many times more data than we collect today, and it is totally possible that the sheer vastness of data will make it possible to infer meaningful conclusions from differential privacy data, even when anonymised under very stringent noise levels.

Therefore, I predict that even though Apple’s approach to privacy may lead to a worse experience for the next couple of years, as Moore’s law kicks in, the difference will end up being negligible. By the time the general public become acutely aware for the need for privacy, Apple will have a powerful solution that in terms of user experience is just as good as Google’s.

The boldness to go all-in on a technology that just barely works, based on the hope that Moore’s law will save them in the next couple of years, is a defining feature of Apple’s hugely successful innovations. This is a formula that has worked for them time and time again.

This is what I see in Apple’s current privacy approach, and this is why I find it so typically and belovingly Apple.

Opening Up iOS And Implications

In the 2016 WWDC Keynote, Apple showed how it was going to open up Siri, Messages and Maps. It also showed how it was going to allow VoIP apps to show incoming calls just like how the default Phone app does; using the full screen.

Now if this was just Messages, then we might think that this was in response to the popularity of messaging apps like WeChat which work as platforms. However, if you listen to the State of the Union presentation after the Keynote, then you learn that even Xcode has opened up. It then becomes apparent that this is not just a simple response to WeChat, but a deliberate iOS-wide and even Apple ecosystem-wide direction that Apple is coordinating with their extensions system.

This extension system is not something that is new. In fact, it is an extremely old idea that is more often referred to “plug-in”. It is the idea that allowed browsers to provide rich multimedia experiences before the advent of HTML5. It is the idea that allows programming editors like Eclipse to become very rich tools for a huge number of programming languages. It has already been proven that this mechanism allows programs to be used for occasions that were never envisioned by their original creators, and can be very useful and effective. Although it does tend to add a layer of complexity for the end user, it is undoubtedly a feature that can have widespread impact.

Given that the extensions are likely to be very popular, then it is worthwhile to try to predict how they will advantage Apple and/or dis-advantage its competitors.

  1. Let’s ponder whether Google would open up Maps for example. Would they let third party apps provide the restaurant and shop recommendations layered onto Google Maps? What would be the implications for their business model that depends on showing sponsored recommendations in a more prominent way?
  2. Would wireless carriers be happy with VoIP apps that can integrate into the iOS to behave in just the same way as the default Phone app?
  3. Would Amazon open up its store so that random online stores can integrate themselves in the categorical listings and search results?

Many of Apple’s competitors provide the app layer for free and monetise at the extension layer. Google Maps plans to monetise by providing advertisements relevant to your location, but the Apple Maps extensions will allow third parties to provide this instead of Apple. Similarly Amazon provides an online store website with good search, recommendations and reviews. It monetises when people actually make purchases, which is similar to the layer that Apple’s extensions live in.

What we see here is that Apple has created a powerful extensions mechanism ecosystem-wide, that is almost guaranteed to be popular, and which may conflict with the business models of Google, Amazon and many other competitors.

The implications will be interesting to watch.