EXCLUSIVE: ‘Playing to the gallery’ – Siri Børsum, Huawei in ‘The Paytech Magazine’
Fintech developers might come to see Huawei’s recent geopolitical challenges as a blessing in disguise. Siri Børsum certainly hopes to keep them busy as she sets about building an app store to rival Google’s
Until recently, Huawei occupied a comfortable seat among the global tech titans.
To pluck a phrase from US military planning, the Chinese technology company had carefully established ‘full-spectrum dominance’ in the telecommunications market – from its warren of underground cables and bristling array of 5G towers, through to its well-priced smartphones, which one in every 13 UK consumers has in his/her pocket.
Then, in 2019, came the US administration’s decision to place Huawei on the Entity List of companies that were out of favour with America – for reasons that were well-documented and robustly disputed at the time. The important thing is, it prevented Huawei from doing business with US companies and that left the Chinese technology giant with a giant technology problem: its smartphones would no longer be able to use Google’s Android operating system (OS), nor the Google Play app store.
Given that consumers spend 88 per cent of their mobile time on apps, the threat to its international retail phone business was a real and present danger. But Huawei wasn’t about to see its super-smart handsets dumbed down, so it quickly pivoted to open-source Android code, while, behind the scenes, it began working furiously to create an operating system, and accompanying app store, to rival those of Apple and Google. Astonishingly, that OS arrived less than two years later.
From April 2021, all new Huawei smartphones have been running HarmonyOS (which is somewhat ironically named, given the fraught circumstances in which it was conceived). Even more impressive, HarmonyOS is already established as the third major smartphone operating system, after iOS and Android. And alongside it came AppGallery, Huawei’s new store, which Siri Børsum, Huawei’s global VP of vertical eco-development and partnerships (that’s eco as in ecosystem), was tasked to build from scratch.
It was the second time she’d been involved in a ground zero project for a global technology company – the first, funnily enough, was for Google in 2007 when she joined its new Norway office in 2007. She stayed there for 12 years.
“Back in 2007, not many people knew what Google was all about,” says Børsum. “It had only just opened an office in Norway and we were a team of four or five. By the time I left, there were about 100 people, from 16 different countries. It was an amazing journey.”
She’s diplomatic about the spot Google’s rival now finds itself in.
“There’s no doubt that the geopolitical space has been very challenging for Huawei,” says Børsum, with a touch of Nordic understatement, “but it also, I think, put a lot more pressure on us to approach things from a different angle – and that’s often how you come up with new and better ideas.” Chief among them is to provoke a gladiatorial contest between fintech developers. HarmonyOS has already broken the OS duopoly shared by Apple and Google. Now, Huawei wants to present consumers with the best and boldest digital financial management tools, which might actually work better for them than those stores’ most popular downloads. The strategy is deliberately playful.
“Competition brings with it a fear of missing out,” explains Børsum. “You want to be there, too, grabbing the opportunity to get new customers. And you get quite provoked if you see that your competitors are doing things that you hadn’t thought about doing.
That’s why we want to bring even the smallest players on board, because they might have solutions that don’t fit me, but they’re perfect for you and your family.” The new focus on building a world-beating store of personal financial management apps for markets where Google and Apple are dominant, fits into Huawei’s mission to create a global digital financial services ecosystem. A key element of its FinTech Solution business is a platform for financial inclusion that allows mobile money operators and other financial service providers to reach a wider cohort of previously under-served individuals and microbusinesses. Most of its work in that area has been focussed on the African continent where Huawei technology – specifically its mobile money platform – underpins the M-PESA network.
In an effort to replace the might of the displaced GooglePay on Huawei handsets, AppGallery is establishing partnerships with an array of regional mobile payment providers in Europe now, too. In March of this year, it announced Switzerland’s Bluecode would soon be providing a mobile payments option to anyone in Europe with a Huawei handset. If Børsum’s FOMO theory is right, others will follow, providing consumers with a luxury of choice and driving developers to compete.
The strategy of looking local to encourage competition feels novel and exciting, with AppGallery shaping up to be a new innovation sandbox for fintech firms.
“Because we’re on the ground in local markets, it’s easier to understand what financial services firms really want,” says Børsum. “We get up close, so we can help to develop solutions that fit that challenge.”
A TOOL FOR INCLUSION
With a community of 2.7 million registered developers, Huawei isn’t short of people who can deliver those solutions to its mobile users. Meanwhile, some existing banking apps will only require a little tinkering to their code to hop on board with AppGallery. Curve and Starling have already made the jump, as have first-mover incumbents Santander and DBS. Though most big players remain conspicuous by their absence from AppGallery, Børsum sees their slow uptake – in the short term, at least – as a positive.
“It means we actually get the opportunity to show off all the other players that are out there. They’re not yet competing with the big traditional banking apps, because they haven’t onboarded yet.”
This very much chimes with the ethos of inclusion that underpinned the creation of the Huawei FinTech Ecosystem in 2020.
“Our mission is to bring financial health to every home, to every organisation, and to every person, and that’s something we’re working hard to achieve,” says Børsum. “And we can use the AppGallery to do that, to promote and bring forward smaller players, making consumers aware of the fact that there are so many other solutions out there that can provide them with better services.
“It’s through competition that we get better solutions, better products. And that’s not just AppGallery, versus other global app marketplaces, but actually within the industry,” says Børsum.
Encouraging as it is to see a technology giant giving a leg-up to Lilliputian fintechs, there remains the question of how AppGallery will come to match its two main app store rivals in terms of sheer numbers. Google Play is host to 2.7 million apps, while the Apple App Store has 4.7 million. While only around 2.5 per cent of those are finance apps, that still means Apple hosts an eye-watering 117,500 of them. AppGallery’s latest figures put its total number of apps integrated with Huawei mobile services worldwide at just 145,000.
Still, Børsum isn’t daunted about the task before her.
“I remember, back in 2009 and 2010, when we started with Google Play, it took a long time before I had the same apps on my phone as were on iOS.”
She’s right, of course: these things tend to take off exponentially, and the AppGallery is still young. Plus, Huawei has size on its side. Despite the disruption caused by US sanctions, which reduced Huawei’s share of global smartphone shipments from 19 per cent in early 2019 to 8.4 per cent in Q3 of 2020, it’s still a significant global player in the smartphone market and it’s worked hard on damage limitation following the negative publicity that surrounded the US sanction over national security concerns. Huawei is already spending five per cent of its R&D budget on cybersecurity, with an extra $2billion committed to enhancing the security of its products over the next five years.
“We need to make sure that we treat our customers with respect, with all the necessary security and the privacy elements that they demand,” says Børsum.
Even if company’s stature was diminished by the US administration, in AppGallery the financial services industry looks to have been offered a significant driver of change and opportunity. Huawei’s adaptability has been remarkable. If, out of adversity, AppGallery can foster faster fintech development, its post-sanctions pivot will long be regarded as a masterstroke.
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