Microsoft employees must use Apple iPhones in China

In a step that perhaps symbolizes the steady erosion of bridges between nations, Microsoft is ordering its staff in China to abandon Android phones to exclusively use iPhones. 

The ban begins in September, when staff will be required to use iPhones for work — specifically for identity verification when logging into devices. Microsoft wants all its staff to use Microsoft Authenticator and Identity Pass. Microsoft is going to distribute iPhones to employees that currently use Android devices as part of the initiative, a report from investing.com claims.

That’s what I call fragmentation

What makes that decision problematic is that in China there is no Google Play store, which means Android app stores are fragmented, with local Chinese manufacturers offering their own app platforms. Chinese smartphone companies are also building their own operating systems, further fragmenting the mobile landscape there.

This may become a bigger problem in the future as regulators force Apple to support sideloading: “Forced sideloading could open the door to risks like fake apps, malware, and social engineering attacks that have long plagued the Android ecosystem,” Hexnode CEO Apu Pavithran recently warned.

Microsoft’s decision to coalesce around the iPhone echoes and reflects what’s allegedly taking place in China, where a growing number of government agencies and companies are asking staffers to avoid using foreign-owned devices. That’s yet another manifestation of the growing political tension between Washington and Beijing.

Microsoft didn’t get mobile

But beyond the story of political conflict lurks two additional realities. Not only does Microsoft’s decision illustrate the security hazards of a fragmented app store market, it also shows the extent to which the developer has failed to secure a strong foothold in the mobile device market.

Cast your mind back — and it really isn’t so long ago — when the notion that Microsoft would recommend its employees use Apple iPhones would have been unthinkable. Things have changed, perhaps for the better, as the additional security benefits unlocked through multi-platform enterprise deployments is now widely understood.

Political tensions remain

Apple may have cause for concern about Microsoft’s decision, as it sheds light on the delicate dance it is engaged in. Apple has been doing its diplomatic best to maintain cordial relationships in both China and the US. 

All parties benefit in the dance. Both the US and China enjoy the economic benefits the relationship delivers, particularly (at least at present) around employment across the iPhone factories in China and wider iOS ecosystems elsewhere. Apple in China creates lots of wealth that lands in the exchequers of both nations, even as the tech itself enhances productivity.

Apple is, of course, not blind to the growing tension between the two nations. It’s rapidly increasing investments in India and manufacturing hubs elsewhere across the APAC region, evidence of that awareness. But even now the vast majority of its products are made in China. Building a replacement manufacturing ecosystem was always going to take vast amounts of money and time, and it wasn’t merely the pandemic that forced Apple’s operations staff to accelerate investment in manufacturing outside of China.

It’s complicated

One thing Apple doesn’t need is for trading conditions to worsen in what remains its biggest market outside the US. The slow move by China’s government to reject iPhone use at work is potentially as significant a problem to the company as the US government’s poorly considered anti-trust litigation against it. Both sets of decisions are likely to hit Apple’s bottom line, even as the gulf between the two nations continues to grow. 

The race to AI is unlikely to improve things. The US has already taken steps in the form of sanctions to hamper China’s progress in AI development, though the impact seems limited. At the same time, Apple’s decision to introduce its own AI tools first only in the US, and to confirm that the EU will not gain access to them for some time yet, reflects a similar story of disunity as nations vie for tech prominence. 

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