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Samsung launches the rugged, enterprise-ready Galaxy XCover Pro

We got a bit of a surprise at the end of CES: some hands-on time with Samsung’s latest rugged phone for the enterprise, the Galaxy XCover Pro. The XCover Pro, which is officially launching today, is a mid-range $499 phone for first-line workers like flight attendants, construction workers or nurses.

It is meant to be very rugged but without the usual bulk that comes with that. With its IP68 rating, Military Standard 810 certification and the promise that it will survive a drop from 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) without a case, it should definitely be able to withstand quite a bit of abuse.

While Samsung is aiming this phone at the enterprise market, the company tells us that it will also sell it to individual customers.

As Samsung stressed during our briefing, the phone is meant for all-day use in the field, with a 4,050 mAh replaceable battery (yes, you read that right, you can replace the battery just like on phones from a few years ago). It’ll feature 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space, but you can extend that up to 512GB thanks to the built-in microSD slot. The 6.3-inch FHD+ screen won’t wow you, but it seemed perfectly adequate for most of the use cases. That screen, the company says, should work even in rain or snow and features a glove mode, too.

And while this is obviously not a flagship phone, Samsung still decided to give it a dual rear camera setup, with a standard 25MP sensor and a wide-angle 8MP sensor for those times where you might want to get the full view of a construction site, for example. On the front, there is a small cutout for a 13MP camera, too.

All of this is powered by a 2GHz octa-core Exynos 9611 processor, as one would expect from a Samsung mid-range phone, as well as Android 10.

Traditionally, rugged phones came with large rubber edges (or users decided to put even larger cases around them). The XCover Pro, on the other hand, feels slimmer than most regular phones with a rugged case on them.

By default, the phone features NFC support for contactless payments (the phone has been approved to be part of Visa’s Tap to Phone pilot program) and two programmable buttons so that companies can customize their phones for their specific use cases. One of the first partners here is Microsoft, which lets you map a button to its recently announced walkie talkie feature in Microsoft Teams.

“Microsoft and Samsung have a deep history of bringing together the best hardware and software to help solve our customers’ challenges,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in today’s announcement. “The powerful combination of Microsoft Teams and the new Galaxy XCover Pro builds on this partnership and will provide frontline workers everywhere with the technology they need to be more collaborative, productive and secure.”

With its Pogo pin charging support and compatibility with third-party tools from a variety of partners for adding scanners, credit card readers and other peripherals from partners like Infinite Peripherals, KOAMTAC, Scandit and Visa.

No enterprise device is complete without security features and the XCover Pro obviously supports all of Samsungs various Knox enterprise security tools and access to the phone itself is controlled by both a facial recognition system and a fingerprint reader that’s built into the power button.

With the Tab Active Pro, Samsung has long offered a rugged tablet for first-line workers. Not everybody needs a full-sized tablet, though, so the XCover Pro fills what Samsung clearly believes is a gap in the market that offers always-on connectivity in a smaller package and in the form of a phone that doesn’t look unlike a consumer device.

I could actually imagine that there are quite a few consumers who may opt for this device. For a while, the company made phones like the Galaxy S8 Active that traded weight and size for larger batteries and ruggedness. the XCover Pro isn’t officially a replacement of this program, but it may just find its fans among former Galaxy Active users.

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What You Need to Know About 5G in 2020

LAS VEGAS — Like many consumers, Kathryn Schipper, an attorney in Seattle, doesn’t have a landline. She relies on her smartphone for calls and videoconferencing, but reception is spotty.

So she is excited about the arrival of 5G, the fifth-generation wireless network that has been the subject of breathless speculation over the last few years. The new cellular standard, carriers have said, will reduce network congestion and pump out data so fast that smartphone users could download all the “Avengers” movies in a few minutes. It might even eventually help cars drive themselves.

“5G seems like orders-of-magnitude improvement,” Ms. Schipper said. “I’ve also heard it’s much more reliable, so that matters to me.”

Yet the shift to 5G feels like a tech revolution happening in slow motion. In 2019, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest American carriers, lit up their 5G networks in a small number of cities. Handset makers released only a handful of phones compatible with the new standard. The overwhelming majority of us saw no meaningful improvement to our cellular networks.

At CES, the big consumer electronics show in Las Vegas this week, the carriers are insisting that 2020 will be a turning point for 5G. AT&T and Verizon say they expect their 5G networks to be accessible nationwide this year. In addition, the carriers say at least 15 smartphones will be 5G compatible this year, more than triple the number last year.

“2020 is pivotal because you’ve got a good foundation built, and the ecosystem starts to form,” said Kevin Petersen, a marketing executive for AT&T.

So what does that even mean? A major technology shift is underway, which may have an impact on your personal technology in the coming years. And unlike its predecessors, 5G is complex and more confusing.

Here’s what you need to know:

In the simplest terms, 5G is a new cellular standard. Phone carriers have jumped to a new wireless standard roughly every decade. About 10 years ago, 4G, the fourth-generation network, arrived with significantly faster speeds and stronger reliability than 3G. About a decade before that, 3G arrived and was much faster and more robust than 2G. You get the picture.

Unfortunately, 5G is more complicated. There are a few flavors of 5G described with deeply technical jargon.

To make 5G easier to swallow, let’s rename the jargon into ice cream flavors:

  • The much-hyped, ultrafast variant of 5G is known as “millimeter wave,” but let’s call it rocky road. It lets carriers transmit data at incredibly fast speeds — the kind that would let you download an entire movie in a few seconds.

    The problem with rocky road is that its signals travel shorter distances, covering a park in New York but not a broad swath of the city, for example. It also has trouble penetrating obstacles like walls. So Verizon and AT&T have focused deployment of rocky road in large spaces like sports stadiums and outdoor amphitheaters.

    Because of the technical limitations of rocky road, we are unlikely to see it deployed nationwide anytime soon (if ever), meaning we won’t be getting these incredible speeds in the vast majority of places.

  • Instead, this year our cellular networks will broadly shift to a version of 5G that is less exciting. Let’s call this vanilla 5G.

    Vanilla 5G will have speeds that are only slightly faster than current 4G networks. The main benefit will be a reduction of lag known as latency. For example, when you do a web search on your phone, the results usually won’t load immediately; the lag can often last hundreds of milliseconds. In theory, 5G technology will shave this latency down to a few milliseconds. (To be clear, rocky road offers low-latency benefits, too.)

    AT&T and Verizon say their 5G networks, which will be made up of mostly vanilla 5G and small scoops of rocky road, should be activated nationwide this year. T-Mobile, which put a priority on deploying vanilla 5G over rocky road, said its 5G network was available nationwide last year.

    In short, the broad shift to 5G won’t be mind blowing, but you will probably notice a marked improvement.

In some cases, yes. While Wi-Fi is also very fast, it pulls data from a broadband connection, which is susceptible to degraded performance when others nearby are using it. By design, 5G transmits high amounts of data more efficiently, so it is expected to significantly mitigate network congestion. There is a high likelihood that you will get a consistently strong, faster connection on 5G.

Yes. You will have to buy a new phone with a 5G modem to connect with the new network technologies.

Most current 5G-compatible phones are expensive: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, for example, costs $1,300. But as the technology becomes more common in the next few years, prices should drop.

The carriers are still tinkering with pricing.

Verizon’s earliest 5G plans charged an extra $10 a month for people with compatible smartphones to gain access to 5G. (It is currently waiving that fee as it builds out its 5G network.) However, Ronan Dunne, a Verizon executive, said the carrier was planning different types of packages. Some with access to both vanilla 5G and rocky road 5G could be priced higher, while plans with only vanilla 5G might be priced lower. (He declined to share specific prices.)

“Here’s a plan which says this plan comes with ultralow latency, and it’s part of a gamers’ package, or it might be part of a movie and entertainment package,” Mr. Dunne said. “Because of this ability to separate components of the network, you can see an evolution of a new type of pricing and plan model.”

AT&T’s so-called unlimited extra plan, which includes 5G access, costs $75 a month for an individual line.

T-Mobile said access to its 5G network was available to its subscribers at no additional cost.

AT&T, unfortunately, made 5G extra confusing for its customers. In late 2018, it rebranded parts of its existing 4G network as “5GE.” So AT&T customers with older 4G-compatible phones started seeing a “5GE” status icon on their screens.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s ignore 5GE altogether. It’s not real 5G.

AT&T’s vanilla version of 5G is branded 5G, and its rocky-road version is labeled 5G Plus.

It depends on where you go. (Some countries still lack thorough 4G coverage.) China is poised to have the largest 5G network in the world, and 5G is well underway in Japan and South Korea. The European Union’s goal is to release 5G in at least one major city in each member state this year, according to a study conducted for the European Commission.

The benefits will probably feel subtle and significant.

Lower latency is crucial to future mobile applications. It could make virtual reality work more smoothly — like if you were watching a virtual-reality broadcast of a live sports game and wanted to look around the stadium.

Reduced lag may also improve gaming: If you were playing a shooting game with friends online, there would be less delay between button presses and your actions in the game.

A reduction in latency will also help internet-connected devices talk to one another immediately. That is why technologists are looking to 5G deployment as a crucial step toward a world of autonomous cars. If one car is 5G equipped and so is the other, they can tell each other when they are braking. Or if the vehicle is signaling to turn right, it can communicate the turn to cars behind it so they can slow down or switch lanes.

“You can see why that’s not very relevant today but very useful tomorrow,” said Frank Gillett, a technology analyst for Forrester Research.

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F.B.I. Asks Apple to Help Unlock Two iPhones

SAN FRANCISCO — The encryption debate between Apple and the F.B.I. might have found its new test case.

The F.B.I. said on Tuesday that it had asked Apple for the data on two iPhones that belonged to the gunman in the shooting last month at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., possibly setting up another showdown over law enforcement’s access to smartphones.

Dana Boente, the F.B.I.’s general counsel, said in a letter to Apple that federal investigators could not gain access to the iPhones because they were locked and encrypted and their owner, Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani of the Saudi Royal Air Force, is dead. Two people who had seen the letter described it to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity because the government’s investigation into the shooting is still active.

The F.B.I. has a search warrant for the devices and is seeking Apple’s assistance executing it, the people said.

Lieutenant Alshamrani is the Saudi Air Force trainee who federal authorities believe shot and killed three sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola in December.

The case could become a new point of contention in a long-running dispute between Apple and the F.B.I. over what digital information should be accessible to law enforcement. In 2014, Apple started building encryption into iPhones that can be unlocked only with a given device’s password, meaning even Apple cannot bypass the security. The technology has frustrated law enforcement authorities, who say Apple has given criminals a safe haven.

Apple said in a statement that it had given the F.B.I. all the data “in our possession” related to the Pensacola case when it was asked a month ago. “We will continue to support them with the data we have available,” the company said. Apple regularly complies with court orders to turn over information it has on its servers, such as iCloud data, but it has long argued that it does not have access to material stored only on a locked, encrypted iPhone.

An F.B.I. spokeswoman confirmed the existence of the letter, which was first reported by NBC News, but declined to comment further.

Before sending the letter, the F.B.I. checked with other government agencies and its national security allies to see if they had a way into the devices — but they did not, according to one of the people familiar with the investigation.

The official said the F.B.I. was not asking Apple to create a so-called backdoor or technological solution to get past its encryption that must be shared with the government. Instead, the government is seeking the data that is on the two phones, the official said.

Apple has argued in the past that obtaining such data would require it to build a backdoor, which it said would set a dangerous precedent for user privacy and cybersecurity.

The Pensacola case resembles the 2016 dispute between Apple and the F.B.I. over the iPhone of the man who, along with his wife, shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. As in that case, there is a dead gunman, a court authorization to gain entry to a phone, and an early stalemate between law enforcement and Apple.

But the San Bernardino investigation turned into a high-stakes showdown after a federal judge ordered Apple to help the authorities gain entry to the phone. Such a court order has not been issued in the Pensacola case, and it is does not appear that the F.B.I. has yet sought such a ruling.

The letter could be the first step toward such an order, as the F.B.I. would likely need to show a judge that Apple had refused to assist in executing a warrant. Apple did not respond to a question about whether it would comply with the F.B.I.’s request in the Pensacola investigation.

After the federal judge ordered Apple to create a way to open the San Bernardino gunman’s phone in 2016, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, responded with a 1,100-word letter in which he said that creating such a backdoor would compromise the security of every iPhone.

“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone,” he said. “But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.”

Mr. Cook made an aggressive argument to the public that the Obama administration’s actions would undermine people’s privacy and security. But he may find it more difficult to attack the Trump administration, which has long dangled the threat of tariffs on Apple’s products.

Mr. Cook has become an ally of President Trump, visiting him regularly in Washington and recently hosting him at a Mac computer factory in Texas, where the president claimed he had helped spur its construction when it had actually been open for six years.

The dispute over the San Bernardino case was resolved when the F.B.I. found a private company that was able to bypass the iPhone’s encryption. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General later found that the F.B.I. had not exhausted all possible solutions to unlock the phone before it tried to force Apple to build a way past the encryption.

Both sides have since doubled down on their stances. Apple has made its encryption even tougher, closing gaps that law enforcement had exploited to gain entry to iPhones.

And Attorney General William P. Barr has recently turned up his criticism of encryption. He said last month that finding a way for law enforcement to gain access to encrypted technology was one of the Justice Department’s “highest priorities.”

In several speeches last year, he noted that drug cartels, human trafficking rings and child pornographers depended on consumer products with strong encryption, such as WhatsApp and Signal, and he has singled out Facebook’s efforts to wrap all of its products in virtually unbreakable encryption as a scourge for law enforcement.

“We’re talking about when you have a warrant and probable cause and you cannot get the information,” Mr. Barr said at a Wall Street Journal conference in Washington last month.

Companies like Facebook are selling the idea that “no matter what you do, you’re completely impervious to government surveillance,” Mr. Barr said. “Do we want to live in a society like that? I don’t think we do.”

Jack Nicas reported from San Francisco, and Katie Benner from Washington.

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Huawei Posts Solid Growth but Warns of Difficulties Ahead

HONG KONG — For Huawei, it has been a year of lawsuits, blacklists, diplomatic fights, spying accusations and, most recently, viral anger from the Chinese internet.

Through it all, the company posted solid growth, its deputy chairman Eric Xu said on Tuesday. In a year-end note, Mr. Xu said the company’s sales in 2019 increased an estimated 18 percent from a year earlier to $121.8 billion, just below the company’s initial target for revenue.

The results hinted at a slowdown in the final quarter of the year, and Mr. Xu’s note was rich in metaphors describing the difficult days ahead. Alternately likening the company to plums bitten by winter’s frost, a bamboo stalk battered by wind and an embattled aircraft, the executive said that in 2020, the company would not grow as rapidly as it did in the first half of 2019.

“It’s going to be a difficult year for us,” wrote Mr. Xu, adding that “the external environment is becoming more complicated than ever, and downward pressure on the global economy has intensified.”

Huawei is the world’s leading maker of equipment that powers cellphone networks and a champion of Beijing’s ambitions to build new, cutting-edge technology companies. Officials in the United States have long been worried that China’s government could use Huawei’s products to gather intelligence, an accusation the company has repeatedly denied.

Huawei’s year went from bad to worse when the United States added the company to an export blacklist in May. The move effectively restricted its ability to purchase American products crucial to its smartphones and telecom gear, weighing on revenue growth.

The blocks, though, have proven somewhat porous. The Trump administration has permitted sales to Huawei that are used to maintain existing mobile networks. Some of its American suppliers determined they could lawfully continue selling nonsensitive products to the company. In October, the Trump administration said it would issue export licenses to certain United States companies selling to Huawei, further easing pressures on its supply chain.

Even so, Mr. Xu indicated that the confrontation with the United States would continue to dampen growth and said he expected Huawei to remain on the blacklist in 2020.

“Difficulty is the prelude to greater success, and adversity the whetstone of an iron-willed team. The U.S. government’s campaign against Huawei is strategic and long-term,” he wrote.

Huawei, he said, will “need to go all out” to develop software and services that work with its smartphones. Analysts have worried about whether the company’s smartphones would remain competitive since it was blocked from working with Google. Huawei had to release its latest flagship smartphone, the Mate 30 series, without regular access to Google’s apps.

Mr. Xu said the company shipped a total of 240 million smartphones in 2019, an increase of almost 17 percent over the 206 million units it sold in 2018.

The company’s shares are not publicly traded and it has no obligation to announce its results. In a nod to transparency, Huawei has long announced financials, and this year it began reporting unaudited results quarterly. The numbers for 2019 are not audited, and the company will likely provide further details for its performance in the first months of 2020.

With Huawei’s business under pressure, Mr. Xu also warned of tough times for employees, even as he thanked them. Huawei unexpectedly became the center of online anger in China this month after an employee said he had been jailed for 251 days after demanding severance pay from the company. The experience struck a chord for many Chinese white-collar tech employees, who are now facing sagging returns for long hours at the office.

Despite the renewed focus on Huawei’s famous hard-charging corporate spirit, Mr. Xu did not mince his metaphors in describing the company’s outlook on its employees.

“Managers at all levels need to put company interests above personal gain and go where they are needed most, including hardship regions,” he wrote, calling those willing to put up with such difficulties “tree growers.”

He said the company would remove managers who were performing in the bottom 10 percent as part of a plan to better prune talent.

“We will remove mediocre managers more quickly — people who have lost their enterprising spirit, who have built their position on personal connections or empty and unactionable reporting, and those who prioritize short-term gains and pass problems on to their successors,” he wrote, calling such people “the pit-diggers among us.”