We arrive in the cold and sophisticated universe of technology. Instead, it’s a mountain of boxes and a concert of hammers and drills that welcome us to the‘Huawei’s OpenLab, in the west of Paris. Would we have fallen badly? Linda Han, number 2 of the French subsidiary of the Chinese telecommunications giant, reassures us with a smile: “Every time I come, it’s like that, a real construction site! It must be said that the spaces are always evolving, as we welcome projects from new partners.”
This is the whole purpose of this 1,000 square meter collaborative space, opened in 2018, the second of its kind in Europe with the OpenLab in Munich, Germany: to succeed and test the solutions of European customers and partners whose solutions for commerce, the connected car, health, smart logistics or, even, the city of tomorrow, requires interfacing with the routers, antennas and other mobile network infrastructures deployed throughout the world by the Chinese group.
The multinational, born in Shenzhen in 1987, present in 170 countries and regions in the world, was among the first in its sector to open up its ecosystem. An approach that pleasantly surprised François Kruta, founder of Ubudu, a start-up specializing in the geolocation of mobile objects – stretchers or syringe pumps in hospitals, spare parts in car factories. “The American group that I had contacted two years ago politely refused me, preferring to develop its own functionalities internally. While here, the teams showed me how to integrate my solution with Huawei’s Wifi 6 antennas (Wifi 6 is the latest standard for wireless networks, editor’s note), and I was able to present it to their other customers and partners. during the events they organize regularly. I was also invited to the Open Lab in Singapore, which allowed me to land several contracts in Asia.”
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A common sense positioning for Nicolas Lefebvre, of AdEchoTech, the French start-up that developed the first remote ultrasound robot. “What is the use of mediocre networks if there are no uses behind them? “Asks the manager, who still can’t get over having seen a Huawei engineer sent directly from China arrive in his start-up in Loir-et-Cher.
“Innovation is in the DNA of our company, boasts Linda Han. Our founder is an engineer, we are a company of engineers and, last year, 15% of our turnover was devoted to R&D, or 17 billion euros.” Unlike other Chinese companies, which only have sales offices abroad, Huawei has chosen to decentralize large parts of its business. “We want to build value chains in the countries where we operate, taking advantage of the strengths of each territory,” explains the 30-year-old, who has managed the group’s subsidiaries in Africa.
And if France was invested late in the day by the Chinese company – the first R&D center was born in 2014 in Sophia Antipolis -, in a few years it has become a key link in the group’s innovation strategy: six centers where 300 people work have opened there, in Nice, therefore, Paris, Grenoble, Boulogne-Billancourt…
“Major innovations have been developed in France, such as the image processing tool integrated into the Leica cameras of all our smartphones,” says Linda Han. Part of the code for 5G, which has since become a global standard, was also written here.” Information that does not lack spice, at a time when the 5G antennas of the Chinese group accused by the United States of spying for the benefit of Beijing and banned from trade with American companies since 2019, are subject to sanctions in several European countries, including France, which at the beginning of 2021 asked its mobile operators to cease their deployment on French territory.
The Paris Aesthetics Research Center, the design center located in the heart of the 7th arrondissement of Paris, also perfectly illustrates Huawei’s decentralization strategy. “The group, of which almost half of the activity is now active on smartphones and consumer products (tablets, connected watches, speakers…), appointed us the artistic direction of the whole”, say Samira Nhari and Pierre-François Dubois, “senior brand & marketing manager” and “senior designer”, both from the world of fashion and luxury – Chanel for the first and Dior for the second. “We also report directly to the Shenzhen headquarters. »
It is in this fully glazed loft with a view of the rooftops of Paris and the Eiffel Tower that the latest logo and all of the group’s graphic charter were born, and that Huawei’s “H” recently became a monogram (we find it for time on store clerk uniforms and some cell phone cases). “We also designed the interior architecture of the boutiques in Paris, Berlin and Vienna, and participated in the creation of all the brand’s flagship products, such as high-end smartphones in the “P” and “mate” series, watches connected, the speakers…”, explains Pierre-François Dubois, while insisting on the “nobility” of the materials chosen: ceramic or leather for the back of the telephones, for example.
Winner of several design awards, the latest smartphone born from the collaboration with Porsche design, the Mate 40 RS, is one of the prides of the small team of 15 people. “We wanted to do an automotive treatment of the surface, with lines that evoke speed, and a half-matt, half-gloss appearance”, explains Sylvain Gerber, industrial designer, while a few offices away, his colleague Alexandre Plicque-Gurlitt works on the interface of the brand’s connected watches, with old-fashioned hands and chronograph, in the spirit of luxury watches.
The decor is more classic and the atmosphere much more subdued at the Center Lagrange, the latest of the hexagonal research centers, opened in Paris in October 2020. In the district of the ministries, a stone’s throw from Matignon, a dozen young and talented mathematicians work on the challenges of tomorrow in the field of telecommunications. “The Lagrange center is unique in the Huawei galaxy, explains director Merouane Debbah, also director of R&D for France. We are not about products here. The idea is really to improve in fundamental mathematics and to make breakthroughs in the field of calculation and mathematics.
Because if the average Frenchman is, it is said, zero in maths, France has provided some of the best current mathematicians in the world, like Maxime Vono and Vincent Plassier, two doctoral students specializing in algorithms that the Chinese giant has managed to succeed. “Before, the aces of algorithms went into finance; now, it is the technological start-ups which dispute them”, says Merouane Debbah.
t for good reason. Whether in the cloud, on board our cars or in our smartphones, artificial intelligence is the great challenge of the moment. One of the many subjects which occupy our young mathematicians is moreover the “calculation distributed between several machines”. “The goal is to train the artificial intelligence of our mobile devices,” explains Maxime Vono. To do this, we must succeed in federating their information via the base station to which they connect, while protecting user data.
“We give ourselves ten years to find an invention that will impact the entire industry,” says Merouane Debbah. Why not by revolutionizing the famous laws of Moore (on the miniaturization of processors) and Shannon (its equivalent for transmissions)? “If we don’t succeed and our development finds itself driven by these physical limits, then at least we can anticipate and reinvent ourselves in the face of these new constraints.” Pragmatism and adaptability: the two constants of the Chinese group’s strategy are delayed even in fundamental research.
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