A few months ago, Huawei was riding the wave of a great 2018 for the smartphone business. The Huawei and the company’s Honor branded phones had combined to register what was a rather strong growth, irrespective of whichever research agency data you would refer to, at a time when the rest of the smartphone market was struggling to even maintain what they had. They sold 200 million phones in the year. In fact, Huawei believed they could become the world’s largest smartphone maker by the year 2020. The first quarter of this year was even more robust, with a 50 percent increase compared with shipments in the same quarter last year. The IDC numbers suggested that Huawei had a global smartphone market share of 21.4 percent, behind the leaders Samsung at 26 percent.
But despite all this positivity in the smartphone shipments space, one suspicion just wouldn’t go away—the fact that Huawei products, be it phones or be it the mobile network equipment offered a hidden backdoor which was being used by the Chinese government to snoop on pretty much everyone around the world. Irrespective of Huawei’s protests, their momentum has been delivered a definite body blow. Just days after the Trump Administration in the US added Huawei to the list of blacklisted companies for US companies to avoid doing business with, Alphabet Inc. has dropped what can only be described as a bombshell. Google’s parent company has made it clear that they will not be doing business with Huawei, at least for the moment. Let this sink in for a moment—Huawei will no longer have access to Android, the most popular smartphone operating system in the world.
Google is making this announcement after President Donald Trump used an executive order to declare a national emergency amounting to threats to U.S. technology last week. Huawei and 68 of its affiliate companies were added to the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) Entity List, which prevents U.S. companies from continuing to do business with them—this includes buying and selling components and hardware, buying and selling software or services, without having a requisite license from the US government for continuing to do business with these companies. It was last year when the heads of FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the director of national intelligence had said American citizens shouldn’t use products made by Huawei, owing to the security risks.
There are two aspects to the conundrum that Huawei finds itself in.
There is the small matter of the existing Huawei and Honor branded smartphones which consumers are using globally. These will no longer get new Android updates, including security patches, directly from Google. Huawei also loses technical support from Google for Android. While you may continue to use the Huawei and Honor phones as you have done thus far, Android updates may be few and far between. However, what is not clear at the moment is whether Google will continue to allow Huawei and Honor branded phones to access the Play Services updates and the app updates for Google products from the Play Store—but those may very well continue, because Google could very well say that existing Google services consumers will be unnecessarily penalised, and that Google doesn’t have to interface with Huawei for these updates anyway.
It is a slightly worrying time for those who may be using the latest Huawei P30 Pro flagship smartphone, or the Mate 20 Pro or the P20 Pro from last year, for instance.
Secondly, the new phones that Huawei makes and sells now will not have Google Play Services, and would therefore lose access to apps such as Maps, Play Store and YouTube. At least not the phones that it intends to sell globally. This would mean that even if Huawei has to continue making Android phones, the experience they will offer to users will be significantly hampered. There is absolutely no doubt that the next line of flagships, the Mate 30 Pro and the P40 Pro will be significantly impacted by this.
In both scenarios, Huawei will still be able to use the Android versions and updates available through the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). It is as the name suggests, open source. However, this will be a very restricted experience, since Google has already moved a lot of application programming interface (APIs) from AOSP to Play Services over time. This AOSP route will be available for complete Android software installations for new phones, as well as for security patches that Google regularly releases for Android.
As far as the hardware is concerned, Huawei has reportedly procured orders worth $11 billion from U.S. based companies last year, including Qualcomm, Intel, and Micron. Even if the company is blocked from buying hardware from US companies again, Huawei may still be able to manage since it has its own Kirin chipsets and Balong modems for its flagship phones.
The software remains the big challenge still. While Android AOSP is an option, Huawei’s Richard Yu had mentioned to the media at the start of this year that the company was ready with its own operating system for smartphones. Did Huawei expect the US government to put a law in place that forbids US companies from doing business with it? Or did it specifically expect Google to take this step at some point? We still don’t know how that operating system works, what it looks like and indeed how far along the development cycle it is. Will it even be good enough to replace the Android experience? That is a big question we don’t yet have an answer for.
Would consumers really want a phone that runs Android (perhaps a slightly older Android) that lacks access to the Play Store, or Google’s plethora of incredibly popular apps such as Gmail, Maps, Chrome and You Tube? Unlikely.
Add to that the situation where users may be forced to use alternatives. The logical answer would be for Huawei to push its own apps. Be it with the AOSP derived Android, or its own OS. Perhaps Huawei’s own Browser instead of the Google Chrome browser. Huawei’s own Files app instead of Google Drive or Files by Google. If you were worried about the Chinese reading your data, this situation could become worse.
Huawei has responded to the decision made by Google to not allow Huawei to use Android for its smartphones anymore, in a statement shared with News18: “Huawei has made substantial contributions to the development and growth of Android around the world. As one of Android’s key global partners, we have worked closely with their open-source platform to develop an ecosystem that has benefitted both users and the industry. Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after-sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products, covering those that have been sold and that are still in stock globally. We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally.”