That China’s increasing influence in the tech space, heralded by the poster child of its global ambitions, Huawei, has rubbed the United States government the wrong way has never been hidden from plain view.
Accusations of cyber espionage and spying have been thrown around for quite some time now, coming to a head when the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei who works as the company’s Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada on December 1, 2018.
Since then, the Chinese company, a global leader in the telecommunications business, has been on a charm offensive to assure its partners around the world of the safety of its systems, especially the network systems that are meant to drive the world into the future of high-speed communication courtesy of technologies like 5G and newer standards like Wi-Fi 6.
So far, Huawei has done well.
However, a decision last week by US President Donald Trump to sign an executive order that banned US companies from using telecommunications equipment “made by technology firms that pose a national security risk”, set the stage for a number of repercussions that we are only getting to understand well now.
Not only did the said executive order put a stop to US companies procuring telecomms equipment from overseas firms deemed a threat to American security interests (and those of their partners like the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and others whom it has been pressuring to lock the door on Huawei), it also gave the US Department of Commerce the free reign to list any entities they deem to be threats and forbid American companies from trading with them.
That, in a nutshell, is how Huawei found itself being locked out of Google’s software ecosystem.
By now you’ve probably heard the news as reported by Reuters: “Google has suspended business with Huawei that requires the transfer of hardware, software and technical services except those publicly available via open source licensing…”
In a nutshell, Huawei is blocked from accessing Google’s Android. Yes, you’ve probably heard that Android is open source software and many other such stories.
As I will share briefly, there’s still some truth in that much as a lot has changed since November 2007 when the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), which is what Huawei is currently limited to accessing, came into being.
You see, 12 years ago, the world had just been taken by shock by Steve Jobs’ announcement of the iPhone, a device that rolled the mobile phone of the time, the music player of the time (iPod) and access to the internet, all into one and used a fluid touch screen interface and things the world hadn’t heard or seen before, apps. By all means, the world was staring at a future of Apple dominance. With its vested interest in the search business, one of the biggest casualties of such a future would be Google which would operate at Apple’s mercy.
Google had to act and act fast. In came Android, which it had acquired from Andy Rubin, the man behind one of the devices participating in the Android Q beta, Essential, and, by all means, the father of Android.
To help fight the iPhone and the impending Apple dominance of the mobile future, Google decided to make Android open source and give it away for free. It needed every partner it could get on its side. With much to lose by not acting fast and everything to gain by getting any shred of market share, Google banked on these partners and even brought them together under the Open Handset Alliance banner to further its Android interests and drive adoption by agreeing on core standards across the board.
Android was to be the trojan horse of Google services.
That was about 12 years ago. Today, things are different. Android has all but won the platform wars and, with 2.5 billion devices being powered by it, has the complete hold of the mobile world that Google was afraid of ceding to Apple in the first place.
As such, Google has been clawing back on some of the features of the open source project (AOSP); opting to bring them in-house. When Google had no market share, it only kept a few apps (Maps, Gmail, YouTube etc) close to its chest while open-sourcing almost every other aspect of Android.
That is no longer the case.
As early users of Android will tell you, we have, over the years, moved from having just search, music, calendar, browser, camera, gallery, keyboard and messaging apps that work across the board to having their Google equivalents. Google Search, Google Play Music (it’s a music service, yes, but it is also the default media player), Google Calendar, Chrome, Google Camera, Google Photos (refer to my description of Google Play Music), Gboard, Android Messages etc. See where I am going with this?
Today, without access to Google services, as Huawei is at the moment following this revelation, you’re pretty much done for. Unless you can replicate the above services with the same consistency and quality that Google is known for and the petabytes of data that the company has mined from users to advance them, that is easier said than done.
The scope of Google services has grown so much that now, with the next version of Android, Google will even be offering operating system-level updates through them. Obviously, a lockout from such also translates to a lockout not only from Google Play services, as we know them but also any future updates.
So, now, with the foregoing, the question becomes, if you are a current Huawei device user, what becomes of you? What happens to your device?
You will still get updates
Google says as much, at least according to Reuters. “For users of our services, Google Play and the security protections from Google Play Protect will continue to function on existing Huawei devices.”
So, monthly security updates and the regular security scans that all apps go through remain available to existing Huawei device users.
As for whether this is a big factor in terms of how the company is perceived, the answer is yes and no. Yes if you live in a Western country and/or you’re an Android nerd. No, if you’re like the tens of millions of Huawei device users who’ve never seen any updates in their device’s lifetimes. Yes, they exist. Updates have never been Huawei’s strongest suit and it is hard to think their availability, or lack thereof, could be a big basis for writing it off because of this ban.
The future is still up in the air
This whole thing has just played out so fast that nothing is conclusive at the moment. As is always the case where politics is involved, it can be a game of musical chairs and things could turn on their head right after I publish this or after you finish reading this.
Anything is possible at this point. Both Huawei and Google are said to be reviewing the implications of Trump’s executive order and the addition of the Chinese device maker to a blacklist that blocks it from Google’s Android.
What this means is that we could finally get to see that “Android alternative” that Huawei has for long been rumoured to be developing.
An “Android alternative” could be suicide
While an alternative would make sense as no one is safe when they are relying on other parties for a full end-to-end user experience, it is not a given that it would receive the same welcome as anything associated with Android.
Any move by Huawei to introduce its own mobile operating system, in the wake of its ban from using Android (Google says that “Huawei will only be able to use the public version of Android and will not be able to get access to proprietary apps and services from Google.”), at least as most of the world knows it, could be catastrophic.
EMUI could be its saving grace
If Huawei opts to go solo and introduce its own OS, it won’t be the first time that we are seeing this happen. Korean giant Samsung has been there before with Tizen and the Chinese could learn a thing or two about how to go about it.
While most of us who obsess over Android are quick to pick bones with device makers for slapping their
ugly skins on what is otherwise impeccable hardware, imagine a lot of end users don’t mind? Indeed, for most of the global user base, their idea of Android is very different from Google’s idea of Android. It is mostly shaped by the software implementations of big brands like Samsung and Huawei.
With Tizen, Samsung kept the same design aesthetics that donned its Android software overlay, TouchWiz. What this offered was the same familiarity that Samsung had, for years, banked on to sell its Android-powered devices by their tens of millions each year. That Tizen never worked and has all but fizzled out as far as smartphones go and is limited to the company’s wearables lineup, is a story for another day.
What is worth noting is that Huawei’s EMUI, love it or hate it, is widely used and, keeping it as it explores options to Android, or even using it with the AOSP base sans Google services, could go a long way in ensuring Huawei still keeps its current user base and sells more smartphones even with the freezing by Google in place.
EMUI, currently in version 9.1, hasn’t changed much since version 5 rolled out in November 2016. For a reason. That could also be the reason it stays front and centre of Huawei’s future without Google and Google services.
Other Chinese brands are safe, for now
You might be asking, if all this is happening to Huawei then what about Oppo? And Xiaomi? And the rest? Right?
They are safe, at least for now. With ZTE having had its fair share of troubles with the US government previously, it is Huawei that is next on the chopping block. However, other Chinese brands like OnePlus, for instance, are relatively safe. Unless they also get blacklisted.
Will Huawei survive?
This is the question on everyone’s lips. The ban comes in the middle of Huawei’s ambitious plans at world dominance. While Samsung and Apple, the traditional smartphone market leaders, saw their leads cut in size amid a drop in the number of smartphones shipped in the first financial quarter of 2019, it is Huawei that had its numbers up.
Huawei’s smartphone market inched to 19% or almost a fifth of the global smartphone market according to the IDC with a year-over-year growth rate of over 50%. In the same quarter, it also showed us that Apple being relegated to the third spot is going to be the norm as the Cupertino-based company won’t have any new iPhones to help it shore up the numbers until later this year.
By any measure, those are impressive numbers. Will this move hurt them? How can the Chinese company survive?
With such numbers, what are the odds it is Android as an ecosystem that will suffer? That it is Google that will miss a worthy partner?
Those are the questions everyone is asking.
There are no easy answers.
What are your thoughts on this subject?