Huawei is hot water after the US imposed trade bans on the Chinese company. That impacts on many of Huawei’s interests, including its smartphones. Globally, Huawei sits in the number two position: it’s a huge player in Android, a system to which it might have limited access in the future.
“We have been making a plan for this possible outcome,” commented Jeremy Thompson, UK executive vice president, in an interview with the BBC.
“We have a parallel programme in place to develop an alternative. We would rather work with Android but if it doesn’t happen in the future we have an alternative in place which we think will delight our customers.”
Huawei is putting on a brave face, weathering the storm, but also saying that it has a plan B.
What might Huawei’s plan B be called?
This isn’t the first we’ve heard of Huawei’s alternative plans. In fact, the language used on recent interviews closely matches that used in March 2019 in which Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s device business, said that there was a plan B, but they would rather work with partners like Google and Microsoft.
There have been reports that it might be called Kirin OS – matching the branding of HiSilicon hardware – and the suggestion that it’s being called HongMeng OS. There’s very little to confirm this beyond internet rumours, but from what Huawei has been saying, it’s prepared.
However – there’s no good reason why it shouldn’t stick to Huawei’s current branding as EMUI – for the sake of consistency.
What does losing Google support mean?
Google has two sides to Android. The first is the core operating system, which is open source. This is known as Android Open Source Project. It’s open to everyone to use and it forms the basis for custom platforms built from Android.
The second side is all of Google’s services. This includes all the familiar names like Gmail, YouTube, Play Store, Google Pay, Google Assistant, Google Maps – as well as the protections and securities that goes with it. Essentially, it’s all the good bits and the core of what we’d recognise as an Android experience.
It’s this latter part that Huawei could potentially miss out on and it’s a position that Huawei knows well: in China, many of these Google services are banned, so Huawei’s phones run without them, using alternative services in their place.
Those who have been following Android since the early days will remember that “non Google” Android devices – those which hadn’t been certified – were commonplace (and it still happens with many cheap devices), so this isn’t a totally new situation. A non-certified device is still completely viable.
Will a future OS still be Android?
The simplest approach that we can imagine would see Huawei sticking to the position that it occupies at the moment: using an Android foundation, with its own customisation over the top.
In truth, many are familiar with the setup already: Huawei phones run Android but are heavily customised with EMUI (Emotion UI). In reality, EMUI is part of Huawei’s brand identity and any huge departure from its functions and appearance would present a challenge for loyal users.
It’s the customisation of Android that really gives devices their character – think about Samsung’s Experience UX, Xiaomi’s MIUI – much of the brand identity is carried in that software.
So we think the visual appearance and overall operation of the software would remain the same, building on the elements that EMUI has put in place over the past few years.
That already includes a lot of apps and services. Huawei ID provides a range of services on these devices like backup and transfer functions through cloud services, so feasibly extracting yourself from a Google service to a Huawei service shouldn’t be impossible.
Devices are often criticised for duplication – providing a second internet browser or gallery for example – but strip away Google Photos and Chrome and those are the apps you’d fall back on. In many cases, Huawei already has them.
What are the challenges for a new OS?
Apps, undoubtedly, present the biggest problem for any mobile OS when it comes to customer expectations. Apple and Android have offered app parity for a number of years, but in the early days of Android, it was criticised for not having all the apps that Apple’s iOS offered.
And other platforms have suffered the same fate: BlackBerry OS struggled to get apps on its platform, as did Windows Phone – and it was always the same story with others. If the app support isn’t there and you don’t have the latest games or services, customers aren’t interested in your phone.
Sticking to AOSP at least means that Huawei could use apps that have been developed for Android, but would still need to convince developers to make any adaptions for those to be hosted within Huawei’s own store, along with any payment provisions that that involves and so on.
Some of this happens already: Huawei has AppGallery in EMUI in which it hosts some third-party apps (probably those who pay to be there or are provided via pre-install agreements), while also using it for its own proprietary apps and their updates.
The real challenge – as is the case for Amazon’s FireOS – is convincing developers that AppGallery should be as important as Google Play or Apple App Store when it comes to releasing new versions of apps. Again, this is critical for delivering the customer experience.
What about security?
This is likely to be the hot potato both practically and politically. The US’ ban centres on security concerns around Huawei. While the evidence for these concerns hasn’t been explicitly given, putting the company on the Entity List undermines customer confidence – in the Western world at least.
In a system where Google isn’t involved, all the trust then has to be in Huawei – and there might already be too much damage for people to accept when it comes to sensitive information.
One of the elements that is lost is Google Play Protect which monitors apps, aiming to protect against malware. It ensures that the Google Play Store is secure, scans devices and also provides alerts about installs from outside the Play Store. Huawei, or rather its customers, wouldn’t have that layer of security.
Alternative Android app stores have been fraught with problems – fake versions of apps, little control over the apps installed, malware and all sorts of nasties have plagued those operating outside Google Play – and this is potentially a huge problem that Huawei would have to overcome.
What would the real changes be?
One the major steps in setting up an Android device is that you log in to your Google account. That triggers Google’s security, notifying you if someone is logging in unexpectedly, but then providing a route to restore your phone and synchronise with the wider Google world – like the Chrome browser or your Google Assistant smart display, for example.
This would be gone, falling back to Huawei ID instead. While that might work within the Huawei ecosystem, there’s (again) the issue of trust, and also the downside of losing access to an integrated Google-based world.
While the YouTube app might not be part of the system, it could be accessed via a browser, and Gmail and other Google account functions, like calendar, could be synchronised through separate apps. Setting up Gmail in a third-party email app is commonplace. There are also other mapping services, like Here – and Huawei has the size to be able to negotiate a competitive alternative.
The loss of Google Pay would need a separate payment system and there would be a whole selection of areas where you’d notice the loss of access to Google services – although some could, potentially, be added officially via Google apps, allowing search or even Google Assistant as an app, depending on what restrictions are imposed on Google.
Is it really going to come to this?
We suspect that there will be climb-down from the current stand-off and that the issue surrounding Google and Huawei will be resolved. We get the feeling that Google would rather work with its partners – Google has confirmed that it’s complying with the US Government order, but Huawei is still a huge customer of Google.
We’ve already seen the issue of a 90-day license to give Huawei’s devices some breathing space – so the whole issue might blow over.
But this will have sent shockwaves through the entire Android partner system. Big companies who work with Android will now be more motivated than ever to ensure that they have a backup plan. Samsung has long been seen to be preparing alternatives – but what would happen to companies like OnePlus if Google support was lost?
Huawei’s launch plans have been predictable recently and – aside from the launch of the folding Mate X – it’s the Huawei Mate 30 we’d expect to see around September that could potentially be stalled and see the roll-out of a different software proposition.
Undoubtedly Huawei would forge on with a launch for the Chinese market anyway – so is the real loser in this situation all those customers outside of China who might miss out on a potentially great phone?
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