Business Technology

Tuesday 18 June 2019

Explainer: Is my Huawei phone useless now because Google is taking away its apps?

The US has voiced fears about Huawei (Steve Parsons/PA)
The US has voiced fears about Huawei (Steve Parsons/PA)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Have a Huawei phone? Worried about the latest news that says you might be cut off from the app store and your favourite apps? Here’s a basic explainer about what you do – and do not – need to be concerned about.

What’s going on here?

Google is to stop giving access to Huawei to some basic smartphone features.

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Like what?

The Play Store (the app store on an Android phone) and the ability to run apps like Google Maps or YouTube or the Gmail app.

Hang on -- the Play Store? But how will I get apps?

You’ll be cut off from getting most of them. Remember how poor the app selection was on Windows phones? It’ll be way, way worse.

Is this happening right away?

The decision has been made (as part of a trade war between the US and China -- see that point below). But it will take a while to feed through to Huawei smartphones.

How do you mean? I just bought a Huawei phone -- does this mean I’m about to be cut off from all the apps I use?

No. Both Huawei and Google say that the status quo stays in place for the time being. What they’re saying is that will kick in at some point in the future.

What do you mean ‘the future’?

This is where it starts to get fuzzy. What both companies appear to be saying is that the next version of Android (as we know it) won’t be allowed on Huawei phones.

That may mean that if you update your Huawei phone to Android 10 (expected for release in the Autumn) you get knocked off all those services, leaving you with a shell of a phone. Or it may mean that existing Huawei phones can upgrade but that new Huawei phones (with new Android licences) will be stuck with the crippled version. Or it may mean that newly-manufactured phones based on existing models (like the P30 Pro) will be fine no matter when you buy them, and that it will only apply to separate new models (such as a future P40 Pro).

So I might be okay if I just don’t upgrade my Android version? Can I even do that?

Yes and yes. In fact, the vast majority of Android phones from Samsung, Huawei, OnePlus and others use older Android versions. Google doesn’t push the update as aggressively as Apple does with its iPhones.

So you could easily go a year (or two) using the existing Android 9 (or Android P) version. Google won’t hassle you to do it, like Apple does. Of course, the disadvantage here is that you don’t get the benefits of improved new features, like voice control or power management. But if it’s a choice between that or being reduced to shell, it’s not a difficult scenario.

But even if I keep the old Android version, will I be able to upgrade individual apps?

Google appears to be saying that you will. “We assure you while we are complying with all US government requirements, services like Google Play and security from Google Play Protect will keep functioning on your existing Huawei device,” said the company.

Will I still be able to use services like Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp?

On your current Huawei phone, yes. In a future situation (as outlined above), you may only be able to use the Huawei phone’s web browser to tap out the web address of a service like Facebook, as you might on a laptop PC. 

It’s unclear whether there will be a Huawei-compatible app. Technically, Facebook (which also owns Whatsapp) could make Huawei-compatible versions of its apps that live outside Google’s Play Store (they did that for Windows phones.)

But it may be that Facebook is under the same ruling as Google, being barred from dealing with Huawei and other Chinese companies on that level. This should become cleared soon. Instagram and Whatsapp, by the way, are fairly useless outside an app format.

What about things like Netflix and Amazon?

Again, we don’t yet know whether those companies are also under the same basic direction not to provide services to Huawei. Again, you will probably be able to use them by typing out their website names in Huawei’s own mobile web browser.

But whether there’ll be an app is unclear. We do know that Google isn’t alone. Bloomberg reported that companies like Qualcomm (which makes most of the world’s smartphone chips) and Intel are also withdrawing their technology from Huawei by order of US authorities.

What can my Huawei smartphone do without the Play Store and apps?

It can still access the web using its own mobile web browser (but not Chrome, which is a Google app). It can still make calls and send SMS texts.

It can still connect to online services like email, although you may have to go into the web browser and type out www.gmail.com or www.yahoo.com instead of being able to tap on an app (because those apps come from the Play Store, which won’t be available).

Of course you can also still use the hardware, like cameras. But in general, this would be a disaster for anyone owning a Huawei phone. There’s no way you’d buy one if it didn’t have access to the Play Store.

Are there any alternatives to Google Search and Maps?

Yes, but they’re relatively poor. Microsoft Bing is the second biggest search engine, for example. But it’s pretty awful in Europe. Yahoo Mail and Hotmail (now Outlook) are rivals to Gmail but you’re not going to change your email provider because of this. Besides, it’s worth repeating again: all of those companies may be placed under the same trade constraints with Huawei as Google is.

What happens if I bought a Huawei and now want to return it because of all this?

Your chances are slim. First, the changes haven’t kicked in yet, they’ve just been flagged for future application. That means that the shop (or mobile operator) you bought it from can legitimately say your phone works at the moment.

But if the Google changes happened overnight, the shop might still say that this is all outside their control, that they can’t be penalised for an international trade dispute between two sovereign countries.

Does any of this affect my Samsung or Sony?

No. It’s targeted at Chinese companies in general. This is part of a trade war between the US and China. A number of US tech companies have been told they can’t supply technology to Huawei (and other big Chinese companies) anymore.

If this trade war between China and the US is resolved, will that bring things back to normal?

Yes.

What is the likelihood of that happening?

Who knows? Some say it might be resolved by the end of June. Others say it could drag on for months or even years.

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