Monday 14 October 2019

Google app threat leaves Huawei phone business at edge of abyss

Removal of popular features in US crackdown will be a huge blow to Chinese firm, writes Adrian Weckler

‘It is difficult to see how the company’s smartphones are remotely competitive (outside China) going forward’. Photo: Bloomberg
‘It is difficult to see how the company’s smartphones are remotely competitive (outside China) going forward’. Photo: Bloomberg
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Will the events of the last week sink Huawei's high-growth phone business? Does it mean that the high-end P30 Pro or P20 you just bought may shortly become useless?

And does it impact any of the firm's infrastructure business in critical broadband networks in Ireland?

It's a been a very tough week for the giant Chinese telecoms company.

It has been caught in the middle of a trade war between the US and China.

The upshot is that American authorities are telling that country's biggest tech companies that they can no longer do core business with Huawei. That includes important firms such as Intel and Qualcomm. It also may include UK firms that use some US-designed technology, such as chip design firm ARM. But the nuclear threat comes from the one company that can cripple virtually all of Huawei's international sales: Google.

Google has been told that it must stop providing Huawei with the software that makes the Chinese company's smartphones work. As it stands, new Huawei models will not have a full version of Android or the Google Play Store.

That not only means a lack of apps such as Gmail, YouTube and Google Maps. It also means, without an app store, lack of immediate access to download WhatsApp, Facebook, Outlook, Netflix and other apps we take for granted every day.

Instead, they will have a cut-down Android operating system with whatever apps Huawei makes.

In other words, the phones will be next to useless.

If you're one of the hundreds of thousands of Irish Huawei phone owners, there's no need to panic just yet. Both Google and Huawei have insisted that your handsets will continue to get access to Android and the Play Store for the time being. And the US has granted Huawei a 90-day licence to continue business as usual.

Beyond that, though, there are no guarantees. 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 you simply can't update your Huawei phone to Android 10 (expected for release in the autumn). Or it may mean that you can try but, if you do, you'll get an operating system stuck with the crippled version.

Or it may even mean that all existing models, even those that are not yet manufactured but which you buy next year, are able to be sold with today's Android version but not the next one (in which case you will have the App Store but no new upgrades).

Phone functionality aside, there are other questions.

For example, Huawei is one of the world's biggest telecoms equipment providers. In Ireland, it is one of the main equipment vendors in the fibre broadband network being rolled out by Siro, the joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB. That network has now passed over 300,000 homes. Does the turmoil put any of this network's functionality at risk? No, said a Siro spokesman. "Our network has not been impacted by recent developments and is not dependent on third-party software updates," he said.

It's a similar story for Ireland's biggest operator, Eir. That company uses a combination of Ericsson and Huawei to support its telecoms networks here. A spokesman said that the company does not expect its Huawei equipment to be affected by the current trade-related difficulties being faced by the Chinese telecoms company.

What about the €3bn state-subsidised network to be rolled out as a National Broadband Plan? "There is no Huawei equipment in the NBI network," a spokeswoman told the Irish Independent.

"Nokia is the preferred supplier for all active equipment, both for the access network and core switches. Some of the retail providers may use Huawei as the residential gateways, but this is not NBI equipment or managed by us."

But it is really in the realm of smartphones that Huawei's biggest impact is being immediately felt.

Operators and tech retailers are beginning to report inquiries about guarantees and even sales returns. On social media, a flood of Huawei owners are asking whether their phones are set to become functionally useless.

Google is trying to calm things down.

"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. Google may mean that this remains true so long as Huawei owners don't try to update to the next version of Android in the autumn.

One consolation here is that it is very possible to keep an almost fully functional Android smartphone without upgrading to the latest edition. Indeed, 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 users can easily go a year (or two) using the existing Android 9 (or Android P) version. The disadvantage to doing this is that you don't get the benefits of improved new features, like voice control or power management.

If the unthinkable happens, Huawei says that it has been preparing for this kind of event for years and that it has its own operating system and software.

Almost no-one believes that this would be a valid replacement for an Android interface or Play Store.

"It is difficult to see how the company's smartphones are remotely competitive (outside China) going forward," says Ben Thompson, the respected technology analyst and author of 'Stratechery'. "Whatever hardware or price advantages there may be will surely be outweighed by a lack of apps (thanks to a lack of access to the Google Play Store) and a lack of Google services, which, it should be noted, are even more popular in Europe (Huawei's best international market) than they are in North America."

Huawei does have a version of its phones that operate without the full Android experience, as half of its phone sales are in China, where Google is not allowed to be deployed.

An Android smartphone without the Play Store 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 a user may have to go into the web browser and type out or instead of being able to tap on an app (because those apps come from the Play Store, which won't be available).

Similarly, there are alternatives to services such as Google Search and Maps, for future app choices in a Google-free environment. 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 few people are expected to change email provider because of this issue. And besides, they would need to create bespoke apps - assuming that they, too, are not placed on the US prohibition list.

It all adds up to a grave threat to Huawei's phone business.

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