Huawei is being locked out of Android – here’s what that means for South African users
- Google has suspended its business relationship with Huawei, in compliance with an American trade ban.
- South African Huawei users should not see any impact in how their smartphones work – not immediately anyway.
- But the latest version of Android is much less likely to come to the Huawei P30, and though safe for now, apps such as Google Maps and YouTube may disappear.
- Go to www.businessinsider.co.za for more stories.
This article has been updated with a statement by Huawei below.
Google's parent company Alphabet Inc has suspended its business relationship with Chinese smartphone manufacturer Huawei, halting all transfer of hardware and software between the two companies, including a partnership on the Android smartphone operating system.
Android is open-source software, available for anyone to use, but critical services such as Google Play that run on Android are Google properties, and require a legal relationship that is now on hold.
Huawei is not entirely unprepared for this eventuality; it has reportedly been developing its own mobile operating system since 2012, since soon after the US government started investigating it. But one source told the South China Morning Post in April last year that its home-grown Android replacement was not yet good enough to roll out – and it is not clear how much progress the company has made with it since then.
Although around half of the phones it makes are still destined for mainland China, Huawei has been growing at explosive speed around the world over the last year. In the first quarter of 2019 it shipped 59.9 million smartphones, according to analysis firm IDC – selling an average of more than 660,000 phones every day.
That represented year-on-year growth of more than 50%, and gave Huawei a real chance of overtaking Samsung as the world's biggest cellphone company.
Huawei South Africa on Monday told Business Insider South Africa it could not release local sales figures, but if its market share in SA tracks its global position, it would have sold 2.5 million smartphones locally in 2018.
Here is what the suspension of the relationship between Google and Huawei means for South African users, as best anyone can tell right now.
Nothing changes on your P20 or P30 today – or in the very near future....
Google has confirmed that any Huawei device currently in use will still have access to Google Play – which means critical security patches and updates to apps will keep coming, at least for now.
For Huawei users' questions regarding our steps to comply w/ the recent US government actions: We assure you while we are complying with all US gov't requirements, services like Google Play & security from Google Play Protect will keep functioning on your existing Huawei device.— Android (@Android) May 20, 2019
As long as Google Play continues to operate normally, users should see no impact at all on the level of applications.
... but a lack of security updates could leave you vulnerable, at least for longer than before.
As best anyone can tell right now, the legal relationship for a Google Play user on a Huawei device in South Africa is between the consumer and Google. In other words, Google will not be breaking the American ban by providing the latest update to Clash of Clans, even if that update happens to be delivered to Huawei hardware.
But the same is not true of security updates at a system level. Because Huawei was a Google partner for all phones currently in use (outside China), security updates were delivered via that partnership – and that can no longer happen.
That implies that security fixes from Google will not be available on current Huawei devices, unless someone finds a legal workaround.
Huawei could manufacture new phones – and update existing phones to – the free version of Android, via the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). Using AOSP requires no legal contract with anyone, so there would be no relationship between Google and Huawei for US authorities to ban.
Updates to AOSP are well behind those offered to manufacturers, however, by about a month according to the Android project. That is a month after the likes of Samsung start manufacturing phones based on new versions of Android.
Don't expect to see the Android Q update on your device soon
Earlier in May Huawei told users that its own flavour of Android, EMUI, would be updated to the upcoming Android Q version pretty much as soon as that becomes available on Google's own phones.
That would have given users of the Huawei Mate 20, Pro and X versions, and those with a Huawei P30 or P30 Pro, plus some Honor users (the Honor View20 (V20) and Honor Magic 2) the latest Android features almost instantly.
Android Q is expected to add live captions, a feature that would subtitle videos even without a data connection.
But without direct access to Google's developer tools – and with their entire relationship in question – it now seems unlikely that Android Q will come to Huawei devices that quickly, if at all.
Current devices get to keep them – for now – but there will be no more YouTube and Gmail for new Huawei phones
The biggest difference between a full Google partner on Android and those who can only use the open-source components available to anyone is access to other Google services.
Huawei will be able to build phones and put Android on them – but users of those phones won't have access to the Google Play store, and the millions of apps you can download from there. There will be no Gmail app, and no YouTube app, and no Google Maps. (All of those will be available only via a web browser, which tends to be a horrific user experience.)
With future access to those apps cut off, Huawei could stop supporting them on its current devices too, which would eventually make them unusable.
Future Huawei phones are in serious jeopardy – because they need chips
Android is a big problem for Huawei, but it is not just Google that has stopped doing business with the company – and its lack of access to critical hardware could be a bigger issue in the long run.
Though Huawei assembles its phones and makes many of the components that go into them, it is still dependent on European and American companies for some of the most complex chips.
German company Infineon Technologies has reportedly cut off supplies of microcontrollers and integrated circuits that handle power management. Intel and Broadcom too have reportedly said they will no longer be selling Huawei anything.
Huawei apparently has a stockpile of critical components, built up for just this eventuality, but that will last only for a couple of months of production of current phones. Unless the Chinese company can develop and start manufacturing its own chips in a highly improbable timeframe, or its global supply chain is reestablished, it will fall years behind the competition when it come to new devices.
(Huawei has claimed that, despite spending billions on chips from foreign suppliers, it is not really all that dependent on them – but experts think that is less than entirely true.)
UPDATE: On Monday morning Huawei issued a statement on its Google relationship, which reads in full:
"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."
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