Donald Trump’s blacklisting of Huawei in the escalating trade war between the US and China is now starting to cause significant issues for the world’s second-largest smartphone manufacturer.
Alongside US chip manufacturers, Google has been forced to comply with the US government’s ban on the supply of technologies to Huawei.
What has happened?
Google has ceased providing software and support to Huawei as part of Trump’s blacklisting of the company and affiliates.
What does that mean?
The Android used on smartphones and tablets is made of multiple layers of software. In the west, broadly speaking these software layers are stacked from top to bottom like this:
- User interface, which is the part users interact with, called Emotion UI (EMUI) for Huawei or Magic UI for Honor.
- Google services – Google Play and the various Google apps (Gmail etc).
- Android operating system.
- System software that controls the various bits of hardware of the phone.
Google has been forced to cut off Huawei from the Google services part of Android for new devices, which also includes earlier access to software updates.
Does that mean Huawei can no longer use Android at all?
No. The underlying Android operating system is open source, called the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), and can be used by anyone. AOSP is updated in step with Google’s version of Android, on which it is built.
But it does mean Huawei has to supply its own updates from AOSP to the version of Android running on its phones, rather than Google’s updates. This is what the company has to do for its smartphones sold in China, which do not have Google’s various services.
It also means all the new additions Google has steadily been making to Android via its Google Play Services framework will no longer be available to Huawei for its western phones.
Do I need to stop using my Huawei phone?
No. If you already have a Huawei smartphone, it will continue to operate as normal. “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,” Huawei said in a statement.
Will I lose access to Google?
No. Google, Google Assistant and the various Google apps will continue to operate on existing smartphones.
Will I no longer receive app updates?
No. App updates are delivered by Google Play in the west, and will continue to be so on existing smartphones. Google said:
What about security updates?
Huawei said it would continue to deliver security updates for its existing smartphones. It can do this via the AOSP. Huawei has a middling track record for delivering the monthly security updates made available by Google, so it is likely users will receive a similar level of service, with security updates delivered at about the same pace.
What about Android version updates?
Here is where things get a bit trickier. Huawei will be able to deliver Android version updates via the AOSP, but it will lose early access to the updated versions provided by Google, such as the current beta of Android Q.
Huawei modifies the standard Android experience with its EMUI/MUI and delivers it several months after Google ships the next version of Android to its Pixel smartphones, so whether users will be able to see a noticeable delay in Android version updates remains to be seen.
What does this mean for Huawei?
The firm shipped more than 59m smartphones in the first quarter of 2019 – all running Android. China represents approximately half of Huawei’s smartphone sales, which means half of its consumer business is now at risk. Huawei’s consumer business accounted for 45.1% of the firm’s revenue in 2018.
What can Huawei do?
Huawei has long said it has a “plan B”, and it has been working on its own operating system, which is already in use on its smartwatches. But a smartphone without Google services and apps will be an incredibly hard sell to consumers outside of China.
The ban is also likely to cripple Huawei’s computer business, including the MateBook line of laptops, which not only use US-made chips from Intel and others, but Microsoft’s Windows. Microsoft will be in a similar position to Google on software supply, except that no material part of Windows 10 is open source.