Google’s Huawei Android restrictions: what does it mean for you?
The news that Google has blocked Huawei’s future access to Android updates – for both apps and timely security updates – not only casts the Chinese smartphone manufacturer’s future business into huge doubt, but also could have wide-ranging implications for the worldwide future of the phone market.
After Trump placed Huawei on the ‘entity list’, limiting the business US brands could do with Huawei, Google has been forced to restrict access to the Google Play Store, which means users in the future won’t be able to gain access to popular titles, nor speedy security updates to the Android OS.
In short, Huawei will no longer be able to offer access to crucial Google apps, and will be severely limited in how quickly it can give users access to the latest version of Android, and the new features and security updates that offers.
What does that mean if I have a Huawei phone?
We’re still fully dissecting the news, but perhaps the most useful piece of information is Google's first statement that was issued to TechRadar:
“We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications. For users of our services, Google Play and the security protections from Google Play Protect will continue to function on existing Huawei devices,” a spokesperson told us.
However, there is one nugget of good news if you’ve just spent large amounts of money on a Huawei P30 Pro: as alluded to above, current devices from the Chinese brand will continue to get security updates and access to the Google Play Store for the foreseeable future, as Google has promised not to leave those out in the cold.
Huawei has also told us that it will continue to do all it can to support all phones currently out in the wild, and is looking at other implications:
“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 benefited 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.”
That doesn’t mean that you’re in a wonderful place if you’re a current Huawei owner though – how long this support will last is, as yet, unclear, and is unlikely to continue for years to come.
While most brands will only honor security updates for two to three years after launch, one might expect this to be much shorter given these new restrictions from Google.
Will future Huawei phones still use Android?
The move from Google means that it won’t be working with Huawei directly on issuing updates to its system, nor give them access to the Google Play Store. This is a potentially critical blow to the brand that only recently spoke out about plans to be the world's largest smartphone manufacturer.
This means if Huawei wants to keep using the Android operating system, it will need to use the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP), which is a free platform that any brand can use as an underlying foundation for its products.
However, there won’t be access to the core apps like YouTube, Google Maps and Chrome, nor the Google Play Store – these are core business elements from Google that it is not duty bound to offer to anyone, and in ceasing working with Huawei, these elements will be off limits.
Without access to the Google Play Store, Huawei would be forced to work with developers to get them to directly create versions of their wares for its phones. This is similar to Amazon’s Fire OS, which is based on the AOSP but has its own app store, as the retail giant seeks to control the platform its Fire tablets and Echo devices run on.
If Huawei is forced to use AOSP, it could be devastating in its consequences as access to a fully-stocked app store is crucial to the success of any modern smartphone – Nokia and Microsoft failed to make Windows Phones a viable alternative to Android and Apple’s iOS even though the brands poured millions into developer tools and enticing the top app creators onto their platform.
However, Huawei has claimed that it has been developing its own alternative to Google’s Android for nearly seven years, calling it a ‘Plan B’ that’s ready to go should it lose access to the services listed above.
In the latest statement to TechRadar, Huawei said “We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally,” which sounds like it already wants to start some positive hype around its alternative OS.
How this would work is currently unclear, as Huawei also said it would rather continue working with brands like Google and Microsoft on Android and Windows to offer the best experience.
It does seem unlikely that the Chinese brand would have developed strong and usable alternatives to all the top Android apps for the next round of its smartphones.
If Huawei loses access to the Google Play Store, it would take an enormous amount of investment to attract developers to create viable app options to keep smartphone users happy – one would have to seriously wonder if the brand would continue making phones at all when facing that kind of hurdle.
The same would also apply to Honor, the sub-brand of Huawei phones, in the future. The manufacturer might have tried to distance itself from the parent company, but it’s been confirmed that it will be subject to the same sanctions.
However, the launch of that brand’s Honor 20 smartphone is still going ahead – so it’s clear that devices currently created and in the supply chain are still going to be supported on the Android ecosystem.
What about other brands? What does this mean for the wider smartphone world?
While these sanctions don’t currently affect other brands, the message being sent is wide-ranging: politics can hugely affect one of the most crucial devices for billions of people.
While there’s currently no issue with brands headquartered in other parts of the world, a similar sanction could see other smartphone manufacturers forced into a costly rethink.
A few years ago Samsung seriously threatened a breakaway move from Google’s Android operating system as it felt the search brand had too much control over the operating system on Galaxy smartphones.
(It’s worth noting that while Samsung did release smartphones based on Tizen, they were budget models and didn’t come anywhere close to the success of its Galaxy range).
The beneficiary here could be Apple – Trump has long advocated for the brand to move its operations from China to the US, and exempted Apple from the trade tariffs imposed on China previously so the brand wouldn’t have to raise its prices.
Huawei has been a thorn in Apple’s side of late, the rise of the Chinese brand seeing it usurp the Cupertino smartphone maker in the worldwide rankings – it’s a real competitor in the premium smartphone space and Trump clearly wants to see the American brand do more business in the US.
However, moving the operations from China would be incredibly costly for Apple, and it would still need to source many components from Asia to build future iPhones, so it’s unclear how much of an effect a move would truly have.
Losing Huawei from the smartphone world may also have a wider impact on the smartphones other vendors are pushing out. The Chinese brand’s aggressive development of new technological capabilities has forced rivals to significantly improve their devices and push out new advancements of their own. Losing this would slow the rate of development.
Huawei’s smartphone camera prowess has arguably kickstarted a race to include ever-greater sharpness, richness and quality in smartphone snappers in the last two years – the quality of pictures one can take on a premium smartphones has improved dramatically as the P series from Huawei has relentlessly pushed the boundaries of what’s possible.
The brand is also in a race with Samsung to bring out the first widespread foldable phone – the Huawei Mate X’s mere presence has surely forced the South Korean brand to speed up its creation of a bending handset, meaning consumers get access to the technology earlier (although Samsung probably would have rather waited to deliver the Galaxy Fold…).
So is it all over for Huawei?
There is a glimmer of hope for Huawei’s continued use of Android and the capabilities that offers.
The US Commerce Department recently issued a 90 day rollback of the trade restrictions imposed on Huawei to allow American networks to still buy important equipment to maintain infrastructure – in essence admitting that the restrictions would have deep implications for current operations and would need to be assessed on an ongoing basis.
Google has also confirmed it is ‘reviewing’ the situation and implications the sanctions are imposing – it doesn’t want to limit the reach of its Android ecosystem, and US brands like Qualcomm are going to be severely impacted by Huawei restrictions, so will likely lobby to have this decision re-examined.
However, if Google is forced to cut off Huawei from future Android security updates and access to the Play Store, then it could not only make things difficult for Huawei but cause consumers to view any Chinese brand with suspicion – given the proliferation and technological prowess of these new phones, that would also have a huge impact on the industry.
While this move seems to only affect Huawei, it’s going to have a knock-on effect for the entire industry and will most likely affect the next smartphone you buy – and could even mean the rise of a new mobile operating system too.