August 20 update below. This post was first published on August 18, 2020.
Huawei smartphone owners with full Google services on their handsets have, until now, escaped any issues stemming from the U.S. Government putting Huawei on its Entity List. This list prevents American companies providing hardware and software to the Chinese brand, something which includes Google.
However, until last week, a series of Temporary General Licenses have meant that phones like the Huawei P30 Pro, which has just been re-issued in improved form and in cool new colors, were safe, receiving all Google software updates and security updates just as easily as any other Android phone maker.
August 20 update. Huawei, it seems, isn’t hanging around just hoping the U.S. Government will change its mind and let it have access to Google Mobile Services again, as deftly reported by Forbes Contributor Zak Doffman. And now, further evidence comes from a report in the Global Times, spotted by Huawei Central, saying that Huawei is accelerating the launch of smartphones using its own Harmony OS instead of Android, that is, not even basic open-source Android.
Last year, Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s Business Group which manages its smartphones division, told me that it could introduce Harmony OS on to its phones very quickly indeed, in a matter of hours, if it wanted to. At that time, it hoped things would change between Huawei and Trump.
Now, though, it seems the next stage is coming fast. Tthe Global Times article reads, “Huawei has been developing its own version of an operating system (EMUI) based on the Android system since the launch of Mate 20, with its basic structures evolving to be drastically different from those of Google. As the system is not dependent on Android, it is not a big deal whether Huawei devices receive updates or not.” That’s according to Ma Jihua, a veteran industry analyst and close follower of Huawei, according to the Global Times.
The article goes on to quote Ma as saying that the first phone running on Harmony OS could be as soon as the end of this year.
Will this include the next big release, the Huawei Mate 40 Series?
We don’t know, but what is clear is that at the top level, customers won’t see any difference. As Richard Yu also told me last year, because of the EMUI overlay which can sit as happily on top of Harmony OS as on Android, so it will look the same – at least until you start looking for Google Maps and so on.
The latest news is that the company’s access to electronic components has been further limited, so future phones will have to be built in different ways. Just as importantly, the Temporary General Licenses have not been renewed, as reported by Forbes contributor Zak Doffman. Details of exactly what these developments will mean are only just beginning to be clear.
Right now, though, what should you do if your phone is a Huawei?
1. Don’t panic.
Your phone is not suddenly going to stop working. So far, nothing has changed. In some ways, the effect is similar to when Google stops supporting an earlier OS: it’ll work perfectly well, thank you very much, but it probably won’t get the next update coming down the pipe. Actually, it’s better than that, because as well as Google Mobile Services (GMS) on your phone – that means things like Gmail, Google Maps and the Google Play Store – there’s open-source Android, which is what is used on the latest Huawei phones which lack GMS. That underlying version of Android will continue to be updated
Again, at this stage, things are unclear, but the worst-case scenario seems to be that your phone will stick with the version of Google Mobile Services that it currently does. Google Maps, for instance, will not receive further updates but will work as it is now.
2. You’re still secure.
Huawei has repeatedly said it will ensure that the open-source Android on the phone will be secure now and in the future. Security updates, as opposed to OS updates, can be pushed out easily enough for the phones and I don’t think this is an issue to worry about.
3. Everything will look the same.
Well, almost. Huawei phones, whether they have Google Mobile Services or not, have the company’s own EMUI overlay which sits on top of Android. It means that the interface won’t change at all, even if GMS is removed. The almost refers to those apps which need GMS to work, like Gmail, YouTube, Play Store and Google Maps. They will look different because they won’t be updated.
4. There are alternatives.
If you haven’t tried them, the apps available to Huawei phone users which aren’t GMS can be pretty sustaining. Here WeGo Maps is a tremendous navigation app, with some features which even Google Maps can’t match. For instance, you can save money abroad on roaming charges by using the mapping app offline, downloading whole country maps in advance. These offline maps are searchable but don’t have current traffic information, for instance.
And Huawei is working on its own mapping service in conjunction with TomTom. Huawei is probably the only company other than Apple to have the resources to invest in a mapping app that could challenge Google Maps.
In recent days, Huawei has announced more apps which will appear in Huawei’s AppGallery, the company’s equivalent of the Google Play Store. Most notable of the new arrivals was Curve, the financial app – you can read more about that and other newcomers here.
5. The AppGallery is growing fast.
Sure, the store is still tiny compared to the Google Play Store but, at 81,000 apps, it has a decent range, even if it lacks many big-name apps just now. As this changes, however, the focus of users may shift to the AppGallery which, after all, is pre-installed on every Huawei phone.
When the day comes that you want to trade up from your current phone, the next cutting-edge hardware from Huawei, almost certainly, will not have GMS on board, so the brave new world of Huawei-compatible apps will await you. With each day, that change seems to be getting just a little easier – though it’s still not smooth enough a change for many.
6. One day, a post-Android world?
Huawei has been consistent in saying it wants to use Android as its phone operating system. But it has its own OS, Harmony, waiting in the wings. Already used on some other product categories, Huawei could introduce it on its phones one day, if Android proves too ticklish to use.
That’s some time off, and Huawei would only do it, I think, if it had a critical mass of apps it could offer including many of everybody’s favorites. Mind you, Huawei says Harmony is faster and more efficient than Android so it’s possible that it could one day prove a genuine alternative to Google’s OS. And, thanks to that EMUI overlay, it’ll still look the same. We’re not there yet, though.
In the meantime, as things become clearer, check back for more details of what the new changes will mean for the company.