Huawei could survive without Android, but it wouldn't be pretty

Commentary: Huawei could still make phones without Google's help -- in theory.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Editorial Director, Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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The US government may have banned Huawei from using any software or hardware created by American companies, but China's massive phone maker is defiant that the lack of American partner support won't break the brand, even if its traditionally Android-based devices are cut off from Android while Google cuts off business ties following President Trump's executive order.

No stranger to tension with the US government, Huawei has proven that it doesn't need US carriers in order to grow its business. Huawei is the world's largest supplier of networking equipment and the second-largest phone brand. The tech giant has reportedly been working on its own operating system as an alternative to Android software (and its own Huawei app store) in case relations with US companies go south. 

And going south it is. Just today, Huawei was suspended from the Wi-Fi Alliance and removed from the SD Association, which set guidelines on the SD memory cards used in phones and other devices.

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"Our company will not end up with an extreme supply shortage. We have got well prepared," Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei said to Chinese journalists this week. "At the beginning of this year, I predicted that something like this would occur. ... We thought we would have two years to make preparations. But when [Huawei CFO] Meng Wanzhou was arrested, it sparked everything off."

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This isn't surprising. Huawei has been in the US government's crosshairs for years, a de facto ban in 2012 (some might call it a strong urging) effectively keeping Huawei phones from US carriers despite previous relationships there.

But one look at the current smartphone market reveals how the company could fail if it tries to go it alone. Android and iOS form a duopoly, with 86% of all the world's phones running on Android, according to IDC, about 14% running on iPhone's iOS, and 0% running on any other platform.

The days when three, four and even five mobile operating systems fought for dominance are far behind us, and the last holdouts -- Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS and WebOS -- have long since crumpled or converted to Android.

Even rival Samsung , which poured money into its own open-source Tizen operating system (which you see on Samsung smartwatches like the Galaxy Watch Active ), couldn't make a meaningful dent. Huawei's chances of creating a third OS will be most successful in its home country of China, where it sells 50% of 60% of its total phones (estimates vary by source).

However, in markets outside of China, like Europe, Australia, the Middle East and Latin America, an OS that doesn't fully support Android means that customers would have to say goodbye to mainstay services like Gmail, Google Maps and Google Assistant.

"The operating system is less of an immediate problem to Huawei than the absence of Google applications," said Ben Wood, chief or research at CCS Insight, in a report on the situation. "There is no doubt that Huawei needs access to the full range of Google apps and services, which are essential to success in Western markets."

Temporarily loosened restrictions mean that Huawei and Google can still work together to keep current Huawei Android phones like the Huawei P30 Pro supplied with security updates and Google's Android services through Aug. 19, but losing Google's Android support for future phones could spell disaster for Huawei's business and impact the global smartphone market as a whole.

"We expect trade wars threaten a potential 5% decline in global mobile phone shipments in 2019," Wood said.

Read: Everything you need to know about the Huawei controversy

Huawei doesn't need Android, but the alternatives wouldn't be easy

Huawei phones in China already operate without Google apps and services, though Android lays the foundation. Google search and other software services are blocked in China. Even on Android-based phones there, Google Play Services and other apps won't work. 

That means Huawei phones in its home market already use alternative apps and software for maps, mail and videos -- there's no Google Maps, Google Search, Google Assistant, Gmail or YouTube. Security services like Google Play Protect and software that synchronizes contacts and offline services also get the ouster.

Even on Huawei and Honor phones that do sell outside China, Huawei, like many brands, uses a house-made UI. In Huawei's case, the Emotion UI (EMUI) lays out icons across home screens, making the software interface look more like iOS than Android in some respects.

If these devices already operate under their own set of rules, it's easy to see how Huawei could rip off the Band-Aid and go it alone. Ren said that Huawei has between 80,000 and 90,000 R&D engineers across the company, some of which are preparing for "Plan B" or, as the CEO called them, "spare tires."

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"I am not sure consumers want a third OS," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "It certainly would not help in the US but it could make a difference in Europe as long as they get developers to port and they still can get Google services, which I think is the trickiest part."

Even if Huawei were to go forward, a Huawei OS is "far from ready," The Information reported. The internal software project "has had its ups and downs and remains far from ready," sources told the publication.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Huawei had received the trademark "Hongmeng" for its OS from the Chinese National Intellectual Property Administration, after working on it under the internal code name "Project Z."

Still, it's unlikely Huawei would have an immediate replacement if the US government's ban continues against future phones.

What about foldable phones?

Google support also has a hand in foldable phones. Huawei didn't announce which operating system it uses on the foldable Mate X that's slated for a summer release, but Google has been working closely with foldable phone makers, supplying software that helps apps move quickly from a smaller screen orientation to the larger screen, when unfolded, and back again. 

It isn't clear if being cut off from Google would delay Huawei's ability to compete with Samsung on this next front of smartphone competition.

Samsung declined to comment.

The open-source option doesn't solve Huawei's app problem

Huawei could of course continue to base phones on Android even without Google's active partnership. AOSP, the Android Open Source Project, is free code for anyone to use. But going this route would put Huawei months behind. By losing early access to new OS builds like Android Q, regular security patches and technical support.

Remember that the US Commerce Department scaled back some restrictions to allow Android support for existing Huawei and Honor brand phones. It's those future phones -- like the Huawei Mate 30 or P40 Pro -- that hang in the balance here.

"There are workarounds for those international markets but none that are attractive since Google services are so ubiquitous," said Wayne Lam, principal analyst at IHS Markit. "One thought is that Huawei can leave the boot loader unlocked and provide tools for point of sales person/techs to re-flashing of the ROM to circumvent the Google brand, but that has challenges on its own."


The Huawei P30 Pro has stronger camera tools than Samsung's Galaxy S10 Plus.

Angela Lang/CNET

If global buyers of future Huawei phones would have to side-load apps and games from US companies rather than download them directly from any app store, even Huawei's, there's little doubt that would turn off customers who ultimately left Windows Phone and BlackBerry OS because they couldn't supply the apps and services that Android and iOS could.

"There are so many hoops to jump and so much uncertainty for a consumer who, at the end of the day, has alternatives," Milanesi said.

It's likely that without Google's app store and services, Huawei customers outside of China would move on.

Read: Huawei's troubles are good for Samsung

Will we even get to this point?

There's a chance China and the US government will resolve the issue before it comes to a head. President Trump has already said he'd consider using Huawei as leverage in a trade deal with China, which means that Huawei could be allowed to reunite with its old business pals.

The US government has already softened its stance to protect consumers who own Huawei phones. Chinese brand ZTE was similarly cut off from its US suppliers in 2018, only to get bailed out by Trump in a tweet when its business ground to a halt.

"The objective of the Trump administration is to exact concessions from China on trade -- especially their handling of IP," Lam said. "Whether or not the Trump administration can pull this off is suspect but given that next year is an election year, I would anticipate this trade conflict to be resolved within the near future."

"Huawei is doubtless hoping for a speedy return to business as usual," Wood said.

Huawei didn't comment for this story.

Originally posted May 23 at 9:28 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:29 p.m. PT: Adds that Huawei and Samsung declined to comment.
Update May 24 at 6:21 a.m. PT: Adds report about the Hongmeng trademark.
Update, May 24 at 11:24 a.m. PT: Adds report about being removed from the Wi-Fi Alliance and SD Association.
Update, May 25 at 4 a.m. PT: Adds report about leverage in the China trade deal.