In recent years, the smartphone industry had grown a little stale. Apple seemed to be holding back their best tech to launch slightly upgraded phones every year. Samsung was pushing the envelope a little further but they only ever really needed to offer enough to be ahead of Apple’s iPhone. Sony was the next in line without ever really challenging before the likes of Nokia, HTC and even Google entering the market left us all feeling underwhelmed.
Huawei brought something new to the table. Their hardware was market leading with the Huawei P20 Pro revolutionising smartphone photography and this phone’s success shone new light on the Chinese manufacturer as a world-leading phone maker as the company became the second-biggest shipper of phones.
Involuntarily, Huawei has also made discussion about smartphones exciting again, a result of the U.S. trade war with China and the knock-on effect this has had on Huawei’s ability to utilise Google Apps.
However, following the Barcelona launch of the Huawei Mate Xs and with the P40 Series launching in March this year, Huawei has started to control the narrative and tell the story they want to tell. That story is one of ambition, enthusiasm and desire to shake up the mobile telecoms industry. And it seems to be working.
The Proxy War: Huawei versus Google
Few could have predicted Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States. Even fewer could see this eventually impacting the sales of smartphones in the way Trump’s time in office has. While Google is often singled out as being the villain in Huawei’s tale, the truth is they are another bystander being caught in the crossfire. Whether it be personal or founded in some sort of intelligence, Trump doesn’t trust China. Or, maybe he does and this is all just a business play. Regardless, Trump has decided that he would publically display his stance on China through his treatment of Huawei.
The U.S. President passed an executive order which forbids U.S-based companies from supplying Huawei with products and services unless they were granted a special licence. Without this licence, Google was no longer able to provide Huawei with access to Google Mobile Services. As a result, Huawei could no longer sell phones with GMS installed. For consumers this meant no Gmail, Google Maps or Google Play Store, to name but a few. The Huawei P30 Series launched without a hitch, but the Mate 30 Series and Huawei’s first folding phone, the Mate X, were stalled because of the inability to sell these phones with Google Mobile Services.
That’s the long and the short of the debate to date. Google and Huawei have become proxies for the United States and China. The result is consumer confidence in Huawei was shaken as people were uncertain as to when they would be able to buy a Huawei phone with Google Mobile Services again.
With this comes the lens this entire debate has been looked at through since the very start. Many believed the secret to Huawei’s future success was intertwined with their ability to, somehow, get Google Mobile Services back on Huawei phones. We were all looking at this from the wrong angle.
The Best Form of Defense is Attack
I’m from Kilkenny. In Kilkenny we love hurling. From a young age, you learn that the best form of defence is attack. Rather than sitting back to see what your opposition will do next, you take back control and decide for yourself. This is the approach Huawei has adopted.
For Huawei, there was only one thing worse than losing access to Google Mobile Services and that’s the uncertainty that brought with it. Question marks surrounded the future of Huawei in Europe, would we see a P40 Series launch here at all or would Huawei simply focus on the Chinese market which never required Google Mobile Services anyway.
Instead of sitting back and waiting for Trump’s mercy to allow them access to Google’s Mobile Services platform, Huawei gave their own platform, Huawei Mobile Services, a gentle nudge out into the water.
Huawei would need to develop this idea further. I sat in Barcelona at Huawei’s latest launch event and watched their CEO, Richard Yu, launch the latest suite of products Huawei would bring to market. I’m a gadget nerd, so this is normally my favourite part of the show. Not this time as one very different slide stood out to me as being a definite line in the sand being drawn.
This image showed Huawei’s plans had far surpassed using Huawei Mobile Services as a backup plan. No longer was the strategy to develop a safety net for Google not being available on Huawei phones. Instead, the strategy was, in Richard Yu’s words, to offer consumers an alternative to Apple and Google. The plan was now to defend Huawei’s position in the market by attacking and creating a genuine alternative to the American options of Apple and Google.
But, can they really do it?
Huawei Mobile Services: Can It Work?
The natural comparison many draws here is Microsoft’s Windows Phone. Ultimately, despite a few reasonably impressive phones, Windows Phone was a failure. You could argue that it set the scene for a continued duopoly between Applen and Google when it came to smartphone operating systems. While not necessarily by choice, Huawei has now found itself as challenging more than just manufacturers for market share, but challenging operating systems and their app platforms for dominance.
In a relatively short period of time, Huawei Mobile Services has gathered momentum. While clearly in the early stages of rollout, it became quite clear that the Chinese tech giant was going to back HMS with the funds needed to push beyond simply floating. Incentives to developers and increased efficiency in getting apps ported for the new Huawei AppGallery has seen the Huawei platform swell considerably in a very short period of time. It’s impossible to ignore that plenty of apps are still missing but Huawei is targeting the top 100 apps in every region and incentivising them to move onto HMS.
While many have discussed the option of sideloading Google Mobile Services, officially speaking, Google has denounced this and recommended against sideloading for what it’s calling security reasons. It’s also hardly a consumer-friendly process but the truth of the matter is that Huawei doesn’t envisage a future where you need to sideload Google Mobile Services either. The plan is now to develop Huawei Mobile Services to the point where it matches or betters the Google equivalent.
Huawei will likely depend on consumers geared more towards early adopters in the short term, but in one to two years, HMS could rival GMS to the point where users really aren’t all that bothered. These consumers can once again return to focusing on hardware.
What advantage does Huawei have when it comes to challenging this tech duopoly of Google and Apple?
It comes down to China.
Success With China at the Core
Many believe Huawei burst onto the scene with the P20 Pro a few years back, but the truth is that the company has been around for quite some time. The P20 Series was the first major success in markets like the EU but Huawei has been huge in China for a long time. In fact, in China, Huawei holds a grasp over 36% of the Chinese market which doesn’t need Google Mobile Services. This is the key to Huawei’s potential success. Microsoft was learning too much when it came to hardware and software in a market they were far from familiar with.
Huawei, on the other hand, is working towards building an eco-system which could potentially rival Apple’s. At the centre of this eco-system is the smartphone and at the heart of that smartphone is Huawei Mobile Services.
Will users need to be patient? Almost certainly. For example, I love Google Pay but despite confirming to me in Barcelona that Huawei Pay would be expanded beyond China, Hong Kong and Russia, Richard Yu also stated he couldn’t be sure if this would happen in 2020 or 2021. The big point here is that Huawei owns a large proportion of a market which doesn’t or can’t have Google. Now they need to port that to wider markets. This is much lesser of a challenge than what Microsoft faced.
Huawei and Ireland: It Means Even More
Now, if you think I’m biased for whatever reason, I can tell you I’m not. But I won’t shy away from saying I like Huawei. Their hardware is fantastic and in recent years I believe Samsung has started to up their game to try and keep up with the Chinese smartphone maker. Also, Huawei is laying it on thick when it comes to local markets. Speaking at a press conference in Barcelona, Richard Yu explained that becoming a part of local society where Huawei existed as an option for consumers was key.
In Ireland, Huawei has founded a research and development centre and now even runs its entire cloud business out of Dublin. Last year, the StorySign campaign saw localised engagement with hearing-impaired children. This campaign brought the power of mobile processing, Irish Sign Language and Irish children’s books together to help give children with hearing impairments a better reading experience.
Huawei’s further commitment to HMS suggests their going nowhere and as a result, there could be exciting times ahead for the Irish market hosting a Chinese tech giant who is moving quickly to not only survive but to excel.
Is Google Worried?
I’ve been reading plenty of headlines and articles which suggest Google may regret what’s happened here. It’s a touch harsh because I don’t believe much blame lies at the feet of Google at all. However, this could have very serious implications for Google. Let’s not forget, that Huawei will use the Android system and shows no sign of bringing forward their own operating system – but they probably could.
Huawei’s advances with HMS to replace GMS is a massive shot across the bow of Google. No doubt, it’s shown that Huawei will no longer take a back seat in this journey and see what happens. They’re in the driving seat now and Google seems to be a little bit worried.
In what looks like a reactive move from Google following the Barcelona slide showing Huawei AppGallery as competition, Google has resubmitted a request a license from the U.S government to be allowed to do business with Huawei again. Huawei has already received similar licenses such as those granted to Microsoft last year which allowed the continued production and expansion of the MateBook series.
The result of this request from Google is still absolutely up in the air, but it’s left me wondering if this has already gone too far to come back from?
Will Huawei Use Google Mobile Services Again?
There’s a phrase I heard years ago and it’s stuck with me. “Never build your house on rented land”.
Never build your house on rented land
This can absolutely be applied to Huawei. In the past, they focused on the hardware while allowing Google to worry about the vast majority of the software. Effectively, Huawei had built their house on rented land. As a result, the land was sold from underneath them when the U.S. government insisted Google stop working with the Chinese phone maker.
A lot is going to happen in 2020. Huawei will launch the Mate Xs and the P40 Series. These phones will be launched without Google Mobile Services, instead opting for Huawei Mobile Services.
Huawei has also teamed up with the Dutch mapping company TomTom so it can offer a credible alternative to the much loved Google Maps. We could see the first Huawei Maps app being launched with the Huawei P40 Series. Actually, the P40 Series could see a lot of Huawei announcements. The very fact Huawei is now knuckling down and preparing to launch their popular flagship with just HMS on-board certainly suggests one thing. There’s no going back to the uncertainty of Google Mobile Services.
If Huawei is successful in building a credible alternative to Google, the telecoms market will see the greatest seismic shift, arguably, since the touchscreen smartphone appeared on shelves. I said it’s time to reframe this discussion and that could be that we’re looking at a future where Google doesn’t have Huawei and not Huawei without Google.
Whatever happens, we’re going to be in for one hell of a ride. Smartphone news just got fun again.