As anticipated, three days after Huawei launched its new flagship smartphone—the Mate 30 Series—almost all the analysis is still focusing on the implications of Google’s software and services missing from the device. And so, the undercurrent that is now intensifying is the fight Huawei has taken on with Google to pull users away from full-fat Android, unless and until the bigger war with Washington ends and something akin to business as usual is restored—assuming by then it’s not too late.
The facts are more straightforward than the analysis might suggest. Most U.S. apps—even the likes of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram—will be available to install from other app stores. But Google’s core services and software, including Gmail, YouTube and Google Maps, won’t be available unless its core Play Services are also installed. And that means users unlocking the bootloader on their devices—not an option likely to appeal beyond a handful of experts users, even if Huawei change its policy and makes this an option, despite acknowledged security concerns.
Although Huawei has also now launched its own operating system, dubbed HarmonyOS, it’s not ready for smartphones. Right now, HarmonyOS is limited to IoT devices, and its first appearance will be in Smart TVs. The Mate 30 will launch with an unlicensed AOSP operating system—Android without Google onboard, sitting under Huawei’s EMUI 10 skin. In owning the front-end, Huawei can shift the inner workings to HarmonyOS later, when it’s ready, without a sea change to the user experience.
Huawei already has its AppGallery alternative to Google’s Play Store, which had been available in China only but was extended last year and is now standard across its devices. Clearly, this now becomes critical as its app delivery and billing ecosystem becomes a central pillar to its future.
Huawei has been straight with the media, that while the short-term pain might stem from the loss of the tried and tested Android ecosystem for its users outside China—it’s not available in China, the much more critical challenge is replicating the Android ecosystem of apps and developers. And this is an area that Huawei has public stated it will now pile $1 billion plus of ring-fenced investment and will add an incentive, cutting in half the revenue share demanded by Google and Apple.
With this in mind, some of what’s planned might now be taking shape. The team at Dutch website LetsGoDigital has discovered Huawei trademark applications for “Harmony Studio,” which it says is likely “a central place to further shape HarmonyOS, where knowledge can be shared and software can be developed.”
According to LetsGoDigital, Huawei “is committed to developing Harmony Studio to further shape its new operating system,” and has registered the name “Harmony Studio” with Argentina’s INPI and with the European Union Intellectual Property Office. The application sits within “Class 42,” that covers software design and website creation, amongst other things.
LetsGoDigital cited an interview published in Japan with senior Huawei exec Kevin Ho, confirming Huawei’s “full commitment” to the HMS (Huawei Mobile Services) alternative to GMS (Google Mobile Services), and emphasising the open nature of Huawei’s approach, again implying that the plan is to create an alternative ecosystem rather than a tactical fix. The objective, Ho explained, is “to offer user-friendly phones through collaboration with developers, is more essential than ever.”
In his interview, Ho “acknowledged the challenge” associated with the shift from Google Mobile Services, and “avoided statements about which apps are currently compatible with HMS.” According to the ACSII.JP report, Ho “also mentioned that the transition from GMS to HMS for users is not something that can be done right away, but will be step-by-step,” reiterating Richard Yu’s promise to support developers with “$1 billion for new product launches,” promising that “by the time [the new Mate 30] hits the market, consumers will have satisfactory apps.”
Ho admitted that “Huawei’s application ecosystem is still small, and I want to continue working with developers so that HMS will be the reason for choosing our smartphone in the future.” But the president of the company’s handset division also insisted that (for now) Huawei’s independence under HMS will remain atop AOSP, denying that a “complete withdrawal from Android” would happen any time soon.
No further detail yet, but, as I’ve commented before, Huawei has the reach and resources to try to build an alternative to the Android and iOS ecosystems. It can rely on strong support from the Chinese government and its massive domestic market. And it will pull other key markets—like Russia first and foremost—away from U.S. controlled tech relatively easily. The use of price—for example cutting revenue share—is consistent with how it has effectively built market share in the past.
The prize for Huawei over the next decade if it can build out a successful HarmonyOS ecosystem is huge. Not only does this deliver independence, but it also puts Huawei in control of the “third way,” the first major shake-up of the smartphone ecosystem in more than a decade. If the company takes a broad view, playing licensor rather that product owner, then it will pull other device manufacturers into the mix—starting with its Chinese stablemates—reinforcing the appeal to developers.
All of which would be bad news for Washington and California.