It’s just over a year ago that the United States government banned American companies from supplying technology to Huawei. At that stage, Huawei had overtaken Apple as the world’s number two smartphone maker, and had its sights firmly set on Samsung’s leadership position.
But the ban meant no more Google, no more Play Store, and no more Gmail built into the phone. Many predicted Huawei’s demise as a force in smartphones.
Memories are short, though. Twelve years ago, Android was non-existent as a mobile operating system (OS). By the middle of 2009, it had a mere 2.8% share of world smartphone shipments, behind the miserable Windows Mobile. Of course, it quickly shot ahead, and within another two years was challenging the all-powerful BlackBerry OS. Does anyone remember when that was not just a thing, but the only thing?
In the following decade, both BlackBerry and Windows Mobile vanished, leaving the mobile OS world to Android and Apple’s iOS. But history has taught us that market domination does not last. Sometimes, something better comes along. Sometimes, the incumbents shoot themselves in the foot.
The US ban on Huawei accessing Google software was more like the authorities shooting both players in the feet. It instantly robbed Android of access to a brand that held between 15% and 20% of global smartphone market share, and curtailed Huawei’s rapid global growth.
But one significant factor escaped the attention of the doomsayers: Huawei had been preparing for that moment since 2012, around the time Android was killing BlackBerry. That’s when the Chinese company began working on Huawei Mobile Services (HMS), an alternative to Google Mobile Services (GMS), a collection of apps and application program interfaces that underpin the functionality of apps from the Google Play Store.
HMS can replicate some of this functionality, thanks to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), a global initiative that cannot be controlled by the US government. AOSP “provides common, device-level functionalities such as email and calling”, according to Google. But it does not provide GMS.
HMS includes an AppGallery, which has been available on Huawei phone for several years, has continually been evolving, and now includes more than 45,000 apps. Without GMS, the Google Play Store can’t run on a device. But with HMS, a new ecosystem emerges into the world of the smartphone OS. The question is, can it be a viable alternative?
It is important to understand the context of smartphone OS history to answer the question. That context reminds us to evaluate the new ecosystem on its own merits, and not only in comparison to its predecessor. So let’s get the elephant out of the room: it doesn’t have the Gmail, Google Maps, Chrome or YouTube apps.
That tends to cover the Google-only apps used by the vast majority of Android phone owners. The question then becomes, are there viable alternatives? Every week, the answer becomes more affirmative.
Maps and Chrome are the most easily bypassed. On a handset, Chrome is not significantly better than the default browser built into the phone, and alternatives like Opera Mini are available in the AppGallery. Here WeGo, originally developed by Nokia and now owned by a consortium of German carmakers, is also available, along with Waze, hands-down the best navigation and traffic app on the market. YouTube is still available via any browser, often with better functionality than in the dedicated app.
That leaves Gmail. At launch, the P40 Pro needed a workaround to use it, as it did for many common functions. A few months later, however, the integration of Gmail accounts with the onboard email client appears seamless. Google Calendar also works smoothly on the built-in app.
Most non-Google apps that were originally not available in the AppGallery can be copied across from other handsets using a Huawei tool called Phone Clone. These include Microsoft apps, Facebook and WhatsApp. In many cases, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, apps can be downloaded directly from the creators’ websites.
However, such “side-loading” is diminishing in importance with each month as more apps are added to the Huawei AppGallery. Due to Huawei’s massive popularity in South Africa, the company embarked on a mission to have the most used local apps adapted to the AppGallery. These include Takealot, Pick ‘n Pay, major news sites and the major banks. FNB is still conspicuous by its absence, but works perfectly via Phone Clone.
In one department, the AppGallery may have an edge over the Play Store. Huawei says it “has employed the use of advanced security features to protect your data and privacy” by using “a four-layer detection mechanism, as well as a post-release app inspection and a mechanism for user feedback”.
The detection process includes security vulnerability scanning, privacy check, malicious behaviour detection, and a manual, real-name security check to ensure apps being downloaded from the AppGallery are secure through the entire process. It took Google almost a decade to add such protection to its Play Store, and it is still lacking in the extent to which it allows app developers to request blanket permissions.
And then there is the ease of use. The P40 Pro uses Huawei’s operating system experience, EMUI, which functions as a skin over Android. In the new version 10.1, it offers quick and intuitive usability, a clean and clear design, and excellent readability. It includes Multi-screen Collaboration, to allow workflow and multi-screen control between Windows and Android systems. It also allows voice and video calls to be made directly on a PC linked to the phone, which in turn can mirror software running on the PC. In other words, it has been designed as a partnering device, rather than a stand-alone handset.
In short, there is a world beyond Android and iOS. And Google may soon be learning from Huawei.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee