The trade ban is shining a light on Google’s stranglehold over Android. With Huawei pledging $1 billion to development, its plan could upend how Android works
Huawei has stopped sidestepping the unavoidable question – no Google, what next? After suggesting it could (eventually) make its own smartphone operating system, built on Harmony OS in 2019, Huawei is now unequivocal – for the foreseeable future, it’s all in with its Google Mobile Services (GMS) free version of Android.
The long term partnership with Google saw Huawei launch the jewel in its crown, the P30 Pro, which, a year on, is still an easy phone to recommend. But, there’s a big question mark over its more recent, arguably better-specced devices like the Mate 30 Pro and upcoming Huawei Mate Xs, given the fact they don’t support essential features like access to the Google Play Store.
Rather than serve as an indictment on Huawei’s inability to step up and deliver an alternative within months, however, this is part of a much bigger question. Is Android really open source, or have developers, manufacturers and, ultimately, all of us as Android users been sleepwalking into a state of total dependence upon Google?
It’s important to note that if Google had its way, we could say with some assurance, it would keep working with Huawei. After all, this political fallout highlights just how hoodwinked the world is into thinking the Android we’ve been using is an open-source alternative to iOS.
Let’s start with a look back at Android itself. It’s 2007, and the iPhone has just changed the game. Google knows smartphones are the future, so it needs to make sure its search engine is in everyone’s pocket. Unsurprisingly, it sides with Apple – iPhones use Google search. That’s not it, though. Google also needs an assurance that if Apple turns off the tap, it will still be the mobile choice. Cue the Android Open Source Project (AOSP).
Described by Ars Technica as a Trojan Horse, Google’s mobile OS was all about adoption. A means to an end, at its core, Android started its life as a vehicle for Google’s biggest revenue driver, search, to infiltrate our lives – so to say they were giving it away is entirely accurate.
While there’s always been an AOSP version of Android, lacking specific Google apps like Gmail, its core functionality was initially totally aligned with that of the Android that Google was dishing out to its hardware partners like HTC and Samsung.
Fast forward just a few years to 2011, however, and Android has become the world’s most-used smartphone operating system. More than a means to an end now, Google recognises the opportunity, and the lock-down begins. First, Google phased out a number of its AOSP solutions – Calendar, Mail, Search. This cull made it harder for smaller manufacturers to build their own versions of Android without having to factor in additional basics.
That said, the Google Play Store, which used to be the Android Market, was never open source. So what’s all this got to do with Huawei? Isn’t the missing Play Store what’s making life so tough for its new phones? On the surface, yes. But, in reality, no.
Because part two of our brief history of Android is developer entrapment. Google understands devs. It knows how to make their workflows more straightforward, and as of 2013, developing for Android – the world’s most popular mobile (and now tablet) OS – became a no brainer.
Google has created tantalising APIs to make writing Android apps easier. Mobile payments, Text to Speech support, Cloud Storage tie-ins, location services, the list goes on. These mirror the APIs that developers used to write for iPhones, so why wouldn’t you also develop for Android?
The kicker, though, is that Google introduced the most useful and appealing of these features into its ring-fenced version of Android, not the open source AOSP. This means that while there is technically an open-source version of Android, it’s almost certainly not the Android you’re using outside mainland China.
What does all this mean for Huawei? Huawei can’t get licences to use Google’s full-fat version of Android while the trade ban rages on; that means no Google Mobile Services (GMS).
Not having the Google Play Store is a big deal, so getting apps on board will require a different process, but this is the very visible tip of the iceberg. After all, Huawei’s Phone Clone app is good at porting your old apps to your new phone. Next, you can install a third-party app store like APK Pure or the Aurora Store to manage your updates and find new apps – job done.
Huawei is also investing millions in its AppGallery, and $1 billion in development in general, with a commitment to help developers port the top 100. In the UK, at the time of writing, you’ll only find three of the top ten Play Store apps in the AppGallery: Snapchat, TikTok and Amazon Shopping. That said, as part of its pledge, Huawei is investing £20 million to developers in the UK and Ireland, with the company paying up to £20,000 to individual devs who port over their apps. With recent additions including Tinder, early signs are encouraging.
The altogether more sinister way that Google’s Android game has played out is the GMS exclusive APIs that give developers one clearly defined approach to make apps that categorically won’t work with AOSP devices.
After some time with a Mate 30 Pro, for example, I found that WhatsApp messages weren’t coming through until I woke my phone up – and I couldn’t use WhatsApp Web without first opening the app on my phone either. Sideloading Google services, I was getting instant alerts again. I’m not a dev, so, can’t say for sure, but Google’s Firebase Cloud Messaging API, which is only supported on GMS Android devices is probably the reason for this.
Sticking with WhatsApp, and if you’re like me, you’ve got a sizeable backup of your chats. Unless you have a GMS Android phone, though, you won’t be able to port your chat backups to a non-GMS phone. After all, the only way to backup WhatsApps is to upload them to the cloud with Google Drive – and Google Drive only works on GMS devices.
Onto gaming and Google Play Games is used for cloud saves. Most big titles, like Injustice 2 won’t support manual exporting of save files, so, it’s Google or nothing here. Sticking with gaming, and if you want to make an in-app purchase – buy coins or gems, you’ll likely need to use GPay, which you can’t do if you don’t have a GMS device.
Uber and Bus Checker are two other apps reliant on GMS for location and mapping information – no GMS means no Uber or out and about bus times. And even random apps like The Stoic, which reads out Stoic quotes to you, uses Google’s Text to Speech Engine, so won’t work correctly on non-GMS devices. Missing GMS could even wreck your love life, with gay dating app Grindr dependent upon it as well.
So is this all one big evil power play by Google? At this stage, it doesn’t matter. Google has an unbelievable amount of power over Android users’ mobile lives with 86.6% of the smartphone market in 2019, according to IDC estimates, and a stranglehold on how we do everything, from save games to get taxis.
In 2010, the EU ruled that bundling Internet Explorer with Windows abused Microsoft’s dominant position. This came about when Opera browser’s maker complained that it could not compete with Microsoft’s pre-installed solution. The result was a browser choice window. Maybe it’s time for a similar move in Android, making it more appealing for devs to develop for AOSP compatible devices?
Enter Huawei. After announcing the shiny, foldable Mate Xs phone-tablet hybrid this week, the CEO of Huawei’s consumer business group, Richard Yu went on to introduce the new Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) vision: offering an alternative set of APIs, open for all to develop for.
In principle, this checks out. The reality, however, is that these APIs limit development to Huawei phones only, and the incentive for devs in Europe and the US, aside from Huawei’s pot of money, just isn’t there yet. Simply put, there aren’t enough non-GMS Huawei phones and tablets outside China to make it worthwhile yet.
One possible smart move would be for Huawei to go open source with all of it – the HMS core and its AppGallery, allowing both to be installed on any Android device. This would skyrocket Huawei’s reach, and provide a viable alternative for developers who want to develop for both the west and mainland China.
Alternatively, there’s a gap for a trusted third party like Microsoft to step in. Other services can be already be used in place of GMS in some instances. Assassin’s Creed Unity, for example, links game saves to Facebook accounts rather than Google Play Games. Amazon’s apps use Here Maps, owned by Germany-based BMW, instead of Google Maps for location services. In turn, we can’t think of any reason WhatsApp couldn’t back up to Microsoft’s OneDrive, instead of (or as well as) Google Drive, which would affect all WhatsApp users for the better by giving them the choice, not just Huawei-owning WhatsAppers.
It could realistically take years to solidify its position as a viable alternative to Google, but Huawei’s already laying foundations elsewhere. Along with Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi, Huawei is taking on the Play Store, with a one-click deployment solution, announced earlier in February, for developers to create apps for their respective app stores. With those four brands controlling a total of 40 per cent of the world’s smartphone shipments in Q4 last year, with aggressive strategies to grow in Europe in particular, this in itself is a huge boon for non-GMS Android phones.
In turn, if Huawei continues to invest in a holistically open approach, and gets collaborative with (non-US) partners, going forward, it could ease off the fire fighting and get back to innovating in hardware. The result could be that we could all end up a bit less beholden to Google.