Last month it was announced that Google and other businesses that trade in the US have had to change the way they deal with Huawei. The Chinese giant has been blacklisted by the US in the latest skirmish of the ongoing trade war.
The order from the US Government essentially means the company can’t buy tech from US firms without its endorsement. There is, however, a bit of a reprieve for this until August, read on for more.
The ruling means that Huawei will only be able to use the openly available version of Android – which doesn’t include access to Google apps like Maps and YouTube, the Play Store or Google Assistant. It is developing its own version of the Android software thought to be called Oak OS (or HongMeng OS in China).
Google says it is “complying with the order and reviewing the implications” but clearly it isn’t an ideal situation for them either – it would always prefer other companies used Google apps because of the advertising revenue it makes.
So what does that mean for the Huawei device you have in your hand, and what does it mean for the one you might buy next? Let’s investigate.
What's the latest on the situation?
After the ban was announced, the Trump administration issued a three-month license that enables US companies to keep doing business with Huawei until late August.
That will enable Huawei to stockpile some components and make alternative arrangements in other areas. Reuters first reported on the license, noting it will expire on 19 August.
Since the Google situation became apparent other suppliers such as ARM, the SD Card Association, Intel, Microsoft and Qualcomm are going to have to suspend trading with the Chinese giant, so there is surely some hurried work behind the scenes trying to get partnerships signed off before August.
As Huawei can and does develop its own phone hardware, the Qualcomm partnership could be seen as less of a problem but the withdrawal of ARM cooperation is massive since all of Huawei's smartphone platforms use ARM-based designs - as do almost all smartphones and tablets everywhere.
What's unclear is whether Huawei's upcoming ARM-based Kirin 990 platform (probably set for launch at IFA 2019 in early September and destined for the Mate 30) has already been signed off. We'd have thought it would have and is possibly already in production so it has probably escaped the ban. And that could potentially see Huawei through another year of flagship phone manufacturing at least.
Intel supplies the chips for Huawei’s laptop line, a market that it was hoping to make an impression on in the UK and Europe as well. It's highly possible that Huawei will stockpile these chips ahead of August.
On 7 June it was reported by the Financial Times that Google has asked for an exemption from the Huawei ban. Google says it believes that an alternative Huawei operating system (the aforementioned Oak OS) using the open source version of Android could pose a potential security risk to the US. And, basically, Google would rather it was still in control.
On 11 June the UK phone networks wrote a letter to the UK Government asking it to clarify its position on Huawei. It's notable that Vodafone has said Huawei isn't part of its core 5G network while Three stated it was using Nokia tech for 5G.
What does it mean for existing Huawei devices?
Google and Huawei have already confirmed existing Huawei devices like the P30 Pro and Mate 20 Pro will be unaffected. Because Honor is a subsidiary of Huawei, the same implications would apply to its handsets, too.
Google is clear on this point: "For users of our services, Google Play and the security protections from Google Play Protect will continue to function on existing Huawei devices".
For Huawei users' questions regarding our steps to comply w/ the recent US government actions: We assure you while we are complying with all US gov't requirements, services like Google Play & security from Google Play Protect will keep functioning on your existing Huawei device.— Android (@Android) May 20, 2019
For its part, Huawei says it “will continue to provide security updates and after sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products covering those which have been sold or are still in stock globally.”
That much is clear. However “security updates and after sales services” does not include feature updates – so it could mean Android Q features are off the cards for existing Huawei and Honor users. And that has the potential to affect sales of current handsets over the coming months.
The temporary reprieve until 19 August enables Huawei to "provide service and support, including software updates or patches, to existing Huawei handsets" that were available to the public on or before 16 May. This basically means Huawei can continue to trade in the US for these purposes. The license also extends to Huawei's networking equipment, enabling it to patch any security issues.
So for now, Huawei can purchase American-made goods to maintain existing networks and provide software updates to existing Huawei handsets, though it still can't buy American components to manufacture new products without approval (which would probably be denied).
Google also originally removed the Mate 20 Pro from the Android Q beta programme. However, it has now been reinstated, perhaps because the beta programme will be over relatively soon - it may also demonstrate that Q will be available for Huawei handsets, although that is total speculation for now.
What does it mean for imminent devices?
The ban will have implications for unreleased devices that haven’t yet been through the Google Play certification process for access to the Play Store and other Google apps. But what about devices that have been signed off already?
Huawei’s statement is very specific, mentioning devices that “have been sold or are still in stock globally”. So anything that is on sale now won’t have an issue.
However, EE and Vodafone have confirmed they will not be stocking the Mate 20 X 5G at the launch of their 5G networks, while Three has so far been silent about what handsets it will have available despite Huawei previously mentioning Three during its own launch of the Mate 20 X 5G. Vodafone even postponed its 5G press launch "due to the ongoing media agenda".
The Honor 20 launch proceeded as planned and, indeed, Honor has now announced the Honor 20 will be available in the UK from 21 June via Three and Amazon.
And there is perhaps a little bit of a window for Huawei to get other devices signed off by Google, too, prior to the end of the reprieve period on 19 August.
A message to our UK fans regarding the announcement by Google. Further updates to follow. pic.twitter.com/Thxwm8BtNJ— Huawei Mobile UK (@HuaweiMobileUK) May 20, 2019
What’s less clear is whether Huawei's statement covers a device like the Mate X foldable phone. It’s already been announced but won’t be released until later in the year. It’s being manufactured as we speak probably, but we wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s “in stock” to use Huawei’s phrasing.
What does it mean for future devices?
The current implication of the move by Google is that future Huawei and Honor devices won’t have access to the Google Play Store and other key Google apps. That means the Mate 30 and Mate 30 Pro we’re expecting in October won’t have access to Google Play apps as things stand.
Huawei can still use the open source version of the Android operating system rather than one that’s gone through Google’s certification process. This is known as AOSP or Android Open Source Project. It's freely downloadable code and anybody can use it.
We're expecting Huawei to use that code alongside its existing EMUI skin - that would mean it would look extremely similar to the operating system on existing Huawei and Android phones.
Will this situation continue?
We think a solution to this situation will be found. Often when tech companies have fallen out or had a trade dispute, it usually gets resolved. Look at Apple and Qualcomm's resolution from just last month.
The variable here is the US Government and, as we’ve seen from the recent past, it doesn’t back down easily. The tensions between the US and China appear to be escalating currently, a situation that won’t be resolved quickly.
30 May update: Added extra links and context about the ongoing situation.
11 June update: Added new developments from Google and UK operators.