Huawei is currently the second-largest smartphone OEM in the world, but its future has been thrown into question by the US Commerce Department. The federal agency added the Chinese company to its “Entity List” last week, and that has prompted Google to reevaluate its association with the Chinese firm. Google has ended its work with Huawei, cutting future phones off from Google services.
Placing Huawei on the Entity List essentially bans the company from importing US hardware or software without specific government approval. The action seems aimed at Huawei’s network hardware business, but its consumer smartphone activities are under the same umbrella. This puts both Huawei and Google in a tough situation. Google is a US-based company, and the Commerce Department’s decision ties its hands to a certain degree. Huawei has become dominant in the consumer electronics space with the help of Android, which is open source but heavily dependent on Google. Intel, Broadcom, and Qualcomm have reportedly ended business with Huawei as well, but none of those will sting like the loss of Google support.
Google has confirmed that it’s complying with the US government directive and exploring how it will coordinate with Huawei in the future. It says that Play Services will continue working on current Huawei devices. However, Google would need to work closely with Huawei to get Google services working on future phones. That seems unlikely at this time. In addition, updates to existing phones are probably off the table as that requires direct cooperation between the companies.
We always talk about Android as open source software. And indeed, you can go and build Android with fully open source components for a custom piece of hardware. Many of the features of what we think of as “Android” are not part of the open source code, though. Google controls the Play Store, Google apps such as Gmail, location services, and even push notifications. Without Google services, Huawei Android phones would be uncompetitive.
The US government, under President Trump, has repeatedly targeted Chinese firms for alleged ties to the Chinese government. Case in point: the trade ban on ZTE last year that had similar effects on that company’s operations. ZTE essentially shut down for several months until it could negotiate a settlement with the US government.
Huawei could try to fight this, or it could just fork Android and go its own way. A huge chunk of its business is in China, which doesn’t have Google services in the first place. Few OEMs are large enough to build a cohesive platform from open source Android without Google, but Huawei might be able to pull it off. This could even cause trouble for Google in the event it tries to move back into the Chinese market in the future.
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