The restrictions imposed on Huawei’s access to the Android operating system will cast a shadow over Tuesday’s launch of the company’s latest phones.
The firm has invited the press from around the world to London to witness the presentation of their smartphones of the Honor 20 series.
The BBC understands that the devices will continue to offer the full Android experience, including the use of the Google app store.
But unless a confrontation with the US government is resolved. UU., Future releases are scheduled to offer a much more limited experience, assuming that Huawei decides to run them on all Android.
So far it is not clear if the restrictions that Google has imposed on Huawei will last.
Presumably, Google does not want to break ties with what is the second-largest Android phone manufacturer in the world after Samsung. The Chinese firm recently said that more than 500 million consumers use their phones.
In theory, the US Bureau of Industry and Security. UU You could issue a license to allow Google to continue the relationship or, at least, parts of it, or even make a change of direction and remove its restrictions completely.
But assuming the issue is not resolved soon, let’s try to choose the consequences.
What exactly is Google doing?
The US technology company is suspending all commercial activity with Huawei related to “non-public” transfers of hardware, software and technical services.
That does not mean that Huawei loses all access to Android, since the central operating system is an open source project. Any manufacturer can modify it and install it on their devices without having to obtain permission.
But in practice, all major providers rely on Google’s support.
In addition, Google controls access to several additional bits of software, including:
- The Play app store
- Your own applications
- The Google Assistant virtual assistant
- The Gmail email service
- Tools that allow access of third-party services to certain functions.
How does this affect existing Huawei mobile phones?
Huawei phone owners will not find that suddenly they can not install new applications or get updates for Google services.
The reason is that their devices have already been certified under processes known as Compatibility Test Suite (CTS) and Vendor Test Suite (VTS).
As a result, Google can provide new versions of its products and authorize downloads from its Play market, without having to deal directly with Huawei itself.
However, things get more complex when it comes to security updates.
The way they usually work is that Google gives Android device makers the code for their software fixes about a month before they reveal details to the public about the vulnerabilities involved.
This gives manufacturers time to verify that the patches do not cause problems for their own proprietary software, and then package a customized version of the fixes as a download.
Huawei will now only learn about the patches on the same day they are released to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), which means there will be a delay before it can be distributed.
In theory, this could lead to a situation in which a serious defect is revealed and Huawei devices remain exposed for several days or weeks.
How about new phones?
New phones will not be certified and, as a consequence, Google Mobile Services (GMS) pre-installed will not be available.
This includes a set of Google’s own applications that include:
- The play stores for apps, music and other media.
- Google photos
- Google maps
- Google Drive cloud storage
- Google Duo video calls
Some of these services will still be accessible through the web, but many will find it less convenient.
The loss will not have much impact on users in China, who have already blocked access to most of Google’s facilities. But in other places, it could be a decisive factor for many consumers.
They could still install third-party applications through alternative stores or a process known as lateral loading.
But Google prevents its own applications from being installed on non-certified devices.
In addition, losing access to GMS also means that external developers will not be able to take advantage of Google’s application programming interfaces (APIs) on new devices.
The consequences would be that their applications could lose some functions.
“Let’s say that an application wants to send a notification to your device, ” Mishaal Rahman, editor-in-chief of the news site XDA-developers.com, explained to the BBC
“There’s a very, very good chance that you’re using Google Play Services for your push notification service, so any application, including Twitter, could stop working with push notifications.”
Another example, added, would be the loss of Casting, an installation that allows the headset to transmit audio and video wirelessly to a television or other equipment by touching an icon.
What about future versions of Android?
There has already been a lot of speculation that Huawei devices may be blocked with the current version of Android.
But Mr. Rahman believes it is unlikely to be the case, since the next version, Android Q, will also be open source and Google has already shared most of the source code with Huawei and other partners.
However, he added that things could be more difficult for the later version, Android R, in 2020.
“What happens is that Google’s main partners, which include companies like Huawei and Samsung, get early access to the preview code many months before the public beta,” he explained.
“That gives them a great advantage in adapting their own software releases.
“The impact on Huawei would be that it would lose several months of development time.”
In addition, Mr. Rahman added that even if the Chinese company were willing to accept that it could only offer the operating system much later than its competitors, it would also face a marketing nightmare.
“Android is really a brand, and to use it, your software must [be certified],” he explained.
“So, even if Huawei continues to sell devices using open source code, it can not legally call its Android devices.”
So what is the alternative?
Huawei told the BBC that he would prefer to work with Android, but has created a new operating system such as Plan B
“We have been making plans for this possible outcome, but it has not happened yet,” said Jeremy Thompson, executive vice president of Huawei in the United Kingdom.
“We have a parallel program underway to develop an alternative … that we believe will delight our customers.
“In the short term, it’s not good news for Huawei, but I think we can handle it.”
Huawei’s consumer business chief, Richard Yu, also confirmed that he has developed an alternative to Android
In China, it may not be a very disturbing move, thanks to the fact that device owners spend a lot of their time on WeChat, a platform that allows third-party applications to run within it.
In addition, other developers are likely to be pressured to quickly release versions of their stand-alone applications for the new operating system.
But in other places, the movement could be highly problematic.
“Whatever they have cooked is dead in the water,” said Mr. Rahman.
“The critical part of success with a mobile operating system is the number of applications available in the market.
“And in addition to Apple’s iOS, Android has the largest development platform.”