The US is strangling China, but not with its own hands. In the latest escalation of the US and China’s trade war, US-based Google has restricted how Chinese telecoms giant Huawei can use its Android operating system on its devices.
Any future Huawei devices will not have access to the full Android operating system, unless there is a resolution to the trade war that has been raging since January 2018, and which has seen billions of tariffs slapped on US and Chinese goods.
The Google Huawei ban means that future Huawei devices will not have access to Google software such as the Play store, Gmail and the Google Assistant, as well as other Google add-on software.
While owners of Huawei, and subsidiary Honor, phones will not suddenly find themselves unable to use any of these services, it is sure to strike a huge blow in consumer confidence in Huawei.
“This will be devastating for Huawei’s business outside of China if this doesn’t get resolved,” says Lynette Luna, consumer technology analyst at data and analytics firm GlobalData. “It certainly puts pressure on China to reach a new trade agreement with the US and provide some clear assurances that Huawei is not a security threat.”
This could be particularly painful for Huawei’s consumer business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, which accounted for 28.4% of its devices sold around the world in the 2018 financial year.
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“It is very hard to present a security argument for this decision, although it is underpinned by US national security concerns regarding Huawei; this therefore looks more like a trade issue rather than a security issue per se,” Malcolm Taylor, former British intelligence officer and now director cyber advisory at cybersecurity firm ITC Secure, tells Verdict.
“All Chinese vendors that rely on Android and Qualcomm should be worried right now,” adds Luna.
There were also fears that the Google Huawei ban could see Huawei devices cut off from security updates. However, in a statement, Huawei has said it will continue to provide security updates.
The 5G ban one-two
The Google Huawei ban represents a change in attack for the US. Until now, the US has focused its efforts on pressuring its allies into banning Huawei 5G infrastructure over security concerns. America has repeatedly alleged – without evidence – that Huawei has built security backdoors into its 5G kit that could be used to carry out spying activities.
While these one-two jabs have left Huawei bruised, the damage has arguably been limited. Many countries, including France and Italy, seem set to proceed with Huawei 5G infrastructure.
The UK, meanwhile, has long taken a risk management approach to Huawei, with the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre monitoring Huawei telecoms for the last few years. A recent NCSC report found “serious vulnerabilities” in its 5G kit, but these stemmed from bad practice rather than deliberate malicious actions, the report found. Leaks have since suggested the UK is considering to proceed by using Huawei technology – but only in non-core parts of the country’s infrastructure.
For the average consumer these disputes around 5G infrastructure have failed to resonate: a technology still years away from becoming ubiquitous and the whims of President Trump do not strike immediate panic into a consumer’s purchasing decisions.
At least that’s what Huawei’s sales figures suggest.
In 2018, Huawei’s Consumer Business device unit brought in $50bn in revenue. Its consumer business makes up 48.4% of its overall revenue – 8.4% more than its carrier business, which includes its 5G operations.
The possibility of buying a Huawei phone without YouTube or Google Maps, however, will concern consumers far more than any allegations of espionage appear to have done.
The Huawei Android ban has shifted the dispute from the abstract to the perceptible. And that could have serious (and expensive) ramifications for a company aiming to overtake Samsung and become the largest phone maker in the world.
“The impact is enormous,” says Avi Greengart, founder and lead analyst at Techsponential. “By placing Huawei on a US technology trade blacklist, Trump has effectively banned Huawei from building smartphones and tablets for sale outside China, and from selling laptops anywhere.”
Switching to southpaw, the US has dealt its heaviest blow yet.
Plan B – duck and dive
It appears Huawei has planned for this possibility, telling German newspaper Die Welt in March that it had “prepared our own operating system” to fall back on.
That is unlikely to cause an issue in China, where apps such as WeChat are the norm. But for the rest of the world, it is likely to be a problem.
“Even if/when [Huawei’s own operating system] is fully operational, a phone platform without Google seems unlikely to hold the same commercial appeal, especially outside of China,” says Taylor.
“This, therefore, seems likely to be commercially challenging for Huawei and perhaps especially so if the US chip manufacturers, upon whom some of their other technology relies, follow Google’s lead.”
And although serious, the Google Huawei ban is by no means set in stone, with Google stating that it is still considering its options.
“We should perhaps see this as an interim position,” says Taylor. “Other tech companies will be thinking the same; I would not be surprised to see more follow suit.”
But what will the damage be for Google? Not much – at least in the short term, according to Greengart.
“Ironically, although Google’s software is crucial to building phones, losing Huawei should not immediately impact Google’s revenues because Google makes money from advertising, not from licensing Android,” he says.
For Huawei, the majority of its business is still in China (52%) and will be unaffected by the Google Huawei ban.
Huawei has big lungs, but America’s chokehold shows no sign of weakening – for now.