And so the Mate 40 has finally launched. Set against the backdrop of U.S. restrictions on the chipsets required to power Huawei devices, and with Google still missing, China’s leading smartphone manufacturer has released another stellar device that will stall outside China based on factors outside its control. And while the U.S. blacklist is the real existential issue, yet again it’s that loss of Google stealing the headlines.
Alongside the Mate 40, Huawei also announced its enhanced “Petal Search,” part of a new app family that includes the company’s long-awaited Google Maps replacement. This is a stunning strike at Google’s search dominance on Huawei devices—at least those that sell outside China. With Google now under scrutiny given its dominance of web search, it is unsurprising that Huawei—driven by the loss of Google—is getting in on the act. With hundreds of millions on its ecosystem, it’s a compelling opportunity.
That said, it brings a fundamental issue for Huawei to contend with: trusted content. While no-one expects streets to shift or disappear, when it comes to news and events, history and general web search, it’s a different matter.
Huawei’s initial Petal Search was designed to find apps U.S. restrictions had prevented from being loaded onto new phones—Google’s apps, but other U.S. staples as well, including social media and entertainment offerings. But now it’s all changed. Petal Search has become a fully-fledged search engine in its own right, akin to “Huawei Search,” which was road-tested in March but was never fully released.
There are a whole raft of implications from this latest update—a threat to Google’s core business model as a mainstream smartphone maker goes its own way, a threat to U.S. dominance on mobile internet standards and staples for the same reason, but also a serious question about a Chinese company providing a search engine to the west. This is rather like the issue highlighted by TikTok’s provision of content to western users.
This year we have seen China tighten its influence on its domestic search engines, while obviously prohibiting western equivalents from even operating in the country. When I reported on Huawei Search, a company insider assured me there would be no issues of censorship applied to search results outside China. But then TikTok says the same, and still the question has always dogged the platform.
More critically for Huawei, though, the equation has materially changed since its launch of an in-house search engine was first touted back in March. At the time, this was part of an alternative ecosystem to Google’s, one that would include mail and maps. But now, with the brutal U.S. clampdown on chipset sales, Huawei is looking at morphing from phone maker to software ecosystem provider. Under that model, its search engine and other apps would be provided to a range of other OEMs—if it can secure them, and not just for its own use.
According to GSMArena, “the Petal Search app now works as a general search engine providing results for regular queries alongside news, images and videos. You can also use it for shopping and booking flights just like on Google or Bing. In our testing search results were provided by Microsoft Bing though other reports claim that regions like Spain and Turkey feature independent indexing directly from Huawei.”
And so, as 2020 nears its end, Huawei has launched another exciting smartphone and yet more software within its ecosystem, yet as it does so, its stockpile of chipsets is depleting and it does not have an answer to plug a 2021 gap that could see smartphone sales drop from an expected 180-200 million units down as low as 50 million.
Even as it faces that challenge—and the company has described its imminent “fight” to beat Android as a must-win battle for survival, the reality is that sales outside China will remain constrained unless and until it can restore Google. Huawei’s expanding ecosystem will do nothing to shift millions of European customers away from the apps and full-fat Android experience they expect from their devices.
And in that regard, the other news this week is the latest reported solution to restore Google Mobile Services to ineligible Huawei phones. According to XDA-Developers, “Googlefier” is a new way to use the LZPlay GMS recovery software that appeared last year before being withdrawn. “You’ll then be able to install the Google Play Store and other Google apps on your device and then log into your Google account.”
This week, Huawei reported revenues for the first three quarters of the year up 9.9%, down from around 24% growth for the same period last year. The company says that this “basically met expectations.” With the combined challenges of the blacklist and coronavirus, Huawei says that it will “do its best to find solutions, to survive and forge forward, and to fulfill its obligations to customers and suppliers.”
Recent reports that Huawei may divest its Honor brand of smartphones illustrate just how drastic might be Huawei’s strategy to escape the U.S. blacklist stranglehold. There are two ways off viewing that potential news. First, that it might be a test-bed for Huawei breaking up into smaller, less threatening parts to appease Washington. Or, second and more radically, that Huawei can divest its smartphone brands and then seek to onboard those brands (which will then have access to required chipsets) to the company’s open-source HarmonyOS alternative to Android.
It’s hard to overstate how critical the next few months will be for Huawei. A depleting chipset stockpile allied to any newly minted licenses for chipmakers to restore their supplies, the continuing progress of HarmonyOS toward a smartphone launch and whether or not its open-source version attracts any major takers, the continued expansion of the HMS app ecosystem, ever more countries opting for alternatives to Huawei for the 5G networks. Plus, of course, the small matter of a U.S. election and any impact that may have on the tone of the current crackdown.
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