Internet & Tech

Say goodbye to Google

Huawei looks at ways of replacing the American giant


Huawei’s maps: a new direction

For hundreds of millions of people outside China, losing access to Google is unthinkable. As a writer in the New Yorker put it: “The mental image of life without Google lies somewhere between a power outage and that apocalypse movie with Will Smith, in which he is avoiding zombies and hunting deer on overgrown Manhattan streets.”

For Huawei, a Google-free existence has been more of a reality since May 2019, thanks to an export ban by the US government (see WiC453). Without the licences to use Google’s full-fat version of Android, sales of Huawei’s most recent flagship model – the Mate30 Pro ­– have been flat outside China since its launch last September, according to International Data Corporation, a research outfit. There was also a 7% year-on-year decline in the handset giant’s overall shipments of smartphones in the fourth quarter.

With its “wolf spirit,” hard-charging Huawei won’t be discouraged and it is rolling out its next Google-less series, the P40, on March 26. More significantly still, it is ramping up efforts to run future phones on optimisations of its Harmony operating system and its Huawei Mobile Services platform (see WiC456). The latter has been designed as an alternative to Google’s suite of proprietary apps, application programming interfaces (APIs), and cloud-based services (including Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Chrome, YouTube and the Google Play Store, where millions of other third-party apps are normally downloaded).

Last month Huawei recruited customers in the United Arab Emirates to test its new search application. Leaked screenshots show that it features a similar interface to Google’s primary search screen, with shortcuts to the same kind of services and news feeds. While it also delivers webpages in response to search enquiries, the results don’t match with other platforms such as Yahoo, Bing, Yandex, Ask or AOL, according to XDA-Developers, an online community of mobile software engineers. That suggests Huawei isn’t relying on any third party for its search results. Instead the search function is managed by Aspiegel, a Dublin-based subsidiary to which Huawei has shifted more of its mobile services development work since 2019 to allay concerns over its handling of user data.

For mapping software, Huawei has tapped TomTom, a Dutch location technology company that is developing high-definition maps for Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and Microsoft’s connected vehicle platform.

Under the partnership disclosed in January, TomTom will provide Huawei with its maps, traffic information and navigation software for deployment in its mobile apps.

For the app store, Huawei is said to be closing a deal with OSLabs, a Mumbai-based developer, to create an app store for its Honor smartphones. OSLabs’ flagship product Indus OS is a multilingual variant of Android developed for different dialect speakers in India. Its app store, known as App Bazaar, has more than 400,000 regional apps in local languages, as well as English.

The pact could extend beyond Indian shores to the global market, India’s Economic Times reports, although it’s still not clear how OSLabs’ offering is going to be integrated with Huawei’s in-house app distribution platform AppGallery, which had more than 400 million monthly active users last year.

Another noteworthy initiative is a collaboration with Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo. The four brands, which together make up 40% of the world’s handset market, are trying to establish a joint platform where developers from different countries can upload their apps onto their four proprietary app stores simultaneously.

Known as the Global Developer Service Alliance (GDSA), the scheme will initially cover nine regions including India, Indonesia and Russia, according to Reuters.

By leveraging the combined reach of the four phone makers (Xiaomi has a strong customer base in India; Vivo and Oppo in Southeast Asia; and Huawei in Europe), the alliance aims to lure more developers to the platform and, ultimately, to offer more apps beyond the already congested Google Play store.

“It is [in order] to start to build more negotiation power against Google,” Nicole Peng at Canalys told Reuters, in reference to the GDSA. While Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi still have full access to Google’s services in international markets, the export ban to scupper Huawei’s global ambitions awoke the trio to the risks of doing business with US companies in the Trump era.

In offering up to $1 billion in financial incentives to developers to create apps for its ecosystems, Huawei announced a new policy this month to give them a bigger slice of the revenues generated by sales of their products. Generally, developers that sign a 24-month deal with Huawei will keep every penny earned by their apps over the first 12 months and 85% of the proceeds over the following year.

That’s compared to the 30% cut taken by Google and Apple from in-app revenues over the same period.

Washington’s ban on supply contracts to Huawei isn’t total. Microsoft was granted a licence to export software to Huawei again in November, and Google has applied to the US government for permissions to resume its services. But Huawei has sounded equivocal about whether it would go back to Google in the same way as before, even if the offer is made.

Meanwhile, Huawei is forecasting that it will suffer a 20% decline in smartphone sales this year, according to The Information, an online media platform. That would see the tech giant selling up to 200 million phones, down from 240 million in 2019. However, that forecast looks like being further disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly as it starts to shut down many of the biggest economies in Europe.

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