Internet & Tech

Petal to the metal

Huawei hesitates over search engine launch


The petal is core to the brand

In 2019 US President Donald Trump placed Huawei on various American blacklists. The sanctions have stopped the Chinese telecom giant from using Google products such as the Android operating system, Gmail, Google Maps or Chrome.

In response Huawei came up with its own OS – Harmony – and its own search engine called Petal.

Company literature boasts that Petal is now available in over 170 countries and by March last year had 18 million users. The number was forecast to rise to 60 million by December.

Yet Petal was unavailable in China – at least until very recently (and then not for long). On January 12 the search service was briefly operational in the country, leading many to speculate that a formal launch announcement could be imminent.

Initial Chinese reviews of Petal were positive, saying it was clean, uncluttered and easy to use.

But within 24 hours the site was taken down and, as yet, Huawei hasn’t confirmed any plans to formally roll out Petal in its domestic market.

The name Petal is believed to be derived from Huawei’s flower-shaped logo, with many saying it looks like a young chrysanthemum. An alternative take is that it resembles an apple sliced into eight pieces – a reference to how Huawei smartphones had, until recently, eaten into Apple’s market share around the world.

Quite why the Petal search engine is currently unavailable in China is unclear. That said, creating a version that only delivers results the censors approve could be a hurdle and may have been why its emergence into the public domain on January 12 was so fleeting.

As well as acting as a search engine, the Petal suite also offers maps and cloud data-storage services.

Petal’s software supports a standard website as well as a smartphone app that helps to navigate the web.

Some tech bloggers in China have suggested a major new entrant is needed after Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, was embroiled in a series of scandals (see WiC439).

Historically speaking, new search engines haven’t succeeded in China. The Xinhua news agency launched one called Panguso back in 2011 before merging it with a People’s Daily rival rival to create ChinaSo in 2014. It still failed to impress netizens (largely because it stringently restricted content) and today it doesn’t merit much mention in any discussion of the Chinese search engine landscape.

Baidu claims some 75% of market share and the next largest player, Sogou, occupies about 15%.

Google, of course, retreated from China in 2010 (see WiC47). Its search engine is blocked as are related products such as Google Maps and Google Play.

Huawei’s inclusion on Washington’s sanctions list hit its smartphone sales at home and overseas. Not only was it denied the use of Google products, it was also prevented from purchasing mobile phone chip sets from leading players such as Qualcomm and Intel.

The result was a 73% fall in domestic smartphone sales, according to Counterpoint Research. Global shipments have also declined dramatically as international customers continue to insist on access to Google products.

The downturn and the chip ban forced Huawei to sell its budget phone brand Honor to a Shenzhen government-backed consortium and pivot away from smartphones.

Huawei’s revenues last year fell to an estimated Rmb634 billion ($100 billion), down 29% from 2020.

Petal – created by a Huawei subsidiary in Ireland – was born of necessity but as yet it hasn’t been able to lure many international users back to using the brand’s smartphones.

Yet Chinese users were still excited to see it briefly appear in their local market, given that national pride in the company remains strong, especially following the return to China in September of CFO Meng Wanzhou after a three-year detention in Canada (see WiC435 for the background as to why the daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei was held under house arrest in Vancouver).

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