In one swift move, Google delivered a “death blow” to Huawei on Sunday, suspending the Chinese company’s Android license and potentially stopping the growth of the world’s second largest smartphone maker in its tracks.
Google’s decision—the first time it’s taken such a measure with one of the world’s leading smartphone makers—halts Huawei from selling future releases that include the search giant’s services that many in the Western world have come to expect in their smartphones, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Assistant. With Huawei no longer able to get many of the latest Android updates, the company will instead have to supply its own patches.
“This is a huge deal for Huawei as most of its growth is outside China , and lack of access to Google Store and services would cripple it,” says Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
Huawei shipped 59.1 million units in the first quarter of 2019, making it the second best-selling smartphone maker in the world, just after Samsung, according to research firm IDC . Furthermore, the company’s blockbuster year included year-over-year growth of 50.3%.
An estimated 80% of the world’s smartphones run on Android . The platform is open source, meaning anyone can build on it. However, the particular flavors that Google builds—including the upcoming Android Q—aren’t as open, and are licensed to hardware makers.
While each new Android build packs new features and updates, they all come with Google’s suite of apps. Without a Google Android license, Huawei could take a stab at creating its own rival services.
“Developers are so heavily centered around Android,” says Geoff Blaber, vice president of research at CCS Insight. “Even if there was an alternative, they would still need those apps and services.”
The announcement comes after the Trump Administration added Huawei to a U.S. trade blacklist over security concerns last week. As the trade war between the U.S. and China has escalated, Google’s chess move shows how reliant so many companies have become on its open source Android operating system and its services.
A statement from Google said the company is “complying with the order” from the U.S. Department of Commerce and is “reviewing the implications.” In the meantime, the statement added, Google Play services and Google Play Protect security protections will continue to work on existing Huawei phones.
For Huawei users' questions regarding our steps to comply w/ the recent US government actions: We assure you while we are complying with all US gov't requirements, services like Google Play & security from Google Play Protect will keep functioning on your existing Huawei device.
— Android (@Android) May 20, 2019
Huawei has said in the past it has been working on a “Plan B.” It’s certainly capable. The company runs LiteOS, its own open source operating system for use on IoT devices, including smartwatches.
However, attempts to create an Android rival have come and gone over the past five to seven years, while the platform continued to gain market share. Microsoft’s Windows OS is a prime example of an attempt by a large, established tech company to create a new mobile OS that never took off, Blaber says.
“On paper, there was industry support for an alternative platform to Android,” he says. “The reality was, there are a number of factors—Android has a very big and vibrant ecosystem.”
In addition, when it comes to smartphone distribution, a lot of markets are heavily carrier controlled, according to Blaber. And while a lot of those carriers like the idea of a third operating to compete that requires heavy promotion and money. “That never really occurred,” he adds.
While the move shows the power plays Google is capable of making, Kathy Wang, senior director of security at GitLab, a software development site, says it should also serve as a warning.
“Any company willing to enable a nation state’s global surveillance efforts should have backup options if or when their intentions are known by their technology partners and the public,” she says.