Ahead of this week’s launch of Huawei’s flagship Mate 30 Series smartphones, almost all the speculation focused on the loss of Google’s software and services from the devices. And by the time the launch presentation finished, little had changed. Despite impressive hardware innovation, the media write-ups went straight to the lack of full-fat Android, the lack of YouTube and Gmail and Google Maps, the lack of the Play Store—even though none of this received a mention on stage.
But it’s fine, prospective buyers had been told beforehand, there will be a workaround, a means of installing Google services and apps after buying the device. Unfortunately, despite hints from Huawei, it’s actually not that simple—it seems there’s no easy way to bridge the Google gap unless and until the blacklist lifts. And for many who planned to buy the device and install the software afterward, that will be a nasty surprise.
Shortly after Google shocked Huawei by confirming it would not license the new Mate 30 under the terms of U.S. blacklist restrictions, Huawei’s consumer boss Richard Yu had provided hope, telling the media at Germany’s IFA tech show there “might be a workaround on-hand.” Yu claimed the process would be “quite easy,” that “the open-source nature of Android enables a lot of possibilities,” and that third-party developers have been working on workarounds for some time, given that “Huawei itself is unable to provide Google Mobile Services on new products due to the ban.”
I asked Huawei for a statement at the time, regarding Yu’s comments, to be told the official word from the Consumer Business Group is “we can’t comment on that.”
And so the audience for Huawei’s Mate 30 launch—live streaming online or filling the auditorium in Munich—waited to see what would be announced. The answer, unfortunately, was almost nothing. The presentation focused on the hardware specs, the performance and power efficiencies of the new 5G chipset, the fantastic camera and display. But other than a confirmation that the operating system would be EMUI10 sitting atop AOSP—the unlicensed, open-source, version of Android—there was little else on the core software inside. And so the questions remained questions.
In reality, though, the harsh truth had been shared with the media. There was no short-term light at the end of the Google tunnel. No Google means no Google.
The Mate 30 has no Android license. As such it has no underlying Google Mobile Services (GMS) on which its apps can be installed. And that means users will not be able to sideload the main software or services after purchase. This lack of GMS, the lack of an Android license, means the core underlying Play Services are not hidden away on the device. If this system layer was in place, after-market installed Google apps would be able to function properly. But without that underlying framework, they will not work. The apps cannot access the system-level permissions needed. And to replace the underlying framework requires users accessing the core system that is currently locked out of reach for their own cybersecurity.
As XDA Developers explains, some device makers, such as Huawei itself, “pre-install ‘stub’ versions of the required applications, these ‘stub’ APKs are basically dormant versions that are just waiting to be updated; the trick here is that while you can’t just insert the Google Play Store and Play Services as a system app, you can install an ‘update’ on top of these ‘stub’ APKs.”
Put simply, no stubs means no apps. The manufacturers effecting this trick do so in China, where it’s a governmental restriction not a licensing issue, and where those phones are often exported. Google is not seeking to stop the practice in China. With the U.S. blacklist, though, it very much is. There can’t be official workarounds.
As XDA Developers points out, without those stubs installed, “the only way the user can get the Google Play Store and Google Play Services up and running is to manually install these apps and grant them their requested privileged permissions. This cannot be done without modifying the software on the device in a process known as ‘rooting’.” And this is simply not an option that is going to be explored by millions of buyers. Even making such a process feasible would require Huawei to unlock boot-level protections, introducing other risks and leaving devices wide open for attacks that would not otherwise be feasible.
And there’s more. Even if all this was achievable, the Mate 30 is not licensed by Google and would likely trigger a Google error as a consequence of any software load. While the U.S. tech giant’s relationship with Huawei would have it bend over backwards to support Huawei, it is unlikely to circumvent U.S. government sanctions so publicly.
And so, 24-hours post launch, the reality of the Mate 30 is firming up. It seems highly unlikely there is any Google workaround. And it seems highly likely that sales will be hit significantly as a consequence of that. The devices will sell brilliantly in China and some other parts of the world. But in the main, regional availability will be carefully stage managed with the world watching.
Yu seemed to acknowledge this likely international sales hit. “We didn’t want to do this, he told the media. “We have a good partnership with Google but the U.S. Government forced us to do this.” In terms of sales, Yu accepted “the ban will influence our out of China sales—but China sales will increase a lot because this is the most competitive 5G flagship in the world.”
There is maybe a learning in this for Yu himself. The consumer boss publicly expressed his surprise and upset when it became clear in May that the U.S. blacklist would hit his smartphone business hard. He immediately claimed a new “faster than Android” OS would be available soon. As it transpired, we were given HarmonyOS which isn’t a replacement for Android on smartphones at all. And when Google dropped its support for the Mate 30, Yu told us there would be a workaround. Now that doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s maybe some message management required.
In the meantime, the Mate 30 remains a fantastic phone carrying an unfortunate curse. For the time being the recent uplift to the P30 will keep Huawei on track. But this won’t last for long. Going into 2020, the company will either need an internal answer to the loss of Google—and its app ecosystem investments point to this, or the restrictions to lift and a raft of new devices that come with Google in the box.
If the restrictions do lift, Yu has now said he expects to be able to upgrade Mate 30 devices “overnight” with Google’s software and services. While the device isn’t licensed at launch, one would think Google would readily stretch any of its policies to accommodate Huawei and enable this upgrade to happen. And so for any of you enamoured with the Mate 30 hardware who can live without Google for an unknown amount of time, maybe this is a risk worth taking. Seems unlikely, though.