Huawei's "plan B" smartphone OS: What it needs to succeed

Component manufacturers around the world are cutting off Huawei following an executive order signed by President Trump. As a result, Huawei's contingency plan may see the light of day.

Huawei's "plan B" smartphone OS: What it needs to succeed

Vultures have been circling Huawei with a renewed fervor over the past six months, with flimsy claims of backdoors and the arrest of CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada last December. Last week, President Trump signed an executive order restricting US firms from doing business with the world's third largest smartphone manufacturer--prompting Google to suspend Huawei's use of Play Services, a component that delivers Google's proprietary services on Android devices.

Likewise, US-based chipmakers Intel, Qualcomm, Broadcom, Qorvo, Xilinx, Micron, and Western Digital have halted shipments following the order. German semiconductor manufacturer Infineon similarly stopped shipments temporarily to assess compliance requirements. While Huawei has reportedly kept a supply of chips on hand under the expectation of sanctions--and their HiSilicon division makes them better positioned to weather this storm than ZTE was when subjected to sanctions last May--the company is still extensively reliant on software and hardware from the US.

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Despite the restriction, Huawei will retain access to AOSP--the open-source parts of Android, minus Google services--and phones currently in the hands of consumers will continue to support Play Services and the Play Protect security services, as well as receive security updates. But without Play Services, AOSP is of limited practical functionality-while Amazon has developed their own ecosystem around the Fire Tablet and TV devices, Huawei could not use this even if Amazon offered, as the company is subject to the same trade restrictions as Google.

Huawei's contingency smartphone OS

Huawei has publicly acknowledged several times since 2012 that it has been developing its own mobile OS in the event the company loses the ability to ship Android. Huawei phones sold in China already lack Play Services--Google has virtually no presence in China due to an ongoing dispute--though usefully extending Huawei's Chinese-internal app store and related ecosystem outside the country is a significantly uphill battle, as existing Android apps use Google-maintained APIs that would be costly or impractical to clone.

The technical implementation of Huawei's contingency OS is unclear, as nothing from it has seen the light of day. The mobile industry is, frankly, littered with unsuccessful attempts to build an alternative to iOS and Android--Windows 10 Mobile, BlackBerry 10, webOS, Firefox OS, and Ubuntu Touch have been abandoned on smartphones, due to difficulties in cultivating an ecosystem. Likewise, the extent to which this relies on Android is also unclear--Sailfish OS, a smartphone operating system developed by ex-Nokia employees, and Samsung's Tizen OS have optional Android runtimes for utilizing Android apps, though compatibility falls short for apps that require Google APIs.

While Huawei has the resources to translate its existing ecosystem in China to other languages-and motivation to do so, considering that roughly half of the company's smartphones are sold outside China-getting third-party developers on board is a less likely prospect, particularly when access to international marketplaces is threatened. Convincing third parties to invest engineering time for a phone that consumers effectively cannot buy is likely beyond the company's ability.

How trade restrictions impact Huawei's PC OEM business

For several years, Huawei has been selling MateBook-branded laptops around the world, though the supply of these is likely more threatened by trade restrictions. Huawei's CPU manufacturing division, HiSilicon, has no x86-64 products-relying on Intel to deliver CPUs. Likewise, attempting to supplant Windows would be a challenge. While China-targeted distributions like Ubuntu Kylin exist, as well as ARM64 builds of that distribution, it may be a stretch to expect Huawei to embrace migrating this business to Linux and ARM64.

Where do we go from here?

Huawei's policy against allowing bootloader unlocks on Android makes it impractical for users to install alternative Android distributions, like LinageOS. While appealing to enthusiasts and current owners of Huawei devices, the existence of LinageOS will not appreciably help Huawei sell more phones. A fire sale of Huawei kit is possible--some ZTE phones like the (poorly received) Axon M were dumped following sanctions placed on that company in 2018.

Update: Following Google's initial severing of ties with Huawei, the decision was walked back temporarily as the US Commerce Department granted a 90-day license for companies to continue cooperation.

For more, learn why 5G requires new antenna designs to deliver faster speeds, and South Korean government planning Linux migration as Windows 7 support ends.

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Image: Roman Babakin, Getty Images