The US ban on shipments of US goods to Chinese phone maker ZTE means it’s likely future ZTE phones won’t be able to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors, which would be a pretty big blow. But it’s also unclear whether the ban would prevent ZTE from loading Google’s core Android apps including the Play Store, Gmail, and YouTube on its phones.
While Android is an open source operating system that’s available for anyone to use, those apps are proprietary and phone makers need to work with Google in order to get permission to load them on phones and tablets.
Without Snapdragon chips or Google Mobile Services support, ZTE would probably have a hard time selling its phones outside of its home country of China (where no phones have Google Mobile Services).
And Huawei might face similar pressure in the future. So it’s not surprising to hear that Huawei is apparently hedging its bets by developing its own alternative to Android.
US regulators and lawmakers have been skeptical of Huawei for years, prohibiting government agencies from purchasing phones or telecommunications equipment from the company for fear that Huawei may be too closely tied to the Chinese government… and that its devices could be used for government spying.
This week the Wall Street Journal reported that Huawei may also be under investigation for violating US sanctions on Iran by shipping phones with US components to that country… the same thing that ZTE was accused of before the US Commerce Department banned US companies from selling goods to the company.
It’s unclear if Huawei will be found guilty or if it will face the same penalty as ZTE. But according to a report from the South China Morning Post, Huawei has been preparing for worst-case scenarios like that for the past six years, since the US government started investigating Huawei and ZTE in the name of national security.
The company is said to be working on its own operating systems for smartphones, tablets, and personal computers that it could use in place of Android and Windows.
For now, Huawei officials say the company has no plans to release its own operating system. But Huawei is the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer, and it’d be surprising if the company didn’t have the resources to build a mobile operating system that could do many of the things Android can.
What’s less certain is whether people would actually buy such a phone.
These days Google’s Android operating system is estimated to be running on more than 80 percent of the world’s smartphones. Most of the rest are iPhones running Apple’s iOS.
Only around 0.1 percent of smartphones shipping today are running an alternate operating system such as Windows Phone, Tizen, or Sailfish OS.
While we’ve seen other attempts to break the duopoloy, including Mozilla’s Firefox OS and Ubuntu Touch, none have been particularly successful. Sure, a niche device like the upcoming Purism Librem 5 may be able to survive as a niche device that emphasizes privacy and open source software over everything else, but with hundreds of Android-powered phones to choose from, it’s unclear if there’s enough demand for a third-party mobile OS for a company like Huawei to pull off a project to ship all of its phones with a new operating system.
If the company tries, it’ll face many of the same challenges that others have faced, including the need to attract third-party app developers to the platform, the need to build out a robust app store experience, and the need to create intuitive software that would appeal to customers who would otherwise buy an Android or iOS device.
So I wouldn’t really expect Huawei to even try selling non-Android phones unless Android no longer becomes a viable option. But if that does happen, it looks like Huawei’s got a plan B that could help the company at least go down fighting.
Huawei is in better shape to weather a US trade ban than rival ZTE in at least one way: while ZTE buys chips from US-based Qualcomm, most recent Huawei smartphones have been powered by the company’s own Kirin processors.