Google will restrict future Android updates and Google services such as YouTube and Maps from Huawei handsets, it has emerged, with the company citing compliance with American policies amidst the China-USA trade war.
Huawei, which in 2018 overtook Apple to become the second-largest manufacturer of smartphones by volume in the world, has been thrown into controversy by the Trump administration. The US has cited national security as a reason behind the federal blacklisting of Huawei's infrastructure hardware and consumer goods.
However, in Britain and in Europe, watchdogs, regulators and intelligence agencies - with access to Huawei's source code - have pulled apart its equipment and turned up nothing that would suggest it is a security risk aside from bloated code. As such, it is under more scrutiny than practically any other vendor in the world.
Since authorities arrested Huawei CFO Meng Whanzhou in an unprecedented move, the company has arguably tapped into a general malaise towards the American administration, particularly in wake of the Snowden revelations that revealed that it, along with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand ("Five Eyes") had been recklessly spying on, and capturing the data of, much of the world in an enormous surveillance dragnet that even tapped into the core submarine cabling in the oceans.
According to analyst firm Counterpoint, Huawei's market share in the first quarter of 2019 hit its highest ever number by shipments - reaching 17 percent of all total smartphones sold in the period. Details are thin on Google's decision so far, with the company only saying that it was "complying with the order and reviewing the implications".
The implications could be broad, and rather than only hitting Huawei, might well impact the wider global consumer technology market.
For example, the majority of Apple's iPhones are manufactured in Shenzhen, China. Many parts in the worldwide supply chain also pass through China, sparking the possibility that a tit-for-tat retaliation could spell trouble for all of the major manufacturers.
What does this mean for Huawei users?
At present, Huawei phone owners will be able to continue to use Android on their devices. However, future handsets might not be able to ship with Android, and Huawei users also may not be able to update their phones to the latest Android operating systems.
Huawei handsets operate with the company's Emotion UI - EMUI - a custom operating system built on top of Android. If the Google decision is lasting, the company would likely have to alter its firmware and OS, which would bring a series of complications with it, not least that it would put Huawei outside of an entire developer ecosystem.
Although it would seem Google's hand was forced by a ratcheting up of tensions between the USA and China, the decision will be a blow to the many of millions of Android users with Huawei handsets.
In the Chinese market, Google's apps are currently blocked anyway. But the decision would have repercussions in the rest of the world.
One possibility for the Chinese vendor would be to turn to a pure play, totally open source system, perhaps using an alternative marketplace such as F-Droid, the free and open source, community-maintained Android platform.
Huawei responded to the news by saying that it would still provide security updates to its suite of products worldwide.
"We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem in order to provide the best experience for all users globally," a spokesperson said.
Ben Wood, chief of research at analyst firm CCS Insight, said: "We still don't have a clear understanding of what Google has told Huawei and what elements of the Android operating system may be restricted, so it remains unclear what the ramifications will be. However, any disruption in getting updates to the software or the associated applications would have considerable implications for Huawei's consumer device business."
The growth potential of China's domestic market
Chinese firm ZTE was hit by American embargoes way earlier than Huawei, and its businesses tumbled as it faced a silicon ban, preventing it from using mobile chipset giant Qualcomm's technology. However, Huawei is considerably larger than its one-time rival, and the leadership has repeatedly said that it had made provisions for such an event as a Google blacklisting, as well as having stockpiled manufacturing parts - with at the very least, a three-month supply.
"People who currently own Huawei smartphones do not need to worry. At present any measures would only affect future devices and future updates. Google has publicly stated that its App Store, Google Play, and security updates from Google Play Protect will continue working on existing Huawei devices," Wood added.
"However, until we have a clear understanding of what exact measures Google has decided to take it is impossible to second guess the impact on future devices."
It should be noted that Chinese companies and research institutions have made a concerted effort over the past decades to become a leader not just in network infrastructure but in semiconductors and AI research.
Semiconductor sales from Chinese manufacturers reached $97.3 billion in 2018, accounting for 20 percent of global semiconductor revenue. Not too long ago, semiconductors were completely dominated by American and Taiwanese manufacturers, as well as a considerable amount made in the Middle East by GlobalFoundries.
China's domestic market consumers over half of all semiconductors produced globally, with domestic producers accounting for 30 percent of the country's consumption, however, reports the Register, leadership in China wishes to address this.
The country is strongly pushing science and technology in general. Xi Jinping said in late 2018 that China must "ensure that critical and core AI technologies are firmly grasped in our own hands".
Although the situation still requires clarity, Google is unlikely to be pleased by any disruption to its global operating system dominance. Not only that, but the American firm has faced flak for trying to re-enter the growing Chinese market, with staff protesting the so-called Project Dragonfly that would see it amending its services to better fit local Chinese regulations and restrictions, colloquially called the "Great Firewall".
If Google is being pulled into this trade war, it's reasonable to assume other American manufacturers will be too. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to the news: many commentators outside of America - including those with close ties to intelligence in USA-aligned, Five Eyes countries - believe a blanket ban to be shortsighted.