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Huawei’s Android and Windows alternatives are destined for failure

Competing with Google and Microsoft’s dominant operating systems is a fruitless effort

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

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Huawei has been dealt a series of massive blows this week that could halt the company’s global consumer tech ambitions. At first it was Google pulling Huawei’s Android license, then came an Intel and Qualcomm ban, and finally the news that ARM had halted all business with Huawei. Assuming the executive order that caused these issues isn’t rescinded, Huawei will now have to create its own operating system and processor designs to be able to build working smartphones and laptops in the future. Huawei appears to be ready and prepared to at least tackle the software side, but I think it’s doomed to fail outside of China.

Huawei has been calling this a “plan B” during recent months, as the US has been increasingly more hostile towards the company ahead of the current trade restrictions. This plan involves offering an alternative to both Android and Windows that has reportedly been under development for years. Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s consumer business, told CNBC this week that the replacement operating system will be ready by the fourth quarter, with a version available outside China by the second quarter of 2020.

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Huawei’s App Gallery is part of its alternative OS

Not much is known about Huawei’s Android and Windows alternative, but it appears to be based on the open source version of Android (AOSP) and will include Huawei’s App Gallery store. This is Huawei’s alternative to Google’s Play Store, and every manufacturer that doesn’t license Google’s version of Android has to create its own app store or bundle one from a myriad of fragmented options. Huawei already has experience here, as the company’s phones run a forked AOSP-based version of Android without the Play Store in China, and Huawei’s been bundling the App Gallery on phones outside of China since early 2018.

Outside of China, phones running alternatives to Android and even those using AOSP haven’t fared well. Mozilla tried with its Firefox OS for years before giving up in 2015, Canonical pushed Ubuntu phones that never went anywhere, and Microsoft famously tried to create a third mobile operating system with Windows Phone. Even Samsung, once a big threat to Google’s version of Android, has all but given up on its Tizen operating system for phones, using it to power the company’s smartwatches and TVs instead. And let’s not even talk about what happened to BlackBerry.

All of these phone OS alternatives have failed for many different reasons, but chief among them is a common thread: competing with Google is very difficult. Google’s search market share is estimated at around 90 percent worldwide, with competitors like Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, and Yandex all making up single digits. This search market share has helped Google create and control a suite of apps like Chrome, Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Docs, and many other popular web services.

If you create a phone running the open source version of Android, it immediately comes without access to these key Google apps. As a manufacturer, you’re creating a device without the apps consumers demand in Europe, the US, and elsewhere.

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The phone challenge

This is the challenge Huawei now faces on the phone side. The only companies that have come close to creating a viable Android alternative outside of China are Microsoft or Amazon, and Amazon’s attempt is now limited to tablets. Microsoft created Windows Phone and was able to gain some impressive ground in certain countries in Europe, but Android still absolutely dominated overall. Microsoft took the approach of licensing its more closed operating system to phone makers for a fee per handset, while the “free” Android alternative came with its own royalty payments and a lot of customization options for phone makers and carriers.

Microsoft tried to offer a phone operating system without the support of Google’s apps and services. Windows Phone users were cut off from Google Maps temporarily, there was a bitter battle over a Windows Phone YouTube app, and Google surprised Microsoft by cutting off Gmail’s Exchange ActiveSync support for Windows Phone. Google also refused to develop Windows apps, undermining Microsoft’s mobile efforts to compete with Android.

Amazon has seen some limited success with its own implementation of Android. The company has created its own Android app store for its Fire tablets, and it’s managed to convince some app makers to list their popular apps in the store. Facebook, Spotify, Netflix, Skype, HBO Now, and others are all available, but Google’s apps are, predictably, nowhere to be seen. Amazon’s app store is still missing a lot of key apps, and even the ones available aren’t always updated at the same time as their main Android alternatives. Thankfully, the Fire tablet screen size lends itself to using the browser to access Google services more than the smaller display on phones. Amazon tried to compete with Android with its Fire Phone, but the company discontinued it quickly after poor sales.

Huawei P30 Pro

Google has an iron grip on Android

Google also has an iron grip on the definition of an Android device, including the open-source version of Android that Huawei will be using to compete. Most of the built-in alternatives to apps like search, Gmail, camera, calendar, Chrome, and even the keyboard are incredibly basic. Even a number of APIs like location, gaming, and in-app purchasing are proprietary, and third-party app developers use these in their apps. That makes it more difficult for developers to then have to support two different versions of their Android app, not knowing whether Amazon, Huawei, or anyone else has created replacements that are good enough.

Google has also helped stem the flow of fragmentation and open-source forks of Android outside of China in the past by bundling its own apps with access to the Play Store and requiring companies building phones or tablets that include the Play Store to only build phones and tablets that include the Play Store.

Huawei has leverage as the world’s second-largest phone maker to influence the future of Android, but Samsung had the same five years ago and was forced back into line. Google wasn’t impressed with Samsung’s Android software implementations back in 2014 and a series of meetings led to the two companies announcing a broad patent cross-licensing deal and an agreement on what the future of Android would look like.

Google is facing Android challenges in Europe

Huawei has been preparing for a similar moment for years, and now the US-China trade war has arrived to complicate the company’s relationship with Android. Huawei is well aware of the challenges, though. The company has been building a Play Store alternative in plain sight, and it reportedly pitched app makers last year on creating apps for its store with the offer of helping them make inroads into China and a “very significant” share of the app store’s revenue. Bloomberg reports that Huawei even claimed it would have 50 million European users of its app store by the end of 2018.

Huawei’s store plans and discussions come at a pivotal time for Android in Europe. Google could finally face some competition after a European Commission lawsuit fined the company over Android antitrust violations. Regulators allege that Google abused its Android market dominance by bundling its search engine and Chrome apps into Android, blocking phone makers from creating devices that run forked versions of Android, and making payments to manufacturers and network operators to bundle the Google search app on handsets.

As a result, Google will start charging Android device makers a fee for using its apps in Europe. This could open the door to rival app stores, a more competitive landscape for Android, and inevitable fragmentation. The more likely result is that manufacturers will simply continue to bundle google’s apps and services, since it’ll allow them to avoid those fees. There are still no popular alternatives to YouTube, Google Maps, or Google Search, after all, and consumers across Europe will reject phones that don’t have access to these apps. Phone makers also aren’t likely to want to maintain different versions of Android for Europe, China, the US, and elsewhere.

The laptop challenge

Over on the Windows side, Microsoft has maintained its dominance on desktop computing for more than two decades using the same kinds of bundling tactics as Google. US regulators famously grilled Microsoft over its bundling of Internet Explorer in Windows, and EU regulators also got involved some years later. The EU eventually forced the company to include a browser ballot with non-Microsoft browsers in an effort to improve competition.

Microsoft was also accused of illegally bundling its Windows Media Player with Windows, and the EU forced it to unbundle the app so that competitors could get a fair playing field. Microsoft created a special version of Windows for Europe without the app, but barely any manufacturers actually shipped machines with this version.

Chrome OS looks like the most likely Windows alternative

There have been various forms of competition to the Windows dominance, including Macs, Linux-based netbooks, or even Google’s Chrome OS. Only mobile operating systems have managed to shake Microsoft’s dominance of computing in general, but Windows is still heavily used by businesses worldwide. Google’s Chrome OS looks like the most viable alternative for the masses, thanks to Google’s backing and its popular web services.

Many businesses still rely on Windows for its app compatibility, and to run apps and systems that aren’t just web-based. This has held back Microsoft from progressing with some of its own ARM-based laptop efforts, simplified versions of Windows, and even more restricted ones.

Huawei’s Plan B operating system would have to compete against both Windows 10 and Chrome OS in a market controlled by Lenovo, HP, Apple, Dell, Acer, and others. These companies have far more experience making and shipping PCs, and already have trusted brand recognition. We’ve seen Android-powered laptops arrive and disappear over the years, and it looks like Huawei is going down a similar path. If building an Android alternative for phones seems challenging, Huawei’s Windows alternative could be even harder to pull off in a market where it holds less sway.

Huawei now faces many tough decisions that are largely out of its control. None of this software even matters if the company doesn’t have the chips it needs. That’s a thorny problem that Huawei hasn’t shown any indication of being able to overcome. The ARM, Intel, and Qualcomm situations are far more dangerous for Huawei, but even without them, trying to compete with Google and Microsoft’s dominant operating systems seems an insurmountable challenge for a company better known for its hardware outside of China than software advancements.

Update, May 23rd 11:45AM: Article updated to mention BlackBerry.