When Google announced its new interface gestures in Android Q, I got a sense of déjà vu, because I’d already seen them in Huawei’s EMUI. And when Google candidly revealed the rear of its upcoming Pixel 4 phone last night, I was again reminded of a Huawei product, this time the Mate 20 Pro of last year, which had the same square camera module filled with lenses. Combining the two together, I can’t help but feel that the stuff Google is cooking up for us in late 2019 will be a retread of what Huawei already delivered a year earlier. That’s not a knock on Google, but a sense of appreciation for how far ahead Huawei has been.
China’s leading smartphone maker might not always get everything right, and it’s currently caught up in some nasty trade war crossfire, but it happens to be one of the most aggressively pioneering tech companies we have right now.
Huawei took more than a couple of risks with the Mate 20 Pro. The company bet, correctly, that people would be okay with the large camera module on the back, and most have deemed it a feature adding character rather than an ugly eyesore. Huawei also launched its 7nm Kirin 980 processor on that phone, which has been a success in subsequent Huawei and Honor devices, remaining perfectly competitive with the 2019 Qualcomm Snapdragon flagship chip. Then there are the other firsts for Huawei handsets, like the in-screen fingerprint sensor, the curved edges, and the Face ID-rivaling face unlock feature.
Moving away from a physical home button, Huawei tweaked its EMUI interface to accept gestures. The Mate 20 Pro has the generic swipe up from the bottom to go to the home screen or enter multitasking, but it also accepts a swipe from either side of the screen as a substitute for pressing the obviated back button. Long after I completed my review of the Mate 20 Pro, I was instinctively reaching for that “back” gesture on other Android phones. It’s not necessarily intuitive, but once you get used to it, it feels like the most natural action.
Three of Google’s big new features with the Pixel 4 are already present in the Mate 20 Pro: Android Q adds a very similar side-swiping back gesture, the Pixel 4 has a similarly-sized square camera cutout replete with many sensors, and rumors suggest Google is working on a similar face-unlocking technology.
Am I arguing that Huawei invented all of this and Google is just copying? Not at all. Huawei has an inglorious history of preemptively copying upcoming features from other leading smartphone designers — most notably with its Mate S in 2015, which added Force Touch before the iPhone did (and before anyone at Huawei had any idea what to do with the tech). There’s a chance Huawei last year may have already known of the upcoming Android Q gestures, and it may have also gotten wind of the next iPhone’s expected square camera module, resulting in the design choices it made in the Mate 20 Pro. That’s a cynical take, but it’s possible.
Still, the important thing is that Huawei took a chance on a lot of that tech before anyone else did. To a certain extent, Google is riding Huawei’s coattails on these flagship features. Both Google and Apple are expected to have a chunky square camera array, and both already have market data about how the general consumer will react before they’ve even launched their products. Google’s Android Q gestures will also have benefited from an open beta test of something very similar to them in Huawei’s EMUI. Both Google and Huawei have spoken glowingly about their mutually beneficial collaboration around Android.
I find the prospect of a Mate 20 Pro by Google super exciting, and I have two reasons why. Firstly, the original phone by Huawei is still one of the best Android devices on the market, its appeal marred only by Huawei’s placement on a US trade blacklist that threatens its access to future Android updates. Secondly, I just trust Google to do it all better. Huawei has proven itself the intrepid pioneer that goes for wild-eyed risky tech bets, whereas Google has consistently demurred from the very cutting edge with its Pixel devices.
Okay, so maybe I have another half a reason: Google’s bold reveal of the Pixel 4 four months ahead of its launch is a signal of confidence. The company says it straight up: “Wait ‘til you see what it can do.” With that move, Google has at once taken over the leak narrative and ratcheted up expectations for the performance, not just the looks, of its next device. I’m fully expecting the company to quit fooling around with the paltry 4GB of RAM of its 2018 device, ditch the dreadful Pixel 3 XL notch, and eliminate any lingering doubts (mostly caused by Huawei) about whether it has the best smartphone camera.
For anyone in the United States, where Huawei has been prevented from selling its phones, the promise of a device that matches the Mate 20 Pro’s performance while augmenting it with Google’s cleaner Android and longer update support should be heavenly music.
The Pixel is about to add greater versatility to its superlative camera, whether the extra lens is super-wide or telephoto, and Google is in a combative mood months in advance of the phone’s release. As someone who loved Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro, I can’t wait to see how much better Google will do with the same basic formula.