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How Huawei is building a post-Google smartphone

Due to the ban on U.S. companies doing business with Huawei, the Huawei App Gallery is now the default app store for all Huawei and Honor phones launched recently. That includes Google, of course, which now locks Huawei out of the Google Play Store.

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

A fully stocked app store is crucial to the success of any phone, Huawei’s included. The company’s in-house alternative, the App Gallery, however, is still a work in progress — particularly outside of China.

Huawei recognizes that, and has big plans for expanding the App Gallery in other parts of the world. After the launch of the P40 Pro, I joined a small group of journalists in chatting with Huawei Business Group Chairman Richard Yu about how the company plans to replace the many services that were once performed by Google.

Loading the store with apps

Anyone used to Google’s services and apps will find swapping to a phone without them daunting, no matter how tempting the P40 or Mate Xs might be. Huawei’s App Gallery wasn’t ready to step in as a replacement when the ban arrived, but Yu seems happy with the progress made so far.

“I understand the concerns,” said Yu. “At the beginning, [the store] is not perfect, but with some time it will be very competitive. I still have confidence it can quickly improve. The ban influenced us a lot last year, but now it is getting better and better, and we are recovering growth.”

Huawei’s challenge is to shift both itself and developers away from using Google Mobile Services (GMS), the underlying toolkit developers use to make apps function. This usually integrates Google services like location, identity, and account data. Apps on the App Gallery have to use Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) instead. Apps built for GMS will not work on current Huawei phones.

Huawei started developing HMS less than a year ago, in May 2019, when the U.S. government’s ban went into place. Despite that, Huawei’s new P40 flagship phone integrates Huawei Mobile Services, including the App Gallery. Huawei can’t be accused of wasting any time, and Yu is confident about the effect its fast-paced development will have. “HMS and its services will be very successful in the future,” he said. “It will get better every month.”

Huawei is courting developers

Converting apps from GMS to HMS is “very easy,” for developers, according to Yu. Huawei provides development tools to help companies adapt to Huawei phones. Yu said this often requires just one or two days.

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

“We want to talk with all the leading app developers to quickly integrate HMS and to put their apps on Huawei App Gallery,” Yu emphasized. “This is the top priority, and we have built a global business development team to discuss [this] with the developers. But there are so many apps, it takes some time.”

It’s not just apps Huawei needs to encourage. It also needs to offer an alternative for location data, and its own voice assistant. In addition to testing location services of its own, Huawei is collaborating with maps specialist TomTom to accelerate the process. However, TomTom’s app has not arrived in the App Gallery yet. Yu updated us on the situation, though he wasn’t able to provide a specific date or launch window.

“The partnership with TomTom is progressing very well. TomTom will provide location services in HMS, and a map service,” Yu said. “We want to give consumers a stand-alone app for navigation too. I hope by working with TomTom, we can bring a better experience than Google Maps in the future.”

Huawei’s voice assistant now has a name, Celia, and is available in selected regions and languages on board the Huawei P40. Developing Celia is important, as Huawei can’t use Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.

Still, it shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for either of them. Yu said he hopes people will be able to use all three assistants on its devices one day, hinting that not only are all HMS systems compatible with Google’s services, but that Huawei is willing to work with Google again — if that becomes possible.

Partnerships haven’t been ruled out

Yu frequently reiterated Huawei’s strong partnership with Google, reminding everyone of Huawei’s position as the number two smartphone brand in the world, and saying that he hopes for the two companies to continue working together as they did in the past.

“We still want to cooperate with Google. It is a good partnership. We hope we can continue, but that needs the U.S. government’s license,” Yu said. “We hope Google can get a license. We want to continue the partnership and cooperation for the next 10 years.”

The U.S. government has stated it will accept applications for licenses to work with Huawei during the ban, and it’s speculated Google has applied for one. However, no licenses have been granted at the time of writing.

That’s why Huawei’s not sitting back and waiting. While still open to partnerships, Yu was very clear about the company’s direction. “We still want to continue our partnership with Google, but we have no other choice, we cannot waste time. [With HMS], we will bring more value, and better choice.”

The App Gallery already has familiar faces

Today, the App Gallery is a work in progress, but it’s not a barren wasteland as some may fear, as it has many big-name apps ready to download. This includes Microsoft Office, Telegram, Snapchat, Tidal, and TikTok, plus games like World of Tanks Blitz, Asphalt, and Fortnite.

However, the majority of people will need to add the Amazon App Store to obtain social networking apps, or use direct APK downloads for others. Even then, gaps can remain.

Huawei’s music store installed on the P40 Pro. Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Encouraging third-party apps is only the start, and Huawei is hard at work on building an entire ecosystem of apps, services, and products.

Buy a P40 and you’ll find a Huawei-branded music and video service. There’s Huawei Health, a strong Google Fit competitor and hub for syncing its wearables. There’s even a solid email client. Alongside the P40, Huawei announced the global launch of MeeTime, a video chat app along the same lines of Apple’s FaceTime.

Huawei has no choice

If it succeeds in its plan to build a viable international alternative to both Apple and Google, Huawei’s efforts could change the mobile industry. It’s been years since we last saw a true competitor to Google and Apple’s app stores.

Huawei is well-positioned to offer a third choice. Huawei shipped 238 million phones in 2019, and the App Gallery has more than 400 million monthly active users in 170 countries. Still, history shows how tough the task really is.

Microsoft failed to turn the Windows App Store into a Google-beating winner, as did Samsung with its Tizen app store, and BlackBerry, too. Samsung went particularly hard on in-house offerings, like Samsung Pay and the Galaxy Store. When’s the last time you used, or even heard, of those?

A key difference? Huawei has no choice. The company might’ve been happy to continue it partnerships. Now, cut off by international politics, it must challenge the status quo. Perhaps this will give Huawei the determination needed to offer a viable third app ecosystem for smartphone buyers.

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