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Six months later, the Huawei App Gallery still can’t take on Google Play

Six months ago, I put the Huawei App Gallery through its paces to see how many of the apps I needed to use on a regular basis were available, and if not, how easy it was to find them. Starting a no-Google life at the time wasn’t easy, and required patience and ingenuity to overcome some difficult problems.

Since then, Huawei has been working hard to improve the store, which has more apps and a clever new search system, so what’s it like now? To find out, I made a fresh start with the Huawei P40 Pro.

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What is the App Gallery?

Most people know U.S. businesses cannot do business with Huawei due to a ban introduced by the U.S. government, and that includes Google. Closed out from access to Google Play, Huawei has accelerated development of its own ecosystem — Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) — for use on its products, and an important part of that is the Huawei App Gallery. The App Gallery is Huawei’s alternative to the Google Play Store, and where you’ll download some of the apps you need.

Huawei App Gallery welcome screen Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

My requirements are apparently relatively basic. I have around 45 apps I install on each phone I use, and Huawei’s research says most people have between 80 and 100 apps on their phones. With 81,000 apps now available in the App Gallery, up from around 50,000 at the beginning of the year, surely I would have fewer problems getting the apps I need this time? The company has put a lot of effort into adding apps with local relevance, but admits many apps made by U.S. companies are missing.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

To help overcome problems with finding and installing the apps you need, Huawei has added a new service called Petal Search. This is a curated database of a million apps, and is designed to guide you to where the app you require is available to download on your phone, whether that’s from the App Gallery, the developer’s own website, or another source. Unfortunately, it does not include Amazon’s App Store, which is a prime non-Google source for common U.S. apps — you have to search that separately.

Finding my apps

Let’s start with the social and messaging apps, most of which people consider essential to everyday use of their phone. Using Petal Search, WhatsApp was found as an APK through WhatsApp’s own website. Moving on to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Slack, Petal Search simply guided me to APKPure, where APK files (Android app installation files) can be downloaded to install the app. Alternatively, these can be downloaded from Amazon’s App Store, which is more preferable than using raw APK files considering there is an additional level of vetting involved.

How Petal Search shows app results Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Installing apps manually using APK files presents a few problems. These are unofficial sources, and although APKPure is generally trusted, it’s prudent to be wary of obtaining apps that store personal or financial information this way. While it’s a workaround for those who need apps on their new phones, it’s not a complete solution. Also, since Petal Search just takes you to the APKPure site, you may as well download the APKPure app itself, making it easier to update apps in the future.

There’s also the added frustration that even if you can install an app manually with its APK file, the app may not be fully functional when installed on a non-Google Android phone. Many apps are built to specifically hook into Google’s services for data saving, notifications, maps, and other features, and without the Google underpinnings on your phone, they just won’t work.

Continuing to work through my list using Petal Search, it became clear how much of a convenient time saver it is for Huawei newcomers, or those who aren’t very technical. In the absence of a fully stocked app store, searching for your app in Petal Search saves time over using a search engine, where the chances of being led to less reputable sources is greater.

The app will direct you to the App Gallery when it finds an app that’s available there — WeChat and Amazon Shopping, for example — to the developers’ site, or to APKPure. Doing all this in one place, quickly, removes one of the annoying barriers I discovered last time I did this, using the Mate Xs folding smartphone in March.

Petal Search’s main screen does not prioritize app search Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

All good, then? No. Huawei has turned Petal Search into its equivalent of the primary Google app, adding in so much additional content that’s not even slightly relevant to app search, it makes the app unwieldy and confusing. Open the app and the splash page is populated with news, some links to AliExpress and more news, and a search bar that adds in “trending” topics as suggestions.

Tap Search in the bottom menu and you can finally start to look for apps, but again Huawei adds trending topics into the search bar, and highlights them at the top of the page too. Below this are locally relevant app suggestions. Even the returned results add options for news, images, and video results. It’s annoying as not only does this essentially duplicate what you find when swiping right on the home screen, but people run the risk of opening Petal Search and dismissing it as bloatware, missing out on its only useful feature.

App selection

Petal Search frustrates when it shouldn’t, but once you delve deep enough it helps you find the apps you need quickly, even if it does primarily send you to What if you just want to use the App Gallery? It has various well-known apps including Snapchat, Tinder, TikTok, Sky Go, Viber, Telegram, Deezer, VLC, UKTV Play, PUBG Mobile, Curve, AccuWeather, and a healthy collection of games. Whether that’s good enough will depend on your own personal needs. But honestly, you’re likely to come across at least a few key apps missing.

The Airbnb Quick App Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Search in the App Gallery for an app and sometimes you get a suggestion for a “Quick App.” Airbnb is an example. Open these links and you get an app-like webpage that can be added to your phone’s home screen. The experience is decent with plenty of speed, and is a good substitute for an official app, but the selection is relatively limited.

One interesting new addition to the App Gallery since I used it last is TomTom Go Navigation. Before this, and without Google Maps, the App Gallery’s only real mapping app was Here WeGo maps, which is competent but not especially compelling. TomTom Go Navigation is focused on driving guidance, with great traffic data and clear routing, but doesn’t provide public transport or walking directions.

TomTom Go Navigation (left) with Google Maps (right) Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Because it doesn’t worry about walking navigation, the maps don’t include those routes, or a wide range of local points of interest, making it hard to complete an entire journey using it. Strangely, the app even limits you to adding in only five additional points of interest to show on the map, rather than just showing everything and letting you whittle it down. Worse, the app is not free, and requires a 1.99-euro/$2.35 monthly subscription to use. This alone means it is not a replacement for Google Maps, although it’s clearly not even a close competitor based on its feature set.

The same old problems remain

Six months on and the Huawei App Gallery is obviously improving, but no great leaps forward have been made. Petal Search helps, but the app experience isn’t very good, and paying for TomTom Go Navigation is a serious barrier for adoption when it doesn’t offer walking, cycling, or public transport navigation.

I turned to the Amazon App Store for several apps, but they’re often out of date, and installing APK files from APKPure for banking apps seems risky. There’s no free, easy option to restore old chats from WhatsApp, Line, or any other app which relies on Google Drive for backups, and the P40 Pro can’t control my Google smart home equipment either.

Much of the HMS experience hasn’t lived up to expectations, and Huawei has a long way to go.

Ultimately, very little has changed for me personally since using the App Gallery on the Huawei Mate Xs earlier this year. Everyone’s needs are different, and I’m coming at this from the position of someone who has used the Google ecosystem for years, so inevitably the switch will be difficult and require some sacrifice. You may not have the same problem, particularly if you’re coming from iOS (where some of the same issues will occur if you switched to any other Google phone), or live where Google’s apps are not as commonly used as they are in Europe or North America.

Six months is a significant amount of time to use any smartphone, but it’s not long in the life of an app store or mobile ecosystem, especially one that’s young. Huawei still needs time, but some of the new features which were looked at as important advancements in everyday usability — Petal Search and TomTom Go Navigation — have not lived up to expectations, underlining not only the difficulty Huawei faces with HMS, but also the amount of time it’s going to take for it to truly take on Apple and Google.

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