Huawei has always been one of the biggest manufacturers of smartphones, last year outselling every other brand. But in 2019 they found themselves in hot water with the US government, and were banned from doing business with US companies. Most significantly for consumers, that meant being locked out of the Google ecosystem. So what happens to those users locked out of their platform, how wide is Google’s influence generally, and what are Huawei doing to stay relevant?
The 2019 ban applied only to future models of Huawei phones and therefore only affected the most recent generation of phones, released in 2020. Those devices therefore do not have access to world-leading apps like Chrome, Gmail, Google Maps and Google Drive.
…And most significantly, Huawei users no longer have access to the Google Play Store.
For most Android users, the Google Play Store is at the core of the Android experience, because it’s where you go to download apps. It offers the largest collection of apps on any platform, and includes practically every app you’ve ever heard of. Losing access to this rich functionality is, therefore, a significant blow to Huawei users. What’s a mobile phone without apps?
Part of Android’s charm, is that it’s not tied to Google – or indeed any specific company. This is why Huawei is still able to use the Android OS: it’s freely available and open-source. For consumers, the Play Store may be available on the vast proportion of Android devices, but it’s actually just one of many stores you can use. Android users are free to get their apps from where they choose, and indeed install other app stores to use as sources. There are hundreds of app stores to choose from, many of which are curated galleries of apps with a single focus. Others are general-purpose, like the Amazon App Store.
So Huawei’s strategy has been to beef up its own app store, called AppGallery. Since 2020 it has poured more than a billion dollars into AppGallery, both improving its appearance and usability, and attracting developers to it. More developers means more apps, and AppGallery now sports familiar brands like Amazon, Office 365, TikTok and Snapchat.
Arguably they have met with some success. They weren’t starting from zero: Google Play has never been available in mainland China, so Chinese users were used to getting their apps elsewhere. But now AppGallery boasts over 490 million monthly users in 170 countries; it has nearly 100,000 apps and has registered over 1.8 million developers.
It still has a way to go, though. For obvious reasons apps from large US companies such as Facebook (including Instagram and WhatsApp) are missing.
For developers like us, Huawei’s success is going to be based around how easy it is to launch apps on AppGallery. Obviously any Android app we develop will be built for and made available on the Play Store, as that has the widest reach. But where it takes little effort to port it to AppGallery then we can recommend doing so to our clients.
It’s worth remembering that there are more Huawei users than Apple users out there – which puts into context the value of delivering apps to that platform.
It remains to be seen, though, whether Huawei can seriously challenge Google’s dominance over the Android platform outside of Asia. As always, I watch these scenes play out with interest, and in the knowledge that no single company ever dominates forever.