Google has issued a warning to users not to sideload (install) its apps, including Google Mail and the Play Store, onto unsupported devices from Huawei. Huawei has warned Google that it will launch its own operating system to compete with Google.
I lived through the browser wars, picked my side in the OS wars. Are we about to enter the era of the mobile wars?
Who started the battle between Huawei and Google?
The problems between Google and Huawei started when a US government embargo meant that Google had to stop shipping software to Huawei. This cut a large number of phones off from security updates and new apps. However, ingenious users found ways around the block, including the “sideloading” of applications on the devices.
(Sideloading is the process of installing software to your mobile phone without using an app-store)
Now, with the embargo still in place, Google has warned users not to install its applications in this way, just days before Huawei are due to unveil their latest smartphones.
The embargo was meant to hurt Huawei, but it simply hasn’t worked. Buoyed up by handset sales in China, where Huawei controls over 40% of the market, and with sales in Europe still strong, Huawei can afford to face Google down.
And, if it plays its trump card and releases its own operating system, Google may have accidentally created its new biggest competitor.
Could a new mobile operating system really work?
Whether or not Huawei can make a success of their new operating system doesn’t actually come down to whether the operating system itself is any good or not. Nokia and Blackberry had been making phones for *years* before the advent of the iPhone and Android devices, but both businesses were crushed by the new competitors.
Huawei’s new “Harmony OS” is apparently based on the open-source version of Android, effectively forking the operating system popularised by Google and creating a “Google-less” version of the same system.
When it came down to Apple and Android Vs Nokia and Blackberry in those early days, it wasn’t that the phones were any better. Yes, the iPhone introduced the first “big screen, no keyboard” layout but that was soon emulated, it wasn’t that the operating systems were any better either (if you were around for the early versions of Android in particular, it was pretty ropey in a lot of areas).
No, what made the difference was the App Stores. Suddenly, phones could do a lot more than they ever could because of the creation of apps. Easy to find and install thanks to the app stores on both iOS and Android the ubiquity of apps lead Apple’s slogan of “There’s an App for That” to enter the lexicon of phone users worldwide.
In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if Huawei’s operating system is any good – it only matters if app makers decide that they can make money from this marketplace and port their apps across. If existing Android apps can easily be re-platformed to Harmony OS this might be a no-brainer for many developers.
Huawei seem to understand the importance of the app market too – as well as pumping over $1 billion dollars into developing their operating system, they have been promising to let developers use their app store for a fraction of the cost and commissions currently charged by Apple and Google.
Isn’t app development just dead anyway?
One other take on this is that mobile phones no longer *need* an app-store. The strong growth of progressive web apps (effectively websites that can install small functioning versions of themselves on your mobile or desktop device) has been weakening the hold of the app-store process for some time.
Some of the Google Apps that Google don’t want you to sideload are already available in PWA form.
It’s no longer necessary to dance to Apple and Google’s tune to get your application listed in their app store if you can build your software as a progressive web app. (*Of course it helps and PWAs can be listed in the app stores, but it is just as easy to install an PWA direct from its own website*)
One of the joys of Progressive Web Apps, as well as being freed from the constraints of the app store model, is that you can build the application once **for all platforms**. Although we don’t know much, if anything, about Huawei’s new operating system I’d be amazed if it can’t support PWAs. Assuming that that is the case, Huawei aren’t starting from zero apps in their store at all.
Should you still buy a Huawei phone?
I currently have a Huawei P20 and it is probably the best phone I have ever had. I’m due to upgrade soon and if it weren’t for the spectre of potentially losing the Play Store and some of my Google services, I’d upgrade in a heartbeat to the last model.
However, I’m not ready to give up the Play Store and not all of my must-have apps have PWA equivalents yet. It looks like my next phone is going to be Android, but from a different vendor.
I’ll be holding out as long as possible though, in the hope that this problem can be resolved. Microsoft have had their license to supply Huawei renewed – Google are waiting patiently, and quietly, to see if they will have theirs renewed also.
If they don’t, it will be the app makers who decide the fate of Harmony OS. 40% of the Chinese market may simply be too big a market to ignore.