The US-China trade war forced Huawei to make Google-free Android phones. The Verge did a review of Huawei’s upcoming P40 flagship phone.
Living a Google-free life with a Huawei phone
Huawei is about to announce its latest flagship phones, the P40 series, but they won't be able to run Google apps. Does…
The result? Amazing phone (hardware) rendered completely undesirable because of a wonky experience in getting & updating common apps.
Some interesting side-notes.
Open-source Android myth & Google’s hegemony
Google effectively owns “open source” Android. This Ars technica article is a splendid read; one that will make you angry with Google.
My summary: Google essentially pulled off (formerly hated) Microsoft’s strategy of “Embrace, Extend & Extinguish” with Android. Initially, when Android was new Google offered lots of basic apps ( e.g. Alarm Clock) and developer services (e.g. Location) as part of Android. Overtime, they’ve converted them into Google-controlled services. Google moved all Android APIs like Location, Notifications, Payments, etc. to Google services. Developers love the reliable APIs Google offers but they’re locked in. Google also wielded its power through the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) and the Google service license (for GMail, YouTube, etc.). Though they are theoretically different things, yet in reality any OEM wanting to provide Google apps on it’s devices (so all of them) has to join the OHA. A key clause in joining the OHA is that the OEM cannot make android forks. With Android gaining market share, OEMs had their hands forced. It was difficult for most to build a competing OS so they went along. On one hand, OEMs can’t create forks without a lot of trouble. On the other, developers are dependent on Android APIs which are actually Google APIs; not supported on any fork. So Android becomes a read-only sort of open source OS, with Google’s firm iron grip all over it. Heck, even word the Android is a Google trademark that you need to license before use.
A handy contrast
A great contrast to this situation is the browser market. Here our current villain becomes the hero. Google Chrome dominates the browser market. Chrome is powered by the open-source Chromium project. Google’s desire to advance the web and the internet’s fundamentally decentralised structure means Chromium remains a rich project that others can use. Heck, even Microsoft uses Chromium now along with many other browser makers. Chromium can be argued to be a true public good. Google Chrome has been freely available for a decade. The Brave browser riffs Chromium to create a privacy focused experience. Microsoft has created Edge for Business, a enterprise-oriented browser. This is a rich market with multiple players catering to diverse segments and full of possibility. A commonality of web standards make this diversity possible. The only reason the forks work is because the underlying diversity of rendering engines and browser APIs got squashed with Chrome winning and Chromium being open source.
Few have dared to break the status quo here. Samsung notably tried to build Tizen OS but it went the Windows phone way, and is now used only in televisions. It’s the classic chicken egg-problem: No apps means no users means no developers means no apps. Amazon is the only tech company with a proper competing fork, the Fire OS. Amazon has taken great pains to copy every Google API and provide it along with Fire OS. No one but Amazon uses Fire OS in it’s devices.
China offers a great picture of what a dynamic app market looks like. China enjoys the unique position of not having Google’s presence, so Chinese android users have access to a plethora of app stores, over 400 of them! There are stores from OEMs, stores from telecom companies, stores from famous software companies (like Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu). To add to the fun, messaging app WeChat is effectively an OS with it’s own HTML-based app mini-programs platform. This fragmentation is obviously a headache for app developers/distributors but on the flip side, you have multiple routes to your users and can’t get bullied by a monopoly.
Huawei’s predicament is something that can be solved via an industry alliance. Google owns so many bits and pieces across the mobile OS stack that no single company (save Microsoft or maybe Facebook) could build them all. It would a take lot of players across different parts of the OS stack to collaborate and create a viable Android alternative. At some level, Chinese OEMs are doing just that. Huawei, Oppo, Vivo, & Xiaomi recently teamed up to form the Global Developer Service Alliance. Can’t say how this will end up, my brain is pessimistic while my heart is optimistic. The GDSA just tackles app distribution, there’s lots more to be solved.
Another obvious but non-tech way to solve this is …. anti-trust. Either get regulators to recognise this Google’s ownership of Android as a problem or get Google to panic & self-regulate (that’s sorta what happened to once tech monopolist IBM). Google’s arguably anti-competitive behaviour has not gone unnoticed. The European commission found Google in violation of anti-trust laws and slapped it with a $5 billion fine. This triggered Google to create a new browser + search engine choice process on Android phones in the EU. This is an exact replay of Microsoft vs EU.
No intervention needed
One way to look at this is say to “Hey! Operating systems are complicated things, there aren’t going to be a 100 OS companies”. That’s true. Building an OS is capital and expertise intensive, so there aren’t many companies of that sort going to survive. It’s a very monopoly-prone situation. The issue here is not even access to the technology per se. It is rather the market situation, the fact that OEMs locked themselves into agreements that they eventually realised they don’t like.
Another argument is that all companies eventually die, this too shall pass, so do nothing. IBM and Microsoft were once dominant but they’re not the crazy giants they used to be. Microsoft still is, but not for the same reasons. It’s like saying entropy will sort this, don’t bother. Not very convincing. To someone who’s suffered injustice, telling them “your aggressor will die” is not justice!
Despite the hullaballoo of the bitcoin/decentalised apps movement in recent years, it provides little respite from the problems above. In a way the whole bitcoin (and consequently dapps) movement was created precisely to tackle the problem above: Take power away from big institutions. Yet, the whole ecosystem is ten steps ahead of the market. Users adopt anything however broken or risky if use cases they hold dear are served 10X better through your product. We call these must-have experience “killer apps” for platforms. So far the killer app for bitcoin/dapps is … wild speculation! (and to some extent anonymous money transfer). I like how Brave browser is increasing privacy through a decentalised approach to ads and remain bullish on dapps, but there’s a long way to go.
The initial rise of tech giants made it seem like they existed in a virtual plane far above the mundane borders of countries; in the free world of the internet. Recent events have highlighted a much more sober reality. China’s internet is entirely different from the rest of the worlds and Russia’s will soon be. The US-China trade war highlights that the obvious fact that corporations will put business continuity and profits over taking an opinion. Anti-trust and other regulations loom large on all tech platforms. The Google-Huawei battle seems like false choice between giving your data to the NSA or handing it over to the CCP. I can’t wait for my Aadhar to be linked to my browser and OS!