Huawei’s well-orchestrated media campaign continued this week, as the Shenzhen tech giant continued to battle the unprecedented U.S. sanctions and campaign levelled against it. In recent weeks, the focus of that campaign has been continued growth across both network equipment and consumer products, sending the message to Washington that the blacklist is not working as planned. Yes, it is having an impact—but not one that is going to change the global technology landscape anytime soon. Well, at least not in a way the U.S. would want to see. And that is the deeper context behind that message Huawei is sending to Washington—be careful what you wish for.
The greatest blacklist impact so far on Huawei has been the loss of Google from its new consumer devices. This has proven to be the one piece of tech it can’t “un-Americanize.” On the one hand, this has introduced risk into Huawei’s sales growth outside China, but on the other hand it is becoming apparent that U.S. technology giants, in particular Google, may pay a long-term price if Huawei’s isolation continues, if Huawei is forced into a genuine Plan B. And if that happens, the U.S. risks losing its monopoly influence over key elements of worldwide technology standards.
The issue here is that if Huawei is forced to build a Google-free future, it raises the possibility of a third-way alternative to full-fat Android and iOS that is controlled in China and not California. If that happens, if an app ecosystem can be nurtured that competes with the two global operating systems, and if manufacturers from China and South East Asia jump onboard, the tech landscape will have changed materially. None of the U.S. tech giants want to see this, a new landscape driven by Washington that has a drastic impact on the country’s own tech sector.
There were echoes of this deeper context again this week, with a Huawei exec hinting—or threatening, depending on how you view it—that the company will have to decide its future within the next few months: Continue with Google or take that different path. The threat centres on Huawei’s IoT operating system, HarmonyOS, which was designed for smart TVs and appliances, but which (Huawei execs have hinted since the blacklist hit) could become a Google Android alternative on smartphones.
In truth, the HarmonyOS badge can mean many things. Despite company execs stressing that it could become a short-term Android replacement when the blacklist first hit, this was soon revised down, with an admission that it was not designed for smartphones after all. But now a fudge has been found—the restricted elements of Android—Google Play, Maps, Gmail, Pay—can be replaced, but the open-source and unrestricted Android can remain. “Harmony is not a replacement for Android,” Huawei VP Vincent Pang told the press. “It’s a next generation of Android.”