Digital warfare: What’s going on with Google and Huawei?

Travel back in time to only a few years ago and the name Huawei barely registered with most people. It was a small-ish Chinese company who made smartphones for those adventurous enough to break away from the dynasties of Apple and Samsung and that was about it. Huawei though, were quietly creeping up the smartphone charts and as of February 2019, were the second largest manufacturer of android-ready devices on the planet.

However, it is not Huawei’s market share that is currently securing them global headlines, nor is it the fact that Huawei devices have come to be vaunted as most agreeable smartphone alternatives. The reason is, the company, in league with the Chinese government, has found itself at the centre of a rumpus with both the UK and US administrations.

A leak and a sacking

Around April time, information relating to a UK National Security Council meeting was leaked. The meeting had been held to discuss the progression of 5G technology and Huawei’s role in supporting with the roll-out. With Huawei being a foreign company with a series of lesser known controversies surrounding it, their involvement was, at the time, stamped as ‘Confidential’. Regardless of this classification, the information made its way into the public domain and Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, the individual charged with the breach, was summarily relieved of his duties.

By the time Williamson’s P45 was made public, Huawei was the brand on everyone’s lips, but there was more to come.

Trump wades in

The US administration has been outspoken in its wariness about Huawei for some time. With founder and chairman, Ren Zhengfei, having a military background and the 2017 enactment of a Chinese National Intelligence Law which that states that organisations must “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work”, the Americans were perhaps understandably dubious of the inroads Huawei were making into the US market.

A breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two superpowers has led to a tit-for-tat imposition of various tariffs culminating in the Trump administration adding Huawei to a list of companies that American firms cannot trade with unless they have a licence.

Current Huawei smartphone users will still be able to update apps and push through security fixes and update Google Play services, but there is a question mark over what happens when Google launches the next version of Android later this year. As yet, there are no guarantees it will be available on Huawei devices. Furthermore, future Huawei devices may no longer have popular apps such as YouTube and Maps on them.

What’s next for Huawei?

This sanction on Huawei has clear and potentially damning consequences for their consumer business. Few smartphone buyers will want an Android phone lacking access to Google’s Play Store, its virtual assistant or security updates. Assuming these are among the services that would be withdrawn.

Responding, Huawei have claimed that this move by the Trump administration was one they were already prepared for. As such, they have their own downloadable app gallery, the phones themselves are now powered by Huawei processors, and, according to senior figures, they have developed their own operating system to roll-out as a ‘Plan B’.

Whether this is all enough to maintain consumer confidence and allow Huawei to meet their ambition of knocking Samsung off top spot for handset sales, remains to be seen. What we can however see, and many are seeing and experiencing for the first time, is that contemporary diplomatic polarisations can be felt in the small, multimedia rectangles we carry around with us every day.