The Huawei Disaster Reveals Google’s Iron Grip on Android

By Eric Ravenscraft

Credit: John MacDougall/Getty Images

Google’s Android is pitched as the open, free-for-everyone alternative to the iPhone. However, to comply with a recent order from the U.S. government, Google pulled the Chinese tech company and smartphone manufacturer Huawei’s license to use the proprietary Google software that sits on top of Android. In doing so, Google quietly exposed the powerful control it has over its supposedly open phone ecosystem.

Most Android manufacturers — including Huawei — are what’s known as Google hardware partners. This relationship lets them build their phones around a collection of Google products, from apps like Google Maps and Assistant, to under-the-hood tools like location services or push notifications. While Google gives off the impression that Android is open and available to everyone, these services represent a quiet control that the company doesn’t often enforce over its hardware partners — though, as it has now proven, it certainly can.

With the recent order, the U.S. government forced Google’s hand. The U.S. Department of Commerce put Huawei on the “Entity List,” which blocks it from buying technology from U.S. companies without government approval. Huawei and Google now have three months to send updates to existing users. For new phones, Huawei may be able to use the open-source version of Android, but it can’t be a Google partner.

The distinction between using Android and being a Google partner seems messy from the outside, but “Android” technically refers to the core operating system that covers basic things like making phone calls or using the camera. The freely available version of Android is called the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and a company doesn’t have to be a partner to use it.

Most manufacturers like Huawei, however, do choose to become a Google partner. That means Huawei agrees to only make devices that use a collection of Google apps known as Google Mobile Services which includes things like Gmail, YouTube, and the Google Play Store. Under this arrangement, Huawei can’t, for example, make a phone that ships with Microsoft’s Bing and Edge instead of Google Search and Chrome.

Manufacturers generally have little choice but to play by Google’s rules, because the costs of doing otherwise are tremendous.

Partners also have to meet certain security and compatibility conditions. In exchange, they get access to all of Google’s apps and infrastructure, making their phones much more appealing to customers worldwide than they would otherwise be. This arrangement is usually free, though manufacturers who sell in the EU pay a fee and are exempt from the all-or-nothing condition for complicated legal reasons.

According to Bryan Pon, PhD, mobile platform researcher and co-founder of the data analytics firm Caribou Data, this gives Google a lot of control over its platform. “Consumers are attached to the Google products and services that sit on top of the operating system,” explains Pon. “Google has very strong proprietary control over those, and in that sense wields tremendous power, irrespective of the operating system.”

Additionally, Huawei, and Google’s other partners, have to include a collection of developer tools called Google Play Services. These background tools let app developers easily do things like create push notifications, embed maps in their apps, or get a GPS location. Most Android apps distributed through the Google Play Store rely on some of these tools to provide features that are too expensive or difficult for every developer to build themselves.

As Pon explains, some of these tools are crucial features that would normally be part of an operating system. “They’re actually taking functionality out of the core platform,” Pon says. “They’re leaving Android open source, more and more, just a shell. And that core functionality is now part of just proprietary Google services.” Google does this to make it easier to update important features without waiting for a big Android update, but the result consolidates Google’s power over its platform.

Without Google Play Services, Huawei would have to build these tools itself or leave developers to do it. The company has created its own version of some of these features — like a push notification service — but developers still have to add support for Huawei’s version of the tools to their apps in order for them to work on non-Google phones. Huawei is building its own app store alternative, but it could take a long time to build everything else that developers and users are accustomed to getting from Google.

Manufacturers generally have little choice but to play by Google’s rules, because the costs of doing otherwise are tremendous. One of the few companies to opt out of Google’s system was Amazon with its series of Fire Tablets. If you buy a Fire, you’ll have something similar to an Android experience, but with hardly a trace of Google. Instead, you’ll use the Amazon Appstore. You’ll talk to Alexa instead of the Google Assistant. You’ll use Amazon’s Silk Browser instead of Chrome. Under the hood, all your apps will be using Amazon’s version of key features, like notifications or GPS. The approach works fine enough for a tablet, but when Amazon tried to make a phone, it failed miserably.

Samsung tries to walk a middle ground, offering parallel versions of almost everything Google makes, from basic email apps to its own voice assistant, without breaking away from its partner agreement. But if Samsung were to find itself in Huawei’s shoes, even that might not be enough. “I think to some extent, Samsung has to tell itself that it… has a plan B,” says Pon. “But I think, realistically, if they get turned off, like Huawei might get turned off, then they don’t have any good options.”

Under normal circumstances, this symbiotic relationship benefits everyone involved and lends credibility to Google’s claim that Android — unlike the iPhone — is “open,” while still letting the company maintain as much control over Android as possible. If a company like Amazon wants to build its own alternative from scratch, it can. For companies like Samsung and Huawei that can’t afford to or aren’t willing to go that far, they can leverage Google’s massive resources to make a variation of Android that consumers will want, without deviating too far from Google’s master plan.

Now, barring relief in the brewing China-U.S. trade war, Huawei has been forcibly pushed into going the much harder Amazon route. Huawei can’t use Google apps, it can’t support the push notifications or location services most apps use, and it even has to wait longer for security updates before it can push them to users. Existing users won’t be affected for now, thanks to the temporary license granted by the U.S. Commerce Department, but future plans look grim. It took Amazon years to build its own version of Google’s services. Huawei’s CEO says the company has a plan, but it’s unclear how long that plan could take to unfold.

Fortunately, for Huawei, it’s not all bad news. The Google Play Store has been banned in China for years due to the country’s Great Firewall that censors many foreign sites and services including Google search, Facebook, or YouTube. Losing them is of little importance in the Chinese market, which makes up 52% of the company’s overall revenue. Outside China, on the other hand, Huawei stands to lose quite a lot. Globally, it’s hard to sell an Android phone without Google services.

Google can reaffirm its commitment to being “open” and “free” all it wants, but ultimately it’s still a gatekeeper.

Beyond Huawei’s problems — and beyond the reality that geopolitics will play an increasing role in the tech business — this situation reveals a truth that Google has downplayed for years. While Android — the stripped down, open-source operating system — may be available to everyone, all of the Google pieces that make most Android phones worthwhile are locked behind a partner program. Google might let almost everyone into its exclusive club, but it reserves the right to kick them out.

Even if we could assume the best about Google’s intentions to keep Android as open as possible — and Google did not respond to a request by OneZero for comment — the Huawei order demonstrates that Google’s control can be abused by other entities. If the U.S. were in a trade war with South Korea instead of China, Samsung phones — still the most popular in the world over — could face a similar fate. Google can reaffirm its commitment to being “open” and “free” all it wants, but ultimately it’s still a gatekeeper.