The soap opera that is Huawei’s loss of Google software and services from its new smartphones has taken twist after turn in recent weeks. We had been warned (by Google) that the new flagship Mate 30 Series would launch without full-fat Android, but we had also been promised (by Huawei’s consumer boss Richard Yu) that workarounds would be found. To cut a long story short, the device did launch without Google, workarounds were then found, but then those workarounds were taken away.
All of which kind of leaves us back where we expected to be—Huawei continues to launch great devices, those great devices don’t carry Google, most analysts expect sales outside China to take a massive hit as a consequence. But, in reality, it’s not that simple. And what has actually happened could be even worse than it seems for Huawei, with the consequences not yet fully understood.
The Mate 30 has become the focal point for this on/off Google apps story. But what happens to the Mate 30 will impact the forthcoming Mate X and anything else after that until the U.S. blacklist changes. Just ahead of the Mate 30’s September launch, Android Authority reported that Yu had told the media Huawei “might have a workaround on-hand” to recover Google functionality, that the process would be “quite easy,” that “the open-source nature of Android enables ‘a lot of possibilities’, and that third-party developers had worked on workarounds for some time, given that “Huawei is unable to provide Google Mobile Services on new products due to the ban.”
I asked Huawei for an official statement at the time, regarding Yu’s comments, to be told that the official word from the Consumer Business Group is “we can’t comment on that.” In private, it seemed there was internal nervousness at being seen to flaunt the ban, enabling workarounds to be publicly applied to the devices.
And, sure enough, despite Huawei confirming on launch the lack of Google Mobile Services, essentially the framework to which Google apps attach, the internet was soon abuzz with videos and tutorials on the use of a Chinese app to sideload all those familiar Google apps back onto the device. Notwithstanding the security concerns in giving a Chinese language app of uncertain origin access to a phone’s core system, the workaround was widely welcomed and we seemed to be back to business as usual.
Meanwhile, reports from China, where the Mate 30 first launched, suggested the devices were flying from the shelves. Helped by a steep price cut and domestic pride in a national champion, a million devices quickly shipped and Huawei’s plan to shore up any hit to international sales with strong demand at home seemed fine.
But then, quite suddenly, everything changed.
The app that was being used to enable the after-market Google load on Mate 30s is LZPlay—available on some app stores and from LZPlay.net. On loading, it seeks permission to access hidden system settings, opening up Google “stubs” deep within Huawei’s version of the Android open-source core to enable apps and services to be installed. With some exceptions—notably Google Pay—everything seemed normal.
But then came the inevitable deep-dive into that app—what was actually happening under the phone’s covers. Cue John Wu’s Medium post. It transpired, according to Wu, that for LZPlay to work required “undocumented Huawei specific MDM APIs,” implying that the use of such APIs were “signed with a special certificate from Huawei, granted privileges nowhere to be found on standard Android systems.”
In essence, the implication was that Huawei was sanctioning or overlooking the app restoring banned Google apps and services onto Huawei devices. “Wait a minute,” Wu asked in his post, “does that mean either Google is sneaking the stubs to Huawei, or Huawei is blatantly stealing Google’s stub binaries?”
And Wu’s answer? “It is pretty obvious that Huawei is well aware of this LZPlay app, and explicitly allows its existence. The developer of this app has to somehow be aware of these undocumented APIs, sign the legal agreements, go through several stages of reviews, and eventually have the app signed by Huawei. The sole purpose of the app is to install Google Services on a non licensed device, and it sounds very sketchy to me, but I’m no lawyer so I have absolutely no idea of its legality.”
All of which has resulted in the workaround being withdrawn from the market. LZPlay is no longer available. Any installs from before it was pulled no longer work. And, more intriguingly, “devices that used LZPlay to install GMS no longer pass ‘SafetyNet Attestation,’ rendering many apps and services unusable.”
And so to the real issue for Huawei that will start to become clear when the dust settles on this on/off story. Whether Huawei was aware or unaware, whether Google was involved or uninvolved, the fact is that the addition of Google Mobile Services will now fail to pass a security and verification test on the device—unsurprising, given the device is unlicensed. And that suggests no other workaround will be forthcoming.
And that will be a major issue for the future of Huawei’s smartphone business outside China. It will also make it impossible for users inside China to deploy the Google workaround that was designed for their market—because if the Mate 30 can’t be after-market updated outside China because of the U.S. blacklist, then it cannot be after-market updated in China either. The restriction on Huawei is not geography-specific. Chinese consumers who would otherwise buy Huawei devices and then add Google, deploying VPNs to use the restricted services, will not be able to do so.
This story is moving all over the place right now—albeit it’s becoming more difficult to see significant changes without U.S. approval. What we do know is that Google has apparently slammed the backdoor to the Mate 30 shut, enforcing its lack of license, ensuring that even if the GMS stubs remain they cannot be enabled. And it’s a safe bet that those stubs may well be pulled altogether.
Huawei confirmed to me that the “latest Mate 30 series is not pre-installed with GMS, and Huawei has had no involvement with http://www.lzplay.net.” But the implications of this latest twist could be devastating. It’s too soon to get a read on what might happen next, and there are no comments from Shenzhen, but we will know soon enough.
In the meantime, anyone who had planned to buy a dazzling Mate 30 and apply the “easy workaround” is now faced with a very different set of options.
As the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers, a developer of disruptive AI surveillance solutions for defense, security and commercial organizations in the US, EMEA and Asia, I work with those responsible for national security, counter-terrorism and critical infrastructure protection. I have been in tech for 25 years, with the last 15 of those years in video surveillance, analytics, cybersecurity and AI. I write about the real-world challenges, opportunities and threats from technology advances that impact the defense and security sectors as well as cybersecurity more broadly. I also focus on the appropriate use of those technologies and the balance of privacy and public safety. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.