This has been a great week for Huawei. It started with the news that it had pulled a masterstroke, securing Here mapping technologies for its phones, a genuine Google Maps alternative. Then came the news that its main Chinese rival in key overseas markets, Xiaomi, was allegedly spying on its users. And finally the smartphone shipment stats for the first quarter confirmed that with its market share in China, it had outpaced Apple to hold the number-two slot, with only Samsung still to catch.
Unfortunately for Huawei, though, none of this will be enough to convince tens of millions of non-Chinese smartphone users to opt for its open-source Android phones, turning away from the familiar world of Google’s software and services. But Huawei has a plan to try to change that. And it has both Google and Apple in mind. And it’s much needed—the company needs to do something to push those millions of users to switch or upgrade to its latest smartphones, despite the loss of Google.
Huawei quickly recognized that the biggest impediment to its international position in a post-blacklist world is competing with Google’s Play Store. Its own AppGallery alternative is now the third largest app distribution platform in the world, but it is still finding its way outside China. The store is no new kid on the block—launched in China back in 2011. But its international version is just two-years old.
So, stepping back, why does Huawei think it can tip the balance in its favour? The answer is clever, albeit highly ironic. And it is an interesting punt with no guarantee of success. In short—security, privacy and, basically, not being Google.
There’s an irony here that is impossible to overlook. Huawei was blacklisted by the U.S. government back in May 2019 over alleged national security concerns. As a consequence, the tech giant lost access to Google for its new phones, causing a major plunge in international sales. Now, its plan is to focus on Google’s security and privacy shortcomings and offer a safer, more secure alternative. You couldn’t make this up—but it’s not as odd as it sounds. Here’s why.
Huawei may be many things, but a data business it is not. Google built Android as a front-end to its globally dominant data machine. Devices, apps and browsers collect and process data, it’s a cash-generating titan. Businesses buy access to map listings, search engine prominence, store windows, raw data for processing ads and outreach. One of the primary issues for Google in losing access to new Huawei devices has been the loss of access to all those consumers. And we know that Apple, which takes a much more restrictive view on the data-monetizing of its users, has seen the value of ads within its ecosystem drop dramatically as a result.
Huawei, by contrast, sells technology: Smartphones and accessories, 5G networking equipment, enterprise infrastructure, surveillance. It can sit back and take a view on the state of the Play Store, the world’s leading app platform, and determine what could and should be done better. Security and privacy quickly come to mind.
From a security standpoint, Google’s challenge is the open nature of Android and the sheer scale of apps available to billions of users around the world. In recent months, the U.S. giant has taken step after step to improve the security screening of apps that find their way into the store, but has been famously unable to match the locked down nature of Apple’s alternative. Just this week, we have seen two reports surface into Android malware, the problem shows no signs of abating.
Google is always keen to emphasize its ongoing security programs. Again this week the company responded to one of those reports, assuring “we’re always working to improve our detection capabilities. We appreciate the work of the researchers in sharing their findings with us. We’ve since taken action against all the apps they identified.” As for the other report, the malware has not been seen in the wild and so Google takes the view that the threat remains speculative.
But security is an issue that isn’t going away. From nuisance adware to genuinely malicious risks such as the infamous Joker malware, threats continue to escape the net. As to the question is it possible to do better—Apple polices its store with much more rigour. It is not issue free by any extent, but it has proven that by taking a more locked down approach to security you can reduce the issue significantly.
And in this regard, Apple is more a Huawei role model than Google. The Chinese giant will be learning lessons from its American rival, a company the Chinese firm’s founder Ren Zhengfei has said inspired his own business and whose smart devices he and his family use themselves.
Beyond security, we have privacy. And that’s a whole different factor. We all know how much of our data is captured, collected and processed through our phones. they know who and what we know, where we go and why. They are the genuine spies in each of our pockets. This was never more evident than when the U.S. government turned to the marketing industry instead of the mobile networks for data thrown off by our phones for coronavirus population tracking.
Underpinning this privacy issue is the murky world of permissions. Whenever you install an Android app, that app requests and is almost certainly given permissions to access data and functions on your phone. There is staggering abuse of this system by app developers worldwide, some for straight revenue purposes and others for more malicious processing of our data. And while the latter will find themselves kicked from the Play Store if caught, data-based marketing is frowned on but not outlawed. Google uses AI to advise developers if their apps ask for more permissions than their peers, but there’s no enforcement behind this.
At its heart, Google developed and continues to prosper as a data and marketing machine. Its vast ecosystem has grown up around this core tenet. Cue Huawei and the question: can a Chinese company criticized for its data and software security, blacklisted by the U.S., heavily tied into the government in Beijing, do any better?
Well, maybe. Huawei wants its AppGallery to be “open and innovative,” but it also wants to “strictly” protect the security and privacy of users installing apps. How strictly the company deals with developers to resolve issues that plague the Play Store remains to be seen. But Huawei is right in saying it is not “a data company.”
So, what will Huawei do differently?
First, the company plans to verify that developers are who they say they are, with real names disclosed and checked. The company also plans a beefed up security process to do better than Google, rooting out malicious software and vulnerabilities and risks that user data might leak. This includes addressing how apps will run on a Huawei device, taking Apple’s strict approach to sandboxing. Huawei has looked at how it supplements the Android environment to develop and enforce this security layer. Again, you can assume that the company has taken its lead from Apple.
Huawei benefits from control over the hardware and software—again, just like Apple. It can determine where and how credentials are held, it can adopt its own approach to permissions and privacy, it can monitor and control what data is sent to and from a device. The company will also store data regionally, adhering to local regulations, but more importantly telling users that it won’t send data to servers in China—apt given the Xiaomi news broken on Forbes by Thomas Brewster this week.
Can this possibly work? Maybe—but it will be tough, Overcoming resistance to change in key markets as those markets battle COVID-19, and dealing with the brand damage from the blacklist and the building China backlash will be hard. That said, it’s a clever punt, pushing data privacy and security. Huawei will never criticize Google in public, but the backdrop here is to be more like Apple, to take the lack of Google within its own OS as a benefit not a setback. You can expect its marketing to tune to this message as it continues to promote its alternatives.
For Huawei, the clear message here is that if it can’t have Google, it needs to be more like Apple. Making that work will be a mountain to climb, but then Huawei has just heralded its achievements in installing a 5G base station “6,500 meters up Mount Everest.” So, mountain climbing might not be the feat we imagine.
I am the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers—developing advanced surveillance solutions for defence, national security and counter-terrorism. I write about the intersection of geopolitics and cybersecurity, as well as breaking security and surveillance stories. Contact me at zakd@.
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