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US supply ban threatens to cripple Huawei’s global business

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Another day, another escalation as Google heads a stampede of US companies apparently refusing to do business with Huawei.

As escalations go, however, this is a pretty big one. Reuters was the first to report that Google has suspended some business with Huawei in response to the company being put on the US ‘entity list’, which means US companies need explicit permission from the US state before they’re allowed to sell anything to them. It seems that permission has been denied.

For Google this means denying access to those bits of Android Google licenses – mainly the Play Store and Google’s own mobile products such as the Gmail and Maps apps. Huawei can still access the core Android operating system as that has an open source license but, as companies such as Amazon have discovered, that’s pretty useless without all the other Google goodies.

We recently wrote that Huawei’s addition to the entity list is the most significant consequence of Trump’s executive order and here we have an immediate illustration of that. It looks like pretty much all other US companies are also rushing to comply with the new regulations, with Bloomberg reporting that Qualcomm and Intel are among others cutting off business with Huawei and others will presumably follow. Nikkei even reckons German chip-maker Infineon has joined the stampede.

Huawei already has an extensive chip-making operation of its own, so arguably it can cope without the likes of Qualcomm, but what about the millions of other bits and bobs that get crammed into a smartphone such as screens, cameras, memory, sensors, etc? A lot of these could be supplied by non-US companies like Samsung and, of course, Chinese ones, but there must surely be some areas in which Huawei is entirely reliant on the US supply chain.

But Google’s licensed mobile products and services are unique. An Android phone that doesn’t provide access to the Play store is massively diminished in its utility to the end user and Google Maps is the market leader. Google also has a near monopoly with YouTube and millions of people are reliant on things like Gmail, Google Pay, Play Movies. When there are so many great alternative Android smartphone vendors, why would anyone now buy a de-featured Huawei one?

In response to these reports Android moved to stress that it will continue to support existing Huawei Android phones in the following tweet.

Meanwhile Huawei issued the following statement. “Huawei has made substantial contributions to the development and growth of Android around the world. As one of Android’s key global partners, we have worked closely with their open-source platform to develop an ecosystem that has benefitted both users and the industry.

“Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products covering those have been sold or still in stock globally. We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally.”

Huawei has reportedly been working on its own smartphone OS in anticipation of this sort of thing happening but, as Microsoft, Samsung and others have found, there seems to be little public appetite for alternative to Android and iOS. Huawei may be able to sell a proprietary platform in China, where the Play Store is restricted anyway, but internationally this move will surely see Huawei smartphone sales fall off a cliff.

“If the US ban is permanent, we predict Huawei’s global smartphone shipments will tumble -25% in 2019,” Neil Mawston of Strategy Analytics told Telecoms.com. “If Huawei cannot offer Android’s wildly popular apps, like Maps or Gmail, Huawei’s smartphone demand outside China will collapse.

“If the US ban is temporary, and lifted within weeks, Huawei’s global smartphone growth will return to positive growth fairly swiftly. Huawei offers good smartphone models at decent prices through an extensive retail network, and it should recover reasonably well if it is allowed to compete.”

“We still don’t have a clear understanding of what Google has told Huawei and what elements of the Android operating system may be restricted, so it remains unclear what the ramifications will be,” said Ben Wood of CCS Insight. “However, any disruption in getting updates to the software or the associated applications would have considerable implications for Huawei’s consumer device business.”

There have been very few official statements on the matter from US companies, so Wood is right to tread carefully at this stage, but it’s hard to see this news as anything other than catastrophic for Huawei. Its consumer business, which is the most successful unit in the company, relies largely on Android to run its products and will surely be severely diminished by the Google move.

And there’s no reason to assume the damage will be contained there. Last year Huawei’s contemporary ZTE was almost driven out of business by a ban on US companies doing business with it. Huawei may have hedged its position regarding networking components suppliers more effectively than ZTE but it will presumably suffer greatly once those companies follow suit.

Huawei is one of the biggest companies in the world and has become so in spite of being largely excluded from the US market. The Chinese state will do everything it can to support Huawei, but at least some of its US suppliers offer unique products. At the very least this puts Huawei in a weak negotiating position with potential replacement partners and international customers, but the implications of this latest development are potentially existential.


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