Tipping the balance: The story of Huawei’s bold, Google-free mobile ecosystem


“It’s not for everyone right now,” Huawei’s Global Chief Branding Officer Andrew Garrihy told me in an open and frank conversation about Huawei’s smartphones, the App Gallery, and its growing ecosystem.

Do not, however, take this to mean Huawei is giving up.

Andrew Garrihy, Global Chief Branding Officer, Huawei

“We will nurture the people who it is for,” Garrihy continued. “They will support us, more will come, more services will come, and then there will be a tipping point.”

It’s a very familiar plan. When Huawei launched the P9 in 2016, it did so while collaborating with Leica. It was a moment that could be considered the tipping point for Huawei’s smartphones. Huawei made many phones before the P9, but it was only after the P9 that it went on to become internationally recognized as a smartphone camera leader.

Now Huawei aims for a new tipping point – the moment you and I will be ready to buy into the new mobile way of life Huawei is building. Garrihy talked to me about where the company is now, the new ecosystem’s progress, and whether the smartphone is still central to its vision.

Who is Huawei for?

It’s a well-known fact that Huawei phones do not come with Google Play or Google Mobile Services anymore. Instead, you get apps through Huawei’s App Gallery or third-party app stores, though not all the apps we want are readily available. It’s a serious problem for those deep inside the Google ecosystem, and that’s what Garrihy was referring to when he said Huawei’s new way is not for everyone.

“The maturity isn’t there yet,” he admitted about the App Gallery, “and it’s not for everyone. It’s just a fact, we can’t avoid that. We are confident it will change in the not too distant future. [We are] looking after our existing customers and nurturing the new market for the new era, but that will take time.”

If Huawei’s Google-less mobile life isn’t for everyone, who is it for? Garrihy explained.

“There is a very diverse group of people who it is right for. Some are real tech-savvy early adopters who want it for the sake of being different, people who are absolutely passionate about photography, and some who want a great battery and camera, and [the phone] does everything they need with the alternate services. And then there are some that it doesn’t do enough for yet, and that’s fine.”

The smartphone is critical

If the current Huawei smartphone experience isn’t for everyone, does that mean the phone will take a backseat in Huawei’s portfolio, and the focus shift to the ecosystem? I asked Garrihy how important the smartphone is to Huawei.

“Critical,” he said. “Our 10-year focus is all about the all-scenario smart life. The smartphone is central to that.”

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

While this is good to hear, Huawei is also paying a lot of attention to its other connected products. ITs line-up includes Windows laptops, wearables like the Watch GT2, audio products like the Sound X speaker, and core devices like the FreeBuds 3. All these need the smartphone, and that’s not going to change.

Garrihy said it’s working with many new partners, including Samsonite on a suitcase that can be unlocked with a tap of your phone, and cleaning tech experts Kärcher on a connected water filtration system. Huawei is nothing if not diverse. Garrihy also sees cars, and Huawei’s Connected Vehicle system, as a huge opportunity. Still, one device at the heart of all this.

“The smartphone is central. The ecosystem is only going to get bigger, and the smartphone is more important than ever.”

App Gallery growth

By calling the smartphone critical to Huawei’s plan, it instantly raises concerns over the App Gallery, because without the apps people want being immediately available, ongoing adoption of Huawei’s otherwise excellent phones may suffer. Garrihy didn’t share my opinion that growth of the App Gallery is slow, though.

“The app gallery is ramping up really quickly. The top apps available have increased by five times over a year ago. We have 420 million users, and 1.4 million developers. We are making progress in Europe. It’s never as quick as we would like, but we are making progress in key areas. Yes, we would like to get 100% of top apps in there now, but it’s taking time.”

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends.com

Not having Google apps pre-installed will be jarring to some, but Garrihy painted a different picture of the experience, about how Huawei’s Google-less world was not just a growing alternative, but freeing.

“I love what it’s doing. It’s prompting people to think differently about their behaviors.”

He talked about the alternatives already available, like Qwant Search and Here Maps, plus big-name apps hitting the store, like TikTok, and an influx of banking apps including Santander.

“Right across the spectrum, we are starting to see progress. And you know what, there are more and more coming. There is momentum starting to build. People are starting to open their mind to a different way.”

Will it pay off, and when?

Huawei’s comment are an admission that its content is not yet at its desired level of maturity, its mission-critical phone is not for everyone, and its ecosystem isn’t complete. That’s the scale of Huawei’s challenge. Garrihy addressed the ongoing complexity of the company’s transformation.

“Everything is developing in parallel,” Garrihy said. He added that the task of building a brand new ecosystem from the ground up is a massive challenge – but it’s a far better starting position than if it was pulling apart an old one to build something new.

“We are building this new ecosystem, hardware and software, that’s open to hundreds of other technology providers and manufacturers, so we will see new innovations in apps that will work in it. Some people will be attracted now, some people will want to wait for more apps. We are building a new model that’s completely different. When consumers start to get those [connected] experiences, that’s going to change everything. That’s the future. People will switch once they see this.”

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Perhaps they will. There is undoubtedly space for a challenger to Google and Apple’s ecosystem superiority, but other brands including Samsung haven’t managed to fully take them on yet. If Huawei wants to be “the one,” when does Garrihy expect the tipping point he mentioned previously to arrive?

“Is it six months, is it three years? I don’t know. What I can focus on is what is happening now, and we are making good progress. We are developing quickly. More and more people are coming on board as users and developers.”

Huawei has recently launched the P40 series, including the P40 Pro and P40 Pro Plus, its first smartphones to operate without Google Mobile Services, and solely on its own Huawei Mobile Services platform. Time will tell if these capable devices bring Huawei closer to the much-needed tipping point.

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