Google’s way or the Huawei?
The Mate 30 range of smartphones is, by necessity, entirely Google-free — which some consumers might welcome
Huawei has plans to release more handheld devices that function entirely without Google — and maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Google collects a frightening amount of data from its users, probably more than you realise: from tracking your every move (Maps) to your work and personal files (Gmail, Drive, Photos) and your purchases and interests (Search, Pay).
Google apps are also pre-installed on the majority of Android devices. Even iPhone users prefer some of Google’s services. More than 90% of internet users choose to use Google Search.
So is there even another option? Turns out there is.
Huawei’s Mate 30 range of Google-free smartphones was unveiled in October last year, but the devices have only recently made it to the SA market.
Huawei had to ditch Google last year after the Trump administration placed it on its "entity list" of people and companies that are restricted in dealing with US companies. Huawei can no longer use Google Mobile Services — the core package of apps that usually comes standard on Android phones.
Fortunately for the Chinese company, however, Android — Google’s operating system — is open-source software. With this as its base, Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) was born.
So how does it compare?
The most pressing issue is apps. Because HMS is in its infancy, not many local apps have been developed for it. In addition, several existing apps cannot be loaded to its app store because of the entity list. But Huawei has been working to get as many SA apps as possible in its store. And the company plans to have a selection of these available before it launches HMS devices in SA early next month.
Still, app availability will be what sways many people in deciding whether to try to live without Google.
And many of Huawei’s replacement apps are simply not up to Google standards. The pre-installed e-mail host on the Mate 30 Pro isn’t nearly as powerful as Gmail, while the lack of integration across platforms using Google Calendar is a massive drawback.
Many locally developed apps won’t run on the Mate 30 Pro at all. Huawei SA hopes to address that by training local developers to use HMS.
Likun Zhao, vice-president of the Huawei Consumer Business Group Middle East and Africa, says Huawei has nine years’ experience in app development. More than 1.3-million developers have registered with HMS and more than 55,000 apps are available for download.
"We provide full support for local developers who want to integrate their existing apps onto the HMS platform, or develop apps specifically for HMS," he says.
While the Mate 30 Pro may have some way to go in persuading users to commit to Huawei, some privacy commentators say living without Google apps isn’t the end of the world.
In a New York Times article last year, journalist Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, wrote: "We thought that we search Google, but now we understand that Google searches us."
The scope of Google’s data harvesting is almost unprecedented. And it is done under the guise that the information is needed to "improve our services".
If a user chooses to restrict Google’s tracking and monitoring functions, Google sends repeated warnings that its services won’t work as well without unfettered access to the user’s data.
Despite paying lip service in recent years to the need to increase transparency, Google has been found to be secretly sharing users’ personal data with third-party advertisers.
There are also concerns about its snooping. It has been accused of listening in on private conversations using its smart speakers, Google Home and Google Nest.
The loose terms of its relationship with app developers have also come under the spotlight. World Wide Worx data analyst Bryan Turner says: "It turns out that Google allows developers to take advantage of Google services to send push notifications to users without needing to set up a dedicated server. Developers on a tight budget are taking up this offer, in exchange for allowing Google to run analytics on the data. Some larger developers, like Facebook, are using these services too."
Huawei’s development of an alternative operating system is ultimately a good thing. It may have been harsh sanctions that forced the tech giant to evolve its own platform — in record time — but the result is welcome diversity.
What about security?
Huawei says its AppGallery — its version of Google Play — takes security seriously. Apps that are allowed to appear on AppGallery undergo a stringent verification process.
However, consumers would be wise not to trust newer tech firms that promise to protect personal data any more than they trust Google or Facebook.
If you want to keep something private, don’t put it on the internet. But perhaps that’s no longer possible when we live our lives online. Someone, somewhere, is going to know that you like buying Nando’s every Sunday afternoon.