Tomorrow Huawei will launch its latest flagship phones, the P40 series, at an event to be streamed online. There won’t be any people in the audience, of course, but even if there were, the atmosphere would be pretty weird. That’s because it’s impossible to separate Huawei’s consumer products from the political onslaught it’s faced in the past couple of years.
Whether you believe that Huawei is a threat to national security in the West or not, the knock-on effects to its phone business are real. Google is barred from doing business with Huawei, meaning the Chinese giant is unable to obtain an Android license. And that means that until further notice, any new Huawei phone has to ship without Google apps and services.
You don’t have to be the most hardcore Google fan in the world to see how this is likely a dealbreaker for most people. Heck, you don’t even have to be an Android user. Google’s services are so widespread and pervasive that if you really don’t use any of them on a regular basis, it’s probably because you’re actively avoiding them. And Huawei is charging very high prices for high-end smartphones that, at least officially, cannot run them at all.
Partly out of personal curiosity and partly to put the P40 launch into better context, I decided to pick up Huawei’s most recent flagship phone, the Mate 30 Pro, and see if I could live with it for a while. (Huawei declined to provide a review unit upon its release.) The Mate 30 Pro is the company’s highest-end phone right now, running the same in-house Kirin 990 processor that will undoubtedly be in the P40. What’s it like inside Huawei’s walls today?
This isn’t really the point of this story, but the first thing I will say about the Mate 30 Pro is that it is absolutely stunning. Honestly, I don’t think there was a better looking phone released last year. In photos, you might look at the notch and chin and write it off, but in person the phone looks bold, balanced, and futuristic.
The aggressively curved “waterfall” display is as striking as it was on the Vivo Nex 3, and I haven’t had any problem with accidental touch input. The back panel of the phone is gorgeous, transitioning from a rough matte finish at the bottom to a glossier feel at the top, with an even shinier ring circling the camera modules. And that camera setup is as good as any you’ll find in a phone, with excellent low-light capabilities, a 3x telephoto, and a unique 40-megapixel ultrawide.
Huawei’s integration of hardware and software is on another level to most other Android phone makers. Other than Google, very few are offering a comparable 3D face-unlock system, and Huawei is doing it with a smaller notch than the iPhone — let alone the Pixel 4’s giant forehead. The Mate 30 Pro also has a neat solution to the lack of space for volume buttons afforded by the waterfall display: you just double-tap the edge of the phone and a slider pops up along the side. I think I prefer Vivo’s capacitive virtual rocker, since it’s easier to use without looking at the screen, but Huawei’s approach works well enough too.
Overall, I would say that if hypothetically there were ever an incredible piece of smartphone hardware that you might be willing to deal with a little software inconvenience for, the Huawei Mate 30 Pro would have as good a case as anything else on the planet. But let’s just say you’d really, really, have to want it.
The Mate 30 Pro, and presumably the forthcoming P40 phones, use EMUI 10, which is based on Android 10. I have never been much of a fan of EMUI even when it had Google apps and services to back it up; of all the many extensive efforts Chinese phone makers have taken to turn Android into iOS, Huawei’s has often been among the most burdensome. The latest version, though, is actually pretty nice. While the vestiges of iOS cloning remain in certain elements like the over-designed share sheet, EMUI 10 is simple and clean and mostly gets out of your way.
A smartphone UI isn’t much use without apps, of course, and here is where Huawei hits its first hurdle. Huawei has its own store called AppGallery, which it claims is the third largest in the world based on its more than 400 million monthly active users. The vast majority of those users will be in China, of course, where the Google Play Store has never been included alongside AppGallery. If you buy a Mate 30 Pro now anywhere in the world, though, AppGallery is what you get out of the box.
To be blunt, it is not great. I wouldn’t call it barren — there is support from major US companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Snap. You can’t get Chrome, of course, but Opera is there if you want something with desktop sync. But a huge amount of its content is aimed at China, with other big Western names like Facebook, Slack, Netflix, and Twitter missing, which puts the Mate 30 Pro in a more precarious app situation than even the diciest days of Windows Phone. Huawei has announced a $1 billion plan to help stock AppGallery’s shelves, but it has its work cut out.
That said, AppGallery isn’t the only native way to get apps. Huawei offers a tool called Phone Clone as part of the Mate 30 Pro’s setup process, and it’s kind of neat. You’ll need to download Phone Clone from the Play Store on another Android phone with the apps you want to send over; then, the two phones pair and establish a fast local Wi-Fi connection. You can’t transfer core Google apps this way, but most other third-party software should work fine.
In a matter of minutes, I had almost everything I was missing from AppGallery. My Japanese dictionary, NBA League Pass, Twitter, Pokémon Go, Instagram, Apple Music, The Athletic, Slack… all things that I use on my phone basically every day, and all things that I’d need to have access to on any phone I’d ever seriously consider buying. It even sent over a few random Google apps like YouTube Music and Lens. Phone Clone is the difference between the Mate 30 Pro being completely unusable and a somewhat viable option.
But it’s not a panacea. For one thing, it’s obviously impractical to expect most people to keep around another phone to download Play Store apps and then transfer them whenever they need something new. You won’t get regular updates this way, either. Phone Clone also doesn’t solve the lack of Google services. You can bookmark Google search in a browser, of course, and Huawei’s built-in email app works with Gmail accounts, but good luck working in Docs or doing anything across the ecosystem. In my personal situation, I wouldn’t be able to use this as a day-to-day work phone because our company operates on G Suite.
There’s a subtler problem, though, which is that not every app will work properly even if you’re able to install it. This is because what Huawei is actually banned from using is Google Mobile Services (GMS), the suite of software and APIs licensed by other Android OEMs. It’s not just the apps themselves, but often the cloud services that power them. For example, Uber uses GMS to determine your location and for its mapping data. Some other apps, like The Guardian, work more or less normally but pop up an error message on boot saying Google Play services are required.
The ubiquity of GMS is a big reason why alternative app stores have trouble taking off on Android phones, at least outside China. Since Android phone manufacturers have little choice but to license Google services because of the popularity of Google apps, third-party developers can use Google’s extensive tools to build their software safe in the knowledge it’ll be supported by virtually every Android phone.
Take Amazon’s Appstore for Android, for example. Despite Amazon’s giant stature and the popularity of its Kindle tablets — the Fire phone, not so much — many developers have held off from adding their apps to the store. Even though Amazon hardware runs a forked version of Android that should theoretically run almost any Play Store app natively, anyone who built their app with GMS would have to find or develop alternative back-end services to get it to run on a device without Google licensing. (Incidentally, the Amazon Appstore is worth installing on the Mate 30 Pro. It isn’t as well-stocked as the Play Store, but it’s still a better option than AppGallery for Western audiences — you can at least get things like Facebook and Twitter without resorting to Phone Clone, and the apps will receive updates.)
Perhaps the starkest indicator of the problems facing Huawei in this regard is mapping. The Mate 30 Pro straight-up does not ship with a maps app that anyone outside China would be able to use. The best options in AppGallery, as far as I can tell, are both Russian-developed: there’s Yandex Maps, which conveniently seems to stop its coverage right at the boundary of my neighborhood, and the functional but pretty limited Maps.me, which is based on OpenStreetMap. I tried to use Yahoo Japan’s excellent Japanese map app through Phone Clone, but its reliance on GMS makes it completely unusable.
It’s not impossible for advanced users to sideload GMS onto the Mate 30 Pro and install the Play Store. That is something that Huawei actually pointed to itself when the phone first shipped, though any mention of the option has since been removed from the company’s website and Google itself has taken steps to stop the practice. It wouldn’t be something I could recommend anyone attempt as a serious option, in any case, since there are security risks involved and you can’t rely on updates. The lack of the Play Store on the Mate 30 Pro isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds, but it should suffice to say that until the situation changes, you really shouldn’t buy a Huawei phone if you need Google services.
Huawei is working on plugging the GMS gap. The company is building out its own software platform and tools for developers, collectively called Huawei Mobile Services, and it’s announced a partnership with TomTom to produce its own mapping app, which can’t come soon enough. The question, as with every platform that has attempted to take on Google in the past decade-plus, is whether developers will consider it worth their time to adapt their work for the new store. And if nobody is buying Huawei phones, the answer will probably be no.
The situation is unfortunate for Huawei, to say the least. The Mate 30 Pro would be one of the best phones I’d ever used if the software was there to back it up, but as it is, it’s impossible to recommend for use outside of China. It’s hard to imagine anyone’s phone hardware ever getting so mind-blowingly good that I’d consider spending north of $1,000 for something without a proper maps app.
That’s what to watch for when the P40 series gets revealed tomorrow. My experience with the Mate 30 Pro leaves me in no doubt that Huawei’s next phones will be technically impressive, and I’m sure the company will spend a lot of time demonstrating as much. But if Huawei can’t convince people outside China that it’s been able to improve the software situation, the P40 phones might as well not exist.