Technopolis: What does Huawei ban mean for Nepali users?

- Prajesh SJB Rana, Kathmandu

Jun 24, 2019-

Earlier this year, Huawei, China’s biggest telecommunications firm, found itself in the middle of an on-going trade-war between the world’s two largest economic powerhouses. In attempts by the Trump administration to consolidate the local economy, the US instituted trade tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports to 25 percent, up from just 10 percent. In response, China announced plans to raise levies on $60 billion worth of US imports.

Amidst growing tensions between the two countries, Huawei found itself added to the US Department of Commerce’s ‘entity’ list, a list of companies barred from working with any US-based companies. Citing security concerns around how working with the company’s 5G architecture might open up avenues for the Chinese government to spy on western countries, the Trump government barred the sales of Huawei phones within the country while making it increasingly difficult for the company to work with key American technological partners.

Major partners for the telecommunications firm—Google, ARM, Intel, and Microsoft—have already stopped working with Huawei because of the US government sanctions. All of these partnerships, as vital for Huawei as Google’s Android operating system, have been key to the success of Huawei’s smartphone division just as Intel and Microsoft have been for the company’s laptop division. Apart from software, the company also depends highly on hardware sourced from the US and while the company has been making conscious efforts to work independently, with the development of their in-house Kirin line of processors, critical software and designs are still based on technology and standards with deep roots in America, like the ARM architecture that all smartphone chipsets, including Kirin, is based on.

As Huawei’s uncertain future makes headlines, Huawei Nepal has been trying to mitigate the situation in the local market. Officially entering Nepal in 2014, the company says that they have sold approximately a million units within the country in the past five years of operation. With such high sales figures, Huawei has carved out a significant space for itself in the Nepali market. But in the wake of the US sanctions, many Nepali Huawei users are contemplating the future of their phones, amidst growing news of Huawei’s own uncertain future. Huawei Nepal, however, assures its users that they have nothing to worry about.

Huawei Nepal, like the company’s other international branches, recently released a press-statement saying they would refund any Huawei phones that lost access to critical Google services.

While the blacklisting of Huawei will cause definite problems for the company, current users of their products have nothing to worry about in the short term since the trade-ban only affects future releases from the company. Phones already produced and in-the-wild will retain access to services offered by American companies, according to Huawei. The Chinese company has also secured a temporary three-month licence from the US Department of Commerce to continue to “provide service and support, including software updates or patches, to existing Huawei handsets that were available to the public on or before 16 May 2019.”

While American companies will continue to work with Huawei for the time being, the future remains uncertain. With key partnerships in question, the company has been trying to find alternative partners to work with while also bolstering internal development. Making full use of the three-month licence, Huawei released their new line of ARM-based processors, the Kirin 810 and 980 processors, alongside three new smartphones, the Nova 5, Nova 5 Pro and Nova 5i. But speculations abound as to whether these processors would be the company’s last ARM-based chips.

The company’s partnership with Google also brings up a lot of questions, since the company, in response to the ban, has pulled Huawei’s licence to use the massively popular Android operating system—the OS is currently part of all Huawei smartphones. In response to this, Huawei released information about an in-house replacement for the operating system, called the HongMeng OS or ArkOS.

The potential success of Huawei’s own operating system might be difficult to predict, since companies like Microsoft and Nokia have tried to enter the smartphone OS market in the past, with disappointing results. The main concern with a new OS would boil down to app support, an issue that Microsoft struggled with while pushing developers to develop apps for their Windows Phone operating system. Even with heavy incentives from the company, the Windows OS saw little support from app developers. So while Huawei has been trying to push for their own app store—the App Gallery in association with Aptiode, an alternative app marketplace for Android—the company needs to ensure continued support and a willingness for developers to work with Huawei’s app store.

While details around the new ArkOS are still unclear, Huawei could work with Google’s open-source project, the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and base their OS around a basic Android core. This would mean applications for Android would still work on the OS regardless of Huawei’s design on top. But regardless of their work on an operating system, if key Google services like Google Search, Gmail, YouTube and Google Play Services remain absent, the allure of Huawei phones would diminish significantly in the international marketplace. Furthering this problem, many American services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram also face uncertainty on Huawei devices. But in support of Huawei, news of other Chinese tech companies like Xiaomi and Oppo beta testing Huawei’s OS on their devices could mean the rise of a potential adversary for Google and Apple on the mobile operating system market, especially considering the speculation around ArkOS performing better than Android.

While its international headquarters reels under a stringent ban, Huawei Nepal has still been pushing for sales and has increased advertising efforts. Many Nepali celebrities and influencers have been seen touting new Huawei phones on their social media and while these phones are built to impress, with their new P30 Pro being touted all over for its impressive photographic capabilities, Huawei Nepal says it has been battling misinformation within local news portals. The company points to ‘fearmongering’ and says that Huawei phones, as of now, fully support Google services, Android updates and international apps. But while they assured timely security updates, incremental Android updates to Android Q still remain elusive for the company. But with companies like Intel and Qualcomm lobbying against the Huawei ban and Trump himself stating an openness to further negotiations regarding working with Huawei, the certainty of the ban itself is also in question.

Rana has been writing about technology for the past nine years. He writes about technology from the purview of modern consumerist culture while also exploring the nuances of its social and behavioural effects on people.


Published: 25-06-2019 07:00

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