Chinese phone giant Huawei has run into some trouble with the government of the United States of America, which in turn caused trouble in its relationship with Google, which in turn could come to affect every one of what is estimated to be millions of Huawei users in South Africa.
Though we don’t yet know exactly how, or when, and we aren’t yet certain about some other things too.
The situation is complex, and fluid, and clouded by politics. That is particularly bad news for anyone who has just invested in a Huawei handset, or needs to decide whether to buy Huawei.
Here’s what you need to know about Huawei in South Africa, now that it is subject to American trade restrictions.
South Africa is not following the US political line on Huawei – and local operators could become even bigger fans of the Chinese company.
The South African government has no beef with Huawei, it told Business Insider. Despite America’s big diplomatic pull, SA is not alone in that: India reportedly refused to ditch Huawei in the face of US pressure, and even close US allies the UK said it still had an appetite for the 5G technology Huawei could deliver.
That means Huawei will be able to ship phones into South Africa without any extra hassle, and operate exactly as it did before, at least for the foreseeable future, with no new regulatory trouble.
Huawei’s most important customers in South Africa are the mobile phone operators MTN, Vodacom, Telkom, and Cell C. If they were to lose faith in Huawei, its South African handset sales could be massively affected, with a knock-on effect on the availability of support and repair services.
But like the SA government, SA’s network operators remain fans of Huawei, at least for now. And in a scenario where Huawei pushes hard to introduce its App Gallery marketplace as an alternative to the Google Play Store – and shares App Gallery revenues with the operators – its relationship with the mobile operators would only be strengthened.
Your South African Huawei device could end up running a slightly different version of Android in future, or an OS apparently named ‘Hong Meng’ – which could make some things tricky.
If Huawei can’t do business with Google, then Huawei won’t have access to the full commercial version of Android, which requires a contractual relationship.
In that scenario Huawei has two options: switch to the open-source version of Android, which anyone can use without a contract, or switch to its own operating system (OS), which may or may not be based on that open-source version of Android.
Huawei has reportedly been developing its own OS, named “Hong Meng”, for some years, though details – including whether Hong Meng is actually ready for use – are still scarce.
To complicate matters further, Huawei (like many major manufacturers) runs its own interface on top of Android, giving its phones that distinctive Huawei look and feel. That interface is called EMUI, and could be adapted for use on top of open-source Android or on top of Hong Meng.
The effect would be that your Huawei phone would look very much like it always had, though with some key differences. The most notable would be the absence of Google apps like Google Maps and YouTube, which are not open source.
There are ways around that; you can “sideload” applications, including Google’s apps, on to any Android phone. So if Huawei sticks with some form of Android, you could still use Google Maps, after you find a trustworthy source for the APK download you need, figure out which version is right for your phone, turn off the protection against unauthorised software installation on your phone, and side-load the app. Oh, and then you’ll probably have to keep that app updated manually too.
(Rumour sites say Hong Meng too will be compatible with Android applications, but that is nothing more than rumour right now.)
The US government changed its mind about Huawei in a matter of days – so things could change again.
Huawei was locked out of its relationship with Google because it was named by the Trump administration as a potential risk to American national security. Legally, Google was banned overnight from doing things such as share technology (including software) with Huawei, or letting Huawei know when it discovers a security hole in the Android system that Huawei should patch on its phones.
But just days later those restrictions were lifted under a “temporary licence” that runs for 90 days.
The turnaround is in part due to the way American bureaucracy works – but US President Donald Trump famously likes to keep his opponents in negotiations off balance, and the Huawei ban comes in the middle of a weird trade war between the US and China.
The upshot: expect more rational irrationality, and perhaps plain old irrationality too, which could influence how your Huawei device works in future.
You’re going to have a hard time claiming a refund for a Huawei phone because you’re worried about the future
If you bought a Huawei smartphone prior to 16 May, you could have fairly expected full use of the Google mobile suite of applications: the Google Play Store with its millions of applications, Google Maps, YouTube, Gmail, Google Photos, and the like.
That will still be true – until at least mid-August 2019, under a US regulation that temporarily lifted parts of the restrictions the American government had imposed.
After August, all bets are off. Does that mean you can demand a refund?
Not so much, the experts tell us. You could end up without functionality you were counting on, but that wouldn’t be Huawei’s fault, or the fault of whoever sold you that Huawei device in South Africa. That leaves you without a legal leg to stand on.
If you have your eye on a Huawei P30 Pro, or the new Honor P20 Pro, order it early.
A Business Insider South Africa survey of cellphone shops around the country found managers who no longer intend to stock lots of Huawei phones. For now, they say, consumers are petty much buying the likes of the Huawei Mate line as usual, but that could change and they don’t want to be stuck with boxes full of phones they can’t move.
Because those stores will order on demand, it may take a couple of days to get your hands on the Huawei phone you want, so keep that in mind.
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