Huawei reportedly reckons it has an Android ban workaround

At a recent trade show a Huawei exec indicated that there may be a way to enable its future smartphones to access Android apps despite Google being banned from working with it.

The goss comes from Android Authority, which attended the launch of the Huawei P30 Pro at IFA in Germany. At the launch the head of Huawei’s consumer business group Richard Yu apparently told reporters he has a cunning plan to get around the catastrophic consequences of not longer having google support for Android.

While Android itself is open source and anyone is free to install their own take on it, the Play Store and Google apps such as Gmail. Maps, etc are all licensed from Google and can’t be installed on a phone without that license. If and when the US stops suspending the sanctions that come with Huawei being put on its entity list, Google will be barred from entering into further licensing agreements with Huawei.

An Android phones without Google apps and the Play Store is not worth having. There are already signs of Huawei having to adapt to that eventuality, with the P30 Pro featuring the EMUI 10 user interface that is ‘based’ on Android 10. The extent to which it deviates from Android 10 to the detriment is unclear.

In reference to the imminent launch of the flagship Mate 30 smartphone, Yu said Huawei is working on a way of letting users install Google apps on the non-official version of Android. He even went so far as to say that the process would be quite easy for users, without going into details. Even if that’s true, however, with there being so little to choose between flagship Android smartphones when it comes to hardware specs, there would still be little incentive for punters to accept any user experience compromise, so even this hope may be forlorn.

Nokia found to be best brand for prompt Android updates

There is significant variation in the performance of the leading Android smartphone makers when it comes to updating Android, according to new research.

Counterpoint has crunched the numbers and concluded that among all Android handset brands Nokia (manufactured by HMD Global) is the quickest and best at rolling out new versions of Android to its users after Google has issued them. Samsung Xiaomi and Huawei also do a decent job of serving their customers on this matter, but after them there’s a significant drop off.

Counterpoint android update chart

“Operating system and security updates are an aspect of Android smartphones that get relatively little attention,” said Peter Richardson of Counterpoint. “In our experience researching the industry, we have seen a few brands focusing on this. And perhaps because manufacturers are not talking about it, consumer awareness is also low. It doesn’t appear among the ten features consumers say they care about most, in our research.

“Unsurprisingly, therefore, little effort is expended by the top manufacturers in focusing on regular updates to the operating system and device security, despite it being a critical element in the continued safe performance of the smartphone. Many of the key features including battery life, processor, camera and memory are linked to the performance of the underlying operating system. We believe it is important to the overall consumer experience and is likely to become more widely recognized as such.”

This is a good point – what incentive is there for Android smartphone makers, who already operate on very thin margins and see Google and other OTTs hoover up most of the subsequence service revenue, to invest in something that has little apparent effect on sales? The main commercial answer would have to be brand reputation and things like NPS. Presumably prompt updates to yield some ongoing brand benefits and at least increase customer loyalty to some extent.

“High-priced devices are often updated first, but having the latest software is as important to mid- and low-priced products as it is to flagship devices,” said Abhilash Kumar of Counterpoint. “We, therefore, looked at manufacturers’ performance at updating software across all price tiers. By this analysis, Nokia stands out, again, as the brand most likely to update its full portfolio quickly.

Xiaomi and Lenovo also rank high in this metric. Brands like Alcatel and Tecno are the laggards. This is because these brands have broad portfolios, mostly in the sub-US$200 segment, and the lifecycle of their models tends to be short. Their products often transition from launch to end-of-life in as little as six months, which means they have less incentive to provide long-term updates.”

It seems likely that most brands are fairly prompt in updating their flagship devices but many drag their feet when it comes to the cheaper ones. As well as the reasons detailed above there’s the fact that the cheaper a device the more commo0ditised it is, making anything other than the core hardware feature set even less of a factor in purchasing decisions. That makes Samsung’s performance especially impressive since it has such a large device portfolio across all price tiers.

Google writes opening line of Huawei smartphone obituary

Huawei’s next flagship smartphone will not feature official Google applications as the weight of the US ban finally hits home.

Speaking to reporters in the US, and first reported by Reuters, a Google spokesperson said the Huawei Mate 30 rumoured to be launched in October, cannot be sold with licensed Google apps and services. This is a significant setback to Huawei’s consumer division and begs the question as to whether anyone would now consider the devices without the Android OS and supporting app ecosystem.

The blow from Google of course leads back to the White House. In entering Huawei and its affiliate companies on the Entity List, US suppliers are banned from supplying any products, components or services to the Chinese vendor. This includes Google, with its horde of popular applications and platforms.

There has of course been a moment of reprieve for some US suppliers. President Trump said there will be an extension on the ‘grace period’ afforded to Huawei and its US supply chain, though Google has now stated this only applies to devices which are already on the market. As long as the conflict between Beijing and Washington persists, it looks like the new Huawei devices will have a Google-shaped hole in them.

Although Google has not confirmed whether it has applied for an exemption from the ban, it has said in previous months it wishes to continue working with Huawei. Of the 130 applications sent to the US Commerce Department to seek a special licence to continue working with Huawei, none have been accepted thus far.

This is of course not as simple a situation as one might expect. Google owns Android, the open-sourced operating system. Huawei is not banned from using Android, it can’t be, but it is banned from being an official Android partner of Google. This means it will not be entitled to security and performance updates as soon as there are available. It can use the basic Android building blocks, but it will effectively have to build its own OS, which it has pretty much already done, but it will be a completely different product.

The confirmation from Google here is the news many Huawei fans will not want to have heard. The Mate 30 will not feature popular applications such as Google Maps, or the Goole Play Store where users can download other apps. These are only two examples, though they are critical elements of any Android smartphone.

The question which remains is whether anyone will buy a Huawei smartphone now?

We suspect not, assuming they have kept up-to-date with developments or done the slightest bit of research. There will of course be a market for Huawei in China, there is a sense of patriotism there propping up the business, though this could be the beginning of the end for Huawei in Western (perhaps all international?) markets.

A Google-less future is the new status-quo for Huawei, and unless this changes quickly, we suspect its smartphone business will be a shadow of its former-self in a very short period of time.

For those who have been plotting and scheming the downfall of Huawei, this is the first sign of success. For months, the Chinese vendor seemed to be immune to the collateral damage from the US/Chinese trade-war, though now it has finally hit home.

The consumer business unit has been very kind to Huawei executives over the last couple of years. Thanks to the creation of consumer devices which performed well and were reasonably-priced, and an extensive above-the-line advertising campaign to drive the Huawei brand, Huawei has become one of the most popular consumer electronics brands worldwide. It has consistently been the number two smartphone brand for shipments globally in recent years, while the consumer business group is now the largest contributor to group revenues at the firm.

In its recent financial statement, Huawei reported another year-on-year revenue increase, though it did appear growth in the smartphone business was driven by domestic smartphone sales. Research from Canalys suggests smartphone sales in Western Europe were down for the second quarter by 16%, with Samsung and Xiaomi benefitting. Unless the situation changes, we cannot see anything but a dramatic decline in Huawei smartphone sales in Western markets, and perhaps this misery will spread to all of Huawei’s international market.

This is currently an incredibly profitably and valuable business to Huawei executives and shareholders, though now it appears it has been cut-down at the knees by the White House and the Trump administration.

Google takes the fun out of new Android versions

Once a year, everyone used to gather around and have some fun guessing the name of the next Android, but Google is being a bit of a buzzkill with a refresh naming the next edition ‘10’.

Naming Android updates after deserts and tasty treats was a geeky quirk which brought a bit of sunshine, albeit for a short period of time. It is up there with the URL for the website of parent company Alphabet (abc.xyz), or the first doodle being of ‘Burning Man’ because that was where most of the office were on August 30, 1998.

But Google had to kill the fun.

“This naming tradition has become a fun part of the release each year externally, too,” Google said in a blog entry. “But we’ve heard feedback over the years that the names weren’t always understood by everyone in the global community.

Perhaps this is the end of ‘fun’ at Google as the company becomes increasingly corporate. Just like the removal of the ‘Don’t be evil’ clause in the company’s corporate code of conduct, perhaps this is a sign Google is growing up and the internal workings of the business will be more ‘appropriate’ for a company of its stature and influence.

There is of course a logical explanation for the move, but it is not as fun.

In some countries around the world, ‘L’ and ‘R’ are indistinguishable, while some deserts are not universally popular. For example, a pie is not thought to be a sweet treat everywhere, while the marshmallow would baffle some (For the Brooklyn Nine Nine fans out there, ‘what is this glutinous monstrosity in front of me’).

“As a global operating system, it’s important that these names are clear and relatable for everyone in the world,” the blog states. “So, this next release of Android will simply use the version number and be called Android 10. We think this change helps make release names simpler and more intuitive for our global community.”

Fortunately, the team is not ditching the friendly robot which so many people associate with the Android brand. It’s getting a bit of a facelift, but here to stay (hopefully!).

Google Go goes global

The stripped-down version of Google’s mobile search engine is now available on all Android phones.

Google Go describes itself as ‘a lighter, faster way to search, with search results optimised to save up to 40% data.’ The reason you might want such an alternative is that you have a rubbish mobile data service and/or a low-specced phone that struggles to support full-fat Google. The app also supports things like voice UI, text-to-speech and translation.

“Google Go helps you use less storage on your device and keeps an unreliable connection from slowing you down,” announced Google Go Product Manager Bibo Xu on a blog post. “At just over 7MB, Google Go helps make sure your phone stays speedy when you’re traversing the web.

“It also puts web versions of your favourite apps at your fingertips, giving you the option of downloading fewer apps on your phone. And if you lose connectivity when you using Google Go, it will remember your place and even retrieve your search results for you once you’re back online.”

The Silicon Valley giants have had their eye on ‘the next billion users’ for some time, certainly ever since it became clear that western markets for their products and services had become saturated. Facebook is constantly trying to find ways to get people in developing regions onto its platform and Google Go feels like a similar initiative.

Huawei unveils its answer to Android; Harmony

At the Huawei Developer Conference, the Chinese vendor has showcased Harmony OS, its in-house operating system to provide an alternative to Google.

Huawei claims the new OS is faster and safer than Android, but primarily aimed at IOT devices. That said, it can be mobilised at a drop-of-the-hat, should the Android situation continue to deteriorate. Until the point of no-return, Huawei devices will continue to make use of Android.

“We’re entering a day and age where people expect a holistic intelligent experience across all devices and scenarios,” said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s consumer unit.

“To support this, we felt it was important to have an operating system with improved cross-platform capabilities. We needed an OS that supports all scenarios, that can be used across a broad range of devices and platforms, and that can meet consumer demand for low latency and strong security.”

Currently, Harmony OS is more of a competitor to Google’s IOT focused OS, Fuchsia, but it is not difficult to see this was developed with mobile in mind also. This is the scale of the threat which is facing Huawei’s smartphone business unit.

Looking through the technical details, Yu claims the OS is safer due to the fact there is there is no root access available. Using external kernel services, the microkernel is protected by isolation, while the system also applies formal verification, a mathematical approach to spot vulnerabilities that traditional methods might miss.

As you can see from Yu’s statement above, Huawei is putting a positive spin on the development, though many will be able to read between the lines.

Over the last 12-18 months, the US has been aggressively attempting to undermine the fortunes and prospects of Huawei. Many have connected the White House’s propaganda to the on-going trade ware between the US and China, though the underlying reasons are irrelevant; the ripples of posturing are going to have negative impacts.

With regard to the launch of Harmony OS, Huawei’s entry onto the Entity List, effectively banning it from working with any US suppliers, was the most important development. This of course includes Google and Android.

Huawei might downplay the importance of this move, though the implications are significant. The firm would be able to continue using Android, it is open source after all, but if it is no-longer a Google partner it would not be entitled to feature and security updates at the earlier possible time.

Don’t listen to Huawei here, this is massive and would relegate the performance of its devices down the segment.

This is a major threat to the momentum being generated in the consumer business. Huawei smartphones are becoming increasingly popular, though if you remove the Android OS, software which probably grants the Chinese vendor credibility in some markets, the consequences could be swift and drastic. In creating its own OS, some of these concerns will be removed, security updates will be timely, but you have to wonder whether it will be any good.

The power of Android is not just brand credibility through association with Google, or timely security updates and product innovations, but it is really good. There is a reason Android killed off competition and overwhelmingly controls market share; it is the best OS available.

Not only will Huawei have to create an OS which is just as good as Android, but it will also have to create the supporting ecosystem. If there are no apps, services or products which are compatible with the OS, Huawei smartphones become no more useful than a doorstop.

It is a difficult one to predict whether the launch of its own in-house OS will actually work. Not only does it have to navigate the pitfalls of a new software launch, but it also has to combat the growing anti-China rhetoric.

Such is the reliance of todays consumer on smartphones, there only needs to be one problem for noses to be turned up at Harmony OS. Android is so reliable, why would consumers want to deal with problems, even if they are incredibly rare. Let’s not forget, Huawei’s heritage is in hardware and it has had a gluttony of software problems over the last few years; we suspect there will be a few blunders.

Anything short of perfect will be a threat to the Huawei smartphone. Consumers rarely like change, though a poorly performing OS might force newly acquired smartphone customers back to Android and rival devices.

That said, it is not difficult to imagine the Huawei OS alternative becoming a preference in China and Chinese-friendly nations. In such market, Chinese alternatives are preferred to US which can be seen with the rise of companies such as Huawei, Alibaba, JD.com, Baidu and Tencent. Using the Chinese domestic market as a vehicle to scale is a common technique for Chinese technology companies in recent years before casting eyes onto the international horizon.

This is of course not the first threat Google has faced in the OS market. Samsung attempted to branch-off with the launch of Tizen, while Windows Mobile was another challenge. Both of these OS’ focused on performance and security, but neither were effective enough to have any material impact on Android. Harmony OS is a different trial however.

Google might not be worried about losing market share in the Western markets, though in the emerging nations Huawei could find some traction. Not only are these nations which have better relationships with Chinese companies, but they present lucrative growth opportunities for Google. Should Huawei manage to launch the OS without major incident, we could be talking about three OS’ dominating the world not two.

Google continues to tap into the power of Maps

Ask any Android user and you’ll hear a glowing reference for Google’s mapping features, and the power of investing in the future is on show once again.

This is perhaps one of the most admirable aspects of Google Maps. This is a product which would have cost a lot of money and time to develop, at least to ensure it is the most useful of its kind, while there was little immediate return on investment. Now Google is reaping the commercial benefits of Maps, but it is still keeping an eye on new features, improved experience and, eventually, additional revenues.

“Not only does Google Maps help you navigate, explore, and get things done at home, but it’s also a powerful travel companion,” Rachel Inman wrote on Google’s blog.

“After you’ve booked your trip, these new tools will simplify every step of your trip once you’ve touched down–from getting around a new city to reliving every moment once you’re home.”

Google is not a company which makes money by accident. It might be the most popular search engine worldwide, but every time there is a hint of a glass ceiling, new ideas seem to emerge.

The acquisitions of Android and DeepMind certainly added new elements to the business model, its smart speakers and push into the connected car offer more engagement points moving away from traditional user interface, and Maps is an on-going project which seems to never get old.

This latest push forward from Google makes the mapping product more useful for those who are going on holiday.

Starting with the simplest add-on, reservations for both flights and hotels can be stored in the Maps app, allowing users to horde all relevant details into the same place irrelevant to whether the user has connectivity at that point. For those who have smartphone compatible with the ARCore and ARKit, navigation becomes simpler with pop-up directional graphics on the screen, while AI has been introduced to improve restaurant recommendations. Finally, a timeline has been introduced which can link experiences and content to places.

These are not necessarily revolutionary, but very few Google Maps features are. These are little additions which makes the mapping product easier to use and more useful. The incremental gain is quite evident through every feature which is adding every couple of months, and this is why so many people use Maps as a default application.

As with much that Google does, the features have been introduced to improve user experience and add extra value. However, there is also a great opportunity to commercialise these features without being intrusively commercial.

Looking at the restaurant recommendations, like with the search engine, some establishments will likely be able to pay for more prominent positioning. The same could be said for local landmarks and attractions in cities across the world. Although Google does create useful products, it never does anything for free. The user might not have to pay, but there is commercial element to everything which is being done.

However, what Google does very well is not to over commercialise the platform or product. As soon as something become offensively commercial, users are turned off. Just look at what happened to the core Facebook platform over the last few years. Facebook forgot what the core objective of the platform was, to connect friends and family, and it has started to impact engagement as well as the acquisition of new users through its commercial activities.

Facebook is still the leader when it comes to the social media segment, though other platforms seem to be better at engaging younger audiences, the demographics critical for sustainable revenues in the long-run. Snapchat, Instagram (admittedly a Facebook business), Twitter or Pinterest are not attracting the same experience criticism as Facebook has been over the last few years.

With Google Maps, the team seem to have struck the right balance. It’s a very useful application for numerous reasons and makes money for the search giant.

Another example of improved functionality with no-immediate financial benefit is focused on public transport. At the beginning of July, a new feature which will tell users how busy public transport is likely to be and whether users should anticipate delays on a journey was introduced. This is useful to have but has no immediate commercial benefit. However, when Google also suggests alternative means of transport, Uber for instance, and helps the user make a booking, there will be some sort of commercial benefit.

In helping customers with their travel plans, hotels and airlines can be partners, features and prompts introduced, and money can be made. Booking a restaurant through the Google Maps feature is another way, while the promotion of local tourist attractions is a third. It’s the traditional referral business with a slightly different twist.

Mapping is not a cheap business to enter into, there is a lot of data which needs to be acquired and managed after all. And when you start adding in additional features as Google constantly seems to do, the application becomes increasingly expensive and harder to deliver the promised experience. But this is where Google is a very admirable business; it never skimps when investing in creating a product to meet expectations.

It might have taken years to start to see the profits, but Google is now reaping the benefits of patience.

Android to grudgingly offer search choice in Europe

As part of its ongoing bid to get the EU off its back Android will give European users a choice of default search provider from next year.

Google was fined €4.3 billion a year ago for abusing the dominant position Android holds in the smartphone market. By March of this year it hadn’t really done much to rectify the situation so the European Commission thought a further €1.5 billion fine might strengthen its resolve. This resulted in a vow from Google to offer more choice of browser and search engine.

Now the internet giant has proudly announced that when an Android device is first started up in Europe it will offer a choice of default search providers. It won’t but this very simple feature into effect until next year for some reason and there are a few other strings attached.

The main one is that all the other wannabe Android search providers will have to pay a fee every time someone chooses them as the default search provider instead of Google. The more they’re prepared to pay, the better chance they will have of being included as they will have to bid against each other for inclusion, with auctions conducted on a country-by-country basis and a maximum of three alternatives allowed.

There is a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma for the other search providers, however, as if none of them bid Google still has to offer up three alternatives, which it will pick at random from those that have applied for inclusion. So if they all hold their nerve there’s a chance they could get included for free. Of course there’s always the possibility that the EC will decide Google attempting to profit from its remedial measures is too cheeky and demand it doesn’t charge. Let’s see.

Matrix themed virus infects 25 million smartphones

A new variant of mobile malware, dubbed ‘Agent Smith’, which re-directs advertising funds to cybercriminals, has been identified and its infected 25 million smartphones already.

Discovered by Check Point, this is a sneaky virus to deal with. Like ‘Agent Smith’ in the Matrix trilogy, the virus has the ability to consume a downloaded app and assume control.

Right now, the user is not being exploited in a direct manner. The presence of the virus does present dangers in terms of eavesdropping or credit fraud, but currently, the cybercriminals are using the virus to collect cash off advertisers through various trusted applications. The application is forced to display more adds than designed with the attackers collecting the additional credits.

“In this case, “Agent Smith” is being used to for financial gain through the use of malicious advertisements,” Check Point said on its blog.

“However, it could easily be used for far more intrusive and harmful purposes such as banking credential theft and eavesdropping. Indeed, due to its ability to hide its icon from the launcher and impersonate existing user-trusted popular apps, there are endless possibilities for this sort of malware to harm a user’s device.”

Check Point estimate that 25 million devices have been infected to date, the majority are in India and other Asia nations, although there have been identified devices in the US, UK and Australia. Although Check Point has not directly stated it, some have suggested the virus can be traced back to Guangzhou, China.

Agent Smith VirusThe virus itself works in three phases. Firstly, the user is encouraged to download a simplistic, free app (usually a minimal function game or sex-app) which contain an encrypted malicious payload. At this point, the malware searches the user’s device for any popular apps on a pre-determined list which can be targets at a later date.

During the second phase, the malicious payload is decrypted into its original form and then abuses several known vulnerabilities without giving any clues to the user. Finally, the malware then attacks the pre-determined applications, extracting the innocent application’s APK file and then patches it with extra malicious modules.

‘Agent Smith’ was first detected in 2016 and the cybercriminals have seemingly been laying the groundwork for a larger attack for some time. It has certainly evolved over this period, and although Check Point has reported the malicious apps to the Google Security team, who is to say there are not more. The danger of ‘Agent Smith’ is that it is incredibly difficult to identify in the first place.

Perhaps this is an oversight in the security world which we will have to address before too long.

As it stands, numerous parties around the world are constantly on the look out for nefarious activity, however, in most cases the assumption is that it will be a state-sponsored attack. This does not seem to be the case here and perhaps why it is very difficult to detect the malware in the first place; everyone is looking for the wrong clues.

In this example, Check Point seem to have caught the suspect firm ahead of time, informing the Google Security team before any genuine damage has been done. That said, 25 million devices is still a substantial number but with the source identified it should be limited.

Smartphone spyware FinSpy is back and thriving

Cybersecurity vendor Kaspersky has reported that FinSpy, a piece of malware that allows private information to be stolen from smartphones, has made a reappearance.

FinSpy spyware is apparently made by German company Gamma Group and sold by its UK sub-division Gamma International to governments and state agencies so that they can spy on their citizens. It has been around for a few years but seems to be experiencing a renaissance, with activity recorded in Myanmar last month.

The recent appearance of FinSpy has brought to light the IOS and Android mobile implants that can install this spyware on mobile devices. This now enables the FinSpy spyware to collect personal information such as contacts, SMS/MMS messages, emails, calendars, GPS location, photos, files in memory, phone call recordings and data from some of the most used messenger services including Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype among others.

The greatest cause for concern is FinSpy’s ability to gain this information even if the phone’s user is running an encryption program. Talking about encryption, FinSpy’s developers have been improving their own encryption to reduce the risk of traceable activity being discovered, the Kaspersky report claims.

“The developers behind FinSpy constantly monitor security updates for mobile platforms and tend to quickly change their malicious programs to avoid their operation being blocked by fixes,” Alexey Firsh, a security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, told Cyberscoop. “We observe victims of the FinSpy implants on a daily basis.”

Kaspersky has also claimed that these implants were detected in almost 20 countries however it’s likely the real number is higher. These new implants appear to be a real threat, with the developers constantly updating the spyware by reducing its trace while improving it to the point where it can break through encryption. FinSpy along with Gamma group are thriving although Kaspersky says it is conducting further investigations to tackle this issue.