Forced Innovation: The Huawei Web App Strategy

Omar Zahran
Mar 2, 2020 · 8 min read
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Photo Credit: Leon Seibert via Unsplash

Think about the experience of buying and setting up a new phone. The experience goes from excitement to open some new hardware, to the boring activity that is the setup flow of the first time, to again excitement of being able to play around with the new mobile companion that will become your sidekick for the next year or two or three. Now let’s think about what is one of the first things that we all do when we first get to the homescreen of a new phone. Going to the app store on this shiny new piece of technology to make sure that all of the essential services that you need are installed. The app store was a revolution when Apple introduced it in 2008 as a single place to get all sorts of third party software for your phone. That novel concept changed the way that smartphone manufacturers developed the preloaded software on phones ever since then. And this has been the accepted practice for over a decade now, that every iPhone came with the App Store and every Android phone came preloaded with the Google Play Store. But at this point, it must be asked can a phone succeed without an app store? More specifically, can an Android phone succeed without the Google Play Store and Google apps altogether? Huawei thinks it can.

This change in direction by the Chinese tech giant is not one that has been made by choice. Rather it has been forced to scramble after it was placed on what the US government calls the entity list. In short, this means that Huawei is not able to license any software made by American companies as a result of the ongoing trade war between the United States and China. The reasoning by the US is that Huawei’s top level executives have ties to the Chinese government and could potentially sell customer data to said government. All of these claims have been unsubstantiated, but nevertheless the ruling still stands. This means that Huawei cannot use software from Google for its phones or Microsoft for its laptops. A crippling blow to a company that has long had ambitions of becoming the top consumer electronics company in the world. What are they to do?

Luckily for Huawei phones, Android is an open source project that no singular company has the rights to so they are able to use the core operating system. The true blow to the Chinese company is the lack of Google services. For context this means no Google Play Store, Google search app, any Google Play app, YouTube, Google Drive, etc. That is a lot to be missing from an Android phone in a climate where these services are absolutely expected by consumers to be on every phone. The lack of the inclusion of these apps and services has to be a non-starter for anyone to buy a Huawei phone right? What if there was a way that the company could still successfully sell phones? What if Huawei does what every manufacturer has been ignoring and fully embraced Progressive Web Apps as its platform for the future?

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Photo Credit: Leon Seibert via Unsplash

The mobile internet has changed a lot since 2008. Web development is constantly evolving with more and more websites being optimized for mobile before the desktop since that is where the majority of web traffic is going. Many people have smartphones as their primary computing device, in many cases not buying a laptop of any sort. As this shift has occurred, mobile websites have gotten more like native applications that can be downloaded from an app store. The benefit being that they are lighter and take up much less storage on a phone than a native app. There is no updating of these as every time the page is reloaded in the browser, the newest version of the web app will load automatically. So why has no company really gone all in with an operating system that takes advantage of this idea? Well, one has but can be argued that they were a little ahead of their time with their ideas. That company is Palm, when it released WebOS on the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi. These devices leveraged the idea of the open web as the portal that was needed to deliver software. Unfortunately, the market had dictated that a proper app store is what was needed to have a successful phone operating system. As a result, the WebOS experiment ultimately failed.

But now in 2020 we have Huawei, a company with a lot of resources and a fairly large user base. A company that does not have the fall back of just relying on native apps. And most importantly a company that has had to deal with not having Google services on their phones sold in their home country. Now Huawei is attacking this dilemma by building out what they call the Huawei App Gallery. Basically, they are trying to incentivize developers to build their apps for the App Gallery much like Microsoft did during the Windows Phone days. The results of these efforts so far have been an app store with around 45,000 apps, many of which are more focused on the Chinese market. The big hitters are missing here such as the main social media apps, Netflix, Uber, etc. As of now, the App Gallery is not the solution but the web can be.

All of the aforementioned services have very usable web apps. Twitter, Instagram, and Uber in particular have some excellent options on the web. Even the Google services that they are banned from installing on an app level, have excellent we clients such as Google Drive, Google Photos, and YouTube. This is a moment where Huawei can focus all of their efforts on the open web and their own built in suite of apps and services. If the company leaned into this the way that Palm leaned into the web and used it as a signal of strength as opposed to a bandaid then they could really be seen as a disruptor.

There are even elements of a web app marketplace of sorts. Appscope is this place where a directory of Progressive Web Apps are available much like an app store. If Huawei partnered with them to make the listings fully complete and emphasized their phones as the phones of the open web then they will truly have differentiated themselves. Think of how they would be able to position themselves as the company that is taking mobile computing to the next level. This focus on web based software in addition to the excellent hardware prowess of Huawei would be a very compelling alternative to mainstream Android and iOS.

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Photo CreditL Age Barros via Unsplash

Now a lot of companies have tried to do different things to dethrone the duopoly that is Android and iOS. And all up until now have failed. There are however, two elements at play here that benefit this crazy idea working for Huawei this time around. The first is that the mobile web has never been more robust than it is right now. Being able to act like a native app in terms of user experience and the pushing of notifications to make the experience even more natural to the modern smartphone user. The second element here is that Huawei has the cash flow to market this in key territories for the company like the Middle East and Europe. And while Huawei is fortifying their position in those markets they can still continue with business as usual in China, since they have been operating there without any sort of Google apps for years at this point.

This latitude in the Chinese market really buys Huawei some time to really fine tune this strategy and get their marketing machine to position it as a perfect alternative to what Apple and Google are offering. There are messaging points to be made to make this more appealing for consumers looking for a new device. Positioning against the Google data mining that is done on all devices. Positioning a more customizable solution than what Apple offers with iOS. Combine this with the amazing hardware chops of the Huawei Mate and P series and there is a compelling offer to be made as a potential third option versus the typical iOS versus Android debates.

I have long said that there really needs to be a third operating system to really drive innovation on the software side from Google and Apple. When there were threats to both of these companies made by up and coming operating systems like BlackBerry 10, WebOS, and Windows Phone that is when the envelope was being pushed to make their own operating systems better. At this point in the game, many of us have resigned to the idea that the ideas have peaked and companies will just steal ideas from one another making the smartphone a mere commodity.

A disruptor like Huawei with the motivation and necessity to disrupt the industry is exactly what is needed to dispel this notion. Huawei has always had ambitions to be better than Samsung and better than Apple. To be the dominant global force on the smartphone side in addition to the logistical side with its cell tower and modem business. For too long they have been just another Chinese Android phone maker in the eye of the general public. No different than Xiaomi or Oppo.

A ban like the one that the United States government has given Huawei can be seen as a swift sort of punishment by some. But to others, this gives the company an opportunity to really differentiate itself. To position itself as the company that has embraced the world of web development to realize its potential as the smartphone’s software evolution. The next step in the way that we use our phones, as the true portable computers that they are. Why not use the same platform that we have so many great experiences from on our desktops and laptops. Deepak Chopra once said “All great changes are preceded by chaos”. Huawei is now in the realm of software chaos as they prepare themselves for the great change. Why shouldn’t that great change be the mainstream embrace of the mobile web as its primary software solution?

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