Huawei Is Building a Search Engine. Here’s Why We Should All Care.
Let me ‘Huawei’ that for you.
As you may very well know, the US government “blacklisted” Huawei in May last year. This act prohibited the sale of US goods to the Chinese smartphone giant.
Huawei’s smartphones run on the Android OS, owned by famous US company Alphabet, and Huawei devices depended on access to Google Mobile Services for maps, search, and many other capabilities.
Android, which has a staggering 87% share of the mobile OS market, is supposed to be the open-source alternative to Apple’s iOS. However, there are different versions of the Android operating system.
For the purposes of this peppy article, we’ll keep it brief.
Basically, Google keeps all the good stuff for its ring-fenced version of Android, while the open-source version is much more limited.
The blacklist move means Google can’t work with Huawei, although it would certainly like to continue their relationship. Huawei phones no longer have the Google Play Store or Google apps, which has a knock-on effect. Uber depends on Google Maps, for example, and many Android phones automatically back up their files on Google Drive.
In the post-blacklist days, the world’s second-biggest smartphone company is facing a steep set of challenges.
At least, Huawei had an inkling that such a judgment was on the horizon.
The US had long suspected the Chinese company of stealing intellectual property from American firms and remains wary of Huawei’s close links with the Chinese establishment as we move into the 5G era.
You’d think the “blacklisting” would be a severe blow to a smartphone company.
Although it is not fantastic news, Huawei still defied the odds by posting excellent results in the six months after the decision. It is edging towards a 50% market share in China and continues to gain on Samsung in Europe.
The US is the world’s biggest economy, but Huawei had never really made a dent in that market.
Moreover, the US expected its allies to follow suit and take the hard line with Huawei.
In truth, more than half the 5G contracts Huawei has won are based in Europe, with even the UK awarding Huawei the right to build “non-critical” elements of its 5G infrastructure.
It has become a running theme of these newsletters that the big tech companies are more than just a reflection of the current geopolitical climate.
In fact, they are often instruments of power to enact and extend the agenda of their governing authorities.
Some welcome this position and others have ended up here reluctantly, but this is an ineluctable fact of our new reality.
Technology is not a sector of the business world or of the economy; our entire world is viewed through, and within, the confines of technology.
So, Huawei really needed the US for its access to Google apps.
And a phone with no apps is, well, a Nokia 3210.
Huawei was already working on its own OS in the background, in anticipation of drastic action from the US.
It is a costly undertaking, as you can imagine. Alphabet has taken a formidable position over the past decade by building out from Google Search to add Google Maps, Android, YouTube, and hundreds of other components to its ecosystem.
Huawei has pledged to invest at least $1 billion to develop its new operating system and will make it open-source to attract developers.
Nonetheless, they can’t do it all alone.
Huawei is, therefore, planning to partner with other tech companies to build some parts of its new OS, such as the maps product it is working on with TomTom.
It has also held meetings with Russian search engine Yandex and a number of tech companies in India.
Some aspects of this ecosystem are so critical that Huawei will take full ownership of development.
This week, news surfaced that Huawei is testing its own search engine.
Huawei Search will look a bit like this (in dark mode):
Or a lighter version, if you’re that way inclined:
This is pretty significant news, which has been lost among the virus headlines.
It doesn’t look strikingly different from any other search engine you could use and certainly takes its cues from Google’s mobile search.
Huawei is recruiting users in the UAE to test the new search engine and provide feedback on how it compares to Google, Bing, and all the others.
Realistically, one would expect that it does not compare favorably.
Huawei says that it can delist results at the user’s request, which strongly suggests that it controls the search engine’s index rather than licensing it from a third-party.
Google has spent decades on its indexing technology and has a vast array of advantages in this field. Not even Huawei can build a genuine rival to Google Search in a matter of months.
XDA Developers tested the search engine and described it as “basic”, with the option for image and video results, weather listing, and standard Web searches.
So, why does Huawei Search matter?
Search engines are not neutral.
They sit above the Web, they decide what information is significant enough to index, and they ultimately decide what we see.
That is essential to their core utility.
We hand this responsibility to a search engine because we simply can’t perform these tasks for ourselves. There is an implicit trust that the search engine will act in something mildly representative of our best interests.
That Huawei Search is not as “good” as Google is largely beside the point, too. Huawei is on track to be the world’s most popular smartphone company, and those devices will come with Huawei Search as the default option.
The long-running joke that the most popular search on Bing is ‘Google’ could easily apply to Huawei in the future, of course. Apart from China, everyone else could just use Huawei Search to navigate to Google.
Nonetheless, Google knows the value of being the default option. It paid Apple many billions of dollars to switch from Bing to Google on its devices. It has also built its usefulness on the fact that Google Search connects to so many other apps; apps that will not be available on Huawei phones.
Also this week, we saw that WeChat has censored searches about the coronavirus outbreak since the start of this year. As part of the Chinese establishment’s plan to play down the risks, they blocked any keywords that would return accurate results about the impending threat.
It is not known whether the government ordered the action or whether WeChat acted on its own to comply preemptively with future directives, but the distinction barely matters.
Huawei receives large subsidies from the Chinese government to give it a competitive advantage against Samsung and Apple in the smartphone device market. It will likely receive similar support to build a rival OS that furthers the Chinese agenda at home and abroad.
This month, Huawei has announced a range of new flagship stores in strategically important cities, including Paris and London.
Although the US is something of a lost cause, Huawei is targeting both Asia and Europe for the short term, and Africa as a slightly longer-term objective.
Google, of course, has established a global monopoly on search without having access to the Chinese market. Controversially, it has tried to find a way into China by following the regime’s rules, but its staff revolted against the plans.
Huawei had no need to create these capabilities until the US government’s intervention. It would have been equally happy to continue working with Google to boost the reach of its flagship devices.
However, its revised charm offensive will now include the pitch that it offers a genuine alternative to Google products for smartphone users. It will piggyback (to put it diplomatically) on Google’s work and will hope to skip many years of painstaking development by copying their infrastructure.
In the process, it will gain the right to decide what we see when we search. If we buy a Huawei smartphone, that is.
Search is always a gateway to somewhere or something else, and Huawei is already working on accompanying tools for its search engine.
They are developing identity authentication tools, a mobile wallet, a video streaming site, and a music store, alongside a search engine, a global map, and an app store.
These digital tools are the perfect platform to gather the data Google so skillfully uses for commercial ends.
It will take some time to build a viable rival to Google and significant financial backing offers no guarantee of success.
That said, there are weaknesses in the Google toolkit that Huawei can exploit, at a time when the US has forfeited some of its soft power over global tastes in favor of a more insular stance.
Huawei and China will likely have other motives in mind with these initiatives, too. Shiny flagship stores, high-powered and low-cost devices, and an assembly of brand-new apps, can project an appealing image of modern China.
All the while, they can gain control over the instruments of influence that entrench those beliefs further still.
Technology shapes our behaviors and attitudes in subtle, significant ways.
Choosing a smartphone could be a very political decision in the future.