According to Chinese media, Huawei is stepping up its rivalry with Google with plans to launch its own mapping service as soon as October. The government controlled China Daily claimed that the Shenzhen giant has secured support from leading software companies, including Booking.com and is accelerating its plans “to cope with the U.S. government’s ban on using Google Map in its overseas smartphones.”
More broadly, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei warned the U.S. this week, that if its hand is forced by a U.S. blacklist which denies access to Google’s full-fat Android operating system, then it will set out to break Google and Apple’s global dominance of the smartphone ecosystem. This would be a clear part of that strategy.
“If the U.S. government does not allow Google to provide the Android operating system,” Ren told Sky News, “then the world may have a third operating system—and that is not in the best benefit or interests of the United States, allowing a little brother operating system into the world.”
Huawei finally launched its new operating system a week ago—although HarmonyOS is designed for IoT platforms and not smartphones for the time being. Huawei execs have publicly acknowledged that the company has not even started the task of replicating Google’s app ecosystem and doing so would take years—this, again, is a part of that process and should be taken seriously.
Huawei’s “Map Kit” has that app ecosystem in mind. It is intended to support application providers rather than provide a consumer application, but once the back-end is in place—assuming it works—it is a small step to create consumer applications as well. That said, the millions of businesses and venues listed on Google Maps as well as the usability of its various functions is no small feat to replicate.
If the U.S. really does block Huawei’s access to Google, then it will have little choice but to fast forward its rival program to maintain its international smartphone business. On that note, Ren warned Google (and Apple and the U.S.) that “you cannot rule out the chance that the third operating system might outrun them someday.”
China Daily cites a senior Huawei exec as claiming the service is critical if the technology company is to maintain its position in overseas markets. Huawei estimates that 50% of mobile applications now rely on are location-based services. Map Kit will support 40 languages and will provide extensive navigation services, including real-time traffic information and even accuracy down to specific lanes on a highway lanes.
Huawei’s telecoms infrastructure in more than 160 countries around the world provides an information backbone to underpin its Map Kit. For the rest, it has a balance sheet and development resources that are pretty much unrivalled in the industry to fund an accelerated map development process.
Timing is everything and nothing is by accident. Huawei cannot wait for the U.S. position on the blacklist to sort itself out—right now the situation is moving around, making business planning in Shenzhen impossible. The company had been digging in when the blacklist was first announced, relaxing its stance when U.S. President Trump appeared to soften the restrictions. That has now reversed, again, and the company has decided it needs to act. Long-winded trade talks and the workings of the fast-moving smartphone industry are incompatible. One cannot wait for the other.
As for the specifics, Huawei will not get a successful mapping service up and running anytime soon—thus far only Google has really managed the feat, and even Apple scored multiple own goals trying to match its rival’s levels of usability and performance. But the mapping service is not the point of this announcement. It’s a much wider message, one that relates to the entire integrated smartphone ecosystem that has become cosy and warm and—until now—has had little reason to change.
Huawei’s CEO has issued a clear—albeit civilised—threat to U.S. dominance of that smartphone ecosystem this week, it’s a threat that should be taken seriously in Washington D.C. and California. Once China (supported by Russia and others) rejects U.S. standards there will be no turning back. And on that note, Russia’s Yandex is likely to be a major source of the data required by Huawei to drive this new service. All told, Google has more to lose than anyone.
Make no mistake, the timing of this news coming from China’s PR department is no coincidence. It is a targeted message and it should be heard loud and clear.