Commentary: Huawei’s latest phones have outshone Samsung’s flagship models. President Trump’s executive order targeting Huawei has already softened.

Huawei’s ambitions to unseat Samsung as the world’s largest phone brand by 2020 came crashing to the ground on Sunday following a report that Google will pull support for Huawei’s Android phones. Sidelining its most enthusiastic rival could prove to be a windfall for Samsung — assuming the blacklist status lasts. The measures are already softening. On Monday, the US Commerce Department temporarily restored Huawei’s ability to service existing phones until Aug. 19, Reuters reported. But Samsung still has time to take advantage of its rival’s negative press.

Heeding an executive order signed by President Donald Trump last week, Google has cut Huawei off from a longtime business relationship that gives the Chinese brand, and other phone-makers, access to Android OS updates, Reuters first reported. The initial order would largely deprive Huawei of security updates as well as Google services such as Gmail, Google Assistant, the Google Playstore, Google Maps and Google Search. In addition, Google will withhold technical support for future phones. Intel, Qualcomm and Broadcom are also reportedly toeing the US party line, according to Bloomberg.

On Monday morning, the Chinese company expressed dismay about Google’s decision.

“Huawei has made substantial contributions to the development and growth of Android around the world,” a Huawei spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “As one of Android’s key global partners, we have worked closely with their open-source platform to develop an ecosystem that has benefitted both users and the industry.”

It also sought to reassure customers. “Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after-sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products, covering those that have been sold and that are still in stock globally,” said the company spokeswoman. “We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally.”

Huawei’s loss could be Samsung’s gain if Android fans turn their backs on Huawei’s future phones for not having the tools and apps people rely on every day.

Huawei phones are out-innovating Samsung’s

Huawei has been on a tear. Sales are up around the world despite the brand being shut out of the US, and its best phones are out-innovating Samsung’s Galaxy S10 flagships. The Huawei P30 Pro has an incredible zoom camera lens and a standalone night mode that takes crystal-clear low-light shots.

Meanwhile, Samsung lacks the night mode that Huawei and Google Pixel phones have, and it has a much less flexible zoom lens. Samsung is also in hot water with slow sales and screen engineering issues that have delayed the release of its foldable Galaxy Fold phone after early review units experienced malfunctioning screens.

Political interests that effectively take Huawei’s smartphone business out of the game will damage the brand’s ability to sell phones outside of China, giving Samsung a chance to prop up its position in Europe and the rest of the world.

Samsung could also benefit from a Huawei plan to delay its own foldable phone, the Mate X, whose screen bends around the outside. You can use it from either side while folded, and it opens into an 8-inch tablet. Google’s Android software, including the next version, called Android Q, supports foldable phones by helping apps easily jump from a “folded” screen orientation to an “unfolded” one.

It isn’t clear if Huawei uses Google’s software to run the Mate X, or if it needs Google’s support since the Mate X isn’t being sold yet. However, if Huawei were to pause production while sorting out its Android troubles  — the Mate X is slated for summer — Samsung could increase its lead in the innovative foldable space.

There’s also a possibility Huawei may not feel it needs Google’s Android support to keep its business afloat. Earlier this year the Huawei said it’s developing its own OS in case the telecom giant needs to abandon Android and Windows on its phones and hybrid computers, according to German outlet Die Welt.

“We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” Google said in a brief statement on Sunday evening. “For users of our services, Google Play and the security protections from Google Play Protect will continue to function on existing Huawei devices.”

That means Huawei will be able to continue selling current phones and tablets with Android support, such as the P30 and P30 Pro. Huawei’s Honor brand — which includes the Honor 20 Lite — will be affected by the executive order.

Huawei isn’t cut off from Android completely. It can continue to use a version of Android, called AOSP (Android Open Source Project) when Google releases that build publicly, but that will put Huawei months behind the competition. Google’s partners get early access to Android builds so they can make the operating system work as smoothly as possible for buyers. Samsung remains an early-access partner.

What’s going on with Huawei and the US?

The Trump administration’s move against Huawei is the latest salvo in a series of escalating security concerns that stretch back to 2012, when Congress warned carriers against using Huawei’s networking equipment over fears that Huawei could use this infrastructure to spy on American companies and citizens for the Chinese government. The fact that companies can be used to damage foreign governments highlights tech companies’ potent role in politics.

The action to block Huawei’s access to Android is considered by some to be a bargaining chip in the US’ increasingly tense trade relationship with China. Last year Trump used a similar tactic against Chinese electronics giant ZTE, crippling its business. Trump lifted that ban last August.

Huawei said that Google’s desertion will hamper the US’ rollout of 5G data networks, according to Reuters, and only slightly slow Huawei’s global growth. Huawei is the world’s largest telecoms equipment manufacturer, and the world’s second-largest phone-maker, behind Samsung. Samsung sells displays and chips alongside mobile devices, but isn’t a player in networking equipment.

Is Huawei only temporarily cut off?

Samsung’s gains might be short-lived if the ban against Huawei proves temporary. Huawei has already been granted a partial reprieve to update existing phones, but the future of upcoming Android devices is unclear.

Precedent has shown that Trump is willing to reverse his position on Chinese companies if certain conditions are met. It’s possible that the US government could walk back the blacklisting depending on the reactions of China’s leaders.

We saw similar results with ZTE, another Chinese brand that the US banned for seven years for failing to punish employees for breaking a sanction prohibiting the sale of US equipment to Iran and North Korea. ZTE, which relied on equipment produced in the US, was effectively shut down until Trump tweeted an about-face to work with ZTE on lifting the ban.

If trade negotiations continue to unravel, Samsung has a chance to push forward in 2019 with its most effective Android rival weakened. But if Huawei phones are brought back into the fold with the US government’s support — and this would likely affect just the phone business — then Samsung’s chief rival would continue to challenge the South Korean titan for mobile dominance.

Samsung didn’t respond to a request for comment.

CNET’s Katie Collins contributed to this report.

Originally published May 20 at 4:05 a.m. PT.
Updated 5:17 a.m. PT: Added Huawei’s statement.
Updated 2:55 p.m. PT: Added news of softened restrictions.


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