Huawei P40 Pro: Android phone without Google? No problem!

Just how flawed an experience is it to use an Android smartphone without Google Mobile Services? Not as much as you think it is.

Android phone without Google: Why Huawei P40 Pro is still a great choice
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For those of you like myself who managed to escape more important distractions last week, you might have noticed that Chinese consumer electronics giant Huawei released its P40 Pro flagship smartphone.

Of course, you won't see this device released in the US. American companies have been mostly unable to do any business with Huawei in any substantial way, which includes the sale and exportation of components and software since it was added to the US Commerce Department's entity list, and the Trump administration has campaigned to turn Huawei and other companies that have relationships with the Chinese government into pariahs.

These US restrictions haven't stopped Huawei from releasing its products in other regions -- such as Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America -- under the Huawei and Honor brands. I have been lucky enough to have had access to the UK and EMEA version of the P40 Pro for about a week, and I've been using it heavily as my primary Android device.

I am not going to get into the minutiae of the hardware and its overall performance. Many other publications and much more detail-oriented mobile technology writers have already done a thorough job of looking at this product from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint. But my overall opinion of the device is it's nothing short of a technological marvel and a magnificent showcase of the company's ability to produce industry-leading, value-added mobile hardware.

The reaction to the device among the technology press has been pretty much universal. In essence, everyone agrees the hardware is fantastic, and it is easily on par with what Samsung recently released with the S20 series in terms of raw technical achievement and the component bill of materials on the device. It just has one serious flaw: It has no Google Mobile Services or the Google Play Store on it.

I've spoken to a few other writers who have been on the review chain for this product. All have said that not having access to the Play Store and the Google apps (such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Youtube, Google Maps, Google Photos, Google Voice, Google Hangouts, Android Auto) is a deal-breaker.

Several, including myself, have even tried various unofficial workarounds to bypass the restriction and install the Google Mobile Services via sideloading -- because they cannot break this habit. Unfortunately, the security block against doing this on the Huawei P40 series is total; it fails to enable the services, as it is an uncertified and unlicensed device. It's certainly possible some enterprising developers might find a new workaround, but so far, it doesn't appear to be something that can be easily overcome due to Google's security.

There is always hope that, in the spirit of international cooperation, particularly during these extremely challenging and unprecedented times, the current presidential administration may reverse course on this issue, and conceivably, Google may again be allowed to license its software to Huawei. But, realistically, it probably won't happen until there's a new administration.

p40pro.jpg

The Huawei P40 Pro.

Jason Perlow

Regardless of the (unlikely) possibility of this situation improving soon, Huawei has repeatedly announced its commitment to developing its own mobile services stack, and its own app store, which is included on the P40 and the Mate 30 and lower-cost-but-still-excellent Honor phones. 

Rather than throw my hands up in the air and declare the device a deal-breaker, I decided to use the product as-is, and to see if it was that much of an inconvenience to not have Google software on it at all. Initially, it was a little frustrating, but after a few days of use, I didn't miss Google or its apps.

Installing the missing apps

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The first thing I did on the device was to sideload a few of the independent app stores, which include Amazon AppStore for Android and APKPure. I then looked at all the apps I used on my iPhone and my other Android devices to see if they were available in those stores. It turned out, every single one of the third-party apps I use was, in fact, available on those two sources, even though they were not on Huawei's App Gallery. 

The list includes not just commonly used social networking and messaging apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Slack, but also essential content consumption apps like Spotify, Netflix, CBS, HBO, Hulu, Amazon Video, and Sonos, as well as transportation and delivery services like Uber and UberEats, and Yelp. I also had no problem installing some of the more obscure IoT apps like Lutron and iAqualink, which I use for home automation. And, yes, there were plenty of games to choose from, even ones I already had installed on other devices through Google Play and Apple's App Store.

The issue of potential application malware and compromising device security when installing from third-party sources wasn't lost on me. Still, Google's record on the Play Store hasn't been exactly stellar when it comes to vetting apps from its developers for security risks. While I am not going to say installing apps from a source other than Google Play is just as safe, the objective of this experiment was to see if I could substitute what I needed from third-party sources and if the device would be usable as such. Long term, I would undoubtedly prefer all these apps to be installable directly from Huawei, Amazon, or another trusted source such as Microsoft.

Google is sticky, but not irreplaceable

The apps and services I use from Google are more problematic to replace. I do use Gmail as my personal and business email solution, and I use G Suite for my workflow. Not being able to edit documents on my smartphone is an inconvenience, but it's not a deal-breaker by any means since I don't use my phone for that -- it's something I would instead do on my Mac or iPad.

Aside from Huawei needing to populate its App Gallery with third-party apps and convincing developers to submit them, there is the issue of the stickiness of Google's APIs within Android itself that developers are accustomed to using for different types of functionality. For example, mapping. Many Android apps, such as Yelp and Twitter, access the Google Maps API when geographic tags are used. In Twitter, tweets that reference a location show a gray area where a map on Google would show. But there are many other Google APIs that developers hook into, which Huawei is either going to have to replace with its own or via a partnership to fill those functionality gaps, particularly as it relates to monetization.  

Also: Go Google-free: We pick privacy-friendly alternatives to every Google service

These days, I am not driving anywhere other than my local Costco and supermarket, or I'm picking up some take out food close to home, for obvious reasons. But, when life eventually returns to normal, if I continue to use the P40 Pro as my daily Android driver, I'll need to replace Google Maps with a different navigation and mapping solution. There's a bunch of good ones out there that are not dependent on Google Mobile Services, such as Waze, Sygic, Tomtom, and the very excellent HERE WeGo, which is a company that was spun off from the Microsoft-Nokia asset divestiture. Naturally, some of these are paid apps, while others are "freemium," meaning not all the features are free; they require in-app purchases to enable them fully.

The only problem with using any of these third-party navigation solutions with a current-generation Huawei device is that it won't work with Android Auto, which only exists on licensed Google services devices. I use Android Auto (and Apple's CarPlay) in my 2016 GM vehicle for displaying Google Maps navigation on the car's main center display. For Huawei to project apps onto an automotive screen, the company will need to come up with another solution, assuming it will be able to work with the automotive companies to facilitate connectivity on their respective stacks.

Gmail and Google Calendar is undoubtedly accessible by the well-designed and free Microsoft Outlook for Android client. Still, because Google has specific APIs, its native clients are going to be more optimized for them, especially when it comes to labels and other native functions. But can I read and send emails with my Gmail account? Can I search for things in my inbox? Can I schedule stuff on my calendar? Yes, just not with Google's proprietary UX.

The remainder of Microsoft's product suite for Android is also excellent and quite comprehensive, given the company is now developing its own Android devices, namely the Surface Duo, which, as of this date, is still on schedule for a release sometime in late 2020. Among the other Microsoft apps I like using (and are easily installable on the P40 Pro via Amazon Appstore and APKPure) are the Microsoft Launcher, Cortana, Office Lens, OneDrive, and Microsoft Edge, which is a direct replacement for Google Chrome and has become my browser of choice in recent weeks particularly for its built-in and free NewsGuard integration.

Another application I use heavily is Google Voice, which I use for unified messaging and virtual PBX across all my devices using a single phone number I give out, which rings all of my devices and stores centralized voicemail. One of the few third-party services that have equivalent functionality is RingCentral, which has recently rolled out a new version of its service for unified VOIP, video conferencing, and dial-in virtual PBX. Potentially, this is functionality Huawei could offer pre-loaded via a partnership or on its App Gallery.

The only app I genuinely miss from Google is Photos -- which is a set-it-and-forget-it service that works well for backing up photos to my Google One cloud account. I also use Google Photos on both my Android and iOS devices as a unified bucket for editing photo content, and the built-in tools for quick photo editing are good enough for my use. 

Indeed, I can use Microsoft OneDrive for the automated cloud backup part, and it works just fine. Still, the app isn't as polished, and the integrated photo editing isn't there. I had to download a few different editing packages to provide me similar functionality. Do I expect this to be something Microsoft to eventually solve and devote more developer resources to, considering that it will be releasing its own devices shortly? Yes.

Getting the product in the hands of US consumers will a challenge

All these things are minor inconveniences, and that's the critical issue here -- but for some users, even a small inconvenience feels like an insurmountable obstacle. Given that working third-party solutions do exist for maps/navigation, cloud photo storage, VoIP/video conferencing, and unified messaging, as well as all types of content consumption, means that many of the perceived gaps can be filled through partnerships. Huawei doesn't need to own the entire end-to-end of the experience like Google does to be successful. Indeed, Apple doesn't have all these similar services, and its end users have its choice of third-party solutions as well.

The main issue -- and the one which is the most difficult to overcome -- is getting Huawei's products into the hands of consumers with carriers unwilling to sell the devices, which would have served a built-in distribution channel. Its direct Chinese domestic competitor, Oppo, has mostly been able to overcome this with the OnePlus brand, and so has ZTE, which was also once on the entity list, but it now sells its products directly as well. Could Huawei do a deal with Amazon or Microsoft to resell the devices without violating the entity list restrictions? Potentially, yes, because Huawei's entity list inclusion does not restrict payments between parties. Would any of these be willing to consummate such a partnership on such a basis? That much is uncertain. 

I certainly hope that we see Huawei eventually release its products in the US because I feel the technology is excellent, and that there's enormous potential for consumer value given the company's talents and abilities for vertical integration that few others can achieve. Whether we will see that happen in the next few years or within the confines of the current administration is uncertain. 

But I've certainly learned from the experience using the P40 Pro without Google apps that it is not an extreme hardship to do so, and the perceived deficiencies can certainly be overcome with some hard work by the Chinese technology giant and developers willing to expend additional effort to make their apps work seamlessly on a new mobile services stack.

Would you be able to live without Google Mobile Services on your mobile device? Talk Back and Let Me Know.