Huawei Phone Clone, one of Huawei’s responses to its Google ban, does not alter the fact that Google is key to the functioning of Android. Neither does Huawei AppGallery. But Huawei is doing its best.
My past couple of days with the Huawei P40 (update: full review here) have been strange. Usually when I receive a phone for review, the process is straightforward and predictable. I put in my SIM card, sign in to my Google account, and set up the phone fresh. I then download whatever apps I need from the Google Play Store and sign in to my accounts, a process that takes about an hour.
Not on the Huawei P40.
The first indication that this wasn’t going to be a usual Android experience was the fact that the phone asked me to sign in to my Huawei ID in the setup process.
I politely declined. Mostly because I didn’t want yet another account just for a review device that I’ll probably never log into again (like my Samsung account), but also because I wanted to see how far the phone would let me go without one.
To Huawei’s credit, it turns out, pretty far. Huawei’s AppGallery doesn’t pester me to create a Huawei ID before I can start downloading apps, unlike Google with its Play Store. And downloading apps is pretty much as far as I need to go with a smartphone, right?
But that’s where the main problem lies: the apps.
Huawei and Android apps: it gets complicated
Huawei’s AppGallery has apps: Huawei claims 45,000. But I’m willing to bet that there’s more than one app that you want but won’t be able to find in the AppGallery.
There is no WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, Spotify, Messenger, Telegram, etc. Literally the only app I searched for and found was Todoist. And upon installing and opening it, the app yells at me that Google Play Services aren’t installed on the phone. (More on that later.)
The essential apps that you want and need aren’t here
A good indicator that I’ve found for whether or not an app store is fleshed out is the top charts page. If you see a bunch of random apps in the top charts that you don’t recognise, chances are the app store isn’t as mature as you’d like. That was the case for Windows Phone.
As of the time of writing, the top 5 apps on the Huawei AppGallery are: OneMap, sgCarMart, Popcorn, My Sembcorp Power, and Parents Gateway. Maybe I’ve been away from Singapore for too long, but the only one I recognise is Popcorn.
To Huawei’s credit, they’ve worked really hard to build this app store from nothing. They’ve secured partnerships with Microsoft (Office, Bing, and News are there, but NOT Outlook), as well as with some other local establishments like Singaporean banks and telcos. Lazada, Shopee and Qoo10 are there. Singapore government agencies also seem to be onboard — two of the top 5 apps above are by government entities.
Huawei Phone Clone: an imperfect solution
But you can sideload the apps you want! You scream. Yes you can. In fact, Huawei’s own AppGallery has a banner at the top which redirects you to a forum post instructing you with steps to sideload apps from other sources.
Huawei even developed its own Huawei Phone Clone app, available on the Google Play Store, which allows you to transfer apps and data from your old device to Huawei phones.
You’ll have to sideload the apps that you want
But I have two issues with this, even if we ignore the fact that Google explicitly warns customers not to sideload apps. Firstly, having to sideload the vast majority of your apps is a hassle that you shouldn’t have to deal with when you forked out $1,000 for a smartphone. Secondly, even if you do sideload apps, there’s a chance that things that should work, don’t.
These are just a handful of complaints that apps have given me upon sideloading them:
Whatever app you install will likely yell at you to get Google Play Services (which you can’t, not easily anyway). Sometimes they only do it during set up; sometimes they do it whenever you open the app. Sometimes — like with Quibi — they barrage you with push notifications telling to get Google Play Services.
With that last one, thankfully Android allows you to disable push notifications pertaining to Google Play Services from the app. But it certainly feels like the smartphone equivalent of shoving things under the carpet.
A lot of the time though, the complaints are only partially true. “I won’t RUN without GOOGLE PLAY SERVICES!” the app yells. But usually, it will run. That is, the core functionality works. But you should still expect some functions to be straight up broken.
What Huawei Phone Clone can’t fix
Google is a lot more essential to the functionality of Android and its apps than you may think.
It seems that without Google Play Services, some app functionality will break. For example, I noticed that my Todoist and WordPress widgets do not update unless I open the apps. Netflix works, but you can’t Chromecast it to a TV.
Any form of in-app purchase most likely involves the Google Play Store, and as such, won’t work. Any game that you download won’t sync to Google Play Games. That means no leaderboards, no achievements, and no cloud saves. And no, Huawei Phone Clone does not transfer your saved game data.
The one that really gets me: WhatsApp can’t restore your backups because your backups are stored in Google Drive. And God forbid a Huawei phone is allowed to access Google Drive. Using the Huawei Phone Clone app doesn’t transfer your WhatsApp data either. UPDATE: Huawei has informed me that the latest version of Phone Clone (v10.1.1.360) is able to transfer WhatsApp chat data using Huawei’s cloud services. I haven’t been able to verify this.
Google is more essential to Android than you think
Some apps rely on Google’s services to get push notifications to work; some rely on Google’s services to get their location tracking to work. On a Huawei phone, any app that uses Google’s APIs to perform basic tasks will have those tasks broken.
What works and doesn’t work — and whether or not what doesn’t work is a dealbreaker — depends on your usage habits and which apps and their specific functions you consider to be essential. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing this prior to purchasing the phone. And it’s a gamble that I don’t think anyone should make, not when there are plenty of phones that work exactly as you expect them to.
What else is broken?
Most Google apps obviously won’t work. Gmail doesn’t let you add accounts. Google Keep straight up refuses to open. So do Google Drive and — perhaps most frustratingly for me — Gboard. Google Maps, YouTube and Chrome work, but you can’t sign in to your Google accounts, so what’s the point?
Any Android app that has a “sign in with Google” button won’t allow you to sign in that way. Most of the time you can sign in by manually inputting your email address and password.
But if you’ve signed up for the service using your Google Account — like I did with Todoist — it turns out your service account doesn’t have a password. Hence, you can’t simply sign in with your Gmail address and a password. I had to log into my Todoist account on a browser, set a password, then go back and sign in on the app on my Huawei phone. It’s a hassle.
It sounds bad, but the truth is that none of this is Huawei’s fault. They’ve been dealt a lousy hand and now they have to make the best that they can out of this situation. And try as hard as they might to convince people otherwise, Google was a key part of their phones and their business.
This isn’t the first time a major phone manufacturer has had issues getting Google to play nice. It’s not Google’s fault either. I’m sure it would be much better for Google’s business if Huawei’s phones did have access to its services and subscriptions. So don’t blame Huawei or Google. Blame… politics?
Look, here’s the deal. At the end of the day, Huawei’s phones work. Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Messenger, and Spotify have all worked for me with no issues. You can still sign in to Gmail on a third party mail app like Outlook. But how well Huawei phones work for you depends on the apps that you use and how reliant you are on Google’s services.
And the issue with Android is, you’re probably a lot more reliant on Google than you think.