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Huawei P30 Pro screen

The US government has blacklisted Huawei. As a result Google has stopped providing and supporting the Android software used on Huawei phones. American chip makers can no long supply technology to Huawei. The Huawei blacklist is part of a wider trade dispute between the US and China. 

Does the Huawei blacklist mean I have to stop using my phone?

No. If you already have a Huawei it will carry on working as normal for now.

Could China be spying on me through my Huawei phone?

Don’t be silly. If you’re like the average Android phone user you already let Facebook, Google and others spy on you. They make money that way.

If China wanted to casually spy on you it could buy data from one of those companies. If you’re a serious intelligence target for Chinese agents they’re probably able to spy on you regardless of your phone’s brand.

Is my Huawei phone a security risk?

No more than any other Android phone. Android is more prone to malware and nasty stuff than other phones, but this changes nothing in that department.

Huawei has not always been the best at providing necessary software updates and security patches in the past. The company says it will go on supporting existing customers.

I was thinking of buying a Huawei phone…

That’s probably not a great idea although if sales slump you may be able to pick up a bargain.

If you buy a Huawei phone today you’ll get updates for the current version of Android. It’s most likely you’ll get upgrades for the next version. After that things start to get tricky.

At the moment we’re on Android Pie. The next version, Android Q is due in a few months. Huawei has had all the code for both of these.

The next version, R, should turn up in about 14 months. The way things stand today Huawei won’t get that code.

Without official support, you could be cut adrift from the Android mothership in as little as 14 months. Huawei says it will continue with security upgrades, but you may struggle to run some apps once R is mainstream.

What about other Chinese Android phone brands?

How much of a gambler are you? The recent Huawei blacklist is specific to one company, but it’s part of an escalating trade war between the US and China. If you count yourself as cautious, then wait to see how the dust settles before buying an alternative Chinese brand.

Isn’t Android supposed to be open source?

Only up to a point.

Android has a number of layers. At the top there’s Huawei’s own software overlay, that’s EMUI on the premium phones. There’s a service layer which connects to things like the Google Play store, Maps and Gmail.

There’s a low level layer that connects the operating system to the hardware. The underlying Android operating system, AOSP is open source. Huawei will still be able to use that. It will be updated as normal.

However, Google usually shares this code with favoured phone makers months before the code is made public. Phone makers pay vast sums for this.

The blockade means Huawei will now get the code on release day, so users may wait months for upgrades.

This is how AOSP works for many smaller Chinese phone makers. If you’ve tried one of those phones you’ll know the customer experience often leaves much to be desired.

Yet it’s also how Huawei’s Chinese phone business works, so the company already knows how to deal with the restrictions.

The real problem is with those services or those of us living in western countries. If Google makes changes there could be problems for existing phone users.

Will I be cut off from Google services?

No. At least not for the foreseeable future. You might not get any new services introduced from next year on.

Is any of this covered by the Commerce Act?

That’s a good question. The simple answer is you probably won’t be able to use the Commerce Act as a way of getting your money back if the phone goes on working as normal. Although there’s an interesting precedent that suggests otherwise.

In the longer term you may have a case if a lack of software updates means the phone is, in effect, rendered useless before a reasonable period of time. 

If this happens, it won’t matter if Huawei is no longer active in New Zealand (see below). The phone retailer is liable, not the manufacturer.

What does this mean for Huawei’s phone business in New Zealand?

It’s possible the spat between the US and China blows over in a few weeks and things will return to normal. If not, it will soon be hard for Huawei to sell phones here. Anecdotal evidence says customers are already avoiding the brand.

That’s a shame because Huawei makes some of the best Android phones. It is the number three phone brand here. While it may not always look like it, Huawei acts to keep Samsung and Apple competitive.

Phones account for about half of Huawei’s revenue worldwide. Half of its sales are in China where losing Google isn’t a problem. So a quarter of the company’s revenue is at risk.

On the other hand, no-one knows if Huawei make much, if any, profit from phone sales. The Huawei blacklist could lead to the company exiting the phone market outside of China. If that’s the case, it could be doing Huawei a favour.

More a pocket camera with phone features than a mobile with a camera, the Huawei P30 Pro pushes the Android handset envelope further than any rival.

Huawei’s P30 Pro is the first phone with 5x optical zoom. It’s also the first to feature four cameras on the back. That’s five cameras all up when you also count the front facing selfie-camera. You get a lot of camera.

This should not come as a surprise. Cameras have been the key battleground for premium phone makers in recent years.

That’s because it is an area that has, until now, remained ripe for further improvement. Most other aspects of phone design are starting to look like dead-ends. One notable exception to this is Huawei’s Mate X folding phone.

All phone makers emphasise their camera prowess. Huawei pushes its skill a little harder than its rivals. The company has two main premium phone ranges; the business-oriented Mate series phones and the P series which is all about photography.

Huawei P30 Pro – everything up-to-date

When it comes to photography, the P30 Pro is, in effect, a physical compendium of all the latest digital camera trends in a phone-size box.

This year’s standout feature is the 5x optical zoom. It is more than any rival can offer. The most I’ve seen to date on a phone is 2x optical zoom.

Huawei P30 Pro periscope
A periscope makes better use of space inside the phone.

Adding 5x zoom to a phone relies on a complex periscope arrangement. To get that kind of zoom you need some depth, that’s hard to find in a phone that’s only a few millimetres thick, so Huawei used a prism to build a periscope through the inside of the phone.

The optical technology took me unawares. Periscopes are hardly new, but they are often big. Who even knew it was possible to fit a useful one inside a handheld phone and still leave enough room for everything else?

Leica

Less surprising is the Huawei P30 Pro’s array of four Leica cameras. Anyone who saw what happened to the razor blade market will know that was always on the cards from the day phone makers all had three camera models. It’s a more-is-more philosophy.

Lens number four is smaller than the others. It’s a depth-sensing time-of-flight camera. It should give better results with portrait images. The depth maps do a better job of separating the subject of a photo from the background. You get a better, more natural looking bokeh effect.

Huawei says it also plans to use this camera later with augmented reality applications. At this point I should offer a few words of caution. Phone makers are often not good at delivering on “we’re going to add this feature later” promises.

The main camera has 40-megapixel and there’s also a 20-megapixel ultra wide angle camera.

Super spectrum

Huawei adds what it calls a SuperSpectrum sensor. Most sensors divide light into red, green and blue. The SuperSpectrum sensor adds yellow to the mix. This lets in a lot more light, Huawei says up to 40 percent more. More light means better performance in low-light conditions.

The 5x optical zoom does what the name tells you. But it enables more zoom options. You can work the cameras together to get a 10x hybrid zoom mode. Push things further and there’s a an option to go all the way to 50x digital zoom.

Software

What amounts to a considerable amount of advanced camera hardware is neatly topped off with a serving of clever photography software. All phone makers talk about their devices using artificial intelligence. That’s not strictly true, not in the sense that the phones are smart enough to learn how to take better picture.

Huawei P30 Pro screenWhat the clever software can do is determine what the camera is pointing at. This could be a face, or a scenic shot with mountains in the background.

Armed with a rough idea of what is in the frame, the software can then adjust the exposure and other parameters. The whole adds up to a new level of phone camera sophistication.

It means in practice that you can often get stunning photos with the P30 Pro. Of course you can still get some naff ones too. But that’s generally down to the talent pushing the shutter button. Mediocre photographers have fewer excuses.

Screen, notch

Away from the cameras, the P30 Pro is a decent premium phone. There’s a 6.5 inch OLED screen. I can’t think of the last time I saw a premium phone screen that wasn’t ‘beautiful’, but this one also qualifies. Huawei has opted for a much smaller notch to house the front camera.

Huawei P30 Pro face recognition and fingerprint reader
Huawei face recognition and fingerprint reader

Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition. It’s fast but not a patch on the version Apple uses with the iPhone XS Max. Instead of going down that path with the P30 Pro, Huawei has opted for an in screen fingerprint reader. Maybe I could warm to this over time, but in testing, I found it hard to use and spoiled the overall user experience.

There’s an interesting approach to sound. Instead of an earpiece the front of the front of the phone turns into a speaker. To me this feels like showing off more that genuine innovation. But there you go.

Battery

At the launch function Huawei talked of getting two days battery life from the phone. Well yes, that’s possible if you don’t actually use it.

Realistically you’ll get a long, long working day from it with enough juice to order a cab home late at night. It may still turn on the next day.

In reality you’ll be charging it every night just like every other phone. The good news is that it charges fast. Half an hour gets you to about 70 percent.

Should you forget to turn the power on overnight, you can give it a solid charge while you eat breakfast. Make an extra pot of coffee and go in late if you need 100 percent power.

Huawei P30 Pro verdict

At NZ$1500, the P30 Pro is a big investment for most people. It could be worth the money if you want to spend time mastering the cameras and plan to take a lot of pictures.

If that’s not you, then you’ll find better value elsewhere, including elsewhere in Huawei’s range. You might consider the cheaper and smaller NZ$1100 non-Pro P30. It has a 6.1 inch screen, the same fingerprint scanner and less storage. There are also fewer cameras, only three on the back. It can only do 3x optical zoom.

Expect talk about devices like the P30 Pro putting the final nail in the coffin for standalone digital cameras. When it comes to consumer cameras, that happened a while ago.

The P30 moves the bar a little higher for other cameras. While I’ve found it’s still easier to get better pictures on my digital SLR, I can’t stick that in my pocket. In practice it means I pack the SLR less and less often. We’re quite not at the point of rarely using it yet.

Postscript

When I reviewed the P30 Pro, I charged the phone with a USB-C cable that I already had set up for other devices. In part that was because the phone was supplied with a Chinese power supply.

While packing the phone up to return to Huawei, I tested the supplied USB-2 to USB-C cable. It doesn’t work. This is an example of sloppiness that you wouldn’t expect to find with rival brands and goes some way to explain why Huawei’s core mobile network business faces problems.

Huawei Mate X

Huawei’s foldable Mate X was the highlight of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. At the show it eclipsed Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.

It even outshone the event’s main message: that 5G mobile networks are now ready.

Foldable phones are the most innovative take on mobile hardware since Apple’s iPad.

Until now phones and tablets have been distinct devices. Sure, there is a point when big phones are like small tablets1.

Yet the moment a phone is big enough for serious tablet work, it is too big to fit in a jacket pocket.

Pocket-sized

Mate X gets around that. While some might see it as a phone that folds open to become a tablet, you might equally see it as a tablet that folds shut to fit in a pocket.2

Phone makers love to talk about innovation. Most of the time they use the word to describe small improvements. In the world of marketing hype, bigger screens, faster processors, more camera lenses are improvements.

It’s all good. Today’s phones are a huge improvement on earlier models. But there has been precious little innovation.

For the last decade or so phones have been monolithic slabs of glass and metal or plastic. The Mate X and its kind break with that model.

Huawei Mate X — first generation

This year’s foldable are the first generation. They are expensive. More about that in a minute. Impressive as the Mate X is, you can see a line on the screen where it folds.

I’m concerned that the screen is on the outside where it might get scratched. It’s a little bulkier than a non-folding phone. It feels heavier in the hand than you might expect.

Yet for all these shortcomings, it is impressive. In your hands it feels almost magical. That’s an acid test for exciting innovation.

By the time the Mate X reaches New Zealand it could cost the thick end of four grand. That’s a lot for a phone, more than twice the price of a non folding Android phone and considerably more than the most expensive flagship phone from any brand.

Phone prices have climbed faster than inflation in the last few years. Much of the extra you get when you spend more on a phone is more of the same old features, more screen, more memory and so on.

Expensive, but could be worth it

Folding phones may be a lot more expensive again, but you are getting something significant and different for the extra money.

It is also more expensive than any tablet. The price seems especially high when, at first sight, it can’t do anything that can’t already be done with other, cheaper devices.

Even so, there are many people who can justify the expense because it opens new ways to work. Looking at documents while sitting on a train no longer means squinting at a tiny screen.

Travelling on business no longer means lugging a laptop. You can carry one less thing. There is less to charge, fewer cables to think about. And so on.

There will be a market for folding phones and not just among the geeks who have to buy every new toy.

The start of something bigger

If the idea takes off, it could be that most premium phones will have a similar folding format within a year or two.

Soon the difference between folding phones and everyday phones could be like the difference between smartphones and so-called featurephones.3

There were other foldable phones at MWC. I spotted a TCL model on the Alcatel stand. If the as-yet unnamed Oppo foldable phone was on show, I missed it as I ricocheted pass the company’s comparatively dull-looking stand. It features, with others, in this long report on foldables that debuted at the show.

Huawei’s Mate X is the first of its kind. If you’re old enough, think back to the first iPhone. That wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t cheap. And yet within a few years it evolved to become the must-have device of our times. This is the next generation.


  1. We don’t welcome words like phablets around these parts ↩︎
  2. I say pocket here because I’m a bloke. It also fits into a handbag. ↩︎
  3. It’s daft that phones with no discernible features are given that name, but there you go… marketing. ↩︎

It’s understandable people worry about Huawei phones. Recent news reports suggest the company either is, or could one day, use its network equipment to help China spy on or disrupt other nations.

If that’s true, then the company’s phones may also be weaponised.

Huawei phone owners can relax. Well, actually you can’t, read on to find out why. But, unless you work in an important strategic role, Huawei’s brand on your handset is not your biggest phone problem.

While it is possible China’s spies are interested in hearing you call home to say “I’m on my way” or knowing how often you watch cat videos, it’s unlikely.

Easier routes to your data

And anyway it would take a lot of resources and energy to get that information from your phone when there are easier tools at a spy’s disposal.

As another recent online snooping scandal shows, spies can and probably do buy the information they need from Facebook or Google.

We’ve heard that Russian trolls know enough about individuals to target them with vote-changing propaganda.

The level of data available from Facebook or Google is so intimate that motivated snoops can know things about you that none of your close acquaintances do.

They know…

They know if you are closeted. They can know you’re pregnant before your family does. They definitely know if you’re unhappy. They know your prejudices and you musical taste.

The most chilling revelation about Cambridge Analytica is that even seemingly disconnected data helps build a picture of your mood. It reveals what you are thinking.

A Huawei phone’s inherent insecurity has less to do with its country of origin, more to do with the Android operating system.

That means much of your personal information automatically goes back to Google and is for sale. It knows where you’ve been, what you bought, who you talk to and so on. We’re told the data is anonymous, but that doesn’t stop companies from being able to identify and target you.

You agreed to be spied on

You agreed to this when you bought an Android phone. You confirmed your agreement when you clicked on the permission button when setting up the phone software. You agreed all over again when you first used Google Maps. And so on.

If you’d like to double down on enabling malevolent snoops, install a Facebook or Instagram app. Once one of these is on your phone, little you do remains a mystery to anyone with curiosity and a budget. Facebook takes this snooping to another level.

Some people reading this will think it’s quaint and old fashioned to be concerned about personal privacy and security. Perhaps it is.

In most cases the nature of information gathered by Facebook and Google is more valuable to spooks than having a back door into your phone. And a lot less trouble.

Insecurities

One other thing to consider. Given that Facebook has, and continues, to act in bad faith, you can’t trust the company’s promise it keeps your data safe. Spies may be able to buy your Facebook data. State sponsored attackers probably know how to steal it.

All the above applies to any other Android phone whether it is made in China or South Korea.

If you worry about owning a Huawei phone, you should worry about it being an Android phone.

Things are more serious if you work in the military, in a strategic sector or deal with trade secrets. Spies are as likely to be interested in blueprints for cutting-edge engineering as they are in troop placements.

Risk management

Another set of rules applies if you work in those roles. Foreign governments would like phone level access to your data. Even if there’s any truth in the allegations Huawei phones are only marginally more risky than, say, a Samsung phone. That said, extra prudence won’t hurt.

It may also pay to invest in extra security features. Samsung has a nice line of enterprise-grade phone security.

An iPhone looks safer, although Apple isn’t entirely squeaky clean in this department. While Apple gathers data, the company makes a virtue out of protecting its customers in a way the Android phone makers do not.

Apple’s business model is selling hardware and services. Google’s Android business model relies on collecting personal data. It’s that simple.

By all means be cynical about Apple’s claims. Skepticism is healthy. The world would be a safer place if more consumers thought these things through before buying devices. And also be aware that you can blow much of Apple’s protection the moment you install Facebook or any other pernicious data gathering app.

You have no business worrying about Huawei handing over your phone data to Chinese spies if you’re happy to hand over the same information to the likes of Facebook and Google. It’ll probably end up in the same hands either way.

Disclosure: Bill Bennett has travelled to China and elsewhere as Huawei’s guest on three occasions. He owns an iPhone and keeps tame Androids for testing purposes. 

Huawei is no longer welcome as a phone network build in some western democracies.

There’s an unproven suspicion the company is already spying for China. Even if it is not spying, western governments are wary of depending on a Chinese firm for critical infrastructure.

Sooner or later those fears about Huawei network equipment will spill over into phone handsets.

Negative headlines and ministerial statements here and overseas have already damaged Huawei’s brand. It could get worse.

Implications

What could fear of Huawei mean for the phone market?

It may lead to reduced choice, higher prices and less innovation. Mind you, the second two are already happening, with or with a Huawei effect.

Last year Huawei was the fourth most popular phone brand in New Zealand. It sits behind Samsung, Apple and Vodafone. Huawei had roughly ten percent of the market by unit numbers. The top two brands dominate by a long way.

Because Vodafone-branded handsets are at the low-end of the market, Huawei was number three in terms of revenue. Huawei’s share of revenue was also about ten percent. This number matters more than unit sales.

Huawei fast growing

Also important, Huawei was by far the fastest-growing phone brand in New Zealand both in terms of unit sales and revenue growth. It took market share from both Apple and Samsung.

Huawei plays an important role in New Zealand’s market. It puts pressure on the top two brands and ensures Android phone buyers have a plausible alternative to Samsung.

New Zealand is one of Huawei’s better markets. The phones are invisible in the US. In Australia Huawei is number five in the market, but with a much smaller share. Apple sells roughly 18 phones for every phone sold by Huawei. Samsung sells about 12.

Both Australia and the US have been wary of Huawei network hardware for some time.

Fear spill over

Of course other factors are at play, but it’s reasonable to assume those network security fears have something of a knock-on effect in the handset market.

It’s likely something similar will happen here.

Phone buyers might reason that if ministers and intelligence agencies are concerned about snooping at the network level, the same might apply to Huawei mobile phones, tablets and personal computers.

At the same time, people might look askance when a phone owner reveals they own a Huawei handset. Phone snobbery is real enough already, this is another level.

Employers might decide they don’t want employees doing business on a Huawei handset. There doesn’t need to be an outright ban, a lot of frowning will have a chilling effect.

Retail

It may even become harder to buy a Huawei phone. If things get worse, it’s possible the telcos will want to distance themselves from the brand. That means you either won’t see the handsets in Spark, Vodafone or 2degrees stores or they will be relegated to almost under-the-counter status.

Huawei may decide it needs to ramp up its marketing to calm customer fears. It’s possible, the company is good at talking to the industry, but consumer communication has not been a Huawei strength.

Who wins?

If consumers and retailers turn their back on Huawei, it will take price pressure off rival phone makers. Samsung will benefit most. Huawei has been snapping at Samsung’s heels for some time. Huawei Android phones tend to be as good as Samsung models, but cost a little less.

Apple stands to benefit too. We’ll come back to that point in another post.

There’s every possibility that unease about Huawei phones will spread to other Chinese brands.

Oppo has made a splash here, but the brand needs to work hard to explain why it should not be tarred with the same brush.

After all, if the Chinese government can bully its most prestigious technology company into handing over data, stomping on a smaller player will be simple.

All of this is speculation. It’s possible the scare goes away. It could be that New Zealanders don’t follow Americans and Australians in treating the Huawei brand with caution or suspicion. But on overseas evidence, we should prepare for a phone market shake up.

In my next post about Huawei, I’m going to look at why spying-related suspicion about the company’s phone handsets is misplaced.

Disclosure: Bill Bennett has travelled to China and elsewhere as Huawei’s guest on three occasions.