What's a Google-free life like on Huawei phones?

SINGAPORE – When the United States government barred companies in the country from working with Chinese phone maker Huawei in 2019, this included search giant Google.

This meant that popular Google apps such as Gmail, Maps, YouTube and even the Play Store could no longer be bundled with new Huawei smartphones.

At the time, the company vowed to press on and responded by pushing an alternative app store called AppGallery as a replacement for Play Store.

Two years later, what is the situation like this year?

To find out, we checked whether a shortlist of apps on the Play Store was available on Huawei’s store and could work on the latter’s phones.

With millions of apps spread over 30 categories in the Play Store, we identified a selection of 40 deemed as either indispensable or popular in Singapore, including 20 local apps. These are categorised into eight broad areas based on what matter most on a day-to-day basis, such as productivity, banking and social media.

Huawei has said that it has grown the number of apps that work with its devices, with more than 120,000 apps as at the end of last year, up from more than 50,000 at the start of last year.

Its AppGallery also started featuring apps from other non-Google app stores in June last year. They can be found under Petal Search and installed.

While this simplifies the installation of apps from external sources, the apps are effectively externally installed and are not automatically updated by AppGallery.

This means you need to manually update them by keeping tabs on the availability of new versions and manually download them from the developer’s website or other non-Google app stores.

There is also another category of apps which can neither be found on AppGallery or Petal Search, but can be externally installed. Like apps found through Petal Search, they are not automatically updated.

Such apps are highlighted in our tests as being “sideloaded”.

All tests were conducted with a Huawei Mate 40 Pro.

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A win for local apps

Top Singapore e-commerce, payment and banking apps are almost universally available for Huawei phones. But some are missing and do not work when sideloaded, such as OCBC SG Mobile Banking.

Although the FlashPay Reader, which allows users to check and top up Nets FlashPay cards, is not in AppGallery, it shows up in Petal Search and installation is fine with a few taps.

Indispensable general apps such as Singpass, TraceTogether, Libby and Parking.sg are also available.

Some such as SG Buses are not available and will not work even if sideloaded.

Mileage varies with non-local apps

The situation is less sanguine with popular, non-local apps. Just around a quarter of our shortlist of apps can be found in AppGallery but the number goes up dramatically if you count the apps found through Petal Search or those that can be manually sideloaded.

Entertainment apps appear to be impacted the most, with Disney+, Spotify and YouTube absent from AppGallery. However, they can be sideloaded and still work, except for Google’s YouTube app.

In a sign that the situation is changing, one surprise is the new all-in-one version of Microsoft Office. It comes pre-installed on the Huawei Mate 40, and lets you work with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF files locally, or directly from the OneDrive cloud.

App selection better but… 

There is no question that Huawei’s app selection has improved dramatically over the last two years – many apps were simply missing in the past.

Now, 36 of the 40 shortlisted apps work with its phones in some way.

Many local banking, e-commerce and payment apps can be found in AppGallery now while many others can be sideloaded with some effort.

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All but two of the 20 local apps identified work to an extent.

Even then, the overall app experience is inferior to that of a Google-certified smartphone now.

Sideloaded apps are not updated automatically by AppGallery, and the reliance of many apps on Google Mobile Services – which includes tools to build and manage apps – means that some might never work properly unless publishers take the effort to modify their apps.

Moreover, there is also no replacement for YouTube for video streaming or Google Play Books for e-books, although Huawei Maps is a good substitute for Google Maps and worked well from our experience.

Ultimately, do not expect a new Huawei smartphone to completely duplicate the original Google experience.

But if you are determined to make a switch to Huawei, and prepared to manually search for and update your apps, as well as live without several apps like YouTube, then the Huawei ecosystem is certainly enough for you to make that transition today.

What are Google and Huawei mobile services?

Google Mobile Services (GMS) is a collection of Google apps – such as Gmail, Google Drive and Google Chrome – as well as capabilities that help Android apps perform tasks such as initiate in-app purchases, display maps, determine a user’s location and send push notifications.

GMS is proprietary to Google, unlike Android which is open source.

While some apps do not rely on GMS and can be sideloaded into a non-Google Huawei smartphone, many apps require GMS.

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For the latter, some might trigger warnings but keep working, while others may simply not launch.

Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) was created as a full-fledged alternative to GMS, though developers will need to modify their apps to work with HMS.

With three million apps on the Google Play Store, it will likely take some time for more apps to be compatible with HMS.

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