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Goodbye Google—Huawei Reveals Another Radical New Android Alternative

Zak Doffman

So, hot on the heels of the Mate 40 launch, Huawei has just teased its fanbase with another sleek new smart device. But, just as the Mate 40 is all about what’s under the surface—namely the lack of Google, so it is with this latest device. It’s all about what’s going on behind the scenes, a change of strategy for China’s leading technology company and still the world’s second largest smartphone manufacturer.

The new device is a smart screen that can be mounted in vehicles, powered by HarmonyOS and the company’s HiCar alternative to Android Auto. Huawei has been talking up its auto-play for some time. Well, this is finally something beyond basic in-car ICE integration to get excited about. The intent is that this screen becomes an extension of your smartphone. In keeping with Huawei’s product strategy, intelligently connecting all your devices, the idea is that you seamlessly switch to a larger device when one is available. At home that will be your smart TV, in your car it’s this.

“We hope that someday all cars can enjoy the great experience brought by HiCar,” Huawei’s consumer boss Richard Yu told its recent developer conference. “Our hope is that all apps on your phone will be available.”

But to dismiss this as an Android Auto replica misses the point—this is much, much more radical. Huawei recognizes that smart automotive is a vast and fast-growing sector and that it has the world’s largest market on its doorstep. It also estimates that ICT will be some 70% of the value of each car produced. While speculation continues as to whether Huawei will build the cars themselves, for Huawei that’s an unnecessary step too far. Provide the ICT platform to automakers is the prize, it believes, which opens up new revenue streams for cloud, IoT and enterprise platforms.

Right now, the initial HiCar forays provide Huawei’s Intelligent Automotive Solution business unit with the perspective to better understand automotive. Its plans, though, go way beyond. Connected in-car tech linked to the company’s cloud—an “Internet of Vehicles,” serving consumers and manufacturers alike. Yes, you can connect your smartphone to access music, maps and mail. But the platform will open up other digital services, integrating with core car systems and sensors—opportunities for fleet management, diagnostics, even pre-emptive maintenance.

In the world of smart, connected cars, Huawei also believes such a platform will facilitate car-sharing, AI-based sensors to monitor drivers and passengers, to say nothing of the tech required to make automated driving en masse a safe reality. This is a shift, Huawei believes, from electric and electronic (E/E) architectures to computing and communications (C/C) architectures, built around networks and domain controllers.

HiCar featured prominently at Huawei’s Developer Conference in September. Some 20 automakers and 30 apps, a flagship role in the “seamless Ai life” strategy that is intended to connect core Huawei products with Huawei-powered peripherals. Huawei sees the ICT platform as being worth 70% of the value of a car. And then there’s the data, the stickiness, the relationships with manufacturers worldwide looking ongoing services to sell car buyers. Huawei even has the mapping platform in place now, to drive its navigation offerings.

Huawei is pouring money into this new automotive venture, seeking to become the “leading Chinese platform provider” in the space. “Today we are already partnering with more than 20 automakers,” Yu confirmed at HDC, “and five million head units are preloading HiCar.”

All very well. But this is really about cloud and IoT, data, recurring services, and creating an ecosystem that buys automakers into a revenue share that may not be available from the other mobile ecosystems. As the world shifts to ever smarter, electric vehicles, the ICT platform becomes more than a head unit, more than an entrainment and communications module. Quite how far Huawei intends to go, we don’t yet know.

Few details are yet available on the new smart screen itself—think a dash-mounted tablet that runs your apps, plays music, makes calls, provides advanced navigation and other location services. As the company searches for new revenue streams to work around U.S. restrictions, you can also expect a wide range of services provided by Huawei in tandem with the automakers.

The problem for Huawei, of course, is that outside China it doesn’t have the dominant market position to drive this home. But in China, it’s a different story. And while the latest quarterly smartphone sales showed Huawei slipping, it still secured some 36% of the market and a bigger share of the premium segment.

So, look beyond the smart display and its clever portrait to landscape adaptation to redirect smartphone apps, and think to the API-level integration to multiple car systems, to cameras and safety checks, to a cloud ecosystem connecting each car to a full-scale backend. That’s the vision—and as Huawei’s core 5G and smartphone businesses continue to struggle under the blacklist, this will gain ever more prominence.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibilities that Huawei finds itself pushed as far as to break-up the business, to reshape into a collection of mini-Huaweis that would be less of a perceived threat to the U.S. That’s certainly one hypothesis from recent reports that the company is considering the sale of its Honor smartphone unit. And if that happens it’s clear that automotive will figure prominently in what happens next.

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I am the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers—developing advanced surveillance solutions for defence, national security and counter-terrorism. I write about the intersection

I am the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers—developing advanced surveillance solutions for defence, national security and counter-terrorism. I write about the intersection of geopolitics and cybersecurity, and analyze breaking security and surveillance stories. Contact me at zakd@me.com.