Last year, the Trump administration placed Huawei and its subsidiaries on the U.S. Commerce Department’s “Entity List,” which blocked Google from licensing Google Mobile Services for new Huawei device models made available after May 16, 2019. The U.S. government granted Huawei a temporary general license (TGL) which it then renewed several times over the last year. This TGL allowed Google to continue collaborating with Huawei on providing security updates and updates to Google apps, according to a support article published by the company in February. However, Huawei’s temporary general license has expired as of last night. It isn’t immediately clear what this means for software updates on existing Huawei mobile devices with Google apps, but this could spell trouble for the company.
According to The Washington Post, the Commerce Department could still renew the temporary general license, but neither the agency nor Huawei responded to a request for comment from the publication. The TGL was intended to give rural network providers in the U.S. time to replace any Huawei-made equipment they have, but the U.S. Congress has apparently failed to allocate money to aid rural providers in replacing their equipment, according to The Washington Post. As for the effect of the license expiration on Huawei smartphones, Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda told the publication that the TGL was what had allowed Google to provide security updates and updates to Google apps and services.
“We have continued to work with Huawei, in compliance with government regulations, to provide security updates and updates to Google’s apps and services on existing devices, and we will continue to do so as long as it is permitted. To be clear: US law currently allows Google to only work with Huawei on device models available to the public on or before May 16, 2019.” – Tristan Ostrowski, Android & Play Legal Director, in a support article published February 22, 2020
What isn’t clear, though, is how exactly the license expiration will affect future software updates. What will most likely happen is that Huawei devices that already have Google apps will continue to have them, however, Huawei won’t receive support from Google if any changes they make to their builds break compatibility with Google apps. Thus, Huawei will have to tread lightly with pushing software updates if the TGL is not renewed.
Alternatively, Huawei may not be able to distribute Google apps in future software updates pushed to its older devices. That’s because, although Huawei device models made available before May 16, 2019, are still running Android software certified by Google, Google has to certify each and every new software update that Huawei rolls out in order to ensure compliance with the requirements Google lays out to distribute Google Mobile Services. If Google can no longer legally collaborate with Huawei—even if only to certify device models made available before May 16, 2019—then that may mean that Google can no longer work with Huawei to distribute updated GMS builds in future software updates, even for previously-certified smartphones. While something as drastic as a total Google app removal may not end up happening, at the very least we can expect that older Huawei devices will no longer pass SafetyNet Attestation, breaking compatibility with some banking and mobile payment apps.
The implications on security updates will likely be less drastic if the TGL isn’t renewed. Google gives OEMs a month to merge security patches before the next monthly Android Security Bulletin is made public. Since the TGL has expired, Huawei may be cut off from getting a heads up on security patches, but they’ll still be able to merge any security patches after the bulletin goes public. That’s because any Android framework and Linux kernel patches are open source, so Huawei doesn’t have to rely on Google to merge them. There is one caveat with this, though, and it involves situations where Huawei may need patches from vendors for closed source components—they won’t get them from Google, but it’s possible they can get them straight from the vendor.
With Huawei’s new smartphones unable to ship with Google apps and their old smartphones possibly no longer receiving direct support from Google, it’s more important than ever for the company to build up its alternative app and development ecosystem.
This article was updated at 9:03 PM EST to clarify that existing devices with GMS are more likely than not to continue having access to Google apps following a software update. Clarifications were also made to better explain what the license expiration may mean for the collaboration between Google and Huawei.