Huawei Can Build a Fine Phone Without U.S. Parts

17 Jun 2019 9:23 AM
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Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump banned Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese electronics maker, from using any U.S. technology without the government’s express permission, I’ve wondered whether Huawei can produce a mobile phone without any American parts or preloaded software.

I’m not just idly curious: My current phone is a Huawei, and I’m happy enough with it — mainly because of its superior camera, made in cooperation with Germany’s Leica Camera AG — that I don’t want to switch when it’s time to get a new handset. In a way, I have skin in the game: I want Huawei to keep making phones no matter what happens next in the U.S.-China trade war or what national security concerns the U.S. government might have about the company.

Kyle Wiens, the founder and chief executive officer of iFixit, a company that prepares electronics repair manuals and advocates for users’ right to repair, is, in my book, one of the best people to ask about something like this. IFixit takes apart various devices to figure out how they can be fixed. So it has handled all the parts that go into modern phones and knows where they are made.

Wiens’s opinion is that a smartphone can be made without any U.S. technology. It should be possible to source all the necessary parts from producers in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but some of them will be “subpar,” Wiens told me. “The challenge is staying at the bleeding edge,” he said. “On some things, you’ll be a couple of generations behind.”

The same problem will afflict any manufacturer forced to use the open-source version of the Android operating system, rather than the one supplied by Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. “It’ll work, but it’ll be difficult to keep innovating,” Wiens said.

The iFixit teardown of Huawei’s flagship phone, the P30 Pro, didn’t reveal too many parts made by U.S. companies beyond a radio module from Massachusetts-based Skyworks Solutions Inc. (Radio chips are one area where U.S. companies beat the competition.) But then, of course, U.S. export prohibitions don’t just concern U.S. companies’ products. As the law firm Akin Gump wrote in a brief last month, any amount of U.S. work in a technology product can put it within reach of U.S. regulations.

That makes even companies outside the U.S. doubly cautious about supplying anything to those on the U.S. government’s ominous “entity list.” Last year, when ZTE Corp., another Chinese technology company, was banned from using American technology, the Taiwanese semiconductor company MediaTek Inc., which could in theory be the source of alternative components, considered itself affected by the ban and decided to apply for an export permit.

In Huawei’s case, ARM Holdings Plc, the U.K.-based chip designer, told staff last month they would need to drop all projects with Huawei because of the U.S. restrictions. Huawei is one of the few phone makers that use their own processors — the Kirin chips, made by Huawei division HiSilicon —  but the chips include technology licensed by ARM. A breakdown of the cooperation would mean Huawei would need to stop using the technology in any further processors it would design.

Huawei, however, appears to have been working to minimize this risk. “We’re definitely seeing them using more of their own stuff,” Wiens says. The company’s next processor, the Kirin 985, is not expected to be affected by the U.S. ban, no matter how safe ARM decides to play it.

As for its in-house operating system, Hongmeng, it is most likely a so-called Android fork, built off an open-source version of Google’s operating system. Google is worried about user security, but probably also concerned about competition from an independent Chinese version of its globally dominant system. Huawei is already working to trademark it, and inviting app developers to offer their products in its App Gallery, so they’re immediately available to Huawei users if the company can no longer preinstall the Google Play Store.

Although Huawei’s path toward independence from U.S. technology certainly isn’t going to be easy, and compromises will have to be made, I’m reasonably certain that by the time my current phone dies, Huawei will have a decent replacement — even if a limited number of chips in it will be inferior to competing U.S. products and the software will need more customization than the Google-supported version. Like many Android users, though, I’m at home with looking under the hood, so that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

Given Trump’s aggressive use of U.S. law’s extraterritorial reach, the world needs alternatives to omnipresent American tech. These alternatives are costly and risky to develop, and they may not be up to par for a while, so companies won’t start working on them until they feel threatened. It doesn’t make me happy that Huawei, a company championed by the communist government of China, is the first company to be forced onto this high-risk but worthy path. But no one else has come under attack yet, so Huawei must be the first mover. That makes it interesting to users like myself, who like to try new things and dislike monopolies. In a way, I’d be sorry to see Trump relent: that would most likely extend the status quo.