Fresh from the September launch of the Mate 30, a new flagship smartphone that was dominated by the device’s lack of Google software and services, Huawei has pulled off a clever trick with the next device to hit the stage. Meet the Nova 5T, announced in August and now being readied for its European launch. Or should I say the Honor 20? Because this is basically a customised refit of an existing device under a different brand within the Huawei stable. Crucially, though, it’s a device that was registered with Google before the effects of the blacklist kicked in, and so will ship with Google Mobile Services—essentially full-fat Android.
As things stand, there is no talk yet of Huawei concessions coming from the initial stages of the latest trade talks between Washington and Beijing. And so Huawei are digging in for the time being. The restrictions placed on the company are set to intensify in mid-November when the current extended exemption on the full blacklist expires. U.S. officials have hinted the exemption will not be extended. And so for the Shenzhen tech giant, it is pushing on with everything it can to signal business as usual.
The news headlines surrounding September’s launch of the Huawei Mate 30 Series were dominated by this lack of Google. The U.S. tech giant had disclosed ahead off the launch that its software stack would be withheld from the device. Even though this meant no surprises on launch, it was still a shock to see a flagship “Android” smartphone in Europe without the usual onboard software and services.
Ahead of the Mate 30 launch, there had been hints from Huawei’s consumer boss, Richard Yu, that a workaround would be found—and there were reports in the wake of the launch as to how users might retrofit Google through unauthorised Chinese software installs and even backdoor backups. None of those options scale to millions of users, of course, none are safe, and none can bypass Google’s license enforcement. And so it became apparent that users opting for the Mate 30 would be stuck with a Google-less device until the politics between Washington and Beijing changed.
Cue the Nova 5T. Despite the incentive of Google, this is a materially less performant piece of hardware than the Mate 30 and is priced below the flagship P and Mate series. Under the covers, the specs don’t appear to have changed much from the Honor 20—although the OS is different given it’s shifting brand. What has changed is the skin of the device, with colourful, textured rear panels. As expected with Huawei, the screen and camera are first rate—albeit not setting new ground given this is a rebadge. There are some modest updates over the Honor 20, but nothing headline-grabbing.
What is headline-grabbing, though, is that this is being pitched as a newly launched Huawei device, which implies it has managed to bypass U.S. blacklist restrictions. And while there are several explanations for this, as to whether a slightly dated combination of a Kirin 980 chipset and Android 9 has carved a wormhole, the truth is that this is a rebadged device and there is likely no restriction on the marketing and branding of devices as long as the tech isn’t new, with the license applying to the core platform. The Honor 20 predated the blacklist’s restrictions, this near carbon copy has benefited from that.
What is slightly amusing about this launch is that some of the Huawei marketing teasers in Europe had led to speculation that it was set to launch a surprise phone, an entirely new category of device, such were the hints as to what this new European launch might herald. There will be some corrections being written in the coming days.
The Nova 5T launched in Asia in September, but it is the round of European launches and then releases that will focus attention. This is the real Android battleground for Huawei, the markets in which it expects to scrabble to maintain market share with devices that it cannot ship with the usual Android technology onboard.
The approach is not entirely new, of course. Huawei did something similar with a P30 uplift at IFA in September, showing they could play a marketing game, at least until the pre-blacklist hardware platforms cease to be relevant to the market. And that’s the real challenge here, this trick works because the device being replicated and uplifted is fairly current. The same trick will not work a year from now. And so Huawei continues to look to the politicians and the trade talks for respite.
In the meantime, the “new” Huawei Nova 5T is expected to be available in Europe in November.