Chinese phonemakers threatened amid US-China trade tensions

Global Business

Android is the world’s most widely-used mobile operating system – prevalent on around 90 percent of cellphones and tablets.

But it’s part of American company, Google. And that could be a massive problem for Chinese companies like ZTE, which has been recently banned from purchasing American-made technology for the next seven years, amid the ongoing trade conflict.

CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.

Companies like ZTE, Lenovo, Xiaomi and Huawei operate on the Android OS. Any block on using American tech could hit growth in Western markets particularly hard.

The problem is that there are almost no alternatives. Microsoft gave up on its Windows Phone OS last year – seven years after it launched it, promising to shake up the industry.

Even the largest PC software maker in the world struggled to convince app developers to put time and effort into developing apps for its fledgling platform, sounding the death-knell for an OS that many in the industry thought offered something different.

Cellphone operating systems live and die by their apps. Nobody wants to buy a smartphone, knowing they won’t be able to get third-party apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, plus any of a selection of millions of games or other useful tools.

Android is popular because it’s given free. It’s an open-sourced platform, meaning anybody can license it. Google encourages this because the phones are likely to then use Google’s services – Search and Maps, for example – which allow it then to support its advertising.

Phone manufacturers can choose to use Android without Google’s services – but that means they don’t get to use the Play Store, cutting the user off from accessing millions of apps.

“Any Chinese manufacturer that is stuck in this situation will likely still have access to the main Android kernel,” Juan Carlos Bagnell from ‘Some Gadget Guy’said. “That’s open source.. so that’s now a product of the entire planet. (The kernel is the baseline code) That baseline is the core of what Android is. But it’s all of the periphery. It’s all of the other apps.. and services.. the Google direct services that a lot of consumers rely on.. they’re going to be denied that and that’s what really kills the Android experience. They’d have to replicate everything else that Google does all on their own. It’s a challenge, a big challenge for any manufacturer.”

Samsung has been developing its own operating system for years: it’s called Tizen. This is because Samsung runs Android on its main flagship devices and that’s helped it become the world’s largest cellphone manufacturer. But it’s also reliant on a relationship with Google because of that app ecosystem. It’s released Tizen on a handful of lower-end devices, but struggled to convince developers to code for it as easily as Android or iOS. So far, Tizen has been more prevalent on Samsung’s smartwatches and smart TVs.

“I think people tend to think.. when they think of China, they think of this big bad wolf independently doing things but at the end of the day, they’re using component parts, they’re using a lot of different things that come from the United States. And if anything, this, makes it very clear that without that, these companies cease to exist,” Kaycea Campbell, economics professor at Pierce College near Los Angeles said.

It leaves companies like ZTE potentially facing a nightmare situation: Hoping they won’t be cut off from the very ingredient that makes the smartphone a SMART phone.