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Can Huawei make a phone without US parts?

The Verge logo The Verge 5/21/2019 Cameron Faulkner
a cellphone on a table © Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

On Sunday, Huawei got some life-threatening news from Google. Following an executive order that gives the federal government the power to block purchases of foreign-made technology deemed to be a security threat, Google announced that it had pulled Huawei’s license to use Android. Yesterday, Commerce softened the blow by issuing a license allowing Huawei three months to send software updates to existing devices, but even so, Intel, Qualcomm, and a number of other suppliers may be moving to cut the company off immediately.

The company has reportedly stockpiled enough US-made parts to last it anywhere from three months to a year, so it will have some time to prepare for the crisis. But at some point that stockpile will run out, and Huawei will be faced with a difficult choice: either find a way to manufacture a smartphone without US technology or exit the smartphone business entirely.

Huawei designs the processors for its Android phones, but it’s still heavily reliant on foreign components. In its latest phone, the P30 Pro, the list includes the Corning glass that covers its front and back, flash storage from Micron, the networking components that allow the phone to connect to 3G and LTE networks, and more. And, it wouldn’t be an Android phone without Google’s software, although Huawei says it has developed an Android and Windows replacement of its own and is supposedly at the ready to implement it if needed. Still, if the Commerce order holds up, Huawei will be forced to find a lot of replacements all at once.

That’s an unusual predicament in an industry that’s thrived on international trade, but it’s not totally unprecedented. Chinese phone company ZTE was briefly banned by the US in 2018, blocking off its ability to import products from US companies like Google, Qualcomm, and Dolby. To deal with the loss of Qualcomm, which supplied the Snapdragon chips, ZTE worked out a deal with MediaTek, a Taiwan-based company. After a few months, President Trump ended the ban, and said that too many jobs would be lost if it kept up.

Just how drastically will things change for Huawei? It depends on the device and where it’s released. Here’s a look at every component that would need to change in the acclaimed P30 Pro, according to findings from iFixit’s teardown.

a screenshot of a cell phone sitting on a table

Gorilla Glass

Corning, maker of Gorilla Glass, provides the glass for the P30 Pro, and has been Huawei’s supplier for several of its other recent phones, as well as Windows laptops. It’s based in the US, so in the event of it cutting ties with Huawei, it would have to pick another provider. Such a partner could be AGC Asahi Glass, a Japanese competitor that produces the Dragontrail glass.

Google, to name a high profile example, opted to use Dragontrail instead of Gorilla Glass in its new Pixel 3A, presumably to cut costs. While Asahi doesn’t have the brand recognition of Corning, a sudden Huawei deal could turn it into a much more formidable competitor.

a group of people standing in front of a sign © Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

Micron-made flash storage

The storage chip built into the P30 Pro comes from Micron, a supplier based in Boise, Idaho that has reportedly suspended shipments to Huawei. Other suppliers, like Toshiba and Samsung, could be possible partners, though Huawei’s HiSilicon company may be working to develop its own storage component.

Huawei has expressed interest in storage, not internal but with its own proprietary Nano memory cards. They are the same size of a Nano SIM card, and this technology could be a sign that Huawei has started down the path to making its own storage.

Modules for 3G and LTE support

Skyworks and Qorvo, both of the US, supply the front-end modules, which act like networking cards, in the P30 Pro. These give the phone the ability to work with 3G and LTE bands around the world. As noted in iFixit’s teardown of the Galaxy S10, Samsung utilizes Skyworks and Qorvo, too. So, it seems to be the popular option. Huawei’s reliance on US companies to make its devices US-compatible isn’t too surprising, though it may need to develop its own front-end modules if it wants to maintain compatibility with certain carriers.

Android

Google has yanked Huawei’s Android license, allowing it to use only its Android Open Source Project (AOSP). This will cut it off from offering its users Google-made apps and services, and it means that Huawei’s devices will lag behind in terms of security features.

In a tweet, Google says that owners of “existing Huawei devices” will not be affected by these changes. Though, for upcoming devices, including Huawei’s foldable Mate X phone, it might be a different story.

Huawei P30 Pro (left) next to Huawei P30 © Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge Huawei P30 Pro (left) next to Huawei P30

What it doesn’t (yet) need to change

Fortunately for Huawei, at least when it comes to piecing together a flagship phone like the P30 Pro, most of its selling points wouldn’t be affected by the executive order or a larger trade ban — at least, not immediately. For the time being, it doesn’t need to change how it sources the following components:

OLED screens

Samsung and LG build a majority of the world’s supply of OLED screens, and Huawei uses panels from both, as well as smaller Chinese manufacturer BOE. It’s likely that the three companies will keep selling displays to Huawei, though the pickings are slim for other OLED manufacturers. Japan Display could be another option, though it’s only recently begun to produce OLED panels and wouldn’t be able to meet Huawei’s demand alone.

Cameras and RAM

The camera array found in the P30 Pro is supplied by the Chinese brand Sunny Optical. It’s responsible for the best low-light performance that we’ve seen from a phone.

RAM is another component that isn’t built by Huawei. South Korean company SK Hynix was tapped for its LPDDR4X RAM in the P30 Pro, a shift from working with US-based Micron on the P20 Pro. Since Micron is said to have severed ties with Huawei, that’s one less partner, but Huawei obviously isn’t out of options.

a hand holding a cellphone © Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

With all that laid out, the situation may be less bleak than it seems. Compared to ZTE, which was essentially put on life support after its US partners cut off access to crucial components, Huawei is more prepared to suffer a tough spell. Like Apple, it designs its own processors, and if it ramps up its HiSilicon facilities, it could manufacturer them, as well as other components. Still, there could be a drop in quality while Huawei finds its footing.

I’m less optimistic about its PC ventures, since Intel and Qualcomm have reportedly pulled support for the company and Huawei’s current processors are designed for phones, not laptops. That’s a shame because its Huawei MateBook X Pro was one of the best laptops of 2018.

Another big question is whether consumers will like Huawei’s operating system. Reviews on most Huawei phones note that its EMUI software isn’t the preferable option versus Google’s own Android interface. And if Google disappears completely from future phones, it may be more than just the look and feel of Huawei’s OS that makes it painful to use: there might be a big problem with apps.

Cutting off access to US-made components is enough to make a big dent in any phone company, especially when a big piece of that pie is the core software that makes a phone run like consumers expect it to. There’s no doubt that Huawei will be hurt by this executive order and what might follow. But if China chooses to retaliate, it could disrupt the global supply chain in electronics, which would affect countless companies.

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