Honor has been operating somewhat low-key for a little while now, without a major smartphone launch for several months. That's been in large part due to the ongoing trade dispute between the USA and Honor's parent company Huawei, which prevented American-owned Google from supplying its Android software to the smartphone maker. Gadgets 360 got an update on that situation via Charles Peng, President of Honor India, and Winston Li, CMO – Consumer and Business Group, Huawei and Honor. Peng spoke to us about the company's current and future plans, the newly announced 1+8+N marketing strategy, the company's 5G rollout plans, and much more.
First up, we had to dive into the Android licensing situation as well as Honor's own HarmonyOS and HMS (Huawei Mobile Services) initiatives, widely seen as a hedge against potential future issues with licensing Android.
We asked Peng what the status of Android on Honor phones is right now. “Next month, we're launching a new product with Android OS” he told us. When pressed for details, he confirmed that this phone will ship to India and that it will be the next X-series flagship. This points to the Honor 9X, which was previously expected to launch in India before the end of 2019.
Peng went on to confirm: “For the Honor 9X which will be launched next month, it is based on Android and GMS (Google Mobile Services), and also Google Play.” Can he promise that this phone will receive Android updates after it ships? “Of course, yes. Normally for flagships we announce two big updates and smaller updates in between. It is a fully functional Android phone. If a product is launched with GMS, everything's okay” he told us.
Is that just temporary, we asked? Or is everything completely fine with Google and the US government? “We can't say either, because it's all up to the government,” Peng told us.
We asked for clarification on the current situation, and he said “All products that were launched before [the licensing issues began] have not been impacted by these recent challenges. That's not just our promise to consumers, it's also Android's promise, so whatever [has happened], if you bought a product before and it was supposed to receive two updates, you will still get them.” He later added “Next month, our new product launch will let consumers know that we can provide products with Google services and Android updates.”
Huawei has been pushing to develop its alternative to Google's app store and services, called HMS (Huawei Mobile Services), to run on top of the Android open-source base (AOSP), which is not restricted by the trade issues. We asked Peng and Li what the plans are for it now, given that they have just told us that there is no problem shipping Android phones. For example, will the company ship phones with HMS in India?
Peng told us “Of course, very soon. Come to our launch event in January and you will know something.” Will this be on existing or new models? “New models. Indian consumers always like new things”, he told us.
We asked whether he thinks the Indian consumer will accept HMS, rather than having the familiar Android experience. He replied, “I think for Indian consumers, they don't care which operating system [a device is running], they just care about the experience. You can ask some people, ‘do you know what GMS is?' They don't know. They just need a market to download apps, they need to use maps, they need to use Facebook. If you can provide this service to consumers, I think they can accept it. Especially Indian people, they like to try new things.”
It's a strategy, you know. You don't want someone to control your life.
And what about the very well-known Google Play Store and the assurance that apps downloaded through it are safe, we asked. “That is also there in the official Huawei Apps Market. We will do that. If we publish an app in our market, we will promise the consumer that it is safe, of course. We have done this in China for so many years; people always download apps from the Huawei App Gallery.”
Peng also added: “I have also met some partners here [in India] for the App Gallery”, referring to efforts to court developers to offer their apps through Huawei's alternative delivery mechanism.
If the Honor 9X will launch with Google's GMS next month, is developing HMS still important to Honor and Huawei? Li told us, “This is a very good question! It's a strategy, you know. You don't want someone to control your life. We want to keep cooperating with Google because it has built this ecosystem for at least ten years. If we want to provide the consumers with the best experiences and products, of course we need to use Android. But we can't just produce what we like. If [at some point] we can't launch a product, of course we need to do something else."
So will Honor experiment with launching smartphones with HMS to see if buyers like it, and whether there's confusion? Li answered that: “It's not an experiment. The reason we have both options is just to fulfil our commitment that the consumer can continue to get the best products. Now we have two options ready, so whatever you think is the right environment, the consumer can choose. Also, Android has a lot of advanced technology, and we have to learn and meet [that standard]. However, Huawei also has our own technology. For example, we have chipset-level security, which all the banks are so interested in, because it's not just software-level security. For the cameras, it's a combination of hardware and the [algorithms], the software, everything. We can provide the consumer with better experiences.”
Coming to the company's overall strategy, we were curious about the 1+8+N initiative that the company has teased (not to be confused with the inevitable upcoming OnePlus 8). The name refers to an ambitious ecosystem with the smartphone at the centre, surrounded by eight categories of smart products that Honor has identified as its focus areas for 2020, and then an unlimited number of third-party partner integrations. The eight products are: TVs, smart speakers, smart glasses, watches, tablets, laptops, earphones, and cars. The larger ecosystem could relate to additional smart home products, office, travel, entertainment, and fitness, among other things.
The company has already showed off its Honor Vision TV, coming to India soon. Going into some detail, Peng told us: "Indian consumers think that Honor is a brand that can provide value for money, a good experience, and good after sales services. Our new 1+8+N strategy includes the Honor Vision smart TV, wireless earphones, smart speakers, and a lot of products. We just want to bring good experiences and products to the Indian consumer."
Many smartphone brands have recently branched out into the TV segment in India. We asked what Honor will do that will set it apart. Peng replied: “The chip that we use for Honor Vision is the Honghu 818, Huawei's own development. The future of the TV is as a home entertainment centre, an information sharing centre, a computing device, and management and control centre. It has a pop-up camera because sometime apps use the camera to take a picture, but without informing the user. This can protect your privacy; it isn't always watching you.”
Li added, “You can video call your family while watching a movie, sitting together in your drawing room, and [the camera] will capture a good distance.”
We then asked whether Honor will launch all eight lifestyle products at the same time. “No, it will be in phases, and we have already launched some of them”, Peng told us, referring to products in China. He then showed off an Honor Magic Watch 2 that he was wearing, and said that it will be coming to India pretty soon.
Peng also pulled out a pair of the Huawei Freebuds 3 true wireless earphones, and said that Honor would launch a similar but different product. “They are not the same as as the Huawei ones,” he said. “They will be more fashionable and have some value for the Indian youth.”
Will the Magic Watch 2 and earphones use the same Kirin A1 chip that Huawei has been promoting with its Watch GT2 and Freebuds? Peng and Li laughed, and said “We can't say anything now.”
That brought us to the topic of how all these products will work together. We asked about Honor's IoT ambitions and and overall ecosystem strategy. Peng said: “Of course, so Honor Vision is a control and management centre, a multi-device interaction centre, and they all work together. For example, phone mirroring [is easy]. Even our Harmony OS was designed for distributed devices. And the ‘N' products, the ecosystem including our partners, all of them can be controlled through HiLink [Huawei's smart home platform].”
So who are the partners, and what products and services can we expect to see? Li stepped in: “A lot, like TVs and air conditioners, there are so many of them in China. Smart home controls, smart office, and smart mobility - these are the use cases.”
Talking about smart devices, does Honor plan to use Google Assistant, or Amazon's Alexa, or its own solution? Li answered: “For all our products available right now, they use Harmony OS. We will cooperate with Google, and this year Amazon has also come to talk with us, but we have also built our own ecosystem because different countries have different styles. A lot of people who use Huawei smartphones or tablets want to buy products that can fit into the Huawei ecosystem.”
If today you tell me that 5G will be arriving next week, I will bring the phones here tomorrow.
We then got onto the topic of 5G. Will that impact the ecosystem play, we asked. Peng considered his answer and told us: “I think, of course, smartphones will get 5G first. For tablets, some people need wireless and some people don't. For laptops, there is no need and most often you can use Wi-Fi. For wearables, it won't happen so early.”
Will 5G smartphones be a big focus area for Honor in India next year? Peng said: “Once 5G is available in India we will bring our 5G phone, the Honor View 30, to the Indian market.” He did add that prices will be higher than they are for 4G phones at first, but that they should soon fall.
However, he would not commit to any timeline for when that might happen. “We don't know the plans of the government or operators. If today you tell me that 5G will be arriving next week, I will bring the phones here tomorrow. You can't do it after 5G is launched, we will check the plans of the government and operators and bring it before that.”
(Some responses have been edited slightly for language and continuity.)