AppGallery is Huawei’s alternative to Google’s Play Store on Android
Huawei has been in the spotlight in recent months, for reasons that have frankly been out of its control. The trade restrictions that the USA has put on Huawei and its business partners such as Google has deeply impacted all involved stakeholders. Google had been forced to revoke Huawei’s Android license for future smartphones, which meant that the Chinese OEM will be unable to install the Google Play Store, Google Play Services or any other Google app on its new smartphones. The same statements had resurfaced in relation to the upcoming Huawei Mate 30 series, wherein a Google spokesperson had been attributed saying that the Huawei Mate 30 cannot be sold with the licensed version of Android or Google apps and services. With the launch of the Huawei Mate 30 series, the statements have turned out to be true, as the phones have been launched without Google apps and services.
Because of the open-source nature of AOSP, Huawei is not completely debarred from using Android on its smartphone, though an argument can also be made to that end. Huawei has stressed that Android still remains its first choice, and its recently released HarmonyOS has always been pitched as a “Plan B” for its smartphones. During the Huawei Developer Conference 2019, the company had also mentioned that they will “lay the foundations for Harmony OS in the Chinese market” first before expanding it to the global market — which means that we are still some time, and some options, away from seeing HarmonyOS on a commercially sold smartphone outside of China. For now, Huawei is likely to use a Google-less Android with EMUI on its smartphones rather than Huawei releasing an Android-less smartphone.
But with the Google Play Store no longer an option, Huawei faces the same challenge it does on a Google-less Android as it does on HarmonyOS: how exactly do you deliver third party apps to end-users in a reliable yet convenient manner? The answer to this question rests with AppGallery, an app that Huawei had the foresight to develop for EMUI for quite a few years now.
AppGallery was officially launched in China way back in 2011 before any of these political situations came into the picture. AppGallery was, and is, essentially an application distribution platform, or an app store as these services are more commonly referred to. In China, recognizing the different needs and expectations of the market, AppGallery performed and continues to perform functions beyond what we outside of China expect out of an app store. For instance, Chinese AppGallery integrates features related to forum-based social networking spaces for specific games which can serve as a resource for users. Functions like these served the target audience very well, and continue to be present in the solution for that region. AppGallery also flourished in China without the presence of Google and its Play APIs, but that has been an inarguably unique situation.
With the launch of the Huawei P20 series in the first half of 2018, Huawei introduced AppGallery to the world outside of China. Huawei’s app store came pre-installed on the Huawei P20 and the Huawei P20 Pro, but it was later on rolled out to other existing smartphones within Huawei and Honor’s lineup. While the content on the app store at launch was primarily targeting users in Asian markets with featured apps like Amap and WeChat, AppGallery can now be considered as a global store with a coverage spread of over 170 countries. Over the months and years, AppGallery evolved to include complete billing capabilities, in addition to allowing in-app monetization, subscriptions, and ad-based monetization solutions for developers.
The evolution story for AppGallery finds similarity with that of the Huawei Consumer Business Group — at the very beginning, Huawei focused its efforts on early budget phone segments. But over the years, the company did go on to occupy top spots in segments like SoC, camera, hardware, and design. With the impending launch of new Huawei phones, we explore the current state of AppGallery with regards to its merits towards developers and consumers, as this could very well shape up to be the future of the App Store on Huawei and Honor devices running on Android.
AppGallery is of particular interest to app developers because of the impending fragmentation within the Android ecosystem as a repercussion to the trade war and resultant political decisions. In an ideal world, a second app store would be redundant in many ways if the primary app store performed its job well. But in our current situation, the lack of the Google Play Store on Huawei and Honor devices means that AppGallery no longer watches from the sidelines, but instead, plays an active role as the primary means to distribute apps on these devices moving forward.
The app also comes preloaded on existing Huawei and Honor devices that also bundle in the Google Play Store, so the presence of your app on this medium presents an additional surface for discovery for end users. As a developer, you do want to reach out to as many users as possible for your app with as little effort. While getting on to AppGallery does take effort, even if just a little, we still need to keep in mind that this might be the only way to reach future Huawei and Honor devices. Plus AppGallery is based on Android so developers will find themselves using a different (but still familiar) SDK. If your app doesn’t reach users, something else will take its place, and that is a situation that established apps would like to avoid as much as possible. Shipment figures from Huawei indicate that the company has shipped as many as 400 million smartphones over the last 2 years — these EMUI/Magic UI based phones still have unhindered access to Android. This means that you still have an existing userbase to tap into, even if you roll with the (rather insane) presumption that no one will buy any more Huawei or Honor devices.
There is also a case to be made for the presumption that Huawei’s ban is lifted in the future and the company is allowed to preload the Google Play Store again, and all status quo is restored. Huawei and Honor devices running Android through EMUI or Magic UI will likely continue to come with AppGallery preloaded alongside the Play Store. In such a case, developers could decide at that stage whether they need to continue maintaining their app on this store, depending on how their app performs. Keep in mind that AppGallery also provides an opportunity for developers to publish their apps in China, something that the Play Store currently misses out on. This decision would thus vary from app to app, and from developer to developer because of its intrinsic commercial nature — it just might turn out to be financially viable and even profitable for certain developers to maintain their app across both distribution channels, especially if your app does not make use of a lot of Google Play APIs. For game developers, especially those who rely on Unity, the quantum of work to maintain both Google Play and Huawei AppGallery versions would be even lower.
AppGallery also comes with some of its own selling points. By mid-2019, Huawei claims that it has had over 370 million monthly average users, with a growth of 195% year-on-year, and over 350 billion cumulative app downloads up from 180 billion in July 2018. Unfortunately, we do not have the means to verify such claims; nor does Google release similar statistics for the Play Store for us to compare. Nonetheless, past, present and future Huawei and Honor devices are a significant chunk of smartphones to target, if you so decide.
Huawei also claims that they are using a “global SDK” for services like billing and monetization, which essentially facilitates developers in western regions to launch their apps in China without needing further country-specific development. This is a two-way street, so developers in China can also target users in other western regions with relative ease. There are also claims of Huawei attempting to be more (app) developer-friendly, with support teams being present to aid developers through the publishing process. At least for Huawei, it is in the best interest of the Chinese giant to attract more and more developers, unlike Google and its established Play Store, so there just might be enough substance behind these claims. Huawei is also attempting to follow a contextual discovery model for content discovery on the store, instead of a “Top Grossing” model where the pole positions enjoy a positive feedback loop for discovery. So if you do not know exactly which app you need, Huawei’s AppGallery may just present a solution that is superior to the one presented by the Google Play Store.
As previously stated, AppGallery might just be the only way an average user could reliably and easily install third-party apps on future Huawei and Honor devices, with “official” backing. There won’t be much choice at play in this situation, which is an unfortunate consequence of the mess the smartphone world is in because of political decisions. While one would obviously prefer having the established Google Play Store as the primary option, Huawei AppGallery isn’t that bad of a choice in this particular situation and has been in development for years, prior to the current political situation.
Huawei AppGallery is a first-party solution for Huawei and Honor devices, so users need not worry about compatibility issues with the Store itself. All the content is claimed to be curated, and everything goes through a thorough review before it is launched in order to guarantee the safety of the app for its users. This curation activity also aims to remove the duplicate, low-quality clones that tend to clog search results, which thereby helps users by giving out better content and also protects the intellectual property of the developers. AppGallery also claims to be family-friendly, and Huawei is also working on a better “kid-friendly” section within the store for more kid-centric content. AppGallery also features feature localizations that are unique to the local region, based upon the needs and expectations of that particular region.
AppGallery also has elements that reward users in various ways — a gift section within the store features free in-game rewards like coins and unlocked exclusive content like Fortnite skins; a “Play and Win” section which rewards user loyalty for the store with Huawei smartphones as rewards. There will also be a “Lucky Draw” section which will allow users to earn prizes by downloading and trying new apps. All of these “features” are designed to keep users engaged and satisfied with the store in a way that they would prefer it over a competing solution. The intention is pretty clear here — AppGallery wants to be your top choice, and it is willing to make efforts towards that end.
Recommended Apps Screen, as displayed in different regions
What I disliked about AppGallery is the fact that at the very start, the app presents users with a list of apps that they are recommended to install on their device. This list is reminiscent of the list that I have seen on Xiaomi’s MIUI in the past, a list that most users just mindlessly tap through and then subsequently end up with a host of unnecessary apps. The Home button is on the left, and the Install button is highlighted and on the right, indicating that this is where users should tap to proceed.
In Huawei’s defense, this screen appears only once to the user and never again, and only half of the displayed apps are pre-selected, and those pre-selected can be deselected with ease. The list appears to be showcasing popular apps in that region, which should theoretically work for the benefit of less tech-savvy users who would otherwise not be comfortable with (or even capable of) exploring curated lists and hunting for apps.
Huawei’s AppGallery is the direction that the Chinese company will adopt for the future. We still expect Huawei to deliver some exceptional hardware in the form of the Mate 30 series and other future devices within Honor as well. It remains to be seen how much of an impact not shipping Google’s Android will have on Huawei. Will users find the hardware appealing by itself to overlook the lack of Google support? If they do, AppGallery is ready and in position to deliver on their app content needs. The store still has a long way to go — like for instance, delivering more diversified content than just apps and games, and making it easier to find paid content — but it needs to start from somewhere for the Western market, and where it is right now is a good position, even if not the most ideal. AppGallery in China already sees such diversification with other content like quick apps, eBooks, online courses and more — we hope to see similar efforts and results for the Western market too in the near future. For now, it would be a mistake to write off AppGallery without giving it a fair chance.