Huawei Map Kit Looks to Challenge Google Maps API's Dominance, Faces Long Odds

Huawei is reportedly hoping to compete with Google's Maps API by introducing its own service called Map Kit, though how far it can go toward displacing Google's Maps service remains to be seen.

Huawei is reportedly working on a new API service for software developers to use that appears to be a direct challenge to Google's dominant Google Maps, though how big of a fight Huawei wants to make it still isn't entirely clear.

Huawei Map Kit to Challenge Google Maps API

Huawei is planning to develop and introduce a new software service, Map Kit, to help software developers integrate a mapping and navigation functionality into their software products in place of Google's Maps API service, a major step toward creating an alternative platform for software developers to use that side-steps the use of Google's line of software services to create the basic functionality of their applications.

RELATED: US GOVERNMENT ESCALATION OF FIGHT WITH HUAWEI WAS A LONG TIME COMING

Software services, sometimes known as Application Program Interfaces (APIs), aren't consumer-facing software in the same way that apps are, but they are the essential components that make up most modern software today. When an automaker builds a car, they can either build the entire car themselves, including the machining of every gear, pin, or panel, or they can rely on other suppliers to build the individual parts and focus their attention on building the car itself.

The same is true of all production-level software built anywhere in the world. If you have an email app that you want to build, you can build the server-side software that stores the messages, the networking modules used to manage the connections that send and receive data from the server, and the components that will be laid out on the screen to create the graphical user interface. Or, you can license APIs from various companies who have already built these components and which can be easily integrated into applications which greatly speeds up development and portability of software products across different systems.

For the world's mobile devices, 76% of which run Google's Android operating system, the software services provided by Google, such as Gmail, YouTube, and Google Maps, are the go-to apps that power the basic functionality of a mobile device. Behind these apps, various APIs put out and licensed by Google to developers allow them to easily create more sophisticated software that integrates the functionality of popular Google services like Maps or Docs directly into the software.

Google Maps
Source: Google/YouTube

While the reason for this API-centered paradigm is an overwhelming positive for the software industry, Huawei's blacklisting revealed a weakness in this system of interconnected services from various sources, one that we can't easily fix and which has some very worrying implications.

A report from the state-run China Daily revealed that the Chinese tech giant saw no choice but to begin developing its own independent software services, including its own operating system, in response to the US Government placing the company on its Entity List. This prevented Huawei from continuing to do business with American companies or using US originating technology in any future devices. This essentially locked Huawei out of using the essential parts nearly all mobile developers need to build apps to run on Huawei devices.

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What's more, in complying with the US government blacklisting, Google was forced to revoke Huawei's access to all but the freely-available, open access version of its Android operating system, the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), that doesn't include access to many major Google products like Gmail and YouTube, nor could Google supply these separately independent of the OS.

Further, Huawei devices that had not yet left the factory would be prohibited from accessing the Google Play app store. This would force the company to have software developers build and package their products not just for iOS and Android, but now a third app store as well. Many may be reluctant to do so, especially if there is the possibility that the US could take action against your company for working with Huawei. While building its own app store loaded with native Chinese apps might not be too difficult, it makes it much harder to break out of the Chinese market as a result.

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For the majority of Huawei's users who are in the Chinese market, this wasn't too big of a problem. China's mobile application ecosystem is fairly insulated, with native Chinese apps being used by the overwhelming majority of Chinese users for shopping, email, or mapping and navigation since most Google apps are banned in China anyway. In Europe, however, the story was very different, as Google's web apps are the most popular choice for both personal and professional use for many potential Huawei users in Europe, being cut off from Google apps essentially shuts down the hope for rapid growth in the European market.

How Huawei's Blacklisting May Spell the End of an Era of Collaboration

Google IO Event
Source: Google/YouTube

All of this was the result of the Chinese firm's reliance on software apps and APIs or hardware components developed by American companies or manufactured using US technology. No one can blame Huawei for this reliance since they were just doing what everyone has been doing for more than a decade and a half now. Relying on other people's APIs to extend functionality and using popular cloud-based software applications is very settled industry practice, as is the reliance on a global network of hardware suppliers.

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What Huawei's blacklisting revealed, however, is how uniquely susceptible American companies are to pressure from the President of the United States into preventing the use of their products unilaterally, and how companies from other countries may face the same sudden disabling of their products because their governments were in political conflict with the US.

This is a problem that Map Kit would presumably look to address by giving developers a different part to use in their mobile apps without having to rely on Google's APIs. This is without question the last thing in the world Google wants to see since they have a near-monopoly on the APIs used by developers who build products for their Android operating system.

More than that, however, it also marks a return to a time when it was standard practice for software companies to silo their software--even internally between teams--making it less accessible to users, and where innovations were kept proprietary and closed-off from other companies which slowed the pace of progress. This was bad for the industry and it would be bad to return to that era.

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The change in philosophy that began in the early 2000s, powered mostly by start-ups, led to greater sharing among companies helped spur a revolution in software development that dramatically improved production times and software quality. What the US government's actions have done is reveal that this collaboration comes with risks as well that many people must have assumed would never materialize, if they thought of them at all.

The reality is that using Google's APIs and products now means you need to trust that the US government won't force Google to cut you off for political reasons. This is fine if you're an American company since different rules apply domestically, but what about the rest of the world? For everyone else, they can no longer take it for granted that they will always have access to this technology.

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For the operating system Huawei is developing for its devices to truly be competitive while being free from the US government's ability to disrupt their functionality, all of the APIs and software products that are currently supplied by Google and others susceptible to US pressure would need to be replaced. A competitive app store would also need to be developed, all of which raises barriers to collaboration, not lower them.

Since Google's products are some of the most widely used APIs and cloud-based software applications throughout much of the world, any competition on this front would have an impossibly steep hill to climb. That said, no one likes a bully, and given the whiff of economic imperialism hovering over the US blacklisting of Huawei, that hill might be a little less steep than it was before.

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How Huawei's Map Kit Could Be A Major Competitor to Google Maps API, Thanks to Decades of US Foreign Policy

Anti-American Graphiti
Source: Erik Cleves Kristensen/Flickr

The major 'complaint' the US has about Huawei is that their products aren't independent of the Chinese government's intelligence services and that Huawei equipment could be used to conduct foreign surveillance. For those outside the US, the sound of the irony gong must be deafening.

The countries most 'at-risk' from this kind of surveillance through Huawei technology are already subject to this kind of surveillance; it's just the US law enforcement and intelligence services who are doing it with the cooperation of companies like Google and Microsoft. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone is suspected of being tapped at some point and though this charge could not be legally substantiated, US officials were cagey at best, saying that they could ensure that her phone was not currently being bugged and wouldn't be in the future.

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If you're in Latin America, Africa, or a majority-Muslim country, your experience with the actions of the US Intelligence services is likely to be much more negative than anything China's intelligence services have done so far. Even though they appear to be making some distance on that front, beyond places like Tibet, the South China Sea, or Taiwan, Chinese foreign policy--China would call it domestic policy, but that's for an article somewhere else--hasn't taken the form of outright militarism or the overthrow of elected leaders. For the post-war era, that particular dishonor remains with the US, the Soviet Union, and the Soviet successor state of the Russian Federation.

China may one day listen in on your conversations if you're in Africa or Latin America, and they may be doing so now, but it's a near certainty that the CIA and NSA have been doing that for at least a couple of decades now. If you are living in a Muslim-majority nation, this has especially been the case after the World Trade Center terror attack in 2001, which led to a drastic scaling up of surveillance measures directed towards Muslims by the US and its allies.

By demonstrating to the world that companies like Google and Microsoft can be enlisted to further American foreign policy priorities, the US government has also given even more reason for others outside the United States to seek alternatives to American software services. Given China's growing reputation as a surveillance exporter, a Chinese company may face considerable local resistance as well; it's not like the citizens of Latin American or African nations are okay with a lesser neocolonial power interfering in their countries, so long as it's not the United States.

It does send a message to the rest of the world, though, that the US government can treat the world's second-largest smartphone manufacturer with such disrespect. If Huawei--and by extension, China--can be treated like this by the US when China has some amount of leverage over the US, how much more vulnerable is the rest of the world to similar treatment from the US?

By attacking Huawei in the way that it has, the US government has likely only increased anxiety among businesses around the world about America's intentions, which in turn can only increase the demand for alternative products and services that can't be so easily employed as a trojan horse for US policy interests.

Google Maps API Dominates the Market for a Reason

Google Maps Car
Source: Rufus46/Wikimedia Commons

That's not to say that creating such an alternative will be easy, however. Map Kit, as far as we can tell, is only the API that apps can use to perform the same kind of mapping and navigating functionality that Google Maps API provides, such as GPS locating and turn-by-turn directions. But that is not the same thing as the entire Google Maps system.

An API is only the interface between the device and the server that contains the relevant information used to make mapping and navigating on your device possible. What matters, of course, is the data on that server, and this is where things will get very tricky for Huawei--or anyone else for that matter--to challenge any of Google's products beyond the basic email app.

Google has spent the last fourteen years since the 2005 launch of Google Maps building up the most comprehensive database of the planet's topography and roadways that any company, nation, or entity has ever created. Google drives cars down whatever road it can access as often as it can to gather data about them and the routes they create, driving over 5 million miles of unique road in the process.

Google takes 360-degree photographs of the streets it drives down, creating a visual record of the world's roads with tens of millions of images that is unparalleled in human history. The total amount of data that Google has collected in its Maps service equals about 20 petabytes, which is equal to about 21 million gigabytes of data. Nothing even comes close to this level of knowledge about the roadways around the world, and Google owns all of this data in its entirety.

Any potential competitor or innovative new idea has quickly been bought up over the years and incorporated into the Google Maps service, including the purchase of traffic mapping company Waze for just over $1 billion, bringing the data and innovative functionality they created with them. This strategy gives the Google Maps API an unbelievable amount of power and functionality that developers can tap into for their applications. Anyone can use that data for a relatively insignificant fee, but they have to use the Google Maps API to do so, and just about everybody on the planet does.

How do you create a platform that competes with that?

Without that data, Map Kit, as well as any other competing service, will fall well short of Google's Maps service. And since the service itself isn't all that expensive for a developer to license for use in their applications, why use the inferior service? That is the essential problem for Huawei and others who find themselves beholden to a company who can cut them off from the primary functionality on today's mobile devices with the stroke of an American President's pen.

The task of creating a genuine competitor to Google Maps is so daunting that even Apple Maps, built by one of the wealthiest companies in world history, couldn't compete with it when it launched in 2012 and still lags behind Google's service by a wide margin to this day. If Apple has been at it for six or seven years now and has tried and failed to take a bite out of Google's service on Apple devices--which has a notoriously devoted user base--what hope does Huawei have to do so?

Building Alternative Software Services Free of US Control Will Take a National Effort

Huawei Hanger
Source: Anders Ekström/Flickr

It is possible, though, for Huawei and others to create such an alternative to Google Maps. It just depends on how much of a national priority the Chinese government wants to make it because it goes beyond just Map Kit; it's the entire global software ecosystem. Nearly all of it is tied back to the US or close US allies open to US pressure. And because so much of it has become cloud-based, software companies will always be susceptible to US government pressure to cut ties with a company, possibly even cutting them off from accessing the servers required to run the services they've built their businesses around.

This ultimately is what concerns software developers about the US's move against Huawei. The US's professed national security concerns might be an issue, but the cure, in this case, threatens to destroy the entire US-centric cloud-computing paradigm that has proven so incredibly profitable over the last decade and threatens to wreck near-monopoly market power that many of these companies enjoy in the process.

Google has pressed the case to the US government that cutting Huawei off from the Android OS all but ensures that bootleg copies of the OS are going to make their way out into the wild and can one day be used to jeopardize US national security.

While certainly possible, more likely, it's the 76% market share that Google enjoys over the mobile OS market that is Google's real concern. Losing the second-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world as a customer would be bad enough, but if that company then went out and created its own mobile OS, it'd be a bit of a long shot, but they could start cutting into Google's market share.

Huawei does have an advantage that Google does have, however; they make some of the most popular phones in the world. Granted, no small part of that popularity is tied to the Android OS so Huawei's could see a major drop in sales of their devices without the Android OS, so they still face some long odds. Long odds or not, though, Google would rather have not needed to check the odds in the first place. It hasn't had to face competition in this space from anyone other than Apple for years, and they no doubt would have preferred that it stayed that way.

So whether it's several bootleg Android OS's out in the wild infecting devices with malware, or it's Huawei's Ark OS muscling in on the market it exercised near-monopoly power over, Google is probably the biggest loser in all of this.

This isn't the road Huawei want's to go down, however. They know exactly how steep the climb would be to build a competing ecosystem to the one that the US companies have built over the decades. Huawei would much rather continue to partner with Microsoft, Google, and the rest by paying their relatively minor licensing fees so they could make boat loads of money like everybody else is doing. The Chinese government would probably also prefer things went back to normal, the sooner the better.

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But there is only so much that either Huawei or China's government can be expected to take. There may come a point where the threat to China's economy, or even one to its national security, starts becoming an issue. The longer the US drags this trade war out--and despite the US intelligence service's complaints about Huawei, their blacklisting is entirely a function of President Trump's desire to extract trade concessions from China--the more time China has to reconsider its position relative to the US and whether it can remain in its current position of reliance on US-sourced technology. There may come a time when China believes that its national interest lies wholely in its own technology, rather than in cooperation with an unreliable, even hostile, partner in the US.

To make that happen, however, China's government would have to get more directly involved in its technology industry than it already is, which will essentially confirm for the world whatever suspicions, unfounded or not, they may hold about the Chinese government's involvement with firms like Huawei. It would be a moot point, and Huawei and others would lose access to important markets for Huawei's products as a result.

It may be unavoidable though, North America may never be seriously open to competition from Chinese technology, and European sales will always depend on Google services, which will always be susceptible to getting cut off again. For Huawei, Europe will never be a reliable market so long as it has to rely on Android. Only producing better products than Google can force open that market for good. On the plus side, you can't lose what you'll never have, so there isn't much stopping China from just making it official and going all in on building its tech industry to openly compete with whatever America has going.

It's not like it would be the first time a government built up its technology industry through direct infusions of cash. Silicon Valley itself was built out of aggressive and sustained government military spending during the first Cold War--despite the delusion that many have of it as an entrepreneurial, free-enterprise techno-utopia that pulled itself up by its own Bootstrap API.

The products of government investment and research were open-source technologies for Silicon Valley before open-source became a buzzword. Companies like Facebook and Twitter, who could argue that they haven't taken a single Defense Department contract ever, cannot avoid the fact that they built an entire business using the Internet, a project initiated and financed by DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Microsoft and Amazon don't even bother denying it at all, and are more than happy to continue to profit off government spending long after they needed any help.

Likewise, AI and natural language processing, two of Google's major technology domains, also have their roots in DARPA projects, who provided the vital but entirely profitless foundation for the technology that has allowed Google to grow obscenely rich.

As for Map Kit, it is only one software service, the likelihood of it becoming more than that is still rather small. But it could become much more important if it comes to represent a shift in strategy on the part of the Chinese tech industry and the Chinese government. If China's government steps in to invest in this and other software technologies, then the US-China technological Cold War everybody--myself included--keeps writing about will have matured into a genuine conflict, with all pretenses pushed aside.

American companies have never faced real competition for software services from anywhere other than other American companies, and that 'competition' for the past decade and a half was just so they'd get noticed by the bigger guys who would then swoop in and buy the company outright. That isn't real market competition, that's a reality television show.

Web Kit may represent something actually different. It's a small step, and it has a long way to go before it can ever challenge Google Maps API, but a lot can change in a decade with enough investment; and China has the money, and they can direct it toward such a national effort. National economic efforts are sort of China's thing. Soon, US tech giants may have to reckon with some strong competitors that they can't simply buy off, and they may look back to Huawei's blacklisting as the moment when selling technology at a premium stopped being the easy money it had once been.

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