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July 1, 2016

Smartphone nerds, it’s time to start getting excited about Huawei

by John_A


Huawei is serious about Western markets, and its phones are about to get really good thanks to completely overhauled software. All of this could add up to the once obscure Chinese firm being Samsung’s major European rival in 2017.

In one fell swoop, Huawei is about to address one of the biggest longstanding weaknesses in its Android phones. As reported this past week, Huawei soon will unveil a major new version of its EMUI software, with the timing likely to coincide with the company’s IFA 2016 press conference in early September. (Also likely: a new Huawei Mate handset to showcase this new software.)

It’ll be the first chance we get to see the work of former Apple creative director Abigail Brody, who Huawei hired in September 2015 to oversee user experience, building a team out of its newly established San Francisco design center. That in itself should tell you how serious Huawei is about software design. Expect Huawei’s new UX — and possibly Brody herself — to feature prominently in the upcoming Huawei IFA presser.

We haven’t seen anything of Huawei’s re-tooled interface yet, but what we’ve heard is tantalizing. The future of EMUI is reportedly geared towards making Huawei phones more palatable to Western audiences, in stark contrast to the Asia-centric design of the company’s current software. That mirrors what we’ve heard from our own sources over the past year, which have suggested something much, much closer to stock Android than present-day EMUI, which riffs on iOS.

huawei-richard-yu-p2.jpg?itok=yAn3KLOJHuawei Device chief Richard Yu in 2013 unveils the Ascend P2, one of the first EMUI devices for Western markets.

In late 2015 Huawei made a major design hire, and quietly established a new design center in San Francisco.

Indeed, even before Abigail Brody officially came on board, we were hearing of plans to significantly pare back EMUI from those close to the company. There were whispers of notifications being done the Google way, less tinkering with icons, and (finally!) the introduction of an app drawer. The important but incremental changes from EMUI 3 to 4 were described by one source as “nothing” compared to what lay ahead in the next major version.

A more streamlined, Googley Huawei UX layer should also help the company push out Android updates faster — like many phone makers, Huawei has struggled to push out new versions in a timely manner. In a recent interview, Huawei smartphone chief Changzhu Li revealed that the company has set a two month target for updating its phones in future. Sure, it’s one thing to set such a target and another to achieve it, especially with carrier certification and other hoops to jump through.

huawei-store-china.jpg?itok=-WlKLnSLHuawei brand store in Shenzhen, China.

Imagine the top-tier Huawei hardware we know, with much better software and faster updates — and the strong carrier support the P9 enjoys.

Nevertheless, it shows a laser focus on user experience that was completely lacking in the old, weird Huawei. That being the case, the launch of EMUI 5 — again, probably on new hardware at first — could be a watershed moment for Huawei. The company has always made great hardware, but our enthusiasm for the brand has been cooled by its sometimes broken, often ugly software. The prospect of proven Huawei design language paired with software that’s good — not just usable, tolerable, but actually enjoyable to use — is huge.

It’ll represent Huawei’s graduation into a true tier-one smartphone manufacturer — a company able to excel across the board with its high-end phones. And that’s reason for rival manufacturers to be really concerned. Take HTC — still able to make great phones — but suffering from a lack of carrier enthusiasm around its HTC 10 handset, as just two of the big four UK networks picked up the device. By comparison, Huawei has all four onboard with its P9, all while being highly competitive on price with what’s actually a pretty good phone. With a much stronger user experience backing it up, the Huawei of 2017 is only going to become a fiercer competitor for the likes of HTC, LG and Samsung to deal with.

It’s also good news for Huawei’s online-focused brand, Honor. Honor phones also run EMUI, and so anything that enhances EMUI at its source automatically benefits this more affordable sub-brand. (As with Huawei, our biggest complaints with Honor phones in the past year have had to do with broken, ugly software.)

All that adds up to big reason not just to take Huawei seriously, but to genuinely look forward to what’s next from the company. And it’s a sign that in Europe at least, the Android landscape could change dramatically in the coming year.

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