I used a phone with no Google mobile services for a year so I try and answer the question of whether or not it is possible. I’ll be honest when I started this I never thought I would survive a whole year, and if I did make it, I expected it to either be a resounding yes or no. But it is actually more nuanced than that.
Huawei trade ban 2019
Ok, so a little back story. Huawei was put under trade sanctions by the US in 2019 and one of the effects of this was that they were denied Google Mobile Services. Google Mobile Services are essentially background software features in Android that make it very easy for Android services to seamlessly be integrated into 3rd party apps. An example is a ride-hailing app like Hwindi getting access to Google Maps for directions instead of Hwindi developing its own maps and keeping them up to date.
Since I am a stubborn Huawei fanatic, I went in head first and bought a Huawei Mate 40 Pro. A very high-end Huawei smartphone that does not support Google Mobile Services. And the first thing you do with a new phone is download all your favorite apps. Without GMS you don’t have access to Google Play Store. So how do you get your apps?
Getting some of your apps
Huawei already had its own app store called Huawei App Gallery so this became the default place to get your apps. You can get most of the popular apps on it like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok but beyond these, things start to get tricky.
Huawei’s app gallery is severely understocked and to further add to the shortage of apps, some mainstream apps were actually disappearing from the Huawei App Gallery. The ones I remember vividly are Spotify, Zoom, and Duolingo. These are just some of the apps I use, I am sure there were plenty of other apps that went the way of the ghost.
3rd party app store and Petal search
Huawei was aware of this and they developed 2 very interesting workarounds. Workaround number one involved 3rd party app stores. How this worked is that, for the popular apps that are not available in the App Gallery, Huawei will give the option to download or update the app but via a link to a 3rd party app store like APK Pure. So when you click on the app to download it or update it, you will be clicking a link that will take you to the 3rd party store where the app is located.
Workaround number 2 is a Huawei app called petal search. This one has a better collection of apps that it can natively download and update. But it still does require a 3rd party app store for some apps just like the App Gallery.
Local apps are a nightmare
The situation was very much a disaster when it came to local apps. They are not popular enough to be listed even on 3rd party app stores so finding your local bank’s app or local ride-hailing app was near impossible. Some of the sites I ended up downloading these apps did not feel safe at all. This sideloading process is also not recommended because you may actually download a virus instead of the app you intended to download in the 1st place.
Some apps just won’t work
A good number of Android apps rely on Google Mobile Services for them to work correctly. So the sort of apps that you will find and download within Huawei’s App Gallery are apps that do not require Google Mobile Services for them to run. Spoiler alert. Is a very short list.
Local bank apps, local food delivery apps, and Google apps all did not work. They would all give the error “This app cannot run without google play services”. Some apps would even be dramatic and fail to install. Which then was complicated when it came time for me to test out an app that relied on Google Mobile Services.
You can get Google Services working. But there is a catch
There is however a solution for about 95% of the problems arising from a lack of GMS. It’s an app called Gbox which is a virtual machine running on top of the phone’s OS. If you have ever used Bluestacks, it’s the exact same concept. If you have not used bluestacks then let me describe Gbox for you.
It’s an app that operates like a virtual smartphone running on your actual phone. It will mimic a random smartphone with GMS giving you access to the google play store which will allow you to install and run all the Google apps and almost all the apps that require GMS.
I say almost because, as much as I got apps like food delivery services and ride-hailing apps to work perfectly with this tool, somehow banking apps still refused to work. The Google Play Services error disappeared but some banking apps preferred getting the OTP code from the notifications instead of me entering it manually which didn’t work because Gbox could not read the contents of the notifications.
App notifications of all the apps running in Gbox were also not working properly. This was not a deal breaker at all but it did reduce the quality of experience I had with the apps. Sometimes I would get notifications late or they would not arrive at all.
Some stuff Gbox can’t do and the workarounds
Then we have certain Google services that just did not work at all even with Gbox. Google Assistant prefers being installed at the system level but since it is running in Gbox which does not have that level of access to the system, it could not be set up. Nearby share also did not work for the same reasons so I had to then look for alternatives.
The alternative assistant apps were Huawei’s Celia and Amazon’s Alexa. I have to say Huawei’s Celia is VERY far from being useful at all. Alexa is much better and quite useful with IoT hardware like my smart bulb and smart home security system but when operating my headphones it was utterly useless versus what I could do with Google Assistant. I love how with google assistant, my headphones can read out notifications and I can respond to them through voice prompts on the headphones without touching my phone. It’s like I am operating Ironman’s suit. Far beyond what Alexa can do.
The alternative for Nearby Share was Shareit which I am not much of a fan of with the many ads. In the odd case that I found someone using a Huawei as well, I used Huawei Share to send or receive files.
As for banking apps, I was using USSD banking to access those services which is a process that lacks finesse but given network challenges in Zimbabwe, it was the more reliable option anyway so there was at least an upside.
Can you survive without Google Services? Yes, No, Maybe?
So can you survive without Google Mobile Services? Because personally, I feel Huawei’s hardware is top-tier. But is it top-tier enough to compel you to ignore the shortcomings in software? I would say there are 3 levels to this.
Level 1: You won’t even notice
You are a general user and you won’t even notice. A typical smartphone user really is looking for general social media apps and some casual games. They will use the phone for WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, and the like. Those are working flawlessly since such a user’s smartphone habits do not revolve around Google Mobile services. Such a smartphone user will be very happy with the device and will not even notice something is missing in the software.
Level 2: You’ll notice but the workarounds are sufficient
You will face an issue here and there but it’s not a deal breaker given the workarounds. You have the option of accessing some of the services via the browser. This can be google docs or YouTube. It is not the ideal experience but it works and it’s not a deal breaker. And don’t forget Gbox which again will make plenty more apps available further making life easier. You can feel it that getting some stuff to work takes just a bit more effort but it’s within your tolerance limits.
Level 3: You cannot function without Google Services
You cannot function without GMS. So you rely heavily on GMS because it is a work device requirement, it’s where your game progress is saved, Google Assistant is your way of life and you are big on mobile and internet banking. You are not invested in any particular brand and you want something that works fuss-free. I would say for this person it is a complete deal breaker. They just cannot invest in the mental capacity to figure out these workarounds when a Google Pixel or Samsung can just have everything set up for them fuss-free.
It is possible to live without GMS but at the end of the day, it will all depend on your software needs and habits. I could live with it…but to a point. And now I am using a Google Pixel 6.