In 2019, Huawei was put under trade sanctions by the US, resulting in the denial of Google Mobile Services (GMS). GMS are background software features in Android that allow for seamless integration of Android services into third-party apps. For example, a ride-hailing app like Hwindi can use Google Maps for directions instead of developing its own maps.
As a stubborn Huawei fanatic, I decided to buy a Huawei Mate 40 Pro – a high-end smartphone that does not support GMS. And so began my journey of using a phone without GMS for a year.
Getting Apps Without GMS
Without GMS, I didn’t have access to the Google Play Store. So how did I get my apps? Huawei has its own app store called Huawei App Gallery. You can find the most popular apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok there. But beyond these, things start to get tricky.
Huawei’s App Gallery is severely understocked. To make matters worse, some mainstream apps were actually disappearing from the App Gallery. Spotify, Zoom, and Duolingo are just some of the apps I remember vividly disappearing.
When I started this experiment, 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’s Workarounds: Third-Party App Stores and Petal Search
Huawei developed two interesting workarounds to address the shortage of apps. The first involved third-party app stores. For popular apps not available in the App Gallery, Huawei provided the option to download or update the app via a link to a third-party app store like APK Pure.
The second workaround is an app called Petal Search. It has a better collection of apps that can be natively downloaded and updated. However, it still requires a third-party app store for some apps.
Local Apps: A Nightmare
The situation was disastrous when it came to local apps. They weren’t popular enough to be listed on third-party app stores, so finding your local bank’s app or local ride-hailing app was nearly impossible. Some of the sites I ended up downloading these apps from didn’t feel safe at all. This sideloading process is not recommended because you may accidentally download a virus instead of the intended app.
Some Apps Just Won’t Work
Many Android apps rely on GMS to work correctly. The apps you’ll find in Huawei’s App Gallery are those that don’t require GMS to run – and it’s a very short list. Local bank apps, local food delivery apps, and Google apps all didn’t work. They gave the error “This app cannot run without Google Play services.” Some apps were even more dramatic and failed to install.
Getting GMS Working with Gbox
There is a solution for about 95% of the problems arising from a lack of GMS: an app called Gbox. It’s a virtual machine running on top of the phone’s OS, similar to Bluestacks. It mimics a random smartphone with GMS, giving you access to the Google Play Store and allowing you to install and run almost all apps that require GMS.
However, not all apps worked perfectly with Gbox. Banking apps still refused to work, even though the Google Play Services error disappeared. Some banking apps preferred getting the OTP code from notifications instead of manual entry, which didn’t work because Gbox couldn’t read notification contents.
App notifications for all apps running in Gbox also didn’t work properly. This wasn’t a dealbreaker, but it did reduce the quality of my experience with the apps. Sometimes I would get notifications late or not at all.
Gbox Limitations and Workarounds
Certain Google services didn’t work at all with Gbox. Google Assistant prefers being installed at the system level, but since it runs in Gbox, which doesn’t have that level of access to the system, it couldn’t be set up. Nearby Share also didn’t work for the same reasons. So I had to look for alternatives.
The alternative assistant apps were Huawei’s Celia and Amazon’s Alexa. Huawei’s Celia is far from being useful, while Alexa is much better and quite useful with IoT hardware like my smart bulb and smart home security system. However, when operating my headphones, Alexa was utterly useless compared to Google Assistant. With Google Assistant, my headphones can read out notifications and I can respond to them through voice prompts without touching my phone.
The alternative for Nearby Share was Shareit, which I’m not a fan of due to the many ads. In the rare case that I found someone using a Huawei as well, I used Huawei Share to send or receive files.
As for banking apps, I used USSD banking to access those services. It lacks finesse, but given network challenges in Zimbabwe, it was the more reliable option anyway.
Can You Survive Without GMS? Yes, No, Maybe
So can you survive without GMS? Personally, I feel Huawei’s hardware is top-tier. But is it top-tier enough to ignore the shortcomings in software? There are three levels to this.
Level 1: You Won’t Even Notice
You’re a general user and won’t even notice. A typical smartphone user is looking for general social media apps and casual games. They’ll use the phone for WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, and the like. These apps work flawlessly and don’t rely on GMS. Such a user will be happy with the device and won’t even notice something is missing.
Level 2: You’ll Notice But The Workarounds Are Sufficient
You’ll face an issue here and there but it’s not a dealbreaker given the workarounds. You can access some services via the browser, like Google Docs or YouTube. It’s not ideal but it works. And don’t forget Gbox – it makes many more apps available. Getting some things to work takes a bit more effort but it’s within your tolerance limits.
Level 3: You Cannot Function Without GMS
You rely heavily on GMS because it’s required for work or because your game progress is saved there. Google Assistant is your way of life and you’re big on mobile and internet banking. You’re not invested in any particular brand and want something that works fuss-free. For this person, it’s a complete dealbreaker. They don’t want to invest mental capacity in figuring out workarounds when a Google Pixel or Samsung can have everything set up fuss-free.
It’s possible to live without GMS but it depends on your software needs and habits. I could live with it…to a point. And now I’m using a Google Pixel 6.