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Huawei’s US ban: A look at the hardware (and software) supply problems

The parts of the P30 Pro, courtesy iFixit. iFixit Red is the HiSilicon Kirin 980 with SK Hynix RAM on top, orange is the Micron flash storage, and yellow is a HiSilicon audio chip. The two green chips are HiSilicon RF Transceivers, light blue is a Skyworks FEM, dark blue is a Qorvo FEM. This is what a P30 Pro looks like assembled, by the way. There is still a camera bump. Huawei The front design is pretty standard. There's a notch. Huawei There's no earpiece. Instead, you get a vibrating screen. Huawei

President Trump's Huawei ban is in full effect, and companies from all over the country are announcing they will no longer be doing business with Huawei. Google, Qualcomm, Broadcom, and Intel are all cutting ties with Huawei, and once this new 90-day exemption is up, really every US company would no longer be allowed to supply Huawei with technology or services. Trump's executive order is very broad, prohibiting "any acquisition, importation, transfer, installation, dealing in, or use of any information and communications technology or service" by any foreign company the US government deems a threat, in this case, Huawei.

With Huawei cut off from US technology, exactly how hard will it be for the company to continue to make smartphones? For an idea of how much Huawei would need to change, let's do a parts audit on the company's latest flagship smartphone, the Huawei P30 Pro. We'll see where each component comes from and what other options exist out there in the ecosystem. Between spec sheets, teardowns from iFixit, and EE Times, we can whip together a pretty good list of components and their countries of origin.

The Power of HiSilicon Huawei

The System on a Chip is the heart of any smartphone, supplying most of your basic three-letter computer components like the CPU, GPU, LTE modem, GPS, and more. Huawei is better off than most companies in this area—it's one of the few companies (along with Samsung) that has its own chip-design division. Huawei's "HiSilicon" group designs SoCs for its smartphones, and the Huawei P30 Pro uses the HiSilicon Kirin 980 SoC. HiSilicon has its own LTE modem solution and is a leader in 5G modems.

Most Android manufacturers rely on Qualcomm—a US company—for its Snapdragon SoCs with integrated LTE modems. Qualcomm has a near monopoly on the high-end smartphone market, thanks not only to reliably producing yearly SoC upgrades, but also by aggressively investing in and patenting cellular technologies. Qualcomm was one of the first companies to bring LTE to market, and it has been leading the charge toward 5G, too. Qualcomm has no doubt been patenting everything it can find along the way.

Qualcomm has been sued and fined for anti-competitive patent licensing, and it seems committed to creating a legal headache for any company that doesn't use its products. Apple and Qualcomm were feuding over Apple's use of Intel modems in its iPhones, and when the two companies settled, Intel quit the 5G modem business that same day. Samsung has its own Exynos line of processors but usually doesn't ship them in the US, instead using Qualcomm chips.

Huawei's Kirin 980 is based on the ARM architecture, which Huawei licenses from ARM Holdings PLC. ARM's headquarters is in England, but it now has a Japanese parent company, Softbank. Huawei is a fabless chip designer, meaning the company doesn't own a semiconductor foundry, so it must get its chip designs manufactured somewhere. Kirin chips are usually made at TSMC, (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited), which, wouldn't you know it, is headquartered in Taiwan. The running theme of this article is "Samsung would also be an option"—and for chip fabrication, Samsung would also be an option. Samsung (which is based in South Korea) produces Qualcomm's flagship chips and is actually one of the leading silicon manufacturers on Earth. We're doing good so far!

Update: ARM is outA day after this article was published, ARM cut ties with Huawei, putting the company's chip design future in doubt. Despite being a non-US company, ARM says its designs contain “US origin technology," so it feels it would be in violation of the US export ban.

ARM helps Huawei design SoCs, so the export ban shouldn't affect immediate Huawei SoC production. Huawei also reportedly has its next-generation SoC, the Kirin 985, far enough along that the loss of ARM shouldn't affect it. The Kirin 985 is due out sometime in Q3 or later, so existing SoC projects should carry Huawei forward for the next 12-18 months.

The problem for Huawei is after that. With no support from ARM, Huawei will be unable to design SoCs for the future. If we assume a yearly upgrade cadence, then Huawei will have no SoC to upgrade to in Q3 2020. Even if the US/China trade war gets resolved by then, Huawei will be losing valuable development time between now and then.

The rise of BOE and Chinese displays The Huawei Mate X uses one big wraparound display made by BOE. Huawei You get a huge 8-inch display when open and a 6.6-inch display when closed. Huawei The back has a 6.38-inch display, along with this component bar for cameras, buttons, and ports. Huawei The three cameras on the bar pull double-duty for selfies and regular photos. Huawei Huawei's patented hinge tries to flatten out the screen by expanding when it opens. Huawei When opened up, you get a huge 8-inch Android tablet. Huawei There's a fingerprint reader on the side. Huawei There are batteries in both halves of the device, for a total of 4500mAh. Huawei Here's a fun look at the inside of the device. The 5G components are highlighted. Huawei

Huawei sources its displays from just about everybody, with Anandtech reporting various P30 variants using displays from the usual suspects: Samsung Display (South Korea) and LG Display (also South Korea), along with BOE Technology Group Co, a Chinese company. BOE is a real up-and-comer in the display market, and according to Bloomberg, it will blow past LG to become the number two supplier of OLED displays by the end of the year. If you haven't been paying attention to BOE, you should start.

Like Huawei, BOE has the blessing and financial backing of the Chinese Government, which helps explain its sudden and meteoric rise—Korea owns the OLED market, and BOE is China's answer. With the might of China behind it, BOE has started to go after Samsung Display's biggest customers and is trying to woo Apple to become a supplier for future iPhone displays. BOE even has the gall to start courting Samsung Electronics as a customer, hoping the company will dump its usual OLED supplier—uh—Samsung Display, in favor of BOE. Good luck with that.

Samsung has tried to stay ahead of this new Chinese rival with superior technology, mainly via the development of flexible displays for new-age foldable smartphones like the Galaxy Fold. Samsung invested six years of research and $130 million to develop bendable OLEDs that (sort of) work, so surely this will give Samsung some breathing room against its Chinese rival, right? Sadly for Samsung, South Korean prosecutors say Samsung's flexible display technology was stolen by one of its suppliers and sold to an unnamed display firm in China. After the Galaxy Fold, the next big foldable smartphone just so happens to be from China, and it's the Huawei Mate X. The supplier of the Mate X's flexible OLED display is BOE. No doubt BOE's technology was completely self-developed.

Under the P30 Pro's display is an in-screen fingerprint reader, an optical reader made by Goodix, a Chinese company. Goodix also supplies OnePlus with its optical fingerprint readers. Before the US ban, Qualcomm would have been another option, with its ultrasonic fingerprint reader that debuted in the Galaxy S10. If you're keeping score, we still haven't run into a US supplier.

Listing image by iFixit

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