Huawei's EMUI 10.1 update shows Chinese mobile giant hunkering down for the long haul without Google wares

Software rollout confirmed, with new voice assistant Celia along for the ride

Huawei has confirmed the rollout map for its EMUI 10.1 software, which introduces several new features including the firm's in-house Siri alternative, Celia.

EMUI 10.1 first launched in March, with the release of the Huawei P40 flagship series. Starting in June, the Chinese mobile giant will start sending it out to older devices, including the P30 series, the P20 Pro, and the Mate 30 series.

This handset lineup encompasses devices running Google Mobile Services, as well as those released following the Trump administration's embargo on Huawei.

EMUI 10.1 is also scheduled to hit several recent phones made by Huawei's youth-oriented sub-brand, Honor, including the View20 and the Honor 20 series. The main caveat is that this new functionality will come bundled with Honor's fork of the EMUI software, dubbed Magic UI.

Although the version number suggests this is an incremental upgrade (in the mobile world, significant changes are typically the preserve of "point-oh" versions), reality differs somewhat. EMUI 10.1 has bundled software designed to replace Google-made tools conspicuously absent from its latest hardware.

Oh Ce-Celia

Celia is arguably the most interesting. The voice assistant is based on Huawei's Xiaoyi that is already used in Mainland China, and takes the role previously held by Google Assistant.

In terms of functionality, there are few divergences from the usual playbook. Celia responds to the user saying "Hey, Celia," and can also be woken by holding the power button down for a second. It performs the usual secretarial fare: placing calls, sending messages, setting reminders, and so on.

Celia also comes with computer-vision functionality, and can recognise objects in the outside world – a bit like Google Lens. The use cases touted by Huawei include scanning foodstuff to see how many calories they contain, as well as finding cheaper alternatives to in-store products online.

It'll be interesting to see how far Huawei can take this feature. Computer vision is one of Huawei's strengths, as evidenced by its Master AI camera software, which adjusts the phone's camera settings based on the subject. In addition to the usual landscape and food modes, Master AI can recognise specific dog and cat breeds, and adjust the usual exposure and ISO settings accordingly.

Huawei is going for a limited rollout with Celia. Initially, it'll only recognise three languages: English, French, and Spanish. That's comparable to Samsung's rollout of its Bixby assistant, which initially understood US English, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese.

At first, Huawei plans to only release the assistant in a handful of territories: namely the UK, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Columbia, France, and South Africa.

Curiously, Celia has also seen a quiet release in India, where it's used as a virtual tech support agent, rather than a fully fledged assistant. And while it won't tell you the weather in Ouagadougou, it'll gladly help in getting an in-warranty repair.

Pivot to services

Of course, Celia isn't the be-all when it comes to EMUI 10.1. Cross-device sharing gets an overhaul, with Huawei Share now letting you transfer files to compatible IoT devices, like smart speakers. EMUI 10.1 also brings the ability to answer calls via your PC, as well as resume browsing sessions from your computer.

Huawei is also eager to tout its MeeTime videoconferencing app, which replaces Google's Duo, and promises to algorithmically compensate for poor lighting conditions and shaky connections. MeeTime will see an initial launch in selected markets (none, sadly, in Europe) before a global release expected later this year.

Celia and MeeTime represent another piece in Huawei's ongoing shift to services, prompted by its current dispute with the US government.

Unable to license Google Mobile Services, it's been forced to produce many smartphone essentials in-house, which it is packaging as Huawei Mobile Services (HMS).

The foundations of HMS are a collection of APIs designed to handle essentials like authentication, DRM, analytics, and app monetisation.

The Huawei AppGallery follows, serving as an alternative to the Google Play Store. This platform is relatively bare-bones, but has nonetheless scored some recent wins, with both Snap and Microsoft signing up. Huawei has also launched music and video marketplaces, containing content from European and US-based labels and studios.

Of course, Huawei's deep pockets help. The Chinese firm claimed it has earmarked $1bn in investment for its digital content ecosystem, with over 3,000 engineers assigned to work on the AppGallery alone.

Huawei is adamant that it's committed to Android – its latest phones still use the open-source version. However, one can't help shake the feeling that an entirely separate mobile OS is quietly forming before our eyes, presenting a distinct ecosystem, and therefore a fundamentally different user experience. EMUI 10.1 is just the beginning. ®

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