Huawei starts delivering Alexa to its Mate 9 handsets

Two-and-a-half months after Huawei announced that its Mate 9 will be getting Alexa, Amazon’s smart assistant is finally arriving for owners of the handset as an over-the-air update. The announcement seemed to fly in the face of Google’s attempts to bolster the profile of its own helper, Assistant, though when discussing its decision to go with Alexa on its U.S. flagship ahead of this week’s launch, Huawei said, “Alexa is a very good third-party software, which offers consumers one more option.”

The company essentially means that it’s not picking sides on this one. And why should it? It’s certainly in the hardware maker’s best interest to offer as many options on its devices as possible. And while it wouldn’t specify whether it was approached directly by Amazon, this launch is the result of a partnership with the mega-retailer.

Both worked directly on a Huawei-branded Alexa app, one that features much (though not yet nearly all) of the functionality of the app for Amazon’s Echo line. Huawei also told TechCrunch as a followup to the briefing that the addition of Alexa will not preclude Mate 9 owners from using Google’s new baked-in Assistant if they so choose, saying “users have the choice to use either.”

When you’re Huawei and the offer’s on the table to work with Amazon, you take it, particularly if it means being the first Android handset to ship with the popular smart assistant — even at the risk of alienating Google. Though as Google Assistant product lead Gummi Hafsteinsson told me at Mobile World Congress recently, “I think it’s up to the user to pick. Hopefully that should be the case with any product they want to use. If you have a phone with Google Assistant, our goal would be to make it possible for users to have access if they want it.”

It’s all very kumbaya, but it certainly echoes Huawei’s opinion on the subject: open as many options to users and let them pick the one that’s best for them. One of the key things Alexa has going for it over Assistant at the moment is a truly mainstream install base, courtesy of the wild success of the company’s Echo line. That’s something Amazon could have only dreamed of when it infamously tried and failed to get into the smartphone market.

This offers the company an interesting backdoor onto phones. And surely Huawei users who own an Echo will see the immediate benefit in using the same smart assistant across devices. That said, there’s still some downside. For starters, the functionality isn’t truly baked into the device. Users will have to launch the Huawei-Alexa app and have it running to take advantage of the home assistant, which is likely not the level of integration many users were hoping for.

Also, a lot of functionality is still forthcoming. Alarms don’t work yet, and food ordering is still coming soon. You can get weather and recommendations using the app, but the location is based on a pre-set in settings, rather than simply using the phone’s GPS to locate you. Huawei assures us that most of the kinks will largely be ironed out this year.

Meantime, the functionality feels more like an app than truly deep integration, and, as such, I suspect that Google Assistant doesn’t have all that much to worry about when it comes to Alexa raining on its mobile parade. The war for the living room, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.

And then there’s the recent report that the company is working on its own Chinese-language assistant even as it becomes the first to run with Alexa here in the States. We reached out to Huawei for clarification on that front, and the company told us, “The Huawei 2012 Lab focuses on research into future industry innovations that will underpin the company’s technology leadership for years to come. Huawei works with the best industry partners to provide customers with the ultimate user experience.”

So, more info in the years to come, apparently.