24 February 2020
Huawei plans to deploy its Harmony operating system across multiple devices in the coming years, helping the firm establish itself in the IoT era. Photo: Reuters
Huawei plans to deploy its Harmony operating system across multiple devices in the coming years, helping the firm establish itself in the IoT era. Photo: Reuters

Huawei readies for connected device era with Harmony OS

Ending months of speculation, Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies has unveiled a self-developed operating system for smartphones and other devices, claiming that it can now defend itself even in the worst-case sanctions scenario amid the US trade and tech war on China.

At an annual developer conference in Dongguan last Friday, Huawei took the lid off its proprietary operating system, called Harmony OS, which will be gradually rolled out into the Chinese tech giant’s product ecosystem.

Huawei said it will for now stick to using Google’s Android for smartphones, but claimed that it can migrate to Harmony in days if the need arises.  

“We will switch to Harmony system when we can’t use Android,” media reports quoted Richard Yu, the head of Huawei’s consumer business group, as saying at the Dongguan event.

Huawei boasted that Harmony OS is different and more advanced than the existing mobile operating systems, but we need to take those claims with a pinch of salt.

The very fact that the Chinese firm said it will try to stay with Android and that it will migrate only if it is left with no choice suggests that there is still a long way to go before Harmony can become a sure-shot bet in the market. 

Some industry experts have expressed doubts about the originality and innovation in Harmony. There is also a view that Harmony may not serve as a separate and stand-alone OS like Apple’s iOS, and that it could instead be used as an additional layer on top of Android in order to provide customized services for Huawei product users. 

The questions came as some Chinese experts have been testing Huawei smart TV product using Harmony OS. According to reports, the experts found that the operating system has a feature called Android Debug Bridge, which is a unique feature for Android developers to test the interoperability between Android devices and desktop computers.

The existence of this feature in Harmony OS is evidence that Harmony OS is only an additional layer of Android, the experts believe.

Huawei said the new platform, known in Chinese as Hongmeng OS, is based on microkernel just like Google’s Fuchsia OS. According to Yu, this allows for flexible deployment across a wide range of categories including smart speakers, automobiles, computers, smartwatches and tablets, apart from smartphones.

To ensure this compatibility, Huawei has ensured the platform can work with RAM sizes ranging from mere kilobytes to hundreds of gigabytes.

Some market watchers have pointed out that Harmony OS 1.0 is running on the core of Android open source, so it is no surprise that Harmony can be compatible with Android. Huawei stressed that Harmony has crucial elements running on the firm’s own technology development.

Industry observers, however, believe it would take a year for Huawei to build a truly own operating system with its own technologies. We may have to wait until Harmony OS 2.0 is launched next year, at the least.

Huawei stepped up focus on developing a proprietary OS as it faced the threat of losing access to US technologies amid the Sino-US trade conflicts. There was a need to look beyond Google’s Android as the operating system for mobile devices.

More than that, Huawei had to prepare for the Internet of Things era where different devices will become connected in the future. But it could be a difficult task for software developers to develop an operating system for each device. So a single system that would support different devices became an important need. 

This is why, for example, Google started its Fuchsia project to meet the need for deployment across different devices.

Harmony is similar to Fuchsia, which enables developers to come up with a single app to run on all devices. Huawei claimed that its OS will be faster than competing platforms, reducing the response latency of apps by a quarter.

At the launch event, Huawei executives stressed that Harmony will play an important role in cross-device operations and control in the IoT era. Under the envisaged future, a smartphone user, for instance, may be able to start the engine of a car through a phone.

A key factor for establishment of a new OS is support from app developers and building a robust ecosystem. The task is not easy, but the huge size of the China market could help Huawei overcome that hurdle. 

Huawei has outlined ambitions to build a cross-device platform through initiatives such as handing out money to app developers to encourage them to join the game. The Chinese group will spend US$1 billion in incentives for developers to come on board the Harmony platform.

As for the impact on Google, the US technology giant may feel some pressure as Huawei plans to make Harmony open to other smartphone vendors, and not develop it just for its own use.

Huawei said it will gradually adopt an open source arrangement next year, which could give rival phone makers such as Oppo and Xiaomi an opportunity to co-develop the operating system with their bigger Chinese rival.

If such arrangement is endorsed or pushed by Chinese authorities, Google could end up losing a significant chunk of customers on its Android platform.

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EJ Insight writer