I’m not really sure what type of message Chinese tech firm Huawei was trying to send at their developers conference keynote on Friday, but I’m certainly more confused now about the company’s plans than I was before reading the coverage and following along with their social media feeds. The headline item to come out of the early-morning event (here in the U.S. anyway) was the introduction of HarmonyOS, Huawei’s Android replacement.
The presentation of HarmonyOS included very few actual details about the user interface and no actual screenshots of the software, but in Huawei CEO Richard Yu’s words, the new OS is “more powerful and secure than Android.” According to Yu, Huawei will keep the OS limited to China for now, though they have plans to bring it to international markets down the road.
The number-two smartphone maker globally, Huawei was essentially forced into a situation where it had to develop its own operating system after the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted them, making it impossible for any American firms to do business with Huawei. The problems extend beyond software, though. Huawei works with dozens of American component providers who have supplied chips and glass screens for their smartphones and other devices. But most notable is Google, which has given Huawei access to its Android operating system—the most popular operating system in the world—and its suite of apps, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, and more. With access to all of that hardware and software essentially cut off, Huawei is left scrambling to find replacement parts.
Enter, on the software side anyway, HarmonyOS.
HarmonyOS has just been announced at #HDC2019! How are we going to build an all-scenario smart ecosystem and experience? How will we overcome the challenges of future OS for connected things? Stayed tuned with us to find out. pic.twitter.com/x7ZbgcEy2d
— Huawei Mobile (@HuaweiMobile) August 9, 2019
According to Yu, the software has been in development for at least two years, with the company’s interest in developing its own standalone operating system dating back possibly even a decade. That may be the case, but, at least in with HarmonyOS, Huawei’s Chief Executive Ren Zhengfei has said that the software wasn’t originally intended to run on smartphones. Rather, it was supposed to be a platform for the company’s other gadgets, including smartwatches, smart home devices, and smart TVs.
Working backwards to make HarmonyOS a smartphone-compatible platform could, in theory, make the OS one of the most versatile. “A modularized HarmonyOS can be nested to adapt flexibly to any device to create a seamless cross-device experience. Developed via the distributed capability kit, it builds the foundation of a shared developer ecosystem,” the company said in a statement.
But whatever benefits a Huawei-owned operating system may have for the company’s products, the firm would still face major headwinds in competing with an Android. For one, they’re going to have to convince their customers to be OK with switching operating systems. One of the major factors that influences smartphone shopping is the operating system. So, any struggles from a user interface perspective could be crushing to the company.
And then there’s just basic development for the platform. Huawei is going to need to get developers on board with developing on their new OS. Yu did say that HarmonyOS will be open source, but Huawei’s OS is going to be a little behind the 8 ball right out of the gate. The Google Play store hosts some 2.7 million apps.
What’s hilarious about all of this, though, is that Huawei still would prefer to use Android. After touting all of these great features and the promise of HarmonyOS, Yu essentially called the platform Huawei’s Plan B. “We will prioritize Android for smartphones, but if we can’t use Android, we will be able to install HarmonyOS quickly,” he said.
So, despite the company’s confidence that HarmonyOS is an innovative, superior platform, they’re not willing to just go all in it?
The keynote definitely raised more questions than it did provide answers. Maybe we’ll get a bit more clarity when the company takes the IFA Keynote stage next month.