Huawei is hot water after the US imposed trade bans on the Chinese company. That potentially impacts on many of Huawei's interests, including its smartphones. Globally, Huawei sits in the number two position: it's a huge player in Android, a system to which it might have limited access in the future. 

"We have been making a plan for this possible outcome," commented Jeremy Thompson, UK executive vice president, in an interview with the BBC soon after the May 2019 listing. "We have a parallel programme in place to develop an alternative. We would rather work with Android but if it doesn't happen in the future we have an alternative in place which we think will delight our customers."

That alternative is called HarmonyOS, a multi-platform operating system announced at Huawei Developers Conference in August 2019 - but it's not just about smartphones.

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Huawei's plan B is called HarmonyOS 

  • HarmonyOS
  • Ark OS is a compiler
  • Known as HongMengOS in China

As soon as the spat with the US appeared, we started to hear talk of a plan B. But it wasn't the first we'd heard of Huawei's plans as there was talk of it in March 2019. Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's device business, said at the time that there was a plan B, but they would rather work with partners like Google and Microsoft - something that the company still maintains.

Huawei has confirmed that HarmonyOS will be known as HongMengOS in China. HongMengOS was one of the first names to appear soon after the US spat and we first encountered HarmonyOS as a trademark prior to the announcement - so it doesn't come as a huge surprise.

There was also the suggestion that it might be called Ark, but this is the name of the compiler for developers to help them move Android code to HarmonyOS.

What will run HarmonyOS?

  • Cross-device platform
  • Wearables, IoT, smart home, TVs, smartphones

HarmonyOS was officially revealed at the Huawei Developer Conference in August 2019. It is described as a microkernel-based, distributed operating system, designed to run across all types of devices.

Huawei has said that it's going to be starting with smart watches, wearables, in-car head units and we've already seen that's going to be running the Honor Vision smart TV.

As it will run on all platforms, it's very much an alternative to Android, able to replace Android, Android Auto, WearOS, Android TV and Android Things, although the idea isn't to replace Android on Huawei devices - which Huawei stays committed to supporting.

"We're entering a day and age where people expect a holistic intelligent experience across all devices and scenarios. To support this, we felt it was important to have an operating system with improved cross-platform capabilities."

"We needed an OS that supports all scenarios, that can be used across a broad range of devices and platforms, and that can meet consumer demand for low latency and strong security," is how Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's Consumer Business Group, explains it.

HarmonyOS is reportedly able to run on low power devices and rather than Huawei replace Android with HarmonyOS, it is instead going to start using the platform in a roll-out in China across the next few years on a range of products.

Huawei said at the launch of HarmonyOS that if it "can not use Android in future [it can] immediately switch to HarmonyOS" - and although there's been no official suggestion of that happening on smartphones, it is being speculated that we might not see the the new Mate 30 devices in Europe because of the Google ban, although we're keen to see exactly what platform they are running on.

What will HarmonyOS look like?

  • Likely to use EMUI design language

We're talking about a platform, so that's a little like asking what Android looks like. You only see the visible user interface and that could, essentially, be anything that Huawei wanted. 

Brand identity is important however (think about the visual parity between iPhone, WatchOS, tvOS and Apple CarPlay) and there's no reason to think that Huawei wouldn't use the same sort of visual design language that it uses in EMUI. EMUI is due to be updated to version 10 - along with Android 10 on smartphones - but we'd expect a lot of that to flow across the HarmonyOS platform wherever there's a display used.

At the time of writing, however, we're yet to see what HarmonyOS looks like from a consumer angle.

Huawei HarmonyOS release date

  • Announced 9 August 2019
  • Likely to be Q3
  • Roll-out in China

Prior to the official confirmation of HarmonyOS, there was the suggestion that it could launch in Q3 2019. Of course the platform is now official, but it's likely to be on devices in China for the time being and there's no telling when it might appear in the UK, US or Europe.

There was the suggestion that it might appear on the Huawei Mate 30 Lite, a low-cost device expected to launch in October 2019, alongside the Mate 30 and Mate 30 Pro. We suspect it's more of a test case for HarmonyOS on smartphones than anything else.

Honor announced the Honor Vision on 10 August with HarmonyOS, but exactly when that will go on sale, we don't know - and there's no confirmation on whether it will be available outside China in the long or short term. 

Certainly, you shouldn't expect HarmonyOS to suddenly appear on your phone - instead you should be looking forward to EMUI 10 and Android 10 updates instead.

What are the challenges for a new OS?

  • HarmonyOS said to support all Android apps
  • Huawei asked devs to use AppGallery 

Apps, undoubtedly, present the biggest problem for any mobile OS when it comes to customer expectations. Apple and Android have offered app parity for a number of years, but in the early days of Android, it was criticised for not having all the apps that Apple's iOS offered.

Huawei has its own AppGallery and Huawei appears to be providing the tools through Ark Compiler to easily prepare content for HarmonyOS. As it's a platform spanning devices, the idea is that a developer would only need to do the work once and it would then work across Huawei's new ecosystem.

The real challenge is convincing developers that AppGallery should be as important as Google Play or Apple App Store when it comes to releasing new versions of apps. Again, this is critical for delivering the customer experience. It has also been reported that Huawei is reaching out to app developers to encourage them to submit apps to AppGallery and China has some huge developers already.

Huawei does have a lot of cloud support for its existing services and anyone with a Huawei ID will potentially just be able to access all those services, synced across devices, whether you're accessing from an Android phone or new HarmonyOS devices - so Huawei isn't actually starting from scratch. Making it open source, too, will make it easier for third-parties to work with.

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What about security?

This is likely to be the hot potato both practically and politically. The US' original ban on Huawei centres on security concerns around Huawei. While the evidence for these concerns hasn't been explicitly given, putting the company on the Entity List undermines customer confidence.

Huawei is saying that HarmonyOS uses a lot less code than a Linux kernel, the probability of attack is greatly reduced, and that it's building a platform that rethinks security.

Of course there's security across the app ecosystem too, and if HarmonyOS is working without Google then things like Google Play Protect are lost - so Huawei will face a challenge in convincing users that HarmonyOS is a secure ecosystem and that data privacy is being maintained.

What could losing Google support mean? 

  • No security updates
  • No Google Play Protect
  • No Google services - Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc

Much of this discussion was triggered by the potential that Huawei would have to use a different platform for its popular phones. So what would losing support from Google actually mean?

Google has two sides to Android. The first is the core operating system, which is open source. This is known as Android Open Source Project. It's open to everyone to use and it forms the basis for custom platforms built from Android.

The second side is all of Google's services. This includes all the familiar names like Gmail, YouTube, Play Store, Google Pay, Google Assistant, Google Maps - as well as the protections and securities that go with it. Essentially, it's all the good bits and the core of what we'd recognise as an Android experience. 

It's this latter part that Huawei could potentially miss out on should it go down a separate route to Android. It's a position that Huawei knows well: in China, many of these Google services are banned, so Huawei's phones run without them, using alternative services in their place.

You can find out what the loss of Android might mean for your Huawei or Honor device in this separate feature we have - but it's important to understand that HarmonyOS is more than just smartphones, it's a platform that could power a whole range of things. 

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Is Huawei really going to have to use HarmonyOS instead of Android? 

What is clear is that Huawei is serious about sticking to Android. When we asked Huawei president of consumer business group Western Europe Walter Ji about an alternative the reply was that Huawei "remains committed to Android ecosystem."

All communication about the future sticks with Android and most recently, the US Department of Commerce has confirmed that it will issue licenses to allow companies to continue to work with Huawei. Even around the launch of HarmonyOS, Huawei continues to state that it's sticking with Android and this isn't a replacement. 

But it's clear that Huawei's plan B wasn't just talk - there's actually something here and Huawei is going to be using it across a range of different device categories. Whether that eventually extends to smartphones, we just don't know. For now, Huawei plans to keep using Android.