Huawei has been in hot water since the US imposed trade bans on the Chinese company in May 2019. That impacts on many of Huawei's interests, including its smartphones. Globally, Huawei sits in the top three: it was 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."
It was originally thought that the alternative was called HarmonyOS, a multi-platform operating system announced at Huawei Developers Conference in August 2019.
- 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 and does, to a certain extent.
HarmonyOS was unveiled in August 2019, expected to be a replacement for Android, but that wasn't the be the case. HarmonyOS has been deployed for IoT applications and smartphone devices, although Huawei hasn't ruled out HarmonyOS for use in smartphones.
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.
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 it's 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 continues to use, most recently on the Huawei Mate 30 Pro.
"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.
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 #HDC2019 pic.twitter.com/2TD9cgtdG8— Huawei Mobile (@HuaweiMobile) August 9, 2019
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, instead, Huawei's smartphones continue to run the open source part of Android, with Huawei looking to replace the Google services that it no longer has access to.
What is happening on Huawei smartphones and what is Huawei Mobile Services?
- Mate 30 Pro launched in September 2019
- P40 series expected on 26 March 2020
Rather than ditching Android completely, Huawei continues to use the open source core Android operating system on its devices. A perfect example is the Huawei Mate 30 Pro, which launched in September 2019 and was impacted by the ban on Huawei devices. The result was that it launched without the Google services you'd normally find on an Android device.
That included everything that would be part of Google Mobile Services - the Play Store, Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube - and all the other Google apps. The US ban means that Huawei can't use these services from Google, so that's what customers currently miss out on - and that will be the case on the Huawei P40 series too.
Huawei's plan is to replace these services with alternatives. For example, it has announced that it's going to be working with TomTom on a new mapping solution, it's working on its own search tool and a big part of the offering is working to expand it's own App Gallery to replace the Play Store, with a full suite of Huawei Mobile Services planned instead.
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 from new HarmonyOS devices - so Huawei isn't actually starting from scratch.
Huawei has frequently said that it could switch back to the full Android experience with a flip of a switch basically, but there's also been the suggestion that Huawei is now more committed to following its own course.
That, of course, means that the familiar EMUI experience continues, but there will be changes to the services within that offering.
What are the challenges for Huawei?
- Huawei asking devs to use App Gallery
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 App Gallery and Huawei appears to be providing the tools to ensure that developers can move their apps to the App Gallery, but it is also part of a Chinese alliance, called the Global Developers Service Alliance, working with Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi to lure developers to an alternative platform to Google's.
That's the real challenge: convincing developers that App Gallery or an alternative is as important as Google Play or the Apple App Store when it comes to releasing new versions of apps. Again, this is critical for delivering the customer experience. Huawei is actively working with developers to try and make this as easy as possible and offering a range of incentives to develop for App Gallery too.
But there's still an underlying question over whether customers will abandon the familiar Google experience, for different apps and services on a Huawei device. China will likely prove strong, with brand loyalty and low dependency on Google services already. But outside of China, Huawei has to convince people that life after Google is possible.