Why did Huawei create Harmony OS?
On Friday the 10th of August, Huawei announced its Harmony OS as a fallback option in the event they lose access to the Android ecosystem. Before this, the company had announced the creation of the HongMeng/Ark OS after Google revoked its Android license. This announcement came on the heels of the Trump administration adding Huawei and 70 of its affiliates to its “entity list” of firms deemed threats to national security, effectively prohibiting the firm from buying US technology and components. Furthermore, Trump also issued an executive order banning US firms from using technology produced by any company assessed to be a national security risk.
No doubt, Trump’s decision in May to blacklist Huawei, China’s largest technology company, roiled global markets which are still adjusting to the impact of higher tariffs in a year-long trade war that risks upending global supply chains. A similar ban on China’s ZTE Corporation last year brought the smaller competitor to Huawei to its knees before it was removed last July.
However, the main focus of this article is the sustainability of Huawei floating an operating system. Is the Huawei Harmony OS a last-ditch attempt, a sustainable venture or a wild goose chase? Will Huawei succeed where Microsoft, Amazon, HP, Samsung, Intel, Nokia, Mozilla, Blackberry, and many others have failed?
OS Failures of the Past
Many factors go into the success of an OS. Performance and excellent user interface are part, but the market and users’ perceptions mostly make or mar an OS. Pretty much, the smartphone race is a rat race between Android and iOS, while the computer segment is shared between Windows, MacOS, and Linux. Initially, Huawei wanted its OS to work on phone, laptop, and everything in between which is overstretching its limits, due to the ban. But now, the Huawei Harmony OS will be restricted to cars, watches, and personal computers. It is expected to launch by 2020. The company is still prepared to launch the OS for smartphones, in the event that it can no longer access the Android ecosystem in the future.
Amazon’s Fire OS was an adequate phone when compared to the ones on the market then. It even had a few exceptional features, but in a crowded space dominated by Apple and Android devices, merely releasing something “adequate” isn’t enough. To stand out, a smartphone like the Fire, which arrived seven years after the first iPhone and six years after the first Android device, requires breakthrough hardware and software. Thus, even though the Fire Phone was based on AOSP like Huawei plans to do, it failed.
Windows Phone, on the other hand, was revolutionary in design and performance, and Microsoft already had experience with manufacturing phones. However, it failed primarily because Microsoft at that point was not manufacturing its own phone early enough and held a fatally tight rein on it how much original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can customize their phones. Furthermore, there was hardly any application for the OS, and even though Microsoft made it easy for developers to port apps from other OS easily, they did not do so.
Palm’s Web OS failed because of performance issues while HP’s Web OS was a basic phone at a premium price. “Good as” is not good enough. “Slower than” isn’t going to displace anything.
Mozilla’s Firefox OS failed because developers weren’t interested in building apps for a platform with no users, and the net result was an app ecosystem that couldn’t even compete with Windows phones. Samsung’s Tizen OS failed because of its security flaws, delays, lack of apps, and it only catered for low-end users.
On the other hand, Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS, Linux, and even Chrome OS were also successful because they were mostly either the first to corner the market.
Can Harmony OS Compete with Android OS?
Huawei is hard at work on its alternative operating system which it claims has been in production for two years and is prepared to launch it in their flagship Mate 30. The brand has reportedly shipped 1 million devices for testing purposes and is also working hard on trademarking the Harmony name in a growing number of countries across the world. The operating system won’t just be for phones, either. According to the report, it’s open to mobile phones, computers, tablets, TVs, cars, and smart wearable devices.
Building a new mobile OS from scratch is certainly no easy feat, and competing with established players like Android and iOS will undoubtedly be a challenging undertaking. Building a smartphone platform is easier than supporting and nurturing it continuously, especially when there are well-established players in the market. In this day and age, supporting services and the availability of apps play a huge part in a smartphone platform’s success. In case of Android, it has strong support from Google’s ultra-popular and successful services like Google Search, Google Now, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps, Google Chrome, Google Translate, and Hangouts. Many people have invested their data into Google’s services, and their absence won’t be entertained. All of those services are tightly integrated into the platform and won’t be able to access it with Harmony OS. Without access to it, many people won’t bother with Huawei.
Huawei’s OS will be based on the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP), which is a free system that any brand can use as an underlying foundation for its products. That means that android apps theoretically will work on it. The critical question is how the apps will be able to work on the OS – just because they’re compatible, doesn’t mean Huawei will be able to bring the full suite to its phones. There will probably be much manual side-loading, which will be an effort for consumers.
Without access to the Play Store, Huawei would be forced to work directly with developers to get them to create versions of their wares for its phones. This situation would be similar to that of Amazon’s Fire OS, which is based on AOSP but had its own app store, as the retail giant seeks to control the platform its Fire tablets and Echo devices run on. If Huawei does have to use AOSP, the consequences could be devastating, as access to a fully-stocked app store is crucial to the success of any modern smartphone. Nokia and Microsoft failed to make Windows Phones a viable alternative to Android and Apple’s iOS, even though both brands poured millions into developer tools and enticing the top app creators onto their platform.
To make things easier, Huawei is offering simple software for developers to tweak their apps to run on its phones, meaning they can be ported over with minimal effort. However, Microsoft provided something similar for the Windows Phone app portal and yet couldn’t maintain the momentum as phone sales stalled. It remains to be seen whether Huawei phones will continue to be sold in strong enough numbers worldwide for developers to update and maintain their apps. To increase their chances, Huawei has been pouring a lot of money to encourage developers to use their platform. Last year, they spent $70 million. They also have an attractive profit-sharing scheme, where they only keep 10% of the app profits while the rest goes to developers. This is higher than 30:70 sharing formula that Google uses. Apple also keeps 70% of sales revenue and 85% of sales subscription.
Notwithstanding, Apple still generates 70% more than Google when it come to app revenue, despite the latter’s larger market share in terms of devices. How Huawei’s OS will break the ranks of this duopoly remains to be seen.
Google also believes that the Chinese company cannot provide the level of security it has for the Android OS. A Huawei-modified version of Android OS would be more susceptible to being hacked. This is further compounded by the news that the WiFi Alliance and the SD Association, the standards-making bodies that govern the technology used for connectivity and mobile storage have ejected Huawei. While Huawei will still be able to use these technologies, they will not be certified by these bodies and Huawei will not be able to use better technologies until it is made public, thereby blunting its competitive edge.
The final verdict on the Harmony OS
Despite claims that Harmony is 60% faster than Android, Huawei still faces an increasingly onerous task going forward. But it’s undoubtedly smart for Huawei to save itself from getting locked out of the world’s largest mobile OS ecosystem. Even if it does, I seriously doubt whether it will be as polished or feature-rich as Android. The only OS-esque software we’ve seen from them, the mobile overlay EMUI, has been a mixed bag of features and design.
Huawei’s future as a device maker is getting murkier and murkier by the day. If it doesn’t settle with the US Commerce Department, it’ll be tough for the company to sustain outside China. Lastly, the loss of the Google Play Store – which for users outside of China is the key source of Android apps – and a lack of Google-made security updates could prove a significant drawback for the prospects of its future phones and tablets.
By Oyarinde Isreal, Research Associate at DigiLaw