For the tech giant to break the chains of US sanctions, independent software is just the start of a perilous journey into a new ecosystem.
People trying out Harmony OS in a flagship store of Huawei in Shanghai on June 3. Photo from CFP
By LU Keyan
Huawei Technologies launched its new operating system HarmonyOS 2 on Wednesday, the company’s latest attempt to counter US sanctions and challenge Google in software. Nearly 100 devices including phones and tablets will support the system.
Since August last year, Google Mobile Services have been prohibited from working with Huawei which means no more updates for Huawei’s Android phones. The sanctions sabotaged the supply of chips as well, and the company’s inventory was always bound to run out. As the chip crisis continues, HarmonyOS offers a sliver of hope that Huawei might break free from US suppliers and create an eco-system on its own.
In 2012, the US government investigated Huawei and another Chinese tech company ZTE. Around that time, it became clear that the company would need a new operating system: Harmony. After hardly a mention for seven years, in 2019 Huawei unveiled the OS or released a PowerPoint presentation about the system. Some saw it as a kind of joke with little prospect of ever actually powering a serious line of new devices. Harmony is based on the Android Open-Source Project (AOSP) and was widely derided as a mere copy of Android.
It is called Open-Source for a reason. Most developers use the same source code. WANG Chenglu, president of Huawei's software, said more than 80 percent of Android’s code is open-source and widely used by developers from all kinds of industries.
“There is no company in the world that writes every single line of code on their own,” he said. In terms of something like phones, it's better not to break the already cultivated user experiences. People have habits.
In fact, HarmonyOS is pretty much the same as EMUI, the Android system Huawei now uses. The “powered by Android” icon has been replaced by “HarmonyOS,” but it’s hard to see any difference apart from that. Huawei is quick to assert that Harmony was never meant as just a phone OS. The stated aim - to break the barriers between platforms and systems – seems as far off as it was before the release.
As an example, a popular app like WeChat has different formats for different platforms and hardware – WeChat for Windows, WeChat for Mac, WeChat for Android, etc. They are very different and each has to be downloaded separately. But Harmony allows developers to make a single app that can be used on all devices: phone, tablet, or computer. from one Harmony device, users should be able to control all their other devices and with data stored on the Cloud. A PowerPoint being edited on a PC can instantly be transferred to a phone and continue editing.
It is not hard to develop an operating system, but keeping it fresh is quite another. Everything depends on how many platforms and devices Huawei can cover.
The first problem is the chip shortage. Huawei’s market share is in freefall. Huawei VP YANG Haisong has claimed that Huawei still has an inventory of over 700 million phones that can buy some time, but almost all of these phones are at the end of the Android line, and a hard sell in market obsessed novelty.
Huawei reckons more than 300 million devices will be running Harmony by the end of the year, about a third of which are external platforms. The company now has 1,000 partners in appliance manufacturers and smart home systems. But that’s far from enough. Yang said Harmony needs to occupy at least 16 percent of the market within 3 years if it is to survive.