A mobile phone shows the Huawei app interface. Huawei introduced its own operating system HarmonyOS in 2019. In June 2021, the company first launched the operating system on a smartphone.
Cost photo | Barcroft Media | Getty Images
GUANGZHOU, China – Huawei launched its proprietary operating system for a range of devices including smartphones on Wednesday. The move comes as the Chinese tech giant tries to break away from its reliance on US technology and pit it against software from Apple and Google.
HarmonyOS was launched in 2019 after the US blacklisted Huawei and blocked access to Google’s Android operating system. That move, along with other sanctions restricting Huawei’s access to critical semiconductors, crippled its smartphone business just months after it became number one in the world.
Huawei has been developing HarmonyOS since 2016, calling it an operating system that can work on many internet-connected devices from smartphones to wearables. The company claims that it’s easy for developers to create apps that work across different products.
The focus on the cross-device HarmonyOS is one way Huawei is trying to differentiate its operating system from Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
“HarmonyOS is designed to provide the glue between a growing number of connected devices that Huawei is targeting,” said Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight.
“Huawei hopes it can follow Apple’s lead by having a single software platform that extends in all directions and provides a seamless experience for customers shopping into its ecosystem of products.”
In 2019, Huawei brought HarmonyOS to a TV from Honor, a brand that previously owned it. On Wednesday, Huawei launched HarmonyOS on a new version of its flagship Mate 40 smartphone, as well as its Mate X2 foldable phone. The new Smartwatch Watch Series 3 and the MatePad Pro tablet from Huawei will also be equipped with HarmonyOS.
Sanctions in 2019 that foreclose Huawei from Google resulted in users of the Chinese company’s smartphones not receiving Android updates.
Huawei announced Wednesday that many of the company’s older phones can be upgraded to HarmonyOS. These upgrades will start on Wednesday and will be rolled out gradually until next year.
The U.S. sanctions resulted in a dramatic slowdown in Huawei’s revenue growth in 2020, which hit the company’s smartphone and its network equipment business. Washington has claimed Huawei is a national security threat and claims that data the company collects could be shared with the Chinese government. Huawei has repeatedly denied this.
Huawei has been trying to turn to software and focus on other consumer electronics like wearables and tablets to drive sales. HarmonyOS is part of this effort, along with an increasing focus on cloud computing.
The company has announced that nearly 100 different Huawei products will support HarmonyOS in China this year. Huawei previously said it would run 300 million devices on HarmonyOS this year.
At an online event on Wednesday, Wang Chenglu, president of software for Huawei’s Consumer Business Group, showed examples of how HarmonyOS works across devices. One example was opening a “control panel” on a smartphone before selecting one of several music apps and the device to play songs.
Two operating systems dominate the mobile market today – Android from Google and iOS from Apple. In the past, companies from Microsoft to Samsung have tried to come up with viable alternatives but have failed.
What left them in the lurch was the lack of size that didn’t let developers win the platform over to develop apps. Without apps, users may not want to use the software.
But Huawei has a huge focus on apps, and the size of the company and the number of devices HarmonyOS can work with could help attract developers to the platform.
HarmonyOS could “attract the developer ecosystem and expand the installation base of devices very quickly,” Neil Shah, partner at Counterpoint Research, told CNBC. “More developers will see the benefits. There is no chicken-and-egg problem.”
Huawei offers a range of apps like mapping and a browser under a brand called Huawei Mobile Services. HMS is similar to Google Mobile Services and offers developer kits with which, for example, location services can be integrated into apps. HMS has 2.7 million registered developers worldwide.
The Chinese company also has its own app store called App Gallery with 540 million monthly active users worldwide.
“Huawei is able to generate a certain size,” said Shah.
Meanwhile, Huawei has opened its operating system to third-party device manufacturers, similar to Google’s Android. If major home appliance manufacturers or device manufacturers choose HarmonyOS, it could help keep the software growing even further, Shah said.
While HarmonyOS could thrive in Huawei’s home market in China, it could face challenges in international markets.
Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS dominate the market for mobile operating systems. And on smartwatches, Apple has its WatchOS, while Google launched a revamped version of its Wear operating system last month. The two US tech giants have also focused on in-car entertainment software.
Both companies also have a huge base of app developers and the world’s most popular apps on their platform. That’s one area Huawei could have problems in.
“The only thing missing (HarmonyOS) is the big western developers,” said Shah.
The Huawei app store lacks big names such as Google apps, which are important for users abroad. Facebook is now available, but not available for direct download from AppGallery.
Shah said that certain continents like Europe and Africa could present an opportunity for Huawei. However, the Chinese company will most likely have to contend with the reputational damage caused by the US sanctions.
“Huawei faces major challenges outside of China,” said Wood of CCS Insight. “As a result of US sanctions, consumer confidence in the brand has been noticeably lost, which will be difficult to break down as it moves into new areas.”
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