Chinese tech giant Huawei launched its highly-anticipated homegrown mobile operating system on Wednesday, opening a new front in its fight for survival in the smartphone arena after the US blocked it from using Android.
The company says its new HarmonyOS system is packed with special features and capitalises on growing demand to seamlessly link devices — known as “Internet of things”. But analysts say Huawei faces an uphill climb getting enough app developers to devise software and content for the OS to keep consumers buying the company’s phones in a world dominated by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
HarmonyOS is based on open-source elements of Android that Huawei and other companies remain free to use, and the company unveiled the first mobile devices pre-loaded with the system in an online launch. Lead developer Wang Chenglu said the OS will see Huawei get ahead of the curve as IoT development accelerates, spurred by new technologies like intelligent vehicles and the coming advent of super-fast 5G connections.
“With HarmonyOS, we weren’t going to just produce another Android or iOS. It would be the same and have no consumer value,” Wang told reporters ahead of the launch. “Our special features are what Android and iOS lack.”
HarmonyOS smartphone users will, for example, be able to access files, documents and other content on everything from computers to wearables and other linked devices, Wang said. He said the system will also be able to accept a wide range of apps even if they weren’t specifically coded for HarmonyOS — an effort to quell concerns that users’ options will be limited.
The mobile landscape is littered with failed challenges to the Android-iOS duopoly like Blackberry, Microsoft’s Windows Phone and the Amazon Fire phone. The administration of former US President Donald Trump in 2018 began an aggressive campaign to short-circuit the global ambitions of Huawei, which Washington considers a potential Chinese espionage and cyber-security threat.
The new US administration of Joe Biden has signaled no let-up.
The world’s largest supplier of telecom networking gear, Huawei entered the handset business in 2003. It became one of the world’s top three smartphone manufacturers along with Samsung and Apple — briefly occupying the number one spot last year — on Chinese demand and growing overseas sales.
But being cut off from Android effectively prevents Huawei from offering phone users popular features like Google’s browser, its maps function and a range of other top apps available through Android. Analysts say this is not a problem in China, where it has a healthy slice of the domestic market and its own menu of apps largely designed for domestic consumers.
But HarmonyOS’s global prospects may dim.
“When you’re talking about the international market, you can’t live without Google, you can’t live without Amazon or YouTube. That will be challenging,” said Elinor Leung, head of Asia internet and telecom research at CLSA. She said, however, that including IoT linkage capability in HarmonyOS was foresighted, calling it “the way for the future.”
“All smart devices are going to be connected in the future.”
Huawei, however, is still under US sanctions that bar access to the chips required to even make a smartphone, and its shipments have plummeted lately. The tech giant may increasingly have to retreat to lower-volume sales of premium phones to conserve its chip stockpiles — abandoning the cheaper mass-produced segment that made it a top manufacturer.
These troubles have prompted a major shake-up at Huawei, which was founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former People’s Liberation Army engineer who still acts as CEO. Since the US pressure ramped up, Huawei has quickly diversified into new product lines considered less vulnerable and doubled down on the Chinese domestic market.
In an internal memo that surfaced last week, Ren outlined plans for an all-out push into computer software, saying “the US will have very little control over” the sector. Huawei had previously announced plans to enter the markets for intelligent-vehicle software, as well as enterprise and cloud computing.