HarmonyOS: What's with Huawei's Android-replacement operating system?

The Chinese phone maker's alternative to Google Android is also about TVs, cars, tablets and other devices.

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Information on Huawei's homegrown OS has been fragmented.

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We'd been hearing whispers that Huawei was creating its own operating system for phones, tablets and other smart devices, a precaution in case it lost access to Google's Android software. And the Chinese company confirmed this Friday at its Huawei Developer Conference, where it officially unveiled the new operating system: HarmonyOS, a cross-device platform previously known as HongMeng.

Speaking at HDC, Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business, said HarmonyOS is ready to run on phones if the company isn't able to use Android, but Huawei will hold off using it "for the consideration of partnership and ecosystem." 

The much-maligned Huawei may've been working on the new operating system since 2012. But reports about HarmonyOS heated up in the wake of the US government blacklisting Huawei in May. The company was added to the Commerce Department's "entity list," following an executive order from President Donald Trump that effectively banned it from US communications networks due to Huawei's alleged ties with the Chinese government. The ban means Huawei can't buy products or services from US companies, or use their tech.

Huawei HarmonyOS and Richard Yu

Huawei CEO Richard Yu said that, like Android, HarmonyOS will be open source.

Fred Dufour/Getty Images

What is HarmonyOS?

Yu said that, like Android, HarmonyOS will be open source, allowing developers to modify it for their hardware and opening the potential for a broader embrace of the platform. Yu also said migrating from Android to HarmonyOS would take a few days, and that the cross-device operating system will support a variety of app languages, including Android, Linux and HTML5.

Previously, Huawei expressed some uncertainty about its ability to use Android in future devices as it waited for Commerce Department clearance in the wake of the Trump administration's restrictions.

Huawei executive Catherine Chen acknowledged last month that HarmonyOS was being built, but said it wasn't for phones. She said it was originally designed for internet of things (IoT) devices like smart TVs , and that it contains far fewer lines of code than a phone OS.

Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei reportedly echoed the IoT point but boasted that the homegrown OS is about 60% faster than Android -- suggesting that it had in fact been made for phones. Ren also said HarmonyOS devices will require their own app store, which we've heard some evidence about.

Watch this: Huawei’s homegrown OS faces a steep uphill climb

What does the US ban have to do with HarmonyOS?

Google locked Huawei devices out of Android updates because of the US-imposed ban. The Commerce Department granted Huawei a three-month general license in late May to update existing devices. In the weeks that followed, Huawei apparently had the name "Hongmeng" trademarked in China and Peru, suggesting that it was preparing for a move away from Android. 

On Aug. 9, Trump said the US won't do business with China, but the White House reportedly later said the president was referring to a separate ban on federal agencies purchasing telecommunications and video surveillance equipment from the company.  Earlier Friday, reports emerged that trade tensions prompted the US to delay granting licenses for companies to restart sales to Huawei. 

Huawei's P30 looks like fantastic forbidden fruit

See all photos

What are the technical specs for HarmonyOS?

In a Friday release, Huawei said HarmonyOS will include four distinct technical features:

--Machine learning was used to increase how fast the operating system itself runs, and app speeds will get a bump of up to 25.7%. 

--The operating system will be usable across different devices. That implies phones, tablets, wearables, TVs, computers and more. 

--A new microkernal design and Trusted Execution Environment will beef up security.

--The OS will come with a new tool for developers to build compatible apps that'll be able to work cross-device.

What do we know about Huawei's app store?

In June the company reportedly invited Google Play Store developers to publish apps in its AppGallery. An anonymous developer published an email Huawei apparently sent that offered support in the transition and free access to the Huawei Developer portal.

Huawei HarmonyOS

Huawei said app speeds will increase by up to 25.7%. 

Fred Dufour/Getty Images

When will we see the first HarmonyOS devices?

HarmonyOS will first come to smart TVs and other "smart screen" devices, later in 2019. In the coming years, it'll migrate to car infotainment systems, wearables and more.

A report this week said the first HarmonyOS-powered phone will be released this year. It'll apparently power a 2,000-yuan (around $290) budget device, while flagship series like the Mate and Pro will stick with Android. A previous report said HarmonyOS's international launch would come in 2020.

Huawei also offered details about the upcoming updates to EMUI 10, its modified version of Android (formerly known as Emotion UI), which it's sticking with for now.

The upcoming Mate 30 phone will ship with the software and emphasize cross-device compatibility. EMUI 10 phone users will be able to answer calls via smart TV integration, and beam their phone screen onto a laptop display. The phones are also built to integrate with drones and cars. 

"With software, we are combining the laptop and the phone into a new device," said Huawei software head Wang Chenglu.


Huawei unveiled its new HarmonyOS operating system on Aug. 9.

Fred Dufour/Getty Images

How hard is it to launch a new platform?

It's insanely difficult to launch a new operating system platform from scratch and rally developers behind it. Developers flock to big user bases, and right now that's Apple's iOS and Google's Android. 

Other big-name players have made the attempt. Microsoft tried in vain to make Windows Phone a thing, but it eventually pulled the plug on the platform. Samsung has pushed Tizen for years, but it's largely relegated to its smartwatch. 

Even BlackBerry , with an established base of smartphone users, tried and failed to launch a modern, app-based operating system. It eventually abandoned it for Android.

Can Huawei expect things to be different?

Huawei is a massive player with the No. 2 market share in smartphones, so it would be unwise to completely dismiss HarmonyOS. 

Over the last few years, whole platforms and systems have sprung up in China thanks to its huge customer base, so even if Harmony fails to catch on overseas, there could be enough Chinese users to drive its development. 

It still faces an uphill battle though. 

Watch this: What is going on between Huawei and the US?