Huawei’s Harmony OS : Will it Resonate with Consumers?

Huawei, at its massive “Huawei Developer Conference 2019” #HDC2019, finally unveiled an alternative multi-device Operating System (OS) which the company has been working for the last couple of years. The urgency stems from the recent sanctions amid the US-China trade war in which Huawei one of China’s largest and most advanced tech companies (5G, IoT, Devices, camera, Networks, etc) is being cut-off from US-based technology that includes Google’s Android platform. The following are some thoughts and observations on the and features and capabilities of Huawei’s newest offering.

Harmony OS:

Positives: Architecture

  •  Huawei has taken a clever approach in developing the Harmony OS architecture. It has learned from current OS architectures in the devices market and there shortcomings, for example: Android ‘s monolithic kernel and Apple’s fragmented OS approach. It is proposing replacing these with a distributed, flexible micro-kernel architecture.
  • The first generation of the Harmony OS architecture will support Huawei’s micro-kernel + Unix+ Linux at the kernel level and evolve into 100% HarmonyOS kernel level.
  •  What this means is when the time is right, and Huawei has more developers developing for Harmony OS, the developers can take full advantage of the scalability of the microkernel architecture.
  • The microkernel features include thread scheduling, IPC (Interprocess Communication), modularity, stability, and the biggest advantage being greater levels of security compared to the existing monolithic kernel designs.
  • Further, Huawei is using a “distributed virtual bus“, which will enable a distributed design to reduce latency, increase bandwidth and ensure compatibility with a multitude of applications. 
  • On top of this layer, Huawei is offering its own compiler known as Huawei ARK, which aims to support multiple languages from C/C++/Java/JS/Kotlin and others for a unified compilation making it developer-friendly.
  • Talking about developers, Huawei has also introduced a new IDE (Integrated Development Environment) for developers to develop just once and port to multiple devices, from a smartphone to a smartwatch to TVs to PCs to Tablets to Car Dashboards – a move similar to what Microsoft has been trying to do with its UWP (Universal Windows Apps).
  • So, with Harmony OS, Huawei is aiming to support HTML5 and Linux, as well as Android-based applications. However, there might be some work developers will have to do to optimize and replace the GMS with Huawei services or other third-party services.
  • Huawei is promising a 40%+ performance improvement with respect to current Google Android versions, though this remains to be tested.

Opportunities: China, Current Scale & Cross-Device Growth

  • Huawei indicated that it won’t be migrating to Harmony OS for smartphones, unless it is completely cut-off from Google Android’s access outside China.
  • With the significant scale in China in smartphones, more than Apple enjoys in the USA, Huawei has a big opportunity to scale this platform in its home-market both in smartphones and beyond, across multiple device categories and to build a robust developer community.
  • Counterpoint believes Huawei should accelerate the China market push for smartphones powered by Harmony OS. The more devices it can roll out, the more iterative learning Huawei can gain with Harmony OS. This will help make it, bug-free, secure, and optimized for launch outside China.
  • With Harmony OS, Huawei has an opportunity to boost its services business – Huawei Cloud, HiLink (140M IoT devices), Music and others.
  • Huawei is aiming to make Harmony OS open source and offer it for broad industry use. This should increase its attractiveness for developers, other OEMs, operators and component players to potentially challenge the OS platform duopoly.
  • The cross-device opportunity is also potentially large and lucrative. Huawei already has a growing wearables, IoT and automotive business, all of which could be powered by Harmony OS.
  • We have already seen different platforms in smartwatch (WatchOS, Tizen, Fitbit OS, Android Wear & other proprietary OSs), smart TV (Android TV, Linux, WebOS, Tizen and others), IoT segments (RTOS flavors, LiteOS, Linux, mbedOS and more), so an open source robust micro-kernel-based OS platform has the potential to drive enthusiasm in the non-smartphone space as well.

Challenges: Global-scale Deployment and Developer traction

The Harmony OS project was not specifically kicked-off because of the current trade ban imposed by the US, but it has given significant impetus to the project and potentially opened it for use in smartphones. The added urgency and broader use cases bring additional challenges to those that already faced the project:

  • While Huawei can launch Harmony OS successfully in China by itself and involve other industry players, once it becomes open-source, the fragmentation begins as multiple players start to differentiate on top of the OS.
  • And beyond China there are two key challenges for Harmony OS:
  • Firstly, to attract global developers to optimize apps for Harmony OS and integrate other monetization options via Harmony SDKs at scale. This is something other OS providers were not able to do – for example Microsoft with Windows Phone.
  • Secondly, from a smartphones perspective, it is not fully complete until Harmony OS features quality, diverse apps, AI, services, user-experience, support for multiple technologies, and ad platform integration, with respect to Google Android GMS.
  • Building and maintaining app stores in each country along with localization options, developer support, GDPR guidelines and security scanning, all with huge overheads, is a massive undertaking.
  • Further, issuing regular security patches and software updates, while the platform is open to millions of disparate devices, will be resource-intensive and costly.
  • Working with different global operators is going to be another challenge if the value is just captured by Huawei or close partners.
  • And at some point, to maintain openness & scale, Huawei will have to spin off Harmony OS into a separate entity to drive the growth of the platform.

Summary:

  • Huawei has built something promising here. It’s a huge undertaking but it makes sense considering the current geo-political environment that has forced its hand.
  • It presents a great opportunity to power across different device applications and challenges the currently limited levels of diversity in terms of OS platforms.
  • Scaling in China should will be easier than the huge challenge of building an ecosystem to rival Google Android or Apple iOS outside China.
  • “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” applies well to Huawei’s scenario here, though it will have to remain inventive and prudent on how to scale outside China if forced to, and make sure it has everything in place it is in harmony with the industry and consumers.