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August 9, 2019updated 12 Aug 2019 11:37am

Huawei Harmony OS isn’t just a defence… It’s an offence too

By Luke Christou

Huawei has finally unveiled Harmony OS, its long-awaited alternative to Google’s Android operating system, at the Huawei Developer Conference.

Following increased pressure from the United States government, which claims that Huawei is used by the Chinese government to spy on foreign nations, Huawei has fast-tracked the release of Harmony OS in response to growing fears that it could be forced out the US market.

Huawei was placed on a US trade blacklist in May, limiting its ability to work with US companies, which forced Google to restrict the Chinese company’s use of Android on its devices.

Huawei has no plans to replace Android with its Harmony OS on its current devices. However, the technology is ready to go if, or when Android support is cut off.

Huawei takes aim at Google

The telecommunications giant seemingly wanted to avoid causing too much upset to its American competitor, as it avoided mentioning smartphones throughout the Harmony OS announcement.

However, it didn’t shy away from taking digs at Google and, unsurprisingly, presenting its new product as a better alternative.

According to Huawei’s Consumer Business Group CEO Richard Yu, its operating system will be more efficient than Android, which is plagued by redundant codes, outdated scheduling mechanism and general fragmentation issues.

Harmony OS will, he said, use a “Deterministic Latency Engine” to better allocate resources than Android is currently able to.

Huawei also believes its OS will also be safer. Its microkernel – the software that allows the OS to run – is isolated from external kernel services. This means there is no root access available and therefore no way to gain privileged access to the OS systems that typical provide a vital gateway for hackers.

The system also contains security features designed to better spot vulnerabilities that would likely be missed by more traditional OS.

Challenging Google’s OS market dominance

Huawei estimates that the pressure from the US will cost the company $30bn over the next few years. Yet, it shied away from presenting Harmony OS as a response to the difficulties that it is currently facing in Western markets.

Rather than developing a system that will replace Android on its own devices, Huawei has developed an OS that can replace Android on any device.

Harmony OS will be released under an open source licence, meaning that it can be used, modified and distributed by anyone for any purpose. Essentially, other device manufacturers will be able to use Harmony OS to operate their own devices, just like how Google allows access to Android.  It is for this reason that Android currently holds an 88% market share in the mobile operating system market worldwide, according to Statista.

Harmony OS isn’t just set to provide Google a challenger in the mobile OS market, though. Huawei has said that it will primarily target its OS at the IoT market, with it capable of serving everything from wearable devices, to smart speakers and in-vehicle systems. Huawei hopes to power everything from high-end PCs to virtual reality headsets once it has developed the Harmony OS microkernel, which is due to arrive in 2020.

This sounds remarkably similar to Google Fuchsia, a new OS under development by Google which will be able to run on a range of devices, from IoT devices, to mobile, to PCs.

Huawei appeared to present Harmony as a competitor to Fuchsia during the conference, stating that its OS will be five times faster than its rival’s product.

“Huawei is smart to position this as an enabler for IoT,” Lynnette Luna, an analyst for data analytics firm GlobalData, told Verdict. “No one OS is dominating there, and there is a lot of fragmentation.”

Is Harmony heading for the OS graveyard?

Huawei has issued a challenge to Google with its Harmony announcement. Yet, the Chinese tech giant faces challenges of its own if its venture into the OS market is to be a success.

Android’s dominance will be hard to break, Luna explained. While Huawei might have an advantage in the Chinese market, Google and Apple have a “huge head start”, both in the mobile and the IoT markets.

Device manufacturers know that people use and like Android, which in turn wills them to continue making devices using Google’s software. Once Fuchsia is released, it will be the natural choice for those already making use of Google’s software.

Using Android also enables device owners to make use of Google’s PlayStore and apps. More users means developers are most likely to focus their attention on Android, given the larger customer base it can offer. More apps to make use of in turn brings in more users.

“We still have this chicken and egg problem: developers want to see mass adoption of products before they invest in a platform, while consumers want to see all of the popular applications from developers on devices before they buy them,” Luna said.

“Huawei is going to have to invest a lot of money and give a lot of incentives to convince developers to adopt the platform.”

The company has attempted to address this somewhat, claiming that developers will be able to port Android apps with ease using specially developed software. However, the numerous failed attempts to break Google’s dominance suggest it will take far more to overthrow Google in the mobile OS market.

From the largely forgotten MeeGo, a joint Linux OS developed by Nokia and Intel, to the somewhat successful BlackBerry OS – it is something that the biggest of tech companies have been unable do. Even Microsoft, the leader in the PC OS market, was unable to crack it.

And they didn’t have the added pressure of the US government trying to convince the world that they’re evil.

Read more: US tech companies can’t decide whether Huawei poses a security threat