Chinese telecom giant Huawei unveiled its own operating system on Friday, as it faces the threat of losing access to Google’s Android platform amid escalating U.S.-China trade tensions.
The highly anticipated operating system is considered crucial for the tech titan’s survival as it confronts a looming White House ban on U.S. companies selling technology products to Huawei which could remove its access to Android.
Richard Yu, the head of Huawei’s consumer business, revealed HarmonyOS—HongMeng in Chinese—at a press conference in the southern city of Dongguan. He said the first version would launch later this year in its smart screen products, before expanding across a range of smart devices including wearable technology over the next three years.
“If you’re asking when will we apply this to the smartphone, we can do it at any time,” said Yu, adding that they gave priority to using Android. “However, if we cannot use it [Android] in the future, we can immediately switch to the HarmonyOS.”
But Yu said Huawei had no plan to “launch a smartphone with HarmonyOS” while noting “our backup plan is always ready.”
Yu said HarmonyOS was “future oriented” and designed to be “more smooth and secure,” which he said was “completely different” from Android and Apple’s operating system.
The company has been swept into the deepening trade war between Beijing and Washington, which has seen punitive tariffs slapped on billions of dollars of two-way trade.
Huawei—considered the world leader in superfast fifth-generation or 5G equipment and the world’s number two smartphone producer—has been blacklisted by U.S. President Donald Trump amid suspicions it provides a backdoor for Chinese intelligence services, which the firm denies. As a result, American companies are theoretically no longer allowed to sell technology products to the firm, but a three-month exemption period—which ends next week—was granted by Washington before the measure came into force. That ban could prevent the firm from getting hold of key hardware and software, including smartphone chips and elements of the Google Android operating system, which runs the vast majority of smartphones in the world, including Huawei’s.
“Google is a very good company, we are open to discuss with them” cooperating with Huawei on HarmonyOS, said Yu.
On Thursday, Beijing slammed the U.S. for releasing new rules banning Huawei and other Chinese companies from government contracts, saying they amounted to an “abuse of state power.”
Huawei has reportedly been working on its own operating system since 2012, but the group has always said publicly that it did not want to replace Android with its own operating system. Yu told German newspaper Die Welt in an interview published in March that it was “Plan B.”
Huawei will be able to “develop at a lower cost a brand new ecosystem” and “mitigate its dependence on U.S. suppliers for its software needs,” Kenny Liew, technology analyst at Fitch Solutions, told AFP.
However, smartphones using the system would mainly be confined to the Chinese market, Liew said.
Specialist tech media sites suggested there would be some major hurdles to overcome with Huawei expecting developers to recompile their apps for the new operating system. “It’s unclear exactly how easy that will be for developers,” said an initial review on Vox media’s tech news website, The Verge. “There are a lot of big promises here, but it’s going to be an even bigger challenge to build up an app ecosystem to rival both Android and Android Open Source Project,” it said.
Developing an operating system and the entire ecosystem that accompanies it is a complex affair.
Apart from Google’s Android, the only other popular operating system is Apple’s iOS, available exclusively on the iPhone and iPad. Microsoft pulled the plug on its Windows Phone platform earlier this year, and Samsung’s Tizen system is barely known compared with Android and iOS. But without access to the full version of Android or the popular services of Google—not to mention the many applications available on the Google Play store—Huawei may have trouble convincing consumers outside China to buy its phones.