GUANGZHOU, China – In mid-2019, Huawei launched its own operating system – HarmonyOS – in response to U.S. measures cutting it off from Google software.
It was the Chinese mobile software tech giant’s most ambitious push that it hoped would help its mobile phone business survive.
On Monday, Huawei announced that HarmonyOS will be introduced on its smartphones from April. Huawei phone users can download it as an update.
A spokesperson confirmed to CNBC that users outside of China could also download it. The company’s new foldable Mate X2 device, launched on Monday, is one of the first to get HarmonyOS with more phones.
In 2019, Huawei was placed on a US blacklist called the Entity List, which prevented American companies from exporting technology to the Chinese company. As a result, Google cut ties with Huawei. That meant Huawei couldn’t use a licensed Google Android on its smartphones. It’s not a big deal in China, where Google apps like Gmail are blocked. But it took a heavy blow in overseas markets, where Android is the most popular operating system.
This move by the Trump administration, coupled with sanctions designed to deter Huawei from critical chip shipments, has hurt the Chinese telecommunications company’s smartphone sales.
Huawei needs to find a source of chip accessories for its smartphones. According to Nicole Peng, analyst at Canalys, HarmonyOS is the other “critically important” part of ensuring the survival of Huawei’s smartphone business.
Development of HarmonyOS
Huawei is promoting HarmonyOS as an operating system that works across devices from smartphones to televisions. The second version of HarmonyOS was released in September and developers were wooed to create apps for the platform.
With international users in mind, Huawei has redesigned the user interface for the App Store known as AppGallery and improved the navigation functions.
A guest holds their phone and shows a picture taken during the Huawei press conference that revealed the new HarmonyOS operating system on August 9, 2019 in Dongguan, Guangdong province.
Fred Dufour | AFP | Getty Images
“The search built into the AppGallery helps people discover apps,” said Peng.
In addition, Huawei will roll out the update to existing users of its devices in order to promote the use of the operating system overseas.
Currently, Huawei’s AppGallery has over 530 million monthly active users.
Smartphone challenges ahead
Apps are critical to mobile operating systems. Apple’s iOS and Google Android are the two most dominant operating systems as millions of developers create apps for their respective platforms.
Huawei has a number of apps like mapping and a browser under the Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) banner. HMS is similar to Google Mobile Services and offers developer kits with which, for example, location services can be integrated into apps. HMS has 2.3 million registered developers worldwide.
And in China it is possible to bring popular apps on board.
However, Huawei could face some challenges in international markets. In the App Store, for example, important names such as Facebook or Google apps that are important for users abroad are missing.
“If Huawei is to be successful in selling phones overseas, it needs the right applications, which are unlikely to be available on HarmonyOS. Therefore, re-accessing Google Mobile Services is critical if the international phone business is to grow,” said Bryan Ma. Vice president of device research at IDC said via email.
With Google dominating Android and iOS outside of China, Huawei will also have the big job of convincing users to switch.
“In terms of challenges, it is still in areas … (whether) the product can be accepted by heavy users using, for example, Google Apps and Google services,” said Canalys’ Peng.
Meanwhile, Huawei may also lack key supplies for future phone manufacturing as the US tries to cut them off from chips. The Huawei Mate X2 uses Huawei’s proprietary Kirin 9000 processor. Richard Yu, the CEO of the consumer business, said the company had enough manufacturing capacity for the foldable phone, even after warnings last year that supplies could run out.
This, combined with the uncertainty about the success of the operating system, is a major challenge for Huawei.
“Huawei could continue to push the local Chinese market without such concerns (in terms of HarmonyOS apps), but there’s a much bigger problem with having trouble getting components at all,” Ma said.