The fact that under-fire Huawei is developing its own alternative to the Android smartphone OS is in itself no longer news. With Google suspending future support for Android software and services, the Shenzhen manufacturer needs a stable software foundation on which to base its future smartphones. The new “operating system, to be named ‘HongMeng OS’ in China or ‘Oak OS’ in overseas markets, is likely to be launched in August or September,” reported China’s Global Times, citing sources. If correct, the timing suggests the new OS would launch alongside Huawei’s new Mate 30 series of phones.
Certainly, a number of Huawei and Android analysts are calling the timing. That said, there is serious development work and testing still to be done, and an entire app ecosystem to port across. In China where Google services are blocked, Huawei already uses the open-source version of Android. This limits security updates and prompted Google to warn the U.S. government of national security risks, asking for the blacklist to exempt Android. Of course, the open-source OS also cuts Google off from the consumer data that drives its advertising machine – another reason why the world’s second largest smartphone maker cutting OS ties carries a heavy cost. It is possible that the Mate 30 with the new OS onboard could hit China only to start, with separate arrangements for. overseas markets to start with.
Android compatibility is clearly a key requirement for Huawei, primarily to support a ready-made app ecosystem. The company is reaching out to the developer community, pointing out the more than 350 million devices shipped in the last two years and the 270 million monthly active users on its AppGallery. The message is that “in order to guarantee a smooth usage of your App for our users, Huawei is committed to providing you with full support, to help you publish your App into AppGallery… it is an invitation to join “our 560k developer’ community for free, in our Huawei Developer portal.”
The impact of an app strategy misstep was hammered home by Facebook announcing it would prohibit preinstalled apps on new Huawei devices. Huawei is now fielding support calls from users concerned that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram will cease to function. Huawei told Android Authority that the company wants “to ensure consumers know that this has no impact on existing devices, and future devices will still be able to download, install, and use Facebook apps without any issue on Huawei devices.”
On June 11, the South China Morning Post, citing unnamed sources, provided some insight into the journey Huawei’s new OS has taken, starting in 2012 when “in a villa facing a lake in Shenzhen, a small group of top Huawei Technologies executives headed by founder Ren Zhengfei held a closed-door meeting that lasted for several days… The group agreed that Huawei should build a proprietary OS as a potential alternative to Android… This meeting was later called the ‘lakeside talks’ internally and access to documents relating to the gathering became highly restricted last year.”
According to the SCMP’s sources, “the Huawei OS is based on a microkernel that is light and can react quickly to adjustments and batches… Huawei engineers on the OS project have also studied Android and Apple’s iOS closely to learn from them.” Android compatibility was always a given, to “enable a Huawei phone with its own OS to download and run Android apps seamlessly. Having a successful compatibility layer with Android would also mean that app developers around the world would not need to develop extra code for Huawei’s OS.”
In May, Richard Yu, Huawei’s Consumer Business CEO, first announced that the new OS “will be available in the fall of this year and at the latest next spring,” adding that OS “is open to mobile phones, computers, tablets, TVs, cars and smart wearable devices,” critically the “unified operating system” is also “compatible with all Android applications and all web applications.”
All that said, according to the Information, the OS project “has had its ups and downs and remains far from ready.” This tallies with Yu’s public remarks as to how unexpected the U.S. blacklisting’s impact on Huawei’s smartphone business has been. “I can’t believe that the U.S. government has limited Android. It’s a consumer product that has no relationship to network security issues.” Yu admitted the issues had been a “big surprise for me,” making it “really a very tough time” for the consumer business.
Issues aside, Huawei needs the OS to land quickly and successfully. It needs to steady its consumer ship. It needs to recover the upper hand to restore confidence in the brand. A recent report from Asia suggested that Huawei had shut down a number of Foxconn smartphone production lines as demand dropped, flatly denied by the company, and then a second report claimed that Huawei had slashed its smartphone shipment forecast for the second half of 2019 by as much as 20-30%. Huawei held onto its lead over Apple for smartphone sales in the first quarter of the year, but will likely struggle to maintain that lead for the year.