Speculation has now been rife for months that Huawei will unveil a new mobile operating system to either augment or replace Android on its smartphones. Just as we were all gearing up for the new Ark/HongMeng better-than-Android version of Android, speculation emerged that maybe it wouldn’t be Android, after all, maybe it would be based on Russia’s Aurora OS. Then came the revelation earlier this month that it wasn’t coming at all, that Huawei’s in-house OS was designed for IoT communications equipment and not for phones. And now, this week, we have learned that a smartphone OS is still on the cards, but it won’t be called Ark or HongMeng, at least not in Europe. In Europe, it will be called Harmony.
“This chain of statements doesn’t make any sense” complained Huawei Central last weekend—and that was before the Harmony revelation. “We have to wait until more solid developments in this story come out.”
Indeed we do.
Details of a Huawei mobile OS first emerged in May when Richard Yu, the CEO of the consumer business, told an audience in China that a new mobile OS “would be available in the fall of this year and at the latest next spring,” one that would be “compatible with all Android applications and web applications and improve running performance by more than 60%.”
Exciting stuff. And the touted speed improvements have generated headlines ever since. All good, apart from the small print. In separate interviews, Huawei’s CEO and Chairman both played down the prospects of any mobile OS being released by the company for its smartphones anytime soon. “We haven’t decided yet if HongMeng can be developed as a smartphone operating system in the future,” company chairman Liang Hua told reporters in Shenzhen on Friday (July 12), suggesting that only a lack of access to Google’s full-fat Android would prompt the company to explore such a move.
This followed Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei telling France’s Le Pointthat “HongMeng is not designed for phones as everyone thinks. We didn’t develop the OS to replace Google—and if Google does withdraw its OS from Huawei, we will need to start building an ecosystem because we don’t have a clear plan yet.” And as for those speed improvements, when Le Point asked Ren whether HongMeng would run faster than Android, the CEO acknowledged that his company “hasn’t done a comparison yet,” although he added that he thought, “it likely.”
So, everything started to fall into place. But then, Dutch site Let’s Go Digital reported this week that Huawei has registered the name Harmony with the EUIPO (European Union Intellectual Property Office). “The application is categorized as Class 9, with the description: ‘Mobile operating systems; computer operating systems; downloadable operating system programs’.”
According to the site, the trademark was filed by the patent and trademark house Forresters, from an office in Germany, the same company that filed trademarks for “HongMeng and the recently introduced Huawei P Smart Z.” The site also updated its story to say that the same Harmony trademark had been filed with the U.K. IPO (Intellectual Property Office).
Huawei’s leadership has admitted that the company does not have the ecosystem to compete against Google’s Android operating system in markets where it’s available—meaning outside China. The gambit, which now appears to have paid off, is that the U.S. would relax sanctions and allow suppliers such as Google to return to business as usual. A Reuters report on Monday (July 15) suggested that U.S. companies were expediting Commerce Department licensing requests to supply the Chinese giant once again.
Also on Monday, the U.K. Parliament’s science and technology committee reported to the government that “there are no technical grounds for excluding Huawei entirely from the UK’s 5G or other telecommunications networks,” albeit the committee’s chair qualified this by adding that “there may be geopolitical or ethical considerations that the government need to take into account when deciding whether they should use Huawei’s equipment.” For geopolitical read the relationship with Washington and for ethical read Xinjiang and the broader issues around China’s surveillance state.
The basic math remains the same though, Huawei needs Google and full-fat Android to remain competitive in the global smartphone market. The nervousness in Shenzhen is that a further U.S. reversal would make life difficult in the extreme, given the more recent honesty on where plans have reached. And that’s a possibility. According to Reuters, “Eric Hirschhorn, a former undersecretary of Commerce, said the problem for government officials reviewing licenses [to sell to Huawei] is that they don’t know where the administration is going—’The policy two minutes ago may not be the policy two minutes from now’.”
There is also a clear level of confusion and reactivity that has perhaps provided more insight into the inner workings of Huawei than we’ve ever had before. Whichever side of the Huawei debate you fall, it is difficult to argue that the marketing and PR around the blacklisting and the various Plan-B proposals have been on rails. Joining up decision making on PR and communications, technology development, sales planning, product management and corporate leadership has proven a difficult trick to get right.