Last week Huawei finally unveiled its alternative to Android, introducing the new HarmonyOS operating system to the world.
The open source software was triumphantly unveiled at the Huawei Developer conference in China, and it has a big job on its hands. Through HarmonyOS, Huawei wants to succeed where BlackBerry, Nokia, Microsoft and Mozilla all failed, and create a valid rival to Android and iOS.
While it’s still early days, with its loyal local fanbase and deep pockets, if any company has a chance of taking on Google and Apple it’s probably Huawei. But if its dream is to have any chance of becoming a reality, there are five key steps Huawei needs to take.
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1. Get devs on side
This isn’t the sexiest proposition, but it’s a key one. The fact is, if you don’t have third-party developers shilling and updating their wares on your OS, you’re not going to attract consumers to it.
This was one of the main reasons BlackBerry OS and Microsoft Windows Phone tanked and never managed to get past single-digit market shares. If your OS doesn’t offer the features and services that people want, they’re not going to keep using it. Microsoft’s inability to get devs on side to create and update Windows Phone apps was one of the biggest factors contributing to its downfall. It’s also a key reason why Instagram never left Beta on the platform.
Apple and Google are both famously good at courting developers, which is one of the key reasons iOS and Android have such solid app stores, and feature sets that are constantly evolving to meet users’ demands. If Huawei wants HarmonyOS to succeed it needs to do the same and make sure the devs are maintaining and updating their wares as well as launching them.
Thankfully, it seems this is exactly what the company is doing, with Huawei devoting the majority of the HarmonyOS’ unveiling to why developers should work on its platform.
2. Get exclusive apps
Once you have the devs you need the apps, but this won’t just be a case of getting an equivalent feature set to Android and iOS.
It won’t be enough for HarmonyOS to get the essentials, like Spotify, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Netflix. If Huawei wants HarmonyOS to succeed it’ll need to net some exclusive features too.
On the app front, iOS and Android both come with a wealth of unique apps and services. These range from exclusive games to things like Google Lens. It’s these extras that differentiate them from one another and allow the two companies to dominate.
Then there’s infrastructure. The fact is, Apple and Google make most of the money they get from iOS and Android via the operating systems’ native infrastructure and the data they collect. Google doesn’t offer Gmail for free out of charity, it does it because it wants you in its ecosystem, using its services.
This is something Huawei doesn’t currently have, and could be one of HarmonyOS biggest stumbling blocks outside of China, where people don’t generally use third-party app stores and are firmly team Apple or Google when it comes to mobile.
3. Beat iOS and Android to be the first ubiquitous OS
A ubiquitous OS is commonly viewed as the software Holy Grail. It refers to an operating system that runs across multiple device categories using the same code. It comes with a variety of benefits, chief of which is that it, in theory, it lets developers code once and then release their wares on everything from phones to cars.
If the idea sounds familiar, it should. Google and Apple have been talking about making a ubiquitous OS for years.
Rumblings traditionally suggested that Apple was planning to do it by rolling iOS and MacOS into one. But with the launch of iPadOS at WWDC 2019 it looks like this is still some way off happening.
Google has similarly been beavering away to merge ChromeOS and Android. It’s why you can run some Android apps on ChromeOS at the moment. But again, the merge is moving at a snail’s pace.
HarmonyOS’ biggest unique selling point to devs and users is that it will launch as a ubiquitous OS. Huawei even has a roadmap for its HarmonyOS rollout. Specifically, it’ll release HarmonyOS on the Honor Vision smart TV later this year before rolling it out to a “broader range of smart devices, including wearables, and head units for your car” over the next three years.
If it manages this, it could gain a key lead over both Apple and Google.
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4. Not spy on people
If it does manage this and HarmonyOS gains a following, Huawei will have to be whiter-than-white when it comes to its users’ privacy.
The fact is, members of the public are becoming increasingly aware of how their data is being used by big tech, and can be very skittish about untested platforms as a result.
Add to this the − currently unsubstantiated − questions around Huawei’s security and links to the Chinese government, and the slightest suspicion that it’s spying on HarmonyOS users could torpedo the platform’s chances of succeeding in the West.
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5. Faster software updates
Google’s inability to quickly upgrade devices to new versions of Android has been a constant issue, and it doesn’t look like it’ll go away anytime soon.
Outside of Google’s Pixels, even flagship phones like the Galaxy S10 generally take months to get upgraded to new versions of Android. And at the affordable end of the market it’s not uncommon for phones to never get bumped up.
Almost a year after its launch, Android Pie doesn’t even run on a quarter of Android devices.
The reason for this is simple: most smartphone vendors skin smartphones. This brings with it bloatware and load of custom code that needs to be tweaked to work with Google’s Android updates. The process radically delays how quickly devices can be upgraded, and also impacts how quickly they can get security patches.
If Huawei could somehow find a way to constantly roll out updates to HarmonyOS and make sure the entire spectrum of its ecosystem is up to date and patched against the latest threats, this could be a key differentiator. Though given the fact it’s also open source I’m not sure how Huawei could do this.