WSJ: HTC is developing a new mobile operating system for China

by: Bogdan PetrovanAugust 28, 2013

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HTC has made no secret of its plans to develop its presence in the booming Chinese market. Facing dire challenges in the mature Western markets, the Taiwanese company looks towards China as an untapped reservoir of growth.

In this context, it’s not surprising to learn that HTC is putting resources into the development of a new mobile operating system specifically designed for Chinese consumers. Citing “people familiar with the project”, the Wall Street Journal reports that HTC chairwoman Cher Wang is personally supervising the development of the new OS, with the input of local government officials.

Devices running the new OS have already been handed to Chinese officials for testing

To differentiate the new operating system, HTC will be offering “deep integration” with Chinese web services such as Weibo, a hugely popular microblogging service that is similar to Twitter. The project is reportedly quite advanced: devices running early versions of the new operating system have already been handed to Chinese officials for testing. The new software may launch by the end of the year, reports the WSJ.

Android-based or completely new?

The big question is whether the new OS will be completely new or just a modified version of Android. Apparently, HTC changed its mind on the matter as recently as this year, but it is currently unclear what course of action the company adopted.

It’s unlikely though that HTC would choose to fork Android and thus break its Open Handset Alliance (OSHA) commitments. OSHA members committed to keep the integrity of Android and refrain themselves from developing forks, which are operating systems based on Android that depart significantly from the version developed by Google and are generally incompatible with Google’s services.

The best known example of a company that forked Android is Amazon, which uses a modified version of the OS to power its Kindle tablets. However, Jeff Bezos’ company is not a member of OHSA so it doesn’t have any obligations towards Google. A case of an OHSA member involved in forking Android occurred last year, when Acer dropped its support for the Android-based Aliyun OS, developed by the Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, following Google’s objections.

HTC is much too invested in Android to risk jeopardizing its relationship with Google, so the only options left are that it’s developing a skinned version of Android or a completely proprietary OS. Going the latter path would require substantial resources, which cash strapped HTC may not be able to secure. So it’s probable that HTC is simply changing the appearance and non-core functionality of Android to make it more appealing to Chinese users.

Official support

What’s the role of the Chinese government in the project? It’s difficult to say without more details, but Chinese officials have expressed concerns about the country’s dependency on software produced in the West. China has recently partnered with open source firm Canonical to develop a standardized Ubuntu Linux version to be used on government-owned computers.

The Chinese government may be interested in a similar project for mobile operating systems, though it’s not clear why it would partner with a Taiwanese company instead of homegrown giants like Huawei, ZTE, or Lenovo.

  • Luka Mlinar

    Didn’t Google say it wanted developers to make new systems based on Android. The main problem is app development. Windows Phone lost to Android because of this. It would take years for someone to catch up from scratch. Xiaomi seams to have a good idea building a system on top of Android and this is what i expect HTC to do.

  • End in sight

    If HTC is building a brand new OS… well, that just seems crazy to me. Cher is pretty smart, but then again she has left Peter as top dog, which seems like a mistake. So who knows?

    Personally, I am saddened by this. It is because I had secretly hoped that a “wave” of Android crashing into China would allow it to be more open, politically. For example, that government censors lots of things, (just like the Saudi government does). Maybe because I have grown up with the openness of Google in north America…. let’s just say I am concerned with what I consider to be excessive censorship. I like people to have free access so they can make up their own minds. I have always assumed that either Google would help open up China, or that China would ultimately reject Google. I fear the later could be happening through HTC’s work.

    • On a Clear Day

      Much as it would be nice to hope that China might make a move towards greater openness, frankly speaking, given the reality that it is – literally – the mother of all totalitarian systems going back 5000 years – and happy to throw even its best and brightest into its hell hole prisons simply for suggesting democracy should be considered as it did recently to one blogger for 12 years – though admirable in intent it is ingenuous to think any operating system where Big Brother is watching could help.

      Rest assured any operating system that HTC developed in concert with and approved by China will only make it easier for this repressive nation to ferret out even more easily and then crush anyone who dares to even think a shadow of a shade of a free, individualistic though.

  • MasterMuffin

    I really don’t see the big benefit of this, wouldn’t it be easier to just make a custom skin for Android? Making a whole new Os and maintaining it doesn’t seem like an easy job and if they fail…

  • b1acktiger

    Since China is against the services offered by Google Inc. There is no point of asking Google Services. Since HTC cant join price war against competition, To make a difference what competitors are offering now, Its better to make own OS with some proprietary features to compete against other OS. HTC did some awesome Job with software part integrating Sense UI into their phones.