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How HONOR is leaving HUAWEI behind and planning to conquer Western markets
It’s been 20 months since HUAWEI sold HONOR under the pressure of looming US sanctions and dissociated itself entirely from its former sub-brand. But you’d be forgiven if you thought the two companies were operating under the same roof until this very day. A simple look at the HUAWEI Mate 40 Pro and HONOR Magic 4 Pro, or the HUAWEI P50 series and HONOR 70 series would tell you that the similarities the two brands shared over their existence are still there, and they run more than a little skin-deep.
But things have been changing behind the scenes. It’s a case of the understudy being told to get on stage under thousands of spotlights, then struggling between carrying the legacy of their predecessor and affirming their own identity.
We sat down with Tony Ran, the president of HONOR Europe, to learn more about the company’s future plans. In short, HONOR hopes to soon bring to market the fruits of its standalone labor in the last two years — give or take — and start showing the world a new and improved version of itself. Software will be the first step, but hardware will follow after. At least that’s the promise for now.
A tough break-up with lots of baggage
As you can imagine, stepping out of HUAWEI’s shadow wasn’t an easy experience. Tony explained that the difference was felt immediately internally because HONOR had to switch from being a small sub-entity that didn’t need to worry about so many aspects of running a business to suddenly having to handle everything. Not just the business and legal aspect, but also the technical side too: “The platform was there, we didn’t need to think about the OS too much, now we have to.”
But cutting ties goes beyond a simple change of the owner’s name on the door. HONOR spent seven years under HUAWEI’s tutelage. It shares a similar DNA and culture with HUAWEI. Many of its pre-split and post-split employees were HUAWEI employees at some point.
HONOR spent seven years under HUAWEI's tutelage. It has a similar DNA, culture, and many of its current employees were previously with HUAWEI.
That partly explains why a lot of what we see HONOR doing today feels eerily familiar with what HUAWEI was doing earlier. Be it from a product (hardware and software) design perspective or even from a logistical perspective. Anything from a launch event presentation style to a carrier partnership deal still carries a bit of HUAWEI’s signature DNA with it.
The other reason for these similarities is a simple matter of time. A product’s lifecycle from design to market takes two to three years, as Tony reiterated. What we’re seeing today are the products that began their life as a HUAWEI sub-brand product, so they share clear similarities in external design language and user interface.
Building a new, separate identity
HONOR is changing, but, as Tony said, “not as fast as we were expecting.” The new standalone company is focused on making good products, first and foremost.
With HUAWEI’s shackles removed, it can finally start competing in the premium segment and market flagships to both its Chinese and European audiences. The goal is to release two high-end smartphones per year — one traditional and one foldable.
HONOR is focusing its efforts on R&D, carrier partnerships in Europe, and on trying to conquer the premium market.
Additionally, the “online-only” guiding principle is no more. HONOR’s online retail presence, which accounts for 35-40% of its sales in some markets, is still important, but it’s not the only focus anymore. The company is establishing relationships with major carriers in the EU to give potential customers more chances of seeing and testing its products in retail stores.
Behind the scenes, the company has grown from roughly 8,000 employees around the time of the merger to 13,000 now. 8,000 of them are involved in R&D (research and development), an area that Tony called “the roots that’ll help us grow in the future.” And that makes sense. HONOR has to quickly fill the gaps left by the split because it’s suddenly found itself without HUAWEI’s extensive knowledge in everything, from materials to photography to computing and more.
The first concrete steps: MagicOS 7.0 and a foldable for Europe
The fruits of HONOR’s labor since the split will be felt soon enough. While hardware plans are difficult to change overnight, software is easier, we’re told. Tony promises that the upcoming switch from Magic UI to MagicOS 7.0 will be a “big leap,” and it’ll help set the roots for HONOR’s future software strategy.
What that means exactly, we don’t know, because details about MagicOS are pretty scarce right now. Tony seemed pretty confident, though, that the new interface is a departure from the skin that was built under HUAWEI’s oversight. So maybe we’ll see some new icons and fonts, or maybe we’ll get an entirely new experience.
HONOR is banking on MagicOS 7.0 to make its devices feel a little less like HUAWEI's phones.
HONOR is also promising to bring its next foldable to European markets. There was a lot of talk about innovation and standing out from the rest, but the gist is that the follow-up to the HONOR Magic V should launch outside of China. That’s already a small win in our book because Samsung is the only player in town in Western markets, and it’s already coasting on its foldable line-up. Some healthy competition should give the category the kick in the pants it needs.
Our healthy dose of skepticism
Promises are easy to make, so we’ll be here keeping an eye on how HONOR fulfills — or fails to fulfill — them.
Business matters take time and a seismic change in leadership isn’t easy, we know that. The tech world moves at a blinding speed, though, and we’re getting anxious to see HONOR step away from HUAWEI’s shadow. It’s been twenty months since the split, so the company is slowly starting to run the clock on our good faith and patience.
Promises are promises. We need to see some concrete changes in hardware and software.
That’s why our eyes will be on MagicOS 7.0 first. Will it be a surface-level visual identity change or a more intricate shift in the user experience? All we know is that it should provide a more seamless experience between your phone, tablet, and laptop, but we’re not clear on how else HONOR plans to differentiate itself. Or if, at the very least, it plans to match what other Android manufacturers are offering. A proper software update commitment beyond its customary two years would go a long way; three is the bare minimum these days, but four years of major updates and five of security patches will be better.
We’re also curious to see how exactly HONOR plans to innovate with its next foldable. A simple change in aspect ratio to make the outer screen more usable as a primary device won’t cut it. Instead, we’d like to see some new features from the outside and inside display, more software improvements to make use of the larger screen and folded or unfolded form factors, and more innovation around cameras, battery longevity, and weight/size.
Are you curious to see HONOR's new software or foldable?
Many more long-term questions remain about the company’s financial viability, its ability to innovate and sell without HUAWEI’s pre-established R&D or relationships, and its potential to grow outside of the Chinese market. But in the short-term, we’re eager to see HONOR’s real identity hopefully soon.