huawei harmony os

It’s all too tempting to paint Harmony OS as Huawei’s hastily constructed “plan B” for its smartphone business. It’s no secret by now that the complex web of geo-political verbal sparring and litigation that disrupts Huawei’s ability to trade with the largest economy in the world could force it to wave goodbye to a Google-supported version of Android. The solution? Harmony OS — Huawei’s ready-made backup plan if it all goes south.

Except that’s not what Harmony OS really is.

The Chinese behemoth dedicated an entire event to its shiny new operating system at the Huawei Developer Conference 2019. Between that, our trip to Huawei HQ, a recent Q&A with Huawei senior product marketing manager Peter Gauden, and the controversial circumstances surrounding the Huawei Mate 30 series launch, we’re finally starting to get the full picture of the philosophy, design, and future of Harmony OS.

What actually is Harmony OS?

HarmonyOS at Huawei Developer Conference 2019

Huawei has attempted to distill Harmony OS’ essence in a single tagline: “A micro-kernel based, distributed OS for all scenarios.” Just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?

We’ll delve a little further into the technical side shortly, but the bigger picture begins with the “for all scenarios” part. At its heart Harmony OS isn’t an Android rival at all — it’s a rival for every smart OS you can probably think of.

Huawei talks about Harmony OS as the next step in connecting the end user to the ever-changing digital world. Huawei believes the biggest changes are just around the corner with the dawn of 5G, the growing prevalence of cloud technology and artificial intelligence, and the nascent Internet of Things market.

Huawei wants to unleash a new kind of OS.

This all comes together to form what Huawei has dubbed “seamless AI life” — a convergence of next-gen technology that it believes will span all of our devices in the home and on the go for decades to come. The problem, Huawei says, is that much of the smart tech we use on a daily basis refuses to play nicely with each other, let alone seamlessly.

This isn’t a new problem by any stretch. Many OS’ are siloed due to manufacturer rivalries (think Apple’s infamous “walled garden”) or out of hardware necessity, with even highly versatile, open-source platforms like Linux being held back by its origins as a PC/laptop system.

We’ve also seen this for years with Android. Google has consistently struggled to recapture the same magic for its wearable and TV platforms. The fact that Chromecast, likely the search giant’s best selling physical product, is built on Cast and not Android TV is telling.

Instead of repurposing OS’, rebuilding the same apps, and sticking more square pegs into round holes, Huawei wants to unleash a new kind of OS — and it says it’s been working on it for close to 10 years.

“1 + 8 + N”

Huawei P30 Pro logo (52 of 60)

Huawei’s vision for the Harmony OS ecosystem starts with what it dubs a “1 + 8 + N” strategy. Within this setup, the “1” is the device that anyone reading this will be intimately familiar with already: the phone. Smartphones are our constant companions and connect us to friends, family, and beyond anytime and (almost) anywhere in the world, so it makes sense to use it as a starting point.

Huawei P30 Pro logo (52 of 60)
Huawei still leading 5G deployment, despite US ban

The “8” represents equally familiar connected devices such as laptops, tablets, smartwatches, desktops, smart speakers, and more. Finally, the “N” is the confusing swamp that is the wider IoT product category — a sector Huawei has been relatively happy to leave to third-party manufacturers, at least for now — including smart lighting, cameras, fridges, and much, much more.

Getting all of these products to play nice with each other is already tricky even if you just count Huawei products. Its phones run Android, its laptops use Windows, while its smartwatches now run Lite OS. Opening the door to third-party smart home devices is an even bigger step into incompatibility city.

In concept, Huawei’s solution is simple: Make a secure OS that was decoupled from hardware that could work on all of these devices. The implementation of that concept, however, is far from simple. Our resident expert-on-everything Gary Sims will be examining all the technicalities in a deep dive video very soon, but the TL;DR version brings us back to that unwieldy tagline.

Designing a smart OS

Kirin 990 with Huawei logo

Harmony OS is built on a single kernel, a single app framework, and utilizes the same core services no matter the hardware. Huawei says that by removing redundant code and adopting a more efficient scheduling model based on a real-time “Deterministic Latency Engine” that reallocates resources in real-time, Harmony OS represents a step above monolithic and hybrid kernel architectures like Linux and Android, respectively.

Huawei says it looked beyond individual devices and isolated hardware features and instead determined a pool of combined capabilities and traits to create a virtualized hardware level. This shared resources pool spans broader characteristics like displays, cameras, speakers, and microphones — elements that repeat across various smart devices. According to Huawei, Harmony OS is at home on a phone or laptop with 12GB of RAM as it is on a smart lightbulb with mere kilobytes of memory.

A micro-kernel based, distributed OS for all scenarios.

The potential benefits are numerous, but the example Huawei presents is switching between one device to the other while using a single app without any downtime. Making a call on your phone? Why not zip it over to your car’s dash while you’re driving or your tablet or TV when you get home. Think Star Trek, but less spandex.

Another benefit is that Harmony OS apps will only ever need to be written for a single platform thanks to Huawei’s ARK compiler which supports multiple languages (Huawei listed C/C++, Java, JS, and Kotlin). Not only will this reduce development time overall, it’ll also offer compatibility across multiple devices with any extra workload.

This is a huge boon for app developers, says Huawei, and could end those irritatingly long waits for ostensibly identical apps to reach multiple platforms. As for Android apps, Huawei’s Peter Gauden told Android Authority that they won’t work natively on Harmony OS, but that the compiler is capable of converting them into a Harmony OS with relative ease.

More on Huawei: Video: I spent 2 hours with the Huawei Mate X at IFA 2019!

All this and the advanced security enabled by the micro-kernel environment between devices adds up to an enticing picture for end users, developers, and, perhaps most importantly, Huawei itself as a company that wants to lead the charge in this new age of connected tech.

Gauden described Harmony as an “OS for the future,” noting that while that journey had already begun, there’s still a long way to go. Of course, having an advanced OS for the years to come is all well and good, but no one uses an OS on its own. You need devices.

So, what about Harmony OS devices?

Honor Vision video call running Harmony OS
Making a call on Honor Vision

Much of Huawei’s confidence stems from its belief that it is one of the few tech companies that has the infrastructure already in place to match its ambitions — and it’s hard to argue that’s not the case.

Huawei already produces its own Kirin silicon, has a massive investment in cloud technology, and is at the heart of 5G around the world (whether governments like it or not). It also has a booming devices business covering phones, wearables, tablets, laptops, and more, that has somehow managed to weather the recent storm relatively unscathed.

Huawei isn’t afraid to use that broad portfolio as a springboard for its new OS, starting with the first Harmony OS-powered, consumer-ready product, the Huawei Vision smart TV. Released as the Honor Vision in China, the TV showcases some of the AI-driven smarts Harmony OS promises as the set doubles up as a HiLink control center for over 900 IoT devices. You’ll also be able to easily share and broadcast content from your phone directly to the TV.

So far, these are the only official Harmony OS products we’ve seen in the wild, but Huawei is already teasing the rest of its, well, vision.

Huawei HQ 5G testing chamber
I spent a week in China with Huawei. Here's what I learned.

Based on a roadmap shown at HDC, Harmony OS’ rollout really starts to pick up in 2020 with smartwatches and smart bands, vehicle head units, and personal computers. In 2021, Huawei says this could expand to speakers and other audio devices, and beyond 2022 we’re into the realm of VR glasses and beyond.

Smartwatches are a particularly interesting case as Huawei already jettisoned WearOS for its own Lite OS wearables software for the Huawei Watch GT. While on a much smaller, less ambitious scale, it shows Huawei does have a least some pedigree in the software stakes. Gauden also noted that Harmony OS is backwards compatible, so existing wearables like the Watch GT could theoretically transition away from Lite OS to the new platform.

There’s a massive, hulking elephant in the room, however, as there’s one product category that was nowhere to be seen on the Harmony OS roadmap: the smartphone.

Wearables, tablets, laptops, but where are the phones?

While there have been fairly loose rumors that a budget Harmony OS phone is in the works, Huawei has been steadfast in its apparent desire to stick with Android for its smartphone business.

As we’ve seen with the Mate 30 series, Huawei is currently relying on an open source build of Android with its EMUI skin on top, but no native access to Google Mobile Services or Google apps. Mate 30 buyers will be able to sideload (or potentially use a different third party store) Gmail, Maps, and other Google apps, but the loss of the Google Play Store as an immediately accessible gateway to millions of popular apps is massive, and Huawei knows it.

Despite bullishly stating that Huawei expects to sell more than 20 million Mate 30 handsets, even CEO Richard Yu couldn’t hide the pain the company is experiencing by having Google’s apps and services torn from its grasp, noting “we have no other choice.”

Related: Here’s how Huawei plans to tackle the Mate 30’s missing Google apps

That’s a strange statement to make in light of Harmony OS’ announcement. After all, the 1 in the 1+8+N is a phone, and the first examples Huawei gave of seamlessly switching apps between Harmony OS devices all began with a smartphone. If Harmony OS is so much better than Android in terms of core design, security, and adaptability, as Huawei claims, why isn’t it champing at the bit to make the switch?

All Yu had to say was of Harmony OS was “not until next year.” Whether a statement of intent or resignation, it’s worth noting that Huawei isn’t entirely waiting until 2020 to utilize Harmony OS’ capabilities on its phones, as the Mate 30 series takes advantage of the Harmony OS micro-kernel for its biometric security.

While this was briefly mentioned at the Mate 30 launch in Munich, Germany, elsewhere and behind closed doors Huawei is also banking on Harmony OS’ open source nature to build the platform. “We’re not the owner, we’re the initiator of Harmony OS,” Gauden said at a roundtable discussion. The message is clear: Huawei wants other OEMs to carry the Harmony OS torch in not just the smart home sector, but the mobile market too.

The challenges ahead

Huawei AppGallery

The idea that major smartphone OEMs could walk away from Android — demonstrably the most popular OS by market share — for Huawei’s pet project sounds pie in the sky, but it may well get some support from its pals in China.

As Wired notes, China’s “big tech” firms are fully backing Huawei in the US trade war. There have also been unconfirmed reports out of the region that Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, and Tencent have all been testing Harmony OS in house.

At the moment, however, it’s still hard to see merely political solidarity drawing those firms away from Google’s OS and the nigh untouchable global reputation and popularity that comes with it. Huawei also isn’t crafting Harmony OS as a philanthropic exercise. Open source or not, it’s a seismic power play from the Shenzhen firm as it looks to establish itself as the de facto mobile hardware, software, and infrastructure firm in China. Xiaomi and the BBK contingent aren’t stupid enough to not notice that Huawei has rival products in almost every category on the Harmony OS roadmap.

Related: What is EMUI? A closer look at Huawei’s Android skin

It’s not just companies that Huawei has to convince, though. Harmony OS is an incredibly tough sell for consumers in its current state. Technical jargon and vague promises of better performance and functionality aren’t enough. Crucial components like Huawei’s plans for a Harmony OS app store are still a total mystery and aside from the ability to seamlessly switch devices while using the same app, we’ve not seen any other practical, headline-grabbing features.

We know Android apps aren’t directly compatible too. Will Huawei be able to convince all the leading app makers to reproduce their wares for yet another platform?

Huawei Mate 30 Pro camera detail 2
The Mate 30 Pro and Huawei's big pain in the apps

Once again, the scenario surrounding the Mate 30 is of great interest here. With the Play Store a complete no-go — at least for now — Huawei is turning to its own App Gallery which hosts over 45,000 apps and has 390 million monthly active users. That’s a far cry from the Play Store’s over two million apps, but Huawei is hoping to level the playing field a little with an app development fund for its newly announced Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) suite totalling a whopping $1 billion.

While HMS’ brief showcase in Munich almost appeared to be a weak hand wave over the lack of Google apps on a $1,000+ phone, it’s highly likely that the drive to bring developers into the HMS ecosystem is also groundwork for when Harmony OS enters primetime. Facebook apps like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook itself are already confirmed for the Mate 30 via the App Gallery, and more will no doubt be announced soon. If the much-touted ARK compiler can easily translate Android apps into Harmony OS apps, just imagine how streamlined the process is likely to be for developers switching App Gallery apps over to Huawei’s new OS.

Huawei's new OS is on a collision course with Android.

However, even if the Facebooks of this world make the jump to Harmony OS, there’s every change Google’s apps still won’t if the trade ban sticks. Google may even choose to restrict access to its immensely popular app family in an attempt to weaken a potential rival if Huawei fully abandons Android.

Harmony OS is a much easier sell for the Internet of Things market where fragmentation is a rife. There’s no ubiquitous OS for IoT devices and Huawei has a huge opportunity to cement its place at the head of the table. But Huawei contradicts its own messaging by pursuing Android so vehemently. Why should we buy into this “OS of the future” for all our devices when Huawei isn’t fully committed itself?

When compared with Samsung’s dabbles with Tizen or Microsoft burning billions with the ill-fated Windows Mobile, Huawei’s decision to look beyond just smartphones is undoubtedly a savvy move, but in the consumer tech sphere the phone is, to quote that famous Avengers villain, inevitable.

Whether by force or by choice, Huawei’s new OS is on a collision course with Android one way or another.

That’s everything we know about Harmony OS so far. Do you think it’ll be a success? Let us know in the comments.