It has been a busy week in tech, but for me the release of the Huawei HarmonyOS is probably the most significant news.
The OS launched at Huawei’s Developer conference in China and is the company’s highly rumoured alternative to Android. Though the circumstances around its launch are a little doleful – being in direct reaction to the Android ban resulting from a recent White House executive order against Huawei – HarmonyOS has the potential to be a great development for the mobile industry.
There’s a simple reason why. With Huawei’s infrastructure and loyal fan base in China, HarmonyOS is the first new mobile operating system I’ve seen in quite some time with the chops to break up the mobile market’s current duopoly.
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For as long as most people can remember, mobile phone buyers have had two options: Android or iOS. This isn’t terrible; both operating systems have great app ecosystems, easy to use UIs and for the most part are excellent. But the lack of any real competition has led both companies to rest on their laurels a little.
This is why key developments, like the promised union of Android with Chrome and an iOS-macOS merger, haven’t happened. For years, outside of a few nifty features and UI tweaks, neither company has really innovated on the mobile software front.
It’s also why most phones these days are fairly similar looking. I’m still convinced if you stripped the labelling off, most people wouldn’t be able to tell who made the Galaxy S10, OnePlus 7 Pro or Huawei P30 Pro.
Which is why having a third big player to try and shake things up is great. Even if HarmonyOS doesn’t leave its native China straight away, the fact that Huawei plans to make it a cross-platform OS will at the very least be a warning shot to Apple and Google execs that’ll hopefully get them out of their complacent hammocks.
I can already hear the naysayers rolling their eyes and saying that getting a third mobile OS to actually challenge Google and Android is about as likely as the Greens taking down the Tories. I will admit, there is evidence to support this claim. BlackBerry failed to do it with BlackBerryOS despite its huge footprint in the business world. Microsoft and Nokia failed to get Windows Phone off the ground in spite of being huge household names. The less we say about Mozilla’s Firefox OS the better…
But I genuinely think Huawei could do it, thanks to its rabidly loyal user base in China – a key market where Google and Apple services aren’t used by the majority of people. Chinese buyers, and, more crucially, developers, are used to operating in stores and ecosystems outside of Google and Apple’s. They are also a key demographic and a market that numerous tech companies and app makers want to break into. As a result, if Huawei can get HarmonyOS off the ground there, Western app makers and service providers will almost certainly be interested in it.
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For me there’s one simple thing Huawei needs to make HarmonyOS a success in China: a killer launch phone. This is to get phone buyers using the OS, but it’s also an important step that’ll give developers the killer hardware they need to really dig into it and start experimenting.
Fortunately, if the rumours are to be believed, Huawei already has just such a handset in the works with the Huawei Mate 30 Pro, alleged to be a pretty swish bit of hardware that’s significantly more alluring than Samsung’s somewhat by-the-numbers Galaxy Note 10.
The camera rumours alone confirm this, with speculation suggesting it’ll use two top-line new 40-megapixel sensors and an undisclosed third when it launches later this year. Which is why I think a HarmonyOS variant for developers and early adopters in China would be an ideal launch pad for the platform.
Sadly, it’s unlikely this’ll happen as Huawei’s confirmed HarmonyOS will initially launch on “smart displays”, like the soon-to-be-launched Honor Vision, with a wider rollout to other devices scheduled for “over the next three years”.
Still, a guy can hope, right?