Huawei has taken the wraps off its first self-developed operating system.

Huawei says HarmonyOS, dubbed Hongmeng in Chinese, can run seamlessly across different devices ranging from handheld gadgets like smartphones, PCs and wearables to smart home products like smart speakers and headsets. The company’s new Honor-branded smart display, set for launch in China this Saturday, will be Huawei’s first product to run on the OS.

Huawei officially introduced HarmonyOS during its three-day developer conference in China’s southern city of Dongguan. (Picture: Huawei)

Speculation had been rife for months over Huawei’s secret in-house OS. After it emerged in May that future Huawei phones may lose access to Google’s apps and services on Android (a vital feature for global consumers), it was reported that the Chinese giant had been preparing an alternative OS. Company executives, however, have stressed that the company wants to keep using Google services if possible.

That hope, though, relies on many uncertainties. While President Donald Trump signaled in late June that US companies could resume sales of some products to Huawei, Bloomberg reported this week that the White House is now delaying its decision. The need for an Android replacement, it seems, remains urgent for Huawei.

Huawei’s mobile chief Richard Yu said on Friday that HarmonyOS is ready to be used on the company’s smartphones at any time. But he added that Android will remain its first choice for now, as long as it’s still available.

According to the schedule the company unveiled at the event, Huawei plans to roll out the second generation of HarmonyOS next year on smartwatches, fitness bands, car infotainment systems and “innovative homegrown PCs.” By 2021, a third generation OS will come to smart speakers and headphones, as well.

Huawei says an internal beta version of HarmonyOS was first released in 2017. (Picture: Huawei)

Huawei isn’t alone in trying to develop an open source OS capable of running on many different platforms. Google is rumored to be working on Fuchsia, a potential Android successor designed to work across a range of consumer devices. Unlike Android, Fuschia isn’t based on Linux but rather an in-house microkernel called Zircon.

HarmonyOS is also based on a microkernel, Huawei said, which allows HarmonyOS to support Android apps designed by the company. Outside developers can use a Huawei tool called the Ark Compiler to rework Android apps for HarmonyOS, a process that Huawei’s Yu says will take around one to two days. The resulting app would be compatible across all Huawei devices.

Kernels are programs that stand at the core of an OS. They handle system resources and translate requests from software into instructions for hardware. A microkernel is meant to have the minimum set of instructions necessary for starting up a device.

Of course, it’s one thing to offer the option to port apps. Whether developers use it is another question entirely. One to two days isn’t long, but it’s still one to two days longer than their current workflow. And that depends on consumers embracing HarmonyOS, which isn’t a guarantee if it doesn’t have Google apps like Gmail or YouTube.

That challenge could be one reason why Huawei is debuting HarmonyOS on a smart home device instead of its smartphones.

For one, the Internet of Things is still in the early stages of development, said Jason Low, senior analyst at the research firm Canalys. Whereas smartphones have already existed for more than a decade, IoT gives Huawei a fresh chance at setting itself apart from the competition.

“It’s very difficult to build an OS from scratch -- we all know how long it took Android to get to the stage they are at,” he said. “But if you look at smart displays, the field is relatively open… Because this is entirely new, it’s for them to reimagine what an OS can be, not being tied to what Android and iOS are like.”

Samsung, for example, eventually released its self-built Tizen OS on smart TVs, which is now the world’s most popular smart TV OS, according to Strategy Analytics. Google’s Android TV, on the other hand, trails at third place behind LG’s webOS.

In-house designs allow companies to mold their OS according to the needs of their devices. Many have attributed the iPhone’s success, for instance, to Apple’s ability to design custom chipsets tailored for their own devices, an edge that few other phone makers have. Huawei, it seems, could now do the same.

“Building their own OS can allow [Huawei] to leverage internal synergies, using their own products and codes,” said Low. “It will be much more effective for them to come up with use cases which are more seamlessly tied together.”