Can Huawei’s homegrown OS make consumers forget about Android? 

We could find out early next year, because it looks like the Huawei P40 -- the company’s first big flagship smartphone of 2020 -- might be the first handset to run Huawei's homemade HarmonyOS (known as Hongmeng in China).

"If we're still not allowed to access Google's Android service, we will consider using our own HarmonyOS,” Richard Yu, head of the company's consumer business, said during the consumer electronics exhibition IFA 2019 in Germany last weekend.

Yu said that Huawei’s plan B is ready to be deployed, but the company is still “considering relevant decisions and cooperation.” And there are some tough decisions to make.

The P40 isn’t any old handset. It belongs to one of Huawei’s two flagship smartphone lines, and it's the follow-up to the much-praised P30.

But the P30 runs Google’s flavor of Android, meaning it’s loaded with apps like Google Maps, YouTube and the Google Play Store, Android’s premier app store. And right now, that’s something the P40 won’t have.

Google has been unable to work with Huawei since the US government put Huawei on a list of entities with restricted access to US technology. Without approval, Google can no longer license its apps and services to Huawei. The company’s second annual flagship, the Mate 30, will be among the first of its handsets to not ship with Google Mobile Services (GMS).

But one analyst thinks Huawei will only use its own OS on the P40 as a last resort.

Zaker Li, an analyst at IHS Technology, said that whether or not Huawei builds out its ecosystem depends on Google allowing the company to use Google Mobile Services. This, in turn, depends on what happens between Huawei and the US government.

“It’s hard to say that because it’s not a market-driven issue,” Li said.

Although the Mate 30 will be announced on September 19, Huawei has said it doesn’t plan to launch a HarmonyOS smartphone this year. Instead, it is widely expected that the Mate 30 will come out with an open-source version of Android that doesn’t include licensed Google apps and services that are part of GMS.

Although insiders have said Huawei might delay the sale of the Mate 30, the company still plans to launch the phone in Berlin on September 19. (Picture: Huawei via Twitter)

HarmonyOS is currently only available on the Honor Vision smart display, which launched in August. The display is essentially a smart TV equipped with a camera for video chat and facial recognition, and it’s selling in China for 3,799 yuan (US$535).

Last week, Huawei senior global product manager Peter Gauden told Digital Trends that the first devices with HarmonyOS sold outside China might be smartwatches and laptops.

Even though restricted access to Google helped spur the launch of HarmonyOS, Huawei had reportedly been working on it for years. And having its own OS has other advantages, most notably the ability to create a seamless ecosystem that works across devices. 

Microsoft has pursued this with Windows, and Samsung started going after it with its Tizen OS used in wearables and Smart TVs. But only Apple has seen wide success with this strategy by tightly integrating iOS, macOS and the soon-to-be-launched iPadOS. Even Android’s ecosystem is fractured among the many companies using the OS.

Huawei has branded its effort for inter-device communication “Seamless AI Life,” but the company still has a lot of work to do on it. According to Huawei’s Gauden, the project won’t reach maturity for another five to 10 years.

Huawei has already made it clear it’s not ready to move away from Android just yet. The company has said on several occasions that Android is its preferred OS for handsets. And moving away from Android doesn’t solve the problem that it still wouldn’t be able to use Google services. 

If Huawei considers reliance on Android too much of a liability, though, the company seems prepared to put HarmonyOS on all kinds of devices, including smartphones. The company has even been working on making it easy to port apps from Android to HarmonyOS using its Ark Compiler. This would require about one or two days of work, according to Huawei’s Richard Yu, though whether developers will actually follow through with remaking their apps just for Huawei devices is another question.