Huawei Technologies could use its self-developed Hongmeng operating system to replace the Android system in its smartphones within six months with the support of the huge domestic market in China, a Hong Kong information technology expert said on Wednesday.
“In a free economy, companies are usually reluctant to change and try new products. But in a controlled economy like China, if the government orders phone makers to use a particular local OS, such an OS can be well adapted by the markets within a period of short time,” Wong Kam-fai, Associate Dean (External Affairs), Faculty of Engineering, Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Asia Times.
As Hongmeng is an open platform that different developers can jointly participate in, its product adaptation time can be as short as half a year, Wong said.
The Shenzhen-based Huawei has been under the global spotlight since it and its 70 affiliates were put onto the US Commerce Department’s Entity List on national security grounds last week. On Monday, Google reportedly halted the transfer of hardware, software and technical services to Huawei.
On Tuesday, the US Commerce Department granted Huawei a license to buy US goods until August 19. On Wednesday, Google said in a statement that it will continue to work with Huawei for 90 days.
On Tuesday, Huawei founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei said in a group interview with mainland media that it is redundant to grant a 90-day license to Huawei as the company has been ready to self-supply if it was not allowed to buy US hardware and software.
According to mainland media, Richard Yu Chengdong, the chief executive of Huawei Consumer Business Group, recently told friends on WeChat that Huawei has a “Plan B,” which includes its self-developed chipset and operating system.
Industry experts said Huawei’s chips refer to the Kirin series developed by HiSilicon, its subsidiary, while Huawei’s operating system refers to Hongmeng. The names of the two products are related to Chinese mythology as Kirin, or Qilin in Mandarin, is a one-horned beast, while Hongmeng is the situation before the world was created.
The development of Hongmeng has reportedly been led by Chen Haibo, a professor at the School of Software, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, since 2012. Built upon the Linux system, it operates with Huawei EROFS, a document system, and Fangzhou compiler, a code translator.
In a recent WeChat post, Yu said Huawei’s OS will be available later this Fall or early Spring. He said the OS will be compatible with all Android apps on phones, computers, tablets, TVs, cars, and wearables.
“Hongmeng will look and operate like Android so that users can adapt to it easily,” Wong said. “A good user experience is what Hongmeng must achieve as it will help improve its acceptability from users.”
In the short term, Huawei will inevitably be hurt if it has to switch from Android to Hongmeng, but it may benefit in the long run as the self-developed OS can help improve users’ loyalty in developing countries, especially along the Belt and Road, Wong said.
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Huawei shipped 200 million units of smartphones last year, up 31% from 153 million units in 2017, according to a previous announcement. About half the Huawei smartphones were shipped overseas, mainly in Europe, East Asia and Latin America. It ranks as the No 1 smartphone seller in Russia. Globally, it is No 2 after Samsung and is followed by Apple.
Locally, Huawei smartphones use Android OS, but don’t support Google’s apps such as Google Chrome, Google Maps, YouTube or Gmail, as well as Facebook and WhatsApp, due to national security reasons.
Locals have substitutes such as Baidu Browsers, AutoNavi’s Gaode Maps and Tencent’s WeChat, but these apps are tailor-made for Chinese users.
Many overseas users are worried that they will not be able to use their Google apps on their Huawei smartphones from August 19, while they will find it difficult to use the Chinese substitutes in their places due to language and geographical barriers.
In fact, before Chinese firms can provide users with apps equivalent to Google’s, overseas Huawei smartphone users won’t be disconnected with Google as they can still use YouTube and Google Maps and Gmail through the Baidu Browser.
Francis Fong Po-kiu, the honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said it was unlikely that Hongmeng could replace Android in the short term as the latter supports thousands of popular mobile apps.
If users find they can’t use or update their favorite apps on Hongmeng smoothly, they will choose to use other smartphones, Fong told Metro Daily. “Such negative impact on Huawei can be disastrous,” he added.
Wong said there will definitely be short-term pain for Huawei, but also the US app providers. He believes that many US app developers will ultimately find some alternate ways to serve Huawei continuously as they don’t want to lose market shares, he said.
In the long run, these US app developers may move out of US if they want their products to be used on Huawei smartphones, Wong said. Besides, Chinese app developers will gradually catch up and provide better services to overseas users, he added.