In December 2020, a first beta version of HarmonyOS for smartphones was made available to developers so that they could start working on compatible applications. Credit: Handout

Chinese tech giant Huawei embarked on its long haul to more self-reliance with the launch on Wednesday of its own mobile operating system (OS).

The company has named its system “Harmony” in a likely dig at discordant China-America ties which are hamstringing its business.

Its Chinese name, Hongmeng (鸿蒙), nonetheless, was plucked from ancient classics of philosophy meaning the advent of new world order with epoch-making significance. 

The name speaks volumes about Huawei’s high hopes for its homegrown OS to turn around its fortunes, after bans by former US president Donald Trump eviscerated the basic functionality of Huawei smartphones and other gadgets as they could no longer get Google’s license to run Android. 

Huawei said at Wednesday’s showcase event that it expected 300 million devices to run Harmony by the year’s end, and would add talent to boost its user base to 1.2 billion by 2024. Still, when a beta version was released earlier this year, only about 300,000 Huawei smartphone users signed up.  

The user interface of Harmony’s official launch version gives the impression of mimicking Android and Huawei admitted that the OS’s underlying architecture was cribbed from Google’s Android Open-Source Project.

Huawei has sought to pool third-party apps and hardware in its Harmony ecosystem. Photos: Handout

The Chinese tech firm has become a lightning rod for sanctions over the years as key Western nations move to cut it out of their markets. As US sanctions set in, job number one for Huawei’s Harmony is to sign up more brands. 

The company has been on a publicity drive to lure some of its domestic competitors to load it on their products. Huawei says this is in line with Beijing’s “tech autarchy and independence” mandate.

However, the initial response has been lukewarm as some manufacturers say they will remain loyal to Android, despite the Global Times and other state media amplifying Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei’s calls to pool resources and create synergy. 

The Economic Observer newspaper reported this week that its survey of some leading Chinese smartphone makers such as Xiaomi, Lenovo, Oppo, Vivo and Meizu showed most of these brands were unlikely to come onboard. 

Analysts say this is because US sanctions have further pitted Huawei against its domestic peers on China’s highly competitive consumer electronics market. Huawei is seeking to cut prices and whip up patriotic fever at home to wrest market share from Xiaomi and the like to claw back lost sales overseas and compensate for its waning revenues from 5G business in the West. 

Citing an anonymous executive with Huawei’s Consumer Products Group, the newspaper noted that third-party brands and developers would rack up hefty costs to make their products and apps compatible with Harmony or make an additional version for the new OS. 

Huawei has cribbed a lot of Google’s Android open-source coding but Chinese users are not convinced. Photos: AFP / Alain Jocard / Christof Stache

Wong Kam-fai, Associate Dean (External Affairs) of the Faculty of Engineering of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Asia Times that Chinese brands such as Xiaomi who ship phones abroad were unlikely to risk their takings by switching prematurely to Harmony.

This was when the system may not yet support mainstream apps and still needs to be fully debugged, based on the less-than-impressive feedback from Harmony beta version users who said it was not as fluid and snappy as Android’s latest release. 

Some independent IT observers also suspect Huawei of astroturfing, when some posts on tech review websites gushed in propaganda fashion about how good the OS was. 

Wong also said most Chinese brands had every incentive to keep up ties with Android owner Google, which, unlike Huawei, did not derive a big chunk of its revenue from its smartphones.

Seen as a bid to assuage some concerns, Huawei Consumer Electronics CEO Yu Chengdong devoted much of Wednesday’s event to talk up creating a Harmony ecosystem and the strategy to diversify away from smartphones.

He unveiled a raft of products from smart wearables, tablets, speakers, monitors and TVs to smart home solutions.

He also announced partnerships with China’s leading home appliance manufacturers including Haier, Midea, Fotile and Joyoung as their air-conditioners, refrigerators, ovens and dishwashers would be hooked up with Harmony devices to enable remote control.

Huawei’s move to offload its Honor sub-brand in November also sent out the signal it would pull back from the smartphone sector. 

Huawei seeks to distinguish its Harmony OS from the rest of the pack with purported integration with more hardware than just smartphones. Photo: Handout

Yu denied Huawei had scrambled to find workarounds when hit by sanctions and Harmony’s development had been rushed.

He said it was “not a patchy copycat of Android” because it had been almost five years in the making since its conception by Ren in 2016.

Envisioning an interconnected future of all devices, Yu pivoted to hail Harmony’s design philosophy and potential to leverage Huawei’s edge in 5G to transcend smartphones to connect all things under one roof and even self-driving vehicles. 

Analysts with China’s popular IT news portal Zhongguancun Online said the apparent fragmentation in the emerging smart home sector may give Harmony opportunities to get in on the next big thing of the Internet of Things (IoT), starting with Wednesday’s launch of Huawei’s diverse array of hardware that all support multi-device interaction when running Harmony.

Yet strenuous efforts are still needed to reel in more stakeholders, and Harmony’s smart home and IoT aspirations would be like castles in the air if Huawei fails to woo more brands and consumers to its side to break the duopoly of Android and Apple’s iOS. 

In a hint of possible official backing, Guangdong’s provincial mouthpiece the Southern Daily said in an op-ed that the new OS was testimony to Huawei’s fortitude and resilience in adversity.

The paper called on the province, home to Huawei, to spearhead an alliance of tech firms and manufacturers of consumer electronics to promote Harmony and encourage its use. 

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