With US President Donald Trump’s 90-day temporary reprieve on the ban against Huawei expiring on August 19, the Chinese telecommunications giant has increased its efforts to release a proprietary OS that will be positioned as an alternative to Google Android. The new operating system, likely to be called ‘HongMeng OS’ in China or ‘Ark OS’ in Europe, will reportedly be rolled out towards the end of this year or early 2020. But industry experts warn that without popular apps and developer support Huawei’s Android alternative could fail big time.
“Most of the premier app makers are located in the US which means there is likely to be pressure from the government there not to create apps for Huawei’s new OS,” says Patryk Adamczyk, who was part of the teams that worked on now-defunct Firefox OS and BlackBerry OS. In an email interview with indianexpress.com, he writes: “Huawei will have to prove to app makers that they have enough users to make their app worthwhile, usually around a million. Then if they did decide to create an app for the Chinese market there will be huge hurdles like privacy, protection of intellectual property, cultural nuances and having some sort of HQ in China.”
In Huawei’s home market China, this isn’t going to be a major issue. The company will be able to replace the Android Mobile OS with its own operating system easily because Google’s core services and apps are already banned in the communist country. Also, for a company as big as Huawei, it wouldn’t be a challenge to convince Chinese developers to bring their popular apps to HongMeng OS. But outside, especially in Europe where Huawei is among the top-three smartphone players, it would be impossible to sell smartphones without popular apps like Gmail or YouTube that millions of people use on a daily basis.
“Although it is perfectly possible for Huawei to make its own smartphone OS, its challenge beyond China would be the ability to replace the apps and services that are so familiar to smartphone users around the world,” explains Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight. “The lack of Google apps, in particular, leaves a huge hole in the user experience given so many consumers are already addicted to these services.”
Mo Jia, an analyst with market research firm Canalys in Shanghai, agrees. “Without a sound installed base, it would be extremely hard for Huawei to encourage the developers to optimise the apps on Huawei’s OS, which could lead to an inferior user experience against Android and iOS,” he says, adding that channel trust is another key factor that makes a Huawei phone running on any new OS a tough sell. “Channel crisis is happening across regions, and it would be hard for Huawei to gain back the trust from both users and channels.” Jia adds.
What is Huawei’s HongMeng OS?
Little is known about Huawei’s HongMeng OS at the moment. Speculation is rife that HongMeng will be built on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), meaning Huawei plans to create a fork of Android like Amazon did with Fire OS for its tablets. But, as Patryk explains, smartphones based on AOSP won’t get the latest UX and features. They also won’t have access to Google services. New operating systems will take time to evolve their security features and could be prone to hacks. Perhaps the reason why the Fire Phone, which Amazon launched in 2014, failed.
Another theory is that HongMeng will be based on a microkernel that is light and can react quickly to adjustments and batches. This will make the Huawei OS different from the Linux-based Android. Google is also working on a brand new open-source operating system, dubbed Fuchsia based on a microkernel called “Zircon”.
Building an operating system is anything but easy. Huawei has both the resources and strong R&D muscle to develop one. However, the hurdle will be convincing developers and leading app makers to rewrite their apps to a new platform. “Encouraging developers to make applications for a new operating system is hugely problematic and it is likely that any other operating system would always be the third choice (or worse),” Wood said.
“The question here is more about the developers instead of consumers,” reasons Abhinav Girdhar, founder of Appy Pie, a platform to create, distribute and promote apps on the Google Play and Apple App stores. “The developers and consumers are both familiar with the way the Android OS works, which means that the developer adoption frequency and the number of apps on the OS are bound to be low,” Girdhar said.
Prashant M, Vice President at Designmate, an Ahmedabad-based e-learning app company behind the award-winning Froggipedia app on iOS, feels a lot will depend upon how Huawei briefs the new OS and its App Store to third-party developers. They will need to spell out how the HongMeng OS will be different from Android and iOS, its limitations (if any), the availability of development kits and several other technical aspects.
“The fate of HongMeng OS depends on how well it will be accepted by users, whether fundamental Google services are part of the OS or not, trust in the Chinese company will also decide adoption of the new OS,” says Virat Khutal, co-founder of Twist Mobile, an Indore-based mobile gaming startup. Khutal says it will also be interesting to see if Google agrees to bring its first-party apps like Gmail, Maps and YouTube to HongMeng OS or not.
But even if Huawei successfully develops an operating system of its own, it will take years to perfect the user experience on smartphones running HongMeng OS. “The [UI] needs to be very simple and seamless on mobile since fundamentally small touch devices are not natural to use. So the user experience needs to be a step ahead of your intentions and help you through the process of executing simple tasks,” Patryk adds.
“For any new software platform, the big challenge is scale. Android and iOS have such an entrenched installed base they are virtually impossible to displace beyond China,” says Wood. But Huawei is aware that competing with Google is no mean task, especially when Android has about 85 per cent market share. It’s also true that the Android operating system is an ecosystem and it has the most apps. Consumers do not buy phones for the operating system. They want a phone that runs all the apps they want to use.
Selling smartphones without Google core services and apps don’t seem to be a good idea. One of the reasons why Microsoft and Samsung gave up on their individual platforms was the lack of support from third-party developers. BlackBerry OS and FireFox OS also met with the same fate.
“The technology was slightly ahead of its time and web apps were fairly new,” recalls Patryk who led the UX Visual Design of Mozilla’s Firefox OS. “The core apps people wanted like WhatsApp weren’t available and top app developers wanted a guaranteed 1 million users before building anything for the platform.” BlackBerry, then called Research in Motion, lost the smartphone game as it failed to get developers for its Java-based OS. Comparatively, Android and iOS was much more simple for third-party developers to write apps for.
Huawei can, of course, bring Android app compatibility into its new OS. BlackBerry and Microsoft did their best to bring Android apps support into their respective mobile platforms but they had a difficult time persuading consumers. As in the case of BlackBerry, Android apps on a BlackBerry 10 OS device had major compatibility issues too. Plus, as Patryk says, “OSs are often free, so there is no monetary incentive to build a new one.”
The opportunity, meanwhile, is that the slot of a third smartphone OS has been open since Windows Mobile vacated the space. While this could be the one silver lining in Huawei’s dark cloud, it would need to answer one fundamental question: what can HongMeng offer that Android or iOS won’t/can’t?