A recent (and fairly unexpected) casualty of the escalating trade war between America and China has been Chinese smartphones.
Due to restrictions imposed by President Trump, these currently can’t be sold in Western countries with Google apps pre-installed.
To date, Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro is the highest-profile phone to launch without Google services.
Prior to that launch, there were rumours the Mate 30 Pro would run on a new smartphone operating system – namely Huawei’s own HarmonyOS.
In the end, it relied on open-source Android without Google apps, though responses to this tariff-dodging compromise have been mixed.
Many agree that the Mate 30 Pro is an excellent phone, but the lack of Google will deter many would-be buyers.
Naturally, Huawei loaded the phone with apps that could feasibly be used in place of Google’s suite.
But they weren’t Google apps, so they couldn’t be used across multiple Android devices or Chrome. And that’s where the problem lies.
Because no matter how good the software and apps, our use of smartphones has evolved to the point where they struggle to function in isolation.
We cast smartphone content to our TVs, share open tabs across devices, and sync files to our desktop PCs.
We use apps to monitor our video doorbells and our energy usage.
To do this, we need apps with a common OS. That’s generally either Apple/iOS or Google/Android, yet neither of these are fully accessible to Chinese manufacturers at present.
Even so, Chinese tech firms represent a mighty (and growing) force.
China is a huge marketplace in its own right, dominated by home-grown brands like Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo and Xiaomi.
These companies’ products are increasingly popular, holding a large proportion of the global smartphone market.
Most are now branching out into smart devices, marketing heavily in under-served or emerging territories.
It could therefore be argued that if Chinese manufacturers introduced a new OS, the world would have to follow.
Huawei is already planning to put Harmony into its speakers and smart watches.
Some even say that to survive the US trade ban, Chinese firms have no choice but to introduce a new smartphone OS.
But will they actually do it?
A (not so) new smartphone OS?
The idea of a proprietary OS is not new. Just as Huawei has Harmony, Samsung has Tizen.
However, Samsung uses Google-friendly Android in its flagship phones. Tizen is deployed across lower-profile and more affordable smart devices.
BlackBerry and Microsoft have previously tried to launch proprietary operating systems. Both failed, largely due to a failure to get developers on board.
A brand-new app store is useless if nobody is developing apps for it, as Windows phone users discovered.
Yet times have changed since Microsoft’s Windows phone experiment, and the world is perhaps more prepared to accept a new smartphone OS today.
The US trade ban has brought the American domination of technology into sharp focus.
The near duopoly that Apple and Google enjoy is causing concern, and some people have argued that a new smartphone OS would make the market more democratic.
All for one, or one for all?
Talk of healthy competition is all very well, but for Chinese phone makers, a solution to the OS issue is urgently needed.
Semiconductor firm ARM, which is responsible for the chip architecture in most smartphones (including those from China) announced in June that it would comply with the US trade ban.
That could stop Chinese phones receiving updates, and thus compromise their quality in the long term.
The pressure on Chinese firms to develop an independent manufacturing infrastructure is coming from all sides.
Given their collectively huge global market share, a single and shared new smartphone OS would have a chance of success if Chinese firms could collaborate on it.
But if they develop individual systems, that likelihood is much less.
Meanwhile, other factors may come into play. The smartphone market is slowing down, as people use a combination of connected devices rather than their smartphone in isolation.
Voice control also looks set to overtake keyboards soon. The whole market is ripe for disruption, with potential for smartphones to be pushed aside by a new type of device.
And if that next disruptive device doesn’t run on iOS or Android, the question of which OS to put in a smartphone might not matter anymore…