Twenty years ago, every mobile phone manufacturer had its own proprietary operating system.
Then in 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, and the world changed overnight.
Suddenly, it wasn’t cost-effective to develop an operating system which only your handsets could use. You had to develop an OS capable of running software made by third parties.
Over time, the likes of Nokia’s Symbian and BlackBerryOS fell by the wayside as two American smartphone operating systems became preeminent – Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
No company has successfully challenged this duopoly in the last decade, yet the fallout from President Trump’s ill-fated trade war with China might yet do precisely that.
Where there is discord…
Huawei’s decision to bring HarmonyOS to the smartphone market was driven by necessity, after the company was banned from accessing American exports.
For the last couple of years, the absence of Google Android has been keenly felt. In the UK, Huawei’s share of the market dropped from 9.76 to 8.36 per cent over the course of 2020.
Yet forcing Huawei to develop its own operating system and software suite has potentially resulted in the emergence of a real rival to Android and iOS.
Huawei’s HarmonyOS is remarkably similar to Android, to the point where the few journalists able to test the latest beta version describe it as a fork (a modified version of existing software).
Now in fairness, this is clearly a work in progress – still under development and yet to be refined into a consumer-ready operating system.
There’s no other reason why accredited journalists would have to supply passport ID scans and wait two days to be granted access to Huawei’s HarmonyOS.
Yet even allowing for its beta stage of development, the similarities between HarmonyOS and Android are uncanny, right down to the presence of Android Services Library and APK files.
Since Android is open source coding based on Linux, replicating it in this way isn’t illegal – though it is rather deceptive if HarmonyOS is going to be marketed as an original platform.
…may we bring HarmonyOS forwards
The current iteration of HarmonyOS is unlikely to be the version Western consumers will eventually be offered.
Huawei have simply copied the Android source code and are now reverse engineering it to instil points of difference, rather than attempting to replicate it.
A company with Huawei’s resources will be able to customise Android to make it more distinct – possibly more Oriental – in both design and operation.
Huawei’s HarmonyOS is already supported by a proprietary suite of office productivity tools, an app gallery and cloud hosting.
It’ll need far more than this to attract consumers embedded in the Android infrastructure, but some consumers will welcome the new competition.
And if Huawei can do more than simply copy-and-paste an outdated version of an existing software system, it could really shake up the global smartphone market.