Huawei Needs to Build the Operating System No One Thinks It Can
No company has succeeded in building an operating system to compete with Android and iOS, but Huawei is going to try — because it has no alternative
Huawei’s smartphone business is living on borrowed time. In May, the U.S. government blocked companies like Google from dealing with Huawei, an order it temporarily lifted to let the phone-maker update its existing Android phones. Huawei got another reprieve on Monday, when the U.S. Commerce Department extended the company’s permit by 90 days, but the clock is ticking. Without the ability to tap into Google’s operating system, Huawei’s smartphone business — which accounts for 18.9% of the worldwide market — is in jeopardy. So, the company is trying something that usually fails: building its own operating system.
Earlier this month, Huawei announced its new HarmonyOS, a platform the company has been developing behind the scenes for some time. It’s an open-source operating system designed to run on everything from smartphones to TVs to wearables. According to Huawei, developers will be able to code apps that can run across all of HarmonyOS’ platforms; no need to write separate apps for the TV and smartwatch, in other words.
It’s a promise we’ve heard before, and it rarely pans out. But the tech industry could badly use one that does.
According to Bryan Pon, a mobile platform researcher and co-founder of the data analytics firm Caribou Data, the idea of a universal operating system is far out of reach. “I don’t think anyone can do that. The largest companies in the world, Google and Apple, have tried, but they still have separate operating systems,” he says. “This ideal of ‘We’re going to have one OS that’s going to run everything,’ I think that’s just a fantasy.”
Huawei will have to crawl past the graveyard of companies who have already tried and failed.
For proof, we can look to history. In its early days, Android similarly promised it would run on everything and that developers could write an app once that works on every device type. Of all who have attempted it, Android has probably gotten closest. Besides the more than 2.5 billion Android phones in the world, it can be found now on TVs, car head units, smartwatches, and smart home gadgets, but it’s still far from that ideal of a single universal platform. Google also still uses a separate operating system, Chrome OS, for its laptops.
With Apple focusing on its own devices in an isolated ecosystem, and Google failing to live up to the promise of a universal operating system everyone can use, it would seem like the perfect time for a competitor such as Huawei to step up and offer an alternative. But it will have to crawl past the graveyard of companies who have already tried and failed.
In November 2010, Microsoft introduced Windows Phone (following it’s older, failed Windows Mobile) to compete with Android and iOS. It died. Samsung created Tizen, hoping to eventually replace Android and lessen its dependence on Google. Now it’s mostly only used on smartwatches. Countless others have come and gone. Symbian, WebOS, and Firefox OS have failed to gain much traction. Even Google itself is experimenting with an OS called Fuschia that will ostensibly bring Android and Chrome OS together. So far, nothing has materialized there, either.
Part of the reason this is so difficult is because of third-party software. Any phone that can’t use Instagram, or any smart TV that can’t play Netflix, won’t be as useful to customers as a device that can. On the other hand, developers don’t want to build their apps for devices that customers aren’t buying.
“The developers don’t want to develop for a bunch of different platforms until there’s a big enough audience. It’s that kind of chicken and egg challenge,” says Pon. “How many tens of millions did Microsoft spend trying to stimulate developers to do this and didn’t make it happen?”
The domestic China market is big enough that if Huawei can get some users onboard… maybe that offers enough incentive for Western firms to want to try to develop for their platform.
That number might be better measured in the billions. Aside from spending $7.2 billion to buy Nokia, Microsoft famously spent $400 million on marketing Windows Phone in 2010. It also paid individual developers up to $100,000 each to make apps for the platform. And all of that before it retired Windows Phone in favor of its next attempt, Windows 10 Mobile. Which also died.
If Microsoft — only the most valuable company in the world by market capitalization — can’t buy its way into the mobile platform race, who can?
“If you try to go toe-to-toe with the established network effects, you just can’t win,” says Pon. But there may be an alternative. Currently, Google isn’t allowed to bring its proprietary app store and services to China. This presents a problem for Western developers who can’t break into the Chinese market — and it gives Huawei an opportunity. “The domestic China market is big enough that if Huawei can get some users onboard, through work with domestic developers, maybe that offers enough incentive for Western firms to want to try to develop for their platform.”
Huawei already commands the biggest share of the Chinese smartphone market, so it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the company could leverage its power to bring developers onboard. It also leads in India, another country with a huge population and much more room for explosive smartphone growth. Losing Android will likely hurt Huawei in the short term, but if it can develop HarmonyOS enough to appeal to its home market and India, it could potentially create a global rival that can stand up to Google and Apple.
Then again, if there was that much potential upside, one might think Huawei would’ve acted on it sooner, rather than being forced by President Trump’s trade war. The reality is that this road isn’t going to be easy. “They had a plan B sketched out on a whiteboard for years. Everyone has,” says Pon. “But certainly no one ever wanted to actually have to try to execute on it.”
Now, Huawei has no choice but to execute that plan. It won’t be easy, but if it works, it might help break the stranglehold that Apple and Google have on the global smartphone market. “With that duopoly, you lose a lot of the potential for innovation,” says Pon. “Yes, it’s great from a user experience perspective, at least in the short run… but I think most people are starting to get very concerned about the concentration of power that comes from runaway network effects on what emerged to be the dominant platform of our age.”