What you need to know
- Huawei's HarmonyOS is a lot less novel than Huawei presents.
- A deep dive into the operating system revealed a largely unchanged version of Android 10.
- Huawei says phones running HarmonyOS will ship this year.
As has been assumed, Huawei is moving away from Android this year, in a manner of speaking. The company has been rendered unable to use Google's operating system in any meaningful manner ever since a 2019 U.S. ban prevented it from working with Google and loading the Google Play Store on its devices. Instead, the company throwing all its eggs into its HarmonyOS basket, a new operating system that Huawei has been playing up over the past year as its big Android replacement.
How did Huawei manage to do this? Well, according to ArsTechnica's Ron Amadeo who went poking around in the HarmonyOS emulator, they didn't. Huawei's HarmonyOS is just Huawei's version of Android with any mention of "Android" in the code simply Ctrl+H'd to read "HarmonyOS". It's what Amazon is doing with Fire OS, but the larger company has always been upfront that it was an Android fork. Huawei has presented this as being built up from scratch, something that is more than a little deceptive in hindsight.
After hours of poking around on HarmonyOS, I couldn't point to a single substantive change compared to Android. Other than a few renamed items, nothing is different. If anyone at Huawei wants to dispute this, I would welcome an example of a single thing in the emulator that is functionally or even aesthetically different from Android. If anyone wants to cry "it's just a beta!," Huawei says this OS will be shipping in commercial phones this year. There does not appear to be time to do a major overhaul from "Android" to "Not Android."
Huawei's HarmonyOS being a fork of Android isn't too surprising. It's the logical move to enable mass compatibility with apps people already known and love. Despite building some of the best Android phones, Huawei has seen its marketshare drop over the past two years. Even if Huawei didn't need the Play Store to succeed outside of China, it would be unable to succeed inside China without apps like WeChat. Getting developers to develop bespoke versions of their apps for a new operating system was a staggering task back in 2013 when the market was considerably more fluid — just ask Microsoft and Blackberry. Getting them to do so in 2021? Nigh impossible.
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