Business / Tech

Huawei cooks up HarmonyOS to replace Android as U.S. tech ban looms

AFP-JIJI

Chinese telecom giant Huawei unveiled its own computer operating system on Friday as it faced the threat of losing access to Google’s Android system amid escalating trade tensions between the U.S. and China.

Richard Yu, the head of Huawei’s consumer business, told a news conference in Dongguan that the new system, called HarmonyOS or HongMeng in Chinese, would “bring more harmony and convenience to the world.”

The highly anticipated software is considered crucial to the tech group’s survival as it confronts a looming White House ban on U.S. sales of technology products, which could cut its access to Android.

Yu said the new system was a “future-oriented OS” to be “more smooth and secure” and said it was “completely different from Android and iOS.”

Huawei said the first version of HarmonyOS would launch later this year in its smart screen products before expanding across a range of smart devices, including wearables, over the next three years.

“If you’re asking when will we apply this to the smartphone, we can do it at any time,” said Yu, adding they gave priority to using Android, which is compatible with Harmony.

“However, if we cannot use it (Android) in the future, we can immediately switch to the Harmony OS,” he said.

In May the company was swept into the deepening trade war between Beijing and Washington that has seen punitive tariffs slapped on billions of dollars of two-way trade.

Huawei — considered the world leader in superfast fifth-generation or 5G equipment and the world’s number two smartphone producer — has been blacklisted by U.S. President Donald Trump amid suspicions it provides a backdoor for Chinese intelligence services, something the firm denies.

On Thursday, Beijing slammed U.S. rules banning Huawei and other Chinese companies from government contracts, saying they amounted to an “abuse of state power.”

As a result of the U.S. moves to blacklist Huawei, American companies are theoretically no longer allowed to sell technology products to the firm, but a three-month exemption period — which ends next week — was granted by Washington before the measure took force.

That ban could prevent the Chinese tech firm from getting hold of key hardware and software including smartphone chips and elements of Google’s Android, which equips the vast majority of smartphones in the world, including Huawei’s.

Huawei has reportedly been working on its own operating system since 2012, but the group has always said publicly that it didn’t want to replace its Android phones with a home-grown system.

Yu told German newspaper Die Welt in an interview published in March that creating a proprietary operating system was “plan B.”

Huawei will be able to “develop at a lower cost a brand new ecosystem” and “mitigate its dependence on U.S. suppliers for its software needs,” Kenny Liew, a technology analyst at Fitch Solutions, said.

However, smartphones using the system would mainly be confined to the Chinese market, Liew said.

Developing an OS and an entirely new ecosystem to accompany it is a complex affair. Apart from Android, the only other popular system is Apple’s iOS, available exclusively on the iPhone.

Microsoft pulled the plug on its Windows Phone platform earlier this year, and Samsung’s Tizen system is barely known compared with Android and iOS.

But without access to the full version of Android or the popular services of Google — not to mention the many applications available on the Google Play store — Huawei may have trouble convincing consumers outside China to buy its phones.