It will take more than Huawei to make Hongmeng OS a success, say industry insiders

4 min read
A guard stands at the door of a Huawei store in Shanghai on March 22, 2019.
A guard stands at the door of a Huawei store in Shanghai on March 22, 2019. (Image credit: TechNode/Eugene Tang)

After Google blocked Huawei from using part of its mobile operating system, Android, following an order by the US government, the Chinese smartphone maker has plans to develop its own mobile operating system. While not impossible, this goal could prove difficult to achieve.

Coding a mobile operating system is a solvable problem. But Huawei faces numerous challenges, including how to provide alternatives to Google services, background processes on the Android operating system that help to integrate popular apps developed by Google, and an app ecosystem. An industry insider told TechNode that Huawei can build an Android ecosystem without any Google services, but it would need cooperation from other app developers.

“Whatever you [create] as an alternative to the standard Google Android, it has to be a joint effort,” said Tiago Alves, vice president of Asia Pacific at Aptoide.

Aptoide, a Portugal-based company that offers an alternative to the Google Play app store, has had an ongoing dispute with Google since the maker of Android flagged the rival app market as being “harmful.” The move caused Aptoide to be hidden on Android phones by Google Play Protect, Google’s built-in malware protection software.

Alves said it would be difficult for a single entity to create an alternative to Android, and the process should be a “joint effort,” where Android services are contributed by different providers.

Working together

Google announced last month that it would block Huawei from some updates to the Android operating system. Future versions of Huawei smartphones that run on Android will lose access to popular apps such as YouTube and Gmail developed by Google.

The announcement came as Google attempted to comply with a trade blacklist that bans Huawei from doing business with US companies without government approval.

On May 14, Huawei was granted the trademark, “Hongmeng,” for its operating system by China’s trademark office. The company has also registered the name “Ark” for the operating system in Europe.

For Huawei, the real challenge is not building the operating system from scratch, but providing services and an app ecosystem to replace those that rely on Google. The company’s consumer business head Richard Yu has promised that the operating system, which will reportedly be compatible with the Android ecosystem of apps, will be ready for use in China by fall this year, and international markets early next year.

Stewart Randall, head of electronics and embedded software at Shanghai-based consultancy Intralink, told TechNode that smartphones with Huawei’s operating system could be competitive in China, but few in Western Europe or North America would buy them because they would lack popular services including Gmail and Youtube.

Alves agreed that at the moment no consumers in Europe would want a phone without Google services. Nonetheless, he said it would be possible to build an Android ecosystem without Google, though it would take a long time.

Alves said that Google provides 60 different services on its Android operating system, including essential mobile phone services such as apps for text messages and contacts, as well as popular apps developed by Google.

“You would have to replace each one of these services with good alternatives,” he said.

Alves believes that Aptoide could provide an alternative to Google Play, and other third-party apps could also provide substitutes to Google services such as Google Maps and Google Play Music.

Aptoide is rumored to be in talks with Huawei to replace the Google Play Store on the Chinese company’s future smartphones, but Alves said that there was no official deal, though the company has already had many discussions with Huawei.

“As of now, Aptoide does not have any commercial agreement with Huawei. We have always shared a great relationship and our goal is not to directly replace Google Play Store on their devices, although we’re open to helping find the best solution for Huawei and its users going forward,” the company said on its official Twitter account.

If the Huawei operating system can offer all 60 of these Google services—something that will take a while to develop—then users will buy a phone that uses the system, said Alves.

But even if Huawei can create such apps, the company will still have to convince users to use those alternatives to Google apps, said Will Wong, research manager at the International Data Corporation, a market research firm.

“Google apps are kind of indispensable to many users outside China. It will heavily affect their life if they can’t use Gmail and YouTube,” said Wong.

“It’s possible to replace those apps, but it’s challenging to change user habits,” he said.

A Huawei spokesman said the company had no comment on the issue at the moment. A Google spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by TechNode.

Challenges remain

Alves said that Google’s move to block Huawei should be a “wake-up call,” speaking to the US company’s market power—what happened to Huawei could happen to other app developers and original equipment manufacturers that rely on Android.

“If something like this repeats, they will have a big problem. Because there is no alternative ecosystem to Google,” said Alves.

Aptoide has learned this lesson the hard way: Google Play flagged Aptoide as a harmful app since last summer and hid it in users’ Android devices, decreasing Aptoide’s user number by 20%, said the company.

Aptoide launched last week a campaign website to call on Google to “Play Fair,” accusing the search engine and smartphone operating system giant of squeezing consumer choice by “preventing users from freely choosing their preferred app store.”

Alves said Huawei and Aptoide were not the only companies threatened: other smartphone makers including Oppo, Vivo, Samsung, and Xiaomi should also learn from the experience. “I think it’s a wake-up call for them, [proving] that it’s a bad thing to be in the hands of one single entity.”

“We really believe that the movement to create a solid alternative to the Google Play Services experience has to start. But, again, as I mentioned, it’s going to take a while to develop,” Alves said.