Huawei’s long-awaited Android replacement is here. On Sept. 10, the company announced that its in-house mobile operating system, the Harmony OS, will be available on handsets starting next year.

The announcement came just days ahead of a US Commerce Department deadline which cut the company off from all possible sources of high-end chips, critical for its smartphone and carrier businesses. Analysts said the company may have to halt hardware production starting in the middle of next year.

The company first debuted Harmony OS in August 2019, shortly after new Huawei devices lost access to Google services on the official version of Android as a result of a May 2019 US ban. Harmony was widely seen as an alternative to Google’s Android mobile operating system, but at first Huawei only deployed it on devices like smart television sets and smart watches.

Starting from scratch

A third operating system outside of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android could be an important source of revenue for Huawei’s consumer business to offset losses in hardware sales. In 2019, income from mobile services accounted for 10.5% of Google parent company Alphabet’s revenues and 17.8% of Apple’s, according to TechNode’s calculations.

Experts say that it will be difficult for Huawei to generate material revenue from the new operating system. The company faces challenges ranging from establishing a profitable business model to attracting app developers. If Huawei can no longer make smartphones, persuading other phone makers to adopt the system will prove challenging, they said.

Both Google and Apple take a 30% cut from transactions made on their platforms, which include sales of apps and digital content, as well as in-app purchases.

But there is a difference in China which makes earning revenue more difficult, according to Rich Bishop, chief executive officer of Appinchina, a company that helps overseas developers distribute their apps in China.

“All of the [third-party Android] app stores in China only make money from games. For any non-gaming apps, they don’t charge any fee.”

“But if they are able to make Harmony OS successful, for example, they have 500 million people around the world using Harmony OS to download apps and games from the Huawei store, then potentially they could make a lot of money,” Bishop explained.

“But that really depends on whether they can persuade everybody to sign up to Harmony OS.”

Will Huawei convince developers?

It is relatively easy for a developer to convert an Android app to a Harmony OS app, Bishop said. “Huawei obviously is a massive company with a lot of resources, and they are working very hard to try to persuade as many developers as possible to set up a Harmony version of their apps,” he said.

But according to Richard Yu, president of Huawei’s consumer business, the company’s mobile service ecosystem now has around 1.8 million developers, but only 96,000 apps. Most of these developers have yet to make an app for Harmony OS.

“Most developers are basically going to wait and see because they don’t particularly want to start assigning resources to develop for a third mobile OS,” Bishop said.

“I think they are just gonna see how successful the ecosystem is and whether other companies are making good money from Harmony OS, and then they may decide to develop Harmony OS apps too.”

Weighing politics and competition

The other challenge Huawei faces in promoting the Harmony OS is attracting new users. It is now the world’s largest smartphone vendor, but its handset capacity is under huge pressure because of the semiconductor restrictions.

Rumors spread that Huawei smartphone peers Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo could adopt Harmony OS, with a number of articles in Chinese either predicting that they would or calling upon them to do so in support of the company. Huawei denied that it had reached a deal to put Harmony on competitors’ phones, but none of the other companies have commented.

But they would have to be very patriotic to support a competitor.

“Smartphone makers like Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo have been facing great pressure from Huawei in the past year after it shifted its focus on the domestic market,” Will Wong, analyst at market research firm IDC, told TechNode. 

“If they adopt Harmony OS, they are essentially helping Huawei. So I think the possibility is low.”

Bishop of Appinchina agrees. “I don’t think that other domestic manufacturers like Xiaomi and Oppo would want to use Harmony OS, because obviously, it is a much weaker ecosystem than Android. And it’s run by a competitor, Huawei,” he said.

Both Wong and Bishop reckon that the only reasons that other Chinese phone makers would use Harmony OS would be “political.”

“I don’t think Huawei’s competitors will say ‘absolutely no,’ to Harmony OS because the political risk is a very important factor in today’s market,” said Wong.

“The only way I can really see it working is if the Chinese government, because of the US-China decoupling, says: ‘all right, China needs its own mobile OS.’ And therefore, they kind of require every Chinese manufacturer to offer Harmony OS or to have it as an option,” said Bishop.

On Wednesday, Zhang Pingan, president of Huawei’s consumer cloud business unit, told reporters that the ecosystem of Harmony OS is always “open” to other smartphone makers.

“I think we will work together with all hardware makers to build a better ecosystem and help developers avoid switching back and forth between different platforms,” he said.

Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. Before joining TechNode, he wrote about...