Huawei’s homegrown Android rival is coming to phones

This could mark a watershed moment in the split between East and Western tech.

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This morning, at Huawei’s developer conference, CEO Richard Yu announced that we’ll see the first phones running HarmonyOS in 2021. Android Authority quotes Yu, saying that the developer beta of HarmonyOS 2.0 will be available today, although the mobile-compatible beta version won’t arrive until December.

Huawei has been working on a home-grown operating system since at least 2012, when the first rumors of a split with Google emerged. In the subsequent six years, there have been several rumors about what the project -- codenamed Hongmeng -- was setting out to do. In August 2019, the company announced HarmonyOS, with Richard Yu saying it was faster and safer than Android.

And this is part of a broader push for China to disentangle the fate of its technology industry with that of the US. The Chinese government has made pushes for the country to develop its own PC operating system to box out Microsoft, as well as alternatives to Google, Facebook and other big western names. Even before the trade war with the US, China had put resources behind Kylin (a series of Linux variants) and PC chips.

As part of that 2019 announcement, Huawei hedged its messaging, saying that while HarmonyOS was full-featured, it wouldn’t be appearing in handsets. Instead, it would power the company’s Internet of Things and Smart Devices products, including its smart displays, wearables and smart speakers. The first device to run HarmonyOS was Honor’s Smart TV, which also used Huawei’s home-grown silicon.

HarmonyOS will also have a bifurcated distribution strategy that closely mirrors that which Google has used with Android. As well as HarmonyOS for Huawei’s own devices, the company will distribute OpenHarmony, an open-ish-sourced version of the software akin to AOSP. Yu also promised that technical limitations around the volume of RAM that HarmonyOS supports will be eliminated in the very near future.

It remains to be seen if other Chinese mobile companies that currently use AOSP will tie their fate with a rival hardware company. Not to mention, of course, that AOSP already provides the backbone of a well-developed app ecosystem and plenty of developers already au-fait with the platform. OpenHarmony will have to offer a compelling reason to switch both for the people making apps, and those using them, too.