Mobility

Huawei's smartphone OS aims to challenge iOS/Android dominance: Can it succeed?

Huawei is developing their own OS as a contingency plan in the event US sanctions make using Android unviable. In a crowded market, is there room for a third OS?

Huawei is developing its own operating system for use on smartphones, putting the company in direct competition with iOS and Android. These plans were confirmed in a post on Weibo by Bruce Lee, vice president of mobile products at Huawei, marking the first time a representative of Huawei has directly acknowledged the existence of the independently-developed operating system.

This confirmation follows April reports indicating Huawei began development of their own OS in 2012 as a contingency plan for "worst-case scenarios," most notably, the possibility that the company loses the ability to distribute Android or Windows as a result of US sanctions.

Under present political circumstances, this is a potential outcome. Earlier this year, ZTE's business operations came to a grinding halt following the US imposing a "denial of export privileges" against ZTE, preventing US companies from selling products or services to the company. This ban was lifted by President Donald Trump one month later, as a "personal favor to the President of China," according to White House trade advisor Peter Navarro.

SEE: 5G technology: A business leader's guide (Tech Pro Research)

Since 2012, ZTE and Huawei have been accused by US intelligence chiefs of collaborating with the Chinese government, though no evidence has been provided to substantiate those claims.

If Huawei were to face similar sanctions from the US government, it is unclear how that would impact the second-largest smartphone manufacturer's ability to use Android. Because the core of Android is open source, it may not be practically possible to prevent Huawei from using it. However, Huawei could be banned from using Google Play Services, the closed-source software suite which includes the Google Play Store, and the apps sold through that market.

Unlike ZTE, Huawei is well-positioned to survive such sanctions, as the company develops their own Kirin line of SoCs, while ZTE is reliant on Qualcomm and MediaTek for SoCs to power their smartphones. Because of this, Huawei's plans to develop their own OS have some viability, though the smartphone industry is littered with unsuccessful attempts to build a "third pillar" to compete against Android and iOS, with Windows 10 Mobile, BlackBerry 10, webOS, Firefox OS, and Ubuntu Touch abandoned for smartphones.

According to a recent Gartner report, phones not running Android or iOS comprised just 0.1% of the mobile market in 2017, or about 1.5 million devices worldwide. Jolla, a Finnish company comprised of ex-Nokia employees, continues development of Sailfish OS, which is primarily licensed out to organizations concerned with privacy and security implications associated with Google. Most notably, Sailfish has been certified by the Russian government for use in government operations. Samsung continues to develop Tizen, which is used primarily for IoT deployments, though the company has continued perfunctory yearly releases of Tizen smartphones in India, the most recent being the Z4.

Though practically no technical details of Huawei's internally-developed operating system are publicly known, the company is comparatively well-positioned to make the move work. Because of ongoing conflicts between Google and the Chinese government, there is no locally available version of the Play Store in China, making the Android experience on Chinese smartphones comparatively inconsistent. Internet firms Tencent, Baidu, and Qihoo offer their own app stores, while smartphone manufacturers including Huawei and Xiaomi ship phones with their stores preinstalled. Multiple app stores can be used concurrently on the same device.

The reports from April indicate that Huawei's own operating system remains unreleased "because it is not as good as Android, and the system does not have many third-party apps developed for it." It is possible to infer from this that Android apps would not be binary compatible, though the difficulty of porting software is unclear. While Huawei could prop up their own operating system inside China, it would be a substantially more uphill battle in the rest of the world, where the Play Store is available in some capacity.

It is entirely possible that Huawei's independently-developed OS remains unreleased, as the company is working with Google on development of Fuchsia, which is confirmed to boot on the Kirin 970 SoC found in the Honor Play.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:

  • A Huawei representative has publicly confirmed the existence of an internally-developed operating system which may be used in place of Android on smartphones.
  • This operating system is largely viewed as a contingency plan in the event US sanctions complicate the use of Android.

Also see

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Image: Josh Miller/CNET

About James Sanders

James Sanders is a technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI, and 5G, in addition to security, cloud computing, open source, mobile and satellite communications, and the impact of globalization o...

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