TV first, handset later – is HarmonyOS destined for OS graveyard?

The operating system cemetery features has-beens like Windows Phone which tried in vain to take on the Android-dominated smartphone market, while Samsung Tizen has targeted less saturated IoT plays but has struggled to gain traction. How long before Huawei’s HarmonyOS joins them? Late last week the exiled Chinese firm unveiled its in-house, microkernel-based operating system pegged to be “completely different to Android and iOS.”

But to the surprise of many, the first product to be given the HarmonyOS treatment wasn’t a smartphone at all, instead rolling out a duo of smart TVs under the mobile giant’s Honor brand – the Honor Vision and Honor Vision Pro TV sets. The two HarmonyOS-powered 55-inch 4K displays will run a Huawei Honghu 818 chipset and will reportedly serve as a smart home hub – reflecting Huawei’s attempts to crack the connected device market beyond smartphones.

While the Honor Vision is priced at a reasonable $540, the $680 Vision Pro TV comes kitted out with a pop-camera and six far-field microphones for video calling and six speakers compared to the standard Vision’s four.

Unfortunately, Huawei is positioning HarmonyOS in general as a China exclusive, suggesting the Honor TV sets won’t be breaking out globally anytime soon as the company sets its sights on stealing market share from the US OS stranglehold – starting with the big screen before making its way to the all-important smartphone.

That said, while we wait for Huawei’s first HarmonyOS-based smartphone, there is no escaping the fact that it will miss the wealth of apps available in the Play Store as well as Google’s technical support. HarmonyOS is open source, meaning OS updates will roll out slower than the full Android license which has implications for performance and security. HarmonyOS does, however, proclaim to make life easier for developers, allowing them to amalgamate various languages and code in a single ecosystem, although details on any HarmonyOS smartphones under wraps as Huawei continues to describe its situation with Android as “unclear”.

For China at least, Huawei would have the opportunity to reduce its dependence on Android and Google; to create a fully integrated platform, Apple-style, with its own technology from HiSilicon processors to the UI; and to feed into the Chinese government-backed effort to create a homegrown mobile platform and so sever some of the ties to western technology and patent fees.

HarmonyOS has been in development for two years, implying that Huawei always intended to distance itself from Android, long before having its Android license suspended by Google three months ago. Although Huawei has been reported to be working on its own Android fork since 2012 (the time of its last major dispute with the US).

In 2015, it recruited an Apple designer, Abigail Brody, with one of her objectives to revamp the skin it overlays on vanilla Android to give its increasingly successful smartphones a differentiated look and feel. At the time, Brody said that she believed Huawei could become “the world’s number one, the most advanced and favorite lifestyle-centric ecosystem, and without having to copy Apple at all, ever”. However, Brody left the company after just two years as chief user experience designer, and set up her own company, Abalone, which aims to build the “world’s most integrated creative software platform yet”.

A more productive area for Huawei to pursue its own device agenda may be the Internet of Things. The lines are not fully drawn there, unlike the smartphone space, and many companies will try to push their solutions as the new Android. Huawei itself has LiteOS, looking to bridge the traditional real time OS (RTOS) and the fully-fledged ‘fat’ OS of a smartphone.

We should emphasize at this point that it is not in Google’s gift to deny any firm access to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) which by definition is open to everyone including Huawei. This allows Huawei to build its own version of Android and its TVs could access services developed on the Android Operator Tier. It also means that Google Play, the digital distribution service for Android’s official app store, will continue to work on existing Huawei devices. Current owners will apparently still be able to access their third-party apps.

This would surely cripple Huawei’s smartphone business outside the US assuming Google’s current dominance of the smartphone app arena continues. Currently almost 75% of smartphones are Android, with Apple’s iOS just under 23%, leaving just 2% for the rest. It may well be that Huawei will have to pin its hopes on building on that 2% with its own OS.

Success on the big screen is by no means guaranteed for HarmonyOS though, with other local firms to contend with such as handset maker OnePlus soon to enter the TV scene – based on Android of course just to make things a little more interesting. The Chinese smartphone maker lifted the skirt on its TV plans this week, unveiling the imaginative name for its first big screen venture – OnePlusTV. Sigh.