Huawei’s recent developer conference placed considerable emphasis on its own mobile operating system, Harmony OS, which it took quickly off the back burner last year when Google cut off its access to the full Android platform. However, Harmony OS will not be widely available in devices until next year, while Google’s own Android continues to gallop along with regular new releases, the latest of them targeted at lower end smartphones.
This is a cut-down version of Android 11 (the eleventh Android release and eighteenth version since the OS made its debut in 2007 – Google has abandoned its habit of calling each iteration after a dessert). Since 2018, Google has developed ‘Go editions’ of its main Android releases to address the entry level smartphone market.
These simplified, affordable devices are vital to expanding the base of Android consumers and developers, since they are typically targeted at encouraging featurephone users in emerging economies to upgrade. Google claims that, since 2018, Android Go – despite initial lack of enthusiasm in key markets like India – has been installed on over 100m handsets.
Google said a key feature of Android 11 Go Edition is the ability to load apps 20% faster than before, which is important in low cost devices with constrained memory and processor resources (though the new OS also raises the RAM ceiling to 2GB). The OS comes with the same new privacy capabilities as the main Android 11 but also has some of its own features, including Safe Folder.
It is important for Google to expand its Android base as quickly as possible in emerging markets where Huawei could carve out a position for Harmony OS. There is a tough mountain to climb for Harmony, since it cannot access the core Google Android apps on which many users rely, such as Maps and Search, nor the wealth of third party apps in the Play store. When Huawei was placed on the USA’s entity list in April 2019, Google quickly denied it access to the official Android platform (though Huawei can, of course, use the open source code at the base of the OS).
Huawei proceeded to dust off its homegrown OS project and name it Harmony. The OS cannot be written off, since Huawei is now the world’s leading smartphone vendor, but in developed markets like Europe, it is unlikely that significant numbers of Android users will convert to another platform that lacks their familiar applications – and in the USA, though Huawei’s handsets are not banned, operators are increasingly reluctant to showcase them. So it does seem likely that the company’s smartphone market share will be under pressure in the western markets.
In China, where most Google services are unavailable, the opposite is true, and Harmony OS may prove to be a microcosm of the cold war that is developing in the broader 5G network and platform – between technologies developed and supported by the USA and its allies, and those developed and supported by a China-influenced group. In smartphones platforms as in network infrastructure, the emerging economies are the areas where, in general, things could go either way. In many south Asian and African markets, Android (and smartphones in general) do not yet have dominance, and many handsets and operating systems are controlled by the operators. Here, Huawei has the chance to drive uptake with affordable, attractive devices, targeted at users who have never experienced Android, and so will be happy to adopt Harmony apps instead.
However, there is a long wait, and in that hiatus, Google will be building up momentum for Go. At the Huawei developer conference, Wang Chenglu, president of software development at the company’s Consumer Group, revealed that the platform will not be fully opened to smartphone vendors and app developers until October 2021. However, it does already work with simpler smart devices such as connected peripherals and home IoT gadgets.