Huawei became a smartphone heavyweight on the strength of Google’s Android platform, but the day may be coming when Huawei leaves Android behind. As US trade restrictions continue to squeeze the firm, Huawei has announced HarmonyOS 2.0. The latest version of its in-house operating system has support for phones, and it plans to launch devices next year. If it works, Huawei might not need Android anymore.
Huawei’s fortunes have turned around dramatically in the last couple of years. Huawei was riding high in the Android ecosystem back in 2018, aiming to launch its first phones on US carriers. Then, the US government strongly hinted to AT&T and Verizon that Huawei was not welcome. The deal fell through and Huawei shifted its focus away from the US.
We’re now seeing how much economic control the US can exert even on a foreign company that doesn’t operate in America. In 2019, the Commerce Department added Huawei to its “Entity List,” which prevents US firms from doing business with the Chinese company unless they have a special license. Google is one of those companies, which means no Google apps on Huawei phones.
In the absence of Google’s ecosystem, Huawei doesn’t have much reason to stick with Android. It debuted HarmonyOS as an Android alternative last year. The first release was aimed at TVs and other non-phone devices, but the company said it could move quickly to switch its smartphones to HarmonyOS if necessary. We’re about to find out if that’s true — HarmonyOS 2.0 has been unveiled with phone support, and developers will be able to get their hands on it soon.
Huawei says its Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) platform, an alternative to Google Mobile Services, already has almost 100,000 apps. That’s up from 60,000 in May. HarmonyOS will launch for developers later this year, and Huawei says new phones could launch with the software in 2021. With its own smartphone OS, Huawei can do as it pleases without any reliance on Google, which does not operate in China.
The company seems to be hedging so it can backtrack in the event a new US government eases restrictions. Although, it’s looking increasingly unlikely a Democratic administration would be any kinder to Huawei. Currently, Huawei is hovering around the top of the Android device market, thanks largely to its dominance in China. Outside China, Huawei’s Google-less smartphones aren’t as appealing. If it can get enough apps on HarmonyOS and find a solution to its chip woes, Huawei might be able to cobble together a long-term business model that completely bypasses the US. It’s going to be rough, though.