Huawei unveils HarmonyOS as more than just an Android replacement

Huawei has unveiled HarmonyOS as a replacement for Android if the China-US trade war continues to escalate, but the OS also has greater ambitions.

The Chinese tech giant continues to find itself in the crossfire between China and the US in their ongoing trade dispute. While the US itself a small market for Huawei devices, the manufacturer has used almost exclusively American software, hardware, and standards to reach its position as the second-largest smartphone manufacturer.

Earlier this year, the US administration put Huawei on an ‘entity list’ which prevents American companies from doing business with a company without prior permission. US firms quickly announced compliance with the decision and Huawei temporarily lost partnerships with Google, Qualcomm, Broadcom, Intel, WiFi Alliance, SD Association, Bluetooth SIG, and others.

Reports suggest Huawei increased the development pace of an OS it’s been working on since around 2012. Huawei began registering trademarks around the world for ‘HarmonyOS’ last month, and today it officially unveiled the new OS at the Huawei Developer Conference in Dongguan.

HarmonyOS appears to have similarities with Microsoft’s original vision for Windows 10 to be scalable across devices like smartphones, wearables, smart TVs, and more. Android itself had such a vision at one point but has since become fragmented.

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei, said the ability to work across various platforms and devices makes it "completely different from Android and iOS," while adding the project will be completely open-source.

Huawei highlights four distinct technical features of HarmonyOS:

1. Seamless: First-ever device OS with distributed architecture, delivering a seamless experience across devices

By adopting distributed architecture and distributed virtual bus technology, HarmonyOS offers a shared communications platform, distributed data management, distributed task scheduling, and virtual peripherals. With HarmonyOS, app developers won't have to deal with the underlying technology for distributed apps, allowing them to focus on their own individual service logic. Developing distributed apps will be easier than ever before. Apps built on HarmonyOS can run on different devices while delivering a seamless, collaborative experience across all scenarios.

2. Smooth: Deterministic Latency Engine and high-performance IPC

HarmonyOS will address underperformance challenges with a Deterministic Latency Engine and high-performance Inter-Process Communication (IPC). The Deterministic Latency Engine sets task execution priorities and time limits for scheduling in advance. Resources will gravitate toward tasks with higher priorities, reducing the response latency of apps by 25.7%. The microkernel can make IPC performance up to five times more efficient than existing systems.

3. Secure: Microkernel architecture that reshapes security and trustworthiness from the ground up

HarmonyOS uses a brand-new microkernel design that features enhanced security and low latency. This microkernel was designed to simplify kernel functions, implement as many system services as possible in user mode outside the kernel, and add mutual security protection. The microkernel itself provides only the most basic services like thread scheduling and IPC.

Harmony OS's microkernel design uses formal verification methods to reshape security and trustworthiness from the ground up in a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE). Formal verification methods are an effective mathematical approach to validate system correctness from the source, while traditional verification methods, such as functional verification and attack simulation, are confined to limited scenarios. Formal methods, by contrast, can use data models to verify all software running paths.

HarmonyOS is the first OS to use formal verification in device TEE, significantly improving security. In addition, because the HarmonyOS microkernel has much less code (roughly one-thousandth the amount of the Linux kernel), the probability of attack is greatly reduced.

4. Unified: Multi-device IDE allows apps to be developed once and deployed across multiple devices

Powered by a multi-device IDE, multi-language unified compilation, and a distributed architecture kit, HarmonyOS can automatically adapt to different screen layout controls and interactions, and support both drag-and-drop control and preview-oriented visual programming. This allows developers to more efficiently build apps that run on multiple devices. With a multi-device IDE, developers can code their apps once and deploy them across multiple devices, creating a tightly integrated ecosystem across all user devices.

The HUAWEI ARK Compiler is the first static compiler that can perform on par with Android's virtual machine, enabling developers to compile a broad range of advanced languages into machine code in a single, unified environment. By supporting unified compilation in multiple languages, the HUAWEI ARK Compiler will help developers greatly improve their productivity.

Whether Huawei’s attempt to unify devices under a single OS is any more successful than previous attempts remains to be seen, but some in the industry are sceptical of HarmonyOS’ ability to replace Android.

Jan Vidar Krey, Head Of Development at Promon, commented:

“HarmonyOS is not based on Android, but will eventually have some Android compatibility. The key words here are ‘eventual’ and ‘some’, and it’s my concern that this will result in major issues for Huawei, with users set to definitely lose access to many, if not all, of their apps. The backlash from this will be fierce, and it’s unlikely the company will recover from a reputational standpoint. 

We know that Android compatibility is very hard to achieve, with BlackBerry being a prime example. BlackBerry tried to achieve compatibility but in the end, the result was terrible for the end-user. Amazon's Android is already a "different" version that app developers generally ignore. In Huawei’s case, its Android compatibility is not going to be good enough, so apps may partially work, or not at all in the worst case. 

HamonyOS will also cause headaches for app developers who will need to target the operating system separately, adding cost and testing effort. This applies to both unreleased and existing apps and games. While new apps can be adapted, this would depend on the incentives of doing so for this operating system. There is a historical parallel with Microsoft’s Windows Phone, which ultimately failed because users did not have access to the same apps available on iPhones and devices that run on Android. 

In terms of security, we do have to credit Huawei. The Harmony OS will have Trusted Execution Environment (TEE) across devices to keep data secure, and it will not allow root access. 

But the issues it will cause, for end-users and developers, will mean HarmonyOS could be the death of Huawei.”

Alongside the TEE, Huawei must also be credited for making HarmonyOS open-source. The ability to inspect the OS’ code should help to reduce some of the security fears around the company.

Earlier this year, in defence of its Android partner, Google argued to the Trump administration that banning Huawei would force it to create an alternative to Android that’s “more at risk of being hacked, not least by China.”

Chinese media outlet Global Times reported that a smartphone targeted at the low-to-medium end of the market would launch with HarmonyOS between October and December.

Huawei’s next major flagship smartphone, the Mate 30 Pro, is currently set to continue using Android.

Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this? Attend the co-located IoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo, AI & Big Data Expo, and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London, and Amsterdam.

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