This story includes additional reporting from Jamie Davies.
In response to the threat of an imminent Android ban Huawei has started banging on about its own mobile OS, but who would want to use it?
Huawei’s mobile business boss Richard Yu was reported by the South China Morning Post as saying “The Huawei OS is likely to hit the market as soon as this fall, and no later than spring next year.” From the report this seems more like a fork of the open source Android core OS, with novel apps and a Huawei app store, much as Amazon has done with its Fire devices range.
While this is pretty much the only option available to Huawei if Google does withdraw access to licensed parts of Android, such as the Play Store, it’s hard to see it as a viable solution. The Amazon Fire phone offers perhaps the best precedent to draw upon. The premium device ticked all the hardware boxes but used a forked version of Android without the Play Store and as a result found a new use as a paperweight across Washington state.
Huawei will be able to continue using Android, it is open source after all, though technical support is only supplied to licenced partners, while any updates are rolled out through the open source much later than for the licenced one. This will have notable impacts not only on performance, but security. The most recent WhatsApp spyware issues were corrected through such an update, though unlicensed partners would still be exposed to the risk.
The issue Huawei faces is in the ecosystem. Wang Chenglu, President of the software engineering segment of the consumer business, told media in September developing the OS wasn’t a particularly complicated issue, but getting apps, services and products into the ecosystem is.
Smartphones are no-longer communications devices. These devices, which are millions of times more powerful than the computers which sent spacecraft to space in the 60s, are the focal point of our lives. If calling and texting was all we did, there would not be an issue, but asking for directions, collecting loyalty points, watching movies, playing games, signing into work, paying bills… everyday more functionality is being put onto the devices, and all these apps will have to be migrated to the Huawei OS.
Without apps smartphones are no longer smart. Yes, you can use the internet browser to access most services that also have an app but the user experience is significantly diminished. Huawei has the resources to ensure a lot of the top apps are ported to its own OS, but not all of them. Ultimately, in a largely undifferentiated Android smartphone market, there’s no reason for consumers to accept any compromise whatsoever.
There have also been numerous reports that Huawei was shocked by the Google decision but, in hindsight, that was an inevitable consequence of being put on the entity list, which in turn followed from US President Trump’s executive order. Maybe it was the Trump decision that surprised Huawei but since the US has been steadily increasing its hostility towards it for months that too seems a tad naïve.
Appropriately enough for something that could be Huawei’s last hope this OS is reportedly called Project Z. This has apparently been on the back-burner for a while, but largely designed for the Chinese market where a lot of Android features are blocked anyway. While we can safely assume it has now been given top priority, Project Z is reportedly still miles away from completion.
Even if Huawei completed the development of its own OS today, that wouldn’t make much difference for the reasons previously stated. Chinese smartphone vendors have benefitted enormously from having access to Android, but their reliance on a third party operating system and platform was always a precarious position. The likes of Xiaomi and Oppo will be watching Huawei’s struggles carefully.