It’s not every day that a company launches a new mobile operating system. Then again, it’s not every day that a company the size of Huawei finds itself essentially shut down from many of its core markets for years thanks to a trade ban.
HarmonyOS is just one part of Huawei’s solution to this problem. And rightly so, it’s still not a completely new operating system, as I discovered when I tried the software on the new MatePad Pro tablet this week.
Borrowed from the best
Anyone who has used one of Huawei’s recent Android phones or tablets – even those from the good old days of Google support – will find the experience immediately familiar.
It’s pretty clear that Huawei has taken Android – and its own Android EMUI skin – as a starting point, instead of working from scratch. Everything from the notification collected in the settings menu feels a lot like EMUI has always done, so this is not a radical reinvention of the mobile experience.
It helps that with EMUI Huawei has always maintained a fairly distinct visual identity, brought to you here. That was sometimes a blow against the brand when it was in opposition to Android or OnePlus ’OxygenOS skin, but now it means that HarmonyOS it feels more like Huawei than Google.
Huawei also looked to Apple for inspiration. A renewed emphasis on home screen widgets reminds you iOS 14 more than that makes Android’s own widget offering pretty basic (though sure, since then both Vivo’s OriginOS skin and Google’s own Android 12 have also developed their interactivity).
More than that, the home screen is now dominated by a long app dock at the bottom right with shortcuts set to a few favorite apps, along with the most recently accessed ones. This is a key feature that Apple has taken from macOS to make iPads feel more intuitive, and perhaps explains why Huawei chose to reveal Harmony in running MatePad tablets before the complete revelation of the P50 phones.
Android tablets have, for the most part, always been a bit terrible. Google itself has rarely focused on making tablet hardware, and its turn has shown little interest in optimizing Android for form factor. Freed from Android’s core code chains, perhaps Huawei can finally build a software suite to truly rival iPadOS in a way that even Samsung has struggled to do.
We could see similar benefits in the portable space, where Harmony also has power Huawei’s new smartwatches. Google’s track record here has been so bad that both of them buy Fitbit and yielded and announced a partnered with Samsung to resolve Wear OS, but with Harmony ready to go now, Huawei may steal a march on its Silicon Valley rival.
Of course, as Android (and Google) has limited OEMs at times, for the most part it’s been more of a blessing than a curse, especially in creating a stable market for an app ecosystem for Apple’s rivals. That’s where Huawei’s decision to build Harmony from that base completely clicks into place.
All about the application
The company’s main challenge in recent years, from a software perspective, was to lose access to the Google Play Store, and in effect suddenly decrease its software support to a fraction of rivals. Cutting that back further could have killed HarmonyOS before it even started.
Fortunately, Harmony devices will be able to install all the same Android apps as their EMUI ancestors. That is to say: you can directly install anything in Huawei’s AppGallery, and quickly and easily sideload many more Android apps via the .apk files found via Huawei Petal Search Tool.
I write this piece in Microsoft Word while changing to check Slack every now and then. Occasionally I get distracted and open up Twitter or Instagram, and when I’m done working I’ll probably watch something on Netflix or Disney + – all from HarmonyOS.
There are limitations, but they are the same limitations that Huawei had in Android. Google’s own apps won’t work here – neither Gmail, nor Google Maps, nor YouTube. With them, Android apps that rely on Google’s servers will also struggle – apps like Todoist or Zero that use Google’s servers for syncing may be installed, but they won’t work.
Applications are only one part of the story. These days, it’s the ecosystems that matter, and Huawei has its point of view high.
Even in recent years the company has been aggressive in its attempts to emulate – and improve – the ecosystem that has made Apple customers so loyal. With total control of its hardware and software, Apple has been able to ensure that (almost) everything you buy from the Cupertino company is connected, coupled, and communicated without interruption. The result is that once you have a few Apple kits, it’s too easy to find yourself with a lot of them in no time.
Huawei has already worked hard to ensure that its Android phones and tablets can be quickly connected to their Windows laptops, allowing them to mirror your phone’s screen to the PC, share wallets, and even more.
With Harmony, that connection will deepen. Huawei laptops can now completely reflect the displays of Harmony tablets or phones, or send things in the other direction, allowing you to use your Harmony device as a secondary wireless display for Windows.
Huawei accessories like headphones and speakers now connect to compatible devices the moment you turn them on, and they can jump seamlessly from your tablet to your phone when a call comes in.
There’s also a dedicated drag-and-drop interface to connect various Huawei devices close to each other, which makes more sense once you remember that Huawei also has ambitions to see Harmony turn on smart TVs and any way of connected IoT devices.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to try this stuff on myself. While it’s up and running in Harmony, I don’t have a full set of Huawei technology to try with, and mine MateBook X Pro it also didn’t have to update the software to make it compatible with Harmony. The company’s promises aren’t even extravagant – much of it will already seem familiar to Apple users.
Android has always limited the ability of other OEMs to offer the same. Outside of Huawei, Samsung has perhaps come the closest, but few irritations and quirks still stand in the way here. Without Google getting in the way, Huawei is now free to confront Apple for the first time – and following its laptop integration has clear ambitions to go a step further, even without direct control of Windows itself.
A third way
With HarmonyOS Huawei hasn’t solved its biggest problem – the fact that Google apps, and many others, still don’t work. But it has better positioned the company to work towards a solution, to build a rival software platform substantial enough to encourage global developers to cooperate in support, and to develop what could be a third major player in the market.
Equally important, it frees Huawei to play to its strengths and move away from Google’s weaknesses. Harmony can be enhanced for tablets, wearable devices and other devices in a way that Android has never been before, while Huawei can use its platform control to build the kind of ecosystem of interconnected devices that up to now only Apple could offer it.
Will all this be enough to save Huawei’s hardware and make it a new global contender? Probably not – even Apple will play well with Google sometimes, and unless the U.S. trade ban changes to allow for some sort of relationship here, it’s hard to see Huawei hardware engaging in the West.
In Asia, and especially the company’s native China, it’s a different story. Here, HarmonyOS frees Huawei from its reliance on Silicon Valley and puts the company on a new course of its own manufacturing.
With founder Ren Zhengfei already urging a pivot for software to circumvent US sanctions, it seems almost certain that the company’s ambitions for HarmonyOS lie far beyond its hardware. If it can attract major Chinese players like Oppo or Xiaomi with the promise of a complete ecosystem that operates outside of American control, how long before it sees it jump ship from Google?
Huawei could be in the process of harmonizing its hardware – but it could cause chaos for everyone else.