Huawei is China’s – and formerly the world – largest smartphone provider, and in the last 1
Because of this, Huawei wants independence from the worldwide supply chain for smartphones. While hardware independence is something the company needs to work on, Huawei must also be free of Google’s software. So as many companies have tried to do before that, Huawei hopes to make an Android killer.
The company’s attempt at an internal operating system is called “HarmonyOS” (also known as “HongmengOS” in China). “Version 2” was released in December, bringing “beta” smartphone support to the operating system for the first time. Can Huawei succeed where Windows Phone, Blackberry 10, Sailfish OS, Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, Symbian, MeeGo, WebOS and Samsung’s Tizen have all tried and failed?
To hear Huawei tell the story, HarmonyOS is an original internal creation – a defiant action that will allow the company to break free from US software influence. Huawei’s Olympic announcement in 2019 received large, splashy articles in national media. CNN called HarmonyOS “a rival to Android”, and Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s consumer business group, told the outlet that HarmonyOS “is completely different from Android and iOS.” Huawei President of Consumer Software Wang Chenglu reiterated these claims only last month and said (through translation): “HarmonyOS is not a copy of Android, nor is it a copy of iOS.”
That makes HarmonyOS sound super interesting. Of course we had to take a deep dive.
After gaining access to HarmonyOS through a grossly invasive sign-up process, firing the SDK and emulator and poring the developer documents, I can not come to any other conclusion: HarmonyOS is really an Android fork. The way Huawei describes the operating system to the press and in developer documents does not seem to have much to do with what the company actually sends. The developer documents appear almost purposefully written to confuse the reader; any bit of the actual shipping code you hold a magnifying glass on looks like Android without major changes.
The phrase “fake it till you make it” is often given as motivational advice, but I have never seen it used on OS development before. If you’ve ever seen a modern Huawei Android phone, HarmonyOS is pretty much the same … with a few strings changed. So while there’s not much new to see, we can at least dissect HarmonyOS and disprove some of Huawei’s claims about the “brand new” operating system.
But first – a two-day background check ?!
Before we dive into HarmonyOS, we actually have to few HarmonyOS, which is incredible trouble. Apparently, some Huawei Android phones like the P40 Pro can be switched to HarmonyOS through a kind of closed beta. However, this is limited to China. For me, finding HarmonyOS meant finding my passport.
By comparison, let’s first talk about how other vendors operate their operating system SDKs. For Android, google “Android SDK” from any desktop computer, click on the first link and press the download button. Apple requires developers to own a Mac for iOS SDK, but from there it’s just an easy trip to the App Store to download Xcode.
Before you can try Harmony OS, however, Huawei requires you to pass a two-day background check. They even want a picture of your passport!
Huawei requires you to go to Huawei.com, create an account, and then sign up to be a developer by passing “Identity Verification.” This means that you send Huawei your name, address, email, phone number and pictures of your ID (driver’s license or passport) and a photo of a credit card. You will then have to wait one or two business days while someone at Huawei manually “reviews” your application. Huawei helpful notes that it will not charge your credit card.
Huawei’s documents state that “the ID card, passport, driver’s license and bank card are used to verify and match your identity information.” Okay, men Why? Why does Huawei want to know everything about me first? And why does it take two days?
Even if you try to skip Huawei’s horrible registration process and “pirate” the Harmony SDK by downloading it from somewhere else, the SDK will not run the emulator until you log in with an account that has passed the two-day background check. .
Can you imagine what a potential HarmonyOS developer would think when they get to this step? If you are an established developer in an app ecosystem, it is normal for the owner of the ecosystem to collect identifying and financial information. You probably want a developer to be able to charge for their app, which means you need to be able to transfer money to a bank account, and the owner of the ecosystem may be responsible for tax collection. Right now we are miles away from that situation with HarmonyOS. At this point, just downloading the SDK for the first time, your typical download will be a curious developer just starting to explore Huawei’s operating system. (Signing up for “Merchant Service” is actually a completely different Huawei process.)
This will be a completely new operating system, and Huawei’s position at this point will often be openness to potential developers. Google’s anonymous one-click download for Android SDK on Windows, Mac and Linux is the model companies should emulate. Huawei instead makes this as difficult as possible, and it’s easy to imagine a potential developer facing the ridiculous and intrusive download process, closing the tab and going back to Android and iOS development. It’s the worst first impression of an operating system I’ve ever seen. As a developer, you have to wonder if Huawei will always be so difficult to work with in the future.
With that said, I did all this.
In the spirit of taking one to the team, I shamefully sent Huawei a picture of my passport and credit card. My information probably went God-knows-where in China; it felt like a break and you are welcome. After a two-day wait, my social credit score was apparently high enough for me to gain access to Huawei’s expensive operating system. (Hopefully Beijing does not have “a file” on me now.)
Now let’s see what we got after all this work.