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19 June


Huawei operating system has big problems

Company need to win the attention of foreign users, solve the problem of chips and make the OS accessible to developers

Photo: Reuters

/NOVOSTIVL/ Huawei Technologies is preparing to release its own operating system for mobile devices as it faces the prospect of losing access to Google's Android OS and popular apps. But while industry experts agree the Chinese smartphone maker has the know-how to build a workable operating system, whether it will catch on in the global market is up for debate. This article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Huawei phones sold outside of China run on the Android system, and access to latest updates and technical support from Google is critical for the company. That access is now in jeopardy following the U.S. government's move to restrict exports to Huawei.

For Huawei, the challenge of building its own operating system - the core software that controls a device's hardware and other software - is not only technical. The company will also have to win over international users and app developers amid widespread concerns over security.

"Building an operating system is a lot of engineering effort," said Philip Levis, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford University. "One of the hard things about phones is they are so different. For example, screens are not simple rectangles, because sometimes cameras or other peripherals jut into them. This could be a bit easier if it's just for Huawei phones."

But building a mobile operating system that only works with its own devices would not make much sense for Huawei, since becoming a global success in this arena requires a certain amount of mass appeal. That means building a big enough ecosystem and attracting enough apps to use with it. It is a test that Microsoft, BlackBerry and many others failed.

"A company like Huawei that made it a high priority could probably have something reasonably usable - but not nearly as featured as Android and iOS - in a year or 18 months, especially given the state of open-source code today," Levis said.

For context, Android Inc. was pitching to investors in 2004 and bought by Google in 2005. The operating system was publicly unveiled in 2007, and the first device running it shipped in 2008. Given that Huawei has reportedly been working on a "Plan B" operating system since 2012, it is reasonable to expect the company to release one this year.

But to compete at the same level as Android, "Huawei has to get developers open to rewriting the apps for their OS and then put millions of apps in the app store," said Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint, an Asia-based technology analysis company.

One of the biggest reasons Microsoft gave up on its own operating system - Windows Phone - in 2017 is because developers never backed the platform.

Nokia's Symbian system and BlackBerry OS faced similar trouble. Neither of those proprietary mobile operating systems was able to gain enough traction to convince companies to develop and maintain apps specifically for them, and both were eventually discontinued, just like Windows Phone.

Because of the high cost of rewriting and migrating an app to a new operating system, many believe that the Huawei's OS - reportedly named Hongmeng - will be built on the open-source Android system.

"Building it on the existing Android system has the advantage that it would make it easier for existing developers to run their apps on it," Levis said.

To gain a similar level of global influence and market share as the two leading operating systems, Huawei would need to not only "dominate the Chinese market" but also make inroads into other countries, Levis added.

Even if Huawei overcomes the above challenges, there is still one long-term concern looming over its operating system: the underlying chipset.

The chip design architecture of Arm, the semiconductor company owned by Japan's SoftBank Group, underlies 90% of the world's mobile processors, including those used by Huawei. Last week, however, Arm said it is complying with the latest U.S. restrictions against Huawei.