In recent weeks, Huawei’s proprietary operating system HarmonyOS has been consistently making headlines, forging new partnerships with prominent Chinese internet companies to develop HarmonyOS native versions of their popular apps. The growing roster of collaborators now includes notable names like the audio content platforms Qingting FM and Ximalaya, Alibaba’s payment arm Alipay, China UnionPay, McDonald China, and the gaming giant miHoYo.
These developments signify a pivotal shift for Huawei, as it moves away from Android, four years after HarmonyOS’s inception, to pursue genuine independence.
With plans to phase out Android support next year and the impending launch of the HarmonyOS NEXT system, Huawei’s operating system is decidedly advancing towards self-sufficiency, distancing itself from U.S. technological constraints.
As of now, Huawei’s HarmonyOS has secured the support of most of the important apps used by Chinese users, including those by Tencent, Alibaba, Meituan, and NetEase. There has also been a surge for recruitment of specialized HarmonyOS developers by major internet companies to support the development of HarmonyOS native apps.
The open-source HarmonyOS community now has over 6,200 contributors, 51 co-building units covering sectors like finance, education, transportation, government affairs. With over 400 partners having fully started the development of HarmonyOS native apps, the HarmonyOS NEXT system is ready to launch and break away from the Android ecosystem.
Huawei’s journey to develop its own operating system, driven by U.S. sanctions that have heavily affected its business, is fraught with challenges. Although the technical aspect of creating an OS might seem straightforward to those with computer expertise, achieving commercial success with an operating system is a far more intricate endeavor.
The key to building an operating system ecosystem involves attracting third-party developers by showing them potential benefits and creating a community of shared interests to develop a thriving software ecosystem, thereby generating network effects.
Although this might sound straightforward, the past few decades have shown that successful examples are few and far between. Taking mobile operating systems as an example, the well-known Windows Phone suffered from corporate inertia, slow iteration, and frequent policy changes, eventually driving away developers.
Another attempt Symbian failed due to inherent flaws; its closed-source nature and unique programming philosophy made it difficult for developers to get started and prolonged development cycles, making it very developer-unfriendly. More recently, Alibaba’s YunOS struggled due to going it alone and was eventually marginalized by Google.
The task of establishing a successful operating system in a market dominated by Android and iOS is so daunting that there’s been only one modest success story: KaiOS, which found its niche with the backing of the Indian market.
KaiOS’s unique feature is its ability to bring HTML 5-based applications to non-touch devices, creating a niche between feature phones and smartphones. However, KaiOS, surviving primarily in the low-end market, is not what HarmonyOS is trying to do. HarmonyOS NEXT clearly shows Huawei’s ambition to challenge and compete with iOS and Android.
A 16% market share is a life-death threshold for an operating system to survive and build toward success, Huawei officials previously indicated. Huawei still has a big gap to that ratio. According to a report by Counterpoint Research, Huawei’s HarmonyOS had achieved an 8% share in the Chinese market and 2% globally as of the first half of this year.
But the chance of HarmonyOS NEXT is not to be discounted. Unlike the Windows Phone era, in today’s highly mature mobile internet environment, the number of apps installed on users’ phones has stabilized. From the third quarter of last year to the third quarter of this year, the number of apps installed on Chinese netizens’ phones has consistently been between 67 and 68. This phenomenon can be attributed to the rise of super apps, which fulfill most online needs, reducing the necessity for numerous individual apps.
As HarmonyOS has secured the support of the most popular apps, it is likely that it will have enough momentum to keep the ecosystem stand on its own and achieve further growth. In particular, the emergence of mini-programs, hosted within super apps, allows users to access hundreds or even thousands of functions within a single app. This means for Huawei, securing partnerships with the biggest companies could make the transition to HarmonyOS NEXT much more feasible.
Furthermore, significant government support has been extended to both public entities and private firms for adopting HarmonyOS, particularly from a national security perspective. This support is pivotal in aiding China’s shift towards a domestically developed operating system free from international restrictions and bans, a priority for both Beijing and Huawei.