What is HarmonyOS? A guide to Huawei's operating system

We take a look at Huawei's fledgeling OS that's aimed at IoT and, now, smartphones

HarmonyOS on the MateX2

No tech company would have been happier to see the end of Donald Trump's presidency than Huawei. The Chinese firm has had to endure a crippling trade ban due to US security fears and this has prevented them from accessing hardware and software from American firms. 

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By now it is well known that Huawei can no longer use the full version of Google's Android operating system in its smartphones. The means no Google Play store and no apps like YouTube or Netflix. 

To its credit, the firm has pushed on, releasing the Mate 30, Mate 40 and P40 without those services, but it has struggled to retain market share outside of China. The company is well-loved for its innovative, camera heavy smartphones, but that isn't enough to compete with Android - the world's most popular mobile OS.

But this tragedy might be the start of something better, introducing HarmonyOS...

What is HarmonyOS?

It's actually 'HongmengOS', but Huawei has tweaked it to 'Harmony' for the international market. The original name means wild goose in Chinese mythology, but the term 'harmony' is very well suited as it's being designed to be a one-size-fits-all multi-device operating system.

It's an idea that Huawei says it has been working on for over a decade; an OS that can power a range of IoT tech from smartwatches, to tablets and even in-car systems. One customisable platform for practically any hardware that's internet-connected. And, as of April, this will also mean smartphones with the foldable Mate X2 the first to use it.

How does it work?

The system is based on a microkernel, which is a minimal software structure for operating system mechanisms. As opposed to monolithic kernel systems which are layered, the microkernel's mechanisms work with smaller source code bases. For example, Android runs on 100 million lines of code.

Harmony, according to Huawei, runs on just 100 lines of code and trumps Android on performance because it has a "Deterministic Latency Engine". This is about prioritising performance, where the system simplifies the communication channels between the software and the hardware - supposedly reducing latency.

The multi-device part comes from an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) and a distributed architecture kit. The idea is that developers can efficiently build apps that run on multiple devices and the multi-device IDE allows them to code their apps once and deploy them across different hardware. The aim is to create a tightly integrated ecosystem across all user devices. This is enabled by an ARK complier, a system for developers to build with different languages that then translates them into one language for HarmonyOS.

What devices will it be on?

Huawei's fledgeling OS started on the Honor Vision Smart TV and also feature in various IoT devices, initially. There was a plan to implement it into laptops and wearables, but that has now been upgraded to smartphones.

To begin with, the OS will be available on the Mate X2, but it will be coming to older devices as an update. This may include all models of the P40 and Mate 40 and will probably come pre-installed on the next flagship launch, which is assumed to be the P50, early in 2021. 

What about Android?

HarmonyOS has been in the works for over a decade, but Huawei only unveiled it until after Google announced it would be withdrawing Android support. This naturally led many to assume that Huawei had a replacement in the works, yet curiously what we got was an operating system geared more towards other kinds of hardware.

The strained relations between the US and China has had a huge impact on Huawei. The firm has launched the Mate 30, P40 and Mate 40 with a limited version of Android while it has worked to build up a worthy app gallery. The situation has been anything but harmonious but Huawei might have finally found the answer to that...

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