Huawei ended speculation regarding its work to develop an in-house operating system in early August, when it officially unveiled its HarmonyOS (Hongmeng in Chinese).

Set to initially be installed in smart TVs from sub-brand Honor, the platform will eventually make its way into some of the vendor’s smartphones and other devices, reducing its reliance on Google’s Android at a time when the US is moving to prevent domestic companies supplying components and software to Huawei.

As an exercise to move away from non-domestic providers, the OS makes sense. However, as our US editor Diana Goovaerts previously discovered, building an OS does not necessarily guarantee app developers will rally. And that’s before you consider that US app developers may be prohibited from working directly with Huawei by the export ban.

So, will the vendor make a success of it, or will HarmonyOS go the way of the likes of Windows Phone and Samsung’s Tizen?

Marta Pinto, research manager covering mobile devices at IDC EMEA (pictured, right), said there is room for new platforms to break into the broader phone market, citing KaiOS as an example. This system was developed in response to a need to bring “some richer digital experience to basic phones,” establishing itself as “an alternative for consumers looking for a 4G experience in a basic phone”.

However, in the smartphone sector, Android and iOS emerged victorious from a market which Pinto noted sported 14 different platforms just a decade ago.

Pinto highlighted the devices and consumers who use them as the key factors in the success of any smartphone OS, noting the more devices and people, the more attractive a platform is to app developers. “It was the consumer base that dictated the fate of BlackBerry OS, Windows Phone and so many others”.

In a blog, CCS Insight’s VP of research for the Americas, Geoff Blaber (pictured, left), explained potential challengers to Android and iOS “were always good on paper”, offering “a decentralised alternative to Android with more open governance, or furthered a given company’s vision of vertical integration.”

“It all sounds easy, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to achieve, particularly for a hardware company that has yet to develop any serious services”.

Samsung’s Tizen highlights the problems, with the company failing to establish the platform as “an alternative to Android in smartphones”, despite some success in smartwatches and TVs.

Malik Saadi, MD and VP of strategic technologies at ABI Research, believes Huawei will learn from Google and Apple’s approaches to developing their OSes, by creating a hub for an application development ecosystem and educating developers on how it is used.

The basics
Part of this involves ensuring access to basic services including an app store, mapping, payments and messaging, on which other applications can be built. Saadi (pictured, right) noted almost all applications now require access to messaging and location, or include a payment API, “and all of them are also connected to the engine and stuff like that”.

Blaber agreed, noting Huawei “presented a clear strategy based on the need for consistency on its devices for consumers and developers”. Having control over the OS “and putting it on a wide range of devices” will put the vendor in a “better position to customise the experience, differentiate and add value through services”.

The approach is something of a virtuous circle, as investing in the ecosystem “drives service revenue, which in turn makes the hardware more attractive”, he added.

Pinto, too, believes getting developers on board is critical to the success of HarmonyOS outside of China, Huawei’s domestic market, but said persuading consumers is another important factor.

Operator appeal
However, Saadi sees another opportunity for Huawei beyond simply mimicking Android or iOS. The vendor could help operators to reclaim control of the ecosystem lost to Google and Apple, he argued.

Operators today use Android and iOS “just to drive traffic, but they are not making money from anything from those ecosystems”, Saadi explained. “If Harmony OS is tightly integrated with, and optimised for, the network and cellular infrastructure and brings in features that are unique to cellular networks, and they cannot otherwise be put on top of them”, it will become “a very interesting proposition for mobile service providers”.

The implications of this go beyond simply winning market share by appealing to operators. Saadi noted if Huawei becomes a must-have partner to operators, they could pressure governments currently being urged by the US to drop the vendor from future network rollouts.

Overall, the analysts were broadly positive about Huawei’s ability to scale HarmonyOS.

Blaber said it was reassuring that Huawei “is not presenting HarmonyOS as the answer to all its problems”, noting the company is looking to use it in devices “where Android is less entrenched and where the app ecosystem is less of a barrier”.

Saadi explained Huawei had likely begun development of the platform long before the US ban tipped the vendor’s hand in terms of commercial launch. This means the company is already some way down the road to convincing iOS and Android app developers to port their services to the new OS, while also “investing massively on application development for the Chinese market”.

For Pinto, the large installed base of users Huawei has in China alone means switching to HarmonyOS in that country “is not a problem”. Elsewhere, though, she cautioned blocking the vendor from accessing Android on smartphones could be a “lose-lose game” for consumers and enterprises alike.

Jury’s out
The jury’s out on whether Huawei can make HarmonyOS a success, particularly in the smartphone sector.

The vendor certainly has enough presence in the smartphone market to attract developers to the platform and build the all-important ecosystem analysts say is key to making it a success. But, Huawei appears to be lining HarmonyOS up as more of a generic play, spanning multiple devices rather than homing in on smartphones.

Ultimately, this approach could prove to be the platform’s undoing in the mobile phone market, limiting the appeal for developers of the most popular smartphone apps which will be essential to attracting consumers.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.