Bruce Lee, Huawei Vice President of Handset Business, said the company is working on a new mobile operating system meant to be an alternative to Android. The comment made on Chinese social media network Weibo on Thursday confirmed months’ worth of rumors suggesting the same, though the industry veteran was reluctant to share many details on the endeavor.
Background: Mr. Lee’s comments stand in direct opposition to what one of his colleagues — Huawei software engineering chief Dr. Wang Chenglu — said in September, categorically dismissing the notion that the company is working on an alternative to Google’s omnipresent OS. Mr. Wang reiterated Huawei’s commitment to Google’s ecosystem, pointing to the swift deployment of Android 9 Pie-based EMUI 9 as evidence that the Chinese technology juggernaut remains fully on board with today’s most popular OS. Original reports on the matter date back to April when insiders claimed Huawei hasn’t decided on whether to eventually work toward phasing out Android from its product portfolio but simply wanted an alternative in case China-U.S. relations take a major turn for the worse.
As evidenced by the example of ZTE, Washington has both the ability and willingness to sanction Chinese firms it believes aren’t playing by its rules, even if the thereof are already heavily limited in regards to how they can operate stateside. ZTE was on the verge of bankruptcy following a spring denial order from the Commerce Department that prevented it from procuring American technologies, including Google’s official version of Android with Play Store and other integral apps. It wasn’t until President Trump personally instructed the government to find a solution to the issue without bankrupting ZTE that the Shenzhen-based firm managed to reach a settlement that allowed it to stay operational, albeit at a massive cost.
Skepticism about its potential to work with American suppliers in the long term is understood to have been part of the reason why Huawei invested major resources into its subsidiary HiSilicon which now produces Kirin smartphone chips that rival those of Qualcomm. For much the same reasons, the company was rumored to have greenlit a secretive project meant to lead to the creation of a new OS, even if it wasn’t certain it will ever (need to) use it on a significant scale, according to previous reports. Mr. Lee’s Thursday comments did not outright confirm those claims but did add some credence to them.
Huawei remains the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer and has been diversifying its operations in a highly aggressive manner over the course of the last several years, particularly on the consumer electronics front where it’s now offering some of the most premium (Android) smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, fitness trackers, and even laptops. The company recorded a significant 15-percent revenue jump in the first half of the year and is likely to break the $100-billion turnover mark in 2018. Besides improving the commercial performance of its consumer-grade products and expanding its global footprint in the telecom segment, the conglomerate attributed its recent success to its efforts to improve its operating efficiency and run a tighter production ship overall. All of those achievements allowed Huawei to grow to unprecedented heights, with the firm evolving into a conglomerate with resources so vast that it can even afford to invest in moonshot projects such as a new smartphone OS which is a long shot in most respects seeing how oversaturated the mobile market currently is.
Impact: Between its Kirin chips and the newly confirmed existence of a mobile OS project, it appears Huawei continues to pursue efforts meant to make its operations more independent in the long run. While the firm remains a supporter of Android and was recently found to have helped test Google’s experimental Fuchsia OS, it’s keeping its options open, especially in light of the ongoing trade war between the United States and China that made global movement of technologies significantly more expensive, even as it’s yet to directly target mobile chips and software. Whether Huawei ends up commercializing its first-party OS remains to be seen, though the company apparently isn’t putting all of its faith in Android moving forward.
What’s certain is that even if Huawei commits significant resources to the newly confirmed project and ends up with something usable, it will likely take years for the company to do so. As seen on the examples of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, developing a contemporary OS for smartphones from scratch takes over half a decade and massive funding. Assuming Huawei does go through with the idea, it’s also unlikely to utilize the said OS outside of its own product ecosystem, i.e. Huawei- and Honor-branded mobile devices, as suggested by the established product practices of its subsidiary HiSilicon which still has no intentions of selling its chips to third-party manufacturers despite the fact that doing so would almost certainly amount to much more significant profits than those associated with licensing a mobile OS.
While Mr. Lee provided no details on the ongoing effort, it’s a given that Huawei’s smartphone OS will be leveraging artificial intelligence to a large degree seeing how that’s precisely what the company is currently trying to achieve with its other products as it’s implementing machine-learning solutions and related technologies into everything from camera apps to battery management services, phone-to-PC platforms, and laptop software. Seeing how not even today’s most popular mobile OSs have AI built-in given how that field wasn’t developed enough at the time they were originally being created, that effort is likely to add years of work to Huawei’s project.
The final issue with Huawei’s project is that despite the difficulty of developing a new smartphone OS from scratch, the most challenging part in getting it to “stick” is pitching it as a full-fledged ecosystem with countless third-party apps and services outside of the creator’s own workshop. As seen on the example of Samsung’s Tizen, doing so is easier said than done and by most accounts, Huawei is either set for failure from the get-go or will take a long time to recoup its investment seeing how saturated the global handset market currently is.