Huawei only got to enjoy a few months at the top of the smartphone heap before the US government knocked it down a peg. Following the Commerce Department’s actions against the Chinese megafirm, Huawei has been unable to use Google services on its new phones. The company’s solution was to develop HarmonyOS, a new operating system that would replace Android, according to Huawei. Now that we’ve gotten our first real look at HarmonyOS, one thing is clear: this is just Android with a skin.
As long as Huawei is on the Commerce Department’s “Entity List,” it cannot do business with any US company unless it has been granted a special license by the government. Even some foreign companies that use US technology, such as ARM Holdings, have been forced to cut ties with Huawei. As a result, the last several Huawei flagship phones have shipped without Google’s apps, but they were still Android.
The HarmonyOS beta is available, and this software is allegedly coming to retail phones this year. Ron Amadeo from ArsTechnica signed up to be a HarmonyOS developer to see what the Chinese telecom giant has to offer, and the results were surprising. Before Huawei will even show you HarmonyOS, you need to sign up as a dev and verify your identity by sending pictures of your passport and credit card. This process takes two days, and at the end of it, you don’t even get to download the software. Instead, the emulator streams HarmonyOS from a Chinese virtualization server.
While poking around the laggy remote interface, Amadeo discovered HarmonyOS is still just Android. Huawei’s development documents, which are written in a manner so confusing as to feel intentional, don’t make any mention of the platform’s Android lineage. In fact, Amadeo was unable to find anything functionally different than Huawei’s Android 10 phones running its EMUI skin. Many of the system files still include the word “Android,” but a few have gotten “Android” swapped for “HarmonyOS.” But changing a few words doesn’t make this a new operating system.
Huawei is free to release this thing called HarmonyOS for its phones, but it can’t call it Android — the name is trademarked by Google. Having no allegiance to Google will, however, allow Huawei to change more of the OS down the line, creating a true Android fork like Amazon’s Fire OS. This might still work out alright for Huawei, which is still selling millions of phones in China and other Asian markets. However, this isn’t a new operating system come to compete with Android and iOS.
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