Recently, Huawei is preparing to start delivering HarmonyOS upgrades to its flagship phones this year. Even though some Huawei users and developers are already using HarmonyOS, there is still not much known about the new system, other than the fact that previous versions looked very similar to Android.
What exactly are the differences between HarmonyOS and Android?
All industry experts know though that a user interface (UI) and an operating system are two things. Changing the skin that runs on top of the operating system, is something that most Android phone makers do to curate the “vibe” of their devices and deliver a specific type of experience to users. It was no real surprise that Huawei didn’t make substantial changes to their own UI, EMUI, as its style is part of their brand identity. It’s also likely that the company decided the drawbacks of completely changing up the user-facing elements, like the UI, would outweigh the benefits.
Employing a substantially different UI would create a steep learning curve for returning users, and may ultimately slow down adoption of the new OS. Users often want to do things the way they are accustomed to on their phones. Huawei’s current user base is huge and full of people of all different ages and backgrounds. Massive changes to the interface they are all used to would make the new OS not very user-friendly and many may decide to never upgrade their phones.
So again, the UI change wasn’t a surprise. What many missed was the changes being made “under the hood”. While not as immediately obvious to a casual viewer, the new OS sitting underneath the UI, HarmonyOS, was changing the game.
It was like switching from a gas-powered car to an electric car. The body might look the same, but the engine running it was completely different.
An ecosystem is essential to all mobile operating systems, and building a new one from scratch is no easy feat. Building an OS without an ecosystem is like trying to build a town with only houses. Every town needs working stores and doctors’ offices and school and parking lots to support the people living in those homes. Huawei knew it would need support from app developers to build their new ecosystem.
HarmonyOS’s ecosystem is basically in the process of being built from the ground up. In classic Huawei form, they found a simple way to speed up the process and then took it a step further. First, they designed their app development platform in a way that allows Android apps basically run directly on HarmonyOS once ported over. Then, they used their proprietary Ark Compiler to make the execution of the code of these Android apps even more efficient. This has already made migration of Android apps over to HarmonyOS super simple.
Huawei’s strategy of working with apps that are already out there is an important part of their “1+8+N” Seamless AI Life. They describe this strategy as an open concept that uses “1” phone and “8” additional smart devices (Huawei also sells devices in each of these eight categories). For anyone that remembers their high school algebra, the “N” variable then represents whatever devices and services from ecosystem partners you can find. HarmonyOS, Huawei has explained, plays a pivotal role connecting all of these different types of devices. New distributed technologies let different devices share their capabilities with each other over low-latency networks, forming a Super Device.
Sounds complicated right? To understand it better though, we can compare it to Apple’s approach. Apple has always focused on creating inspirational products and the brand relies heavily on customer loyalty. Since the beginning, they delivered world-class Apple-brand consumer products that were designed to work well with other Apple-brand products. This gave them a huge competitive edge over other vendors. When the iPad and Apple Watch were released, competing products didn’t just have to beat them in their product category, they had to beat the integrated experience that the combined Apple portfolio delivered. This was a closed ecosystem that locked anyone that bought one Apple product into buying more Apple products to achieve the fancy integrated experience. This also gave Apple a significant advantage over Android.
By providing an ecosystem that is a lot more open than the Apple ecosystem though (remember the “N”?), HarmonyOS delivers this integrated experience while still offering customers a lot more options. One of the use cases Huawei is bragging about, for example, is a HarmonyOS-powered head unit that can be installed in smart cars. If you open a map app on your phone, enter a destination, wouldn’t it be great if the map automatically synched with the sat-nav in your car once you get in? Or with your smart watch when you are out walking? That is what HarmonyOS is promising to deliver with connections between devices as simple to set up as tapping a phone against a laptop, tablet, or household appliance.
To explain it in a more technical way: HarmonyOS has optimized bottom-layer OS functions, allowing for lower-level communications. So a non-HarmonyOS head unit could sync simple map from your phone, but HarmonyOS takes it a step further, allowing your phone to then access the car’s GPS antenna (which may be more accurate than your phone’s) to improve location accuracy. When your phone is connected to a laptop, video calls using a phone app can directly access the camera, microphone, and speaker from your laptop. Videos stored on your phone can be played directly with a connected tablet or laptop.
This ability to access the capabilities of so many different types of hardware is something giving HarmonyOS developers an edge that Android and iOS currently don’t provide. From a user perspective, it makes multi-devices experiences more seamless.
This makes both the hardware ecosystem and app ecosystem equally important for HarmonyOS. Huawei announced they were investing 1 billion USD into a Shining Star program that offers financial incentives to developers who move their apps over to HarmonyOS. It was a slightly shocking amount of money, and only highlights how far Huawei seems willing to go to support developers.
While Huawei doesn’t look like it’s very keen to substantially change its UI design any time soon, the company is undeniably making waves with the backend changes HarmonyOS provides. The core of the operating system and the ecosystems surrounding it are clearly a top priority for the company. Their open approach to handling developers and integrating devices are also letting device and content creators determine the future of the system.
Currently, Huawei has released developer tools and developer documentation for HarmonyOS. Some universities and vocational schools have even started to design HarmonyOS development courses. The ability to port existing Android apps over to HarmonyOS and the wealth of hardware capabilities already available through Huawei’s tablets, smart TVs, and PCs are making it an exciting area for growth for many.