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HarmonyOS: what you need to know about Huawei's new operating system

(Image credit: Huawei)

In August 2019, Huawei CEO took to the stage of the company's annual Developer Conference, to announce HarmonyOS, the company's new cross-device operating system.

The announcement was clearly a thinly-veiled response to political events over the last year, but the message is clear – if Huawei has to ditch Android, down the line, it can.

For the time being though, this is a smart device operating system leading the charge alongside other unified operating systems such as Google Fuchsia

HarmonyOS (previously codenamed HongMeng) is a platform designed for a variety of devices, and is currently aimed at IoT devices such as smart displays or smart home equipment. The first product with the operating system is Honor TV, although more similar products have since been announced, including Huawei TV.

Given the political situation between the US and China (see: Huawei ban) and the impact it’s had on Huawei’s access to Android over the last year, it’s little wonder that the brand is presenting a defiant, confident stance. 

Cut to the chase

  • What is it? Huawei's new operating system, set to work on a variety of products
  • When is it out? In China you can buy HarmonyOS products, but it could be 2020 by the time you can elsewhere
  • How much will it cost? HarmonyOS won't cost you to use, though its products may

HarmonyOS price and release date

(Image credit: Future)

HarmonyOS will be free to use, as long as you've got a device running the OS, but since even best Huawei devices are affordable, that shouldn't be too hard.

You might be waiting awhile to use HarmonyOS, though. It's in use on Honor TV and Huawei TV sets, but those are currently only available in China, and we've heard the next Huawei Watch GT smartwatch will run on the operating system, but a release of that is still some way out.

As we'll get into, HarmonyOS on Huawei smartphones is still a way off too, if it's to come at all, so outside of China, we may be waiting a long time to try the operating system.

How does HarmonyOS work?

Huawei claims that with the rise of the IoT device, a more efficient operating system is needed. With these IoT devices packing less memory and storage than even the best smartphones, they need significantly more streamlined code, and for 100 lines of Android code, you could just have one line of HarmonyOS code. 

Despite this, HarmonyOS is still able to deliver powerful functionality across devices.

By taking a 'single kernel across devices approach', Huawei also aims to create a shared ecosystem of different devices, break through silos and in turn save developers time. One app can be deployed across a car head unit, smartwatch, fitness tracker and speaker, working perfectly. 

We’ve seen something similar ideas before, most notably on Windows Phone, which had a shared Kernel with Windows 10. While that wasn’t a hit, Huawei’s could have a silver bullet in its gun - Android compatibility.

Honor tv

Honor TV (Image credit: TechRadar)

HarmonyOS started life as a TV OS, to create opportunities for seamless casting and fluid across devices, so a user could be on a video call on their phone, cast it to a TV in the kitchen, then continue it in the living room. After that, they could take a phone call, moving from room to room, with the call following them around jumping from one smart speaker to another.

HarmonyOS will also feature on watches, speakers and car head units down the line, but isn't limited to these device categories. What’s more, it’s open-source, with Huawei releasing promises for plenty of developer support down the line.

HarmonyOS will also be an open-source platform, so developers will be able to provide apps for the platform and other manufacturers of smartphones may even choose to use the operating system.

Is HarmonyOS set to replace Android on phones?

As for smartphones getting Harmony OS, Yu was clear on Huawei’s current stance when HarmonyOS was unveiled: "When can we put it on our smartphones? We can do it any time, but for the Google partnership, and efficiency, the priority will be for Google Android OS ... If we cannot use it in the future, we can switch from Android’.

Android

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

He clarified that the switch would be “quick and easy”, putting forward fighting words while clearly safeguarding his company’s partnership with Google, for the time being at least.

Upon its announcement, Yu refrained from committing to any switches from Android to HarmonyOS just yet, and it seems Huawei's President of Global Media and Communications, Joy Tan, agrees, suggesting HarmonyOS isn't going to replace Android on Huawei phones any time soon.

Tan said "a viable alternative to Android's operating system will take years to complete.", seemingly contradicting statements made upon HarmonyOS' debut, but it just shows that there's no immediate plans for HarmonyOS to be available on Huawei phones.