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HarmonyOS 2: what you need to know about Huawei's new operating system

HarmonyOS 2
(Image credit: Huawei)

Originally announced in August 2019, HarmonyOS is about to hit smartphones and tablets for the first time as the major version 2.0 update rolls out. In fact, Huawei has announced a host of new products with the software already on board.

HarmonyOS is related to, but not exactly the same as, the Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) replacements to Google's apps that the company is working on in an effort to work past the Huawei ban. 

These are apps that would go on its smartphones like the Huawei P40 or Mate 40, and there's certainly a ticking clock element in Huawei resuscitating its phone division before people associate it too much with the ban from Google apps.

HarmonyOS (previously codenamed HongMeng) is a platform designed for a variety of devices. It started off on IoT devices such as smart displays or smart home equipment, then moved on to TVs, and is now coming to phones, tablets, and smartwatches too.

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 few years, 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 for a variety of devices
  • When is it out? Expect it on 2021 products
  • How much will it cost? HarmonyOS won't cost you anything, though its products may

HarmonyOS 2 release date

HarmonyOS 2

(Image credit: Huawei)

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

You can buy HarmonyOS devices right now in China, but the rest of us are still waiting to try out the software. Huawei has announced new products such as the Huawei MatePad Pro 2021 and the Huawei Watch 3 with the software, but we've yet to find out about any smartphones.

Smartphones like the Huawei Mate 40 and Huawei P40 series are receiving the update in China, but we've yet to hear about devices around the rest of the world.

We expect to see HarmonyOS on almost all Huawei products going forward, including the long-awaited Huawei P50 and the Huawei Mate 50 range too. It might even come to devices currently running Android that aren't made by Huawei.

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 basic handsets, let alone 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 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.

In practice, much seems similar to other smartphone software, with a similar look to EMUI 12 (the latest version of Huawei's Android software), but with some extra features such as Service Widgets that allow you to better customize your device's home screen.

Honor tv

Honor TV (Image credit: TechRadar)

HarmonyOS started life as a TV OS, to create opportunities for seamless casting and fluid movement 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.

A new Control Panel in HarmonyOS 2 shows how this can be done, and you'll be able to drag a logo onto different elements on the phone's display to use further devices. For example, Huawei showed how you can drag a smart screen icon onto a phone icon so a film would jump up to a HarmonyOS TV.

You'll need to have a compatible device for this to work alongside your phone, but it's an interesting idea if your home is full of devices that will be compatible with HarmonyOS.

A new Task Center feature also allows you to use apps on different devices without having them installed on each one. For example, you could play a game on your smartphone and then transfer it to a HarmonyOS tablet without having to redownload the app.

HarmonyOS 2

(Image credit: Huawei)

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

During the HarmonyOS 2 unveiling, the company showed a variety of app developers that are working with the company, including services like Weibo in China.

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

Huawei also claims that both speed and battery life are improved through HarmonyOS, but we won't be able to test that claim until a later date when we've tried out further devices.

Ben Wood, Chief Analyst at CCS Insight told TechRadar, "Huawei’s announcements reflect its need to pivot away from a reliance on smartphones to other hardware categories such as tablets, smart speakers, headphones, wearables, displays and more. Many of these devices are able to use Wi-Fi rather than a cellular connection making it easier to get around the sanctions related to 5G chips.” 

“HarmonyOS is designed to provide the glue between a growing array of connected devices that Huawei is targeting. Huawei will be hoping that it can follow Apple’s lead, by having a single software platform that extends in all directions, providing a seamless experience to customers that buy into its ecosystem of products.”

Tom Bedford

Staff Writer, Phones

Tom's role in the TechRadar team is as a staff writer specializing in phones and tablets, but he also takes on other tech like electric scooters, smartwatches, fitness trackers and more.