Hongmeng OS (Ark OS): Google’s absence could create big problems for Huawei

There are more questions than answers and that’s not a good sign for a Huawei customer and a Google user.

On 26 March, as Yu Chengdong (better known as Richard Yu), CEO of Huawei’s consumer business was busy on stage explaining how the company’s latest flagship, the P30 Pro, would “rewrite the rules of photography”, little did we know that a US administration order would be rewriting some other rules. Huawei was already quite aware of the problems that lay ahead.

What started off as a minor niggle in January 2019 when Yu addressed the loss of AT&T’s support for the US market (paywall) at CES 2018, by 2019 had grown into a bigger mess, one that has yet not reached its peak.

By May 2019, Huawei had lost support from major carriers the world over, with US president Donald Trump effectively banning the sale of Huawei devices with a national security order. While the problem was mainly to do with Huawei’s 5G equipment (allegedly used for spying, or so Trump claims) it soon spread to Huawei’s laptop and smartphone businesses which were already a tough sell in the US.

Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

The impact of Huawei getting blacklisted in the US

But the real impact of Trump’s order came soon after and it sent shockwaves through the smartphone industry.

Turned out that the US-based service providers and companies had to sever ties with Huawei. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Google soon announced that it would cut off Huawei’s smartphones from future Android updates.

Despite the 90-day extension given by US Department of Commerce (DOC) before the ban comes into effect, the news was neither received well by Huawei, nor its millions of smartphone users globally, who all grew concerned about the future usability of their devices.

While the news about Google not providing future security patches and software updates does not seem like a big deal, detaching Huawei’s smartphones from Google’s Play Store and connected services did become a gigantic problem, so much so that many Huawei smartphone owners instantly started putting up their shiny flagships up for sale at low prices just to get rid of them while they still had resale value.

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What makes a Huawei smartphone?

Since a majority of Huawei’s smartphones use their own chipsets, it did not immediately appear that hardware was really going to be a problem for Huawei’s smartphones. As a Bloomberg report pointed out, Huawei was prepared for a situation like this and had even built-up a three-month stockpile of chip supplies months before the ban.

But then the unthinkable happened.

A report by the BBC, revealed an internal memo sent to UK-based ARM’s staff asking them to halt "all active contracts, support entitlements, and any pending engagements” with Huawei and its subsidiaries to comply with a recent US trade clampdown. The Verge confirmed the news and in a few days Huawei lost support from the SD Association (temporarily) followed by the Wi-Fi alliance as well.

Now it was clear that Huawei was in a tough spot when it came to the most essential piece of hardware on any smartphone, its chipset. You see, ARM designs and sells the licenses to use those designs to number of chipset manufacturers including Qualcomm and Apple. Unfortunately, that long list of clients even includes Huawei’s HiSilicon-made Kirin which is literally available in every Huawei smartphone on sale today (save for one or two).

The Huawei P30 Pro. Image: Omkar Godambe

The Huawei P30 Pro. Image: Omkar Godambe

As much as Arm would not like to interfere with Trump’s fight with Huawei and China, some of the instructions used by Arm do come from the US, which means it will have to cut off ties with Huawei until things settle down. As mentioned earlier Huawei already has a stockpile of chipsets and even its upcoming Kirin 985 could be exempt from the ban. But as the a BBC report points out, Huawei will literally have to build its next Kirin chipset from scratch for future smartphones.

Other components that Huawei also sources from US-based companies include Corning’s Gorilla Glass, the storage modules and more importantly, the radios that connect the smartphone to the networks. While it may seem that Huawei is doomed without Arm and other US-based manufacturers it’s not, as Bloomberg pointed out, thanks to an iFixit teardown of Huawei’s flagship P30 Pro. Turns out, there are alternatives, but it’s a long and difficult path to making everything work compared to what the best in the industry have on offer.

And then there’s the other major problem if Google ends up cutting ties with Huawei permanently, and that’s software. As it turns out, Huawei was prepared for such a crisis (or at least they thought they were).

Project Z

News about its “Project Z” soon began to surface online, the smartphone maker received the trademark for “Hongmeng” which confirmed that Huawei had its own operating system ready for use in its smartphones.

It’s not exactly ready per se. As Huawei soon confirmed the news about Hongmeng, it also confirmed that it will not be rolled out in the coming months, but will be made ready for China by the end of this year. If Google indeed ends up ditching Huawei after the 90-day extension, Huawei will be ready to push its own operating system (with the global moniker ArkOS) by 2020.

Would you like to order some “Hongmeng”?

No! It’s not food preparation in China. The word “Hongmeng” as per the many “experts” on Quora refers to the (chaotic) state of the universe before matter came into existence. Or as per Groovye Groovye is “The state of chaos before the formation of the universe”. And that’s quite a deep, dark meaning for an operating system, one that actually goes with the chaos that Huawei is going through currently.

Some say…

Huawei’s Hongmeng OS is 60 percent faster than Android.

It will allow access to Android apps via its App Gallery and be able to run Android apps.

Hongmeng is compatible with all of Huawei’s devices including, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, computers and more.

Huawei is convincing app developers to publish their Android apps on Huawei’s own app store called App Gallery.

What the fork!

But before we jump into what Hongmeng OS will offer for smartphone users, we first need to know about “forks”.

Again, this has less to do with food and more about software. A fork is a version of Android (software) that uses the same free code base that comes from Google. And there are two of them.

1 Stock Android (Your regular Mumbai masala sandwich)

Simply put, there’s your regular version of Android available on Pixel and Android One smartphones with little or no customisations, which most of us refer to as stock Android.

2 Compatible Android Forks (Masala sandwich with some add-ons like cheese)

Then there’s software like Samsung’s OneUI, Huawei’s EMUI, OnePlus’ OxygenOS all of which are ‘compatible’ Android forks that work with Google’s ecosystem of services and apps. ‘Compatible’ Android forks are built using the same Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code, which is pure Android but with add-ons that allow them to plug into services by Samsung, Huawei etc.

A manufacturer can take the pure AOSP code base and build its own customisations into it. They may or may not come with the Play Store and Google Services built in, but since they are compatible with Google, you can easily install the Play Store and run Google apps like Gmail, Maps and more on these devices.

3 Non-compatible Android Forks (Masala sandwich well… without the masala)

And then there’s the ‘non-compatible’ Android fork, these forks are built using the same AOSP code base but will not be able to run (or are locked out) of Google’s ecosystems of apps and services. You can still side load the basic Google apps, but these may or may not work, so it’s a bit of risk to invest in a device that runs such an OS especially if you are into Google’s ecosystem and use apps like Gmail, Maps and more.

Honestly, nobody likes their masala sandwich without the masala stuffing inside. That would just be two buttered slices of bread!

If Huawei’s Hongmeng OS is an Android fork

Will Huawei’s Hongmeng OS support Android apps?

When a manufacturer wants to build a unique software user experience, devoid of Google’s services, but still wants to give users access to the multitude of Android apps available online, it develops a non-compatible Android fork. Amazon’s Fire Phone is a good example.

A non-compatible Android fork is also useful when you are Huawei in 2019. Or where you are banned from using Google’s services and you want to get the flexibility of readily available Android apps from your own app store (App Gallery) or other sources (like Aptoid). Save for Google’s apps of course!

Navkendar Singh, Research Director with IDC India, said, “Push comes to shove, if one has to choose, they (Huawei) should go for the forked version of Android.”

Plenty of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’

So, it makes sense for Huawei, but what about smartphone buyers?

The problem, however, is Google and Huawei’s ban that will not let Hongmeng OS access Google apps even if it gets its users access to the remaining third-party Android apps through its own app store called ‘App Gallery’.

Chinese users who already do not have access to Google apps and services, will not really be bothered by the lack of them. But users in India and across the globe will worry about investing in a Huawei smartphone without Google’s apps and services.

Representational image. Reuters.

Huawei smartphone users in China won't be missing any of Google's apps and services because they don't have access to them anyways. Reuters.

And it’s not just Google’s apps but access to Facebook (along with WhatsApp and Instagram) that are also US-based services that may not be available for download onto these Hongmeng OS-enabled smartphones. Even if one sideloads them onto a Huawei device, it’s literally up to Facebook to choose to ban the device from accessing its service (which could also affect its user base to an extent).

And this could hit Huawei’s bottom line as Singh puts it, “Huawei will be definitely impacted outside China, since around half of its volumes come from outside China. Without a guarantee of continuing Google and other most used apps (most of them being from USA), consumers would not like to bet on Huawei and Honor.”

If Hongmeng OS is Huawei’s own operating system

“Giving users an option to use these and other important apps on forked Android software is better than reinventing the wheel by developing an OS from scratch and then developing an app ecosystem around it.” commented Singh.

Developing an ecosystem from scratch is tough. What’s outright difficult is to get app developers to build apps for it. It’s like building a new iOS or Android from scratch and then finding developers who will build apps for them.

Building a new mobile operating system from scratch that can mimic the success of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android is even tougher.

Huawei is not an Apple…

“If developers will have to put the manual hours into building an app for someone, it has to be justified. There has to be an audience where Huawei can show that we have so many users who will use your app. Developers can then show ads within that app and then earn revenue from that.” said Preshit Deorukhkar Marketing Head at Readdle.

Ann Thai, director of Product Management for the App Store, speaks at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S., June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage - RC1D945F9280

Developers trust Apple. Image: Reuters

Deorukhkar said that that success of an operating system is more to do with users and developers trusting a brand.

“For example, if Apple comes up with a fork of iOS that comes with a new interface where developers have to build new apps for, Apple has that proven track record that audiences will move to that new platform.” The success of WatchOS is also a shining example of how easy it is for Apple to convince developers to build apps for its new devices.

For a brand like Huawei (or even a Samsung), it’s going to be hard. “Huawei, it’s still building smartphones for Google right now. It’s hard to see how much of an audience Huawei has at the moment when there are plenty of similar smartphone options available from other manufacturers out there as well.” said Deorukhkar.

There is hope…

According to a report by a Chinese website Caijing, Android apps could be “recompiled” to work with Hongmeng OS. If everything works as planned, Huawei could modify .apk containers to work for Hongmeng, which would be an ingenious idea IF everything works flawlessly.

While there’s no 100 percent guarantee that these will work smoothly on a forked Android OS or Huawei’s own custom OS, users will at least have an app at their disposal instead of a browser version of the same.

But considering the absolute dominance of Android and Google services in smartphones outside China, Navkendar Singh said that neither of these options provides a very optimistic view for Huawei going forward.

The Microsoft Lumia 640 and 640 XL are displayed during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona March 3, 2015. Ninety thousand executives, marketers and reporters gather in Barcelona this week for the telecom operators Mobile World Congress, the largest annual trade show for the global wireless industry. REUTERS/Albert Gea (SPAIN - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TELECOMS) - LR2EB3315B7O2

Windows Phones are dead. Image: Reuters

Huawei could build its own operating system from scratch and coax developers to build apps for them like Microsoft did with Windows Phone.

But Windows Phone or Windows Mobile does not exist today and if a software giant like Microsoft cannot successfully pull off a mobile operating system (despite having a history with mobile phones with Windows CE, Windows Mobile) it’s hard to see how Huawei will.

Everything banks on US DOC… and Google

The days following 19 August will indeed be big not just for Huawei, but for technology companies and consumers alike.

US President Donald Trump shakes hand with China's President Xi Jinping at the end of a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2017. AFP

US President Donald Trump shakes hand with China's President Xi Jinping at the end of a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2017. AFP

19 August is the last day till when the temporary license has been granted by the United States Department of Commerce (DOC). Soon after, it will reassess the situation and decide either to go ahead and ban Huawei completely or allow Huawei to operate as usual (if it does not perceive it as a threat).

And here’s where things get really interesting…

What Huawei has said so far:

“…Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after-sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products, covering those that have been sold and that are still in stock globally. We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally.”

What Google has promised to Android users on Huawei-made smartphones

“For Huawei users' questions regarding our steps to comply w/ the recent US government actions: We assure you while we are complying with all US gov't requirements, services like Google Play & security from Google Play Protect will keep functioning on your existing Huawei device.”

While Google and Huawei have made their promises. These would work given that ban did not take effect. I have reached out to Google and Huawei about what would happen if the ban fell in place. But here’s what the future for Huawei and its smartphone owners looks like if the ban takes effect after 19 August.

For future Huawei and Honor smartphones

IF the ban falls into place, Huawei and Honor will not be able to install Google Play Services on their devices. This as per the folks at XDA, will not let Huawei or Honor smartphones access the Google Play Store, and Google apps, out-of-the-box. Users of these smartphones will not even be able to side-load these apps, and even see deeper integrations like the ability to log into apps using Google.

For owners of existing Huawei and Honor smartphones

Again, IF the ban falls into place, owners of existing Huawei and Honor devices will be able to use and update their apps from Google Play Store. And this appears to work for most users since they will have access to Google apps and the Play Store.

Theoretically, Huawei and Honor will not have access to monthly security updates from Google, for which they will have to wait for the public release of the next Android version that happens around August every year, as per XDA. So there will be plenty of delayed updates and patches.

So while many promises have been made, it isn't clear on how Google or Huawei will go against the decisions made by the US government, if it goes ahead with the ban after 19 August extension.

The move will speak volumes about Google

Again, IF the ban goes into effect after 19 August users will find it hard to trust Google and Android as this will have a domino effect on the rest of the smartphone industry.

Today, it’s Huawei on the scanner, tomorrow it could be Oppo, Vivo or Samsung. Indeed, all eyes will also be on Google about how it’s able to control the situation and provide a solution for owners of Huawei devices while staying compliant with the US government’s requirements.

If Google does remain quiet and complies, it will only expose Android’s weakness as a platform (both in terms of hardware and software), one that is totally dependent on the whims and fancies of the US government.

This, in turn, could send a harsh warning to other smartphone brands hinting that’s it’s about time everyone did their own thing.

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