Dirk Riehle's Industry and Research Publications

HarmonyOS, Android, and a radio interview

I was interviewed by Lovis Krüger German radio broadcaster WDR on Huawei’s HarmonyOS and the industry strategies around it. Two audio statements made it into the show: (1) HarmonyOS uses a lot of open source software and (2) Huawei can’t use the Android trademark without Google’s permission. So I thought I provide my notes here.

In case you missed it, HarmonyOS (2.0) is Huawei’s “new” operating system for mobile devices. It is supposed to replace Android on Huawei’s mobile devices. This in turn is a reaction to the US government’s sanctions against Huawei, which is considered an extension of the (Chinese) PRC government. So trade wars all around, but the underlying industry strategies are still interesting.

Android consists mostly of open source software, made available as the AOSP (Android Open Source Project). Legally, it is open source software, though Google controls most of the key levers that allow companies to actually use Android in practice. According to various analysts, HarmonyOS is a copy (“fork”) of AOSP, which only makes sense. So, about 90% of all code running in HarmonyOS is open source, for which Huawei does not need Google’s permission. The same holds true for anyone else using AOSP.

Vendors like Huawei sandwich AOSP with proprietary code. At the bottom you need to interface with hardware, and the necessary so-called firmware is typically not open source, because it is tightly coupled with the (still) proprietary hardware. At the top, facing the user, vendors always want to have their “value-adding” (#muwhaha) layer of visuals, corporate identity, and additional applications. All the open source code in the middle is typically not visible to the user, and usually just a cost factor to the vendor (which is why they use open source software).

Google controls Android by way of owning the trademark “Android”. You can get access directly or through the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), if you are willing to play by Google’s and the OHA’s rules. Huawei is mum about basing HarmonyOS on AOSP, presumably because it is still a member of the OHA, which according to Wikipedia forbids forking AOSP. The AOSP is not really being developed in an open fashion. So first Google, then the OHA, and only then everyone else will know about upcoming changes, putting everyone at a disadvantage who is not in good graces with Google. An open source license does not guarantee equal treatment.

Equally important is Google’s control of proprietary applications and services like the play store or maps. These applications feed into how Google makes real money with Android, by way of data and services. Not being a significant mobile device vendor probably was one reason why the existing vendors trusted Google in the first place, and make its position unassailable.

Huawei is in a tight spot. Maintaining an AOSP fork and rebranding it is doable, but if costs are not shared, doing so reduces the profit margin of its devices. Huawei will need alliances which means it needs to set-up a competitor to the AOSP and the OHA. Building this will be a lot of work with an uncertain future. We can look to Samsung + Intel’s attempt at doing so (Tizen) to understand how hard this is. If Huawei remains its own lonely HarmonyOS user, it will be at a long-term cost disadvantage to its competitors in the mobile device market.

Nicely planned and played, Google.

As always, there are some simplifications in this blog posts, because going into the details of open source licensing and intellectual property strategies would blow up this post by a factor of three. Feel free to reach out if you want to know more.

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