Why Google can’t dismiss Huawei OS threat

Suffering a US trade blacklist, China’s Huawei is preparing to fight back with new smartphones that will run on the firm’s own proprietary operating system (OS), rather than Google’s Android.

Washington’s sanctions, which prompted Google to scale back access to Huawei for the Android system and popular Google apps, are believed to have prompted the Chinese tech giant to accelerate plans for rollout of its own OS that has been in development in secret for years.

Reports suggest the launch may happen as soon as this year, as Huawei tries to demonstrate to the US and the world its homegrown technological capabilities and make a point amid a broader trade war.

Apart from helping China show off its might, launching a self-developed OS will enable Huawei to guard against potential severe erosion in its smartphone share in overseas markets.

If things go according to plan, Huawei will prove that it can stand on its own legs and doesn’t need the western world for an operating system for smart devices.

That could pose a challenge to Google as the Chinese rival has massive power to shake up the market and attract developers and other Chinese peers to use its new operating system.

A research report from Rosenblatt Securities has suggested that Huawei has already shipped a million smartphones with its own OS, called HongMeng, for testing. The in-house software is said to be compatible with all Android applications and has “increased security functions to protect personal data”, according to media reports.

The “HongMeng” trademark is believed to be getting registered in multiple markets, including Canada, Europe and South Korea.

Looking at the activity, it seems clear Huawei is stepping up efforts to reduce its reliance on Google for provision of software for devices, and launch its own system.

Although Google said existing Huawei phones will continue to receive Android security updates to protect the devices from viruses and hacking, the Chinese firm had to act to safeguard its plans for future product launches in international markets.

We have already seen media reports that consumers in some international markets were beginning to avoid Huawei products in view of concerns related to the reduced Google and Android support.

To ensure long-term security, and given the Trump administration’s continuing rhetoric against China and its tech companies, Huawei has no option but to pursue its own OS.

There is speculation that Huawei may launch the HongMeng operating system later this year with the launch of a new Mate series smartphone, the business flagship for the fall shopping season. Some analysts, however, believe the new OS will be launched early next year with the debut of a new P series flagship.

Some major tech firms are said to be actively working with Huawei to push forward the release of HongMeng OS, which can deal a major blow to the US-led Huawei crackdown.

Huawei is reported to be sending out invitation to some popular app developers to invite them to join the Huawei AppGallery platform. According to the company, it has around 270 million monthly active users on its self-operated AppGallery platform. The AppGallery is said to have seen the involvement of more than 560,000 developers.

Google is aware it faces a potential threat to its market dominance if Huawei successfully launches its own mobile operating system. That could be the reason why the US tech giant has been lobbying for an Android exemption from the Huawei ban, arguing that the ban on Huawei will raise national security risks to the US.

Once Huawei’s OS formally hits the street, there will effectively be two kinds of Android operating system: the genuine version and a Huawei version which will be compatible to all Android apps. Some industry observers have warned that the Huawei system could have many more bugs than the Google offering, putting the devices at greater risk of getting hacked.

Right now, we don’t know whether the Chinese firm will provide software updates for all existing Huawei smartphones in the market to make them shift from Android-based operating system to HongMeng. If all the phones do get the update, Google risks losing significant Android market share.

Android now holds more than 80 percent of smartphone OS market share, but a lot of it is accounted for Chinese smartphone makers who used the open-sourced Android system to build their own platforms, as Chinese government does not allow Google to provide services in the nation.

Last year, one in every three smartphones sold in China was a Huawei device. Company executives have said that they aim to take the ratio to one in two this year, taking the domestic market share to 50 percent or more.

Now, if all the existing devices get a HongMeng update, it could take away a significant share from Android.

Another thing that Google has to contend with is the possibility — not all that remote, if the Sino-US trade war goes out of hand — that Beijing orders all Chinese phone makers to shun foreign software and use HongMeng as their source for the operating system.

Huawei, for sure, will face a challenge to build an ecosystem once it launches its OS, as getting all international app developers on board to tweak their products for the new Chinese platform won’t be too easy.

Still, Google won’t be able to rest easy or dismiss the potential threat from the Chinese giant, which will have a huge domestic market as a protective shield.

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