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Huawei builds the case for its own OS ecosystem

If US-Chinese tensions continue to remain as they are today, a separate Huawei mobile operating system looks to be a certainty but being competitive with Android is not a simple task.

Building the OS, which will be known as Harmony, is the simple part of the venture. In fairness, nailing the science and experience is anything but simple, but the complexities pale in comparison to the realities of building the supporting ecosystem and credibility. This is where Huawei will struggle, but today it has set out an interesting case at a London Huawei Developer Day.

“Today’s announcement concerning our Huawei Mobile Services offering, highlights our ongoing commitment and support for UK and Irish businesses and developers,” said Anson Zhang, MD of Huawei UK’s consumer business.

“In recent years we have grown significantly and owe our success to the consumers and partners who have chosen and believed in us. As a sign of that support and commitment to the UK and Irish market, we have announced our £20 million investment plan to recognise and incentivise our partners; so that jointly we can build an outstanding ecosystem together.”

Irrelevant as to whether Huawei has the best phones on the planet and the smoothest running OS, if there are no compatible games in the app store, few consumers are going to have an interest in purchasing the device. Huawei has to engage the developer community and convince them it is in their interest to make a third version of the app on top of efforts for Android and iOS.

Back in September, Huawei said it would be investing $1.5 billion to build-out its developer ecosystem. At today’s event, Zhang highlighted £20 million would be set aside specifically for the UK, while any developer which can publish its app on the Huawei App Gallery before January 31 would be entitled to a £20,000 incentive payment.

This is perhaps the most important and difficult job for Huawei over the coming months. The company does not have the same scale, or credibility, as its OS competitors in Apple or Google. It might well claim to have 600 million users worldwide currently, 4 million alone in the UK, but how many of these users are engaging Huawei by choice?

Your correspondent has a Huawei Mate 20 device, and presumably is one of the 4 million Huawei Mobile Services users in the UK, but the Google Play Store, YouTube, Chrome and Gmail are still used exclusively over the Huawei alternatives. Google’s services are not on new Huawei devices, and at the moment, that would certainly stop your correspondent from buying any Huawei products in the future.

This is the chicken and egg situation in play. Huawei needs to convince both the consumer and the developer ecosystem to put faith in it. Consumers will not come without apps and apps will not be developed without consumers. Some might, but nothing in comparison to the scale of the Google app ecosystem.

And so, the Huawei pitch begins, and there some very good ideas.

The first interesting idea presented by Huawei is the idea of more intelligent contextualisation. The different segments in the ecosystem are linked, allowing for a recommendation engine to offer more interesting results. If a user is a big Terminator fan, for example, the video store will recommend relevant titles, but then the music store will factor in this preference and the app store will start pushing first-person shooting games up the listings. It is taking context one step further, which does sound appealing.

Another idea to improve user acquisition is to develop customisable themes and backgrounds for the user which can be linked to apps and content. Jaime Gonzalo, VP Consumer Mobile Services, highlighted there are between 4,000 and 6,000 new apps published each month. To cut through this digital noise, there needs to be a more intelligent approach to user engagement and acquisition.

One very attractive point made by the team is the opportunity for scale which Huawei can offer. China is one of the most lucrative markets around for any app developer, and Huawei, as the telecom champion of China, can potentially offer access to the users in a way Google or Apple could not compete with. This is a very attractive carrot for the developer community.

Another final point on the business side, is the idea of local engagement. Huawei has said each market will have a local business development and operational team to aid the local developer community. Gonzalo claims to be the only business which can offer this USP, demonstrating the importance of this initiative.

Huawei is throwing money at the situation, almost making the creation of a deep developer ecosystem a loss-leader, because it recognises how critical it is to ensure the consumer business survives internationally. This might sound like a dramatization of the status quo, but as long as Huawei remains on the US Entity List, and banned from working with Google, its device business is in a very precarious position.

Looking at the more technical side, Andreas Zimmer, who works in strategy team, highlighted there are currently 24 software development kits (SDK) available for developers in the ecosystem, with plans to launch more in the coming months. Interesting enough, Zimmer claims only one is needed to make the very simple translation from Android and into the Huawei developer ecosystem.

The majority of the SDKs are as one would expect, but there were a couple which Zimmer wanted to push forward for attention.

Firstly, the Machine Learning SDK. This kit allows developers to integrate new AI components into the app, such as face detection, landmark recognition, emotion detection or object detection. Another Zimmer pushed forward was the Awareness kit. This SDK allowed the app to have greater contextual awareness, for example, understanding what time of the day it was, whether a headset is plugged in or the location of the user.

Both of these SDKs are very useful for enthusiastic and creative developers, but the question remains is whether Huawei has done enough to convince the developer community.

The Huawei consumer business is facing a serious threat. If it wants to continue to be an international brand, the Harmony OS needs to work and for this to happen, it needs to be embraced by the developer community. Consumers are tied to Android today, and it will take a serious swing for Huawei to crack this dominance in the Western markets.

Huawei’s OS will almost certainly be a success in its domestic Chinese market, and others were there are strong political ties. But the Huawei ambition is bigger than simply being a dominant domestic champion. As long as the US remains hostile to China and Huawei stays on the Entity List, the international future of the consumer business relies on the success of Harmony OS and the developer ecosystem.


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