A smartphone with a HarmonyOS logo on it.
muhamad mizan bin ngateni/Shutterstock.com

After years of speculation and rumor, Chinese tech giant Huawei formally unveiled its Harmony OS operating system in 2019. It’s fair to say that more questions have been raised than answered. How does it work? What problems does it solve? And is it a product of the current feud between Huawei and the U.S. government?

Is Harmony OS Based on Linux?

No. Although both are free software products (or, more accurately, Huawei has pledged to release Harmony OS with an open-source license), Harmony OS is its own distinct product.  Moreover, it uses a different design architecture to Linux, preferring a microkernel design over monolithic kernel.

But wait. Microkernel? Monolithic kernel? I’ve lost you.

Let’s try again. At the heart of every operating system is something called a kernel. Like the name implies, kernels are at the heart of every operating system, effectively serving as a foundation. They handle interactions with the underlying hardware, allocate resources, and define how programs are executed and operated.

All kernels have these fundamental responsibilities. However, they differ in how they work.

Let’s talk about memory. Modern operating systems try to segregate user applications (like Steam or Google Chrome) from the more sensitive parts of the operating system. Imagine an impenetrable line dividing the memory used by system-level services from your applications. There are two main good reasons for this: security and stability.

Microkernels, like the one used by Harmony OS, are extremely discerning about what runs in kernel mode, effectively limiting it to the basics.

Bluntly, monolithic kernels aren’t discerning. Linux, for example, allows many OS-level utilities and processes to run within this privileged space in memory.

At the time Linus Torvalds started work on the Linux kernel, microkernels were still something of an unknown quantity, with few real-world commercial uses. Microkernels also proved harder to develop, and tended to be slower.

Nearly 30 years later, things have changed. Computers are faster and cheaper. Microkernels have made the leap from academia into production.

The XNU kernel, which sits at the heart of macOS and iOS, lends much inspiration from earlier microkernel designs, namely the Mach kernel developed by Carnegie Mellon University. Meanwhile QNX, which forms the basis of the Blackberry 10 operating system, as well as many vehicular infotainment systems, uses a microkernel design.

It’s All About the Extensibility, Man

Because Microkernel designs are intentionally limited, they’re easy to extend. Adding a new system service, like a device driver, doesn’t require the developer to fundamentally alter or interfere with the kernel.

And that hints towards why Huawei chose this approach with Harmony OS. Although Huawei is perhaps best known for its phones, it’s a company involved in most sectors of the consumer technology market. Its lineup includes things like fitness wearables, routers, and even televisions.

And Huawei is an incredibly ambitious company. Taking a leaf from rival Xiaomi’s book, the firm has started selling IoT products through its youth-focused subsidiary Honor, including intelligent toothbrushes and smart desk lamps.

And while it’s not clear whether Harmony OS will run on every bit of consumer technology it ultimately sells, Huawei aspires to have an operating system that will run on as many devices as possible.

Part of the reason is compatibility. If you disregard hardware requirements, any application written for Harmony OS should work on any device running it. That’s an attractive proposition for developers. But it should also have benefits for consumers, too. As more and more devices become computerized, it makes sense for them to be able to easily work as part of a broader ecosystem.

But What About Phones?

A Huawei phone between a USA and Chinese flag.
lakshmiprasada S/Shutterstock.com

It’s almost one year since the Trump administration’s Treasury Department placed Huawei on an “entity list,” thereby preventing American firms from trading with the company. While this has exerted pressure on all levels of Huawei’s business, the biggest pain has been felt in the company’s mobile division, preventing it from releasing new devices with Google Mobile Services (GMS) included.

Google Mobile Services is effectively the entire Google ecosystem for Android, including mundane apps like Google Maps and Gmail, as well as the Google Play Store. With Huawei’s latest phones lacking access to most apps, many have wondered whether the Chinese giant will abandon Android, instead moving to a homegrown operating system.

This seems unlikely. At least, in the short term.

For starters, Huawei’s leadership has reiterated its commitment to the Android platform. Instead, it’s focused on developing its own alternative to GMS called Huawei Mobile Services (HMS).

At the heart of this is the company’s app ecosystem, the Huawei AppGallery. Huawei states it’s spending $1 billion to close the “app gap” with the Google Play Store and has 3,000 software engineers working on it.

A new mobile operating system would be forced to start from scratch. Huawei would have to attract developers to port or redevelop their apps for Harmony OS. And, as we’ve learned from Windows Mobile, BlackBerry 10, and Samsung’s Tizen (and previously Bada), that’s not an easy proposition.

That said, Huawei is one of the most well-resourced tech firms in the world. And thus, it would be unwise to completely dismiss the prospect of a Harmony OS-powered phone.

Made in China 2025

There’s an interesting political angle to discuss here. For decades, China has acted as the world’s factory, building products designed overseas. But in recent years, China’s government and its own private sector has invested heavily in research and development. Increasingly, Chinese-designed products are making their way onto the international stage, offering new competition for Silicon Valley’s tech elite.

Amidst this, the Beijing government has an ambition it calls “Made in China 2025.” Effectively, it wants to end its reliance on imported high-tech products, such as semiconductors and airplanes, replacing them with their own homegrown alternatives. The motivation from this stems from economic and political security, as well as national prestige.

Harmony OS fits into this ambition perfectly. If it takes off, it’ll be the first globally successful operating system to emerge from China—with the exception of those used in niche markets, like cellular base stations. These homegrown credentials will come in particularly handy should the cold war between China and the United States continue to rage.

And as a result, I wouldn’t be surprised for Harmony OS to have some very enthusiastic supporters in the central government, as well as within the wider Chinese private sector. And it’s these supporters who will ultimately determine its success.

Profile Photo for Matthew Hughes Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes is a reporter for The Register, where he covers mobile hardware and other consumer technology. He has also written for The Next Web, The Daily Beast, Gizmodo UK, The Daily Dot, and more.
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