Caixin
Aug 14, 2019 10:00 AM
TECH TALK

Success of Huawei’s HarmonyOS Will Depend on Soft Skills

It’s name is Harmony, but will it resonate with developers?

That’s the question at the heart of this Tech Talk, following last week’s unveiling of a new operating system (OS) by embattled tech giant Huawei. For those who don’t live and breathe this kind of thing, HarmonyOS is Huawei’s answer to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, now the two main operating interfaces between billions of mobile web surfers and their beloved smartphones.

But HarmonyOS is also quite a bit more. Huawei is billing the OS as a next-generation system that can transcend the simple smartphone and act as interface for an entire future class of smart devices powered by the internet of things (IoT). To prove its point, Huawei unveiled its first HarmonyOS-powered device the day after announcing the new OS — a smart TV that also marked the company’s entry into that highly competitive market.

Whether or not Huawei can succeed in smart TVs is a subject for another day. For now we’ll focus on HarmonyOS, which would mark a huge success for Huawei if it catches on. But that’s a very big “if,” and one where the odds look heavily stacked against China’s biggest high-tech success story to date.

There’s a big geopolitical element to this story, which is mostly coming from a U.S. government convinced that Huawei is little more than an arm of Beijing bent on infiltrating key Western telecom networks. That’s led U.S. President Donald Trump to cut off Huawei from its American business partners, at least for now, which include Google and Android. As the world’s second largest smartphone-maker, Huawei is heavily reliant on Android to power nearly all of the millions of handsets it sells each month.

Somewhat surprisingly, the four analysts I surveyed didn’t think that geopolitics will be a major factor behind HarmonyOS’ success or failure — at least not initially. Instead, all pointed to the more fundamental question of whether app developers will embrace HarmonyOS, since such systems live or die by the apps they support. In the old days we could have substituted the word “programs” for “apps,” since similar support drove the early success of Microsoft’s DOS and later its Windows operating system for PCs.

Everyone I talked to agreed that Huawei has the technological chops to develop a good OS, and several added it’s not all that hard anymore to develop that kind of good technology in a space that’s relatively mature. What’s far more difficult is convincing developers to make apps for your system — a process that requires strong communication and other forms of support to develop global communities.

Littered with failures

Before I explore the question of community-building, I’ll briefly recount a couple of the biggest failures that preceded HarmonyOS, just to show the kinds of odds that Huawei will face. As someone who has covered this sector for nearly two decades, I’ve seen quite a number of cellphone OSs get unveiled with hype and big hopes, only to fail to catch on and ultimately fade into the history books.

The most spectacular failure was Symbian, an OS that was strongly backed and eventually owned by former industry titan Nokia. If anyone should have been able to push an OS into the global realm, it should have been Nokia with Symbian. And, in fact, a big sphere of the mobile realm did support the OS at various times in the first decade of the 21st century, including Motorola and Sony Ericsson.

But ultimately the OS — whose brief heyday predated the big rise of independent app developers —didn’t really have staying power and collapsed without many consumers ever being all the wiser.

The other spectacular failure was Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, a version of its popular PC operating system customized for mobile devices. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it failed to realize the importance of creating a mobile-optimized OS distinctive from its original desktop Windows, and basically tried to make a mini-version of the popular PC system for smaller-screened devices.

It finally realized the error of its ways and created an OS more optimized for mobile devices. But by then it was too late and Android and iOS were already dominating the space. My point here is that simply being a major cellphone-maker like Nokia, or having relationships with program developers like Microsoft isn’t always enough to succeed.

That brings us to the key question of community-building, which is where I have some serious doubts about Huawei. I have a lot of admiration and respect for this company, and I’m even the proud owner of a Huawei phone that has worked quite well for more than two years.

But the story changes drastically on the subject of corporate culture, which could be a good predictor of Huawei’s potential for successful community-building. Put simply, Huawei — at least in the circles I talk to — has a reputation as a work-obsessed culture that pays people handsomely but basically works them to extremes before most ultimately quit under the pressure.

That recipe may work for creating good products, but sounds far less conducive to the kinds of long-term outreach and goodwill creation that are core to community-building. I expect that Huawei realizes it can make good products, and is hoping that will translate to an “If you build it, they will come” approach that will attract app developers. But that may not work in this kind of situation with HarmonyOS.

At the end of the day, I really do think the odds are highly stacked against Huawei, even though it may have the backing of Beijing and China’s own huge community of app developers. Accordingly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we fast forward to a future five or six years from now where HarmonyOS joins the likes of Symbian and Windows Mobile on the scrapheap of operating systems that simply failed to catch on.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com

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