Huawei’s Android aggravations - a sideshow to the potential of its new HarmonyOS?

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks September 13, 2019
Summary:
Smartphones are an ultimate incarnation of the network edge in action, and that could the target for HarmonyOS, a device and platform agnostic, distributed operating system that could be the start of device collaborations that grow into `entities’ of global scale and functionality.

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The news that Huawei had just launched a new operating system call HarmonyOS prompted the obvious response from much of the tech and mainstream media. After all, it was only shortly before the announcement that Google announced that it was going to comply with ever-increasing trade restrictions by the US against China by no longer supplying Huawei with the Android smartphone OS.

The instant media response to HarmonyOS was that Huawei had come up with a replacement for the departing Android system, although for its part the company made no claim that this was part of the plan. Indeed, there is considerable speculation that a Russian operating system, AuroraOS, is also being touted for that particular role.

But in practice it would be to severely underestimate HarmonyOS to suggest that the reason for its existence is just to run smartphones, for it looks like being pitched at a far wider range of applications than just mobiles – though they may yet form an integral part of Harmony’s remit over time.

HarmonyOS is likely to form one of the main cornerstones of the upcoming Huawei Connect conference, to be held in Shanghai next week as providing cross-platform interconnection is one of its key fundamental themes. This alone makes it fundamentally different from systems such as Android and i/OS, and most other offerings as well.

They are all designed to run on one platform - or family of platforms. The Huawei goal here looks to be two-fold - or at least has the potential to be so:  to come up with a system that is device and platform agnostic and to create an environment in which connected systems can build into an extended matrix of instances of the same software environment.

This has the potential for users to build complex systems where 'n' number of interconnected devices could create more than just a system, but perhaps some kind of 'entity'. This would certainly have limitless possibilities amongst businesses servicing consumers. For example, one instance could bringing together, into some kind of entity, all the fans at a football match. Many stadia are already havens of hi tech team/fans interactions.

But the same potential can exist not just within individual companies but also between partnerships where a number of companies collaborate to achieve a common goal. One of the factors standing in the way of such efforts is often the technological incompatibilities.

Destination

A hint of where Huawei thinks this might be going can be inferred from remarks from Richard Yu, the CEO of the company’s Consumer Business Group, quoted in the announcement of the operating system: 

People expect a holistic intelligent experience across all devices and scenarios. To support this we felt it was important to have an operating system which improved cross-platform capabilities. It supports seamless collaboration across all devices. You can develop your apps once, then flexibly deploy them across a range of different devices.

Yu may be CEO of the Consumer Business Group but one thing that has become very clear over the last couple of years is that the lessons learned in consumer sector about apps collaboration at many levels has direct implications on business applications design and operation. What is more, with the realisation that the edge is about to become the key area for development, particularly in operations management and business process design, then an operating environment specifically designed to bridge technology differences between the systems and services which will be required.

These would extend across a whole range of IoT sensors, monitors and local control systems, the mobile devices that coalface staff will use to manage such systems and communicate with more centralised management, many (if not all) aspects of virtualised, distributed data centers across the business network, and even into the back office systems at HQ. 

The distributed microkernel architecture of HarmonyOS is based upon a distributed virtual bus technology that provides a shared communications platform with distributed data management, task scheduling and virtual peripherals. The company expects this to remove the need for developers to manage the processes required to distribute applications.  It also expects the system to overcome underperformance commonly found in distributed systems by the use of a Deterministic Latency Engine, which sets task execution priorities and time limits in advance. This allows resources to be re-allocated to tasks with higher priorities.

Security is enhanced by use of a Trusted Execution Environment that uses formal verification methods, a mathematical approach that uses data models to verify all software running paths. Additional security is claimed by using a microkernel approach, which is reckoned to have around one-thousandth of the amount of code used in a Linux kernel. This is said to greatly reduce the probability of attack.

One of the most important features, especially when it comes to apps development in a device agnostic world is the availability of applications development tools. Huawei’s main contribution here is the introduction of the ARK static compiler. This allows developers to compile a range of advanced programming languages into machine code in a single, unified environment.

The company’s initial roadmap calls for HarmonyOS to be used in devices such as smart screen products due to appear later this year, as well as wearable devices and head units. It is, however, not that difficult to see significant potential in extrapolating a wide range of applications possibilities in IoT and edge-related services. And as a key component of every network edge, the mobile phone will undoubtedly find a role for HarmonyOS. It is just unlikely to be centre stage.

My take

It seems highly likely, to me at least, that the advent of cloud as both a service creation platform as a service deliverer, that new, pan-platform operating environments will start to emerge. We are rapidly moving into a world where collaborative services is no longer a 'nice to have' but instead is a given, a `has to be’. No doubt such capabilities can be layered onto Linux and Windows, but layers always mean latency hits.

So the notion of something new coming along to take service building a delivery to the next level is hardly startling: it is inevitable. Whether HarmonyOS is `it’ is far too early to say, but it certainly looks to be heading in the right direction.

Footnote - Martin Banks will be reporting from Huawei Connect next week.