What is HarmonyOS? Huawei’s Android alternative explained

What is HarmonyOS?

Huawei bills HarmonyOS as “a future-proof distributed operating system” which in essence means the company’s own operating system, designed to work on forthcoming devices; from IoT and smart home products to wearables, in-car infotainment systems and mobile devices – including smartphones.

According to Huawei, a developer could build an experience using HarmonyOS for one product category and the platform would then be able to adapt said experience to work across other types of products with minimal effort.

Which devices support HarmonyOS?

At present HarmonyOS remains in beta, with version 2.0 offering smartphone compatibility for the first time. Version 1.0 was first seen running on the company’s own smart TVs and its AX3 WiFi router.

Huawei’s device adaptation roadmap for HarmonyOS 2.0 details:

From 10 September 2020 – Devices with 128KB to 128MB RAM
From 21 April 2021 – Devices with 128MB to 4GB RAM
From October 2021 – Devices with 4GB or more of RAM

The company hopes to have HarmonyOS 2.0 running on over 200 million devices by the end of 2021; a figure made up of, not only Huawei’s own products but those made by its partners too.

Come mid-May 2021, knowledgable Huawei fans on Weibo claimed that the rumoured Huawei MatePad 2 and MatePad Pro 2 (under the “Marx 2” codename), along with the expected Huawei Watch 3 and Watch 3 Pro, will beat any of the company’s phones to the punch in terms of running HarmonyOS from the get-go.

An as-yet-unannounced Huawei event will apparently take place on 2 June and serve as the unveiling for both tablets and watches, alongside HarmonyOS running natively across the entire collection from the outset.

Is HarmonyOS replacing Android on Huawei phones?

Yes and no… Huawei’s own documentation and marketing surrounding HarmonyOS suggest that it serves as a complete end-to-end replacement for Android on its smartphones and tablets.

However, ArsTechnica conducted an in-depth review of the HarmonyOS 2.0 beta, along with its development tools, and concluded that, in its current state, HarmonyOS 2.0 was essentially Android (version 10) in all but name.

Some fundamental components of HarmonyOS 2.0 still make reference to Android, which the company has used to power its smartphones since they first hit the market.

While HarmonyOS’ official marketing and development paperwork appear to be intentionally written to obfuscate the fact this it is essentially a forked version of Android, it does appear to be based on Google’s mobile OS, so to say that it is replacing Android on the company’s smartphones isn’t exactly correct.

When will we see HarmonyOS on a smartphone?

The smartphone-compatible HarmonyOS 2.0 beta went live in December 2020 but the company confirmed at the unveiling of its latest foldable, the Mate X2, in China on 22 February 2021, that “flagship phone users will be able to upgrade their phones to HarmonyOS starting from this April,” with the X2 being the first smartphone to run HarmonyOS.

As for the first phones to run HarmonyOS out the box (and potentially only HarmonyOS – with no reference to Android), it was initially thought that the long-rumoured P50 series would be the first devices to sport the OS, however, reports of a delay to their release, moving from late March to May means HarmonyOS will have officially launched a month prior to the phones’ eventual release.

This all appears to be in conflict with the roadmap it laid out previously, which suggests an accelerated adoption of the platform on devices with more memory sooner than expected. It’s unclear how HarmonyOS’ rollout will differ between Huawei’s native market of China and for users and devices in other regions where it operates.

With regards to the user experience on the Mate X2, while we had the privilege of running this next-gen foldable through our review process, the device came and went before Huawei updated its software to HarmonyOS (and thus our review is based on a device still running true Android).

However, a new video surfaced on 28 April that shows an X2 running HarmonyOS 2.0:

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On first impressions, it won’t win prizes for originality – appearing to resemble and behave almost identically to Huawei’s existing Android-based Emotion UI user experience, albeit with a couple of small differences.

Similarly to iOS (and older builds of Android) the notifications and control centre can be summoned by swiping down from the top two corners of the UI while swiping up on compatible app icons on a home screen has them scale up into temporary widgets – not unlike BlackBerry’s take on Android during the era of the Priv and DTEK 50/60.

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A secondary video from Creator Studio on YouTube presents us with four minutes of HarmonyOS user interaction on a Huawei Mate 40 Pro, retreading the same key differences as the initial video, along with some new discoveries – like home screen app folders that can display in both small and large formats, as well as the fact that swiping down from the top left corner actually reveals a device-wide search feature, while simply swiping down from anywhere on a home screen is what actually reveals notifications.

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