Huawei officially reveals Harmony OS, its first party operating system
In the city of Dongguan, China, Huawei finally took the wraps off its long-rumored, first-party operating system. The OS, called Harmony OS, has been in development for several years, but it’s recently taken on a role as a key player in Huawei’s contingency plan since the U.S. enacted a trade ban on the Chinese technology company. At the Huawei Developer Conference, Huawei finally shared the first details about its in-house OS, but the company wasn’t ready to show off Harmony on smartphones just yet. Tomorrow, the company will show off Harmony OS on the Honor Vision TV. For now, Android remains the go-to mobile OS for Huawei and Honor smartphones and tablets.
Harmony OS is microkernel-based, like Google’s in-development Fuchsia OS. Huawei says that Fuchsia uses a “non-distributed design,” unlike the new Harmony OS. Huawei says that this allows for flexible deployment of the new OS on various devices, easing app development in all scenarios. To justify both of these claims, Huawei brings up that it is “hard to deliver a smooth experience across different devices with [a] huge amount of [code] in Android and Linux core.” That’s because “multi-device interconnection [raises] requirements for security” and the “close-coupling between [the] app ecosystem and [the] hardware compromises [the] user experience and development efficiency.”
The use of a microkernel also improves security, according to Huawei. The microkernel only “provides the most basic services like thread scheduling and IPC,” while most system services are implemented in user space. With less code to audit, the probability that a new attack will be discovered will be low. Huawei also says it is using “formal verification methods” to secure the TEE kernel. Huawei says this technique, which uses a “mathematical approach to validate system correctness from the source,” is mainly applied to security-critical fields like aerospace and chipsets, “significantly contributing to system reliability and robustness.” The microkernel can furthermore be “scaled on demand for wider system security.” In closing, Huawei boasts that products can achieve an EAL 5+ certification level running the new OS.
Performance is theoretically better than Android and other Linux-based operating systems, according to slides shared by Huawei. Huawei says that Harmony OS uses a distributed virtual bus with a simplified protocol: Rather than 4 layers, there is only 1 layer in the protocol stack to “boost the payload efficiency.” The effects of this change to simplify interactions are “faster discovery and connections” of hardware like the display, cameras, speakers, etc.
#HarmonyOS is built with a deterministic latency engine that gives a smooth interactive experience. That means latency is at a minimum; bringing fluid interactive experience to the maximum #HDC2019 pic.twitter.com/p9bnwNHJq6
— Huawei Mobile (@HuaweiMobile) August 9, 2019
Unlike Android which uses the Linux kernel’s scheduling mechanism, Harmony OS uses a “deterministic latency engine” that provides “precise resource scheduling with real-time load analysis and forecasting and app characteristics matching.” The result is a 25.7% and 55.6% improvement in response latency and latency fluctuation respectively. In addition, Huawei says the microkernel can make “IPC [Inter Process Communication] performance up to five times more efficient than existing systems,” specifically referencing Google’s Fuchsia OS.
Harmony “decouples” the OS from the hardware, so developers can develop once and deploy across hardware. Developers will be able to use Huawei’s ARK Compiler to compile code from multiple languages like C/C++, Java, and Kotlin for Harmony OS. Huawei will be providing an IDE to support app development across multiple device types, including televisions, car kits, smart speakers, smartphones, smartwatches, and more. This IDE “automatically adapts to varied screen layouts, controls, and interactions” and “supports drag-and-drop operations and preview-oriented visual programming.” Harmony OS will not require root access to operate, which Huawei says is a security risk on Android and other Linux-based operating systems. Finally, Huawei announced its plans to open-source Harmony OS, establish an open-source foundation, and create an open-source community for collaboration.
Harmony OS is not compatible with Android apps out-of-the-box, confirms Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei Consumer Business Group. That means you won’t be able to merely side-load any Android app of your choosing. In a press conference, Mr. Yu says that app developers will have to make “small changes” to their apps in order to compile them to run on Harmony OS. He states that it is “very easy” to transfer Android apps to Harmony OS.
Work on the new OS began 2 years ago with version 1.0 of the microkernel. In 2019, they accelerated work so the OS can work on more device types such as smart screen products. The Chinese company says version 2.0 of its microkernel will be released next year while version 3.0 arrives in 2021, bringing support for wearables and car head units. Huawei says they can switch to Harmony OS right now because the migration is not very difficult due to the nature of the microkernel; they boast they can switch from Android to Harmony in 1-2 days. However, the company is choosing to stick with Android on smartphones right now over consideration of its existing partners. Richard Yu says that Huawei wants to continue working with and helping its U.S. partners, many of which have collaborated with Huawei for over 20 years.
Yet, this new OS is still “plan B” for the Chinese technology giant, since Huawei will need to solve the biggest hole in the adoption of Harmony OS: the app ecosystem. Huawei is building up its AppGallery platform as an alternative to the Google Play Store, and this week the company unveiled Huawei Mobile Services as an alternative to Google Play Services. Huawei is in the process of building its own ecosystem, and if the trade ban doesn’t lift by the end of this year or early next year, then Huawei will be forced to switch to Harmony OS for its new devices, including the upcoming Huawei Mate 30 series. In fact, Richard Yu confirmed that the Mate 30 did not receive certification to use Google Play Services before the trade ban was enacted, so Huawei is considering using Harmony OS on the device if the ban isn’t lifted in time.
Huawei says that its new OS represents an entirely new generation of operating systems as it enables AI capability in different scenarios from PCs, tablets, and other domains. Huawei has already been internally testing its new operating system on multiple devices, though Richard Yu did not confirm if the foldable Huawei Mate X was among those test devices. Mr. Yu says that “many” partners have expressed interest in developing products with Harmony OS, but he declined to provide names of the interested parties. In a press release, Huawei says they will “lay the foundations for Harmony OS in the Chinese market” first before expanding it to the global market.
We’ll learn more about Huawei’s new operating system this week at Huawei’s Developer Conference.
Update 8/10/19 @ 10:23 AM EST: Wording was changed to reflect that Harmony OS does not require root access to operate, rather than disallow it. Also clarified that the 5 times IPC performance is versus Google’s Fuchsia.