How does HarmonyOS work? Huawei breaks it down for us.

The on-going issues between the U.S. Government and Huawei have been well documented, and repercussions could include a permanent ban on licensed Google apps and services for Android on Huawei devices. For the end-user, the main question is this: what operating system could Huawei’s future smartphones come with? Highly anticipated models from Huawei are set to be announced any day now, with the Mate 30 expected to be launched on September 19th, and even the recently launched Nova 5T was launched with the full suite of Google apps and services.

Of course, if you’ve kept up with the news recently, you’ll know that there is a Plan B, of sorts. HarmonyOS, as it is known globally (or Hongmeng OS in China), has been in the works for some time now, and Huawei invited us to their Malaysian offices to give us a better understanding of how their new OS works. Breaking things down for us, was Mr. Clement Huang, Head of Global Product Marketing of Huawei.

What is HarmonyOS?

Huawei says that their new operating system is a “distributed OS for all scenarios”, with the microkernel-based system aiming to be compatible with any smart device. Interestingly, Clement explained that the OS is open-source, with the door open to developers and other brands.

“Seamless AI life” is the term bandied about by Huawei when it comes to HarmonyOS, and the Chinese company sees a combination of 5G, AI, Cloud, and IoT as the next step when it comes to the progression of mobile technology. Essentially, HarmonyOS will be a multi-device platform that incorporates smartphones, Huawei’s in-house products, as well as ecosystem partners’ products—all of which will work together seamlessly.

But to understand the OS in greater detail, there are several pillars of HarmonyOS that first need to be explained:

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1. A distributed OS architecture

The close-coupling of app ecosystems and hardware, according to Clement, is one of the main challenges that face existing operating systems. With the number of apps across different devices varying greatly, it’s certainly hard to get a “seamless” experience across current ecosystems.

And the sheer difficulty of decoupling the OS and hardware, Clement says, is what makes this such a new thing. In a nutshell, it (decoupled OS) will allow devices to share their hardware capabilities—for example, answering a video call with your smartphone, using the audio capabilities of a Bluetooth speaker, and the display of a Smart TV. The process is akin to embedding your smartphone into your computer, the executive explains, and it’s all operational—unlike something like Miracast.

“The ultimate goal is to decouple everything. Seamless AI life is our future.”

“Virtualised hardware” basically allows for a shared resources pool, which includes hardware like the display, camera, microphone, sensors, and computing power of devices to be shared across the OS. The question, of course, is how reliable this would be, with issues like latency expectedly raising some questions.

Putting side the technicalities of it all, Huawei tells us that adopting a simplified protocol on the distributed virtual bus results in a simplified protocol stack. In English, this basically means a relatively low latency, while maintaining a high throughput rate and high reliability.

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2. High standard of security

The standard of security for HarmonyOS is pretty high, with Clement explaining that Huawei’s microkernel design protects system security from the source. This is down to a microkernel without root access, which protects the source when it comes to system security. The use of a micro-kernel, which has roughly one-thousandth of the amount of code the Linux kernel has, also reduces the chance of attack on the system.

The OS also utilises formal verification methods, in a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE)—Huawei says that HarmonyOS is the first OS to implement this, which provides greater security.

3. “Smooth and stable performance”

When explaining how HarmonyOS will lead to a smooth user experience, Clement drew comparisons between the scheduling mechanisms of HarmonyOS and—of course—Android’s system that utilises a Fair Scheduling mechanism. HarmonyOS, in contrast, uses a Deterministic Latency Engine, which uses real-time load analysis and forecasting to schedule resources—with a resulting reduced response latency of 25.7% and latency fluctuation of 55.6%.

In layman terms, this means that priorities and time limits for tasks are set in advance, with resources allocated towards tasks with a higher priority level. This ultimately results in more efficient Inter Process Communication (IPC), with Huawei claiming that HarmonyOS has 5X the IPC performance of Google Fuchsia.

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4. Developer-friendly

One of the main issues surrounding new operating systems is the amount (read: scarcity) of apps available for a new player on the block. This, subsequently, applies to Huawei and HarmonyOS. For developers, a challenge with multi-device platforms is the different hardware capabilities of each device in the ecosystem, as well as developing and maintaining multiple versions of their app(s).

Clement explains that HarmonyOS’s Integrated Development Environment (IDE) is tailored for multi-devices. For a developer, one set of codes will automatically be adapted for a variety of screen layouts, controls, and interactions.

“Developed once, across devices.”

For for those of you (this writer, included) that have been wondering about the compatibility of Android apps on the HarmonyOS platform, there’s the Huawei ARK compiler. The compiler will basically allow for Android apps to be ported over to the HarmonyOS ecosystem, and Clement adds that this will support a variety of smart devices.

So, why now?

According to Clement, HarmonyOS has been in development for a decade, with 5,000 people working on it over time. But in response to a query on the timing of it all, the Head of Global Product Marketing explained that it wasn’t so much to do with the “Google incident”, and more to do with changes in the technology scene.

“Huawei has made it clear that an all-scenario, intelligent life strategy will be its core strategy in the next 5-10 years. Therefore, a new OS is necessary for meeting the needs and coping with the challenges presented in the all-scenario era.”

Of course, another main worry for current Huawei users is if their current smartphones/devices will be ported over to HarmonyOS, to which Clement replied that it is “technically possible”. But there haven’t been any concrete news on whether the upcoming Huawei Mate 30 launch will be on HarmonyOS, or perhaps an open-source version of Android.

For now, Huawei has said that it sees Malaysia as a key market, and that it will continue to introduce “innovative products and technologies” here in the foreseeable future.

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