Internet & Tech

Beat the system

Huawei launches its own OS to take on Android


And then there were three...

How do you identify a Communist? In 1946 a Detroit union leader called Emil Mazey popularised the ‘duck test’. He denounced one of his colleagues on the grounds that “I can’t prove that you’re a Communist. But when I see a bird that quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, has feathers and webbed feet and associates with ducks, I’m certainly going to assume that he’s a duck.”

Ever since then, the duck test has been a popular analogy for highlighting something that’s so evidently the case it doesn’t require hard evidence to prove otherwise. The McCarthy era popularised the phrase, but it also highlighted how dangerous such blithe generalisations can be (many innocent people lost their livelihoods after being denounced as ‘reds’ based on observation, rather than fact).

Of course, this atmosphere was created by a battle between the free market democracies led by the US and the one-party Soviet regimes. And rival systems are back in vogue again today as acrimony between Washington and Beijing grows.

Case in point: this week Huawei launched the world’s third operating system for smartphones in a bid to break the duopoly of America’s Apple (iOS) and Google (Android). That said, for many Western tech journalists, Huawei’s HarmonyOS platform looks to be something of an Android clone. US-based ARS Technica suggested there is “no discernible difference” between Huawei’s “all-new” OS and Android, for instance. But while both are open platforms for app developers, ARS Technica highlighted a key difference. It noted that while a new developer simply needs to click a link to download Android’s software development kit, getting access to HarmonyOS involves a two-day vetting process. Developers need to provide their name, address, email, phone number, photo ID (driving licence or passport), plus a credit card for verification purposes.

Predictably social media users have honed in on this aspect as further evidence of Huawei’s alleged links to the Chinese state. As one of the most-liked comments to the ARS Technica article put it, “You’re a brave person for agreeing to submit your passport to Huawei. Also possibly quite foolish as well.”

Huawei was forced to develop its own OS after the US government placed it on its tech blacklist in 2019. After losing access to Google apps as a result, the telecom equipment maker’s global market share in smartphones crumbled to 4% in March this year from 17% a year earlier, according to market research firm Counterpoint.

Domestic rivals have grabbed most of the sales Huawei has lost. The combined market share of Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo climbed to 35% from 25% during the same one-year period.

This partly explains why the Chinese trio have been reluctant to commit to switching to HarmonyOS. However, it’s a sensitive issue: one OPPO executive recently lost his job after rubbishing HarmonyOS on weibo and concluding none of China’s other smartphone manufacturers would use it. In fact, ZTE has already said no to HarmonyOS, insisting that it will stick to its own MyOS11 which, once again, is said to be another Android clone.

Meanwhile Huawei executives have publicly stated that they no longer see smartphones or telecoms hardware as their company’s bread-and-butter business. In an internal memo, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei extorted his staff instead to “dare to lead the world in software”. Ren has been insisting that HarmonyOS is, in fact, an open system for Internet of Things applications. Huawei aims to have it linked with 200 million smartphones and 100 million third-party devices by the end of this year.

The Global Times believes the launch marks a “historic turning point” in the Sino-US tech war – with HarmonyOS providing yet another example of the digital divide that is separating ‘East from West’.

The success or failure of HarmonyOS will ultimately depend on whether a critical mass of developers can be coaxed onto the platform to release apps. Sceptics say it will be no easy feat for Huawei’s new operating system to catch up with the millions of programmes available on Android. Even in the best-case scenario that will take a considerable time.

British online publication TechRadar is not writing off the Chinese behemoth’s chances, given its past successes. It concludes that Huawei has “got the money and brand recognition to give Android a run for its money”.

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