At an exclusive media roundtable in Singapore, Huawei briefed journalists about its latest revolutionary endeavour – HarmonyOS.
Intended to be a cross-platform, microkernel-based operating system that boasts a greater degree of interoperability, code compatibility, security and openness than any existing operating system, the development of Harmony OS began back in 2017 and has already been described in part earlier this year at CES Asia 2019.
While it is likely that the announcement of Harmony OS was motivated largely by ongoing US sanctions, Huawei maintains that its smartphones and tablets will remain in the Android fold for the foreseeable future. Trump-led US-China sanctions have posed a threat that Huawei mobile devices will be unable to fully leverage on Google’s Android.
Huawei Business Group’s Senior Manager of EMUI Product Marketing Mr James Lu delineated the technical features that enable HarmonyOS to be a “game-changer”. Lu also highlighted four main characteristics that will differentiate Huawei’s HarmonyOS – a “distributed architecture”, “born smooth” functionality, a “secure kernel”, and a “shared ecosystem”.
At the heart of HarmonyOS is a secure microkernel. Lu explains that the codebase of Android is based on the aged Linux kernel, requiring a vast amount of code – of which only 8% is frequently utilised on Android. This means it is difficult to smooth experiences across different devices.
Huawei envisions a future where hardware and usage cases of different devices can be better leveraged with better interoperability.
And it’s not just AirDrop, Chromecast or Handoff – Lu gave an example of a video call made on a smartphone but utilising a camera on a drone, or a video call made using the microphones from a smart speaker, the incoming video feed displayed on a high-resolution smart TV and the outgoing video captured on a smart camera – a distributed architecture.
This requires not only the more compact nature of HarmonyOS’s microkernel, but also the security it affords. Lu goes on to make the case for the security advantages of microkernel-based architecture. A simpler codebase is easier to be protected, and discrete functions like graphics, power management, device drivers are kept isolated and secured without the possibility or need for root access.
Furthermore, the “secure kernel” of HarmonyOS capitalises on the more secure nature of microkernel software design. Formal validation of the device OS kernel on boot is an otherwise resource-intensive yet highly-secure measure, taking up to 100 times more effort to verify than the effort to write the actual code.
By using a trusted execution environment (TEE) instead of rich execution environment (REE), HarmonyOS also goes a step up from “common apps” on Android like Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. TEE is used on sensitive apps like those requiring extra security and authentication like banking and finance applications.
While a microkernel design delivers on efficiency and security for its distributed architecture, HarmonyOS also leverages on a distributed virtual bus. That’s just a fancy way to describe a wireless intra-device communication protocol, much like how Apple’s AirDrop, HandOff and AirPod pairing works like magic.
This means that one app can now be run on several different devices, simultaneously. This requires strong cross-device connectivity, which requires a distributed virtual bus to facilitate.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Huawei conference if they didn’t emphasise just how fast their product can get.
Under a puzzling “born smooth” heading, Lu delved into technical aspects that gives HarmonyOS an edge when it comes to multitasking and raw, day-to-day performance.
Chrono scheduling is an issue many Android devices struggle with as a result of its aging Linux heritage. With multiple processes, the operating system tries to run all concurrently which leads to diminshed performance.
HarmonyOS has a newly-developed “Deterministic Latency Engine” that prioritises different tasks in the foreground and background that reduces latency and improves overall app load times and overall responsiveness.
HarmonyOS, which Huawei has indicated from the onset to be open source, will be a key part of the company’s strategy. Lu stressed that it is not prudent for Huawei to alone create the “N” devices in the ecosystem as Apple has.
HarmonyOS is open-source, should competitors choose to turn into collaborators. Either way, Huawei has instituted an integrated development environment (IDE) for HarmonyOS, which allows coders from a multitude of backgrounds to code in a language they are comfortable in, with the code editor automatically transcribing it into an application for HarmonyOS.
What’s more, only one instance of code is required for usability across multiple devices. Widgets are used to optimise app user interfaces for particular devices. For example, above is a music player shown across smartphone, automobile head unit and a smart TV. Album art is displayed across all devices, but the lyric widget is best displayed on TV and phone and not while driving.
Don’t believe the naysayers
Lu ends off with a few quotes, even one by Steve Jobs, CEO of Huawei’s top competitor Apple.
Iterating that unlike failed mobile operating system attempts like Samsung’s Tizen and Microsoft’s Windows Phone, Huawei’s HarmonyOS actually strives to solve an existing issue in the world of computing. That puts it in the leagues of revolutionary products like the first iPhone Steve Jobs showcased in 2007.
HarmonyOS is “not and Android alternative or replacement” Lu stressed. “If it is, HarmonyOS will be a failure”. The Android ecosystem has always been about choice, and Huawei wants to embody that spirit of choice by offering HarmonyOS open-source to fellow tech firms in the space, much unlike iOS’s closed nature.
Huawei’s upcoming smartphones will likely continue to run on Android, although Lu assures attendees that Huawei is prepared for all eventualities. HarmonyOS itself will likely be found on most other Huawei devices in the pipeline.