Richard Yu said at the tech giant’s developer conference that the company’s Harmony OS will be installed on all of its smartphones next year

Richard Yu, head of Huawei’s consumer business group, said at the tech giant’s developer conference that the company’s proprietary OS will be installed on all of its smartphones next year

Huawei Technologies, currently the world’s biggest smartphone maker, said it is preparing to switch from Google’s widely-used Android operating system to its own Harmony OS, in a pivotal move as it seeks to keep its smartphones competitive as a result of US sanctions that have blocked its access to US-origin technology.

Richard Yu Chengdong, head of the Shenzhen-based company’s consumer business group, said at its developer conference on Thursday that Huawei’s proprietary Harmony OS would be installed on all of its smartphones next year.

“The latest version of Harmony OS has been officially opened to developers globally,” said Yu, adding that Huawei is accelerating the buildout of an app ecosystem around the OS. “The Huawei mobile service system now has 1.8 million app developers and 490 million active users, as well as 96,000 apps.”

The tech world is eyeing Huawei’s developer conference, which takes place in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan, for a glimpse of the company’s future business plans amid a US ban that threatens to cut off its access to everything from the chips that power its smartphones and 5G base stations to the globally-popular Android system itself.

Huawei’s addition to the US entity list in May last year barred Google from providing technical support for new Huawei phone models using Android, and from Google Mobile Services (GMS), the bundle of developer services upon which most Android apps are based.

The Android operating system powers the millions of smartphones that the Shenzhen-based company ships each year – so Harmony is crucial to the consumer unit’s future. Huawei claimed the No 1 spot globally in smartphones in the second quarter, easing Samsung into second place.

However, some analysts are sceptical about the ability of Harmony to replace Android, particularly in overseas markets where many users take Google apps such as YouTube and Gmail for granted.

“Even if Huawei builds up more momentum with developers, they are swimming upstream trying to convince them to invest the time in migrating their apps over [from Android], especially for a relatively small installed base of users at the moment,” said Bryan Ma, vice-president of devices research at market research firm IDC. “Moreover, Google itself is unlikely to make its first party apps available, which is the bigger problem.”

The US-China tech war has seen Huawei and leading Chinese AI companies such as Megvii and SenseTime added to the US trade blacklist, and Chinese apps such as TikTok and WeChat threatened with bans for alleged national security risks. All of the Chinese companies have denied these allegations and Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei has accused the US of trying to choke off his company as a global tech champion.

Yu publicly admitted last month that the company may not be able to ship handsets with its high-end Kirin chips after this year, owing to the US trade sanctions.

“We are in a difficult situation … Huawei’s smartphones have no chip supply,” said Yu at the China Info 100 conference, according to a video recording of his comments posted on multiple websites. “This year may be the last generation of Huawei Kirin high-end chips … This is a big loss for us,” he said.

Analysts say Huawei is literally facing a life or death situation, and must re-engineer its supply chains across multiple business segments, with stockpiled US components only expected to last until around the middle of 2021.

“The situation is looking bleaker for Huawei as supplier after supplier is under pressure to stop working with them,” said IDC’s Ma. “An upside scenario would be a change in US policy after the election, but there are a lot of unknowns and it could still take a significant amount of time. It’s not clear how long Huawei can weather the storm.”

Huawei officially unveiled Harmony at last year’s developer conference, saying that migrating apps over from Android would be relatively easy but that it would prefer to continue using Google’s Android OS on its smartphones if allowed to do so.

After the US trade ban last May, reports emerged that Huawei had been working on its own operating system for years. The company acknowledged that it was developing backup systems “but only for use in extenuating circumstances”.

Huawei has said Harmony, a microkernel-based distributed OS, can be used in everything from smartphones to smart speakers, wearables, and in-vehicle systems to create a shared ecosystem across devices.

This article is originally published at SCMP.