August 16, 2019

Harmony OS - the Android Killer?

What do actually know about Harmony OS? Nothing much so far, except that it is Huawei's attempt to break free from Google and everyone is having high hopes for a spyware free smartphone.

Huawei hasn’t yet released any relevant technical specifications for Hongmeng. So everyone is wondering if they really have the know how and manpower to develop and establish a fourth smartphone OS. What most people seem to ignore is that Android (other than IOS) isn’t actually an operation system on its own, but rather just a middleware, just like Java. Put simply, “Android” is a three layer system.

Android is actually just an application. Apps are Plugins

The bottom most layer is the actual OS, a heavily adapted screwed up Linux system.

The second layer is the Android Runtime Environment, a heavily adapted screwed up Java Runtime Environment.

The top layer are the Google Play services, interfaces that tie into Google’s services (Play, Search, Maps,…).

Only the top layer (Google Services Framework) is proprietary. The bottom two are open source and licensed according to the Apache license or the GPL. In other words, no matter how much Trumpelstilzchen rages, he can’t deny Huawei access to these parts.

For Huawei it makes little sense to replace the Linux Kernel. That’s not saying, that Android’s OS layer is superb (it isn’t). In the long run, a completely new OS approach would even be desirable (heck, we are still lugging concepts from 1970 around - like a tight integration of user management and file system), but that’s nothing, anyone could conjure up out of thin air. Most certainly not when short on time.

The Android Runtime deserves to be shot with a silver bullet, driven a stake through its heart and buried at the bottom of the sea. No matter at which part of AOSP you look, you’ll probably find it to be either a dirty hack or a compatibility hack for a dirty hack. If miraculously neither is the case than it’s probably just bad designed (key word: Context class). If Huawei was to retire this beast, it would be a benefit for mankind. Alas, it would also mean sacrificing app compatibility. They might be able to pull that one off in China, but on western markets, smartphones that won’t run Whatsup will probably be shelf warmers.

Not really that exciting
This brings us to the third layer, Google Play Services. Huawei pretty much has every reason to want to get rid of this part (while keeping the other two). It has to be licensed by Google. The license not only costs money, but is also tied to conditions (for example, preloading the entire Gapps suite). If Huawei was to replace Google Services (and that’s likely what Harmony OS is all about), then Harmony OS will rather be an offshot instead of an Android killer. Would that be desirable from a users perspective?

From the user’s point of view, the Google Services Framework is a trojan horse. It offers useful services on one hand, but is also spyware on the other. For example, if you are using Maps for navigation, then you have to constantly disclose your location to Google (even if the app itself is not running). In the best case scenario that means getting ads for local businesses. In the worst case, the police might pay you a visit because you happened to be in the vicinity of a crime scene by accident, making you a suspect. Google’s stance on GSF is “all or nothing”. The user is not suppose to use just parts of it without paying with his or her data to the fullest extent. Also Google managed to convince a lot of app developers to (needlesly) integrate GSF into their apps. If Huawei developed a Huawei Services Framework as a GSF clone, the benefit would be that in the future, app developers would have to support GSF and HSF, which would eventually lead to the emergence of a standard (that could be implemented as a privacy aware stub). This would indeed be a killer for Google’s Android monopoly, but not for Android itself. Make no mistake, though. “Privacy” is not a word in the Chinese vocabulary and Huawei already made negative press in 2011 by bundling Carrier IQ.