China's Huawei said it had created its own 'completely different' smartphone OS, but did it?

We don’t do a lot of tech news stories but this one is interesting because it fits a broader pattern of China taking U.S. technology and pretending it’s their own. This story starts back in 2019 when China’s homegrown smartphone company, Huawei, announced it was introducing its own operating system, one which would compete with Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS platforms. Here’s how CNN reported it at the time:

The reveal of Harmony OS comes months after the Chinese tech company was placed on a US trade blacklist that barred American firms from selling tech and software to Huawei unless they get a license to do so. That ban has prevented companies like Google (GOOGL) from supplying new Huawei devices with its version of Android OS.

Harmony, which is called “Hongmeng” in Chinese, “is completely different from Android and iOS,” Apple’s (AAPL) operating system, said Richard Yu, the CEO of Huawei’s consumer business group. He announced the software Friday at a developer conference in Dongguan, China.

In early 2020, Tech Radar wrote a piece about Harmony which summed it up this way: “The announcement was clearly a thinly-veiled response to political events over the last year, but the message is clear – if Huawei has to ditch Android, down the line, it can.”

So more than a year later, how is Harmony OS going? Not so well it turns out. This week a writer at Ars Technica decided to do a deep dive on Harmony 2.0 and almost immediately things got difficult. In fact, just to download the software requires sending a photo of your passport to Huawei and a two-day background check:

Huawei requires you to go to Huawei.com, make an account, and then sign up to be a developer by passing “Identity verification.” This means sending Huawei your name, address, email, phone number, and pictures of your ID (driver’s license or passport) and a photo of a credit card. You must then wait one or two business days while someone at Huawei manually “reviews” your application. Huawei helpfully notes that it will not charge your credit card.

Huawei’s docs say that “the ID card, passport, driver’s license, and bank card are used to verify and match your identity information.” OK, but why? Why does Huawei want to know everything about me first? And why does that take two days?…

In the spirit of taking one for the team, I shamefully sent Huawei a picture of my passport and credit card. My information probably went God-knows-where in China; it felt like a violation, and you’re welcome. After a two-day wait, my social credit score was apparently high enough that I was granted access to Huawei’s precious operating system. (Hopefully, Beijing doesn’t have “a file” on me now.)

Uh, yeah, about that. If the author wasn’t already in a CCP database along with all the other American victims of personal data theft by China, he definitely is now. So once he’s given Huawei all of this info and waited two days, he was finally able to download Harmony OS, the amazing new operating system which is “completely different from Android.” So what did he find? Well, it looked exactly like Android and for a very good reason:

The official line is that Huawei ported over the EMUI Android skin to HarmonyOS, except that all the bits under the Android skin also appear to be Android.

Just a trip to the app info screen will confirm that this phone runs Android. You’ll see apps like the “Android Services Library,” “Android Shared Library,” “com.Android.systemui.overlay,” “Androidhwext,” and on and on, for about 10 different entries. It looks like some packages got hit with a find-and-replace, changing “Android” to “HarmonyOS.” If you look at the app info for the “HarmonyOS System” package, you’ll see it uses the Android system icon (the “Android green” color is a dead giveaway) and a label saying “version 10.” Uh, isn’t HarmonyOS on version 2?

The “version 10” here is a reference to Android 10, which seems to be the version HarmonyOS is based on. If you visit the “Huawei App Gallery” (which has a ton of apps… because it is just an Android app store), you can choose from any number of “system info” apps, which will all identify the phone as running “Android 10 Q.”…

Huawei says commercial HarmonyOS phones could launch this year, and I believe it. That is totally possible when you are just shipping Android.

Is this legal?

Yes, Android is an open source project so creating a fork of that project based on Android 10 is legal, so long as you don’t use Google’s apps or call it “Android.” The issue here isn’t that Huawei has done something illegal by using Android software, the issue is that they’ve been lying about what it is since 2019. This is not a home grown, newly coded operating system, this is just Android 10 with the branding changed. The reason it won’t be hard for Huawei to switch its phones over to this new OS is because it’s the same as the old OS.

What Huawei has done is put out a bunch of documentation for Harmony OS which the author of the Ars Technica piece described as “psychological warfare.”

The docs for HarmonyOS are available here, and please, I implore you, read some of them. Read the developer documents and ask yourself, “Does this make sense?” Or maybe, “Is this trying to communicate useful information in an honest, straightforward manner?” Most of the time, the answer is “no.” Huawei’s developer documentation is full of what I can only describe as nonsense. Many sentences are just buzzword-filled drivel.

I think there’s a pretty obvious lesson. China’s biggest tech company is heavily dependent on America’s biggest tech companies. They can pretend they are ready to cast us aside at any time thanks to the miracle of Chinese technological prowess and innovation but it’s a lie. In this case their “completely different” OS is just a product created by an American company packaged with a lot of nonsense documentation designed to paper over what they’ve done (the documentation never mentions where the source code came from). This seems to be how a lot of technology innovations happen in China, i.e. they take what they can, either legally, semi-legally, or illegally, and then passing it off as their own.