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Huawei’s OS project needs to be more radical

Chinese company needs to look beyond Android smartphone share – its real power struggle with Google will be in VR experiences

The reports that Huawei is building its own smartphone operating system continue to circulate. Initially, these sound interesting – the Chinese company has already created a stripped-down OS, LiteOS, for low power connected things, and has intensive R&D projects around virtual reality user interfaces. So perhaps a platform spanning all manner of connected devices and new experiences beckons?

Then we learn that Huawei has hired a former Apple designer, Abigail Brody, presumably to work on this project; and that it also involved an ex-Nokia development team based in Finland.

This immediately sounds less radical. Of course, Apple revolutionized the mobile OS and user experience, but its concepts are now the norm across the industry. For the next generation, which must embrace huge diversity of connected devices and support new usage patterns such as VR, Apple has displayed little leadership or innovation. While Google’s developer conference this spring was full of emerging user experience technologies, Apple’s steered clear of VR and focused on enhancing what iOS already has.

As for Nokia, clinging to Symbian and refusing to recognize the importance of the Apple-type changes toppled the firm from its lofty handset throne.

Like Apple, it seems Huawei is stuck in what has become conventional in 2016, and that will be no way to achieve its reported aim of “hedging its best against Google’s control of Android”. That aim itself is already anachronistic if it is confined to smartphones – the growth for Android, or for any other OS, will be in the multi-device market, where the battle lines remain fluid. That is why Huawei needs to create a brand new platform that spans all kinds of gadgets – freely available like LiteOS, in order to build an ecosystem rapidly, as Google did when it launched Android.

There is room for a proprietary fork of Android to nibble at market share and reduce Google’s influence by excluding its services, as Amazon has demonstrated. But the success of Huawei’s flagship smartphones is resting on strong hardware features and good pricing rather than the OS – a marginally different Android user experience will not lure users from Samsung, and if Huawei is to achieve its aim of being the smartphone leader within five years, it needs to do more than nibble at other Android suppliers.

This may be mainly a tactical response by Huawei to Google’s efforts to assert greater control over its platform, to assure the revenues its mobile services generate and to manage updates and quality of experience more effectively. The company is reported to be readying its own smartphones and a proprietary binary Android which would not be dependent on the OS’s open source base.

Those moves, if they materialize in the commercial market, could drive Android vendors to create their own variants, although Huawei is supposedly developing a new Nexus handset for Google, along with HTC, so the lines of communication between the two companies are not broken.

But the bickering over handset OSs highlights the stagnation of that segment, which pushes vendors to adopt new methods to squeeze any growth they can. Far more strategic is their work on devices and platforms which could create new growth – either a second bubble for smartphones, if they morph into VR gadgets and smart home controllers – or for new form factors like headsets and wearables.

In April, Huawei entered the game of offering a VR headset which only works with its own smartphones. The handset makers are adopting this approach to build walls around their platforms, though that is likely to be a short-lived tactic, especially with non-smartphone makers like Twitter and Facebook in the game.

These companies are a threat to the established order because they are not wedded to one device and they have a different take on the market, driven entirely by driving usage of their services and data. Apple should be concerned by the current brain drain to firms which represent the new frontier of mobile innovation – last month, for instance, Twitter hired former Apple designer Alessandro Sabatelli as director of its new VR and AR unit.

Google used to have the device-agnostic advantage too, though it has blurred the lines somehat with its hardware ventures in smartphones. Beyond Android, however, it is investing heavily in the technologies which could enable it to control the next generation web experience as effectively as it has the current one. Many of its most interesting work is focused on artificial intelligence, or on its Chromium open source code base, the foundation of Chrome OS.

As part of the Chromium project, Google is working on bringing VR support to its Chrome browser, a move which could revolutionize the web and mobile experience. According to Google’s Francois Beaufort, the Chrome Beta and Chrome Dev channels have a setting that “allows users to browse the web while using Cardboard or Daydream-ready viewers”. Daydream is the VR platform which Google unveiled at its I/O conference this year, while Cardboard is its low cost technology for turning a handset into a VR viewer.

These are the projects which will change the rules in the next phase of mobile and IoT usage. Huawei, and all those other Android companies working to loosen the ties to Google, need to be brave enough to look beyond the smartphone.

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