Huawei's effort to establish its own operating system could be an impossible task, say people who know from experience (AAPL, GOOGL, FB)


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  • Huawei’s effort to develop and establish its own smartphone operating system to replace Google’s Android could be doomed from the start. 
  • Building the operating system itself isn’t a huge challenge, say executives who have experience with upstart platforms.
  • The much more daunting task would be for it to replicate the apps and services that Google has created or can be found in the Google Play store, they say.
  • Without such apps and services, they explain, its operating system has little chance to compete in the marketplace.
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Huawei’s plan to replace Google’s Android with its own homegrown operating system may well prove to be mission impossible.

Building the software itself likely won’t prove all that difficult, say former executives who have experience with alternative operating systems. The real trouble Huawei will face will be in trying to replicate the kinds of apps, services, and ecosystem that Google’s version of Android offers, they say.

“It’s is extremely challenging,” said Andreas Gal, the former chief technology officer at Mozilla, who helped lead the development of the organization’s Firefox OS.

Huawei acknowledged earlier this month that it is speeding up efforts to develop its own smartphone operating system and app store. The move came in response to the Trump administration’s attacks on the company.

The administration has accused the Chinese electronics maker of stealing the trade secrets of American companies. It’s also has said that Huawei’s equipment represents a security threat because of the company’s allegedly close ties to the Chinese government.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration issued an order barring American companies from supplying Huawei with their products and services without US government approval. In response to that directive, Google announced that it would be cutting the Chinese electronics maker off from its version of Android and from the apps it ships with it. Although, Google and the US government have since given the company a temporary reprieve.

Huawei is only the latest company to try to develop an upstart smartphone or computer operating system. In the 1980s and 1990s, companies such as Commodore, Be, and Next — as well as a programmer named Linus Torvalds — worked on PC operating systems to try to crack into the market dominated by Microsoft. More recently, companies such as BlackBerry, Palm, Microsoft, and Mozilla have tried to establish alternatives to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

Apps will be the big challenge

Building an operating system or even developing some basic apps likely won’t prove much of a challenge for Huawei, the former executives said. There are numerous variants of the open-source Linux operating system around — including the basic version of Android — that it could use as a foundation for its new platform, said Jean-Louis Gassée, a longtime tech industry executive and investor. Because of Huawei’s size and its access to a huge talent pool of Chinese developers, he said it likely wouldn’t take the company too long to develop what he calls a “minimum viable product” that it could use in its smartphones.

Andreas Gal“Definitely they could reach that stage without straining,” said Gassée, who as CEO of Be Inc. in the 1990s, led an effort to create a PC operating system that would rival Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Mac OS.

A much more difficult challenge will be in trying to put together an app store that can offer a collection that can match what consumers can find on phones with access to standard Android, the former executives said. Google’s move to block Huawei from using its version of Android means that the company won’t have access to the search giant’s popular Google Play store or any of Google’s own apps. That’s a big problem for Huawei, because the Google search, YouTube, Gmail, and Google Maps apps are among the most popular ones on Android devices. Without access to Google’s apps, “they haven’t got a chance,” said one former mobile industry executive who asked not to be named.

And Google’s apps likely wouldn’t be the only holes in Huawei’s store. Many of the most popular apps other than Google’s are made by American companies or Western countries, which are also likely to avoid doing business with Huawei. Even if they weren’t scared off by Trump’s ban, many likely wouldn’t be interested in customizing their apps for Huawei’s operating system until it had tens of millions of users, said Gal, now a technologist with Apple.

That’s where Firefox OS really struggled, he said. Because the software had few users, Mozilla couldn’t convince developers to port their apps to it, he said. And without those apps, it had a tough time attractive users.

“That’s where we struggled the most,” Gal said. He continued: “It’s a Catch 22 situation.”

Huawei could develop its own apps

Huawei could build or hire developers to create versions of Google or Facebook’s apps, Gassée said. Amazon’s Fire tablets don’t have access to Google’s official apps, because they run Amazon’s own variant of Android. But consumers can still find apps within Amazon’s store that will allow them to access Gmail or YouTube.

Similarly, on PCs consumers can access all kinds of services even if they don’t have an app for them just by using a web browser, he said.

Jean-Louis GasseeOn a PC, “You have very nice access to Google’s services without Google’s permission” in the form of a dedicated app, Gassée explained.

But many of Google’s apps incorporate features that aren’t available to developers outside of Google, so third-party versions wouldn’t necessarily be able to offer a comparable experience, Gal said. Additionally, Huawei might face legal trouble if it tried to offer a homespun YouTube or Gmail app. YouTube and Gmail are trademarked, which means Huawei and its developers couldn’t mention the services in the names of their apps without Google’s permission, he said.

“You can’t just take the YouTube icon and put it on a phone,” he said.

But Huawei faces an additional challenge, Gal said. Many of the services consumers tap into on their smartphones were built using immense amounts of data.

Services built on big data could be a big problem for Huawei

Take location services. When smartphones are figuring out where they are, they frequently look for nearby Wi-Fi routers and cell phone towers and compare what they find with what they have in a database of known locations of such radios. Compiling and maintaining a worldwide database of those radio locations is an immense and time-consuming task, Gal said, one that only a handful of companies has taken on.

Similarly, offering turn-by-turn directions that take into account current traffic information, requires a huge amount of up-to-date data. While there are open-source and other efforts to offer similar information, they tend not to be as good in part because they’re not being used as widely, Gal said.

To offer a mapping service comparable to Google Maps that’s useful globally, Huawei would likely be forced to build it from scratch.

And Huawei would face similar problems with other services, Gal said. The camera apps that ship with iPhones and with standard Android phones are able to produce stunning pictures in part due to software. That software was tuned to produce such great photographs through the use of artificial intelligence models that studied millions of images, he said. To create a similar app to the one that ships free with Android, Huawei would have to recreate that process all by itself, he said.

“It’s a daunting problem,” Gal said.

Outside of China, Huawei could be stymied

Gassée is more optimistic about Huawei’s chances. The company is smart, well-funded, determined, and ambitious, he said. As the second biggest smartphone maker, it also already has millions of users to which it could market its new operating system.

But even he notes that building a successful operating system will likely require plenty of time and money.

“It could be difficult,” he said.

Huawei’s best bet outside of China may be in developing countries. Smartphone penetration tends to be lower in such countries, and the price of the phones often matters more than the services they offer. Huawei’s operating system could find some traction in such countries, at least in the short term, the executives said.

Read this: A longtime industry expert explains why Trump’s attack on Huawei could end up hurting Google and other US tech giants

“But in the rest of the world, no way,” said the former mobile industry executive. “I think it’s really hard … because of the app ecosystem,” he continued.

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SEE ALSO: A longtime industry expert explains why Trump’s attack on Huawei could end up hurting Google and other US tech giants

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