After years of speculation Huawei has finally revealed HarmonyOS: a new mobile operating system that's far more than a mere Android rival, but will also power Huawei's entire ecosystem of mobile, wearable, and smart-home devices.
Huawei revealed HarmonyOS alongside a series of MatePad tablets and Watch 3 wearables, but we here at Tech Advisor have also had the chance to test the new operating system out ourselves, over several days with the 12.6in MatePad Pro.
Head to our HarmonyOS hands-on preview for our first impressions, or read on for everything you need to know about Harmony, including what apps it runs, which devices it will support, and whether you'll be able to upgrade your phone or tablet to the new OS.
What is HarmonyOS?
Huawei bills HarmonyOS as "a future-proof distributed operating system." That basically means it's the company's own operating system, designed to work on devices from IoT and smart home products to wearables, in-car infotainment systems, and mobile devices - including smartphones.
According to Huawei, a developer could build an experience using HarmonyOS for one product category and the platform would then be able to adapt said experience to work across other types of products with minimal effort.
Which new devices support HarmonyOS?
HarmonyOS has only just been officially launched, with version 2.0 offering smartphone compatibility for the first time. Version 1.0 was first seen running on the company's own smart TVs and its AX3 WiFi router.
Huawei officially launched the OS on a new trio of MatePad and MatePad Pro tablets, alongside the Watch 3 and Watch 3 Pro. It's also revealed that the software will be included on the P50 phones when they launch soon.
New, HarmonyOS versions of the Mate 40 Pro, Mate 40E, Mate X2, and Nova 8 Pro are also launching in China, though only in 4G versions.
The company hopes to have HarmonyOS 2.0 running on over 200 million devices by the end of 2021; that's a figure made up not only of Huawei's own products but those made by its partners too.
We discuss the ramifications of HarmonyOS and its relationship with Huawei's debut platform hardware in episode 68 of our weekly podcast, Fast Charge:
Can I upgrade my phone or tablet to HarmonyOS?
The smartphone-compatible HarmonyOS 2.0 beta went live in December 2020, and the company says that nearly 100 Huawei devices are set to receive the HarmonyOS 2 upgrade in China.
At the time of writing the upgrade is available to the Mate 40 series, Mate 30 series, P40 series, Mate X2, and last year's MatePad Pro series. Even some Honor phones are eligible, with the Honor 30 and V30 series included, along with the Play 4 Pro and V6 tablet.
Finally, the company promises that in the first half of 2022 it will even deliver the upgrade to devices as old as the Mate 10 and Mate 9 series, P20 and P10 series, Nova 5 series, and MediaPad M5 series tablets.
Anyone who wants to upgrade can submit an application at the Huawei Club or on the My Huawei app, or sign up for the HarmonyOS Experience Officer Program in any of Huawei's 66 physical stores in China. The upgrade offer is currently China-only, but it might be possible to get around that with a VPN - though we haven't tested this ourselves.
Is HarmonyOS replacing Android on Huawei phones?
Yes and no... Huawei's own documentation and marketing surrounding HarmonyOS suggest that it serves as a complete end-to-end replacement for Android on its smartphones and tablets.
However, ArsTechnica conducted an in-depth review of the HarmonyOS 2.0 beta, along with its development tools, and concluded that, in its current state, HarmonyOS 2.0 was essentially Android (version 10) in all but name.
Some fundamental components of HarmonyOS 2.0 still make reference to Android, which the company has used to power its smartphones since they first hit the market.
My hands-on test of the software suggested similar, with an experience that's ultimately close to EMUI, albeit tweaked somewhat and with some new aesthetic flourishes.
While HarmonyOS' official marketing and development paperwork appear to be intentionally written to obfuscate the fact this it is essentially a forked version of Android, it does appear to be based on Google's mobile OS, so to say that it is replacing Android on the company's smartphones isn't exactly correct.
Will Android apps run on HarmonyOS?
Yes. Well, to the same extent that Huawei's recent Android devices do, which is to say that any apps that don't rely on Google Mobile Services will run fine.
HarmonyOS uses the same AppGallery app store that Huawei introduced on Android, and every app I tested ran fine on the new system.
It also offers the same Petal Search tool, which allows users to easily search for .apk files and install common Android apps that aren't included in the AppGallery. In my testing Instagram, Netflix, and Disney+ all ran perfectly on HarmonyOS.
The only apps that won't work are the same ones that won't work on recent Huawei Android devices: any Google apps, and any third-party apps that rely on Google Mobile Services for authentication or data syncing. Those include the likes of Todoist and Zero, but it will take users some trial and error to figure out which of their apps will run smoothly and which won't.
What is HarmonyOS like to use?
We've been testing HarmonyOS out on the new 12.6in MatePad Pro and can confirm that in use it feels a lot like Huawei's EMUI Android skin - with a healthy does of iOS/iPadOS features thrown into the mix too.
Aesthetically, it looks a lot like EMUI, with the same design language, colour scheme, icons, and even the Android notification system.
There have been tweaks however. For example, swiping down from the left-hand side of the screen now brings down the notification tray, while a right-hand swipe pulls down the slightly redesigned control centre.
On tablet at least there's also a new app dock that sits along the bottom of the home screen with shortcuts to a few apps of your choice, plus your most recently used - though this is not expected to be included on smartphone versions of the OS.
Widgets also have a renewed focus, similar to iOS 14 and what we've seen of Android 12 so far. These include familiar Android widgets plus some additional Harmony offerings, with more to come. You can create widgets quickly by swiping up from app icons on the homescreen too.
There's also a new option to expand folders into a larger format, and folders are a bit smarter than before: add two related apps into a folder and the OS will offer to add more similar apps into the folder for you automatically.
As mentioned before, apps are installed via the Huawei AppGallery, and so far any compatible Android apps - i.e. any that don't rely on Google Mobile Services - seem to run smoothly, installed either via AppGallery or via Petal Search using an .apk file.
Multi-tasking with those apps has also improved. Not only can you run multiple apps on split-screen, but Huawei's App Multiplier will let you run multiple windows side-by-side from within the same app. The company says almost 4,000 apps support the feature already - though of course you shouldn't expect it work with anything you've sideloaded.
Huawei has also built in a heavy emphasis on ecosystem here. Compatible Huawei wearables and accessories will pair seamlessly when you turn them on, and you can quickly share files between nearby HarmonyOS devices too, even dragging files into apps to use them directly.
A 'Super Device' widget allows you to drag and drop icons representing your devices together. Drag the headphone icon to the phone icon and your audio will switch over, or connect the TV and phone icons to cast a video from your phone to the smart TV screen.
You can even move app windows across devices. Connect a phone and tablet together and you can see all your active apps on each device together, and even move an active app window from the phone to the tablet, or vice versa.
There's even improved collaboration with Huawei's Windows 10 laptops. You'll be able to mirror your screen to the Windows device or extend screens to use your tablet or phone as a secondary display. Drag-and-drop wireless file sharing is also possible, and once again you can move them directly into apps to work on - moving an image from a phone directly into a Word document, for example, or accessing the phone hard drive when looking for an attachment for an email.