Huawei has been in a tough spot for the last few months. In May, the US government added the company to the “Entity List,” which imposes tight restrictions on exporting technology to the firm. Multiple suppliers and partners have severed ties with Huawei, including Google. With its access to Android services in doubt, Huawei has quietly spun up its homegrown Hongmeng operating system. Now, Chinese media reports that Huawei could launch a phone running Hongmeng later this year.
Before this kerfuffle, Huawei was the second-largest smartphone maker in the world, having finally passed Apple last year. The company had hopes of supplanting Samsung as the top OEM after it finally broke into the US market. Alas, it didn’t get the chance before the US Commerce Department added it to the Entity List, which tracks people and businesses that could work against the interests of the United States. Being on the entity list imposes draconian export license requirements on companies, effectively cutting them off from US material and technology.
Huawei built its mobile business on Android, which is a US product from Google. The core Android operating system is open source, so nothing would stop Huawei from continuing to use that. However, there are many closed source components (eg. the Play Store, Gmail, etc.) that companies have to license from Google, and those would be affected by the ban. Huawei could build replacements for those or just spin up its own OS, and it appears to be leaning toward the latter.
The Global Times, an arm of Chinese state media, says Huawei plans to launch a Hongmeng-powered phone in the fourth quarter. The device will reportedly cost just 2,000 RMB ($284), so it won’t be a replacement for the company’s flagship P-series or Mate smartphones. In fact, Huawei will probably unveil the Mate 30 running Android alongside the Hongmeng phone.
Huawei is in a better position than most to stay afloat while the political situation simmers. Phones for the Chinese market don’t run Google services, so Huawei could continue using Android there for the time being. Hongmeng is also designed to run Android apps, so Huawei can load its custom application store on the new OS to provide users some semblance of continuity. Still, Huawei is going to start hemorrhaging money if it has to dump Android and start from scratch with Hongmeng. Android has been actively developed by one of the largest companies in the world for a decade, but Hongmeng is still in its infancy.