Lost in the fog of TikTok was an important announcement: Huawei open sourced its homemade mobile operating system, HarmonyOS, now dubbed OpenHarmony. This announcement flew under the radar, but has far-reaching implications to not just the future of mobile technology, but also how that landscape will influence the geopolitical chess match between the U.S. and China.
But like many things that come out of China, it’s less a game of chess, but more a game of Go.
OpenHarmony: the Technology
Let’s first get a handle on the technology that underpins OpenHarmony. Because the project started, first in 2012 and intensified in 2019, as a strategic initiative to reduce Huawei’s reliance on the Android operating system due to U.S. sanctions, many mistakenly believe it is based on either Android or Linux (of which Android is based). That’s not true.
OpenHarmony is based on another open source operating system called FreeBSD. Interestingly, Apple’s macOS and iOS also leveraged FreeBSD indirectly from another operating system project called Darwin. So, on a bits and bytes level, Huawei’s OpenHarmony is more similar to iOS than Android.
This is a smart decision because if the whole point is to reduce reliance on Android, the most important thing to avoid is co-mingling code with either Android or Linux in case it triggers obscure licensing restrictions. And the last thing a development team wants is to have technology licensing lawyers checking every line of code the engineers write, especially when they need to develop quickly to avoid an existential crisis, which is what Huawei has right now.
Because the project is open sourced, there’s a lot one can do now to evaluate and verify OpenHarmony. In fact, I verified the FreeBSD lineage by rummaging through its codebase, which is all hosted on Gitee. For readers who had a chance to read my previous post “Can You ‘Nationalize’ Open Source?”, Gitee should sound familiar. It is a Git-based developer collaboration application that was recently anointed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) as the domestic “national champion” to drive open source growth in China. What I didn’t know when I wrote the previous post was that Huawei also became a strategic investor in Gitee in early September via its corporate venture arm, Habo.
But as every open source technologist can attest, no project ever gets traction without a long period of steadfast community-building and credibility-building. That’s where the OpenAtom Foundation comes in.
OpenAtom: the Foundation
The OpenAtom Foundation is China’s first non-profit organization of its kind geared towards fostering open source technologies, much in the same way as the Linux Foundation or the Apache Software Foundation. Huawei drove the founding of this foundation, and OpenHarmony is its anchor project.
But what is the point of a foundation anyway? As I’ve written in “COVID, Open Source, Industrial Policy”, a foundation’s involvement can help open source technologies in two meaningful ways: accelerate development and vendor neutrality. In a nutshell, vendor neutrality is important because it allows other large companies to contribute in the development of an open source technology without fearing vendor lock-in by another company, thus leads to faster development of that technology. An example would be Kuberentes, an open source container orchestration software that was first created by Google but is now the anchor project for the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF); Kubernetes’s fast growth would not be possible if it still resides within Google.
While a foundation’s involvement is by no means necessary -- and many open source projects have become popular without a foundation’s support -- it does help. And that’s what the OpenAtom Foundation is trying to deliver for China’s technology ecosystem. Its model and value proposition is similar to that of the Linux Foundation: basically delivering foundation (thus neutrality) as a service to open source projects, including legal, IP trademark management, licensing, community building, joint marketing, etc.
An open source foundation is successful when it builds an ecosystem of technologies around the anchor project with a coherent theme. The Linux Foundation, of course, built an ecosystem around Linux with many ancillary and adjacent technologies around the “open source operating system” theme. The CNCF (a subsidiary foundation of the Linux Foundation) built an ecosystem of technologies around Kubernetes and the “cloud-native” theme.
While the OpenAtom Foundation is already hosting seven projects as part of its launch, with a lofty goal of fostering open source software, hardware, semiconductors, and content (I’m assuming documentation and technical education), the only theme seems to be that all projects were created by Chinese companies. And besides OpenHarmony, whose strategic value to Huawei is clear, the other technologies seem trivial to their original creators:
- Xuperchain, a blockchain infrastructure project from Baidu
- TKEStack (a container orchestration layer based on Kubernetes) and TencentOS (an energy-efficient IoT operating system) from Tencent
- AliOS (a light-weight IoT operating system) from Alibaba
- PIKA (a storage system based on the open source database, Redis) from Qihoo360
- UBML (a Unified Business Modeling Language modeling system) from Netease
If I have to surmise a future theme that is technology-focused and not nationality-focused, it would be IoT because when OpenHarmony was first unveiled in 2019 (as HarmonyOS), it was an IoT-focused operating system, like TencentOS and AliOS. But since then, its scope has broadened to include support for smartphones, watches, and smart TVs.
One other curious element about OpenAtom is that only two projects (OpenHarmony, TencentOS) are hosted on the “national champion”, Gitee, while four others (AliOS, PIKA, Xuperchain, TKE) are on GitHub. The remaining one, UBML from Netease, requires a developer to fill out a form to apply for access, which is a very developer-unfriendly way to run an open source project.
Technology + Foundation = Developer Approval?
That’s the hope anyway. The nirvana of an open source technology, with or without a foundation, is to achieve widespread participation and buy-in among developers, who will both make use of the technology at scale and contribute to its development. And if an experienced foundation gets involved to leverage its best practices in open source management, it can increase the success rate by reducing much of the messiness and common mistakes that often plague young open source projects.
In the case of Huawei though, OpenHarmony is a young project, and OpenAtom is an even younger foundation.
The lazy and obvious conclusion here is to just dismiss all these efforts as a fool’s errand. But that’s not what you came to Interconnected for. The honest and nuanced conclusion is: it’s too early to tell and there are trends working both against and for Huawei’s open source strategy.
Huawei is infamous for its secretive ownership structure. Nobody knows exactly who or what owns Huawei. It’s a private Chinese LLC. It’s employee-owned, with 98.99% of company shares controlled by its employees via a “trade union committee”. Allegedly, this committee pays dues to more senior trade unions in an opaque bureaucracy that ultimately leads to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (thus all the controversy). That’s why I’ve advocated for Huawei to IPO in New York -- a bold act that would bring some desperately-needed credibility to the company.
Along the same vein, the OpenAtom Foundation also needs transparent, credible governance of its projects and itself. It currently boasts a 16-member Technical Oversight Committee (TOC), a typical governing element of an open source foundation, with Chinese technologists who have had years of experience working on projects in the Apache Software Foundation and Mozilla Foundation -- a good start. Their decision making process will have to be public and transparent to earn credibility from the wide developer community, both within and outside of China. As a reference, the CNCF TOC’s every governing deliberation is viewable and commentable on GitHub. Because OpenAtom is, after all, a China-registered entity, to what degree it can deliver pure transparency is questionable.
Lastly, OpenHarmony’s birthright as a Chinese creation makes building neutrality and credibility harder than just about any other birthright on the planet. This is an obvious yet important point that every Chinese company is struggling with right now. It is an element that every Chinese immigrant living abroad has been struggling with for much longer. For a young project, OpenHarmony does have reasonably good documentation in both English and Chinese -- an important first step that must be continued for the long haul. Maintaining a bilingual presence (much like this blog) requires lots of extra hard work -- work that an American-born, German-born, or French-born project does not have to do. None of us can pick where we are born, but we all have to deal with its uneven consequences. There is no point in pretending that doesn’t exist.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Huawei; there are a couple of factors potentially working in its favor. For one, the U.S.’s own credibility and neutrality when regulating cross-border technology businesses is also deteriorating. The Trump administration’s wheeling and dealing of TikTok is nothing short of cronyism, so much so that it has been called out by none other than the WSJ editorial board. Although this doesn’t mean Huawei will have an opening to re-enter the U.S. market, other parts of the world may be more receptive to its technology. Regions like Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa are all credible possibilities. (See more in “Where Can the Chinese Internet Go?“ in the context of Alibaba and Tencent’s cloud expansion plans.)
From a product angle, Apple iOS’s current rift with Epic Games over the app store’s 30% revenue cut may present another opening. Regardless of which party is on the right side of history, Apple’s decision to suspend Epic’s access to its developer platform is already making other developers think twice about being part of the iOS ecosystem for the long term. Thus far, Apple has been able to lock-in the best developers within iOS because: 1. Its vertically integrated product approach delivers the best user experience; 2. People who buy Apple devices are more wealthy, so iOS users tend to have more money to spend, thus more money for developers to make. That may not last forever.
It’ll be years still before Huawei’s smartphones catch up to Apple’s, and sanctions around semiconductors against Huawei may further enlarge the gap. But if Apple’s goodwill among developers continues to fall, OpenHarmony could step in if its rollout into Huawei smartphones in 2021 goes well and design a more favorable incentive structure with developers. The economically rational developers will always look for an ecosystem with credible technology (open source), a big install base (Huawei is currently the #1 smartphone maker in the world), an audience that’s growing wealthy and spend money (the Chinese middle class), and friendlier revenue-split terms (TBD).
To be sure, the “factors against” are more immediate challenges, while the “factors for” will take a long time to play out. Does Huawei have the money to afford the time and patience?
A Multi-Century Game of Go
While the future is always hard to predict, especially when it comes to Huawei, the company does have a decent pile of cash to last through some very lean years, while executing this open source strategy. Huawei has about $53 billion USD in cash and short-term investments at the end of its fiscal year 2019.
To put this amount in perspective, here are some peer companies’ cash level at end of their respective fiscal year 2019:
None of this accounts for any government subsidies that may be injected into Huawei, which may never show up in its financial statements. Thus, Huawei should have the runway to execute its open source strategy to gain developer mindshare and technology market share without ever needing to make a dime from open source.
For anyone with just an amateur understanding of the game Go, you’d know that the pieces are all the same -- same power, same utility. It’s where the pieces are placed on the board that determines who will win the game. It’s also a game of relative advantage, not absolute dominance, that can take many turns to play out.
Huawei has clearly decided to place an important piece on the board that represents open source, with more pieces to come.
Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei -- loathed as a Community Party puppet in the U.S. and revered as a generation-defining entrepreneur in China -- famously said earlier this year that Huawei’s operating system will take a long time to surpass either Android or iOS, but it won’t take more than 300 years. Except for Jack Ma (wants Alibaba to last 102 years and span three centuries) and Jeff Bezos (currently building the 10,000 year clock), not many tech CEOs, or any CEO, speak and act in a century-spanning timeline.
If we take Ren’s words both seriously and literally, then Huawei’s open source strategy will be something that will play out not in decades, but in centuries.
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在围绕TikTok的迷雾中，我们忽略了一条重要的新闻：华为将其自制的移动操作系统 HarmonyOS开源了，改名为 OpenHarmony。这一宣布不仅对移动科技的未来，而对中美地缘政治博弈的未来都有深远影响。
技术 + 基金会 = 开发者的认可？
从产品的角度来看，苹果iOS目前与Epic游戏在App Store的30%提成上的分歧可能会带来另一个契机。不管哪一方正确的，苹果决定暂停Epic对其开发者平台的使用权限，已经使其他开发者质疑长期在iOS生态里开发还是不是个明知的选择。到目前为止，苹果能够在iOS内锁定最优秀的开发者是因为：1. 它的垂直集成产品开发提供了最好的用户体验；2. 买苹果产品的人一般更有钱，因此iOS用户往往更能花钱，因此开发者喜欢为他们做产品来赚更多的钱。这种状况也许不会永远持续下去。