Huawei needs an alternative to Google’s full-blown Android operating system, software and services—that much is certain, but it seems that little else is. Somewhat surprising reports from Russia on June 11 suggested that the “Android operating system in Huawei smartphones can be replaced by the Russian ‘Aurora’.”
Aurora is based on the Sailfish OS developed by Finland’s Jolla and has been developed by the Russian Open Mobile Platform with the backing of Russian oligarch Grigory Berezkin. In 2018, the state-owned Russian carrier Rostelecom acquired a 75% share in the Open Mobile Platform.
According to Russian outlet the Bell, Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping “discussed the possible transition of Chinese smartphones to Sailfish with [Russia’s] minister of digital development and communications, Konstantin Noskov.” The website also reports that “the topic was raised at the meetings between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping” at the 2019 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). Huawei has already secured its role in Russia’s 5G deployments, another topic reportedly raised between the two leaders.
According to reports, one of Guo or the Russian official claimed that “China is already testing devices with the Aurora pre-installed,” and Aurora is to be installed on “various” Huawei devices “instead of Google’s Android system.” The reports also suggest Huawei might begin some Russian production, including “the joint production of chips and software.” And this wider level of collaboration is at the heart of this story. While the focus has been on the company’s Android alternative, it is the entire hardware and software supply chain that is under threat and needs to be rebuilt. And an alliance between China and Russia makes that much more feasible.
Even as the Aurora reports began to surface, the news from Huawei watchers had been focused more on various leading Chinese tech players, including Tencent, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo, testing the company’s new Android-based OS HongMeng. China’s Global Times, a state-run English-language newspaper, reported that the company “is reportedly intensively testing its proprietary operating system (OS) HongMeng with internet giants and domestic smartphone vendors, and the new system will be launched in the next few months.”
As things stand, a Huawei OS based on the open-source Android platform remains the most likely outcome. But what makes these reports from Russia interesting is the wider political context. A Russo-Chinese technology axis that emerges to break the dominance of U.S. big tech is the cornerstone of the so-called “splinternet,” whereby an alternative ecosystem hits the market that does not rely on U.S. hardware or software and which breaks Google’s monopoly in particular. The economic implications for the U.S., if this was to take hold, would be stark.
Meanwhile, it is entirely possible that Huawei is exploring multiple alternative options. It has an almost unlimited R&D war chest and a battle for survival on its hands. The challenge for the company remains to sell its alternative to “business as usual” to consumers outside of markets like China and Russia. Weaning Europe, in particular, away from the tried and tested Android world is likely near impossible.
Whatever is going on development-wise, the fact that this potential level of consumer technology collaboration between Moscow and Beijing was on the agenda when Xi and Putin met illustrates the bigger picture at play here. And that should be taken seriously.