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(Picture: Aly Song/Reuters)

Programmers complain that Huawei’s Ark Compiler is ‘not even half-finished’

The compiler is supposed to make it easy to port Android apps to Huawei’s new HarmonyOS, but it’s not going well

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

A scam. A publicity stunt. Premature. These are just a few of the things Chinese developers are saying about the release of Huawei’s supposed secret weapon: The Ark Compiler.

Developers are even claiming the program feels incomplete. The reception has been so bad that one programmer told Abacus that he wondered whether it was released just for publicity.

“Maybe they're doing it to help in the PR and trade war, adding leverage against the US,” said Max Zhou, co-founder of app-enhancement company MetaApp and former head of engineering at Mobike.

The Ark Compiler is a key component of Huawei’s new operating system, HarmonyOS. The tool is meant to allow developers to quickly port their Android apps to the new OS, ideally helping to quickly bridge the gap of app availability. It is also said to be able to improve the efficiency of Android apps, making them as smooth as apps on iOS.

As of right now, though, developers say the promises are too good to be true.

“The ad says it’s a Michelin 3-star. But when it’s served, it turns out to be a pack of Tingyi cup noodles and it doesn’t even come with hot water. Do you think it has met expectations?” one programmer wrote on Q&A site Zhihu under the question “Did the open source code of the Ark Compiler meet everyone’s expectations?

Zhihu, where people in China go to ask questions and get answers

Huawei declined to comment for this article, but the company has said before that the Ark Compiler would be rolled out in phases, with the source code for the complete toolchain not being available until 2020.
The company chose to release the framework source code for the Ark Compiler on August 31, but what developers found wasn’t what they expected. Those who tried it out piled on with angry comments. On that same Zhihu thread, the majority of the more than 150 commenters harshly criticized Huawei.
“Not only can’t the Ark Compiler compile all the standard benchmark samples, it can’t even compile ITS OWN demo sample!” Xing Yin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, wrote in a widely upvoted comment.
Huawei’s much-anticipated Ark Compiler was launched recently, but programmers aren’t impressed. (Picture: Huawei)

We weren’t able to verify Yin’s work. At least one person commenting on Zhihu claimed to have compiled the demo, but others suggested it required the use of a third-party tool.

“Its demo can't be run because they didn't release the necessary runtime,” Yin told Abacus. “Some people on Zhihu said it can compile to assembly language, but it can't go any further than that. It can't be compiled into an executable file.”

For the non-coders out there, a compiler is what operating systems use to parse the source code of a program. It’s a special program that translates human programming language into the machine language that instructs your computer or phone to perform specific tasks on the hardware level.
As a result of this process, Android apps tend to be slower compared with apps on Apple’s iOS. Android’s compilation process has traditionally been more complicated, and the apps are mostly coded in the Java programming language. This is better for cross-platform compatibility, but it sacrifices efficient compilation.
You wouldn't think just bringing in a different compiler for the same source code would result in significantly better results, but Huawei says it does. According to the company’s claims, the Ark Compiler improves the smoothness of third-party applications by 60%.

Huawei said the Ark Compiler took 10 years to develop, but all that time incubating has not translated into user adoration.

“Huawei does not represent the peak of Chinese technology,” author He Zhiyuan wrote on Zhihu.

He added, “We developers diss Huawei not because we don’t love our country or we want to sabotage our country or we are US imperialist spies… But just tossing out a product that’s not even half-finished is really insincere.”

The Mate 30 is set to be the first device Huawei will launch without Google apps and services this month. (Picture: Twitter)

Huawei has recently been caught in the crosshairs of rising tensions between the US and China. Many in China have rallied around the Shenzhen-based tech giant as a show of support for their country.

In May, the US put the company on an entity list that bars US-based companies from selling tech to Huawei without authorization. When Google said it would comply with the ban and not license its apps and services like Google Maps and YouTube to Huawei for future handsets, it was a potentially crippling blow to the company’s international smartphone ambitions.

That’s why the Ark Compiler and its ability to port Android apps is seen as such an important component of HarmonyOS.

Although Huawei has said that it’s not ready to move away from Android just yet, it has an ambitious vision for HarmonyOS. The company said the OS will support a range of products, including smartphones, computers, tablets, TVs, automobiles and smart wear.

Chinese netizens have mixed feelings about Huawei’s homegrown HarmonyOS

Zhou, from MetaApp, was very excited by the prospect of the Ark Compiler before he got his hands on it. Now he considers it a publicity stunt, especially given how much Huawei emphasized that the Ark Compiler would be open source.

“We don’t need it to be open source,” he said, adding that it’s more important that it be “easy to use and compatible. They were doing it for publicity only -- not really wishing for community contributions.”

Zhou also questioned why having an open source compiler would be useful at all.

“Nobody wants to change their compiler code in the first place,” he said. “It’s a compiler for god’s sake.”

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.