The 8 Mobile OS Upstarts that Want to Topple iOS and Android
Ubuntu, Firefox, Tizen, Sailfish, WebOS, Nokia Series 40, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone want a piece of the pie, but it won’t be a cakewalk
People love choice — or so they say. In reality, we tend to gravitate to just a few choices, especially when it comes to core technology. When you have a couple of dominant platforms, you end up getting more options for the platform you choose. Cases in point: Windows or OS X. SAP or Oracle or Infor. Windows Server or Linux. Microsoft Office or iWork or LibreOffice. Amazon.com or eBay. Hewlett-Packard or Dell or Lenovo. iOS or Android.
Typically, you get lots of choice where it doesn’t matter in terms of integration with a core platform, such as for generic tech: hard drives, monitors, TVs, automobiles, toasters and other kitchen appliances, and so on.
Android is the strong No. 1 and iOS the strong No. 2 for consumer, their positions reversed for enterprise. With iOS and Android dominating the mobile ecosystem so thoroughly, the other eight — yes, eight — wannabe players are seeking ways to stand out. Most are targeting what they hope are niches that iOS and Android won’t take over, though a couple still have dreams of displacing Android or iOS, or at least becoming a significant No. 3.
Realistic? No — most will fail, though we won’t know which for a while. In the meantime, here’s who else is vying for your attention as a user or developer and how they hope to convince you they’re worth adopting.
Simple smartphones have three niches they hope to thrive in
For some reason, 2013 is the year of the simple smartphone: Mozilla has Firefox OS, Canonical has Ubuntu Touch, tiny Jolla has Sailfish, and Samsung is working on Tizen to replace its tepidly received Bada OS. Nokia got into the simple smartphone game early in fall 2011 with its Series 40-powered Asha devices. There are two threads common to these wannabe OSes:
- They’re targeted at poorer regions of the world where price sensitivity creates a perceived opening for alternatives to iOS and Android.
- A related goal is simplicity, for users who find iPhones and Android devices too complex, no matter what part of the world they live in.
Finally, there’s also a political basis for two of the new mobile OSes (Firefox OS and Ubuntu Touch): to have an “open” alternative to the “closed” OSes like iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Series 40, and BlackBerry.
The poor angle. The logic here is that the lightweight environment won’t need the kind of hardware found in iPhones, Android devices, and BlackBerrys, making them more affordable to the developing world, where the smartphone revolution hasn’t yet taken hold. That bet on low prices for poorer countries is iffy. Nokia’s Asha series of smartphones has been on the market for about 16 months, with solid sales of 9 million units in the fourth quarter of 2012. But that’s just 2 percent of global mobile phone sales, based on Gartner’s stats. That’s not an encouraging portion if you believe that the world’s 5 billion poor people are ready for smartphones if only they were cheap enough.
What’s selling best in the poorer regions is what’s selling well in the richer regions: Android. Chinese, Indian, Korean, and other manufacturers have cheap if underpowered Android smartphones for price-conscious regions, plus a path to better devices on the same platform. People can start and stay in the Android world, retaining their investments.
In those poorer countries, iOS starts with the richer people but, as in the rich world, is a solid No. 2 in many poorer regions, thanks to the availability of older, cheaper models such as the iPhone 3G S and iPhone 4. We’re also now seeing experiments with installment sales to reduce the sticker shock. (BlackBerry had been No. 2 in some key countries but is losing that position.)
Also, the focus on device price tends to ignore two realities: One is that the biggest cost for users over time is the data plan, not the device, and Web-based devices tend to use more bandwidth. The other is that for many buyers in poorer countries, a smartphone acts as their computer, so it needs to be capable of more than you might expect.
I suspect that one of the less expensive platforms could get a toehold in poorer countries as a runner-up to Android and iOS, but it’s a complete mystery as to which. Samsung has great brand awareness, which would argue for Tizen — except Samsung is practically synonymous with Android, and Samsung’s brand may steer people to that platform. Still, the decision to have Tizen run Bada apps will help.
Nokia’s Asha is already known; plus, the Nokia brand has been very popular for regular cellphones in poorer regions for years — yet Asha sales haven’t been monstrous as you’d expect with those advantages. To me these two have the best chances as they are more known and trusted than the others.
The simple angle. A little over a week ago, desktop Linux vendor Canonical released a developer preview of its Ubuntu Touch mobile OS. I installed it on a Nexus 4 and found it a nice mashup of existing mobile OSes, though it’s extremely simplistic in its first version. Mozilla’s Firefox OS, whose first devices are coming to some countries this fall, takes a similar approach: Think widgets and mini-websites more than apps.
That simplicity might appeal to people who find iOS or Android too complex, but probably not. That’s the same pitch we’ve heard for Windows Phone, which hasn’t done well, despite three versions in as many years. Nokia’s Asha devices seem to have flourished, selling 9 million units in the fourth quarter of 2012 — until you realize a year-plus of availability has yielded just 2 percent of the market. Bada didn’t hit even that level, and the struggling Windows Phone has only recently passed that mark, despite Microsoft’s huge marketing muscle and Nokia’s purported brand advantage (in its Lumia series).
Yes, some users will prefer a simpler smartphone, though it’s not like iOS or Android are overly complicated. Both iOS and Android offer media playback options and game selections that strongly appeal to many users, including those who like it simple.
Simple also has a dark side: simplistic or unfinished products. Windows Phone, for example, is pretty but unable to do much. I can forgive the developer preview of Ubuntu Touch for being simplistic, given the early stage of its development, but not if the final version is so limited. I also can’t forgive Mozilla’s Firefox OS for being “slow and buggy,” according to respected analyst firm Ovum, in the demonstration models shown last week for products that are supposed to hit the market in a few months.
Then there’s Sailfish, an offshoot of the open source MeeGo effort led by Nokia before the switch to Windows Phone. Jolla (pronounced “yo-lah”), a tiny company composed of MeeGo engineers, decided essentially to keep working on it, calling its upcoming version Sailfish. It’s an unlikely effort that speaks more to a team’s passion than to any business reality.
CEO Marc Dillon says he’s aiming for sales of a few million units — profitable enough for Jolla. But that means a smartphone with no chance of apps beyond the basics created by Jolla. In other words, it’s a dead-end phone little better than a Web-enabled cellphone — remember those? Worse, Dillon’s notion of licensing Sailfish for specific vendor services, such as for a Foursquare phone, is very naive, misreading the reality of mobile: Devices are used for multiple purposes, like PCs, not as specialized appliances like hammers and drills.
Despite its huge backer (Samsung), I’m also skeptical of Tizen, an OS that has had many guises (Moblin, Maemo, and MeeGo are the best known) but a common history of being mismanaged by both open source Linux committees and major vendors (Nokia and Intel). It’s hard to believe anything whose pedigree is only dysfunctional can become functional, much less simple and usable. On the other hand, Samsung has shown a remarkable ability to innovate Android and improve its user experience, so there’s hope. Still, those who’ve seen the early development versions say it’s pretty bad.
The “open” angle. The open source community’s desire to have “open” HTML beat “closed” iOS and Android — the political engine driving both the Ubuntu and Firefox mobile OSes — ignores the reality that users want better apps than the HTML world has been able to deliver. Users are also willing to commit to a rich platform to get them, just as they did with Windows and OS X — and not desktop Linux.
Remember that iOS started in 2007 with the notion that “open” HTML apps were the path to success, complete with Steve Jobs’ critique of traditional apps. A year later, the first iPhone had just toy apps, and Jobs did a 180-degree and brought the Xcode SDK that has led to the many desktop-quality apps of today. WebOS suffered from a similar lack of capability in its apps, under both Palm and Hewlett-Packard. Both are object lessons for the HTML-only advocates.
Techno-political purity in mobile OSes makes the same sense as it has in desktop Linux — that is, no sense.
The other “open” argument, that HTML apps are more easily ported, is misplaced. If your app really works well as an HTML app, then you’ll make it for all the major platforms, either as a website to avoid any localization or as an encapsulated “native” app — a straightforward process on all the mobile OSes’ SDKs and IDEs that support HTML components. There’s work to be done, to be sure, but it’s easy to justify given the huge reach you get in return.
The race for No. 3: Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10
BlackBerry used to be the top smartphone, then rudely fell into near-oblivion after its makers ignored the sea change that iOS, then Android represented. BlackBerry wants back into the club that matters, and it hopes its all-new BlackBerry 10 will get it there.
Microsoft’s Windows Mobile used to be the No. 2 mobile OS, but it languished from neglect. Microsoft too ignored the sea change that swept moble from 2007 to 2009, then belatedly came out with Windows Phone, an OS that did less than Windows Mobile in an era when users expected more.
Microsoft’s three attempts at Windows Phone show it still doesn’t get it. There’s something hugely wrong with a Microsoft smartphone that is less securable using Microsoft’s own technology than practically every competing smartphone. Windows Phone has many such self-inflicted wounds.
Yet, Windows Phone remains viable for at least a little while longer. The Microsoft and Windows names help, of course, so Windows Phone has steadily moved from no market share to about 6 percent over three years. That’s tiny, but the momentum is in the right direction. Although I can’t recommend Windows Phone to most people, there may be enough willing to bet on the familiar company to keep it around.
You’d think BlackBerry would have an even better chance, given its once-huge market percentage and the rabidness of some of its former aficionados. But even though BlackBerry 10 is a better mobile OS than Windows Phone — for both consumers and enterprises — initial sales are disappointing. My theory is that the BlackBerry name has become an embarrassment, so people are staying far away. Case in point: One of my colleagues has a BlackBerry 5 OS-based Bold, the BlackBerry standard-bearer just a few years ago. When BlackBerry executives saw he had one, they were embarrassed and urged him to get a newer model — yes, BlackBerry executives! By contrast, an iPhone 4 or Galaxy S II owner would feel no embarrassment, nor would Apple or Samsung execs seeing then still in use, especially since cellphone contracts mean you have to keep a phone for several years.
The truly rabid BlackBerry aficionados want a phone with a physical keyboard, and the Q10 model meant for them won’t be out for a few months. Right now, there’s nothing for them to buy.
Still, if any platform deserves to be No. 3, it’s BlackBerry 10. I suspect neither BlackBerry nor Windows Phone will rise to a meaningful No. 3, nor will Tizen, Firefox OS, or Ubuntu Touch. One or more may succeed in a smaller arena, however, and that’d be good.
Now for something completely different: WebOS’s new raison d’être
The story of WebOS is a tragic one. The second “iPhone killer” (after Android) fell flat after Palm’s release of the first WebOS-powered Pre in 2008. The device was solid but not enough so when compared to the iPhone of that era. Palm had bets its future on the Pre and WebOS, but ran out of resources after that initial release. WebOS languished for more than a year, until HP bought it, then came out a year later with a truly terrible WebOS tablet, the TouchPad — so bad it was withdrawn from the market in mere weeks. HP canceled WebOS soon after.
Last week, HP sold the remains of WebOS to LG Electronics — the company that makes TVs, Blu-ray players, refrigerators, and even Android and Windows Phone smartphones. LG’s intent is to use WebOS as the embedded OS for its Internet-connected TVs, and perhaps for other “smart” appliances such as fridges.
What a come-down for WebOS, though it’s nice that some good may come of its checkered history. My only real question is why LG didn’t go with Android, which is also designed for use in embedded systems and is an OS familiar to LG. That may suggest Android isn’t well suited to such use or LG wants to be different than Samsung and the other electronics makers looking to use Android. Whatever the reason, WebOS lives on, but in a very different body.