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The Underdog Operating Systems Set to Shake Up the Smartphone Scene

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android rule the fast-growing smartphone market, but upcoming operating systems want to muscle in on their turf.
January 15, 2013

The next time you go shopping for a smartphone, you might see some unfamiliar software on the screens lining store shelves.

Free phone: A version of Ubuntu Linux designed for smartphones could appeal to some manufacturers and carriers.

The smartphone market is dominated by Apple’s iPhone and devices running Google’s Android software, with Microsoft and RIM hoping to carve out the remaining market share for their new Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10. But several completely new operating systems will soon be available.

Manufacturers, carriers, and other parties have realized how important the mobile operating system is in providing control over the modern computing experience. Apple and Google are able to sell apps and digital content through the stores tied to their mobile operating systems, causing users to become “locked in” to their ecosystem of hardware and software.

Now, competitors—and some free-software proponents—hope to capture some of the same success, or at least stop the two juggernauts from gaining too much power. They recognize that an environment dominated by just two players could stifle innovation and give the leaders too much power over carriers, handset makers, and users themselves.

Today, according to IHS iSuppli, close to 46 percent of cell-phone users worldwide have smartphones, and 87 percent of those phones run either Google or Apple software. Both handset makers and carriers want more options, says David Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School.

Yoffie notes that Android was originally seen as an unbiased player with no hardware or sales revenues from handsets—a software “Switzerland”—but Google’s purchase of Motorola’s handset business makes the software more threatening to other hardware makers, and he believes this is leading a number of them to consider alternatives. New entrants include Tizen, a platform that’s supported primarily by Samsung and Intel; Firefox OS, created by the Mozilla Foundation, which makes the Firefox Web browser; and a version of the free, open-source Ubuntu Linux operating system designed for smartphones. There are also several efforts under way to revive Hewlett-Packard’s critically acclaimed webOS (see “Can HP’s webOS Rise from the Ashes?”).

While Android can be modified, its development is still controlled by Google. So an alternative could make it easier for a carrier, or a technology giant like Samsung, to show off its own services and content—potentially helping it gain a more substantive relationship with smartphone buyers.

Even with interest from smartphone makers and wireless carriers, any would-be mobile operating system faces the challenge of establishing a healthy application ecosystem. Tizen, Firefox OS, and Ubuntu are all counting heavily on Web-based HTML5 apps (see “New Mobile OSs May Mean the End of the Closed App Store”), which they hope will make it easier for developers to make apps that can work on multiple platforms. This could encourage more coders to support nascent operating systems.

Tizen, which grew out of Nokia’s MeeGo platform and (like Android) is based on the open-source Linux operating system, may have the best chance of success. Along with Samsung and Intel, its supporters include the wireless carriers Sprint, Vodafone, and NTT Docomo; electronics maker Panasonic; and the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The software is still under development, but a video of a Tizen developer conference held last year shows novel features such as 3-D-type effects (photo browsing takes on the look of a spiraling cascade of images, for example).

The Mozilla Foundation and Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu operating system, are both likely to be hoping that their alternatives will provide a more open mobile environment where no companies dominate. Firefox mobile apps are essentially Web pages, and the Firefox team came up with ways for Firefox OS to access all the hardware on a smartphone running the software. Even the phone’s dialer acts as an app, says Chris Lee, Mozilla’s product lead for the OS.

Lee says Firefox OS phones will be low on built-in memory at about 256 megabytes of RAM, and many will include a microSD slot so users can pop in their own memory card to store music, photos, and videos. He adds that the first phones are expected to cost around $100 (in line with lower-end Android smartphones) and will be made by the electronics maker TCL Communication Technology and the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE. These devices are expected to be available in the first half of this year, initially in Brazil, where they will be sold by the wireless carrier Telefonica’s Vivo brand.

Strategy Analytics senior analyst Scott Bicheno thinks Firefox’s strategy could pay off, especially in areas where Telefonica has a strong presence. “There’s still plenty of growth in the rest of the world at lower price points,” he says. However, the developing world also presents a potential problem for the Firefox OS: access to reliable high-speed wireless networks. The OS is highly dependent on its users’ access to the Web, but many developing economies still don’t have robust networks.

Lee says this is definitely a challenge, but that the OS does allow some functionality offline. Firefox OS has already managed to get some major app makers on board: Lee says it is working with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, along with local app developers in various other markets.

Canonical has even more ambitious hopes for Ubuntu. Although it hasn’t publicly named hardware or wireless partners, Canonical project manager Richard Collins says Ubuntu hopes to have between 5 and 10 percent of the smartphone market by 2016 (see “Ubuntu to Offer Smartphone Operating Software”).

To reach this goal, Ubuntu is targeting the high and low ends of the smartphone market in the developing world. High-end smartphones running the OS will also be able to act as Ubuntu PCs when docked with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Collins says the company will work with a hardware manufacturer and mobile operator on getting the Ubuntu phone to market; it aims to ship its first phones by the beginning of next year.

Even with a well-stocked app larder, underdog operating systems won’t find it easy to grab major market share. Still, there’s always an opportunity in a market growing so rapidly. While less than half of the world had a smartphone in 2012, IHS iSuppli expects 56 percent of cellphone users to be swiping and tapping on smartphones by the end of this year.

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