Tired of Apple and Google? Meet the dark horse mobile OSes you’ve never heard of

Tired-of-Apple-and-Google-headerThe smartphone world is utterly dominated by two companies: Apple and Google. Want proof? A recent report from IDC showed that between them, Android and iOS control an astounding 92 percent of the worldwide smartphone market. Android is way out in front of iOS, but for the most part, potential customers will only consider one of these two options when choosing their next phone.

Choice is what we’re lacking in mobile right now, and if any or all of them catch on, it can only be good news for us as consumers, and for the mobile industry itself.

However, over the next 12 months, a handful of young, fresh upstarts will bring out competing smartphone operating systems, hoping to end this period of iOS and Android supremacy. But in addition to fighting with the big boys, they’ll have to fend off not only each other, but also the other two players trying to make it in the smartphone world, BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone.

So who’s coming to save us from the evils of Apple and Google? Probably the best known of the bunch is Mozilla’s Firefox OS, but it’s joined by Ubuntu for Mobile, Jolla’s Sailfish OS, and finally, Tizen. That’s four operating systems, all of which will be completely new to most people, hoping to take on the collective might of all the above industry heavyweights? Are they insane. Do any of them really have a chance?

It’s still impossible to say because none of these operating systems have fully launched yet, but we can take a look at their respective strengths and weaknesses, to see if one or more could mount a significant assault on Apple and Google; or if they’re only fit for the scraps left behind by BlackBerry and Microsoft. When a powerhouse like Microsoft struggles to catch up with the front runners, it gives a good idea of the mountain these four have to climb. Here are their chances.

Ubuntu Phone – Riding the white horse of Linux

We’ll start with Canonical’s offering, which seems to go by several different names, including Ubuntu Mobile, Ubuntu Touch, Ubuntu for Mobile, and most recently, Ubuntu Phone. The latter seems the most sensible, but the Wiki page still lists it as Ubuntu Touch. It was revealed in January, and the first developer preview edition of the OS came at the end of February.

If you’re (very) keen, Ubuntu Phone can be downloaded and installed on your Nexus phone or tablet today, though it’s still a work in progress and the software, by Canonical’s own admission, isn’t ready for daily use. A version which would be suitable for use by the public – meaning it can make and receive calls, deal with contacts, and provide reliable 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity – has been promised for a while, but missed its end-of-May deadline. Even if it does turn up though, not all features will be operational when it’s installed on certain devices, such as the camera on the Nexus 7 tablet. Sounds like there’s still a while to go before Ubuntu is release ready.

A spokesperson for Ubuntu told us the code is continually being worked on, and that the full version is expected to launch in October this year, while phones running the OS will be coming in 2014, as the firm is still working on securing hardware deals and schmoozing network partners.

Ubuntu’s strength and weakness lies in the community which surrounds the desktop operating system, many of whom have already embraced the mobile version. On the positive side, there are a lot of very talented people working on making it the best it can possibly be, but this is also a negative point, as it’s all shockingly geeky. Reading about Ubuntu Phone outside the mainstream press is a challenge in itself, as the language can be impenetrable, and it may prove difficult to shake the, “It’s for nerds,” perception many have of Ubuntu products.

Positives:

  • Can operate on basic and high-end hardware
  • Docking a high-end Ubuntu phone will turn a computer into an Ubuntu PC, a truly killer feature
  • Easy app development, plus it supports HTML5 Web apps (possible industry standard)
  • A natural, gesture controlled interface

Negatives:

  • Deadlines are being missed, and we’re still waiting for a stable developer version
  • No hardware or network partners have been officially announced
  • It’s going to be tough to shake the geeky image

Update on 11/11/2013:

Following the failure of Canonical’s Ubuntu Edge crowd-funding campaign, Version 1.0 of Ubuntu Touch has been made available as a download for developers. It’s only compatible with Google Nexus hardware, and anyone wanting to buy a dedicated phone with the OS installed will have to wait until 2014.

Update 07/23/2013:

The first Ubuntu phone is now with us, and it’s the Ubuntu Edge. Well, it’s with us in spirit at least, as the phone is available only through an Indiegogo.com crowd-funding campaign. Starting in late July, the project has a target of $32 million, and offers a cutting-edge smartphone running both Ubuntu Phone and Android for $830. The phone has a launch date of May 2014, and should the project not be funded, Canonical says it will focus only of commercial phones and not high-end devices like the Edge.

Mozilla Firefox OS – The famous face

Of our four contenders, Firefox OS is easily the furthest along its respective developmental path, as you can actually buy phones with the operating system installed, several major manufacturers have shown off forthcoming hardware and Foxconn is apparently onboard to build others. There is a solid plan in place for where and when hardware will eventually go on sale (and some already has).

Firefox is not only primarily destined to be installed on low-end (cheap) phones, but the initial wave of releases will be sold in developing countries, not the United States. Mozilla has already confirmed the first five places: Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Poland, and Venezuela. We even know which phones will be sold there – the Alcatel One Touch Fire, the ZTE Open, and a forthcoming phone from LG.

Firefox OS has gained considerable support from networks around the world, with Telefonica being one of the driving forces – hence where the OS is being initially released – thanks to the ease with which it can be customized. Mozilla’s CEO recently said the phones wouldn’t be locked to a network, and updates would come through the web, so this may not be as worrying as it first sounds.

There is considerable momentum and plenty of money behind Firefox OS, and judging by the amount of people who filled the Firefox stand every minute of the day at Mobile World Congress earlier this year, there are equally as many people excited about it, too.

Positives:

  • Masses of support from networks and manufacturers
  • The OS already working on release-ready hardware
  • Firefox OS is built around open Web standards, uses HTML5 apps, and has a strong system in place for developers to make apps and earn money from them
  • Mozilla is targeting what it calls, “Relatively untapped markets,” where cheap, interesting smartphones stand the best chance of becoming popular
  • Firefox is a recognizable brand name, familiar to both tech-savvy buyers and first timers

Negatives:

  • There are plenty of low-cost Android phones already available
  • The lack of a flagship phone could hurt Firefox’s chances outside of developing markets

Update 11/11/2013:

LG has released its first phone running Firefox OS. Called the LG Fireweb, it’s exclusive to Brazil at the moment, and it has an improved specification over the ZTE Open. It has a 4-inch, 320 x 480 pixel screen, a 1GHz single-core processor, and a 5-megapixel camera.

Update 08/12/2013:

ZTE has announced it will be selling the ZTE Open with Firefox OS in the U.S. and the UK. It will do so through its own eBay store, where the device has been given a very reasonable $80/£60 price tag. The release date is August 16.

Update 07/23/2013:

The first Firefox phone, the ZTE Open, is now on sale in Spain through the Telefonica network, where it costs $90. Subsequently, Deutsche Telekom has confirmed it has launched the Alcatel One Touch Fire in Poland, and that networks in Greece, Germany, and Hungary will also sell the phone in the fall.

Jolla Sailfish OS – The good son of MeeGo

Like Mozilla, Jolla has come a long way in a short time, having not only demonstrated its Sailfish operating system, but also successfully put its first smartphone up for pre-order, with a view to releasing it later this year. It’s not surprising, really. Jolla is a company built by forward-thinkers, many of whom were previously employed by Nokia, who left after MeeGo was dropped (the death of MeeGo also spawned Tizen). Sailfish is a similar beast to MeeGo, which could be both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because on the Nokia N9, MeeGo was much loved. Because of this, Jolla already has an established user base predisposed to adore Sailfish. However, MeeGo is known to others as a dead OS – a failure – and Sailfish could be dismissed because of it. Jolla is aware of these things, and therefore isn’t primarily targeting the fickle U.S. and UK, heading instead for China and other growth markets.

Jolla-Sailfish-OS 2

So when’s it coming? Jolla is taking the bull by the horns and making its own phone. In fact, it’s the only OS maker here to do so. It promises its first phone will be out before the end of 2013, and will confirm the countries where it will be available closer to the time. The pre-order campaign is clever, too. Anyone in the world can pre-order the device, so Jolla can evaluate where demand is at its highest when the phone is ready. The first Jolla device will cost 400 euros, and it has a 4.5-inch display, a dual-core processor, an 8-megapixel camera, and a rear panel which can perform all kinds of tricks. Provided, that app developers support it.

Sailfish OS looks really good in the early preview videos, but few tech reporters (or anyone) have been able to get hands-on time with it. We must approach it with trepidation, for now. Jolla is the outsider here, lacking the familiarity of Firefox and Ubuntu; but Jolla’s hippy, “Make love, not war” ethos and ties to MeeGo have definitely seen it attract what is sure to be a growing number of followers.

Positives:

  • Built and run by a strong, dedicated team of experienced mobile industry players
  • It has a built-in fan base crying about the death of MeeGo, all ready to embrace Sailfish
  • Jolla already stands out as the “alternative” alternative, which ups its cool factor considerably
  • Jolla is making its own phone, which is reasonably priced and should be on sale this year
  • Sailfish looks good, and appears fun to use. It also runs Android apps, giving it a head start

Negatives:

  • The Jolla name isn’t well known and ‘MeeGo’ has some unfortunate baggage
  • Outside of Jolla, few people have tried the Sailfish OS
  • The Jolla phone looks mid-range, and doesn’t come out until late 2013
  • Jolla needs third party companies to build cool Other Half rear panels or the phone loses its best feature

Tizen – The corporate son of MeeGo

Tizen, the OS once known as MeeGo, but now supported by Samsung and Intel, should be the one posing the biggest threat to the current smartphone duopoly, except it’s not. Tizen has been hanging around since 2011 (or even further back if you count the failed projects from which it has sprung), but surprisingly, it still hasn’t seen the light of day. It’s a bit of a worry, because it’s obviously not for lack of trying, or for lack of support either.

Version 1.0 of the Tizen OS appeared this time last year, before version 2.0 turned up at Mobile World Congress in February. Most recently, at the Tizen Developers Conference, version 2.1 hit the streets. During this event, Samsung confirmed it would launch its first Tizen phone during the third quarter of 2013.

The Samsung phone itself hasn’t been seen, but it’s rumored to be the equivalent to the Galaxy S4 (we believe it: there are tons of GS4s), so we can expect it to have a big, HD screen and a quad-core processor. If so, it’s not likely to be cheap, indicating Samsung is going in the opposite direction to Firefox to drum up business for its new OS. Like Sailfish, few outside of the developer community have spent time with Tizen, but in preview videos it looks slick and speedy, if a little lacking in character.

Surely though, with Samsung’s support (and wallet), Tizen must be the surefire winner, right? Well, possibly, but Samsung has given this kind of thing a go before with its very own, and now defunct, Bada OS. Do you, or have you ever, owned a Bada phone? We’re guessing no, so don’t take Samsung’s backing as being a guarantee of success.

Positives:

  • It has the backing of Samsung and Intel
  • It supports HTML5 apps, plus Android apps can also run on Tizen
  • It should be suitable for cheap and high-end smartphones

Negatives:

  • It has been a long time coming
  • There’s still no official confirmation of any hardware
  • Samsung doesn’t have the best track record with OSes outside of Android

Update 11/11/2013: 

Despite promises the first Tizen phone would launch in late 2013, it now looks like it won’t arrive until 2014. The news comes from a Samsung executive, who also said any televisions running Tizen wouldn’t go on sale until after the phone launches. No dates were mentioned, but Mobile World Congress 2014 is a possibility, given Tizen was announced at the show during 2013.

Who’s going to win?

At the moment, if we had to gamble, we’d bet on Firefox OS. We’ve seen Firefox phones all year, we know they’re not going to be expensive, and the markets where they’ll debut are well-chosen. At this early stage, Firefox OS is at least going to be the one we’re talking about the most by the end of 2013.

But it could be closely followed by Jolla. We should have the first phone in our hands later this year, and the already strong community is sure to see more than a few converts before then. We aren’t discounting Ubuntu Phone and Tizen, but we’re more hesitant on these two is because we haven’t seen any supporting phones, and are concerned over previous delays.

However, it’s not really the winning that’s important, and we’re not rooting for one to beat the other. Instead, we want them all to go on sale, and all to be successful enough to push Google, Apple, Microsoft, and all the others to give us even more innovative and exciting products in the future. Choice is what we’re lacking in mobile right now, and if any or all of them catch on, it can only be good news for us as consumers, and for the mobile industry itself.

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