Open Source Mobile OS: The Four Contenders

four phone contenders people © Blaj Gabriel Shutterstock

Which should iPhone and Android fear most: Firefox OS, Sailfish, Tizen or Ubuntu Mobile?

Google and Apple currently enjoy a virtual duopoly in the worldwide smartphone market, with Android and iOS commanding 79 percent and 14.2 percent of sales respectively, according to Gartner.

Their nearest challenger is Windows Phone with 3.3 percent and BlackBerry is back further still, but such dominance has not been enough to dissuade four new mobile operating systems from believing they can upset the market leaders.

Firefox OS, Saifish, Tizen and Ubuntu Mobile are all looking to establish themselves genuine alternatives to Android and iOS, claiming there is a desire among manufacturers, operators and component makers for another platform. All of them are more open source than Android. But can any of them really have an impact?

Desire for an alternative

smartphone choice platform © Adam RadosavljevicShutterstockThe simultaneous emergence of four separate operating systems suggests there is a problem with the current mobile landscape. Many manufacturers feel that not only is Android too dominant, but Samsung is becoming too synonymous with the platform.

This fear was one of the reasons Nokia cited for snubbing Google’s advances in favour of Microsoft’s billions when it opted to use Windows Phone for its smartphones. But ironically, now Samsung feels threatened by its over-reliance on Android after Google acquired Motorola Mobility.

Assurances from Google that Motorola will not be favoured do not appear to have comforted the Korean manufacturer, nor has the existence of the Nexus programme which sees various companies bid to produce Google-branded hardware.

Open source credentials

Manufacturers are able to make alterations to Android, and the operating system is free for operators, but it is a myth that it is open source. The version of Android that Google shares with its handset partners and the version maintained by the Android Open Source Project (ASOP) are two separate platforms.

The open source version cannot include various proprietary extensions, so it won’t boot up easily on actual phones. Meanwhile the official Android  version comes with Google deeply integrated into the platform (though outside the kernel, of course, which is Linux, and subject to a GPL licence). This makes it difficult for operators to implement their own versions of services such as VoIP and mobile wallets. And of course, they are absolutely unable to customise iOS at all.

“Segments of the mobile ecosystem are keen for a new mobile OS to usurp Apple and Google’s dominance in the market,” said Joshua Flood, senior analyst at ABI Research. “Mobile network operators, particularly in Asia, have been looking for other options. Apple’s refusal to modify its OS for operators to add customised services or differentiate operators’ brands is one of the key factors for their discontent.”

Developers too are growing tired. The necessity to modify applications for iOS, Android and other platforms is increasingly draining time and resources, while there is the complication of adhering to Apple’s strict moral code if they want their creations to be added to the App Store.

Rise of the mid-range

The new operating systems each claim to be completely open, allowing applications to be ported with minimum effort, to be easy to modify, and to have no agenda to push their own services.

Their makers believe that discontent and the increasing demand for mid-range smartphones, especially in emerging markets, presents an opportunity for a new player as many first-time smartphone buyers are unlikely to want or be able to afford high-end models.

Android’s success has been built on its wide range of handsets, not just premium smartphones, while Windows Phone can attribute much of its recent success to the expansion of the Nokia Lumia range. Even Apple, which has traditionally catered for the mid-range by discounting its older iPhones, is widely believed to be working on a purpose-built cheap handset.

Catalysing the open web

Firefox OS is the first of the four to be commercially released and has specifically targeted emerging markets in its bid to accelerate the wider adoption of open web standards. It was first announced in July 2011 as the ‘Boot to Gecko’ project – an operating system built for the open web, in which all applications are written in HTML5, and where APIs for key phone functions such as the phone, SMS and camera are exposed.

Mozilla says a truly open web-based OS will make it cheaper and easier for developers to build smartphone applications because 85 percent of apps are already based on HTML5.

“Firefox OS is an extension of the Firefox experience,” Tristan Nitot, principal evangelist and founder of Mozilla in Europe, explains to TechWeekEurope. “Users already know and love Firefox for desktop and Firefox for Android; users can expect the same security, privacy, customisation and user control with Firefox OS.

Developer support

ZTE Open

“The mobile landscape is fragmented, forcing consumers and developers to choose between proprietary ecosystems and stifling choice and control. This is what we’re trying to fix with Firefox OS. We want a competitive advantage for the Web, not Mozilla.”

Mozilla hopes that by embracing web development, Firefox will not suffer from the shortage of software that has been a criticism of Windows Phone and other challengers.

“There are already millions of Web developers that can build apps for Firefox OS without learning any new developing capabilities; they will already be familiar with HTML5 and Web,” says Nitot, who is also confident of triumphing over Firefox OS’ other open source competitors.

“It’s important to specify that we’re not actually building a new ecosystem, we’re tapping into the largest existing ecosystem – the Web.”

Not just a web browser

Mozilla can count on support from a number of carriers, including Telefonica, while ZTE and Alcatel have produced handsets targeted at emerging markets in Latin America and places where smartphone penetration is still low, such as Spain.

However questions remain about its appeal in countries like the UK where smartphone ownership is high and Android and Windows Phone handsets occupy the mid-range portion of the market. The ZTE Open is only available here through eBay and is not stocked by Telefonica-owned O2. This has been interpreted by some as a sign that operators and retailers aren’t ready for Firefox OS.

Jolla, developer of the rival Sailfish platform, has accused Firefox OS of being merely a web browser, something Mozilla has denied by citing the various APIs.

“To date, applications on mobile have been held back because they can’t access the device’s underlying capabilities as native apps can,” retorts Nitot. “Firefox OS overcomes these limitations and provides the necessary standardized APIs to show how it is possible to run an entire device using open standards: Linux Kernel, device drivers and then the Web on top of it.”

MeeGo roots

Jolla SideSailfish is based on MeeGo, a Linux-based OS created by Nokia and Intel. Intended as a replacement for the aging Symbian, MeeGo was dumped before a phone running the platform was even released, when the Finnish manufacturer adopted Windows Phone in February 2011.

Only one Nokia device emerged with MeeGo – the Nokia N9 – but even some good reviews could not help Intel find a manufacturing partner and it jumped ship for Tizen later that year. The team behind MeeGo were distraught and many wanted to continue what they started. They formed Jolla, which effectively picked up MeeGo in July 2012. Jolla in fact adopted Mer, a fork of the MeeGo project.

“We knew it was a very special product,” Marc Dillon, head of software development at Jolla, told TechWeekEurope. “It was a very logical thing to take this thing that we’d put our hearts and passion into and take the best people in mobile Linux in the world and create something that is a newer, more open alternative to the other operating systems.”

Passionate Jolla

Dillon notes a number of similarities between Sailfish and its three rivals, even admitting they share some code, but believes Jolla’s experience in creating mobile products and Sailfish’s ability to offer both simplicity and power are key advantages.

“One of the things that’s different about us is we’ve been making mobiles our whole lives,” he says. “We were able to look at this from a blank sheet while still having as much experience as you can have in the industry.”

Dillon adds that Jolla’s passion, and proximity to paying punters, means it can implement changes quicker than bigger rivals like Windows Phone, which have to chat to numerous focus groups before implementing any changes.

He also hopes the openness of Sailfish will restore many of the freedoms he believes have been taken away by the mobile ecosystem war. To promote this aim, Android applications will run alongside native apps in the Sailfish store, possibly alongside HTML5 software.

Hardware advantage

Jolla is also a hardware company and is preparing its own smartphone (confusingly also called Jolla) for launch in Finland later this year. The advantage of this is it doesn’t need to find manufacturing partners – beyond the usual outsourced contract phone-builders – but Dillon wants others to create Sailfish devices and does not believe they will be discouraged by Jolla taking the lead.

He says the group is simply using the vast manufacturing experience it gained at Nokia, to create a flagship smartphone that demonstrates Sailfish’s abilities. He adds that unlike Google, it has no services to promote and it will continue to make handsets.

“I’ve had interaction with pretty much every platform in the world and if you don’t have a flagship device, it’s very difficult to get an operating system ecosystem ramped up,” he says.

The European market is being targeted first because of convenience, but China is another area of interest because Dillon sees “a lot of need and a lot of interest” for a non-American, non-Western operating system. Jolla has even launched MeeGo-powered smartphones there already.

The Tizen grass is greener for Intel

Tizen-2While Jolla is ready to persevere with MeeGo, Intel is now involved with Tizen, which was founded by the Linux Foundation in September 2011. It has strong backing from Samsung and other members of the Tizen Association include Huawei, NEC, Orange, Panasonic, Telefonica and Vodafone.

For Intel, Tizen represents another avenue into the mobile space where smartphones and tablets are completely dominated by ARM-based chips, while Samsung merely wants to reduce its dependency on Android – something that in the past has led it to dabble with Windows Phone handsets in the past.

Tizen looks like another back-up option for Samsung, but its efforts have gained credibility since it merged its in-house OS Bada with Tizen. If it goes with a different OS besides Android, Tizen would be it.

“My impression is Samsung would like to be less dependent on both Google and Microsoft and owning the OS will give them that opportunity,” says Annette Jump, a research director at Gartner.

Analysts believe this backing means Tizen may be the most likely of the four to succeed, partly thanks to its expected popularity in Asia.

Tizen: A troubled child?

“Samsung has deeper pockets and marketing spending which they could potentially use to make Tizen more successful and to create the engagement with the developer community,” adds Jump.

But there could be problems on the horizon. Intel has been forced to reiterate its support for the project amid claims from a Russian blogger that the system was dead in the water, while Samsung has yet to reveal any details about the Tizen-powered smartphones it has promised by the end of the year.

“Samsung has been actively working on Tizen eco-system, together with Tizen Association members and partners,” said a company spokesperson. “The first Tizen based smartphone will be released in cooperation with mobile operators and eco-system partners. Samsung is committed to delivering the best mobile experience based on the open platform and a fully-ready eco-system around it.”

No one from the Tizen Association appeared to be available to comment on the project and Canonical has called it “a troubled child.”

Converged computing

Canonical’s comments must be taken with a pinch of salt as it has a competing operating system in the form of Ubuntu Mobile, which differs from all the others, by capitalising on Ubuntu’s standing as a popular desktop Linux operating system. Ubuntu Mobile will be able to run Ubuntu desktop applications, while handsets can be used as a PC when connected to a monitor.

This ‘converged computing’ vision is being pitched at enthusiasts, some businesses and emerging markets, with the claim the software works just as well on entry level phones as it does on high-end hardware. Ubuntu is the most popular Linux-based operating system in the world, with Dell computers in China shipping with the desktop version.

Product manager Richard Collins says Canonical decided to enter the market because the current operating systems were driven around the interest of the developer, preventing the possibility of operators providing their own services.

Living on the Ubuntu Edge

Ubuntu Edge (1)Collins dismisses Firefox OS as essentially a web browser, Tizen is too associated with Samsung to be truly open, he says, and Jolla’s hardware ambitions will crowd out other manufacturers.

Ubuntu Mobile’s strength will be a broader range of applications including those written in QML, OpenGL and C++ as well as HTML5, he says.

But Ubuntu Mobile’s armour has one glaring weakness. Collins may think that Jolla’s hardware ambitions are a drawback, but his own operating system will need a platform to run on.

To counteract Ubuntu Mobile’s lack of manufacturer support, Canonical has to designed its own smartphone, the Ubuntu Edge, as a proof of concept device to encourage other manufacturers. The next step is to crowdsource enough money to build the device.

Ubuntu Edge has already raised the most money ever by a crowdfunding campaign, but appears unlikely to reach its target of £20.8 million. Canonical says that if this goal is not met, the Ubuntu Edge will not be made, but hopes it will still inspire others to create Ubuntu mobiles.

The Ubuntu Edge is deliberately high spec, but Canonical hopes phones costing between $150 and $180 will emerge – attractive enough for people to be tempted away from feature phones and onto a smartphone.

Uphill task

“Ubuntu will have the smallest appeal because it has a niche proportion of users – hardcore Linux users – and they don’t have the backing of any major device makers,” warns Annette Jump of Gartner, but the reality is that all four face a huge challenge to make any significant dent on Apple and Android’s market share, or even that of Windows Phone.

“I don’t think it will be easy for any of the players to establish any substantial market share,” adds Jump. “We don’t expect things to dramatically change for now. We project that Windows Phone will be third for the next few years.

“While there is a desire for a third operating system in the industry in addition to Apple and Android – that’s why there was lots of support for Windows Phone – I’m not sure there will be as much interest to create the fourth strongest competitor.”

ABI Research agrees, saying that it doesn’t anticipate any impact in the short-term but says shipments of smartphones running Firefox OS, Sailfish, Tizen and Ubuntu Mobile could reach 135 million in the next five years.

Open source revolution

How they perform in the market will depend on the level of support each is given from developers, manufacturers and operators. Windows Phone has struggled to attract applications, but all four have app strategies in place that should avoid such a shortage.

Levels of operator and manufacturer support vary, with Jolla securing just one carrier to its cause so far and Ubuntu having no major manufacturing partner. In contrast, Firefox OS and Tizen have big backers in both fields and this has led observers to predict they have the greatest chance of success.

But the most important factor in determining whether each platform will participate in a true open source revolution or be consigned to the scrapheap will be just how receptive consumers are, and the good news is there could be an opening.

According to a TechWeekEurope poll earlier this year, 40.5 percent of our readers said they were most keen to try Sailfish, with 33.9 percent saying Ubuntu and another 8.8 percent Firefox OS – and all the open source platforms were ahead of Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10.

“There is the feeling that consumers are willing to try new operating systems, especially if they are not heavily locked into iOS,” Jump says. “That’s quite a big chunk of the market.”

How much do you know about Linux? Take our quiz!